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Flying a plane without a license is possible in some circumstances, but it can also get you in trouble. Learn everything you need to know in this expert guide.
You have to have a license to drive a car. We all know that. But what about airplanes? Pilot licenses are vastly different from your driver’s license, especially considering just how many different types of pilot licenses there are. On top of that, different types of pilots that fly different types of planes have all sorts of different requirements. With so many “differents” to keep in mind, can you fly a plane without a license?
You can fly ultralight aircraft that meet certain requirements outlined in 14 CFR Part 103 without a pilot’s license or certificate. For any other type of planes, you must be certified and/or licensed to fly. Penalties for flying without a license can be severe under US Code.
In this article, we’ll tell you all about the types of aircraft that you can fly without a pilot’s license and when you need to make sure you have one before taking off. Additionally, we’ll go over the potential penalties for flying without a license, when you actually need to get a pilot’s license, and the age at which you can get a license.
When you have questions about anything related to aviation, SkyTough is the place for you. We created this site to be your go-to site for all things aviation and airplanes. To make sure we only put out the best content, we combine our own experience and expertise with input from other experts in the industry and extensive research. After reading this, you’ll know all about what happens if you fly without a license.
Can You Fly a Plane Without a Pilot License?
As with just about any requirement or restriction that has to do with flying or aviation in general is handled by, you guessed it, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). When it comes to most of these rules and restrictions, you have to turn to either the Federal Aviation Regulations (FARs) or the Code of Federal Regulations (CFR) on a wider scale.
The FARs is within the CFR, encompassed within Part 14 of the overall code. With licensure and operating any type of aircraft with or without a license, you must turn to 14 CFR Part 103 to see what you can and can’t fly without a pilot’s license. Once you get to 14 CFR Part 103, you’ll see that the section is entitled Ultralight Vehicles.
What Kind of Aircraft Can You Fly Without a License?
As you can guess from me directing you to that section of the code, Ultralights are the only type of aircraft you can fly regularly and indefinitely without a license. According to subsection 103.7(a), these types of aircraft are not required to meet airworthiness standards that normal aircraft are. By “normal aircraft” I just mean the types of planes that you will typically be flying or owning yourself.
Also stated in this same subsection, and even more important for the content of this article, is that operators of these aircraft are not required to meet any of the following:
- Aeronautical knowledge requirements
- Age requirement
- Experience requirement
- Airman or medical certificates
Based on that information, you can see that this section of the CFR clearly outlines that ultralight aircraft can be flown without any sort of certification or licensure. Though you still must be properly trained in the operation of these aircraft and you cannot fly them in any manner that puts anyone or their property in danger.
Thankfully, 14 CFR Part 103 also clearly outlines exactly what makes up an ultralight aircraft so that there’s no guessing what you can and can’t fly. According to subsection 103.1 an ultralight aircraft is one that:
- Is used or intended for use for manned operation in the air by one occupant for recreation or sport purposes only
- Does not have any airworthiness certificate from the US or any foreign country
- If unpowered, weighs under 155 pounds
- If powered, Weighs under 254 pounds (excluding safety devices use for deployment in hazardous conditions)
- Holds less than 5 gallons of fuel
- Cannot exceed an airspeed of 55 knots under full power in level flight
- Has a stall speed (to power it off) that cannot exceed 24 knots
If you’re interested in flying without a license, then your ultralight aircraft must meet the above requirements at an absolute minimum. For more information on these types of aircraft, check out 14 CFR Part 103 to see everything you need to know.
When Do You Have to Get a Pilot License?
If you plan on flying a plane that exceeds any of the above requirements, you will have to get a pilot’s license or certification. This means if you fly anything that’s heavier than 155 pounds (unpowered) or 254 pounds if powered, you’ll need further certification. Or if you want to carry passengers, fly using Instrument Flight Rules (IFR), or something faster than 55 knots, you must get a license.
However, don’t let that scare you away from flying! While I certainly recommend that you get your wings and become a private pilot or heck, even a commercial pilot, you don’t have to go that far if you just want to get out there and fly. These types of licenses and certificates can take awhile to earn, but they’re not your only option.
Types of Pilot’s Licenses
Let’s take a quick look at some of the types of pilot licenses and/or certificates that you can earn. As mentioned above, some of them require far less time, money, and effort to earn than others. Each one of these licenses and certificates not only comes with different requirements to obtain, but they also grant you different allowances and capabilities as a pilot.
For more detailed information about what it takes to get these licenses and what you’re able to do with them, check out our in-depth guide into how much it costs to become a pilot. These are listed from easiest/cheapest to obtain, to the most expensive ones with the most stringent requirements.
Without further ado, some of the licenses and certificates you can get to start flying a plane include:
- Student Pilot’s Certificate (SPC)
- Sport Pilot License (SPL)
- Private Pilot License (PPL)
- Instrument Rating
- Multi-Engine Rating
- Commercial Pilot License (CPL)
- Certified Flight Instructor Certificate
If you just want to get up into the air and fly a plane as quickly as possible, then you should aim towards a Student Pilot’s Certificate or a Sport Private License. That said, I strongly recommend that you just go straight for your Private Pilot License. It gives you much more freedom to get out there and fly a plane of your very own any time you want.
What’s the Penalty for Flying Without a License?
If you fly one of the types of aircraft mentioned above that you legally can without a license — i.e. ultralights — then you won’t face any punishment. But if you fly, or even attempt to fly, other types of planes without being properly licensed and/or supervised, you could potentially face some serious problems. Depending on the circumstances, you could have to answer to the FAA, the US Judicial System, or both.
Let’s start with the FAA. This organization has no authority to prosecute you criminally or anything like that, but it does have the ability to fine you in all kinds of ways. If you’re caught without a license, the FAA can also have your airplane grounded and require you to become licensed and pay additional fees before letting you fly again.
The far more serious punishment comes from the criminal side of things, since flying a plane without a license is a direct violation of US Code. According to 49 U.S. Code § 46317, you cannot fly, or attempt to fly, an aircraft without the proper licensure. The penalty for violating this code can be substantial, with a maximum punishment of 3 years in prison and a fine of up to $250,000.
If you read around online, you’ll likely see all sorts of stories of people flying without a license for years and never getting caught. Let’s be honest, you aren’t going to be getting pulled over up in the air like you could in your car down here on the roads. And many people have certainly flown for many years without ever being licensed.
But the bottom line is that you absolutely should not violate any laws or codes and try to fly an airplane without a license. The punishment of up to 3 years in prison and a $250,000 fine are far too severe. Without a license, you also won’t be able to carry passengers, fly under IFR, or many other things. So it’s simple, just get your license and don’t worry about this stuff!
How Old Do You Have to Be to Get a Pilot License?
If you’re on the younger side of things yourself or you know someone that’s young who wants to become a pilot, it’s common to wonder at what age you can actually start flying. The fact of the matter is that you can operate a plane at any age, there’s no minimum requirement. But you must be with a licensed pilot. This is because according to the FAA, you have to be 16 years old to fly solo.
Note that this is the age you must be in order to fly solo, but that’s not necessarily the same thing as obtaining your pilot license! In fact, you have to be 17 years old to get your PPL. To fly commercially, you must be at least 18 years old. Similarly, you have to be at least 18 years old to begin training as a fighter pilot.
For much more information about how old you need to be to start flying, check out our complete guide on the minimum age to fly a plane.