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The first document issued by the US federal government authorizing a person to fly an aircraft was issued on April 6, 1927 by the Aeronautics Branch of the Department of Commerce, and it is called a license, not a certificate. When did the US stop issuing pilot "licenses" and start using the word "certificate"?

The first US pilot license; clearly uses the word "license"

757toga said that his father's pilot "certificate" was issued September 29, 1946, and Amelia Earhart's "license" was issued in 1930, so the change almost certainly happened at some point between 1930 and 1946. (Earhart's license was last endorsed in 1935, but this doesn't prove that a new authorization issued between 1930 and 1935 wouldn't have been called a certificate.)

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  • $\begingroup$ Do you have a reference for the first authorization? Who said it was called a "license" in the first instance? $\endgroup$ May 17, 2023 at 20:47
  • $\begingroup$ @GregHewgill It's in the FAA Pilot's Handbook of Aeronautical Knowledge. $\endgroup$
    – Someone
    May 17, 2023 at 20:55
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    $\begingroup$ @Timbo there's no practical difference, but I'm interested in knowing when they changed the terminology. $\endgroup$
    – Someone
    May 19, 2023 at 15:02
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    $\begingroup$ @Timbo at some point, they stopped using the word "license" entirely in formal usage. My question is asking when they made that change. $\endgroup$
    – Someone
    May 19, 2023 at 15:07
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    $\begingroup$ Ok, fair enough. In case you’re interested, the actual law that created the requirement used the word certificate. “f) Provide for the issuance and expiration, and for the suspension and revocation, of registration, aircraft, and airman certificates, and such other certificates as the Secretary of Commerce deems…” What is physically printed doesn’t change that it is a certificate (hence, why the Dept of Commerce ‘certifies’ in the picture above). $\endgroup$
    – Timbo
    May 19, 2023 at 15:11

2 Answers 2

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1937.

It took some digging but there is a U.S. CAR from November 1937 with the following regulation.

20.3-PILOT COMPETENCY CERTIFICATE.

20.30-Provision for Issuance.

An appropriate pilot certificate of competency will be issued by the Secretary to a natural person who is an applicant therefore, after approval of an application made and proofs submitted in connection therewith and if upon inspection and examination such applicant is found by the Secretary. to meet the appropriate minimum requirement prescribed in CAR 20.1. Holders of valid pilot licenses, except student licenses, may pilot aircraft pursuant to such authority until the expiration thereof. Holders of valid student pilot licenses may pilot aircraft pursuant to such authority until the expiration thereof or for 6 months after the effective date of these regulations, whichever is the shorter period. Upon the expiration of each pilot license as just set forth the holder, upon meeting the requirements for the renewal or re-issuance thereof and for any ratings held, may have issued to him the following certificates and ratings:

(a) If the holder of a student license, a solo certificate...

(b) If the holder of an amateur license, a solo certificate...

(c) If the holder of a private, limited-commercial or transport license, a private, limited commercial or commercial certificate respectively...


It would make sense to make the change at the end of 1937 when the Aeronautics Branch of the Department of Commerce became the Civil Aeronautics Administration (CAA) in 1938 per the Pilot's Handbook of Aeronautical Knowledge.

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If you look up the definition of certificate and license, you will see the license is what gives you the right to operate aircraft as per the limitations, and a certificate is the document which proves you got the license. Two different concepts. "License: a permit from an authority to own or use something, do a particular thing, or carry on a trade (especially in alcoholic beverages)." and "Certificate: an official document attesting a certain fact."

Proof of this is that if you lose the certificate (the card), you don't lose your pilot's license, they just issue you another card.

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    $\begingroup$ This is not true in the US. There is currently no such thing as a US pilot "license"; the term "certificate" is applied both to the document and the permission which it represents. Dictionary definitions are not necessarily legal definitions. There is such a thing as an FAA license, but it is only for spacecraft operators. ecfr.gov/… $\endgroup$
    – Someone
    May 20, 2023 at 16:37
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    $\begingroup$ @Someone, you are perhaps putting too much emphasis on the words and not what is being explained. The certificate is the proof that you have the license. That’s why the terms are nearly interchangeable. Even the FAA uses these interchangeably. faa.gov/faq/…. $\endgroup$
    – Timbo
    May 21, 2023 at 0:30
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    $\begingroup$ @Timbo they use the word "license" informally, but they do not use it in the regulations. I'm focusing on the words because my question is about the words. A certificate does not prove that you have a license; the regulations require that you have a certificate in order to operate an aircraft. $\endgroup$
    – Someone
    May 21, 2023 at 2:05
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    $\begingroup$ @Someone No. This is exactly how it works in the US. You earn your license and are given a certificate as proof of it. You are welcome to talk to your local FSDO if you have any doubts about that. $\endgroup$ May 21, 2023 at 16:04

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