There are several categories of small airplanes primarily used by recreational pilots. Different aviation certifications are needed for the different categories. This article is limited to discussion of the various aircraft used for recreation or for sport, and to piston-powered airplanes.
Ultralight airplanes are single-seat, single-engine aircraft that carry up to five gallons of fuel and weigh less than 255 pounds. They can carry only one person, who is responsible for his own safety. Allowed only for recreational purposes, ultralights are flown for sport in areas isolated from busier airspace. Although formal certification is not required to fly these airplanes, training is highly important for safety reasons.
A light sport airplane is slightly larger than an ultralight. It can have two seats, but cannot weigh more than 1,320 pounds at takeoff, including passengers and fuel. These airplanes require a minimum sport pilot certificate. This certificate allows only daytime flying in weather conditions with good visibility and in airspace where radio communication is not required.
If you want to build your own airplane, the FAA requires that at least 51 percent be built by someone other than a manufacturer. Building your own plane is allowed for educational and recreational purposes. Home-built and amateur-built planes must be inspected by and registered with the FAA.
Being relatively simpler and more economical to operate and maintain than multi-engine airplanes, single-engine aircraft are well-suited to non-professional pilots. They typically have from two to six seats, and have a better range than sport planes. Cessna, Piper, and Cirrus are popular manufacturers. A private pilot's certificate is needed to fly single-engine aircraft.
Multi-engine airplanes deliver a higher workload for a small plane. The enhanced performance of a multi-engine plane means higher speed and the ability to carry more weight. The additional engine(s) provides redundancy, meaning if one engine fails, there is a backup. A multi-engine certificate is required to fly these airplanes.