A student pilot normally learns to fly in an airplane that has one propeller and fixed-wheel landing gear. The student is usually pursuing a “Single-Engine Land Rating”. Once the required tests are passed the airman is issued a pilot certificate that has a single-engine land rating. The certificate never expires and allows the pilot to fly any airplane that is similar to the one they learned in. However, to exercise the privileges of the certificate the pilot must satisfy certain currency requirements. The two biggest ones are medical certification and a flight review every two years. To fly more complicated airplanes and other types of aircraft, the pilot needs additional ratings and endorsements.
Ratings are added to the pilot’s certificate. Common ratings are for multi-engine airplanes, seaplanes, gliders, and helicopters.
Endorsements are not recorded with the FAA and do not show up on the pilots certificate. They are written in the pilots logbook by a certified flight instructor (CFI). They are required before a pilot can act as pilot-in-command of airplanes that have more than 200 horsepower engines (high performance); aircraft with pressurization capable of operating at high altitudes; complex airplanes; and tailwheel airplanes. A complex airplane has retractable landing gear, flaps, and a controllable pitch propeller. A tailwheel airplane, like the name implies, has a wheel in the tail rather than the nose. Airplanes with a tailwheel have different handling characteristics than tricycle-gear airplanes that are the norm today.
Many people learn to fly in a Piper Cherokee or a Cessna 172. When they pass their practical test, they are then allowed to fly any airplane with similar characteristics without any additional training. Training aircraft often have only have room for two or three adults and aren’t particularly fast. Many pilots move up to faster aircraft which often means that they need endorsements to their certificate. Typical examples of airplanes that require a high performance endorsement are Cirrus SR22, Cessna 182 Skylane and 206 Stationair, and Piper Dakota. The Cessna 182 that I learned to fly in had a 230 hp engine so I got my high-performance endorsement before I got my license. Even though the 182 has flaps and a controllable pitch propeller, it is not a complex aircraft since it does not have retractable landing gear. When I got my Cessna T210 Centurion I needed to get a complex endorsement to fly it since it has retractable landing gear. Some aircraft, like the Mooney 201, Piper Comanche, and Piper Arrow require a complex endorsement but not a high performance endorsement because they do not have engines with greater than 200 hp.
An airman can fly any aircraft that is similar to ones they have ratings and endorsements for but more sophisticated aircraft require a type rating that allow the airman to fly any aircraft of that specific type. Specifically, large aircraft (>12,500 Lbs takeoff weight) and turbojet-powered airplanes require a type rating. The manufacturer and the FAA can also agree that a type rating is required for a specific model and require a type rating as part of their certification process.
Many of the FARs refer specifically to aircraft Category and Class. In fact, all airmen receive ratings specifically for a category and class of aircraft. Unfortunately, the term “category” is used at least five different ways when referring to aircraft and pilots and it can get confusing. Section 61.5.b lists the categories of aircraft with respect to airman ratings.
- Powered parachute
- Weight-shift-control aircraft
Each of these categories is subdivided into classes. The airplane category, for example, has four classes, single-engine land, multi-engine land, single engine sea, and multi-engine sea.
In the discussion above the generic term “fly” was used. Technically airmen don’t fly the aircraft. They “manipluate the controls” and act as “pilot in command”. In the discussion above the ratings and endorsements allow the pilot to act as pilot-in command e.g. the pilot responsible for operation and safety of the aircraft during flight time where flight time is defined as the time from the moment the aircraft moves under its own power for the purposes of flight until it comes to rest after landing.