An Eccentric Ad Man Loses His Helicopter to the Feds

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

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."

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.

Stokely denies that he altered his tail number. He says he puts tape over the numbers to make them easier to clean after they've been dirtied by the helicopter's black exhaust smoke. After a flight, he'd strip off the tape to reveal the clean numbers — but on the day the agents observed him, he forgot to take off the little piece that covered part of the "Q."

"It was an accident," he maintains.

He claims he never flew the R44 himself after his pilot's license was revoked, saying, on July 30, his intention had been only to take a 10-minute flight to ensure the vehicle was performing perfectly before his son was scheduled to fly it to Tulsa. Finally, Stokely also denies he has dementia, chalking up his failures to convince FAA doctors that he was flight-worthy to nervousness and poor math skills. On the contrary, he says, he's in great shape and "very few men can stay with me mentally or physically."

Stokely first says the FAA medical exam was triggered by complaints that he buzzed the Forest Highlands country club with his helicopter. A Forest Highlands resident interviewed by New Times says several people complained to the club after Stokely flew about 50 feet over the driving range and performed a 360-degree turning maneuver.

But Stokely calls back later to say he'd gotten his timelines wrong — the FAA medical check was routine and had nothing to do with the overflight.

"I got past the golf-course issue," he says.

Reid Pixler, an assistant U.S. Attorney handling the forfeiture of Stokely's helicopter, says government seizure of an aircraft is not unusual in cases that allege altering a tail number, though he agrees most such cases involve "international drug-dealing." Still, Pixler says, after going through the facts in the Stokely case, he believes it's "appropriate" that Stokely forfeit his helicopter.

Whatever Stokely's upcoming punishment, he doesn't plan for it to end his flying career.

"I have used up six helicopters in my lifetime," he says. "I'm sure that, in the future, there will be a number seven or number eight."

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