It can be tough deciding whether getting a sport license or private pilot license is the better path to go down.
However, keeping your current lifestyle, commitments, and long-term goals in mind, once you know the key differences between the two, including requirements, cost, and privileges and limitations, the choice usually becomes much clearer.
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9 Differences Between a Sport Pilot License & Private Pilot License
The minimum age to be eligible for either a private pilot or sport pilot license is 17 years old (16 for gliders and balloons). There is no maximum age requirement for either license.
Both a private pilot and sport pilot license can be issued with just BasicMed (an SPL can also be issued with just a U.S. driver’s license).
However, if you want to earn a private pilot license and are able to pass an FAA medical exam, you will probably want to (and might have to) get a third-class medical certificate instead.
While there are certain benefits to BasicMed, including approval from a primary care doctor, and less hassle, money, and time spent waiting for FAA approval, a private pilot flying under BasicMed runs into the following limitations:
- Must not carry more than 5 passengers
- Aircraft must not exceed 6,000 lbs
- Must not fly internationally
- Must not exceed 250 knots
- Must not operate VFR or IFR above 18,000 feet MSL (no class A operations)
Therefore, when it comes to a PPL, if you are able to pass the FAA medical exam to be issued with a third-class medical certificate, you will definitely want to go down this route.
Privileges also last five years, compared to a BasicMed physical examination that is required every four years.
Furthermore, considering that a pilot can only operate under BasicMed if they have been issued a medical certificate anytime after July 14th, 2006, this will rule out many student pilots.
A minimum of 20 flight hours is required to be eligible for an SPL, including 15 instructional hours, and 5 solo flight hours. A written knowledge and practical test (checkride) must also be passed.
A minimum of 35-40 flight hours is required for a PPL. The slight variation in hours depends on whether you enroll in a Part 61 or Part 141 school (Part 141 requires fewer hours).
Both Part 61 and Part 141 flight schools require 20 instructor hours, but Part 141 requires 5 hours of solo flight compared to 10 hours of solo flight under Part 61.
A written knowledge and practical test (checkride) must also be passed.
As you might expect, both of the tests for a PPL are more challenging, though enrolling in what in our opinion is the best online ground school makes things much easier.
Both licenses require you to already hold a student pilot certificate.
Note that while it usually takes most pilots 4-6 months to get a private pilot license (2-3 months for a sport pilot license), there is an option to get it much faster.
While the flight hour requirements stay the same, some schools offer programs that let you get your private pilot license in 2 weeks.
A sport pilot license is ineligible for additional ratings, although it’s worth noting that hours logged in a light-sport aircraft can contribute towards higher certifications.
A private pilot license is eligible for an instrument rating, which allows flight under instrument flight rules. Single and/or Multi-Engine Aircraft, Land, or Seaplane ratings are also open to private pilots.
With an SPL, you are only able to fly light-sport aircraft (LSA), which includes small airplanes, gliders, powered parachutes, trikes, balloons, and airships.
Aircraft in the LSA category must weigh fewer than 1,320 pounds, have a maximum speed of no greater than 120 knots, have no more than two seats, and only fixed instead of retractable landing gear.
If you hold a third-class medical certificate and PPL, you can fly any aircraft up to a maximum weight of 12,500 lbs.
This can be increased with additional training/certifications. If you operate under BasicMed, then you are limited to flying aircraft no greater than 6,000 lbs.
Sport pilots can fly a maximum of 1 passenger.
Private pilots are only limited by the number of passengers an aircraft can legally carry. However, if flying under BasicMed, there is a maximum limit of 5 passengers.
While neither sport pilots nor private pilots can be hired and financially compensated for carrying passengers or cargo, one of the privileges that flight expenses can be shared.
This includes a pro-rata distribution of costs, covering fuel, oil, aircraft rental fees, and airport expenditures.
A sport pilot is unable to legally fly at night.
A private pilot, on the other hand, is able to fly at night provided they have made, three takeoffs and landings in an aircraft of the same category and class within the preceding 90 days
With an SPL, you are only able to fly domestically within the United States.
With the standard license, you can fly in Class E or G airspace. With additional training and an endorsement from a flight instructor, you can fly in Class B, C, or D airspace.
With a PPL, you have the freedom of flying both domestically (including Class A airspace if you hold an instrument rating) and internationally.
Depending on if you comply with any international requirements of the country you want to fly to, you and your passengers can fly practically anywhere in the world without restriction.
You can expect to pay $4,000-6,000 to get your sport pilot license if you are starting from zero.
You can expect to pay approximately $10,000 to get your private pilot license if starting from zero.
Helen Krasner holds a PPL(A), with 15 years experience flying fixed-wing aircraft; a PPL(H), with 13 years experience flying helicopters; and a CPL(H), Helicopter Instructor Rating, with 12 years working as a helicopter instructor.
Helen is an accomplished aviation writer with 12 years of experience, having authored several books and published numerous articles while also serving as the Editor of the BWPA (British Women Pilots Association) newsletter, with her excellent work having been recognized with her nomination of the “Aviation Journalist of the Year” award.
Helen has won the “Dawn to Dusk” International Flying Competition, along with the best all-female competitors, three times with her copilot.