Meet Liam: The pilot who takes off with passengers but lands alone

Jump Pilot
Jump Pilot Liam

When you’re considering doing your first tandem skydive, do you ever think about the people who’ll make it happen? Sure, you may ponder about your skydiving instructor – the one you’ll be strapped to as you free-fall from 14,000 feet above sea level, but have you ever thought about the jump pilot? You know, the one who’ll be flying the plane?

If you said no, you’re not alone. In fact, there are many behind-the-scenes jobs at a skydiving company, and they all play an essential role in your skydive. And let’s face it, without a jump pilot (also known as a drop pilot), there’d be no skydiving at all.

So, let’s honour this VIP role and meet Skydive Geronimo wingman, Liam Eldon. Get ready to find out everything there is to know about Liam and his job as a jump pilot.

What is a jump pilot?

A jump pilot is a person who flies the airplane that skydivers jump out of way above the ground. Liam compares the act of jump pilot to a chair lift used on ski hills.

“I like to think of the job as a chair lift. I take the passengers up to the top of the mountain,” he says.

Of course, there are no mountains around Rottnest Island, nor is there snow. There’s just salt air, and beautiful seascapes to admire on your way up to altitude, and on your way back down to earth.

What are the requirements and licenses to become a jump pilot?

In most cases, a jump pilot needs to have a commercial pilot licence (CPL), though a private pilot license may be sufficient for some drop zones. At Skydive Geronimo, our jump pilots require a CPL, which means they’ve satisfied the Australian Commercial Standard of a minimum of 150 hours of flying time. It also means flying planes is their job, whereas a private pilot does not operate for an income. 

Not only that, but before drop pilots fly alone, they must go through rigorous flight training with the Head Pilot at the skydiving company. At Skydive Geronimo, Glenn Stutt is the Head Pilot, as well as the Chief Skydiving Instructor (and owner, so let’s just call him the Big Boss).

“You go up [in the plane] with the Head Pilot and do extensive drop training, which means learning how to measure winds, skydive specific radio calls, and emergency procedures. We also learn the skydiving terminology. When you start as a jump pilot, you only know the aircraft side of it, but to be a good drop pilot, you must know a lot of the skydiving part,” says Liam.

“The skydivers will be telling you different things, and it’s all a different language when you start. After 10 hours of “in air” training with the Head Pilot, you’re allowed to “drop” skydivers on your own. And of course, once the Big Boss is satisfied with your abilities.”

Liam, how did you become a jump pilot?

I’ve wanted to be a pilot since late primary school. I did Air Cadets, and I was very aviation nerdy all through high school. When I finished school, the pilot’s course I wanted to do wasn’t available. To keep myself around aircraft, I got a job as a baggage handler for Virgin Australia. Then, I did two years of flight training with Polytechnic West at Jandakot Airport and finished as a Commercial Pilot.

I went back to being a baggage handler, this time for Maroomba Airlines, for another year. Then, last August, Skydive Geronimo hired me as ground crew (GCA). I did that role, which basically means I make sure the weather conditions on the ground are safe for parachutes to land, for six months before my promotion to jump pilot.

Tell us how your day begins

The morning begins with checking the app all the staff use to stay connected. The Drop Zone Safety Officer (DZSO) for the day checks the weather. If the weather is favourable for skydiving, we all head to Jandakot Airport. I try to get there about half an hour before everyone else.

Once there, I check the weather, do some paperwork and do the pre-flight checks. These checks include reading the Maintenance Release document, which records the number of hours the plane flies. This is important for service requirements. I make sure there are full tanks of fuel, then I drain the fuel and take samples to make sure there’s no water in the fuel. I do an oil check too. I also walk around the aircraft to do a physical inspection; make sure the wings are still on the plane and stuff like that.

By the time I’m finished all that, the manifest staff, the GCA, and the skydiving instructors are there and ready to go. Then I fly us all to Rottnest Island.

What happens once you’re on the island?

After landing, and once everyone else is in the terminal at Rottnest Airport, I do more work on the plane. First, I remove the excess fuel which is stored in the aircraft’s wings and store that for later flights. I also have to remove all the seats and lay a big mat in the plane, ready for the drop flying for the day.

Once I have the plane ready to go, I do a flight plan, check the winds and call Air Traffic Control to make sure we’re good to go. During the flight, I write down the wind estimates and pass them to the head skydiver onboard, who will then advise me on the jump run, which means the direction I will fly and the position of where to “drop” the skydivers. They jump out, and I land the plane. There’s a lot of that – up and down, all day.

When all the jumping is done, I fly the staff back to Jandakot. I call the fuel truck to come and refuel the plane for the next day and complete the day’s paperwork. Lastly, I push the plane into the hangar. Then I’m finished for the day.

What’s your favourite part of your day as a jump pilot?

My favourite part is getting that first load of skydivers out of the plane. When I know they’ve landed safely onto the beach, it means all the calculations were correct. Also, once everyone else is out, I get to descend the plane quite steeply!

Have you done a skydive over Rottnest Island?

Yes! I did a tandem jump a couple months into my position with Geronimo. It was great fun. I can tick it off my bucket list, but I think I’ll continue flying the aircraft instead of jumping out of it. I’m too boring. I’d prefer to fly the plane rather than jump out of it.

Do you have any tips for budding pilots?

If you’re looking at getting into drop flying, research the drop zones around your area. Pop in with your resume and talk to the skydivers and the Head Pilot. They may have ground-based jobs available until a pilot’s position becomes available. It’s all about getting your name out there. If you show the boss that you’re enthusiastic about other jobs, not just flying, you could work your way up to drop pilot.

What are the pros and cons of being a drop pilot?

Rottnest Island Beach

The pros are that you get to build up a lot of flying hours quickly. There are a lot of take-offs and landings, which is great for experience.

The cons are that you’re in the same place every day going up and down, up and down. Other than that, the pros outweigh the cons significantly.

Drop flying is one of those hidden, behind-the-scenes jobs that many people don’t think about. Once you start telling people about it, they’re really amazed by it.

Ready to book your Rottnest Island skydive?

There’s nothing quite like a skydive over Rottnest Island. When you get in the plane with Skydive Geronimo, be sure to say hi to Liam.