Your connection with the sky

What Type of Certificate? It depends on your flying choices.Maybe Even None At All

Remos - high end Light SportI was standing in line at a hot dog booth at the Arlington, WA fly-in, a wonderful 5-day event full of airplanes, airplane lovers, vendors, educational sessions, and mostly junk food. I couldn’t help overhearing the two people in front of me.

Person #1: “I’ve GOT to start flying! It looks like so much fun, and I’ve put it off too long. There’s an instructor here who can give me lessons in a Light Sport airplane, and I’ve decided to work on a Light Sport pilot license [certificate].”

Person #2: “Why in the world would you want to go for a Light Sport License [certificate] when you can work on a Private license [certificate]? You don’t want an LS license [certificate] – you really ought to get a Private.”

Person #1: “Really? You think I should get a Private instead of a Light Sport license [certificate]?”

Person #2: “Absolutely!

They paid for their hot dogs and walked away, still talking.

After they left, I wished I had been part of that conversation. I don’t think it makes sense to decide what type of certificate you’re going to get until you decide on the type of flying you want to do. If I were Person #2, I’d be asking, “What excites you about flying? What type of flying do you see yourself doing? What type of flying experience are you dreaming about?”

Weight shift trikeThe Ultralight Experience: No Certificate Needed
Do you see yourself flying really slowly, low over the ground, smelling the scents that rise up from farms and fields? Seeing people, animals, and other things from a totally different perspective? Flying usually in the local area? Flying by yourself in the aircraft? Landing on dirt roads, in open fields, on dry lake beds and perhaps on sand bars or on deserted beaches?

If so, you might not need a certificate at all. Perhaps you might want to consider a true ultralight – whether a fixed wing type or a weight-shift trike or a powered parachute. Flying solo at 30-55 mph, might fit the bill entirely for you.

Flying Light Sport – with a Light Sport Pilot Certificate

The “Low ‘n Slow” End: E-LSA
Maybe you want the ultralight experience, but you want to fly slightly faster, go farther than five gallons of gas will take you, and you want to take someone with you to savor the experience. The slow end of Experimental Light Sport aircraft might be a perfect choice. Fully enclosed cockpit or out in the open air, slow-flying E-LSAs include what used to be called “fat ultralights”. Fixed wing aircraft, weight shift (trikes,) and powered parachutes all fall into this category. They look like ultralights, but they’re too heavy, carry too much gas, fly perhaps a little faster than the ultralight regs allow…and they include two-seaters.

Maxair Drifter - slow end Light SportFor me, they’re the perfect aircraft. Yes, they’re “slow” – as a group the “slow end” of E-LSA typically flies about 55-65 mph. They can handle more wind than an ultralight, but not as much as the higher-speed Special Light Sport aircraft or a certificated plane. But you can fly for an hour enjoying the details of the scenery at 500 or 700’ AGL, have an adventure if you only have time for a 30 minute flight, and get really familiar with your local area. Like a true ultralight, these slow-end E-LSAs can land in spots that faster aircraft just can’t manage.

Powered Parachute 2You don’t need to “go” somewhere in these slow-end E-LSAs: often I just want to fly, with no specific destination in mind. I want to see whether a farmer to the north of my airstrip has finished planting his windrows, and how much the Sandy River has changed since Marmot Dam was removed. Flying a slow-end E-SLA means leisurely looking, often with a camera. Of course, you can also make long flights of hundreds of miles – it will just take much longer.

The “High End” of Light Sport
No one will mistake the high end of Light Sport aircraft for an ultralight. While the slow-end is almost always constructed of fabric and aluminum tubing, the high end looks like miniature planes, almost always made of composite materials. Compared to the slow speed E-LSAs, the high end S-LSAs are little speedsters. They fly up to 130 mph and often have avionics that tell you everything you’d ever want to know about what the plane and engine are doing. They are sleek and penetrate the air in ways that are unknown to slow speed E-LSAs. Equipped with cabin heat and comfortable seats, they are a delight to fly.

Whether you want to fly an Experimental Light Sport aircraft or a Special Light Sport Aircraft, what you’ll need is a Light Sport pilot certificate and a driver’s license.

Flying with a Private Pilot Certificate

If you want
- want to go faster than the ultralight or Light Sport regs allow,
- want to take more than the one passenger allowed by Light Sport,
- want a larger, heavier plane to fly in rougher weather,
- intend to fly higher than the 10,000’ MSL allowed in Light Sport,)
- eventually want to fly IFR,
- feel safer and more comfortable in a certificated aircraft
- have fallen in love with an aircraft that doesn’t meet the Light Sport regs.
then you probably want to earn a private pilot license.

Take Demo Flights Before Making a Choice
Obviously, there are many more pros and cons as you decide whether to go for a Light Sport or a Private pilot certificate– or decide to fly an ultralight and fly without a certificate at all. I always urge potential pilots to take as many demonstration flights as they can in a wide variety of aircraft. You never know what you’ll fall in love with! The key is to think about the type of flying you want to do – and pursue the appropriate certificate. If your flying interests change, you can always get additional training and a different certificate.

So decide WHAT you want to fly first, and that will determine the type of certificate you need to fly.

14 Responses to “What Type of Certificate? It depends on your flying choices.Maybe Even None At All”

  1. There's yet another option.

    If you interest is solely in flying for fun, consider sailplanes.

    The Private Pilot Glider Certificate is the same level as Private Pilot Airplane but it's a lot easier to get. (Check FAR part 61) It's also a lot cheaper than flying airplanes.

    Sailplanes = More fun for less money.

    However, If you need reliable transportation, you need at least a Private Airplane Certificate.

  2. If you decide you want both a Glider and an Airplane rating, I recommend soloing in a glider first to learn the fundamentals of flight, then completing the Private Airplane rating and then adding the Private Glider rating. The sum of the requirements for both is lower if you do it this way. You will not have to pay for a glider pilot written exam but you will have to know the knowledge it covers for the oral. I think most beginners can learn to land a glider easier than an airplane.

  3. Another aircraft type to consider is a touring type motorglider. Some of them cruise like an airplane at 130 mph and can also soar all afternoon without engine noise or fuel consumption. They only require a private glider rating to carry a passenger and you do not have to have a drivers license or an FAA Medical. See FAR 61.109 (f) 1&2 and 61.123 (c). You also can fly above 10,000 ft. The soaring altitude record was set in a motorglider.

  4. Correction - for Private Pilot glider FAR 61.103(c) applies. Note that you can be a commercial pilot in a motorglider without a medical if you can certify that no known medical defect exists that would make [you] unable to pilot a glider.

  5. I reject Bill D's statement above that you will need a Private Pilot for reliable transportation. For reliable transportation, you will need a Private Pilot with an Instrument Rating. A private without the IFR rating only adds night flying and 2 extra seats to a Sport Pilot Certificate. I currently am a private working on the IFR but could travel just fine when I started out as a sport pilot. I made many 300+NM trips with my wife in a SLSA for a fraction of the cost a warrior or 172 would have cost and at about the same speed. I moved up only because I have 3 kids and needed a 6 seat aircraft.

  6. BTW, Person # 2 above in the vignette is a fool simply because hours toward your Sport Pilot are applicable to the private but the costs of LSA's are far less than part 23 aircraft. A smart person would start with their Sport Pilot(if pursuing a license at all) and then apply those hours cutting the cost of the private cert. If you want proof, My sport Pilot cost me $2100(Including the checkride) and it was only an additional $1000 to get the private. Yes, my private cost $3,100 total...

  7. Jason E, you will note that I said "at least" a private. You're right about the instrument rating.

    I also said if you want to "fly for fun" you should "consider" a glider rating. Sailplanes aren't for everyone but I've never heard anyone say they aren't fun and cheap. In some clubs the going rate to fly their gliders is $0/Hr - try to beat that with a LSA.

    Glider time counts toward other ratings too. I actually never bothered with a Private SEL. I went directly from a private glider rating to a Commercial Airplane Certificate.

  8. Bill and Dave -

    You're both absolutely right - I could have mentioned sail planes, motorgliders, balloons, gyrocopters, paragliders, etc. So many wonderfully different ways of being in the air! Circling Hawk Paragliding has a nice website that shows a variety of slow-end ways to fly. It has some great photos. Take a look at

    And Jason - What you write makes absolute sense to me - to start with a Sport Pilot license and work toward a Private if you decide that's how you want to fly. Much faster - and much less expensive.

    Thanks for reading my blog - and taking the time to write.


  9. If you don't want to spend all that cash,you can fly Radio Control,I been doing it for 45 yrs.,and I have walked away from every bad landing or crash!

  10. Hi Jason E:

    Can u please give details when you say "My sport Pilot cost me $2100(Including the checkride) and it was only an additional $1000 to get the private"

    I have one more question: does the hours of Sports Pilot License count towards a Private Pilot License ?


  11. Hi Shortduck -
    You asked Jason about cost details - that seems to vary around the country.

    You also asked if hours of Sport Pilot training count toward a private pilot certificate? The answer is yes...IF... And the IF is an important qualifier. It depends on your instruc tor, how s/he is rated, and how your training hours are logged. Go to this website for some more specifics:

    Thanks for writing -


  12. Nice article! I came across before I started working on my PPC. Given what I know now, I think I'd still choose the PPC for me, but your article is good to keep in mind when folks ask me about flying. Someone was recently asking whether his diabetes would be an issue, and I mentioned that for LSP it certainly wouldn't (provided he didn't get disqualified by a DME), and that even for PPC it might only lead to a restricted certificate.

    I knew about the other ratings of course, but your article reminds me to include them when discussing aviation with friends and family. As always, it's about the mission.


  13. Jack Darby, USN(Ret.) Says:
    July 8th, 2012 at 8:39 pm

    Informative. And everyone is so polite to each other. How refreshing for an internet site!

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