How to get an FAA CPL

FAA Commercial Pilots Licence

Introduction

I got my FAA CPL (commercial pilots licence) in October 2007. The flying was fun. Dealing with the flying school, the paperwork and interpreting the requirements were not. This article outlines the steps you need to go through as a British pilot trying to get an American CPL. I hope that I can help you avoid some of the pitfalls.

My background

When I took the test I was a 500-hour pilot. My experience is split 50:50 between the PA28s that I trained on and the Cirrus SR-22 that I fly in England. I have a JAR PPL with IMC and night ratings. I also have an FAA PPL which is conditional on my UK licence. I passed my FAA instrument rating in 2004.

Preliminary paperwork

There are some preliminary checks and some early planning you can do that will make the process easier.

Get an FAA PPL

If you have a UK PPL, this is easy because the FAA will issue you with a temporary airman’s certificate at one of their local offices (a FSDO) in the US on presentation of a letter of authenticity from the FAA head office (see below). You need to book an appointment and it takes less than an hour. You can’t do this by post or in Europe – you need to go to a US-based FSDO.

Get a letter of authenticity

Unless you already have a standalone FAA PPL, you will need to have a current letter of authenticity to take the test. (Once you pass your CPL the FAA will issue you with a standalone CPL and this formality will go away in future.) The process is straightforward. You fax one form to the CAA and another to the FAA with the required information – medical, licence etc. Within two or three weeks you get the letter by post. The FAA make no charge for their part in all this but the CAA will charge a fee to confirm your identity.

Get a visa

If you turn up at a reputable flying school (even some disreputable ones) without a visa they won’t let you train. Similarly, if you are stopped at immigration and they find out that you are doing flight training without a visa, they will send you home and it may be difficult to return. I have been told that a rental checkout does not constitute training but a rating or certificate checkride does. Take your own counsel on this but in my view, it’s not worth the risk.
You need an M1 non-immigrant, vocational training visa. Your flying school will assist you with the application because you need some paperwork from them before you apply to the embassy. Flying schools charge for this paperwork. Also, once you apply with paperwork from a given school, it will be difficult (but not impossible) to change schools once you arrive. Part of the difficulty involves getting a refund of any deposit given to the first school. The name of the school is printed on the visa in your passport. This puts a great emphasis on choosing a good school early on. More on this later.
Once you get the paperwork (the I-20 form) from your chosen flying school, you can begin the visa application process. They ask a lot of questions about your personal history and you need to complete three or four long forms. Expect to spend a day on the paperwork. Apply for a visa interview at the embassy as soon as you get the paperwork from the flying school. In my case, London was booked up a month or so in advance so I had to fly to Belfast and do the interview in the consulate there (this is a good backup plan if time is tight and, hey, you’re a pilot so it’s easy.)

Double- and triple-check you have the right paperwork before you go for the interview. When I was waiting, I saw several people turned away because they didn’t have this or that form with them. You will want to have strong evidence of your desire to return to England – mortgage statements, payslips etc. Expect to be at the embassy for several hours but, at least in my case, the actual interview is a formality that lasted about three minutes. They returned my passport by Special Delivery in a couple of days.

Allow two months for this process to avoid stress. I did it in four weeks and regretted the rush. Any slip would have delayed my departure.

The visa photo is not a normal passport sized picture. The easiest way to get it done is to take a large single image in a passport photo booth, scan it into a computer, crop it the required spec and then print it out on photo paper.

Also, they will tell you not to bring a mobile phone or bags to the embassy. In Belfast, actually, you can leave these kinds of things at the security post before you go in. This is preferable to not taking them or leaving them in the hotel while you go to the embassy. I don’t know whether a similar arrangement is possible in London.

One last point, expect to be stopped on arrival at the US when you go through immigration. They will see your visa and the words ‘flight training’ will alarm the immigration officer. “Have you ever been to the middle east?” was her first question to me. Without even waiting for an answer she called over a uniformed officer to escort me to small waiting room for further checks. I think they cross-checked the paperwork and the TSA records (see below). It only took 15 minutes but I guess it could take longer. Not a warm welcome so better to expect it.

TSA approval

The final bit of administrivia is the TSA permit to begin training. To do this you need to use the Alien Flight Student Program (www.flightschoolcandidates.gov) to apply. Sadly, it doesn’t operate out of Area 51. You will then be invited to submit your fingerprints. You can do this at Flight Safety in Farnborough or (I believe) Oxford Air Training. The process takes an hour or so. I enjoyed going to Flight Safety because they showed me the sims after the fingerprints were taken. Also, you can take the CPL written exam at Flight Safety so one trip covers two tasks.

Flying requirements

I was very badly caught out because I did not read and understand the pre-requisites for the CPL properly. I booked and cancelled two check rides because I didn’t have enough night hours. First, I hadn’t completed a required night cross-country flight with an instructor (I did it solo) and second, I had didn’t have enough night solo hours.

There are several concepts that you must grasp to interpret the FARs. First, ‘solo’ means that you are alone in the aircraft. PIC with passengers doesn’t do it. Second, ‘training to include…’ means that each qualifying flight under that heading must be signed off by an FAA instructor who must come with you. Third, ‘cross country’ has a specific meaning in terms of distance and the required types of airports. In retrospect, the easiest way to satisfy an examiner is to tick off all the specific requirements while you are training in Florida.

Expect an examiner to go through your log book and check, flight by flight, that the requirements were met. You should ask your instructor or the school to do the same thing on the day you start training and make sure that you plan to tick every box before applying for your check ride. Cancelling a $450 check ride because you have 4.9 hours of night solo and not the required 5 hours can be embarrassing, frustrating and expensive. No refunds.

In the end, I made up a table and indexed every flight in my log book using little Post-it signature tabs. Here are the requirements (in summary – please, please check the FARs for yourself!)

61.123 Eligibility requirements

a) 18 years old YES

b) Read, speak, write and understand English? YES

c) Receive a logbook endorsement from an instructor for the written exam. YES SEE (1)

d) Pass the written exam YES SEE CERTIFICATE

e) Receive required training and log book endorsement for practical test YES SEE (2)

f) Met the aeronautical experience requirements YES SEE BELOW

g) Pass the required practical test …

h) Hold at least a private pilot certificate issued under this part YES SEE CERTIFICATE

i) Comply with the sections of this part that apply to category and class.

61.125 Written exam. Complete ground school or a home-study course for the written exam and be signed off by an instructor to take the written exam

61.127 Receive and log ground and flight training. There is a list of required topics in the FARs and you should plan a syllabus to meet them and get your instructor to note them in your log book.

61.129 Aeronautical experience. Part (a) Airplane single-engine [Best to prepare a spreadsheet and list all the flights that meet the requirements with dates so that your examiner can check the requirements – s/he will go through your log book and add it all up.]

Log 250 hours of flight time.

a. 100 hours in power aircraft, 50 of which in airplanes.

b. 100 hours of PIC flight time.

i. 50 hours in airplanes.

ii. 50 hours in cross-country flights

c. 20 hours of training on 61.127(b)(1). Note that this ‘training’ requirement means that each of these requirements must be done with an instructor in the plane who must sign off each flight in your log book.

i. 10 hours of instrument training. If you have an IR, your training will meet this requirement, otherwise you need to do this.

ii. 10 hours in a ‘complex’ aircraft. Complex means retractable gear, variable pitch prop and retractable flaps. I did my training in an Arrow with no GPS and semi-working VOR. Compared to the Cirrus that I normally fly it was hardly complex but the FAA doesn’t see it that way. I did the whole check ride in an Arrow but I understand that you can do circuits in an Arrow and then hop out and do the rest of the check ride in something better, like a Cirrus. But then you’ll be cross-examined on two sets of aircraft systems etc.

iii. One cross-country flight of 2 hours, day VFR, >100nm. WITH AN INSTRUCTOR

iv. One cross-country flight of 2 hours, night VFR, >100nm. WITHIN AN INSTRUCTOR

v. 3 hours in preparation for the test in the last 60 days. WITH AN INSTRUCTOR

d. 10 hours solo time in a single-engine airplane on the areas of operation listed in 61.127(b)(1). Note that ‘solo’ means that you are alone in the plane.

i. Cross-country flight of 300nm+, three points, with one leg being a straight line 250nm. This should be done solo, i.e. alone in the plane.

ii. Five hours in night VFR conditions with 10 takeoffs and ten landings. Do this at a US towered airport so that the examiner has confidence that you’ve actually done it and not made it up.

If you don’t have an IR, expect to do at least 20 hours of training (at least!) and up to ten hours of solo time to meet these requirements. Flying schools advertise a ten-hour CPL course but this promise assumes that you have already met the other requirements and it is unrealistic. In my case, I flew about 22 hours in the Arrow in Florida.

UK log books don’t track the information that the FAA requires (e.g. solo time, night landings etc.) Consider buying a professional, FAA-compatible log book or tabulating your flights in Excel so that they match the requirements on the 8710 application form.

Choice of flying schools

I did my CPL with Orlando Flight Training in Kissimmee. I do NOT recommend them and would not go back there myself. Buy me a beer and I’ll tell you all the gory details.

Choice of examiner

I did my IR check ride with Mark Griffin. He was thorough, fair and set a high standard. I have met but not flown with Bob Raskie, a United Airlines pilot. I have heard good things about him.

I booked two check rides with John Azma (http://johnazma.com). He behaved with complete propriety but, speaking personally, I found him a little distant and that made me nervous. Since both check rides didn’t get started because I hadn’t met the requirements I can’t judge what he is like during an actual test.

In the end, I did my commercial check ride with Janeen Kochan. She is a pearl who lives and breathes aviation. She’s an ex-airline pilot, an instructor and examiner. She has a Phd in human factors and is also an A&P mechanic. Wow! She put me at my ease immediately and the whole process was (surprisingly) enjoyable. It was no cake walk – the oral was over two hours and we got into some deep details on aircraft systems, weather interpretation and so on. But it felt like an intense conversation with a pilot friend rather than a cross-examination. Ditto the flight – more like being with a really top-notch instructor than a checklist wielding inquisitor. (“Our weapons are fear, surprise, ruthless efficiency and a fanatical devotion to the FAA.”)

A word of warning. My flying school led me to believe that John Azma was the only examiner I could use. In addition, I couldn’t book the check rides directly with him but only through the school. In consequence of this (and perhaps because of their frustration with two cancelled, but paid-for, check rides) they said I would have to wait a further five days before I could attempt my third check ride.

On investigation, this is not the way the system should work. Within reason, you should be able to take your check ride with any examiner who is on the FAA list in the area of the test. My wonderful UK instructor, John Page at TAA (www.taauk.net), put me in touch with Janeen who was able to book up a checkride the next day.

Useful resources

Here are some tools that I found helpful in preparing for the test:

  • King Schools CPL Check Ride DVD
  • King Schools CPL Written Exam CD-ROM course
  • ASA CPL Oral Exam Guide
  • Dauntless CPL Oral software (www.dauntless-soft.com)
  • Index cards to help memorise facts for the oral (probably around 300 of these)

Budget

Software, books etc. £400 Approximately

OFT fee for VISA paperwork and deposit: £379

DHS/TSA fee £67

CAA fee for Letter of Authenticity £39

Fingerprint fee for Alien Flight Students £77

PA-28R Arrow checkout at Cabair, Denham £750 Approximately

OFT for flight training £3,558

Checkride fee £250 Approximately

I’m sure there was a small fee for the Visa and other sundry costs like postage. Plus flights, car hire, hotel and food for two weeks. I stayed at the Ritz-Carlton Grande Lakes. I’m not going to tell you how much it cost!

32 Responses to How to get an FAA CPL

  1. Janeen May 30, 2008 at 01:01 #

    Hi Matthew: I was doing a little research on pilot examiners and your story showed up on a Google search. What a good overview of your experience and thank you so much the kind words. I hope all is going well. John Page is coming over next week and we're going to do some flying. Hope to see you again. Janeen

  2. Abhishek Datta August 2, 2008 at 05:24 #

    Hello

    I hold a foreign CPL from Philippines and wanna come to USA for for my CFI course. I wanted to know about the conversion of foreign CPL to FAA CPL? Can you help me with that.?

    thanks

  3. Matthew Stibbe August 2, 2008 at 13:21 #

    HI Abishek, I don't really know what to recommend in your case. My only experience was with the conversion of a UK licence. Perhaps another reader can help?

  4. ian sweetland September 9, 2008 at 13:22 #

    Hi

    I saw your comment about OFT – would you enlarge ? (without the beer for the moment as it won't fit down the phone line) I have an FAA PPL and wantto add the CPL and Instructor rating. I gathe that the first check ride for the CPL has to be with an FAA guy – how was that and any comments or advice ?

    Cheers

    Ian

  5. masood November 22, 2008 at 16:47 #

    hello,hope all is well,im in army aviation and flying a c208B(N regestred) i have almost 700 hrs in c208b ac n 675 hrs n SAAB MFI-17 ac.now i want to get a FAA CPL,so do i have to get a ppl aswel,do let me know thx

  6. masood November 22, 2008 at 16:48 #

    ohhh the most important thing i forgot to tell u that im in pakistan army aviation

  7. michael wright January 12, 2009 at 12:05 #

    I am booked to go to the US for an IR rating, with Sunstate Aviation, did you look at this school when you were there

    thanks

    Michael

    • Matthew Stibbe January 16, 2009 at 08:28 #

      My main advice is to avoid Orlando Flight Training and do as much preparation as you can, especially for the oral exam. You might also want to read my other article about getting an FAA IR: http://www.golfhotelwhiskey.com/how-to-get-an-faa….

  8. Bill Haddow February 15, 2009 at 18:30 #

    Had my IR checkride with Bob Raskie – good bloke

  9. mohit srivastava April 19, 2009 at 06:05 #

    hi sir,i want to know faa requirements for cpl ,regarding how many hrs and check in which catagory of aircraft like single/multi /ir and simulater and all that ,i have gone through faa site but could not find kindly guide me!!!thank you!!

  10. FAA Test September 23, 2009 at 22:35 #

    Very useful information.I really wanted to know about this thing, Since i am going to US by the end of this year permanently.

  11. trenklin January 9, 2010 at 05:40 #

    Hey Matthew thanks for doing this its really helpflul.. im just curious next month im going to do all my PPL, IR and CPL training in Space Coast Aviation in Florida this school is like the sister of OFT, so i would appreciate if you could tell me a little bit more about your expierence with them, mainly your dislikes with them…

    thanks…. hope your doing great

    • Matthew Stibbe January 9, 2010 at 06:26 #

      I do not recommend OFT. I had a very bad experience with them. I'm sure there are better schools in the area.

  12. trenklin January 9, 2010 at 23:12 #

    okay thanks for the heads up! and for this blog its really helpful and mind opening! what are the chances to get a job on any airline with the CPL ME?? or what other licence do I need?

  13. Kenneth Caruana January 10, 2010 at 10:41 #

    I am from Malta.I managed to convert my UK PPL to FAA PPL in France at Flight Safety charles de gaulle airport.

    • Matthew Stibbe January 10, 2010 at 14:08 #

      Kenneth = that's a good tip. I had heard that was possible but it's really good to hear that someone actually did it! :)

  14. Alfred September 28, 2010 at 01:05 #

    Matthew, this is a really useful post you have here. I was planning to get an FAA license and this post has a lot of info. Learnt a lot of things I hadn't thought of before.

    I was planning to go to Wisconsin for my conversion, so I would have to get a examiner from that state, right ?

  15. Tim January 17, 2011 at 01:10 #

    A lovely naritive. I aim to follow you to CPL level in Florida all going well

    Thanks kindly

    Tim

  16. Mike Moulai January 30, 2011 at 22:37 #

    Matthew, this has been a great read and informative, I have a UK CAA microlight licence and own a microlight training school where I am CFI, I also have a JAA PPL (A).

    I Found the post from Kenneth Caruana interesting as this could be of interest to me, do you have any more details on this.

    Is there still a route to doing the FAA CPL in the UK?.

    Have you found much work in the UK on the FAA CPL?

    Regards

    Mike

    • Matthew Stibbe January 31, 2011 at 07:44 #

      I don't do any aerial work. My job is in marketing and I did the CPL to learn how to fly better and test myself against a higher standard. I believe it is possible to do the whole FAA CPL in the UK and take the check ride here. There are a couple of FAA examiners for Europe now (I believe Janeen comes over here regularly too) and you can find FAA instructors and retractable gear aircraft. It takes a bit of putting together and, I guess, it can be more expensive than going to America but if I was doing it today, I would definitely try to avoid Florida. It's pretty dull, my flying school was awful and the extra stress of the return flight doesn't help.

  17. Dragos April 18, 2011 at 21:29 #

    Having gotten my JAA PPL at OFT I would have to agree with Matthew in saying: AVOID OFT AT ALL COSTS! I recently went there for a BFR and was treated like garbage.

    But I did get my FAA PPL and IR across the field at Sunstate Aviation and what a difference that was. Great instructors, great atmosphere, great airplanes, and a great examiner (Janeen Kochan).

    And my personal advice when it comes to flight training. THE BEST WAY TO SAVE MONEY is to do lots of studying before you get to the school. The better prepared you are for the written and oral the shorter the time you will spend away from home.

    • Matthew Stibbe April 19, 2011 at 13:13 #

      Couldn't agree more. I do not recommend OFT but I have heard good things about Sunstate and, of course, Janeen is a pearl amongst pilots. Matthew

  18. Aly Gaml September 29, 2011 at 16:57 #

    i want to have a test ATPL FAA tell me how much it will cost me how i can do that … thanks for your time.

  19. Brett knowles September 2, 2012 at 06:04 #

    Matthew, just want to say an awesome bit of reading and thanks very much for all your details in achieving the FAA CPL.

    Im a licenced CPLH pilot from Australia and am about to embark on the same path to achieve first an FAA CPLH …no easy feit bit I imagine my process would be very similar journey to yours but from australia…as well as helicopter ….I’m thinking of gettin the private helicopter part done first… As you described and getting my licence recognized and then going from there….any advice is very much welcome….again many thanks

    Brett knowles

    • Matthew Stibbe September 2, 2012 at 11:40 #

      Hi Brett, I don’t know so much about helicopters or converting licences from Australia. I would have thought that you could get your existing CPL recognised and get an FAA CPL issued on the basis of that rather than doing the whole course. Certainly, you can do this for a PPL.

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