The Problem With Recreational Pilots

With the Sport Pilot proposal right around the corner, a lot of people are anxious to see what comes — while we’re waiting, here’s a look at the FAA’s last effort. At the end of 2001 there were 258,749 Private Pilots in the United States, and 343 Recreational Pilots. The Recreational Pilot certificate was supposed to be a faster and cheaper way for people to get into the air – why has is become a complete flop?

Failure Of One Flying Fad
The Recreational Pilot Certificate was actually a response to the ultra-light craze of about 15 years ago. An ultralight, even though it flies in the air, is not an ‘aircraft.’ Federal Aviation regulations part 103 draws the distinction between an aircraft (which requires a certificated pilot and a tail-number) and a vehicle (which does not need a pilot to fly or a registration number). In the late 80’s it seemed there was a market filled with people who always wanted to fly. Unfortunately, they either never got around to it or could not afford a private pilot’s license.

Success For Another
The ultralight stepped up to fill the need. The ultralight offers would-be certificated pilots access to the air at a fraction of the price that comes with the Private Pilot Certificate. The ultralight market ‘took off.’ Many of the earliest ultralight vehicles being manufactured were little more than aluminum-framed wings attached to artfully adapted lawn chairs that used chainsaw engines for propulsion. They had to be, the weight limitations call for a powered air vehicle to weigh no more than 254 pounds. Through the brilliance of another regulation, a legal ultralight is only allowed to have one seat. While there are now legal two-seat trainers and training centers to use them, in the good ol’ days a person’s first flight was often their first solo.

If You Can’t Beat ‘Em, Join ‘Em
As the movement grew, the activity eventually drew more attention from the FAA.. They viewed the ultralight pilots as Private Pilot wannabe’s who, but for a few thousand dollars, really wanted to fly ‘real’ airplanes. The idea of the Recreational Pilot was hatched. But the wheels at the FAA turn slowly and by the time the Recreational Pilot written tests were produced, a Practical Test Standard developed, and examiners trained, the ultralight movement was a creature of its own. The ultralight society had a manufacturing base and a loyal following that was quite content with what their air vehicles offered. Besides, the end of the ’80s brought a downshift in the economy and those who had straddled the gap between ultralight and aircraft had either picked a camp or lost interest and moved on. The Recreational Pilot Certificate never caught on — but there were other reasons, too. The Recreational certificate was just too limiting.

FAA Style
Even though there were several coast-to-coast ultralight flights, the ultralight really was not terribly practical as anything more than a backyard hopper. The FAA saw this and concluded that the pilots flying them, really wanted to fly aircraft, but not for long-distance flights. So, the cross-country portion of a student pilot’s training was eliminated for Recreational Pilots. After some other minor alterations, the FAA finally arrived at a 30-flight-hour certificate with multiple limitations. The Recreational Pilot can NOT:

  • Fly at night,
  • Fly in airspace that requires communication with ATC.
  • Fly aircraft that have retractable landing gear, or more than one engine, and the engine they do have must have less than 180 horsepower.
  • Fly beyond a 50 nautical mile radius around their ‘home‘ airport. Translation: They are paying the same rate to fly the same aircraft as a new Private Pilot, they just can’t take the airplane anywhere. (If a Recreational Pilot moves away from their home airport to another city, they cannot fly in their new city until they fly with an instructor and establish a new home airport.)

Pilots, even those that started in ultralights, don’t like a bunch of limitations — after all freedom is one of the virtues of learning to fly.

The Recreational Pilot Certificate was doomed because even Student Pilots have more privileges than Recreational Pilots. The Student Pilot CAN:

  • Fly at night.
  • Fly a cross country.
  • Operate in Class D, Class C, and even at some Class B airports Fly solo in any airplane that their instructor endorses them to fly — that includes aicraft with retractable landing gear, multiple engines… even jets!

Translation: If you are a Student Pilot and pass the Recreational Pilot Practical Test, you actually lose flight privileges, because you passed. The only privilege that a Recreational Pilot has that a Student Pilot does not have is the ability to carry one passenger.

BOTTOM LINE: It shouldn’t surprise anyone that .01% of all pilots are Recreational Pilots. Now, the FAA is now making another run at the ‘less-than-Private-Pilot‘ market. It will be called the Sport Pilot Certificate — we’ll see how they do.

Editor’s note: For the latest news on the imminent Sport Pilot proposal, visit