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Not factoring learning curve, personal safety minimums, and pilot proficiency, what is the absolute minimum flight time that must be logged in order to carry a passenger in a piston engine aircraft in the United States?

I'm am looking for an answer for the airplane category. Not gliders or ultralights.

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I believe the answer, at least in the US is 20 hours of flight time, plus however long a checkride takes. A sport pilot can carry a single passenger and the minimum requirements are outlined in 14 CFR §61.313:

If you are applying for a sport pilot certificate with [...] Airplane category and single-engine land or sea class privileges,

Then you must log at least [...] 20 hours of flight time, including at least 15 hours of flight training from an authorized instructor in a single-engine airplane and at least 5 hours of solo flight training in the areas of operation listed in §61.311,

If a sport pilot applicant logged exactly 20 hours, got signed off, and then passed their checkride on the first attempt... they would be able to fly passengers as soon as they completed the checkride. That means, realistically, probably 21 to 21.5 hours.

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  • $\begingroup$ My CFI had a student whose checkride concluded with the engine running on the ramp until the Hobbs ticked over to 35 hours (Part 141 PPL), so that padding may not be required. $\endgroup$ – StephenS Mar 3 '19 at 2:30
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Zero, if you bring along a flight instructor :-)

You fly the plane, the flight instructor keeps you safe and legal, and your passenger sits in the back seat.

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    $\begingroup$ Isn't that the CFI carrying the passenger, then? :) $\endgroup$ – egid Jan 14 '14 at 16:49
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Top of my head:

11.5 hours can get you an Ultralight license. Max 1 passenger and 750kg total weight

46.5 hours will get you a PPL. You can carry up to 19 passengers, beyond that you need a type-rating on the airplane, so you add a few more hours (depends on airplane)

202 hours will get you a CPL. Same as above, but now you are allowed to charge them for the flight.

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    $\begingroup$ As @egid pointed out, you skipped LSA pilot in your list. By his answer it does look like a new pilot can take a passenger in about 21 hours. $\endgroup$ – abelenky Jan 14 '14 at 22:08

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