Special Missions – Flying careers with Draken Europe

For most pilots, it is the passion for flying that first prompted them to forge a career in the air – and in the modern aviation sector some roles have far greater appeal to the hands-on purist than others. With the aviation industry going through an exciting period of expanding recruitment, many newly graduated pilots are looking at options beyond the A-to-B of the big airlines. Special Missions refers to a branch of commercial flying operations that aren’t simply the transport of cargo or people – and and could just be the opportunity that recently graduated pilots are looking for.

Jon Nicholas is a First Officer on the Dassault Falcon 20 with Draken Europe, a Special Missions operator who offers Operational Readiness Training to customers, including the Royal Air Force and Royal Navy. Pilot Careers News spoke to Jon to get an insight into a career that’s quite unlike any other in the world of flying.

How and why did you get into Special Missions? 

I started flight training in my late 20s while working in an IT career. Draken and the British Antarctic Survey were my aspirational ‘dream jobs’. Neither could be described as an ‘everyday flying role’, with both involving challenging flying in interesting locations. Initially, however, I followed the flying opportunities, which were available after graduating from flight school, and started as a flight instructor, followed by a First Officer role in private charter on a business jet. 

I applied several times to Draken before I was invited to an interview. What helped my success in getting the job was the experience I had built after finishing training – plus, the company knew that the operators I was working for had a good reputation.

What does Draken do?

Draken offers Operational Readiness Training, also known as ‘Red Air’, to more than 20 different nations. Simply put, Draken’s jets play the enemy aircraft in training scenarios used to prepare military forces for frontline operations. Historically, these tasks would have been done by the military, but elements of the role have been outsourced for some years now to specialist civilian operators such as Draken Europe. Previously known as Cobham, prior to being purchased by US-based Draken International in 2020, the electronic warfare training role is one which the company has delivered since it was established in the aftermath of the Falklands War.

Today, Draken operates the largest civilian fleet of ex-military aircraft in the world, together with a fleet of specially adapted electronic warfare business jets. We also have an ISR (Intelligence, Surveillance, Reconnaissance) division that offers airborne assets to commercial customers.

Draken has two main bases in the UK: Teesside and Bournemouth. My home base is Teesside, where the focus is primarily on training the RAF. We offer military aircraft the experience of flying against enemies by ‘attacking’ them using our advanced electronic warfare technology, including radar and communications jamming. We also help to train quick-reaction alert forces by simulating incursions into UK airspace, allowing the RAF to practice its intercept procedures.

Our Bournemouth base operates tasks ‘against’ the Royal Navy and allied navies, simulating missile threats from air and land against warships, helping to calibrate radars, as well as towing targets on cables several kilometres long for use in live fire missions. These are but a small subset of the mission profiles we fly. So, not everyday flying.

Typically, we might operate as a single jet, or as part of a formation of multiple jets and types. Draken recently introduced a fleet of L-159E ‘Honey Badger’ fighter jets. Flown on G-registrations by experienced ex-military fast jet pilots, these add aggressor simulation capability to the Falcon’s electronic warfare simulation. We don’t simply do this in the UK, Draken has contracts externally within NATO and further afield, so we deliver this tasking all over the world, which obviously adds some travel overseas to the job as well. 

As a First Officer, what is your role day to day?

Draken operates the Falcon 20, a specially modified business jet, in a multi-crew environment so, much like a First Officer in other commercial operations, my role is to assist the Captain and crew in maintaining flight safety and completing the sortie in line with the clients requirements. 

Before we take off, I will prepare the aircraft, loading paperwork and weather briefings. Each jet’s crew will typically be made up of a Captain and a First Officer in the front, and an Electronic Warfare Officer in the cabin operating the mission-specific equipment. We will attend briefings as a crew with all the crews from the rest of the formation, so everyone is informed of the day’s weather, and specific tasking from the customer. On our busiest sorties we could be putting up five Falcons and four L-159E Honey Badgers. 

In the air, I will be acting as either pilot flying or pilot monitoring, helping to support the situational awareness of the crew and the Captain in his command of the flight and the mission. As pilot flying, my remit is to fly the aircraft accurately and safely outbound, on task and return to base with full situational awareness using the crew and information available to me to make decisions. Typically, as pilot monitoring, this is usually the more challenging role, as I’d be operating several radios across numerous frequencies to aid in decision making for the pilot flying on the task trying to understand and build a picture of the tactical environment.

After the flight, we complete the post-flight paperwork followed by all crew from the task attending a thorough debrief on the mission, so I contribute to any discussion points that may have come out of the sortie. Here we analyse if the plan was flown and whether the client had achieved their training aims, plus any learning points that we can pull into future sorties. 

How does your job differ to being an airline pilot/being a corporate pilot?

Many elements of the flight preparation will look similar, but the flying differs from air transport flying in several areas. For a start, our briefings reflect a more military mentality. We rigorously examine every sortie and our performance, looking not just for what went well, but points where we can do better and, of course, any safety points. A two-hour flight can often be twice as long on the ground briefing and debriefing – this is quite different to an airline briefing, which would be much shorter.

We aren’t doing route A-to-B flying, so we usually end up at the same airfield where we started. Take-off and transit to the tactical airspace might look the same as any other commercial traffic, but once on task, we are immersed in a tactical environment on military tasking. The pilots are thinking about flying as a part of a formation, using a different communication and tactical language – the level of automation is minimal i.e. limited auto pilot usage. Unlike commercial airliners, we fly as formations, so purposefully try to get close to each rather than avoid! 

We vary the heights and speeds that we fly, including entering low level, which is very unusual for civilian aircraft. Every sortie has a plan, but that can change quickly on task, so you may have to re-plan and adapt. Flexibility and serving the customer’s needs safely are the priority. We operate the aircraft up to its limits of certification, including steep turns up to 60° angle of bank. Most commercial passengers wouldn’t appreciate their drinks being spilt…

How would lifestyle and roster be different from other flying jobs?

We’re a small team, so we fly with a small number of individuals, rather than the sizeable cast of characters that you would at a large airline on a daily basis. This builds up a huge sense of camaraderie… you know the individuals well when you walk through the door every day.

Regarding rosters, in an airline or at a corporate job you might know months in advance whether or not you’re on duty and flying. This is not the case in Special Missions, you may only have a week’s notice, and even this is subject to change based on customer requirements, plus there could be a lot of airport standby. However, as we operate to military schedules, the Falcon role is usually Monday to Friday – a rarity in the aviation industry. 

One surveillance pilot who flew for the company’s ISR (Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance) division commented, “Because of the nature of the job, the flying is often very reactive rather than scheduled. You might get not much for weeks and then fly back-to-back for a whole shift. Also, there’ll often be discretion needed – you’re unlikely to be posting photos of yourself in uniform or beautiful skies from your aircraft on social media. However, the tight knit group of people committed to doing a worthwhile job is very rewarding.”

What is the best part of the job?

For the purist pilot, the best part of the role has to be the aircraft type and the challenging nature of the flying. For example, on a recent sortie we came back in ‘fighting wing’ and ‘arrow’ formations, followed by a ‘run and break’ manoeuvre to land on a crystal clear day. Flying low level – at 300ft doing 300kt – while chasing your shadow over the sea concentrates the mind considerably. We won’t do this type of flying on every sortie, but it is thrilling every time. 

And what is the worst?

A downside of the job for some people is the low number of flying hours. Compared to an airline where you might get about 900 a year, we are typically doing around 400 and are legally capped at 650, due to the nature of the flying. For a junior first officer who is building experience it means that it could be a lengthy progression up to command, possibly up to 7-10 years, whereas it is more quickly achievable with other operators. Remuneration and salary is also typically lower in Special Missions compared to an airline or corporate job.

What other kinds of special missions jobs are there out there?

Draken is the only UK operator offering Red Air services, but there are other Special Missions operators offering a wide range of aerial work. This includes survey and surveillance, often for the coastguard and fisheries, and other maritime patrol. Much of the helicopter industry could also be considered Special Missions, with pipeline work or search and rescue. Some operators specialise in calibration work, for example, to calibrate radars or instrument navigational aids at an airport. Most operators have the good/bad sides of Special Missions in common.

How would you advise newly graduated pilots looking to get into a Special Missions role? 

Typically operators don’t actively recruit, they rely on networking and word of mouth to fill roles. Now the industry is so good – and won’t last forever – it’s more likely that Special Missions will be recruiting openly. I have three tips:

1) Research companies you are interested in and put in a speculative CV. Be robust in your approach, don’t expect it to get looked at first time, but stay determined. 

2) Network. Attend events and find people to follow on Linkedin. Special Missions will largely recruit through connections, so don’t be afraid of making some. 

3) Develop your experience to have something enticing on your CV. Interesting experience within aviation or other flying jobs will improve the chances of your CV getting noticed.


To find out more about becoming a professional pilot, read our guide on how much it costs to get an ATPL.