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What are the different aircraft regulatory categories aircraft defined by the FAA? Are there any exceptions?

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The FAA defines several different types of aircraft, which have different applicable regulations. For fixed-wing aircraft, airworthiness for normal, utility, acrobatic, and commuter categories is covered in Part 23. Note: Seat number excludes pilot seats. Weights are maximum certificated takeoff weights.

  • Normal category
    • Seats: 9 or less
    • Weight: 12,500 lb or less
    • Allowed maneuvers:
      • Any maneuver incident to normal flying;
      • Stalls (except whip stalls); and
      • Lazy eights, chandelles, and steep turns, angle of bank 60 degrees or less
  • Utility category
    • Seats: 9 or less
    • Weight: 12,500 lb or less
    • Allowed maneuvers:
      • Normal category, plus:
      • Spins (if approved for the particular type of airplane); and
      • Lazy eights, chandelles, and steep turns, or similar maneuvers, angle of bank can be more than 60 degrees but not more than 90 degrees
  • Acrobatic category
    • Seats: 9 or less
    • Weight: 12,500 lb or less
    • Allowed maneuvers:
      • Anything not prohibited due to flight tests
  • Commuter category
    • Seats: 19 or less
    • Weight: 19,000 lb or less
    • Engines: 2 or more
    • Allowed maneuvers:
      • Any maneuver incident to normal flying;
      • Stalls (except whip stalls); and
      • Steep turns, angle of bank 60 degrees or less

Except for commuter category, airplanes may be type certificated in more than one category if the requirements of each requested category are met.

Beyond commuter category, there is the transport category. Multi-engine airplanes satisfying either of the below requirements must be certified in this category. Airworthiness for the transport category is covered in Part 25.

  • Transport category
    • Seats: 20 or more
    • Weight: more than 19,000 lb

For rotorcraft, there are two main categories: normal and transport. Airworthiness for the normal category is covered in Part 27.

  • Normal category
    • Seats: 9 or less
    • Weight: 7,000 lb or less

Multi-engine rotorcraft satisfying these conditions may be certified under transport Category A (see below) if they satisfy certain conditions.

Airworthiness for the transport category is covered in Part 29. There are sub-categories here as well.

  • Transport category
    • Category A
      • Seats: 10 or more
      • Weight: more than 20,000 lb
    • Category B
      • Seats: 9 or less
      • Weight: 20,000 lb or less

If a rotorcraft only satisfies one of the requirements for Category A, it may be certificated under Category B with certain additional requirements.

A multiengine rotorcraft may be type certificated as both Category A and Category B with appropriate and different operating limitations for each category.


There is also a manned free balloon category covered in Part 31.

A balloon is a lighter-than-air aircraft that is not engine driven, and that sustains flight through the use of either gas buoyancy or an airborne heater.


Part 21 addresses the certification process itself, and includes special types of certificates for other aircraft.

  • Primary category
    • Power sources allowed:
      • None
      • Single naturally aspirated engine (stall speed 61 kt or less)
      • Rotorcraft with 6 lb per square foot main rotor discs loading limitation (sea level standard day)
    • Weight: 2,700 lb or less (seaplanes 3,375 or less)
    • Seats: 3 or less
    • Unpressurized

The restricted category allows a plane to not meet certain requirements under the normal regulations. The aircraft must meet one of the following conditions:

  • Restricted category
    • Requirements of any regular category, except any that are "inappropriate" for the aircraft's purpose
    • Armed Forces aircraft modified for a special purpose

US Armed Forces surplus aircraft can also be certified under one of the below conditions. The FAA has some leeway to waive requirements or add additional ones.

  • Surplus aircraft of the Armed Forces
    • Designed and constructed in the US, satisfies certain regulations
    • Counterpart of previously certified civil aircraft, complies with those regulations

Special certificates are issued for cases where the aircraft is not certified under the regular categories. These allow operation of certain aircraft for certain purposes.

The experimental certificate is for special cases.

  • Experimental certificates
    • Research and development
    • Showing compliance with regulations
    • Crew training
    • Exhibition
    • Air racing
    • Market surveys
    • Operating amateur-built aircraft
    • Operating primary kit-built aircraft
    • Operating light-sport aircraft

The light sport certificate is for light aircraft that may be operated under special conditions. There are 5 categories of LSA.

  • Light sport certificates
    • Airplanes
    • Gliders
    • Powered parachutes
    • Weight-shift-control aircraft (commonly called trikes)
    • Lighter-than-air aircraft (balloons and airships)
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  • $\begingroup$ This answer was correct when written but it is now out of date, the regulations have had a major revision. $\endgroup$ – Max Power Aug 19 at 1:23
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A large portion of part 23 was changed at the end of 2016. The utility, acrobatic, and commuter categories will not be used for new certifications. Old aircraft will retain the old category limits used for their certification.

In place of the old system the "normal" category now covers up to 19 passengers and 19000 pound gross weight, it is divided into eight risk levels based on number of seats and low or high speed. Aerobatic[not the old acrobatic category] is a performance certification not a general category, with performance limits specified in the POH on a model by model basis.

The new system does not prescribe methods to meet the desired risk level it only describes the desired result so that plane makers are free to invent new methods. The old methods are still considered valid for meeting the new standards.

I am still grocking the new part 23, but it seems that maneuvering limits will be left to the manufacturer and each aircraft POH will specify its own list of limitations. The manufacturer must show data for expected operating conditions and how the design meets the needs of those conditions.

There are many more changes, notice that the new part 23 uses section numbering of the 23.2xxx format while the retired section 23 used 23.xxx

Title 14 CFR § 23.2005 Certification of normal category airplanes.

(a) Certification in the normal category applies to airplanes with a passenger-seating configuration of 19 or less and a maximum certificated takeoff weight of 19,000 pounds or less.

(b)Airplane certification levels are:

(1) Level 1 - for airplanes with a maximum seating configuration of 0 to 1 passengers.

(2) Level 2 - for airplanes with a maximum seating configuration of 2 to 6 passengers.

(3) Level 3 - for airplanes with a maximum seating configuration of 7 to 9 passengers.

(4) Level 4 - for airplanes with a maximum seating configuration of 10 to 19 passengers.

(c)Airplane performance levels are:

(1) Low speed - for airplanes with a VNO and VMO ≤ 250 Knots Calibrated Airspeed (KCAS) and a MMO ≤ 0.6.

(2) High speed - for airplanes with a VNO or VMO > 250 KCAS or a MMO > 0.6.

(d)Airplanes not certified for aerobatics may be used to perform any maneuver incident to normal flying, including -

(1) Stalls (except whip stalls); and

(2) Lazy eights, chandelles, and steep turns, in which the angle of bank is not more than 60 degrees.

(e)Airplanes certified for aerobatics may be used to perform maneuvers without limitations, other than those limitations established under subpart G of this part.

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  • $\begingroup$ Why'd they change it, and what category would unmanned IFR-certified aircraft fall under? $\endgroup$ – Sean Aug 19 at 3:54
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    $\begingroup$ @Sean The intent is to make the rules less prescriptive and allow disruptive technologies (e.g. electric aircraft, FBW) to be used on Part 23 without stacks of equivalent safeties. In reality, the old rules are now written verbatim into ASTM as accepted means of compliance. $\endgroup$ – JZYL Aug 19 at 10:53
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    $\begingroup$ @sean Risk level 1 covers airplanes with 0 and 1 passengers. I may have made a mistake with that subcategory comment, I cannot find my original source so have removed it from my answer. $\endgroup$ – Max Power Aug 25 at 3:01

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