Is a Recreational Pilot License Worth It?

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Original publication date: October 16, 2023
Last Updated: November 25, 2023
Author: Max Skyler
Topic: Licenses and Ratings
Number of Comments: 0

The recreational pilot license is a viable alternative for aspiring pilots for whom the pursuit of a standard pilot license may otherwise be untenable. Whether this is by choice or whether it is due to life circumstances imposed upon them, the fact of the matter is that the recreational pilot license can help bridge this gap. The recreational pilot license brings the dream of aviation within reach of those who otherwise might be unable to achieve it by means of a standard pilot license.

The recreational pilot license is worth it for budget-conscious aviation enthusiasts who wish to experience a taste of minimalistic, bare-bones general aviation, but who do not have aspirations to pursue anything further, in terms of complexity of aircraft or in terms of commercial endeavors.

There are a number of pros and cons to consider when mulling over whether to go for a recreational pilot license versus a standard pilot license. There are indeed a number of factors that you should carefully weigh against one another, when making your decision. Let’s examine some of these considerations, to help you decide whether a recreational pilot license is worth it.

What are the advantages of a recreational pilot license?

There are many advantages that getting a recreational pilot license can offer, in lieu of obtaining a standard private pilot license. Conversely, there are a number of tradeoffs as well.

The two primary advantages can be encapsulated in terms of both training time and cost:

How much flight time is required for a recreational pilot?

  • In terms of flight training, fewer hours are required to obtain a recreational pilot license, as compared to a private pilot license. A recreational pilot license only requires a minimum of 30 hours of training, as opposed to a minimum of 40 hours, for a private pilot license. Less time spent training can translate to a shorter time span in order to get your license. The breakdown of these 30 hours also translates into less dual instruction time, less solo time, and less cross-country time.

How much does a recreational pilot license cost in the USA?

  • Fewer hours of training can also yield a lower overall cost of training.

Please note that this means that the minimum requirements are lower. This does not necessarily mean that you will get your license within this minimum time frame. The actual number of hours of flight training you will undergo prior to getting your recreational pilot license can vary, depending on how quickly you develop your proficiency and mastery of each module of the training.

Apart from the fewer hours of training, and a somewhat abbreviated training syllabus, the other requirements for obtaining your recreational pilot license still remain the same as that of a private pilot license:

  • You still have to obtain ground instruction and an endorsement from an instructor (or self-paced online ground instruction course) in order to take, and then subsequently pass, a written exam.
  • You still have to pass an oral exam, administered by an FAA examiner.
  • You still have to obtain a 3rd class medical certificate or meet the requirements for BasicMed.
  • You still have to pass a checkride.

The recreational pilot license does not grant you a reprieve or a “fast track” with any of these aforementioned requirements. The ultimate advantage is the lesser number of minimum hours of training, and hence a lower potential cost.

Do you need 20 / 20 Vision to be a recreational pilot?

The physical fitness requirements to become a recreational pilot are virtually identical to those of becoming a private pilot. When it comes to medical fitness, there is no differentiation between the two. Both require either a 3rd class medical certificate or BasicMed certification. For more information on whether pilots can wear glasses or contacts, check out this resource.

What are the limitations of a recreational pilot?

Now, let’s consider the tradeoffs. With lesser training requirements, there must be a catch! Is the pursuit of a recreational pilot really a “shortcut” or a “fast track” toward getting airborne?

Indeed, it does put you on the “fast track” to earning your wings and experiencing the freedom of flight. However, there are a number of tradeoffs.

These tradeoffs translate into 6 main categories:

  • What type of aircraft you can fly.
  • How many passengers you can bring with you.
  • When and where you can fly.
  • How far, how fast, and how high you can fly.
  • What are your prospects for advancement in aviation, being able to take your skills to the next level.
  • Whether you can ever potentially be compensated for flying.

Now let’s be clear: The private pilot license also has its own set of limitations. However, the fact of the matter is that the recreational pilot license is essentially a “restricted version” of the private pilot license.

Let’s take a closer look at what are the limitations that the recreational pilot license imposes upon you:

What aircraft can a recreational pilot fly?

Details concerning the privileges and limitations of the recreational pilot license are all spelled out under the Federal Aviation Regulations section 14 CFR § 61.101 – section (e).

Essentially, the characters of the aircraft must fall within the following parameters:

  • It must be certified to carry a maximum of 4 passengers.
  • It must only have one engine.
  • Said engine must have a maximum output of 180 horsepower (unless it is a rotorcraft).
  • It must not have retractable landing gear. The landing gear must be fixed.

Can a recreational pilot fly a helicopter?

Yes, it is possible to train to become a recreational helicopter pilot, subject to the same limitations as those specified above.

Can a recreational pilot fly a jet?

Given the parameters specified above, it follows that flying a jet is out of the question for any recreational pilot.

What are the limitations imposed upon a recreational pilot?

There are a number of restrictions that the FAA imposes upon recreational pilots. Some of these restrictions are a natural consequence of the physical limitations of the aircraft. And some of these restrictions are an extension of limited experience and exposure that you would receive during your pilot training, that would preclude you from the experience needed in order to fly beyond the envelope of these limitations.

Referring to the same section of the Federal Aviation Regulations, 14 CFR § 61.101, recreational pilots are subject to the following restrictions:

How many passengers can a recreational pilot carry?

  • They may not carry more than one passenger with them in the aircraft. In other words, there may only be a maximum of two occupants of the aircraft, one of whom is the pilot themself.

When can a recreational pilot fly?

  • They are prohibited from flying between sunset of one evening and sunrise of the following morning. In other words, they are restricted to only flying between sunrise and sunset on the same day.
  • The pilot is prohibited from flying if the visibility is less than 3 statute miles.

Can a recreational pilot be compensated for flying?

  • They are prohibited from flying for compensation or for hire, or in furtherance of a business.
  • They are prohibited from paying less than their share of the flight expenses. In other words, the pilot and the passenger must either split the total costs of the flight equally, or the pilot must bear a minimum of 50% of the total operating costs of the flight. Stated differently, the pilot must not stand to gain a financial advantage from the flight, by carrying a passenger with them.

Where can a recreational pilot fly?

  • The pilot is restricted to staying within a 50 nautical mile radius from the departure airport during a flight. This is unless the pilot has received relevant and sufficient training with respect to cross country flight planning, and they have received a written logbook endorsement from an instructor, authorizing the pilot to fly greater than the 50 nautical mile radius limit.
  • The pilot is prohibited from flying in Class A, Class B, C, and D airspaces. This is unless the pilot has received the necessary knowledge and practical training with respect to towered operations and navigating through controlled airspaces, and they have received a logbook endorsement from an instructor.
  • The pilot is prohibited from flying higher than 10,000 feet above sea level, or 2,000 feet above ground level, whichever is higher.
  • The pilot is prohibited from flying without visual reference to the surface.
  • The pilot is prohibited from flying outside of the United States, unless authorization is received by the foreign country to fly into their airspace.

What type of flying is prohibited for recreational pilots?

  • The pilot is prohibited from flying for a charitable organization.
  • The pilot is prohibited from towing another airplane or towing a banner.
  • The pilot is prohibited from passenger-carrying airlift operations.
  • The pilot is prohibited from demonstrating the aircraft in flight, as an aircraft salesperson, to a prospective buyer. (But you may demonstrate the aircraft to a prospective buyer if you are selling it personally, and not as part of a business.)

Do advancement opportunities exist for recreational pilots?

Unlike the private pilot license, which is simply the first milestone along the track toward earning more advanced ratings, the recreational pilot license is essentially the terminus of its own track.

Getting your private pilot license opens up the doors toward earning the following advanced flight certifications:

  • Instrument Rating
  • Commercial Rating
  • Multi-engine Rating
  • High-altitude Endorsement
  • Complex Endorsement
  • A Certified Flight Instructor Rating
  • Airline Transport Pilot Rating

The recreational pilot license, on the other hand, is a proverbial “dead end”. You cannot progress to the next level and pursue any of the aforementioned advanced pilot ratings, with simply a recreational pilot license.

The only way to advance, with a recreational pilot license, would be to:

  1. Apply your flight training hours and experience toward the minimum requirements for a private pilot license.
  2. Take any additional training and / or log any additional flight hours that help you to reach your minimum flight hour goals, as required for the private pilot license.
  3. Receive ground instruction and a written-test endorsement from an instructor or an online course. 
  4. Pass the FAA written knowledge test for the Private Pilot Exam.
  5. Pass the Oral Exam and the Checkride, administered by a FAA examiner.

You do not need to upgrade your medical certificate or BasicMed, if you already have it and are current with it, under your recreational pilot license.

Once you obtain your private pilot license, then you may progress forward.

Getting a recreational pilot license and then transferring it to a private pilot license is somewhat analogous to getting an Associates Degree in college, and then transferring it to a Bachelor’s Degree. It’s a similar concept.

What are your aviation goals?

When weighing the pros and cons, it is important to reflect upon what are your goals. If your goal is to become a commercial pilot and fly for the airlines, then obtaining a recreational pilot license (RPL) would not be for you. As the RPL would preclude you from being able to pursue further aviation goals. The RPL cannot be used as a prerequisite to earning your commercial pilot license. Obtaining your RPL would be somewhat analogous to obtaining an Associates Degree, only to find out that it is not transferable to the Bachelors Degree program of your choice.

On the other hand, if you just want to get into an airplane and be able to fly as a hobby, purely for your own individual satisfaction, for the thrill of being able to fly, then the RPL may be just right for you.

Is the recreational pilots license worth it?

The recreational pilot license is worth it, if you are looking to pursue your dream of flying, and your options to do so otherwise, are limited and preclude you from being able to pursue this dream. From that vantage point, it is totally worth it. If the alternative is to remain grounded, and leave your dream of pursuing aviation unfulfilled, then there is absolutely and unequivocally no question about it: The recreational pilot license is worth pursuing.

Max Skyler

Max Skyler is a Private Pilot with nearly 200 hours of total flight time under his belt.

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