The $100 hamburger is an aviation in-joke about flying to an airfield, just having lunch there, and flying back, at a much higher cost than driving there. The value is, of course, in the flying practice.
I've had my UK PPL (private pilot's license) for just under two years now, and since I've moved to the USA - pretty much the spiritual home of general aviation - I thought it would be a good idea to get a US license as well, so I can fly around the US getting in my $100 hamburgers.
Unlike cars, you can't just turn up in a foreign country and fly their planes; your license is from a certain country, and you're only allowed to fly planes from that same country. The European situation is a bit different - we have a common aviation board called EASA (formerly JAA) - but you're still limited to just flying EASA-registered planes, of which there are literally none in the US, especially as rental planes.
Thus, I needed to get an American license, from the FAA. Fortunately, aviation has at least come up with ICAO - an international organisation that decides on flight standards - and so private pilot licenses in all ICAO member states are held to a certain standard, meaning I should be able to exchange like for like.
From stories I've heard, it definitely used to be like this - you'd walk into a FSDO (Flight Standards District Office), show them your foreign license, proof of time, identity and a few other things, and walk out with an FAA license. Fantastic!
These days, however, it's a bit more involved - you have to send off to the FAA's AFS-760 division to get them to talk to the country that issued your license and verify that it really exists (I imagine there were some issues with fake licenses that caused this change). In addition, because the UK government is slightly paranoid about data privacy, I had to write to the UK's CAA to allow them to release my information to the USA.
The bonus? This all takes two months to go through!
At the end of it, though, you end up with a verification letter, and you can finally go to the FSDO, talk to one of their inspectors, and they'll get you your new FAA license. There's no re-test involved, which is a relief (if you think a driving test is difficult, you haven't seen a pilot's checkride), and it's mostly paperwork - something that any pilot is intimately familiar with.
This whole process is reasonably well documented, however. What's not so well written up are the edge cases, so here are some fun facts I learned for anyone else going down a similar route:
- The basic UK PPL does not include night flying privileges, while the US PPL does. The US license you get based on your UK license, however, is restricted in the same way the original is, and there's no US rating you can get to remove it (why would there be a night rating when it's included)? Fortunately, you can do the UK/EASA night rating course to remove the restriction either before or after you get the US license.
- While the US license is a special based-on-foreign one, you can do a US IR (instrument rating) on top of it and have it apply to the license. This IR is only valid on FAA-registered planes, though; to bring it back over to EASA means plenty of exams and a practical test, mostly as EASA is more stringent on its requirements (I would hope it could give you an EASA IR/R without exams in future, but that's a lot of hope).
- You only need to keep one (EASA-style) logbook. The FAA's requirements for logbooks are very lax, and are generally a subset of the EASA ones.
The need for a flight review thing is still slightly muddy and the FAA disagrees with themselves in places, but it's probably better to get it; more training isn't bad and it's a reasonably easy 2 hour session with no test
- You do, however, need an FAA flight review every 24 months and to have this signed in the logbook, or you can't use your FAA license. In particular, you need one immediately once you get your new FAA license before you can start flying.
- If you're getting US flight training (say, for that IR I mentioned earlier) you want to get it certified by the instructor in the logbook in the usual fashion. In the end, you're just collecting signatures.
- The US has a few different categories of flight time to log that EASA doesn't; in particular, things like cross-country time. I keep an electronic logbook with these as separate columns and notes about where they apply in the paper logbook.
- The FAA have a weird definition of the pilot-in-command where both the safety pilot and actual flying pilot on an instrument practice flight can log the time as P1/PIC. As far as I can tell, this is not valid in EASA, so logging it as P1 might not be possible.
- The EASA license's revalidation by experience (in the UK at least, it's 10 hours of flying, at least one with an instructor) must have the instructor portion with an EASA instructor, and be signed off by an EASA examiner. The rest of the time can be logged in any plane.
In general, it's a world of weird edge cases and odd legal definitions - I've been reading through the AIM and FARs (the FAA rules), LASORS (the UK CAA rules), and asked questions of both the FAA and the UK CAA directly to compile these answers, but I got there in the end!
That is, until I try and bring some stuff back over onto my UK license, I suspect. Stay tuned for the next, suspenseful, paperwork-packed edition of Pilot Diaries (or possibly a more exciting one).