Getting Started

The following is a guide for obtaining certificates and ratings for AIRPLANES, not helicopters or gliders for example.

First, decide if you want your flight training to be with a private CFI or small flight school (Part 61 training) or through an approved flight school (Part 141). If you plan on flying for fun, Part 61 training makes more sense.

As outlined in “§ 61.83 Eligibility requirements for student pilots”, you must

  • Be at least 16 years old (you can fly solo and receive your license at at age 17)
  • Be able to read, speak, and understand English
  • Qualify for a medical; while this is not technically a requirement of becoming a student pilot, make sure you can obtain at least a third class medical before pursuing this journey

Student Pilot Certificate

Complete an application through Integrated Airman Certification and Rating Application (IACRA) after creating an account. A certificated flight instructor (CFI) will authorize your application. You will need your IACRA FAA Tracking Number (FTN) for this step.

You will also need to prove your citizenship with either your U.S. Passport or your birth certificate per § 1552.3.

For context, the major the airplane certificates are:

Student – After completing IACRA and having your application processed by a CFI, you will receive a temporary certificate and eventually your plastic ID will arrive by mail
Sport – I only recommend considering this if you are unable to obtain a medical; among the limitations you may only fly with one passenger
Private – This allows you to fly most types of airplanes with passengers; it is the most common for recreational flying
Commercial – This allows you to fly for compensation or hire, it is NOT the same thing as being an airline pilot
Airline Transport Pilot – This is certificate that allows you to fly scheduled passenger operations for the airlines

Obtaining Your Medical Certificate

You need at least a third class medical before you fly solo or exercise the privileges of a private pilot. This is worth obtaining early because there are a lot of disqualifying conditions are circumstances where you might require additional steps to obtain a medical. Getting this out of the way early can save time, stress, and money.

If you have any concerns about your ability to obtain a medical certificate, schedule a consult meeting first.

Complete an online application on the FAA MedXPress website. You will also need to find an Aviation Medical Examiner (AME) in your area to complete your physical exam. Here are the differences between the medicals.

TypeExpiration when < Age 40Expiration when > Age 40Required For
First Class12 Months6 MonthsAirline Transport
Second Class12 Months12 MonthsCommercial
Third Class60 Months24 MonthsStudent/Private

If you have a condition that may hinder your ability to obtain a medical certificate, a Special Issuance or Statement of Demonstrated Ability (SODA) may be issued under 67.401 but this requires a more thorough consultation with your AME.

Here is a very broad overview of some of the more common conditions or medications that are either disqualifying or may require a Special Issuance. This list is not comprehensive and you should always talk to your AME if you have any medical questions pertaining to aviation.

Common Medical DiagnosesCommon Medications
Heart Disease (Angina, MI, Pacemakers, Valve Replacements, Symptomatic Coronary Artery Disease)Angina Medications (e.g. nitroglycerin)
Diabetes requiring hypoglycemic medications (e.g. insulin)Insulin
EpilepsySeizure Medications
PsychosisAntidepressants, ADHD Medications (e.g. stimulants), Mood Stabilizers
Substance Abuse/DependenceSmoking Cessation Aids
Loss of ConciousnessWeight loss Medications, Pain Relievers, Steroids, and certain OTC Allergy Medications

The above is a small sample of conditions and medications that may at least require a special issuance that could cost significant time and money. You will need to discuss this with your AME. Consider this well in advance of pursuing training.

Written Exams

It is always a good idea to take the written exams before you start the flight training portion for any certificate.

Scheduling the Exam

All FAA written exams are scheduled through PSI, you can create an account and login on their website.

The current cost for all FAA written exams is $175.

The passing score for all FAA written exams is 70%. On the day of your checkride, the Designated Pilot Examiner (DPE) will review the topics from the questions you missed. Obviously scoring 100% makes this portion slightly easier but the score doesn’t matter much otherwise.

Be careful you are scheduling the correct exam, they can have confusing names. Here is a table of the exams you will need for the common ratings.

Rating Sought FAA Written Exam Number of QuestionsTime Allotted
Private PilotPrivate Pilot Airplane (PAR) 602.5 Hours
Instrument Rating (Airplane)Instrument Rating Airplane (IRA)602.5 Hours
Commercial PilotCommercial Pilot Airplane (CAX)1003.0 Hours
Flight Instructor
(Requires TWO written exams)
1. Fundamental of Instructing (FOI)
2. Flight Instructor Airplane (FIA)
2.5 Hours
2.5 Hours
Instrument InstructorFlight Instructor Instrument Airplane (FII)502.5 Hours

How to Study

For the Private Pilot written exam, I recommend using Sporty’s Study Buddy app. It has essentially all the questions you might see on the actual exam so nothing should be a surprise.

For the rest of the written exams, I recommend using Sheppard Air. This is essentially a vehicle for rote memorization of the exam questions so you will NOT actually learn the material but be able to mindlessly answer the actual exam questions. As mentioned previously, the written is a relatively unimportant portion of flight training so this is a good tool for checking the box. You will need to learn the material another way.

Preparing to Fly

The written exams unfortunately do a poor job of actually familiarizing candidates with the material and are often outdated. Before (or during) beginning the flying portion of training, everyone should read the Pilot’s Handbook of Aeronautical Knowledge. This is a free resource from the FAA and is also the best resource for learning the basics of flying.