An Eccentric Ad Man Loses His Helicopter to the Feds

Bill Stokely is explaining a few things about chopper envy.

The 69-year-old Oklahoma ad man lives in the posh Forest Highlands Golf Club in Flagstaff half the year, his hometown of Tulsa the other half. Billboards are the main business of Stokely Outdoor Advertising, the company he and his wife started in 1978. The family also owns the Stokely Event Center in Tulsa, which is rented out for weddings and other midsize events.

"When you have a helicopter, there's a certain amount of jealousy," Stokely says, after New Times reaches him by phone at his Tulsa office. "It's human nature."

Behind bars: A Robinson R44 'copter, like the one seized from Bill Stokely.
New Times Photo Illustration
Behind bars: A Robinson R44 'copter, like the one seized from Bill Stokely.

Jealousy isn't responsible for Stokely's legal troubles involving his helicopter, and Stokely's not exactly saying it is. But he's acutely aware of how an un-helicoptering public might perceive his hobby — especially now, when his quarter-million-dollar toy is seized and he faces felony charges alleging he flouted federal air rules.

Though he admits he has no excuse for flying without a pilot's license, he maintains that his troubles are rooted in misunderstanding.

The problem began on October 12, 2011, when a report about a suspicious pilot came into the Flagstaff office of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security Investigations.

A man had been seen on numerous occasions filling five-gallon fuel containers at the Winslow-Lindbergh Regional Airport, loading them into a Robinson R44 helicopter and stashing them around the forests near Flagstaff and Winslow. Agents began a probe immediately.

As Stokely explains it, a user of the Winslow airport saw him taking the gas cans, and "his imagination ran away from him," leading the man to make the report to the government.

In fact, the stashing of fuel containers was innocent behavior: It allowed Stokely to visit more of the Arizona hideaways he loved without worrying about whether he'd make it back to the airport.

"Very few people have the luxury of exploring the desert" like a helicopter owner can, he says. "You can check out caves. You get to fish places nobody else can get to."

He also uses his chopper for business and charity, taking advertising clients in Tulsa or schoolkids in Arizona for rides.

Stokely says he's one of the most experienced helicopter pilots in the country, having logged more than 13,000 hours in the air. The R44 is his sixth helicopter.

If he were to run low on fuel, he'd use his GPS to find the coordinates of one of the fuel-containers he'd hidden.

"I've got gas stations all over the desert," he says with a chuckle.

Homeland Security agents soon learned that the pilot wasn't engaged in anything sinister — like drug-dealing or terrorism — only harmless fishing and exploring.

Though their initial fear proved unfounded, agents discovered that the Federal Aviation Administration had denied Stokely's medical certificate in March 2011; he wasn't allowed to fly until he got it reinstated. Doctors believed he might be suffering from dementia (though Stokely sounded entirely lucid when New Times interviewed him).

Even worse, agents saw something that disturbed them when they visited Flagstaff's Pulliam Airport on October 17, 2011, to view Stokely's helicopter: The R44's official tail number, N7513Q, had been altered with a piece of black tape, making the "Q" look like an "O." No aircraft was registered under the altered number.

The next day, investigators watched as an "unidentified elderly man" — apparently Stokely — performed "some of type of work" on the chopper's tail, court records state. A day later, agents saw that the R44's tail number had been changed back to its registered number, and Stokely took off in the chopper with two other men. The airport's operation manager told agents that Stokely had informed Pulliam he'd be flying to Tulsa that day, with stops in Nevada and Utah.

The agents took the information to a grand jury, which on May 30, 2012, indicted Stokely for displaying a false or misleading registration on an aircraft and piloting the helicopter without a valid airman's certification.

But the feds needed a stronger case. Stokely's son, also a trained pilot, was next to Stokely in the chopper and could have been the pilot for the October 19, 2011, flight. According to Stokely, the U.S. Attorney's Office never told him about either the grand jury indictment or a subsequent arrest warrant.

Indeed, instead of arresting Stokely, agents conducted surveillance at the Flagstaff airport to see if they could catch him flying. On July 30, 2012, they saw Stokely roll up in his blue BMW, climb into the pilot's seat of the helicopter, lift off the tarmac, and fly away to the southwest.

A few minutes later, Stokely received a call over his radio from the flight tower. The controller told him someone had crashed into his parked car, that the police had arrived, and that Stokely needed to land immediately.

Stokely says he was "skeptical" but landed anyway. As he approached his BMW, which was still in good shape, six agents "popped up" and yelled that Stokely was under arrest. An agent handcuffed the businessman behind his back, and when Stokely complained, he says the guy told him, "It's not supposed to feel good."

He spent 34 hours behind bars until he was processed and released. His trial has been postponed until next month, but he's hoping that prosecutors cut him a deal. He'd gladly give up the helicopter to stay out of jail, he says.

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As a licensed and current pilot, this saddens me. I hope the idiot Feds give him a break. Meanwhile, at the FAA office, their motto is "We are not happy, till your not happy"!


"Eccentric Ad Man".............yeah, so what's the big deal? They apparently do not know Bill. I have known Bill since 1983. "License", when has Bill needed a license to do anything...ever. The article just proves they do not know Bill. If ALL parties had taken the time to know him, he would still have the helo giving them rides. He also would be working for Arizona Highways as his copter gets him to places most of us will never see in our lifetimes. Ask him to show you his pictures of the state. Get to know him, give him his helo back...ask him to give you a ride


I'm impressed that your reporter was able to diagnose whether or not he had Alzheimer's in one interview. Especially since the condition is often intermittent at first and people are often very skilled at concealing the symptoms for short periods,.

Having worked in occupations requiring lengthy home visits to people for many years, I can remember a few cases where I was fully taken in.  How come he isn't waving a medical report, if he's all that competent?

If the accusation is true, he could kill a lot of people while flying. Would you be as supportive if it was a poor guy continuing to drive and altering his plates, after being banned on medical grounds?


sounds like the feds want a helicopter.   


My father-in-law had a copter and used it to take his family camping in the South Dakota badlands, landing in places that were truly unexplored. The helicopter is one of the best human inventions ever. Despite that, I'm OK with the Feds wanting to know where you're going when you take off in one. And buzzing the country club crowd will always be considered bad form.


@DodgyMerchant Read the article again -- I didn't "diagnose" anyone. I said he sounded lucid during my phone interview with him, which is true.


DonkeyHotay topcommenter

@number6  "I'm OK with the Feds wanting to know where you're going when you take off in one"

Feel free to surrender YOUR OWN rights and privacy anytime.


@raystern @DodgyMerchant Comment, not a criticism. I found that people often can, especially if they get to pick the subject & if it is something they talk about a lot.

Suddenly, when it becomes unfamiliar territory, or due to gradual fade of concentration, a bell can start to ring.

ExpertShot topcommenter

@DonkeyHotay @number6 Mr. Hotay: The airspace above us is "public", as in owned by the government.  Individuals don't own that just like they don't own the road (although some certainly behave as if they do).  The reason pilots file flight plans is a good one, for reasons I won't go into here cause you can google them.  

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