When you start flying, you may be presented the choice of pursuing your Sport Pilot, Recreational Pilot or Private Pilot certificate. Understanding the differences between them will help you to choose the right one for you.
The Sport Pilot certificate is a newer development that allows you to earn your pilot’s license in as little as 20 hours of training, and does not require a medical certificate (see above). In practice, most students will take more than the minimum. You are, however, limited to flying Light Sport Aircraft (LSAs), defined as a maximum of 1320 lbs. maximum weight and 120 knots maximum speed (a Cessna Skycatcher, for example).
Another great option for new pilots is the Recreational Pilot Certificate, which requires a minimum of 30 hours of flying. This certificate will allow you to carry a passenger during the day, and in aircraft with 4 seats and up to a 180 horsepower engine (a Cessna Skyhawk or Piper Cherokee, for example). This is perfect for local flights with family or friends, and will get you into the air quickly. You can also add additional privileges or transition to the Private Pilot certificate when you’re ready–you’ll just do some additional training on cross country and night flying.
The Private Pilot certificate has been around the longest, and is often what people mean when they say they “got their license.” There are fewer restrictions on the type of airplane you can fly and the places you can fly to, and there are plenty of options for add-on privileges, like Instrument and Multi-Engine ratings. The minimum training time is 40 hours–at least 20 with an instructor and 10 solo–but most students take 60-80 hours.
For all three of these certificates, there is a written exam and a flight test. Also remember that you can change your mind as you train. For example, Sport Pilot training time will count towards a Recreational or Private license.