One of the most confusing things for new student pilots is the number of different pilot and certificates and ratings there are. Many students are unsure of what certificate they shoudl start with. If you are planning a career as a pilot, then it is best to start with Private, then work your way up towards Commercial, and/or Airline Transport Pilot. Pilots who plan to fly recreationally can consider less restrictive certificates.
A certicate can be for a number of different categories, such as Airplane, Glider, Rotorcraft, or Lighter-than-Air. You do not have to start with an airplane training; For example you can be a glider pilot then add on airplane privleges at a later date, or the reverse.
Sport Pilot: This certifcate is meant for pilots who wish to fly in one or two place Light Sport aircraft (airplanes, gliders, powered parachute, rotorcraft, or lighter-than-air) or “Sport Pilot eligible” aircraft. Sport Pilots are prohibtied from flying at night or above 10,000′. They are not allowed to flying in controlled Class B, C, or D airspace without additional training and endorsements (which are relatively quick easy to obtain). Sport Pilots cannot be paid for their services. The FAA is currently considering expanding the definition of Sport Pilot eligiible aircraft to larger aircraft such as four-seat Cessna Skyhawks, Piper Cherokees, and similar aircraft. but those changes are likely more than 5 years out. Unlke higher level certificates, Sport Pilots are not required to obain an FAA medical, but they must still follow FAA guidelines for medicallly disqualifying conditions and/or medications.
Note: There is also a limited Certified Flight Instructor Sport (CFI Sport) certificate that can be obtained with just a Sport Pilot (or higher ) ceterificate to instruct at the Sport Pilot level for compensation. A CFI Sport does not need a Commercial certificate or an Instrument rating. In fact, Moonbase Aviation first started providing flight instruction with a single CFI Sport Instructor (who later added a CFI Glider and a traditional CFI Airplane certificate).
Recreational Pilot: This certificate is less commonly pursued now that the Sport Pilot certificate exists. It does allow pilots to fly larger aircraft such as the Cessna 172, Piper Cherokee, etc. However, Recreational Pilots are limited to flights of 50 miles or less from their home airport and cannot fly into control airports (Class B, C, D airspace) without additional training or endorsements (which again are relatively quick and easy to obtain). Like Sport Pilots, Recreational Pilots cannot fly at night. It requires less training than a Private Pilot certificate, but a little more training than Sport Pilot.
Private Pilot:This is the most common pilot certificate. Private pilots requires more training than sport or recreational, and are allowed to fly at night or in business Class B/C/D airspace without an additional training or endorsements. With a few exceptions (such as towing gliders), Private Pilots cannot be paid for flying services.
Commercial Pilot: This certificate allows a pilot to be paid for their flying services, and is obtained after a Private Pilot certificate, although in theory you could pursue a Commercial Pilot certificate after obtaining a Sport or Recreational certificate. Most pilots obtain an Instrument Rating before they pursue a Commercial Pilot Certificate. However, an Instrument Rating is not required for a Commercial Airplane certificate. If you don’t have an Instrument Rating, and are flying an airplane for hire, any commercial airplane flights for hire are prohibited from carry passengers at night or flying more than a 50 mile leg with passengers for hire. Once you have a Commercial Pilot certificate, you can add an additional category/class to it directly, and do not have to get a Private Pilot license first.
Airline Transport Pilot: This cerificate is required for pilots who wish to fly for airlines/air carries. It can be obtained after the Commercial certificate, and requires at least 1500 hours of flight time, extensive cross country time, and more.
Instrument Rating: This is not a certificate, but rather a rating added to a Private Pilot or higher certificate. The Instrument Rating is required fo fly in instrument meteorlogical conditions (IMC) on an Instrument Flight Plan.
Certified Flight Instructor (other than CFI Sport): This allows the pilot to train pilots for pilot certicates. Note that CFI certificates are for a Category (such as Airplane or Glider). A CFI Airplane with a Commercial Single-Engine Land and Single-Engine Sea category & Class may teach in both. A CFI must hold at least a Commercial Pilot Certificate in the category they wish to instruct in, and an Instrument rating if is is for Airplanes.
Certifed Flight Instructor Instrument: This certificate allows a pilot to train other pilots for an Instrument Rating.