So, You Wannabe a Jump Pilot?

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The latest episode in our ‘Working in the Sport’ series, we look at how to qualify as a jump pilot

Paul ‘H’ Hollow, flying the Finist
Photo by Ming Chu

We interview Swallow Group pilot ‘H’, or Paul Hollow to use his full name. H is well known in the skydiving community having flown loads all over Europe. He describes his occupation as ‘Commercial airline pilot, Jump pilot, Skydiving instructor, DZ bum’!

H has 9,000 skydives, 12 years as a commercial pilot and has clocked up 7,500 flying hours total, with about 4,500 hours jump flying.

How long have you been skydiving?

27 years – I did my first jump at Merlin Parachute Club at Topcliffe, in April 1995 while I was a university student. It was a static line jump organised after a bet. I was blown away by it and instantly hooked.

Do you work at one DZ or multiple DZs? 

These days I’m part-time as a jump pilot and skydiver (the rest of the time I fly for an airline) so I am mainly based at Skydive Hibaldstow. Every now and then I get to fly a ferry trip between Hibaldstow and either Skydive Spain or Skydive Algarve (or I might be asked to help with a big event they may be running there), so while I’m at those other DZs I’ll get to do some flying or jumping. But, for the most part, I’m a Skydive Hibaldstow regular. Previously, when I was a full-time jump pilot, we used to fly contracts around the UK and Europe which I thoroughly enjoyed – it’s always great to turn up on the boogie circuit in a fast Dornier for a week or two!

“It’s always great to turn up on the boogie circuit”
Photo: G92 Dornier over Skydive Algarve by Gary Wainwright

Give us a potted career history

1995 – first jump, Merlin Parachute Centre at Topcliffe.

2000 – turned up at Hibaldstow as a camera-flyer and Tandem Instructor. Did my AFF Instructor rating later that year and then never left!

2001/2 – became Chief Instructor, initially on an exemption to stand-in, then full time once I’d done my Advanced Instructor rating.

2005 – learned to fly, completed my Private Pilot Licence in Florida, just because I fancied giving it a try.

2006 – started jump flying on a piston-engine PA32 Cherokee 6

2010 – completed my Commercial Pilot Licence, then stood down as Chief Instructor to concentrate on flying at Skydive Hibaldstow, initially on the SMG-92 Finist and, later on, the Dornier G-92 and the Cessna Caravan

2016 – left the DZ to work for a small UK regional airline flying passengers in a twin turboprop aircraft

2019 – present. In 2019 I joined my current airline, flying cargo in Boeing 757 and 767 jets both short-haul around Europe and long-haul across to the States, to Bahrain etc. I’m still flying and jumping for the DZ. I love my commercial job but I can’t stop the DZ flying and jumping – it’s just too much fun!

‘H’ was an AFF Instructor long before becoming a pilot

When did you decide being a pilot was your goal? 

I wanted to fly since I was a kid. Initially I was put off due to wearing glasses and what I thought was out-of-limits eyesight, then by the downturn in the industry after 9/11, but it was always in the back of my mind. I got hooked on skydiving early on and that took up all my time for several years before the flying bug returned.

How do you make the transition from private pilot to jump pilot? 

I did my PPL [Private Pilot Licence] almost on a whim. I had some money burning a hole in my pocket and, once I knew I could get a Class One medical (rules and requirements for eyesight changed over the years), I booked just over 3 weeks off work, went to Florida and did my PPL during a very intensive trip to Orlando Flight Training at Kissimmee. I came back to the UK with just over the basic 45 hours. The owner of the DZ (Steve Swallow) allowed me to fly the Cherokee PA32 to build my hours up – something for which I will be eternally grateful. Once I had built some hours and experience on that, James Swallow trained me as a jump pilot. We didn’t tend to use the Cherokee much for jumping, but every now and then I’d get a lift or two in it and kept building up those hours. And it helped that I was the Chief Instructor (and manifester!), too… I could manifest myself to fly… 😉

H flying the G92 Dornier, left trail in a 3way formation over Hibaldstow
Photo by Spencer Bailey, from the lead aircraft

What qualifications do you need to become a jump pilot? How many flying hours

These days, insurance requirements are generally higher than they were when I started out as a jump pilot. In theory, you can jump fly (in the UK) on 100 hours pilot-in-command time (75 hrs if you have a skydiving C-licence), but usually the insurance requirements are far higher than that and, to be honest, that is not a lot of experience when you are responsible for so many people in the back of the plane. I started jump flying with a small aircraft on not much more than those minimum hours and looking back on it, I had so much to learn! As for qualifications, you can jump fly with a PPL (and any other required qualifications required locally, such as a class or type rating on the type of aircraft, an IMC or IR rating, etc) but most big DZs require a Commercial Pilot Licence (CPL) as it usually lowers the insurance premiums. You’re not allowed to be paid as a PPL, so if you want to jump fly for a living, a CPL is a must. For hours, probably 500+ is getting towards what a lot of insurers require, but you may be lucky and get a DZO who is willing to take you on with fewer hours.

What qualities does a person need to do your job well? 

Patience – it’s just the same for skydivers and pilots alike when you’re waiting for the weather to clear up! Also, the ability to study and understand the systems, procedures and rules of the aircraft you’re flying and the airspace you’re flying in. And, of course, empathy for, and understanding of, what your customers (skydivers and the DZ) actually want you to do. I’ve seen too many jump pilots who don’t really care about what the skydivers are doing and whether they are making life easier or harder for the jumpers in the back of the plane. At the end of the day, the pilot is also responsible for the jumper’s safety and if the jumpers don’t jump (or don’t want to be flown by you) then your time as a jump pilot will come to a swift end.

What is the ‘normal’ path of progression to become a jump pilot? Did you follow it? 

I’m not sure there is a ‘normal’ path into it. I have trained and flown with jump pilots from all walks of life. From glider pilots looking for something different, to hour-builders working towards a first commercial job, to commercial pilots looking to get back to General Aviation again and, of course, those who started as jumpers first. For those with not much flying experience, starting with a smaller piston-engine Cessna 182 or 206 operation is a great foot in the door to work up to something bigger such as a turbine C208 Caravan or similar. For those with more flying time, starting on a turbine aircraft with fairly simple systems, such as the Caravan, leads to opportunities to fly more complex multi-engine aircraft like the Twin Otter and G92 Dornier.

I pretty much followed the low-experience path, starting first on a small piston-engine Cherokee 6 (me and 5 jumpers) then working up to flying a single-engine turbine Finist (although it was a tail-wheel aircraft, so extra training was required for that) and then training on the multi-engine Dornier. I started flying the Caravan a few years after the Dornier when the DZ first started operating them.

H in his ‘office’

How much does it cost to reach that level? How can someone afford to build up the flying hours? 

It ain’t cheap, that’s for sure. And it requires a lot of dedication and study to pass the exams for both the Private and Commercial courses. Many pilots will take a career development loan and hope they can then get a good job at the end of it to help pay off the debts. Again, I am immensely grateful to the Swallows (who own Skydive Hibaldstow, Skydive Spain and Skydive Algarve) for giving me the opportunity to build my hours while I was working at the DZ. I still had to pay for all my courses, but it certainly helped with the cost of the hour building!

Was it easier or harder than you expected to qualify? 

I’m not sure what I expected, to be honest. I knew it would be course after course, exam after exam, because I spoke to several of the previous pilots who had worked at Skydive Hibaldstow. For anyone thinking about it, I would certainly advise them to do their research and look at all the options before diving in to it. But, once you’re on your way, it’s an incredible learning experience!

What advice would you give someone who wants to become a Jump Pilot? 

If you have a pilot licence already, then keep hour building, keep yourself current with all your ratings (you never know when you may get a call to start!) and talk to as many jump pilots and Drop Zone Owners as you can. Keep bugging them as you build your experience.

If you haven’t got a licence yet, then ask if there are any gopher jobs going at the DZ such as working with the ground crew, doing refuelling operations, helping out in the hangar or with any maintenance activities etc. Unfortunately, we are no longer allowed to take people in the co-pilot seat during jump-flying operations, but there may be occasional ferry/positioning flights where you can jump in for the ride and learn a little bit more. You never know. But stay involved and learn as much as you can.

What should someone consider before trying to become a Jump Pilot? 

Do your research – find out about flying schools for the PPL and CPL courses, as well as any other ratings you may have to acquire. Talk to the jump pilots at your DZ to find out what they think. There are a few really, really, experienced jump pilots; find one of them, or drop them an email/message and pick their brains. Who do they recommend training with, what is the industry like at the time, what sort of progression may be best? What other contacts do they have?

Also consider if and how you can finance the flying and learning. Can you commit the time to the study for the licence exams? If time is an issue, then there are different types of courses and progression available to suit you.

H enjoying life as a tandem instructor
 Photo by Ben Fenwick

Does it help to be a good jump pilot if you’re a skydiver? 

Definitely. I had been jumping for 10 years (since 1995) and was already running the DZ before I did my PPL in 2005. Having a good working knowledge of skydiving, of what the jumpers require and also an understanding of what DZ control and manifest need helps a lot. Even knowing our somewhat weird jargon, like “one at five for a solo lob, then the CF at 8 and a pass at the top for 5 groups and a couple flocking out the door” – who else in the world would understand that and know the requirements for each?! Plus an appreciation of commercial expediency and the understanding that time is money – aviation is expensive and those costs are paid ultimately by the jumpers.

What are the best points of your job? 

The opportunity to fly some powerful, funky aircraft in some incredibly beautiful locations (even Lincolnshire is pretty at times!) and to hand-fly a type of flying that most pilots will never ever get to do.

Any worst points? 

Sitting around wet and windy drop zones waiting for the weather to clear… but hey, that’s skydiving and that’s aviation!

What are the main challenges? How is it different to any other pilot job? 

Everything is hand flown – there’s no use for an autopilot, and no autopilot could do the job, anyway! There’s no down time in the cruise, no time to relax – you’re constantly trying to climb, drop and descend again as efficiently as possible, and that’s constant mental calculations if you’re going to be good at it. What’s my climb rate? How long until I reach the drop altitude? What’s my airspeed and how are the winds affecting my ground speed? How will that change as I turn? What track mileage do I require given the rate of climb, time to altitude and ground speed in order to be in a position to drop on time? How will all these variables change as I continue to climb? And while you’re working on all that, you’re also talking to DZ control, talking to the local air traffic controller and the jumpers, managing the engine(s) and navigational instruments and ensuring you have the best rate of climb. It’s busy – constantly.

H flying right trail, lead aircraft in his sights
Photo by Ash Kemp

You do a lot of formation flying at the Swallows DZs, how is that different to normal jump flying? 

Flying in good formation is so much more challenging, for both the lead and the trail aircraft. It’s also something else that very few people have the opportunity to do. All the pilots need to be extremely experienced, capable and trust each other completely. Although the jobs of the lead and trail pilots are different, both roles require a great deal of experience and skill – super accurate flying is not easy while skydivers are moving around and climbing out of the aircraft!

You seem to enjoy formation flying, what is it about it?

The challenge and hard work of formation flying is worth it; the rewards are some stunning visuals and an incredible flying experience. I never, ever get tired of watching another aircraft just a few feet from me, waving to jumpers in the other aircraft as we climb (er, yeah, I am still concentrating at that point, honest!) or seeing the lead aircraft jumpers exit and fall past my window, especially when I am flying a left trail slot.

Or, if I’m the lead pilot, being able to control the formation, guiding all the other aircraft as one to the correct run-in, drop, descent and landing. And, as a skydiver, I take immense pride in being able to fly in formation well enough to give all the jumpers a solid platform to build a large formation. Having jumped in many large formations over the years, I know how hard it is to build something when you don’t get a good start and spend half the skydive just getting to the base!

Bigway camp exit at Hibaldstow, with H flying left trail (Blue Dornier)
Photo by Joe Mann

What is the largest formation you’ve flown in?

The largest formations I have flown were at the 2013 Euro Challenge in Empuriabrava. We had 7 aircraft (two Beech 99s, two Twin Otters, me in a Dornier, a Caravan and a Porter) flying to 22,000 feet (complete with pilot and jumper oxygen systems) and dropping back-to-back 100-way formations for a week. It was an absolutely superb event with some of the very best skydivers in Europe and the world. At the time, I “only” had about 2,000 hours or so flying time but had the opportunity to learn so much from some incredibly talented formation pilots.

Pilot line-up at the 2013 Euro Challenge in Empuriabrava

What was the most difficult flying episode in your career?

Probably the 7-plane formation flying I just spoke of – that was a steep learning curve for people who demand the best. But great fun and superbly organised at the same time.

As for unplanned difficult flying, I have spent years ferry-flying the Dorniers around Europe. Some of the winter-time ferry flights can be hard work when you’re battling the weather, high winds, severe icing conditions, dwindling daytime, etc. But again, you learn something new on every ferry flight! Even tough conditions make for a great learning experience.

One of the many formations achieved at the 2013 Euro Challenge in Empuriabrava
Photo by Henny Wiggers

Is it as glamorous a life as it looks?! 

Wow… does it really look glamorous? 😉 It can be, especially when you have the privilege to fly for a large organised event, like the Nationals or a big-way camp, or to fly for the boogie circuit around Europe. But it’s also a lot of hard work, with many long, tiring days. It’s not always glamorous when you get home after a long day, knackered and smelling of jet fuel! But it is all worth it – I still love it all!

How do you keep the people you are responsible for safe? 

Obviously there are the usual considerations that any pilot makes when flying (What are my drills in the event of an engine failure? What is my nearest alternate landing airfield? What is the weather like, how might it change? What other threat-error-management do I need to consider for the planned flight(s) and how do I mitigate those threats?). On top of that, every jump pilot needs to have a sound knowledge and appreciation of what the skydivers are doing (what are the safety tolerances on drop heights, run-in distances, jump run speeds and aircraft configurations?), what is going to happen if everything goes according to plan (centre of gravity shift as jumpers move to the door, asymmetric drag as they climb out, asymmetric thrust for the drop in a twin-engine plane – and all this while close to the stall point)? And what might happen if things go wrong (static line hang-up, premature deployment, tail strike, etc)? Taken together, this all adds to the workload and to the knowledge required by jump pilots to be truly good at their job.

Do the jumpers in the plane sometimes make your life harder than it needs to be? How could we help the pilot more? 

Yes, yes, they do! I guess the easy answer to that is firstly brief the pilot – I like to think I’m a pretty good pilot, but I’m a lousy mind-reader, so if the lift requires something other than a single pass at max altitude, please tell me! It’s not much use telling me there’s a pass at 7,000 feet for some hop’n’pops when I’ve just passed 9K and am 3 miles away from the DZ, as happened to me the other week!

Also, try not to distract the pilot. Critical times are during engine start, (don’t try and hand me a manifest sheet or have a conversation while I’m responsible for the safe starting of £250k worth of turbine engine!), during take-off (again, don’t try passing me a manifest sheet or having a conversation at that point – I’m busy!). And again on run-in – kind of busy at that point also!

Board the plane quickly – there’s nothing more disheartening than. having worked very hard to shave a minute off the climb and descent time, seeing the jumpers delaying boarding for the next lift because they’re still dirtdiving or too busy putting their booties on. If we waste a minute on 15 lifts through the day, that’s the equivalent of an extra lift wasted – and time is money and ultimately it’s the jumpers who pay for it!

And lastly, try and fart less in the plane. Thanks. It’d be appreciated!

Do you have a favourite plane?

The Dornier G-92, without a doubt. It is such a great and capable plane to fly and the plane I have the most flying experience on (well over 3,000 hrs). Firstly, they are unusual by their design – there are few multi-engine turbine tailwheel aircraft in the world. That brings its own complexities and issues when you’re on the ground (taxiing, take-off and landing), but also makes it more fun to handle and control. In the air, it is absolutely solid – it doesn’t do anything you don’t want it to do, and what it does do is exact every time. As a jump aircraft, it has a massive door and, most importantly, the all-moving tail-plane allows the aircraft to deal with massive changes in weight and balance as you drop. You can have everybody in the aircraft move to the back of the plane and it just doesn’t care – and that is where the Dornier excels on its own. Every other plane has some sort of weight and balance issue (for instance, no more than however-many jumpers behind the red line near the door). This is especially true of the Caravan – put too many jumpers in the door and it may stall, and this is the only thing that lets the Caravan down. Not so with the Dornier, it just deals with it.

H with his favourite aircraft
Photo by Rob Lloyd

At Hibaldstow when the ‘Skydive Machine’ is in full flow, like the Nationals, how do the pilots time your flights to drop and land in a perfect rotation?

Good question. When the Nationals were really busy with over seventy-five 4-way teams, we had four Dorniers flying to keep things moving. The 4-way Nationals FS exit altitude is 10,500 feet, so the time to climb for each aircraft is about 7-8 minutes, and one aircraft is dropping every 3 minutes or so. Wheels-up to wheels-down is about 10 minutes per lift. It’s impressive to be a part of it, and also to watch. But it’s hard work. The key is situational awareness from all the pilots; knowing where every other aircraft is and what stage of flight they are in. To help us out, we make more radio calls than normal – we’ll make calls for entering the runway, rolling and taking off, the usual two-minute-to-drop call to DZ Control and calls for drop-complete, descending, landing, loading, and all that all over and over again. We also all fly exactly the same circuit to climb, drop and descend. In addition to all that, we call a 30-second to drop call because DZ Control will probably still be counting canopies from the previous load and it may not be safe to give the next “clear drop” on the previous 2-minute call. The 30-second call is a final request for a “clear drop” from DZ, and also a reminder that another set of 15 canopies will be appearing again very soon. Then there’s another call for “green on”, so the aircraft behind can continue to monitor their own time to drop. Listening to those 2-minute, 30-second and “green-on” calls, the aircraft behind can adjust their climb so that they too will be ready to drop on time, which may mean slowing down a little. While those extra radio calls help out with continued situational alertness, it also causes a lot more radio traffic between so many aircraft and DZ Control – so everyone has to be very disciplined on the radio, including the Drop Zone Controller. We also brief the local air-traffic controllers and tell them what we are doing, which usually means we can omit quite a few calls to ATC, that makes things a little easier for us.

Busy flying – H on approach waiting for Filipe to exit the runway
Photo by Raphael Vieira

What’s the bottom line most important thing to remember about your role? 

Jump pilots are not just responsible for themselves and the aircraft. They are also entirely responsible for all the jumpers on board. This is a huge (legal!) responsibility when you have 15+ jumpers in the back of the plane. That responsibility extends not just to the safe operation and flight of the aircraft, but also to the safe dropping of the jumpers – that is, in the correct direction, over the correct area, at the correct speed, with a safe configuration and adequate control over the aircraft at all times. As well as knowing when to put the green exit light on, it is also about knowing when to turn it off again – how far is too far for the drop? The pilot can drop jumpers too far past the DZ as well as too short, and the decision about where and when to drop (or not) directly impacts the safety of the skydivers.

Anything to add for our readers? 

Skydivers and pilots should socialise more. All too often they don’t mix and often don’t understand each other’s requirements and limits. Skydivers – talk to your pilots, they’re probably quite nice people. If you can, listen to a spare headset in the plane during the climb to altitude so that you understand what the pilot has to do and the workload. But, above all, work together – if both pilots and skydivers can share information and understand each other’s roles, responsibilities and limits then that can only make our sport safer for everyone involved… right?

You can catch H in the bar at Skydive Hibaldstow, if you’d like to work on pilot-skydiver socialising!


Working in the Sport series

Read more detail about careers in the sport with the other articles in the series… and keep checking back, we’re adding articles all the time…

AFF over Skydive Hibaldstow, with AFF Instructors Sian Stokes and Milko Hodgkinson
Photo by Simon Brentford
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Meet: Lesley Gale

Lesley has been in love with skydiving for 35 years. She is a multiple world and national record holder and a coach on 20 successful record events worldwide. She has over 100 competition medals spanning more than 25 years and has been on the British 8-way National team at World events. She started Skydive Mag to spread knowledge, information and passion about our amazing sport.
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