I did some research on what it would take to become a private pilot. I am totally green to the aviation world, so bear with me on my question.

I see the licenses also referred to as certificates but I also see the term "rating" listed on many things like "twin-engine", "turbo-prop", etc.

So what is a "rating" vs a "certificate"? Am I over-thinking this?

I'm referring to US regulations.

  • $\begingroup$ Can we assume that you're asking about the US? This question might be related, but for questions like this we always need to know which country you're asking about. $\endgroup$
    – Pondlife
    Aug 3, 2018 at 17:45
  • $\begingroup$ OOPS!!! My apologies. Yes, US-based regulations. $\endgroup$
    – Jon
    Aug 3, 2018 at 17:46

3 Answers 3


@CrossRoads is sort of correct, but is off on the details. The comments cover some of it, and I’d like to clarify and add some detail.

For purposes of airmen certification aircraft are divided into Categories and within Categories there are classes.

14 CFR §61.5 Certificates and ratings issued under this part.

(1) Aircraft category ratings—(i) Airplane.(ii) Rotorcraft.(iii) Glider.(iv) Lighter-than-air.(v) Powered-lift.(vi) Powered parachute.(vii) Weight-shift-control aircraft.

(2) Airplane class ratings—(i) Single-engine land.(ii) Multiengine land.(iii) Single-engine sea.(iv) Multiengine sea.(3) Rotorcraft class ratings—(i) Helicopter.(ii) Gyroplane.

A typical student pilot will train in an Airplane with a single engine that is equipped with tires—not floats. When pass their checkride they get their certificate with a Private Pilot, Single-Engine Land rating.

Once they have their certificate, they may begin to fly different airplanes that need endorsements in their logbooks. CFR §61.31 covers these. You would need an endorsement in your logbook to act as PIC for an airplane with over 200 horsepower; a complex airplane—controllable pitch, flaps, and retractable gear; or with a tailwheel.

A pilot may also get additional ratings to fly multi-engine aircraft, seaplanes, etc. Note that ratings require additional training and testing by a DPE while endorsements require training and logbook endorsements by a CFI.

A type rating is required by §61.31 for Large aircraft (I think this means over 12,500 lbs), turbine-powered aircraft, and other aircraft specified by the FAA.

Earlier I mentioned that when you pass your checkride you will have a Private Pilot rating. There are several other ratings that apply to your certificate, starting with your Student Pilot rating.

14 CFR §61.5 Certificates and ratings issued under this part.(a) The following certificates are issued under this part to an applicant who satisfactorily accomplishes the training and certification requirements for the certificate sought: (1) Pilot certificates— (i) Student pilot. (ii) Sport pilot. (iii) Recreational pilot. (iv) Private pilot. (v) Commercial pilot. (vi) Airline transport pilot. (2) Flight instructor certificates. (3) Ground instructor certificates.

Sport pilot and Recreational pilot certificates have some limitations on the type of aircraft you can fly and require logbook endorsements for some privileges (e.g. flying in Class B for recreational pilot).

The instrument rating (§61.65 Instrument rating requirements.) is kind of odd in that it isn’t listed in the types of certificates, but it is an add-on to your pilot certificate. So a commercial pilot usually has an instrument rating and a CFI must have an instrument rating in order to qualify as a CFI.

Completely separate from all of this, aircraft themselves are classified as well.

Certification of Aircraft is covered by PART 23–AIRWORTHINESS STANDARDS: NORMAL, UTILITY, ACROBATIC, AND COMMUTER CATEGORY AIRPLANES Among other things it sets out the four types of aircraft that are normally flown in Part 91 operations.

14 CFR §23.3 Airplane categories. (a) The normal category is limited to airplanes that have a seating configuration, excluding pilot seats, of nine or less, a maximum certificated takeoff weight of 12,500 pounds or less, and intended for nonacrobatic operation. Nonacrobatic operation includes:

(1) Any maneuver incident to normal flying; (2) Stalls (except whip stalls); and (3) Lazy eights, chandelles, and steep turns, in which the angle of bank is not more than 60 degrees. (b) The utility category is limited to airplanes that have a seating configuration, excluding pilot seats, of nine or less, a maximum certificated takeoff weight of 12,500 pounds or less, and intended for limited acrobatic operation. Airplanes certificated in the utility category may be used in any of the operations covered under paragraph (a) of this section and in limited acrobatic operations. Limited acrobatic operation includes:

(1) Spins (if approved for the particular type of airplane); and (2) Lazy eights, chandelles, and steep turns, or similar maneuvers, in which the angle of bank is more than 60 degrees but not more than 90 degrees. (c) The acrobatic category is limited to airplanes that have a seating configuration, excluding pilot seats, of nine or less, a maximum certificated takeoff weight of 12,500 pounds or less, and intended for use without restrictions, other than those shown to be necessary as a result of required flight tests. (d) The commuter category is limited to propeller-driven, multiengine airplanes that have a seating configuration, excluding pilot seats, of 19 or less, and a maximum certificated takeoff weight of 19,000 pounds or less. The commuter category operation is limited to any maneuver incident to normal flying, stalls (except whip stalls), and steep turns, in which the angle of bank is not more than 60 degrees. (e) Except for commuter category, airplanes may be type certificated in more than one category if the requirements of each requested category are met.

  • 2
    $\begingroup$ Sport and recreational are certificates, not ratings. And your definition of large aircraft is correct, but if you're looking for the source it's in 14 CFR 1.1. $\endgroup$
    – Pondlife
    Aug 3, 2018 at 19:50
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ @Pondlife Thanks, fixed it. $\endgroup$
    – JScarry
    Aug 3, 2018 at 22:37
  • $\begingroup$ You may want to replace "CFR" with "14 CFR" in your citations, which I assume is the title of the CFR that you're referencing. The CFR has lots of titles, but 14 is the one that contains the federal aviation regulations. $\endgroup$
    – reirab
    Aug 3, 2018 at 22:48
  • $\begingroup$ @reirab Fixed it. $\endgroup$
    – JScarry
    Aug 3, 2018 at 23:01

You are certified as a pilot to fly a certain class of airplanes. Typically, one would start with Airplane, Single Engine, Land. Then you could have more classes of airplanes added with additional training - tail draggers, floatplanes, complex (200 or more HP, retractable gear, constant speed propeller), high performance, multi-engine, etc.

Then you add ratings - instrument rating (can fly in clouds), commercial rating (can fly for hire), transport rating (can fly larger things for hire?).

I may be oversimplifying a little. Go find a local airport with a Cessna 172 or a Piper something and get in the air!

  • 1
    $\begingroup$ Sort of. A-SEL covers a lot of planes both conventional gear (tail dragger) and nosewheel (tricycle), but you need an additional tail-dragger signoff if you didn't get your license/certificate in one. I don't think you need an FAA Knowledge Exam/Practical test for that like you would for Instrument Rating, Commercial Rating, Transport rating; you only need an Instructor to sign off as far as I know. I've only done my Private and Instrument, and that was 20 years ago, so things might have changed. $\endgroup$
    – CrossRoads
    Aug 3, 2018 at 18:15
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ See this question also, aviation.stackexchange.com/questions/43041/… It explains the Rating/Class for aircraft types better than I did I think. Copied the gist below, but the formatting was lost: $\endgroup$
    – CrossRoads
    Aug 3, 2018 at 18:20
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ Sec. 61.5 Certificates and ratings issued under this part. (b) The following ratings are placed on a pilot certificate (other than student pilot) when an applicant satisfactorily accomplishes the training and certification requirements for the rating sought: (1) Aircraft category ratings-- (i) Airplane. (ii) Rotorcraft. (iii) Glider. (iv) Lighter-than-air. (v) Powered-lift. (vi) Powered parachute. (vii) Weight-shift-control aircraft. (2) Airplane class ratings-- (i) Single-engine land. (ii) Multiengine land. (iii) Single-engine sea. (iv) Multiengine sea. $\endgroup$
    – CrossRoads
    Aug 3, 2018 at 18:21
  • 4
    $\begingroup$ There is no longer a "transport rating". There used to be, you got an ATR (airline transport rating) but that was supplanted by the ATP (airline transport pilot) certificate. But you do need a "type rating" for large aircraft. For example, my ATP certificate has on it a 747 type rating. $\endgroup$
    – Terry
    Aug 3, 2018 at 18:36
  • 5
    $\begingroup$ This answer is largely wrong: tailwheel and complex require endorsements, not ratings; commercial and ATP are certificates, not ratings. Etc. $\endgroup$
    – Pondlife
    Aug 3, 2018 at 19:41

There's a lot of detail and even some inconsistencies in these terms but a useful and mostly accurate starting point is:

Certificates define the privileges you have as a pilot; ratings define the aircraft you can exercise (use) those privileges in.

There are several types of certificate, including student, private, commercial, airline transport and flight instructor. Each one has a different set of privileges (permissions) that the pilot has. See 14 CFR 61.5 for the full list.

For example, a commercial certificate gives you the privilege of acting as pilot in command of an aircraft "for compensation or hire", i.e. you can be paid to fly (61.133). A private certificate holder doesn't have that privilege (61.113).

But, that doesn't mean that you can fly just any aircraft for compensation or hire; you need a rating for the aircraft first. A rating is required for a general category (e.g. airplane) plus class (e.g. single-engine land or single-engine sea) of aircraft. A type rating is required for a large aircraft, a turbojet airplane, or any other aircraft that the FAA decides should require one (61.31).

That means, if you hold a commercial certificate with "airplane single-engine land" (ASEL) rating, that does not automatically mean you have commercial privileges for "airplane single-engine sea" (ASES). You can certainly add commercial ASES privileges by taking the necessary checkride and getting that additional rating, but the certificate by itself doesn't grant them.

A full list of certificates, categories and classes is in 14 CFR 61.5, and you can find the list of aircraft that require a type rating here.

Unfortunately, there are some exceptions and odd cases that can confuse things. Here are some, I may have missed others:

  1. An instrument rating applies (roughly) to the aircraft category, not class or type (61.65)
  2. A student certificate can be used for training in any aircraft, but before soloing you need training in the appropriate "make and model" (61.87)
  3. You need an endorsement to fly aircraft with certain features - like a tailwheel, for example - but that isn't the same thing as a rating (61.31)
  4. You can have different levels of privileges in different aircraft, e.g. you can hold a commercial certificate with airplane single-engine land rating, but at the same time have private privileges in airplane single-engine sea

That might all seem very complicated but for most students it's actually very simple: you start out with a student certificate and when you pass your checkride you get a private certificate with a rating for whatever aircraft type you learned to fly in, often airplane single-engine land. After that, you can add more ratings, type ratings and/or endorsements, depending on where your flying career takes you.

The bottom line is that you don't need to know this stuff in detail in order to learn to fly, and your instructor will tell you what you do need to know anyway. So don't let the details or regulations put you off flying, just go and do it and you'll learn what you need to know along the way.

  • $\begingroup$ Endorsement, that's what I was missing. That makes it a lot clearer, vs using rating twice. $\endgroup$
    – CrossRoads
    Aug 4, 2018 at 2:06

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