Sport vs Private Pilot Licenses: What Are The Differences?

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Original publication date: July 1, 2023
Last Updated: November 25, 2023
Author: Max Skyler
Topic: General Aviation
Number of Comments: 0

If you are looking to make a foray into the world of general aviation, there are a number of options, the two most common of which are the private pilot license and the sport pilot license. The pursuit of either one of these will open the doors (and the skies) for you to become a licensed pilot, for non-commercial, general aviation purposes. While the private pilot license and the sport pilot license both bear certain similarities, there are a number of key differences between the two of them, in terms of how you achieve either of them, and what you can do with each of them, respectively.

The private pilot license grants you access to fly most any general aviation aircraft, day or night, and carry multiple passengers. The sport pilot license places limitations on the types of aircraft you can fly, only allows you to bring one passenger, and prohibits night flight.

The sport pilot license is an excellent option for those who are content to fly purely as a hobby and who do not seek to fly with multiple passengers, at night, or in any type of high-performance or long-range aircraft. The private pilot license is more appropriate for those who desire to be able to fly across the country, day or night, with multiple passengers, in potentially faster, more powerful, and more complex aircraft. If you are looking to pursue more advanced flight privileges such as an instrument rating or a commercial rating, then the private pilot license is a prerequisite stepping stone. The sport pilot license itself is ineligible as a prerequisite for the pursuit of more advanced aviation privileges. Let’s explore some of the key similarities and differences between the sport pilot license versus the private pilot license in greater detail.

What training is needed for sport vs private pilot licenses?

Both a sport pilot license and a private pilot license require a fixed number of hours of training led by a certified flight instructor (CFI).

For a private pilot license, you will need a minimum of 40 hours of training, whereas for the sport pilot license, the minimum number of hours is cut in half: You only need 20 hours of flight training to earn your sport pilot license.

For the private pilot, at least 20 hours must be with an instructor and at least 10 must be flown solo.

For the sport pilot, at least 15 hours must be with an instructor and at least 5 must be flown solo.

Both licenses require a minimum number of cross-country flying. Private pilots can meet this requirement by conducting 3 hours worth of flights in which the destination airport is at least 50 nautical miles from the departure airport. Sport pilots can meet this requirement with 2 hours worth of flights, in which at least one is a 75 nautical mile journey, with two intermediate stops, the first of which must be 25 nautical miles from the original point of departure.

Sport pilot licenses require you to perform at least 10 takeoffs and landings to a full-stop, whereas the private pilot license doesn’t require a minimum number of landings. (In the pursuit of a private pilot license, you will organically accomplish greater than 10 takeoffs and landings over the course of your flight training.)

Both the sport pilot license and the private pilot license require you to receive ground training either from a live instructor or from a self-paced home-study course, after the completion of which you must pass an FAA knowledge exam.

And ultimately, both require you to pass an oral exam as well as a practical test, administered by an FAA Examiner.

RequirementsSport PilotPrivate Pilot
Total hours of training2040
Total solo hours510
Total takeoffs and landings10No minimum
Total cross country hours23
Practical Test RequiredYesYes

What are the prerequisites for the sport vs private license?

The prerequisites in order to pursue either the sport and private pilot licenses are largely similar:

Both require you to be a minimum of 17 years of age.

Both require you to be able to read, speak, and understand the English language.

Both require you to compare a minimum number of hours of instructor-led training, solo flight, as well as cross-country flying.

Both require you to pass a knowledge test, an oral test, and a practical test.

However, here is where the similarities end. The prerequisites to obtain each of these two licenses diverge respectively when it comes to medical certification:

With the private pilot license, you must either obtain a 3rd class medical certificate or meet the requirements of the BasicMed certification.

With the sport pilot license, on the other hand, no medical certification is required. All you need is a valid driver’s license. You also must not previously have been denied a FAA medical certificate, or had a FAA medical certificate suspended or revoked. If this denial or revocation has ever happened to you, then you would need to then obtain a valid 3rd class medical certificate.

RequirementsSport PilotPrivate Pilot
Medical CertificationDrivers LicenseBasicMed or 3rd Class Medical Certificate
Minimum Age1717

What airplanes can a sport pilot and a private pilot fly?

With a sport pilot license, the type of aircraft you can fly must be the criteria of what is classified as a light sport aircraft (LSA).

The FAA defines a light sport aircraft as any aircraft (other than a helicopter) that meets the following requirements:

  1. Its maximum takeoff weight must not exceed 1320 pounds (or 1430 if taking off from a body of water).
  2. Its maximum airspeed must not exceed 120 knots.
  3. Its minimum stalling speed does not exceed 45 knots.
  4. It must be built with a maximum capacity of only two passengers, one of whom must be the pilot.
  5. The engine must meet the following requirements:
    1. It must be a single-engine only. (It cannot be multi-engine.)
    2. It must be a propeller-driven engine if it is a powered aircraft. (Gliders don’t have or need engines!)
  6. If the aircraft has an enclosed cabin, it must be non-pressurized.
  7. The landing gear requirements must conform to the following:
    1. It must be a fixed (non-retractable) landing gear for terrain landings.
    2. It must be equipped with either fixed or retractable landing gear for water landings.
    3. It must be equipped with either fixed or retractable landing gear, if the type of aircraft is a glider.
Aircraft RequirementSport PilotPrivate Pilot
Maximum Takeoff Weight1320 pounds land / 1430 waterN/A
Maximum Airspeed120 knots250 knots (below 10,000 feet MSL)
Maximum Stalling Speed45 knotsN/A
Maximum Passengers2 (including pilot)6 (including pilot) if flying under BasicMed; no specific limitation if flying with 3rd class medical certificate
Engine TypeSingle-Engine onlySingle-Engine or Multi-Engine
CabinMust be non-pressurized, if enclosedMay be pressurized or non-pressurized
Landing GearMust be fixed / non-retractable (for terrain),
May be retractable (for water landings)
May be retractable or fixed, for either terrain or water landings

A private pilot has a much wider range of options to fly, in terms of aircraft, although these are also subject to limitations, based on the type of medical certification the private pilot has, and the types of operations the private pilot intends to perform:

  1. Private pilots may operate multi-engine aircraft.
  2. Private pilots may operate aircraft at airspeeds up to 250 knots (when flying below 10,000 feet above mean sea level).
  3. Private pilots may carry as many passengers as the aircraft is built for, as long as they hold a 1st class, 2nd class, or 3rd class medical certificate. Private pilots who fly under BasicMed medical certification are limited to flying aircraft that have a 6,000 pounds maximum takeoff weight, and are limited to carrying no more than 6 passengers (including themselves as the pilot).

Did you know that it is actually possible to fly an ultralight aircraft without a pilot license?

What are the restrictions for sport vs private flying?

When you earn your sport pilot certificate, it is issued without any type of specific category or class designation. This is in contrast with a private pilot certificate, which specifically states the category and class of aircraft for which the certificate is valid for. Your instructor will endorse your logbook for the particular category and class that you specifically trained in. You would need to obtain separate endorsements for different categories and classes of aircraft accordingly, as per FAR 61.317.

Each pilot certificate carries with it a set of limitations. When it comes to sport flying versus private pilot flying, the restrictions placed on the former are far more stringent. This is quite naturally the price to pay in exchange for the lesser training that you will have to have undergone in order to obtain your license.

The FAA defines the privileges and limitations of the sport pilot license in FAR 61.315.

What are the time restrictions for sport flying?

Sport pilots are only allowed to operate light sport aircraft during the day. Night time operations are prohibited. Night, as per the FAA, is defined as the time period starting from one hour after sunset through one hour before sunrise.

Time RestrictionsSport PilotPrivate Pilot
Allowable times to flyNight flying prohibited from 1 hour after sunset until 1 hour before sunriseYou may fly any time

What are the airspace restrictions for sport flying?

Airspace in the United States is divided up into different classes. Sport pilots are prohibited from flying in Class A airspace. Class A airspace requires you to carry an Instrument Rating, which is an add-on eligible for private pilots but not available to sport pilots. Class A airspace is defined as the airspace at or above 18,000 feet above sea level.

Sport pilots also may not operate in Class B, C, or D airspace, unless they receive training and a logbook endorsement from a CFI, as specified in FAR 61.325. In order to fly in this airspace, your light sport aircraft must also be equipped with the necessary communications equipment, transponder, and navigation equipment necessary in order to operate in these respective airspaces.

Both Sport and private pilots may operate in Class G airspace anytime without restriction.

Sport pilots are also prohibited from flying outside of the USA without first obtaining prior authorization from the aviation authority of the foreign country.

Airspace RestrictionsSport PilotPrivate Pilot
Class A AirspaceProhibitedAllowed only with an Instrument Rating, on an Instrument Flight Plan
Class B, C, D AirspaceProhibited, unless training and log endorsement received from CFIPermitted
Class G AirspacePermittedPermitted
Outside of the USAProhibited, without prior authorization from foreign aviation agencyPermitted

What are the altitude restrictions for sport flying?

The maximum altitude at which a sport pilot may fly is 10,000 above sea level, or 2,000 feet above ground level, whichever is higher. As mentioned above, all flight above 18,000 above sea level is prohibited, irrespective of  your altitude above the ground.

Altitude RestrictionsSport PilotPrivate Pilot
Above 10,000 MSL or 2,000 feet AGLProhibitedPermitted
Above 18,000 MSLProhibitedAllowed only with an Instrument Rating, on an Instrument Flight Plan

What are the operating restrictions on sport flying?

Holders of a sport pilot license are prohibited from towing any object such as a banner or another aircraft.

Furthermore, sport pilot license holders are prohibited from carrying passengers or property in exchange for compensation or for hire.

This also includes flying in furtherance of any business or commercial venture.

What are the cost differences in sport vs private flying?

Generally, sport flying is less expensive than flying as a private pilot.

  • You spend less money on training due to the training requirements being virtually cut in half.
  • Being that light sport aircraft can only fly shorter distances, at slower airspeeds, they consume less fuel.
  • The aircraft being flown are less complex and therefore may not require as much maintenance.
  • Being that light sport aircraft carry less risk to passengers and property, the insurance premiums on these types of aircraft would typically be lower.

What growth opportunities exist for sport vs private flying?

When it comes to the world of aviation, the sky’s the limit (no pun intended), with respect to the potential for advancement. Today you may be flying a single engine aircraft in good weather conditions only. Tomorrow you might be flying a commercial jetliner, through all kinds of bad weather.

For private pilots, there exists a path towards achieving a linear progression in terms of one’s evolution and advancement in aviation. You can obtain an instrument rating, a multi-engine rating, a complex endorsement, a high-altitude endorsement, a commercial rating, and ultimately an Airline Transport Pilot (ATP) rating.

But such progression does not exist for holders of a sport pilot certificate. There exists no linear track for sport pilots to advance and grow in aviation, in the manner that exists for private pilots.

For a sport pilot to be able to avail themselves of this track, they would have to earn a private pilot license. It is easy to make the switch before you earn your sport pilot license. You would just need to discuss with your CFI how you can build upon the hours of instruction you have already earned, and undergo the necessary hours of additional training in order to achieve the minimum of 40 hours required in order to get your pilot license.

Of course, it may also be possible to get your private pilot license after you have already obtained your sport pilot license. The good news is that the hours you already amassed, training for your sport pilot license can be applied toward your private pilot license. But it just means having to take another written test and another checkride for a second time. 

Max Skyler

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

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