I have referred to CFI Part 61 and 91 hundreds of times in the last 20 years and my understanding would have been greatly enhanced if I had a better grasp of the differences between certificates, ratings, and endorsements.
Everyone knows that your pilot’s license isn’t really a license but is actually a certificate. And if you read Part 61 carefully it even has sub parts for each kind of pilot certificate. The FAA also issues certificates for mechanics, flight engineers, drone pilots and others. However it wasn’t until I read a string of comments by DPE Ryan F on Pilots of America that the nuances of certificates and ratings became really clear.
CFR §61.5 Certificates and ratings issued under this part. spells out the different certificates and ratings that you can earn but you have to read it carefully. You will notice that there are three kinds of airman certificates: Pilots, Flight Instructors, and Ground Instructors. When operating an aircraft you are exercising the privileges of your pilot certificate. In addition to privileges, each certificate comes with limitations. There are also medical requirements that apply to the exercise of privileges in certain types of operations and aircraft. The limitations are spelled out in §61.23 Medical certificates: Requirement and duration.
There are five kinds of pilot certificates, Student, Recreational, Private, Commercial, ATP, and Sport. Everyone starts out with a student pilot certificate and that certificate is then replaced by a recreational, private, or sport pilot certificate. You can also upgrade your certificate to commercial or ATP. You only hold one pilot certificate at a time, so if you upgrade to commercial your certificate is replaced with a commercial certificate.
It gets a bit confusing for some people when we start talking about letting your medical lapse and flying with a driver’s license and under sport pilot rules. §61.303 If I want to operate a light-sport aircraft, what operating limits and endorsement requirements in this subpart must I comply with? For example, an older private pilot may decide to forgo the hassle and expense of getting a medical and use their private pilot certificate to exercise the privileges (and limitations) of the sport pilot certificate. They still retain their private pilot certificate but are now operating as if they held a sport pilot certificate.
A pilot may obtain an instructors certificate in a category and class of aircraft. Unlike other certificates in this part, these expire after 24 months unless renewed by taking a course or sending enough passing students for practical exams.
Anyone may obtain a ground instructor certificate by passing the required knowledge tests. An endorsement from an instructor is required before exercising the privileges of the certificate or if the instructor hasn’t taken a renewal course or taught students in the previous 24 months.
§1.1 General definitions.
Rating means a statement that, as a part of a certificate, sets forth special conditions, privileges, or limitations.
I doubt that anyone is confused when people talk about getting their instrument rating but it is less common to talk about ratings when talking about the type of aircraft that you can fly.
Except for the student pilot certificate, when you get a certificate it has a rating attached to it. The rating indicates the category and class of aircraft that the pilot is certified to operate. Most pilots start out with Airplane Single Engine Land or Rotorcraft Helicopter but you can also start out with others. e.g. Glider category.
Pilots can add ratings to their certificate by accumulating the necessary experience and passing the required tests. For example, pilot who wants to fly a multi-engine airplane will need a multi-engine rating added to their certificate. A pilot who holds a certificate and wants to add additional ratings—including different categories or aircraft—does not need to obtain a student pilot certificate. They are subject to the same limitations as other students who do not hold a certificate higher than student pilot e.g. no passengers, endorsement prior to solo, etc.
One special kind of rating is a Type Rating. Type ratings are required for large aircraft (over 12,500 lbs), turbo-jet aircraft, and others specified by the FAA. § 61.31 Type rating requirements, additional training, and authorization requirements.
It can get a little complicated when a pilot earns multiple ratings while holding different certificates. For example, a private pilot may earn ratings for Single Engine Land, Multi-Engine Land, and Instrument. When they take their commercial test in a single-engine airplane, the Instrument rating applies to their commercial privileges but they may not exercise their commercial privileges in a multi-engine airplane. The back of the certificate will say Private Pilot Privileges MultiEngine.
CFR §61.31 Type rating requirements, additional training, and authorization requirements. lists additional requirements to operate certain types of aircraft. For example, an endorsement in a pilot’s logbook by an authorized instructor is required before a pilot can act as PIC in a tailwheel, complex, or high-performance aircraft. Student pilots require an endorsement before solo flight, before cross-country flight, and when landing at an airport where they don’t normally train. Recreational and sport pilots have limitations that can be removed with the appropriate endorsements.
Unlike ratings, endorsements are made in the pilot’s logbook and are not transmitted to the FAA and so do not appear in the FAA database or on the pilot’s certificate.