When I tell people that I’m a pilot, I’m often asked a questions like: “Can you fly big airplanes?” “Do you have a jet license?” or “Now that you’re a commercial pilot, can you fly 747s for United?”This is my opportunity to explain some of the mysteries of a pilot’s license.
The FAA recognizes three different kinds of credentials for pilots licenses: certificates, ratings and authorizations.
Certificates are the level of license the pilot holds. The four most common certificates are: Student Pilot, Private Pilot, Commercial Pilot, and Airline Transport Pilot (ATP). 
Student pilots may not take any passengers and must obtain permission from his instructor even to fly solo.
Private Pilots may take passengers, but cannot be paid for the flight.
Commercial Pilots may be paid for pilot services, like transporting passengers and cargo, towing banners and gliders, or spraying crops.
And an ATP may fly for the airlines.
A Student certificate is easy to get: you just fill out a form and get a flight physical. To get a private, commercial or ATP certificate, you have to take a check ride, the “final exam” for the certificate.
The check ride consists of two parts. The oral part of the test is a Q&A on your piloting knowledge, and the practical test is where you actually fly the aircraft (or a simulator) with an FAA-authorized examiner on board. The maneuvers the candidate has to perform, and the criteria for evaluating the maneuvers are are specified by FAA regulations. For example, for the Private Certificate, you have to demonstrate that you can land an airplane within 200 feet of a chosen spot on the runway. For the Commercial Airplane, you have to land within 100 feet of the spot.
But before you can take the checkride, though, you have to jump through a lot of hoops. First, you have to obtain a certain amount of flying experience. For example, you need 40 hours of flight time for the Private certificate, and 250 hours the commercial certificate. Second, you have to pass a written test with at least 70% of the multiple-choice questions correct. Third, you have to receive ground and flight training from an FAA-authorized instructor. Fourth, you have to get your instructor to “sign you off” with an “endorsement,” meaning he signs your pilot’s logbook with a note that says you have received the required training, and you are prepared to take the checkride.
Just because you have, say, a commercial certificate, it doesn’t mean doesn’t mean you can fly any old kind of aircraft. On every certificate there is a list of Ratings, which specify the kinds of aircraft you are allowed to fly. Ratings are broken up into 5 categories: Airplane, Glider, Rotorcraft, Lighter-than-air (LTA), and Powered Lift.
Certain categories have classes, which further subdivide the kinds of aircraft :
- Airplane — Single-engine Land (ASEL), Multi-engine Land (AMEL), Single-engine Sea (ASES), Multi-engine Sea (AMES)
- Rotorcraft includes Helicopters and Gyroplanes. A Gyroplane has both a rotor for generating lift, just like a helicopter, and a propeller, like an airplane, for moving forward.
- LTA includes Airships (blimps) and Balloons (both gas and hot air)
When someone says he “working on his pilot’s license,” he usually means he has a Student Pilot Certificate, and is working to get a private certificate with an ASEL rating.
Once someone has at least a private pilot certificate, he can add to that certificate as many other ratings as he likes, simply by training, getting signed off, and taking another checkride in the category and class desired. Getting a rating within the same category (e.g., someone who holds ASEL wanting to add AMEL) is easiest, because you just have to learn the differences between the single-engine airplane and (typically) a twin-engine airplane. Getting a rating in a different category (e.g., holding ASEL and adding Rotorcraft-Helicopter) requires a lot of flight time because it requires the pilot to log the same amount of flight experience in copters as a student pilot. For example, when I added on a single-engine seaplane rating to my private certificate with a land plane rating, it only took 5 flights and 7 hours of flying. To add on a Copter rating, it took 50 of flying hours because I had to have the same number of hours as any other novice copter pilot. When getting such an “add-on” rating, the examiner may omit many portions of the exam that were already covered in a previous checkride, like weather knowledge, flight planning, and navigation.
So, now that you have that coveted multi-engine rating in airplanes, does it mean you can fly a 747? Unfortunately not. The ratings described above are only good for aircraft up to 12,500 pounds maximum weight. To fly an aircraft that weighs greater than 12,500 pounds, you must be rated for that exact type of aircraft, so all 747 pilots must have a 747 Type Rating.
People also ask about a “jet rating.” There isn’t any such thing as a generic jet rating, but the regulations do say that to fly a turbojet aircraft, the pilot must have a type rating for that particular jet. So even though the Cessna Citation weighs less thatn 12,500#, the pilot-in-command must hold a Citation Type Rating.
There are some special pilots out there who have so much experience in flying that the FAA will issue them an All Types rating for a particular category and class. If you ever meet one of these people, be duly impressed, as they are the true masters of the sky.
Ratings may also have limitations. For example, student pilots must have a certain amount of night flying experience before taking the checkride. But that would be impossible in Alaska, where the sun never sets in the summer. So the FAA makes an exception for Alaskan pilots, and issues them a license that says “Day VFR Only” until they successfully complete the night flight training requirement either in the lower-48 or the next winter.
An Authorization is an entry in your logbook (also called an endorsement) signed by a flight instructor stating that you are authorized to perform certain special operations:
So, next time you meet a pilot, ask him “What type of certificate do you have?” and “What ratings do you hold?”
 In addition to the Commercial or ATP certificate, Instructors also hold a certificate called a Flight Instructor Certificate. This identifies the kinds of instruction the pilot may give.
 The requirements here are when you’re getting the certificate in Airplanes. They could be different for other aircraft.
 There is also a rating called an Instrument Rating, which permits the holder to fly solely by reference to instruments, which is how you can fly in clouds.