There are far fewer holders of recreational pilot certificates than any other class. Why?
As you point out, there are very few recreational pilots out there right now. I think out of the some 600,000 licensed pilots in the United States only about 500 or so recreational pilot certificates have ever been issued. I can’t speak on the history of that particular pilot certificate from the FAA. For practical purposes, an RPL’s only use is for a student pilot to solo in an airplane, but is not interested in pursuing additional pilot training; he/she only wants to fly this one airplane around a local airfield on recreational flights under visual flight rules. Additional privileges for a recreational pilot certificate can be obtained with additional training and instructor sign-offs, though you’re always hamstrung to flying light airplanes in a limited capacity under VFR. Most people, in seeing what you get for recreational pilot certificate, choose instead to pursue additional training as a student pilot and obtain at least a private pilot certificate.
As to different medical requirements to be a recreational pilot, there are none as opposed to those needed for private pilot.
The only benefit of a recreational pilot's license is slightly fewer training hours required:
- Only 15 dual hours required instead of 20
- Only 30 total hours required instead of 40
- Only 3 solo hours required instead of 10
- No night training required
- Reduced cross-country requirements
- No instrument training
Note that these are reduced minima, and most students take more than the minimum hours. The minimum being 30 hours doesn't help much if you take 50 hours anyway.
In return, a recreational pilot is not allowed to:
- carry more than one passenger
- fly a plane certificated for more than 4 passengers
- fly a plane with more than 180 HP
- fly a plane with retractable landing gear
- fly over 10,000 feet (unless under 2000 AGL)
- fly at night
- fly in visibility less than 3 miles
- fly over clouds
- fly a multiengine airplane
- fly more than 50 nautical miles from your home airport
- fly in airspace that requires communication with ATC
- fly for compensation or hire
- tow anything
- fly outside the United States
- act as a required crewmember when more than one pilot is required (this means no acting as a safety pilot)
- do preventive maintenance on an airplane
Also if recreational pilots go 180 days without flying, they must fly with an instructor to reestablish currency.
Some (not all!) of these restrictions can be removed by receiving additional training and receiving an endorsement. But at that point you may as well have done the PPL in the first place. Getting the RPL first and then transitioning to the PPL is more expensive since it requires an extra knowledge test and checkride.
Meanwhile a sport pilot license has even less training required and hardly any more restrictions. Additionally, you don't need a third-class medical, which is a big benefit for some pilots.
In some ways, the recreational pilot license is even more restrictive than the sport pilot license. For instance, when operating under the RPL without a cross-country endorsement, a pilot must receive a separate endorsement for each departure airport.
What are the advantages of an RPL?
- somewhat lower cost
- lower medical requirements
What are the disadvantages?
- massive restrictions on what you can fly
- massive restrictions on where you can fly
- massive restrictions on when you can fly
- no upgrade path to other licenses
- fewer aircraft out there to rent
- aircraft of far lower specs, I could have gone for an LPA when learning for my PPL for example but there were none that could take my weight plus that of my instructor.
So for a few small benefits you get a lot of restrictions.
Effectively the sole reason to go for an RPL is if you can't meet the requirements for a PPL medical but do want to fly. Most people who don't meet the requirements for a PPL medical are going to be responsible enough to not risk flying (I sure am, if I'd got my medical I'd by now have handed it in).