Sport Pilot Certificate Information

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The Sport Pilot certificate was created in September 2004 after years of work by the Experimental Aircraft Association (EAA). The intent of the new rule was to lower the barriers of entry into aviation and make flying more affordable and accessible.

The new rule also created the Light Sport Aircraft (LSA) category of aircraft which are smaller, lower-powered aircraft. The sport pilot certificate offers limited privileges mainly for recreational use. It is the only powered aircraft certificate that does not require a medical certificate; a valid vehicle driver's license can be used as proof of medical competence provided the prospective pilot was not rejected for their last Airman Medical Certificate (see Sport Pilot Catch 22 Below).

Before a trainee can start the solo phase of flight training, a Student Sport Pilot Certificate must be issued by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). These may be obtained from an FAA Flight Standards District Office or FAA Designated Pilot Examiner.

To qualify for the Sport pilot certificate, an applicant must:

  • Be at least 17 years of age
  • Be able to read, speak, write, and understand English
  • Log at least 20 hours of flight time of which at least
    • 15 hours must be dual instruction with a qualified flight instructor
      • 2 hours must be cross-country dual instruction
    • 5 hours must be solo flight
  • Fly one solo cross-country flight over a total distance of 75 or more nautical miles to two different destinations to a full-stop landing. At least one leg of this cross-country must be over a total distance of at least 25 nautical miles (46 km).
  • Have received 3 hours of dual instruction in the preceding 60 days
  • Pass a written test
  • Pass a practical test
  • Have a valid US State drivers license AND not been rejected for your last Airman Medical Certificate
  • ...or have a current 3rd class or higher Airman Medical Certificate

The above requirements are for heavier-than-air powered aircraft (airplanes). The requirements for gliders, balloons, helicopters, and dirigibles vary slightly.

Sport Pilots are only eligible to fly aircraft that are either certified specifically as light-sport aircraft (LSA) or were certified prior to the LSA regulations and are within the maximum weight and performance limitations of light-sport aircraft.
The restrictions placed on a Pilot exercising the privileges of a Sport pilot certificate are:

  • No more than one passenger
  • Daytime flight only (civil twilight is used to define day/night)
  • No flight above 10,000 feet (3,000 m) MSL or 2,000 feet (610 m) AGL, whichever is higher
  • Maximum Takeoff Weight of 1320 lbs, compared to 12500 lbs of the Private Pilot Certificate or the Recreational Pilot Certificate.
  • No flight in any of the airspace classes that require radio communication (classes A, B, C, or D) without first obtaining additional instruction and instructor endorsement

The Sport pilot certificate is also ineligible for additional ratings (such as an Instrument rating), although time in light-sport aircraft can be used towards the experience requirement of other ratings on higher certificate types.

Sport Pilot Catch 22:

The Sport Pilot Catch 22 is a technicality in the FAA rules that can permanently prevent qualified pilots from obtaining or exercising the privileges of the Sport Pilot certificate because of common medical problems. Ironically, this defeats the very purpose for which it was created.

The Rule:

Pilots must meet certain medical requirements.

A pilot wishing to obtain or exercise the privileges of the Sport Pilot certificate must satisfy one of the following conditions:

  • The pilot must have a current 3rd class or higher medical clearance
  • Or, in lieu of such medical clearance, the pilot must prove that he/she meets the much less stringent medical standards set forth by State Divisions of Motor Vehicles by holding a current US State driver's license PROVIDED they were not rejected for their last FAA medical clearance.

The "catch 22" is that one of the most common reasons for not possessing a current medical clearance is because the pilot has failed an FAA medical exam due to medical conditions that develop later in life, such as heart problems and diabetes, which are not serious enough to lose their state drivers license. Since the condition is likely to exist for the rest of their lives, they are permanently grounded from ever flying an airplane.

An Example of the Sport Pilot Catch 22

  • A career airline pilot has 20,000 hours of experience as pilot in command. In his 50's, he develops diabetes and loses his medical clearance. He would like to continue flying light sport aircraft, but it would be illegal because his last medical clearance was rejected or revoked. Unless the rule is changed, he is grounded for the rest of his life.
  • A 65 year old retiree with the exact same diabetic condition as the pilot in example 1 decides to take up flying and begins training for the Sport Pilot certificate. After completing the 20 hours of training, he successfully obtains his certificate and he uses his state drivers license in lieu of a 3rd class medical clearance. Though he has the same medical problem as the airline pilot in example 1, and 3 orders of magnitude less experience than the first pilot, he can legally pilot a Light Sport Aircraft.
  • After flying for a year and logging 200 total hours in Light Sport Aircraft, the now 66 year old pilot in paragraph 2 decides to step up to a Private Pilot rating. As part of the medical requirement, he takes an FAA physical and fails due to his diabetes. Though his condition has not changed since he started flying and his skill level has only gotten better with experience, it is now illegal for him to pilot an aircraft. And since he will always have diabetes, he is grounded for life.

(Note that diabetes is no longer grounds for denial of FAA medical certification.)

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