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Key Takeaways

  • Anyone aged 17 or over, with a valid driver's license and a Student Pilot Certificate, can qualify for a Sport Pilot License by following the steps above.
  • The tests you have to pass are the FAA-mandated written exam and the Sport Pilot Checkride.
  • The Sport Pilot License enables you to light sport aircraft
  • It is an inexpensive way of becoming a licensed pilot and an alternative getting a regular private pilot license and/or recreational pilot license

Have you ever thought about how to get a Sport Pilot License, enabling you to fly Light Sports Aircraft? It's an inexpensive way to get started as a pilot.

To get a sports pilots license (SPL) you must:

  1. Meet the criteria laid out by the FAA
  2. Apply for a Sport Pilot Certificate (SPC)
  3. Complete your ground training
  4. Pass the FAA written exam
  5. Have 20 hours of flight time (15 with instructor, 5 solo)
  6. Pass your check ride

As a pilot who also has several years of experience as a flight instructor, I know many people who have opted to pursue an SPL over a more traditional private pilot license. This article is designed to help you streamline the process of getting your license, based on my own experiences and those of my sport pilot friends.

Table of contents


Step 1: Check That You Meet The Requirements

Before you can begin training, you need to meet some minimum requirements regarding age and documentation.

What Is The Minimum Age To Start Training?

You must be at least 16 years old to begin training for your Sport Pilot License. You must have reached your 17th birthday before you can qualify and gain your license.

What Documentation Do I Need To Start Training?

You need a valid US Driver's License and a Student Pilot Certificate. Unlike the requirements for other kinds of pilot's license, most sport pilots don't need an FAA medical certificate, unless you don't have a U.S Driver's License.

I say 'most' sports pilots because, in a small number of cases, a medical exam will be needed. These cases are:

  • if your most recent application for a medical certificate was denied;
  • if your most recent medical certificate was revoked or suspended;
  • if you have a medical condition which might affect your ability to fly a Light Sports Aircraft safely.

If any of the above bullet points applies to you, see 'Getting A Medical Certificate If You Need One' below. Also, you don't need a Driver's License if you will only fly balloons and gliders.

Step 2: Apply For Your Student Pilot Certificate

Although you don't need a Student Pilot Certificate (SPC) to start taking flying lessons, you'll certainly need it before you can get your Sport Pilot License, so you may as well apply for it now.

To qualify for the SPC, FAA regulations clearly state that you have to be 16 years old (at the minimum), and be fluent in English - the official language of aviation across the globe.

You can apply for your Student Pilot Certificate at the Integrated Airman Certification and Rating Application (IACRA) website. Alternatively, you can complete FAA Form 8710-1.

You should then submit your application to a Certified Flight Instructor, or a Flight Standards District Office, or an FAA-designated Pilot Examiner. You will need to wait a few weeks for the Airmen Certification Branch to review your application.

If all goes well, your Student Pilot Certificate will arrive in the mail, from the Federal Aviation Administration, within around three weeks. The plastic certificate is almost the same as a Private Pilot Certificate, but there are some limitations to the types of flying you can do with a Student Pilot Certificate.

What Are The Limitations of a Student Pilot Certificate?

You must not carry passengers while you are flying on a Student Pilot Certificate. You must not carry property for compensation, nor fly for compensation or hire. You must not fly in conditions where the visibility is less than 3 statute miles.

You may fly only if you can maintain visual contact with the surface (land or water). You must fly within any limitations placed in your logbook by an authorized instructor.

Step 3: Complete Your Ground Training

There is a written exam that you must pass. Therefore, you must do some ground training, to prepare for the exam. You have the option to choose a particular Certified Flight Instructor (CFI), or enroll with a flight school. You can find a full list of FAA-approved flight schools here.

There are online ground schools that allow you to do your ground training from the comfort of your home. Whichever option you go for, you will be studying operational and procedural topics, as well as meteorology and aeronautics.

Expect to spend around 35 hours at ground school. You will learn about airports and air space, FAA regulations, aeronautical decision-making and aeromedical factors (such as hypoxia, carbon monoxide poisoning, fatigue, stress, ear problems, dehydrations and spatial orientation.)

Additionally, your course will include weather, charts, navigation, aerodynamics, engine performance, and airplane performance including weight and balance. Your course of study will give you the solid knowledge base that you need before you are ready to take to the air.

Step 4: Pass The FAA Written Exam

Like any pilot, you must demonstrate a level of knowledge that proves your ability to fly competently and safely. The written exam tests you on your academic understanding of what it takes to be a good pilot. You need to pass the written exam to obtain any pilot’s license in the USA.

To get a flavor of what you might be asked in the exam, click here for a study guide. Topics include the main concepts, regulations, procedures and principles of flying.

What If I Fail The Written Exam?

The pass rate for the written test is very high. Provided you do your homework well, you should be fine. That said, we all have bad days when we do not perform as well as we could. If you don't pass on the first try, don't worry.

You can apply to retake the exam after 30 days, and there is no limit to the number of times you can take it.

Step 5: Complete At Least 20 Hours of Flight Training

After passing the written exam, you are ready to get into a real airplane and put your learning to practical use. Your flight training will equip you with real-world skills - those things you can only learn through experience.

As said, the bare minimum flight time you need to log is 20 hours. That's in cases where a student makes excellent progress and is ready for their checkride as soon as the 20 hours are up.

Keep in mind, though, that many trainee sport pilots need about 33 hours or more, before their instructor feels they are ready for the checkride. Whatever the final total of hours, it must include 15 hours with a certified instructor, and 5 hours of solo flight time.

It's important to remember that qualifying for a Sports Pilot Checkride is not a competition to see who can do it in the lowest number of flight hours. The overriding priorities for a good would-be to show that you are both a competent and safe pilot. If it takes a little longer to get there, so be it.

You must have completed at least 2 hours of cross-country flight training. You must also have done at least 10 takeoffs and 10 full-stop landings. One of your solo flights must be cross-country with 75 nautical miles between origin and destination, ending with a full-stop landing.

It should be noted that although sport pilot flight training is easier than the training private pilots receive, many flight instructors will hold you to many of the same standards, particularly when you fly solo for the first time.

Step 6: Pass Your Check Ride

You have a maximum of 24 months from the date you pass your written test to the date you take your checkride.

When your instructor decides you are ready, he or she will help you arrange your checkride with a Designated Pilot Examiner (DPE). The first part of the checkride is an oral exam where the DPE asks you questions. The second part is a practical examination, with you flying the airplane.

Note that the oral questions will continue through the practical part of the checkride. The DPE is responsible for checking that you meet the required standard of knowledge, as well as skill, for each task.

The practical part of the checkride comprises tasks that you will need to perform satisfactorily. Each task forms part of an Area of Operation in which you need to demonstrate competency in order to pass the checkride. There are 10 Areas of Operation. Let's take a look at each one.

What Are The Ten Areas of Operation?

The Areas of Operation are the phases of the test, from Preflight to post flight procedures. They can be examined by the DPE in any sequence, although Preflight procedures must of course be completed before flight.

I Preflight Preparation

The first Area of Operation is about pilot certification and documentation such as the pilot logbook and flight records, as well as aircraft airworthiness certification, and weight and balance data. Also included are weather information, cross-country flight planning and the National Airspace System.

You may also get a task on performance and limitations, aeromedical factors and principles of flight.

II Preflight Procedures

The second area encompasses preflight inspection and cockpit management, starting the engine, taxiing and the before-takeoff checklist. The DPE may watch you inspect the aircraft as per a suitable checklist, to verify that it is in a safe condition for flight.

You will be expected to organize cockpit equipment and materials so that they are at hand when needed. The DPE will expect a passenger briefing on seat belts and harnesses, exit doors and emergency procedures.

You will need to demonstrate a safe engine start with due regard to persons and equipment around the airplane, following the appropriate checklist. Safe taxi procedures also form part of this area. If you cross a hold-short line without stopping and without clearance, you will fail the item.

III Airport Base Operations

This area is about radio communication and traffic patterns, as well as runway and taxiway signs and markings. You will need to demonstrate proper, safe radio procedures at airfields without air traffic control, monitoring the Unicom frequency and announcing your intentions using proper radio phraseology.

You will also need to follow proper traffic pattern procedures, maintaining the required altitude to within 100 feet, and the required airspeed to within 10 knots. You must compensate for wind drift to maintain a proper track over the ground.

A runway incursion will bring your checkride to an abrupt end, so you will need to pay due attention to runway signs, wigwags and taxiway markings.

IV Takeoffs, Landings and Go-Arounds

Here you will deal with normal and crosswind takeoffs and landings, soft and short fields, forward slips to landing, and go-arounds. If the winds are calm at the time of your checkride, the DPE will assess your crosswind capability by oral questioning.

You will be required to demonstrate a safe takeoff with accurate airspeed control, lifting off and maintaining the right speed, retracting flaps and controlling power appropriately, while maintaining directional control and compensating for wind drift.

To perform a satisfactory landing, you will need to correct for crosswind throughout the approach, and touch down within 400 feet beyond a predetermined point, with zero drift and the longitudinal axis of the airplane lined up with, and directly above, the runway centerline.

For soft field takeoffs and landings, you will need to keep as much weight as possible off the main gear during takeoff and landing rolls, controlling pitch to transfer some load onto the wings. During taxiing, the flight control position and taxi speed must take into account the soft surface.

For short field takeoffs and landings, use of brakes, and applying brakes while setting takeoff power, will be checked by the DPE. You may be required to demonstrate a forward-slip to lose altitude rapidly without gaining excessive airspeed, to get into a confined short field.

V Performance Maneuver

This area is concerned with steep turns. You might be asked to fly a 360º turn with a 45º bank angle, maintaining airspeed within 10 knots, altitude within 100 feet and bank angle within 5º.

VI Ground Reference Maneuvers

Rectangular courses, S-turns, and turns around a point are covered in this area of operation. As in the previous sections, you will need to maintain your airspeed and altitude within the usual limits.

VII Navigation

This area covers pilotage (navigating by landmarks) and dead reckoning (using heading from a known location, and time, to determine position) as well as lost procedures: finding out where you are, when you realize you're not where you thought you were.

You will need to demonstrate your ability to relate surface features to chart symbols, verifying position within 3 nautical miles of the planned route. You will need to verify sufficient fuel to complete the flight as planned, or have an alternate up your sleeve.

Demonstrating competency with lost procedures entails keeping calm, evaluating the options available and selecting the best plan, contacting air traffic control for help if necessary, maintaining a suitable heading and being ready to climb to avoid terrain.

VIII Slow Flight and Stalls

Here you will be examined on maneuvering safely during slow flight, power-on and power-off stalls and recovery, and spin awareness (how to avoid a spin, and how to recover if you get into a spin). Spin awareness will be examined by oral questioning only.

Stall recovery is a basic staple of demonstrating competency in the air. At the onset of the stall, you must be able to recover by reducing angle of attack and increasing power, while losing as little altitude as possible.

IX Emergency Operations

This area will assess how you cope with a simulated emergency approach and landing, and malfunctions in systems and equipment. You may also be tested on emergency equipment and survival gear, in case you make an emergency landing in a remote spot.

X Post-flight Procedures

This area details the after-landing checks, parking the airplane and securing it. You will need to maintain directional control on rollout, observe runway hold lines, and park in a safe, suitable place with due regard for nearby persons and property.

You will need to follow the proper engine shutdown procedure and secure the airplane against wind while it is parked on the ground.

Will The DPE Be Like A Copilot?

In a 2-seat airplane, the DPE will appear to act more like a passenger than a copilot, and will not normally operate any of the airplane's controls during the checkride, unless he or she needs to take control to avoid a dangerous situation.

If the DPE does need to take control to maintain the safety of the flight, you will normally fail the checkride at that point.

The DPE might require you to repeat a task during the checkride, if they found it questionable the first time around. It's important to understand that the above only applies to tasks that the DPE needs to further evaluate.

It is not possible to repeat and pass a task that you have failed, until you make your next attempt at the checkride.

Checkride FAQs

As the checkride is the culmination of the process that leads to your Sport Pilot License, here are some FAQs about the checkride, and their answers.

What Skills And Techniques Are Tested on a Sport Pilot Checkride?

To know what will be expected of you during your Sport Pilot Checkride, take a look at this comprehensive FAA document.

As a general rule, remember that the DPE is not trying to look for reasons to fail you. He or she will always give you time to self-correct any error you have made, before that error leads to a dangerous situation. Don't expect the DPE to point out an error.

For example, let's imagine you have misidentified the wind direction and lined up for departure on the downwind-facing runway, at a non-towered airfield.

To go ahead and execute a takeoff would mean failure but, provided you realize your error and correct it before opening the throttle for your takeoff roll, you will still be in the game. If the DPE has to take control, close the throttle and stop the airplane, you have failed.

As you will see, checklists are vital to a successful checkride. If you skip checklist items, you will certainly fail. Be sure you know which checklists to use, and when.

Also, know your airplane. Be aware of fuel burn figures and be able to explain how you arrive at your pre-flight performance calculations. If the DPE asks about the figures, and you reply, "Those are the figures my instructor gave me," that's the end of your checkride for that day.

Distraction during flight has been a significant cause of air accidents over the years. For that reason, you can expect your DPE to deliberately introduce a distraction at some point during your checkride, to assess how you deal with it while maintaining your focus on flying your airplane.

Another key performance indicator will be your role in making clear who has control. I know I've already said that the DPE will normally not take control. Nevertheless, as part of the checkride pre-flight briefing, you should make clear how you will hand over control, should the need arise.

By 'need' I mean something unexpected, which every pilot should always be prepared for, as far as possible. If you were to begin to feel unwell, for example, you would need to hand over control.

During the briefing, make clear to your DPE that you will say, "You have the flight controls," if you need to hand over. Say that the other pilot should respond, "I have the flight controls." Finally, indicate that you will confirm, by repeating "You have the flight controls."

I recall, many years ago, going up for a training and pleasure flight in a Cessna 150, with a flight instructor whose first language was not English. The airfield was a tricky one to get into, with high terrain near the end of the runway, so an angled approach was needed.

On the left base leg, I said to the instructor several times, "You have the flight controls." He didn't reply, but he made an excellent landing.

No way would he have allowed an inexperienced trainee pilot to fly such a landing, but it is vital to leave no room for doubt in the cockpit.

What Kind Of Flying Can I Do After Passing My Checkride?

If the DPE is satisfied with your performance and you pass your checkride, they will assist you in filing your paperwork with the FAA. Once that is done, congratulations - you are a Licensed Sport Pilot.

As a Licensed Sport Pilot, you are qualified to act as pilot-in-command of a Light Sports Aircraft. You can carry one passenger, but not for profit or compensation. However, the passenger is allowed to fund up to half the cost of the flight - that is, airfield expenses, fuel, oil and airplane rental.

You can fly only in the daytime. Night flying is not allowed with a Sport Pilot License. You must keep clear of Class A, B, C and D controlled airspace and your maximum permitted altitude is 10,000 feet AMSL or 2,000 feet AGL, whichever is the higher.

You must be visual with the surface at all times during your flight. Your aircraft must not tow anything, such as a banner with a slogan. You can fly only within the USA.

What Happens If My Checkride Has To Be Discontinued?

If the checkride has to be stopped because of a deterioration in conditions, taking the flying environment outside the scope of a Sport Pilot, the DPE will normally give you a Letter of Discontinuance, which will list the items that have been successfully tested.

In those circumstances, the remainder of your checkride will be rescheduled, and you will be tested only on the items that were not covered in your original, curtailed checkride.

Can My Instructor Be Present During My Checkride?

FAA rules do not allow instructors to be present while their students are being examined by the DPE on the checkride. This is because the DPE needs to assess your performance alone, with no possible influence, verbal or non-verbal, from your instructor.

Even if your instructor has no intention of interfering with the flight, he or she might react instinctively to something you say or do, and that might give you a cue that you have just made an error.

Part of the checkride assessment is for the DPE to determine that you can pick up and correct your own errors, without any kind of help.

Your instructor is allowed to be there for the debriefing that the DPE will give you, when the checkride is over.

Can I Take My Checkride in a Single Seat Airplane?

Yes, it is possible to take and pass your Sport Pilot checkride in a single-seater Light Sport Aircraft. In that situation, the DPE will maintain continuous radio contact with you from the ground. The examiner will monitor your airplane visually from the ground, so you must remain in sight.

Be aware that, if you opt to take the checkride in a single-seat airplane, your Sport Pilot License (should you pass) will be endorsed to prohibit carrying any passenger, and the license will be valid for you to fly single-seat aircraft only.

To remove those limitations, you will need to pass another checkride. Needless to say, if you subsequently pass a checkride in a 2-seater (or more) airplane for a higher pilot rating than Sport Pilot, the above limitations are removed too.

What Happens If I Fail My Checkride?

About 80% of pilots pass their checkrides on the first try. If you do fail, don't lose heart. Anyone can make a mistake if they are feeling nervous.

Making a mistake - one that you don't quickly spot and self-correct - when you are on your own in the air, or at a busy airfield, could have disastrous consequences, so DPEs will always play safe and fail you if you do not complete an item of the checkride correctly.

If you do fail an item, the DPE decides whether to end the checkride there and then, or to let you continue with the remaining parts. If the DPE decides to allow you to continue, you can elect to stop the checkride if you want to.

A failed item means you can't pass the checkride on that occasion. When you retake the checkride, the DPE must test the item or items that you failed.

He or she can also test other items too, at their discretion. If you fail one of those other items, you fail your checkride, even if you passed that item on the previous try.

If you fail a checkride, you must study and practice the failed item with your instructor, before you can make another attempt at the checkride. The DPE will give you a Notice of Disapproval, listing the areas of operation and tasks where you didn't meet the standard.

How Much Does It Cost To Get A Sport Pilot License?

It is possible to complete your training and get a Sport Pilot License for as little as $4,400, including both instruction time and exam fees, which is less than half the cost of getting a Private Pilot's License. That's a great deal, when you consider that you can get to fly some of the world's latest compact airplanes.

Much of the cost saving comes from the lower number of flight hours you need to log to get a Sport Pilot License - only 20 hours, as against 40 hours minimum for a Private Pilot's License.

Of course, if you find you need more hours to prepare properly for your checkride, expect the cost to rise accordingly.

Getting A Medical Certificate If You Need One

If you find that you do need a medical certificate, because one of the exceptions in the 'What Documentation Do I Need To Start Training?' paragraph above applies to you, proceed as follows.

  • Go to MedXPress to start the process.
  • Make an appointment with an Aviation Medical Examiner (AME) The AME's role is to look at your application, ask you some questions, and carry out a medical exam to assess whether you are medically fit to fly Light Sport Aircraft.

If you meet all the medical requirements laid out by the FAA, the AME will declare you medically qualified and issue you with your medical certificate.

Does an SPL Help With Higher Certificates?

Unlike driving licenses, pilots licenses aren’t cumulative. That is to say, that you need one in order to get another and so on and so forth. That being said, having one pilot rating doesn’t stop you from getting another.

In fact, it’s quite the opposite. The training time you spend working towards your sport pilot certification will count towards these higher certifications, even if you don’t use the same flight school both times.

Many pilots who are considering a commercial route but are unsure if flying is for them often opt to gain their SPL before getting something larger like their CPL or ATPL to save them money and provide them with a gateway for a future hobby.