If you were to interview many of the people who set off on that quest to get their pilot's license about their motivations, you would get answers all over the map. And for many the goals are quite ambitious and they might include starting their own private charter company, becoming a private pilot for a business like a church or an oil company or working up the system all the way to the top until they are able to fly the jumbo jets on exotic international flights.
But for many of us, we just want to be able to fly for the sheer fun and joy of getting up there with the birds and enjoying the freedom of being airborne. This is just as respectable a goal as any of the others. And if you know your ambitions before you go into flight school, you can customize what you need and allow the school to tailor your program to your dreams so you get just the right amount of training and no less but also no more.
The cool thing is that the FAA recognizes that many want to learn to fly because it’s a wonderful hobby and to just have the fun of going up in an airplane under their own control from time to time. There is nothing wrong with knowing that is your level of interest and it's healthy for the airline industry when people express their fascination with flying by just using a pilot's license for the enjoyment of the sensation of flying an airplane to get above the landscape and have a fun afternoon doing so.
So to respond to the interest in a level of licensing that fits your goals, the FAA introduced a "lighter" version of the pilot's license called the sports license that gives you the training and the certification to say you do know how to fly but it is a license that is custom made for the recreational pilot like yourself. This is a great response to the need for a type of pilot's license that is not so concentrated on a career in aviation or on the heavier level of responsibility and learning that a private pilot's license brings with it.
The sports pilot's license has some restrictions but it allows you to enjoy flying lighter aircraft for short flights under controlled circumstances. This fits the "joy ride" desire that is exactly what attracted you to the hobby of flying in the first place. The category of aircraft you are certified to fly are called Light Sports Aircraft (LSA) and that category includes two passenger airplanes, gliders and even aircraft that are lighter than air like hot air balloons. So when you go to a balloon festival, most of the pilots of those balloons have sports pilot's licenses meaning they are qualified to fly at this level of aviation.
The age restrictions for a sports license are pretty much the same as a private pilot's license but the medical requirements are not as strict and in most cases if you are medically qualified to have a driver's license to drive to the airstrip for the lessons, you are qualified to earn a sports pilot's license. You still have to go through flight training but the number of flight time hours are not as stressful and the written test is customized to the less demanding level of interest you have in flying.
The great thing is that you can go ahead and get a sports pilot's license and begin enjoying flying on an occasional basis and stay at that level as long as you want. But if at some point down the road, you want to move on to a private pilot's license, all of your work on the sports license applies so you just have to "upgrade" your training to the more advanced certification.
But with the sports license you can take a friend up for a flight, tour the local landscape or enjoy a quick flight to a neighboring town to visit friends or attend a sporting event. It is the fastest way to get up in the air but you are still a certified pilot so the FAA has recognized that you know what you are doing in the pilot's seat of an airplane.
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