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As a pilot, you need to make sure you stay current on all of your licenses and certifications. Here’s your complete guide on pilot currency and how it’s earned.
If you’re thinking about becoming a pilot, or if you’re already fully licensed, you may have heard about pilot currency. Is this some sort of pilot-specific form of currency that pilots are paid and can spend? After all, that’s what comes to my head when I think of currency. So let’s start there. What even is pilot currency and how is it earned?
Pilot currency just means that a pilot is up-to-date on all Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) requirements necessary to prove that the pilot can fly. In other words, it’s just being current on all of your licenses, certificates, and any other requirements. It’s not a true physical currency.
So as you can see, unfortunately, pilot currency isn’t some special form of money that pilots get to earn and spend. But that doesn’t mean it’s not an important topic that you should really understand as a pilot. In this article, we’ll talk about what pilot currency is in detail, how you earn it, and the most important and/or common currency requirements that you need to meet in order to fly.
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What is Pilot Currency?
As alluded to above, pilot currency is not any sort of currency, it just means that you are, as a pilot, current on all requirements. These requirements that I’ll mention again and again throughout this article are laid out by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), just like nearly every other aspect of aviation regulation!
The FAA sets pilot currency requirements to ensure that everyone operating an airplane — especially someone that’s hauling passengers — is up-to-date on their ability to fly. I know what you’re thinking, how exactly does pilot currency ensure that you’re able to fly? It’s not like you lose the ability to fly an airplane just because you don’t remain up-to-date on one of the pilot currency requirements, right?
First off, note that we’ve said currency every time in this article, not proficiency. You might hear it from others in the industry or read it elsewhere online that the two are the same thing. But that’s just not the case! The words are similar with similar meanings, but not exactly the same.
This is because you may very well stay proficient in flying a plane, as in even if you aren’t current, you still can fly the plane. As in physically and mentally, you still might be proficient in flying, but you’re just not current on the requirements deemed necessary by the FAA. But how do you earn pilot currency and stay up-to-date?
How Do You Earn Pilot Currency?
I know, I know. That’s a little bit of a play on words since you don’t really earn pilot currency in the same way that you earn other types of currency. But you definitely still need to earn it in the sense that you have to do what you need to do in order to stay current.
The first thing you need to do to “earn” your currency is to always carry a few things with you every time you’re flying, no matter what. This includes your pilot license (certificate), photo ID, and current Medical Certificate (more on this one later). This is kind of like when you’re driving a car, you should always have your driver’s license, registration, and proof of insurance.
These documents, at a minimum, will show that you at least have the legal ability to be flying an airplane in the first place and you can prove that you are who you say you are. Of course, you don’t get pulled over while flying like you do while driving, but it’s important to have all of this just in case.
Now in order to earn currency on particular requirements determined by the FAA, it gets a little bit more detailed. That’s because all of the various requirements that you have to stay current on require you to do different things. So let’s take a look into that much more specific information so that you know exactly what you need to do to earn various forms of pilot currency.
What Current Requirements Do You Need to Meet?
Now that we’ve talked about what pilot currency is and how you can earn it in the general sense, let’s dig a little deeper. These are the most common FAA requirements that you must stay current on if you want to continue flying airplanes. For certain types of pilots and in certain situations, there may be some additional things you need to stay current on. But these are common among just about any pilot in any situation.
When you’re thinking about becoming a pilot, obtaining your Medical Certificate is a requirement before you can earn your license in the first place. For the sake of practicality, you should seek your Medical Certificate before you start paying for and/or taking any classes. This is so that you don’t waste time and money by starting your training only to find out you can’t medically become a pilot anyways.
There are three classes of Medical Certificates available, depending on what type of pilot you are or what type of pilot you’re trying to become. These are:
- Third-Class — private, recreational, and student pilots
- Second-Class — commercial pilots
- First-Class — airline transport pilots
As you can see, the Third-Class Medical Certificate is the lowest-tiered one and is the one that most prospective pilots get early on during their journey to becoming a pilot. But as you progress through your career, especially if you decide that you want to really start making money as a pilot, you’ll need to obtain the higher-tiered certificates.
The requirements differ from certificate to certificate, but each one has its particular requirement outlined in the FARs (Part 61). To obtain a Medical Certificate, you must pass an exam administered by an FAA-certified Aviation Medical Examiner.
Since we’re talking about currency in this article, you need to know how long these Medical Certificates last. Each class lasts for a different amount of time, and that time is also age-dependent. As noted below, the validity of the certificates changes depending on if you’re yonder than 40 years old or if you’re 40 or older. Here’s the breakdown:
- Younger than 40: Five years
- 40 or Older: Two years
- Younger than 40: One year
- 40 or Older: Six months
- Younger than 40: One year
- 40 or Older: Six months
If your First-Class Certificate lapses after the durations above without being renewed, the certificate and its privileges are reduced to those of a third-class certificate. To remain current, you need to pass a medical exam by an FAA-certified Aviation Medical Examiner just like you did when you got it in the first place.
In general, pilots must be up-to-date on their Flight Review requirements to be legally allowed to fly. To remain current on this, pilots must complete a new Flight Review every two years (24 months). If this two-year period passes without you completing a new Flight Review, you aren’t legally allowed to fly, barring a few exceptions.
While this is not legal advice, common exceptions to the Flight Review requirements include:
- Completing a check ride in the last 24 months
- Completing a line check in the last 24 months
- Complete one or more phases of the FAA Wings Program in the last 24 months
To ensure that you’re meeting all Flight Review requirements, check Part 61 of the FARs. Always stay current with this requirement so that you’re legally allowed to fly!
As the name suggests, this next requirement is only for those of you that have an Instrument Rating. Anyone that’s a commercial pilot will already have this, but many private pilots also will too. That said, private pilots don’t have to have an instrument rating. But with how much the rating costs to get, you’ll know if you have one or not, trust me!
To stay current on your instrument rating, you must meet the following requirements. All of these must have been completed in the last six months:
- Six approaches using instruments (e.g. instrument approaches)
- Successfully perform holding procedures and tasks
- Effective use of GPS navigation systems for tracking and intercepting courses
If six months have passed and you haven’t yet performed these tasks, don’t panic. There’s a six-month window that you have to complete and log these tasks and you will regain currency. To do this, you’ll have to fly with a certified safety pilot and other potential restrictions (since you can’t fly using Instrument Flight Rules while you’re not current).
Day Currency (to Carry Passengers During the Day)
If you’re a pilot that carries passengers — whether that means private pilot, bush pilot, or commercial pilot — then you must stay vigilant about your Day Currency. As long as you’re flying somewhat regularly, you’ll passively stay current on your Day Currency without having to do anything special like some of the other requirements above.
For Day Currency, you just need to log three takeoffs and landings in every 90-day period. In other words, if you haven’t logged three takeoffs and landings in the last 90 days, you no longer meet this requirement. Taking it a step further, you must also do this for every class, category, and type of aircraft that you fly.
For example, if you fly both single-engine and multi-engine airplanes, you must log these takeoffs and landings for both types of planes. If you only fly the single-engine for more than 90 days, you can no longer carry passengers in the multi-engine plane. So just make sure you stay current on all airplane types that you fly if you want to be able to carry passengers!
Night Currency (to Carry Passengers During the Night)
As you can probably guess based on the names alone, Night Currency is similar to Day Currency. At least when it comes to meeting the requirements necessary for carrying passengers. Just like above, you need to log three takeoffs and landings (to a complete stop) in the last 90 days, and you must do this for each class and type of aircraft that you carry passengers in.
The caveat here is that these actions must be done between one hour past sundown and one hour prior to the sunrise. Since these times change every single day based on what time of year it is and where you’re located on the planet, there’s a bit more involved in logging your Night Currency than your Day Currency.
To make sure that all pilots from everywhere are on the same page, nighttime logging must occur between the end of Evening Civil Twilight and the start of Morning Civil Twilight from the next day. We won’t get into the details of exactly what this is here, but it’s related to the exact position of the center of the Sun in the sky and how it’s compared to its peak, the horizon, and more.