11 Offbeat Airplane Certificates, Ratings, Endorsements and Checkouts

Upgrade your pilot bragging rights and broaden your knowledge and skill set.

Air to Air Photography
One way we love to use airplanes, of course, is capturing gorgeous air-to-air photography. Formation flight training is a must, as is learning to safely fly with the doors off.Courtesy Jessica Ambats

Ratings Man is a ratings collector. No matter how many ratings or hours anyone has, he has more. Many of us go after the more common upgrades to our private pilot certificates, such as an instrument rating or high-performance and complex aircraft endorsements. Out in the wild blue yonder, we put these skills to good use. But some argue it’s expensive to collect signatures in our logbooks for stuff we’ll rarely — or never — use. However, if your view is that additional training can make you a better pilot, then adding new skills makes sense. And if Ratings Man brags about his latest conquest, just mention your advanced ground-instructor rating or your night-vision-goggles endorsement. Chances are he’s never heard of them.

Commercial Certificate Without an Instrument Rating

If you want to get compensated for your flying, such as getting paid to fly passengers or cargo, fly in an airshow, or accept fuel for bringing an airplane to a fly-in, you must have a commercial certificate. Most of us know this. But did you know that you don’t have to have an instrument rating to get a commercial license? As you suspected, there’s a catch: 14 CFR Subpart F, 61.133(b)(1) stipulates if you don’t hold an instrument rating in the same airplane category and class as your commercial, you can’t carry passengers for hire on cross-country flights more than 50 nautical miles or at night.

Even with these limitations, you can enjoy jobs such as banner towing and aerial photography. These gigs are great to build time for aspiring airline pilots and a lot of fun for pilots looking for a challenge and a few extra bucks. Note that you must have a second-class medical with this certificate.

If Ratings Man brags about his latest conquest, just mention your advanced ground-instructor rating or your night-vision-goggles endorsement.

Ground Instructor Certificate

Remarkably, you don’t have to be a pilot to teach cool airplane stuff at flight schools or as a private tutor. Of course, it’s probably better if you are. Either way, you’ll have some pretty impressive credentials. Depending upon which ground-instructor rating you hold — basic, advanced, instrument or all three (14 CFR Subpart I, 61.211 to 61.217) — you can provide ground training in the aeronautical knowledge areas for FAA knowledge tests and flight reviews. Plus, you can give recommendations for knowledge tests.

With the basic rating, you’re only allowed to provide ground training in the aeronautical knowledge areas for sport, recreational and private pilots. It’s better to get the advanced rating because you can teach applicants pursuing any certificate or rating (except instrument) issued under Part 61, including airplane, helicopter and glider — even balloon. Earning the instrument ground-instructor rating is tougher if you’re strictly VFR or a nonpilot.

Weight-Shift Control Aircraft Rating

Telling folks you have a private pilot certificate with a weight-shift control (WRC) rating might evoke the response "That's cool. What's that?" First of all, a WRC aircraft is one in which the pilot uses the weight of the fuselage to deform the wing and make changes to pitch and bank. If you're yearning to experience the fun and freedom of these single-place ultralights or two-place light-sport aircraft, download FAA-H-8083-5, the Weight-Shift Control Aircraft Flying Handbook. It gives you the basics about flying them. Also refer to 14 CFR Part 61 Subpart J; it spells out what you'll need to earn a sport pilot certificate and obtain additional WRC privileges if you're already a pilot. Checking 14 CFR Subpart E, 61.109(j) specifically, you'll see a private pilot certificate with a WRC rating has many must-do's.

Powered Parachute

a powered paraglider pilot in flight against a clear blue sky

Powered parachutes are easy to fly and transport. Here's what you need to know about earning a powered-parachute rating.Alamy

Powered-Parachute Rating

Besides being easy to fly and a snap to transport, powered parachutes offer pilots the freedom of flying in the open air with plenty of time to enjoy the scenery. In fact, this might be the best reason to fly these colorful craft. If you'd like to test this concept by learning how to fly one, know what's required by downloading FAA-H-8083-29, the Powered Parachute Flying Handbook, for a good description of the types of powered parachutes and what you must do to fly one. As with WRCs, refer to Part 61 Subpart J and look up 14 CFR Subpart E, 61.109(i) in particular. You'll find to earn a private pilot certificate with a powered-parachute rating is no slam-dunk.

Gyroplane Rating

So, what's the difference between a gyroplane and a helicopter? A gyroplane has a free-spinning rotor for lift and an engine-powered propeller for thrust. A helicopter has rotors powered directly by the engine. A helicopter can hover; a gyroplane can't. Compared to a helicopter, a gyroplane is cheap to operate; it's also easy to store (usually in your garage) and unique — these whirly birds turn heads on airport ramps. Check out FAA-H-8083-21, the Rotorcraft Flying Handbook, for more information. Part 61 applies here too, especially 14 CFR Subpart E, 61.109(d), which describes the requirements for a private pilot certificate with a gyroplane rating. You'll see it has hefty requirements. Maybe that's one reason few people have it.

Glider Flying

Front view of Sailplane in flight with view of Pilot

There are three glider endorsements you can add on to your glider rating.Alamy

Glider Endorsements

Caveat: You must have a glider rating to get these endorsements. If you don’t have one, check out the qualifications for a glider add-on rating in 14 CFR Subpart E, 61.109(f). Now that you’re a glider guider, you can get your sailplane aloft by aero tow, ground tow or self-launch. All three are endorsements [14 CFR Subpart A, 61.31(j)]. In the U.S., aero tow is the most popular method. Being towed by a powered airplane is fast and efficient but usually more expensive than other methods. You’re also dependent upon a commercial operator or a club to provide the tow.

Many pilots want to add a ground-tow endorsement. A winch or vehicle will get you upstairs; however, these tows are a bit riskier than aero tows due to the glider’s higher angle of attack, which increases the danger of a stall-spin if the towline breaks. On the plus side, winch and auto tows can be done off field, such as on a dry lake, and they’re much less expensive.

Even if you are a power pilot, you must get a self-launch or motor-glider endorsement. Don’t complain — self-launchers have their own set of challenges, critical decision-making among them, such as when to shut down the engine for soaring flight and when to restart it (hopefully) in an emergency.

Towing Endorsements

Towing gliders and/or unpowered ultralight vehicles can be challenging and fun. In 14 CFR Subpart B, 61.69, the requirements are spelled out, but essentially you’ll need a private or higher certificate and usually at least 100 hours of pilot-in-command time in the aircraft category, class and type with which you’re towing the glider or unpowered ultralight vehicle. Glider tow pilots often tow with Piper Pawnees, which spent their previous lives as aerial applicators. These are taildraggers, so you’ll need an endorsement in order to fly them if you’re not already qualified. Among other things, you’ll have to get experience at the other end of the rope — that is, make at least three flights in the glider or ultralight vehicle while being towed. You’ll find out it’s not easy to stay behind the tug, especially in rough air. Besides possibly making a few bucks, towing gliders or unpowered ultralight vehicles will also sharpen your landings because you’ll make a lot of them in a variety of weather conditions. The record at our glider port is 52 tows in one day by one pilot.

Among other things, you’ll have to get experience at the other end of the rope — that is, make at least three flights in the glider or ultralight vehicle while being towed.

Note that banner towing isn’t an endorsement. To tow aerial messages and ads, you must be on the tow operator’s waiver (14 CFR Subpart D, 91.311). But it’s still no free ride. You can’t make your first flight and be added to the waiver until you complete ground and flight training and are observed making a sample pickup by an FAA representative.

High-Altitude Endorsement

For an average person, the time of useful consciousness at 25,000 feet is about three to five minutes. At 35,000 feet, it’s only about 30 to 60 seconds. That’s not much time to don your oxygen mask and descend to a safer altitude, especially if the cockpit is obscured by fog or mist due to rapid decompression. Some pilots have run out of time, with fatal results. Currently, if you’re transitioning to a pressurized aircraft that has a service ceiling or maximum operating altitude, whichever is lower, above 25,000 feet msl, you must have a high-altitude endorsement. According to 14 CFR Subpart A, 61.31(g), you’ll need both a ground sign-off on the physiological hazards of high-altitude flight, such as hypoxia, and a logbook endorsement showing successful flight training. Not surprisingly, this training includes procedures for emergency descents.

Many of us won’t ever need this endorsement, but flying as low as 10,000 feet can still cause problems. I highly recommend the one-day physiological training course offered by the Civil Aerospace Medical Institute (for details, search “FAA airman education programs”). It’s a must-do if you can get to Oklahoma City, the only place it’s offered. The program is free to civil aviation pilots and others who have a medical and don’t have a beard. (No kidding, your beard can interfere with the oxygen mask.) It provides both the basic academics as well as practical demonstrations of rapid decompression and hypoxia using an altitude chamber. You’ll leave with a profound respect for the dangers of high-altitude flying and be aware of your own hypoxia symptoms.

Night Vision Goggles

Pilot Andreas Stahl sits with his Night Vision Goggles in an ADAC helicopter in Senftenberg, Germany, 22 January 2013. The ADAC station in Senftenberg is the only one with modern Night Vision Goggles. PHOTO: PATRICK PLEUL

Night-vision goggles — along with some training — could help you make your way through hazardous areas in the dark.Alamy

Night-Vision-Goggles Endorsement

What accessory do kids of all ages dream about wearing? Night-vision goggles (NVGs), for one. According to the regs, NVGs are “an appliance worn by a pilot that enhances the pilot’s ability to maintain visual surface reference at night.” It doesn’t sound all that exciting when put that way. However, EMS helicopter pilots operating in remote areas at night, which can be highly hazardous, often use NVGs.

NVGs are part of a system that includes an FAA-approved lighting system for the aircraft, training for the pilots and maintenance crew, and an FAA-accepted maintenance program for both the aircraft and the goggles. A good article in the November/December issue of FAA Safety Briefing on this subject ("Terrain Avoidance: What Does It Take to Use NVGs?") spells out what you'll need to find your way in the dark. Also review 14 CFR Subpart A, 61.31(k).

Skiplane Checkout

This isn't a snow job: the FAA doesn't require any specific training or sign-offs to fly a skiplane. The agency does, however, recommend training with a qualified flight instructor. The FAA publishes an informative manual (Seaplane, Skiplane and Float/Ski-Equipped Helicopter Operations Handbook, chapters 7 through 9) that should make you think twice about skipping instruction. You'll find there's a lot to know to safely operate a ski-equipped aircraft, such as how to taxi in strong winds, land on frozen lakes and stop — there aren't any brakes, by the way. Most skiplanes are taildraggers, so you'll want a tailwheel endorsement to work or play in the snow.

Seaplane Skiplane

aerial view of float plane

If you're looking to challenge your flying skills further, consider a commercial seaplane rating.Alamy

Electric Checkout

As of this writing, the FAA is still struggling with the licensing of electric-powered aircraft. But that doesn’t mean you can’t have an electric experience. For example, you can fly electric-powered Part 103 ultralight vehicles (no N-number or flight training needed). As with any Part 103 vehicle, it’s smart to get a verbal checkout and/or flight instruction in a similar nonelectric aircraft before pulling the plug and launching. Big differences: seeing fuel “burn” in volts rather than gallons, and when volts are low that means power is low, an important consideration for go-arounds.

You’re probably not a ratings collector, but should you get the itch for some additional know-how, you’ll find many opportunities in addition to the ones described in this article. Always check exactly what’s required before starting any training. Look up the FAA rules, talk to instructors, and discover how aviation is rich with ways to learn and have fun.