Civilian Ratings Explained

Civilian pilots begin as student pilots and over the course of a few years and 1500 flight hours build their ratings to an ATP, multiengine. Most military pilots hop over to the civilian side at the ATP level. Huge win, but it can cause some confusion about FAA ratings and certificates. We’ve been approached by 6000 hour military / airline pilots who do not have the qualifications to rent a small, single-engine airplane to fly their kid around the pattern. Below is a crash course in FAA certificates followed by a how-to for obtaining the ratings you want.

What ratings do I hold?

Certificates (14 CFR 61.5)

First of all, an FAA certificate is a plastic card very similar to your driver’s license (i.e. your pilot license but the FAA uses the word “certificate” instead of “license”). The FAA issues two separate cards to pilots – a pilot certificate and an instructor certificate; the instructor certificate is invalid without a corresponding pilot certificate. They have the same number, but the instructor certificate has “CFI” on the end.

There are six certificate “levels” that an individual can hold; they denote what privileges a pilot can exercise:

  • Student Pilot – A student pilot can fly with an instructor or on authorized solo training flights.
  • Private Pilot – A private pilot can fly recreationally.
  • Commercial Pilot – A commercial pilot is qualified to fly for hire.
  • Airline Transport Pilot – An ATP can fly for a part 121 air carrier.
  • Specialty certificates: Sport Pilot (may only fly light sport aircraft) and Recreational Pilot (has restrictions for flight distance and passengers carried); most military pilots will never need/seek these certificates

Your certificate level is written on the front of your certificate. The example below shows a commercial pilot certificate.

An instructor certificate has no “levels” – your certificate simply reads “Flight Instructor.”



FAA certificates are broken into aircraft category and class, instrument ratings, and type ratings. Those ratings show in what aircraft your certificate privileges can be exercised.

Aircraft category ratings are airplane, rotorcraft, glider, lighter-than-air, powered-lift, powered parachute, and weight-shift-control aircraft.

Each category is further broken down into classes. Airplane classes are single-engine and multiengine land and sea. Rotorcraft classes are helicopter and gyroplane. Powered-lift does not have any classes.

Instrument ratings are attached to the category of aircraft. Instrument ratings are Instrument – Airplane, Instrument – Helicopter, Instrument – Powered Lift. Once you earn an ATP, your certificate will no longer read “Instrument” because the ATP assumes instrument privileges.

All pilot certificate category, class and instrument ratings are shown below.

These ratings are listed on the back of your certificate. Each category/class can have different level of certificate privileges. Example rating: COMMERCIAL PILOT (AIRPLANE SINGLE & MULTIENGINE LAND; INSTRUMENT – AIRPLANE); PRIVATE PRIVILEGES (GLIDER)

Your instructor certificate has fewer category and class options – see the table below. Instructor categories are airplane, rotorcraft, glider, and powered-lift. Airplane class ratings are only single-engine or multiengine (no land/sea specified). You can teach any additional ratings that are on your corresponding pilot certificate. Example: Your pilot certificate reads: Commercial Pilot, Airplane Multiengine Land & Sea; Instrument—Airplane. Your instructor certificate reads: Flight Instructor Multiengine. You can teach in multiengine land and multiengine sea aircraft.



How do I get additional ratings?

Recommendation: If you are planning to apply for the airlines, make sure to mil comp as many of your military ratings as possible! Every FAA rating gets you additional points on your application, so mil comp ratings are easy points. However, we do not recommend pursuing add-on ratings (requiring flight training and check rides) simply for airline app points; the additional points won’t be worth the time/money spent on obtaining the additional ratings. If you want to use additional ratings (e.g. you want to teach on the side or rent a single-engine airplane to fly your family around), then the training and check rides are worth it – follow the steps listed below!

Step 1. Mil Comp

The first step is to receive a pilot certificate based on your military experience (§61.73). If you’re a rated military pilot, you can receive a commercial pilot certificate with instrument privileges for that category and class of aircraft. Study for the FAA written test (recommend Sheppard Air); as of October 15, 2018, the FAA combined the Military Competency Airplane (MCA) and the Military Competency Helicopter (MCH) into a single test called the Military Competency Non-Category (MCN). Then take the written, administered by Computer Assisted Testing Service; to find the nearest testing center, check CATS. Some bases offer FAA testing at the base education center. Once you pass your test, you will be given a test report with a raised seal – do not lose that piece of paper. Then set up an appointment at a FSDO to complete the paperwork for the certificate. Call ahead of time to find out what paperwork they want you to bring; Sheppard Air’s site has some detailed instructions on how to fill out an 8710 – recommend calling your FSDO before doing that; the FSDO might do the paperwork for you. At the FSDO appointment, you will be issued your temporary certificate; the permanent will arrive in the mail a few weeks later. This certificate does not expire.

As a military instructor, you can also receive an instructor certificate for the category and class of aircraft. Again, study Sheppard Air (MCI) and visit the FSDO to receive your certificate. This certificate has to be renewed every two years. You can do so via an online course (AOPA, American Flyers, Gleim), a check ride, or submitting proof of a military instructor pilot proficiency check (§61.197(a)(2)(iv) – call your FSDO for details).

*Good news! As of August 2018, the FAA will no longer be issuing centerline thrust restrictions on commercial certificates. All multiengine military aircraft will receive unrestricted FAA multiengine privileges.

Step 2. Add-on Ratings

After you’ve determined what you can receive via mil comp, you will need to determine what add-on ratings you would like. Every add-on requires a check ride with an FAA DPE (designated pilot examiner).

For pilot certificates: If you’re adding a class rating (e.g. single-engine or multiengine), there is no written test or minimum flight times to meet (reference §61.63(c)). You will simply need to train with an instructor, receive a logbook endorsement that you’re ready for a check ride, and pass the check ride. The only exception is the ATP – you still have to meet the minimum flight times to add a class rating to the ATP; and to add a multiengine rating to a single-engine ATP rating, you must complete the CTP as well (§61.165(e)-(f)).

If you’re adding a category rating (i.e. helicopter or airplane), there is no written test required, but you will need to meet the minimum flight times required for the check ride. Then you will need a logbook endorsement and take the check ride (§61.63(b)). Minimum flight times are found the “Aeronautical Experience” section under the correct subpart in §61 (Subpart E for Private Pilot, Subpart F for Commercial Pilot, and Subpart G for ATP).

For instructor certificates: A commercial or ATP certificate in category/class is a pre-req to getting your instructor rating in that category/class. So if you are an airplane multiengine instructor (MEI) and you would like to add a single-engine CFI, you will need to have a single-engine commercial or single-engine ATP certificate before you can take your single-engine CFI check ride; this is because you can’t accept money for flying (i.e. instruct) unless you hold a commercial or ATP certificate for that class of airplane.

If you’re adding a class rating (e.g. single-engine or multiengine) to your airplane instructor certificate, there is no written test (reference §61.191). You will need to meet the requirements of §61.183: have 15 hours PIC in the class of airplane, receive a spin endorsement*, receive a logbook endorsement stating you’re ready for a check ride, and pass the check ride. *Check with your examiner ahead of time – there seem to be different interpretations on this; the argument is that your mil comp instructor certificate shows that you are “competent and possess instructional proficiency in stall awareness, spin entry, spins, and spin recovery procedures” even though you do not have an endorsement in your logbook.

Step 3. Find a School and Start Training

To know what will be required of you for any check ride, check the Airmen Certification Standards OR Practical Test Standards for that certificate (the FAA is moving from the PTS to the ACS; currently, there is not an ACS for the instructor certificates). The ACS and PTS are the FAA’s check ride guides. If you have an existing rating, check the Additional Task Table to determine what tasks you need to accomplish; your check ride will be partial-profile. An excerpt is shown below.

A good first step is to work with the instructor or flight school where you’ll be conducting your training; they will be able to tell you about the examiners they use and the expectations for various ratings. The school should double check with the examiner and/or FSDO for any additional requirements if your specific check ride is not given routinely. The PTS ensures standardization but there are differences in execution across the country.

If you have any questions about how to accomplish your flying goals, please let us know! We’d be happy to walk you through the process.