Pilot licensing or certification refers to permits to fly aircraft that are issued by the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) in each country, establishing that the holder has met a specific set of knowledge and experience requirements.

The Civil Aviation Authorities of all countries operate under the framework of The International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), which is a UN specialized agency, created in 1944 upon the signing of the Convention on International Civil Aviation (Chicago Convention).

ICAO works with the Convention’s 191 Member States and global aviation organizations to develop international Standards and Recommended Practices (SARPs) which States reference when developing their legally-enforceable national civil aviation regulations.

Pilot licensing or certification includes taking a flying test. The certified pilot can then exercise a specific set of privileges in that nation's airspace. Despite attempts to harmonize the requirements between nations, the differences in certification practices and standards from place to place serve to limit full international validity of the national qualifications. In addition, U.S. pilots are certified, not licensed, although the word license is still commonly used informally Legally, pilot certificates can be revoked by administrative action, whereas licensing (e.g., a driver's license) requires intervention by the judiciary system.

In he United States, pilot certification is regulated by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), a branch of the Department of Transportation (DOT). A pilot is certified under the authority of Parts 61 and 141 of Title 14 of the Code of Federal Regulations, also known as the Federal Aviation Regulations (FARs).

In Canada, licensing is issued by Transport Canada.

In the United Kingdom, licensing is issued by the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA).

In most European countries, including the United Kingdom, France, Switzerland, and many others, licensing is issued by the national aviation authority according to a set of common rules established by the Joint Aviation Authorities known as Joint Aviation Rules – Flight Crew Licensing (JAR-FCL).

In India the Directorate General of Civil Aviation (DGCA) is the issuing authority.

Different types of pilot certificates and ratings are explained as under.

There are a total of 4 types of pilot licenses (in US they are called certificates):

  • Student Pilot License (SPL)
  • Private Pilot License (PPL)
  • Commercial Pilot License (CPL), and
  • Airline Transport Pilot License (ATPL)

Student Pilot License (SPL)

This is the first pilot license one would need to fly an airplane as a pilot-in-command. When you are flying and receiving training from a flight instructor, you do not need any license. However, at some point during your training your instructor would get out of the airplane and would want you to go up on your own. This is called a solo, and the first one is called the first solo. And for this solo, and all the subsequent ones, you need a student pilot license. Typically, you would need this until you reach 40-50 hours of total flight time and get your Private Pilot License (PPL).

An SPL is good for 24 months, and the process to get it is pretty simple. You will also need an Pilot Medical Certificate. Usually you would get both of them together.

Airline Pilot

Private Pilot PPL and Commercial Pilot CPL

Private Pilot License (PPL)

A Private Pilot License (PPL) is the minimum required for a pilot to take passengers up with them. Once you have your PPL, you can take your family and friends up with you whenever you go fly around. You will need to take a written and a practical test to get your PPL. But it is all covered during your training as an SPL holder. A PPL in the United States does not expire. That means, once you have it, you have it forever. Of course if you do something you are not supposed to do, it can be suspended or even revoked.

A private pilot licence (PPL) or, in the United States, a private pilot certificate, is a license that permits the holder to act as the pilot-in-command of an aircraft privately (not for pay). The requirements to obtain the license are determined by the International Civil Aviation Authority (ICAO), but the actual implementation varies widely from country to country. According to the ICAO, it is obtained by successfully completing a course with at least 40 hours (45 in Europe) of flight time, passing seven written exams, completing an extensive solo cross country flight (minimum cumulative solo flight time is 10 hours), and successfully demonstrating flying skills to an examiner during a flight test or checkride (including an oral exam). In the USA, pilots can be trained under Title 14 of federal code part 141 which allows them to apply for their certificate in as little as 35 hours. However, most pilots require 60–70 hours of flight time to complete training. The minimum age for a private pilot certificate is 16 for balloons and gliders, and 17 for powered flight (airplanes, helicopters, and gyroplanes). Pilots can begin training at any age and can solo balloons and gliders at age 14, powered aircraft at age 16.

Commercial Pilot License (CPL)

A commercial pilot license (CPL), is a qualification that permits the holder to act as a pilot of an aircraft and be paid for their work.

The basic requirements to obtain the license and the privileges it confers are agreed internationally by International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO). However the actual implementation varies quite widely from country to country. According to ICAO, to be eligible for a commercial pilot license, the applicant must be able to read, speak, write, and understand English: already hold a private pilot license, have received training in the areas of a commercial pilot, and successfully complete the relevant written exams. To proceed in obtaining a commercial pilot license, the applicant must first obtain first-class medical certification. The JAA has several approved courses leading to the issue of a JAA commercial pilot's license with an instrument rating without first obtaining a private pilot's license. Upon completing those prerequisites the applicant will then receive an exam from the governing aviation body that consists of an oral and practical flight test from an examiner. Applicants for a CPL (aeroplanes) must also have completed a solo cross-country flight of at least 300 nm with full-stop landings at two airfields other than the pilot's airfield of origin.

Different types of commercial pilot certificates or licenses are issued for the major categories of aircraft: airplanes, helicopters, gyroplanes, balloons and airships.

A certificate/license will contain a number of sub-qualifications or ratings. These specify in more detail the actual privileges of the license, including the types of aircraft that can be flown (single-engine or multiengine), whether flight under instrument flight rules is allowed (instrument rating), and whether instructing and examining of trainee pilots can be done (instructor or examiner rating).

Some JAA states (but not the United States) restrict the use of the title "Captain" to CPL holders and above. In the United States, a CPL has traditionally been sufficient to be a pilot on a regularly scheduled passenger flight, while an ATPL is required to serve as the pilot in command of such a flight (14 CFR 121.437). Effective July 15, 2013, all pilots crewing U.S. airlines' regularly scheduled passenger flights must hold an ATPL (including the co-pilot).

A Commercial Pilot License (CPL) is what you would need to get a job, and get paid as a pilot. If you want to join the airlines as a pilot, this is the minimum requirement. You will need about 250 hours total flight time to get your CPL. Again there is no expiration date on this license.

Just like your Private, you would need to pass a written and a practical exam to get your Commercial Pilot License.

About ATPL

Airline Transport Pilot ATPL, Multi Engine Rating ME and Instrument Rating IR Airline Transport Pilot License (ATPL)

This is the acme of all the pilot certificates or licenses. To be a Captain with an airline, you would need to have an Airline Transport Pilot License (ATPL). You need to have at least 1500 hours of flight time to qualify for this. This license does not have any expiration date either.

Just to clarify, you need a Commercial Pilot License to get a job with an airline as a co-pilot or a first officer. But to become a Captain eventually, you need an Airline Transport Pilot License (ATPL).

The Airline Transport Pilot Licence (ATPL) is the highest level of aircraft pilot licence, required to command aircraft over 5700 kg or with over 9 passenger seats.

For ATPL (A) - The minimum flying experience required for grant of an ATPL is 1500 hrs.

For ATPL (H) - The minimum flying experience required for grant of an ATPL is 1000 hrs.

In each (aeroplane and helicopter) ATPL exam, there are seven parts. Each part covers one or two aeronautical subject(s) detailed in the respective syllabus. Due to the syllabus scope for each part and the time involved, each part is examined separately. Thus each of the (aeroplane and helicopter) ATPL part-exams is an individual exam.