Student Pilot Certificate
A "Student Pilot" certificate is just what it sounds like; someone who has no aviation experience and is first learning to fly. A person is officially a student pilot after a medical exam and when they receive a Medical Certificate from an approved examiner (see list of examiners).
You can start flying with an instructor before receiving the Medical Certificate, but must have a Medical Certificate before you can fly solo (fly by yourself), which happens somewhere after 10 to 15 hours of dual instruction (flying with an instructor in the airplane).
A student will fly with an instructor typically from 20 to 30 hours and the rest of the time they will fly by themselves. You'll realize quickly that keeping up with flight time is very important (it's call logging your flight time). Flying with an instructor is called dual-instruction and flying by yourself is called solo. There is also 10 - 20 hours of ground training from an instructor.
After logging at least 40 hours of flight time, passing a written test (see list of places to take written test), and passing a practical exam, you will earn a Private Pilots license.
Private Pilot Certificate
A "Private Pilot" can fly themselves, family or friends just about anywhere (except for very special airspace, like military bases) and into any public airport, big or small. Yes, you could legally fly into Atlanta or LaGuardia.
A Private Pilot can flight a variety of aircraft, depending upon the type of aircraft they trained in when they were a Student Pilot or types of aircraft they received special training in after obtaining a Private Pilots license. For Aileron Aviation students this means light, single engine airplanes, like Aileron Aviation's Cessna 172.
Bigger or more complicated aircraft will require additional training. For example, airplanes with retractable gears or airplanes with multiple engines. The cost and effort to obtain a qualification for these types of aircraft is smaller than the cost and effort to obtain an initial Private Pilot license.
Commercial Pilot Certificate
A "Commercial Pilot" can be paid to fly. This isn't the same as flying for business trips. A private pilot can make personal business trips. A commercial pilot can be paid to be a pilot. This is a necessary certificate for anyone pursuing an aviation career, but it's also a great accomplishment for every pilot. A commercial pilot develops mastery of the aircraft.
How certificates and licenses fit together
There's bunch of authorizations that a person can receive from the FAA. Some are prerequisites to others and they all depend upon what kind of "thing" you are flying. Let's start there.
How the FAA defines the stuff you fly ...
In the FAA world, the things you can fly are first divided by "category". They FAA categories are: airplane, rotorcraft, glider, lighter-than-air, powered-lift, powered parachute, and weight-shift control aircraft. Aileron Aviation teaches in the "airplane" category.
Within the airplane category the FAA defines several "classes". The FAA airplane classes are: single-engine land, multi-engine land, single-engine sea, multi-engine sea. Aileron Aviation teaches in the airplane category and single-engine land class. For example, a Cessna 172 is a single-engine land airplane.
How the FAA defines a pilot's authorization ...
The FAA organizes pilot authorization around risks. First, for the people around you then yourself. For example, a student pilot would not be authorized to fly a Boeing 737 even if they had the skill; sorry simulator gurus.
Here's the most common authorizations:
Student Pilot Certificate - A student pilot.
Private Pilot Certificate - Authorization to fly for personal reasons.
Commercial Pilot Certificate - Authorization to get paid for flying.
Airline Transport Pilot Certificate - Authorization to fly big or fast aircraft for airlines.
Recreational Pilot Certificate - Authorization to fly with limitations on aircraft size or number of occupants.
Sport Pilot Certificate - Authorization to fly a particular class of aircraft call light-sport.
Flight Instructor Certificate (Certified Flight Instructor) - Authorization to teach others to fly.
But that's not enough authorization to pick an aircraft and go to the skies. The FAA adds to a certificate a rating. It's the combination of certificate and rating that gives a pilot the authority to pick a particular aircraft and go. The three common ratings are:
class rating - The aircraft class is a rating. Like, singe-engine land. A person with a private pilot certificate that has a single-engine land rating is authorized to fly a Cessna 172.
instrument rating - The authority to fly in less than visual conditions, aka "Instrument Meteorological Conditions", aka in the clouds.
type rating - The authorization to fly a particular aircraft that is large or fast. An airplane with a maximum takeoff weight greater than 12,500 pounds requires a type rating. As well airplanes with a turbojet power plant require a type rating.
But wait... what about a pilot license? Where's the "license"? Certificate is the correct word. Here's the difference. Certificates never expire, but licenses do expire. Your private pilot certificate never expires, although there are recency of experience and training requirements to make it legal to use your private pilot certificate.
An "Instrument Rating" allows a pilot to fly in the clouds, rain or in any other low visibility situation. Pilots use the airplane's instruments to maintain level flight, climb, descend and turn. An instrument pilot develops a high degree of confidence and ability to communicate with Air Traffic Control ("ATC").