Flying Around the Alps: Legalities and Quirks

I just recently checked something off my bucket list that I had honestly thought would take me a lot more time to get around to doing, namely acting as Pilot In Command for an aircraft flying around the Alps during the winter. This was an amazing experience, and something that every pilot should try to do at least once in their life, in my opinion. I’ll try to document as much of the experience as possible here in a couple articles to hopefully make it a little easier to check this box for y’all as well, starting with the legal questions.


Typical disclaimer: I am not a lawyer and nothing in this post constitutes legal advice. That said, this is all based on the research and experience I gained making this flight so it should be a helpful starting point.

Can A U.S. Licensed Pilot Fly in Europe?

Think back to your private pilot’s oral exam and you probably got the usual questions about how to determine if you can fly an aircraft. Do you hold a certification for the correct category and class of aircraft? Do you have a current flight review? Do you have a current medical (where applicable)?  Government issued photo ID? Note one thing that wasn’t asked: are you within the United States?

The United Nations has a branch specifically devoted to making things easier for pilots and passengers called the International Civil Aviation Organization or ICAO. Pretty much every country in the world is a member of this organization, and as a result there’s a lot of commonalities and interoperability in the world of aviation. For example you’d be right at home reading a VFR chart for Germany and understanding the different kinds of airspace even if you’ve never ventured beyond the borders of Kansas before.

One of the other benefits is that pilot’s licenses are mutually recognized throughout the world. If you hold a private pilot’s license issued by the United States, it will be honored by any country in the world as a valid license for operating that home country’s category and class of aircraft within their borders.

Speaking of aircraft, that’s where things start to get sticky.

As a US based pilot with a US pilot’s certificate, you can fly any US registered aircraft anywhere in the world. You might think that finding an N registered aircraft in Europe is like finding a Texas registered truck in Indonesia but here’s a fun fact: roughly 75% of the aircraft in the world are registered in the United States and have an N tail number. In fact, there’s a surprising number of Europeans who own American registered aircraft due to the significantly heavier regulations on EU registered airframes. There’s even a whole industry of traveling FAA certified mechanics to keep them airworthy.

But what about a US pilot flying an EU registered aircraft?

If you want to fly solo in a non-US aircraft you can apply to the EASA (the European FAA, who may make the FAA seem like a friendly bunch of folks in comparison) to convert your existing license to an EASA license. How, exactly? From the EASA website:

If you hold a Private Pilot Licence obtained outside Europe or not according to the relevant EASA licensing regulations, you can convert it to a European one. In order to do this you will need to pass an exam on Air Law and another exam on Human Performance. You also need to undertake a skill test and have at least 100 hours as a pilot in the relevant aircraft category.

For those who don’t want to go through the headache of a conversion, there’s always the option of getting a local flight instructor to take you up and give you dome “dual instruction” in the air. Which, honestly, is the best option and the one I went with. No need to do additional training to understand the local area, no messing with local authorities to convert your license, you just show up and fly.

Differences with Renting Aircraft in the EU

There’s surprisingly little difference in renting aircraft in the EU. Aircraft are typically still rented out by the engine hour, and may or may not include fuel depending on the agreement. Instructors are also billed by the hour just as they are in the US.

The biggest difference here is how ATC is funded.

Here in the United States, the air traffic control services we use when flying (such as control towers and en route facilities) are funded by the federal government (except during possible government shutdowns). We as citizens pay for this service through our taxes and as a result aren’t charged anything extra when we actually consume their service. In Europe, the same services are privatized and are paid for after each use. Every activity with ATC, from your touch-and-go landings to your IFR approach, incurs a fee that is attached to your flight. The balance is due by the operator of the flight.

This is another reason why having an instructor on your flight is a good idea. They understand what things ATC will charge for and can help facilitate that payment, making the whole process much easier.

Bottom line: be prepared to pay $100 more per flight over the rate for the aircraft to cover these ATC costs. More if you do more than one landing.

Can I Log This Experience Legally?

OK, cool. You’re an American pilot (properly certificated for the category and class of the aircraft you are flying) who is the sole manipulator of the controls of an aircraft during your flight. But the aircraft is registered in Germany. And the instructor is from Austria. And you’re flying in Italy. We know this is cool because the flight instructor can be the legal Pilot In Command, but how do you log this exactly in your own logbook?

First, does this count as Pilot In Command time? Going back to 61.51 we can log PIC time if we are the sole manipulator of the controls in an aircraft in which we are appropriately rated, so in this case it would definitely apply. The definition of “airplane” in this case does not make any mention of the nationality of registration, only the category and class which we can determine ourselves.

If this counts as PIC time then this definitely also counts towards currency. Landings, approaches, and night flight all count towards keeping yourself current in terms of recent experience.

Let’s stretch this a little further. Can we conduct a flight review under section 61.56 in these circumstances? Maybe.

The aircraft doesn’t matter as we’ve seen with the logging question as long as it meets the category and class requirements. The biggest question mark here is the instructor. The flight review requires an overview and discussion of some Part 91 regulations in addition to the stick and rudder check up, which probably isn’t something a foreign instructor can do. In fact, the AOPA’s handy reference on flight reviews indicates that a flight review can only be given by FAA certificated instructors or people designated to do so by the FAA. So while a US based flight instructor could absolutely give a flight review, an EU based instructor only gets a “maybe” level of being able to perform this task. They would either need an FAA certificate or special permission from the FAA to conduct flight reviews.

No, Really. Go With An Instructor.

It should be obvious by now that, while it is entirely possible to legally rent and pilot an aircraft in Europe, there are a lot of potential issues and headaches that can come about if you want to be the sole occupant of the aircraft. The best route is to find a flight school or an instructor that can accompany you on your intended excursion. That’s the way I made my flight happen, and in the next article I’ll talk about how I found the instructor I eventually flew with and how I prepared for the flight itself.

Nick Leghorn

Nick Leghorn is an instrument rated private pilot (ASEL), writer, and general techy nerd living in Austin, Texas.

One thought to “Flying Around the Alps: Legalities and Quirks”

  1. Everything is almost correct, except the fact that you will not find a lot of N aircraft in Europe, especially if you want to rent them or if you go to a flight school. Maybe you can find some N aircraft owned by some private people, but what is your chance to fly one of them? And…again, if you fly VFR in G airspace, you are not charged. You can be charged in controlled airspaces, that are less common than in USA, and you can avoid them for your entire flying life in Europe if you want. You can be charged at some airport, and usually you’ll never fly in big controlled airports.

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