Thursday, June 21, 2012

Answer: What kind of pilot doubled in the past decade?

The short answer:  Glider pilots (with “rotorcraft” pilots almost, but not quite, doubling as well). 
[Edit: June 21, 2012]  Not so fast.  Please read the next blog post about a correction to find that this post has an important error in it!  The answer really IS "rotorcraft."  
Remember that the question was “What category of pilot (that is, with a specific kind of US pilot's license-such as commercial, airline transport, helicopter, etc.) has more than DOUBLED between 2001 and 2011?

I knew that the FAA would track these things.  So I first looked for what kinds of official US pilot’s licenses there are.  So I did the first, obvious search of:  [ us pilot certification ] and found the Wikipedia article listing the kinds of pilot certificates and the types of aircraft pilots can be certified to fly. 
Student Pilot: an individual who is learning to fly 
Sport Pilot: authorized to fly only Light-sport Aircraft
Recreational Pilot: may fly aircraft of up to 180 horsepower and 4 seats daytime
Private Pilot: fly for pleasure or personal business
Commercial Pilot: with some restrictions can fly for compensation or hire
Airline Transport Pilot (ATP): able to act as pilot in command for an airline
Then I found out that the categories of aircraft for which a pilot may be rated are: Airplane, Rotorcraft, Glider, Lighter than air, Powered lift, Powered parachute, Weight-shift-control (e.g. hang-gliders).  

BUT... while reading through the Wikipedia article I noticed an unusual term that I didn’t know:  “airmen certificates”

And that gave me an idea.  I wanted data directly from the FAA, so my next query was:

 [ airmen certificates ]

And that was what I needed.  "airmen certificates" is the FAA's "term of art" to refer to active pilot licenses.  Once I knew that term, I could easily zero in on the kind of data I needed. 

Clicking through the results I quickly found two spreadsheets (one from 1998 – 2008, and then another from 2008 – 2001).  I downloaded the two Excel files and merged the two sets of data together. 

Now I had the complete table for active certificates by type (see the list above for definitions): 

And once I had that, it's easy to graph the number of pilots by kind and compute the growth rates from 2001 to 2011.  

Note that the graph shows something interesting:  While the growth in glider pilots DOUBLED, it's still just a tiny slice of the overall aviation pie.  

And while several readers commented that there was a huge growth rate in UAV (drone) pilots, there's not any way to know that through the FAA.  They don't (so far as I know) require any kind of FAA certification to fly.  And the number of such pilots certainly isn't tracked!  (If you find hard data on this, I'd love to know how you found it!) 

Search on! 


  1. Either the data is wrong or the FAA changed the way they count active glider pilots between 2001 and 2002. After 2002 the largest annual increase in certificated glider pilots was on the order of 200. There is no way that 13,000 new glider pilots earned their certificates between 2001 and 2002.

    1. @Tony -- you must be right.. I didn't notice that sudden jump in the numbers. This deserves more investigation!

      Stay tuned.

  2. I seem to recall that between 2001 and 2002 the FAA changed their metrics for what constitutes a licensed glider pilot. Previously, they only considered as "licensed" pilots who had valid medical certificates of Class III or better. That obviously didn't work for glider pilots, since our licenses don't require a medical certificate. They later changed their metrics to include glider pilots who did not hold a medical certificate.

    Thanks, Bob K.

  3. I suggest you return to the FAA web site and go to Data and Research>US Civil Airmen Statistics, then pick a couple of years, 2011, and say 2003, so you can the full picture. Then refer to tables 8, and 17, and 18. Pay attention to the foot notes in table 8, 2003. You will get quite a different picture regarding glider pilots. There are approximately 35,000 glider pilots holding US ratings, but about 7900 are foreign nationals. The US total is dying off at the rate of several hundred per year. We are adding about 240/year.

  4. The jump in "glider pilots" from 2001 to 2002 comes from the FAA correcting a mistake they made in 2001. See discussion.!topic/rec.aviation.soaring/tKbnvh_4hFE

  5. There a fatal problem with your data wrt glider pilots in 2001. See discussion!topic/rec.aviation.soaring/tKbnvh_4hFE

  6. As a glider pilot myself, this conclusion does not seem plausible. Doesn't it seem odd to you that all the growth purportedly occurred in one year?

    Apparently prior to 2002, the database you are using only included glider pilots with active medical certificates.

    See the discussion on rec.aviation.soaring

  7. Just a few comments on this one....

    1. I don't believe the glider-only numbers cited from 2001 are comparable to those cited from 2002-2011 due to a change in the counting methodology as indicated in one of the footnotes, which reads as follows:

    "Glider pilots are not required to have a medical examination. Beginning with 2002, glider pilots with another rating but no current medical are counted as 'Glider (only).'"

    I interpret this to mean that the numbers for 2002 include a population of glider-only pilots that are *not* counted in the 2001 numbers. Therefore, it's apples and oranges.

    Furthermore, you can see this in your raw data: All of the increase in glider-only certifications basically occurred between 2001 and 2002. In fact, the glider-only numbers have actually *decreased* (overall) since 2002.

    2. And while the *total* helicopter-only numbers don't quite meet the "more than doubled" threshold, the certification *classes* of "private helicopter-only" and "airline transport helicopter-only" do, in fact, each meet it. (The class of "commercial helicopter-only" certifications does not meet it.) This data is contained in the spreadsheets for "Table 7" on the same pages referenced in the solution post.

    3. I think it is important to emphasize that we're talking about the number of pilots who hold ONLY a rotocraft or glider certification. The number of pilots holding one or the other of these certifications IN COMBINATION WITH ONE OR MORE OTHER CERTIFICATES is much larger regardless of which certificate you're talking about. And by that standard (which is how I interpret the wording of the both the question and solution), *neither* type of license has "more than doubled" over the period in question.

    4. This gets to the wording of the original question. It asked to identify a "specific kind of... *license*," but the solution (intentional or otherwise) actually identifies something more akin to a "type of pilot" (i.e., one who holds *only* a particular type of license). I think the solution inaccurately suggests that the *total* number of glider pilots (i.e., pilots that hold a glider certificate, possibly in conjunction with other certificates) has more than doubled. If you look at the spreadsheets for "Table 8" for the years in question, you'll see that the *total* number of glider piltos has only increased by about 60% (17,885 in 2001 to 28,556 in 2011).

    I've really been enjoying these challenges, including the occasional (and intentional) false lead or inaccuracy in the initial question. That's part of search in the real world afterall! But in this case, I think the inaccuracies may have been unintentional.

    Thank you, and please keep the challenges coming!

    1. You know, I think you're right. See my post today!

  8. After re-re-reading the question and solution, I'm definitely willing to retract part of #4. The wording was not as inaccurate as I made it out to be. The question clearly asks for a "category of pilot." However, I still feel the solution gives the wrong impression -- namely, that the total number of glider pilots has "more than doubled."

    Good stuff!

  9. I think that there's another search lesson here - namely to be critical with the data.

    Although glider pilots more than doubled between 2001 and 2011 this was because of the re-calibration between 2001/2002 when the 13,000 extra pilots were added in the figures. This means that the trend for glider pilots has been like all other categories i.e. pretty flat (small increases or decreases). The ONLY one that has shown real growth is rotocraft - but that didn't actually double although can very close to doubling.

    Also - it wasn't needed to add two lots of spreadsheet data together. As I and several others commented, all the data was available in one source. The secret was finding it. (Which is why I like - as it allows you to find stuff that other search engines cannot reach easily).

    1. And another lesson... read your data carefully. (This is what comes of trying to get my post out on a deadline!) LOOK at the data, don't just accept it uncritically.

  10. re: the UAV numbers, on the military side -
    "By 2012, the Air Force plans to increase the ranks of UAV pilots and air operations staffers to a total of 1,100. That is up from just over 450 Predator and Reaper operators today—and 180 just a couple of years ago."

    who knows if the number are "real"? Certainly it seems that UAV/UAS use domestically is poised to escalate dramatically - in both the governmental and private/commercial arenas. Google & Apple may be using autonomous aircraft to expand their mapping capabilities.
    The FAA seems to be moving to accommodate the use of UAV/UAS in the air traffic system.
    The SearchReSearch lesson may be to search within Google before using Google? or call Cupertino - hello SIRI, this is Majel....
    UAV pilot numbers
    FAA UAS sheet
    UAV growth/Europe
    BAMS-D Maryland - coming to a border near you
    Majel 6/27?

  11. It appears as if several other ratings are missing from your data, for instance you do not have "Aircraft Single Engine Sea", "Multi Engine", or "Instrument" to name a few.

    You are freely mixing ratings with certificates, so you will need additional ratings to make up for this.

    This data also does not account for the fact that a single certificate may hold multiple ratings. For instance I have both an "Aircraft Single Engine Land" and an "Aircraft Single Engine Sea" rating on a Private Pilot Certificate.

  12. Numbers can lie, liars can use numbers. Happy that this discussion reveals the faults in this analysis.