One Alaskan couple recently turned the experience of taking delivery of their new helicopter into an international odyssey, travelling from Canada to Alaska, circumnavigating most of the USA and venturing into south America and the Caribbean along the way. Jason Jorgensen spoke to the couple about their extended and highly unusual delivery flight.
Leigh Coates and Michael Williams are certainly not your typical example of an everyday suburban couple. Both experienced helicopter pilots, Leigh is a highly regarded yogi with almost 100,000 followers on her yoga instagram page, plus more than 10,000 followers on her heli-pilot page. She is also the world’s first female Gravity jet-suit pilot. The pair of go-getters recently took delivery of their own personal Bell 505, after selling a helicopter company that they and another partner started and built up from scratch. Vertical Solutions Helicopters commenced operations around 2010 with a single used Robinson R44 and over ensuing years, the owners bootstrapped the company’s growth, re-investing profits until the fleet included four R44s, an R66 and an AS350-B2, most of the additional aircraft purchased new and all without incurring capital debt. They eventually sold the company in 2020, handing over the keys at 5:05pm on 30 June and explained that it had always been their intention to build it up and then sell it on.
Leigh commented that it was liberating to exit the business. “I hired and trained all the pilots and while I loved it most days, flying is the fun part and that's the part I wasn't getting to do much anymore, except for the really technical missions or if it was really crappy weather.” Michael added that he’d always flown for fun but within the company he was the director of Ops, so did a lot of paperwork, FAA liaison and contracts. “The only time I got to fly was late at night when nobody else wanted to do it and we were out of pilots, so I’d go fly as a last resort, but otherwise I was doing paperwork or shuttling people back and forth to the airport and fueling helicopters.” They were also both relieved to be rid of the stress involved in sending a young employee pilot out with five people in a multi-million-dollar machine, into Alaska where flying is never simple or basic.
The Bell 505
Leigh and Michael subsequently also sold a property in Hawaii and decided it was time to purchase their new private aircraft. “The Bell 505 intrigued me from the very beginning,” related Michael. “It was a clean sheet design, although it utilized proven existing componentry like the transmission and blades, and it has that open cockpit design so there were a lot of things that were leading me towards wanting the 505.” Along with the attraction of buying new with fresh logbooks and no issues figuring out component times, he was enthusiastic about having access to Bell’s American service network. “We were close to buying a 505 for the company at one stage so we’d already demo’d the 505 four or five times and we like bright, shiny brand-new things,” Leigh added. Williams is into electronics and liked the Garmin G1000s that are fitted in the 505. “I'm a tech guy. I like the technology and I like the computer drawings on their parts. Their stuff is really good, and you can drill right down into the parts drawings, down to the gasket and get part numbers off their website. It's all in English too, whereas it can be hard with Airbus which is translated from French.” Leigh was one of the few people to demo’ the 505 with a hook on it and she stated that that experience was what led her to first fall in love with the type. “I didn't really understand how powerful the machine was until I put 1,100 pounds on the hook, full fuel and two pilots on board, picked it up and could climb at 1,000 feet a minute straight up. The max’ internal gross weight is 800 pounds less than you can put on externally, so you are never power limited. If you stay at your internal max’ gross it's impossible to be power limited until you get into hot and high, like 10,000 feet and 105 degrees.” She and Michael both noted that the 505 has significantly less turbine lag than the R66, with increased power available almost instantly on demand.
Leigh and Michael looked at the available aircraft in Bell’s inventory and immediately noticed the machine that they eventually purchased; a bright red and white striped example that they affectionately refer to as the ‘Candy cane’. “It was Christmas time and we saw the Candy cane and said, ‘you know, we could have a lot of fun with that thing’,” Leigh recalled. Michael added, “Every year it'll be making this pilgrimage from Alaska down to the lower 48, sort of like Santa’s sleigh, so we bought some Santa hats and decided to have fun, giving out candy canes and spreading happiness across the land. We figured that this 505 could be a real conversation piece as we just travel around the country in little hops, meeting people along the way, handing out candy canes and having a good time. That turned out to be the case with people wanting to know about what we're doing, and we really embraced that.”
The Candy cane was delivered from Bell’s facility in Mirabel, Quebec and arranging travel, training and the delivery involved detailed organization as it all happened during the onset of the Covid pandemic. The couple had retained a personal R44 after selling VS Helicopters, originally intending to fly that all summer and pick up the new 505 during August. That gave Bell plenty of time to fit some additional equipment that Leigh and Michael had specified, including an extra baggage door, cargo hook provision, Frahm damper, emergency pop-out floats and pilot-adjustable ballast. “Then we changed our minds and said, ‘we want it now’ so Bell ramped up their work on those things and we started plugging in dates,” Leigh explained. She and Michael left Alaska on 24 March for Fort Worth in Texas to undergo the Bell factory type-training, after which they flew to Canada to get their new helicopter. “We got to the factory and they all had masks and gloves on, but they were the nicest people. It was the nicest purchasing experience of my entire life, be it cars or new helicopters. These guys did the whole reveal thing with the helicopter inside, behind a black curtain with a red carpet leading up to it and they said, ‘Are you ready to see your helicopter?’ They pull the curtains back and it was just an amazing experience. They walk you through every page of the logbooks and through everything on the helicopter. Another big difference is that Robinson basically throws you the keys on your way out the door, but these guys take you for an acceptance flight. They send a test pilot with you and test all the comm’s, the nav’, shoot an ILS, do a power assurance check and ensure the helicopter performs the way you expect it to. If you like it, only then do you sign the acceptance paperwork,” Michael related.
“It was really impressive, with a really knowledgeable pilot that knew all about the G1000 avionics. It was an absolutely first-class delivery experience.” He also noted that it was an identical delivery procedure to that of a brand-new 429 that was delivered on the same day. “We want to buy another new one every year just to get that delivery experience,” joked Leigh.
When the couple explained their plan to visit different airshows and just travel around the country in the Candy cane, they were asked if they were prepared to let Bell demonstrate the aircraft at various locations on their travels, providing a factory pilot, salesman and all necessary paperwork and insurance wherever someone was considering a 505 and wanting a test flight. Leigh and Michael were happy to oblige and even went straight to a demo on 7 April, the day they left the factory. “It’s a great program for us because that’s one of the things we really love doing, meeting people, showing off our helicopter and just talking to people about aviation,” said Michael. They flew into the States and cleared customs in Burlington, with six demonstrations already programmed around the northwestern US. “We did those demos and the great thing about that was that the aircraft was brand new to us. Although we'd done the factory course and learned all the emergency procedures, there were extra little things we learned that we hadn't done before, like how to tie it down on the ground handling wheels. It was a great opportunity to hang out with the Bell demo’ pilot and we even ferried with her for a couple of legs and got to learn a few little insider tips and tricks,” added Leigh.
Down the East Coast
The couple decided to fly down the east coast, as they usually fly down the west on their annual trips from Alaska and may never be back over on that side of the United States. “We live in Alaska, and it was an opportunity to go to Maine, to go to the Wright Brothers Museum, to go to Florida, to fly by the Statue of Liberty and do all those different things. It looked like an adventure and that's what we were up for. We'd take the easy route on the road less traveled. So, we began the planning process after we bought the 505 but still had a few months on our hands,” Michael recounted. “We decided that it would be a great way to spend the spring. The country was locked down and it was quite easy to get hotel rooms, although it was hard to get Uber's.” Leigh explained that she has connected with and met a lot of people on the west coast because of her yoga following on Instagram. “Once I realized we were going to be on the east coast, I started reaching out to some of my longtime Instagram friends that I really wanted to meet and started figuring out where people were. Mike and I even got a paper map and had little pins that we put in all the places that we wanted to go and see. And then I contacted each person that I was interested in meeting and figured out where they were and whether they were going to be around. We also knew we would have to feel out the Covid culture everywhere we went because it was a sensitive time, and everyone has their own viewpoint on it.” Michael described the impact of Covid as heart wrenching at times, with a mere fifteen people in the entire Niagara Falls complex when they were there. “It was a ghost town, just devastated. All the businesses that were closed down and boarded up, and you could tell they weren't coming back,” he recalled.
“We really wanted to see New York and the Statue of Liberty. We're both pretty much country bumpkins so it was a kick for us flying in big New York airspace and we really wanted to fly it at night. So, we actually flew the Hudson corridor three different times, the third time at night, because we wanted to get comfortable with it in daytime first,” Leigh explained. “It was so much fun. I'm so grateful to one of my friends who flies corporate in the New York area, and she sat in the backseat with us and guided us on radio frequencies and who to talk to. She guided us over Central Park and we did some practice approaches into the East 34th Street (Wall Street) helipad. That was definitely a highlight, and then we headed down to Pennsylvania and got our first 25-hour inspection there. The thing with Bell is that there's great maintenance support all around the country. There's a website that tells you exactly who supports them and where they are, and they were all super accommodating.”
Really Having Fun
Leigh and Michael then started to really have fun with it, coming up with the idea of #ispythecandycanehelicopter on Instagram. “It's a very visible helicopter, so whenever people see it and they know about it, they would hashtag that and then we'd send them a fun treat or take them for a flight, give them a hat or do something fun,” Leigh explained. “Then, because we call it the Candy cane helicopter, we decided to take it a step further and leave little treats along the way. We walked into a candy store in Keene New Hampshire, where it turned out that the owner had a restaurant at the airport. She was very aviation friendly and excited about what we were doing. So, we arranged that people could come in and get a free cupcake and we stocked up on candy canes to give out.” After leaving Philadelphia they cut inland into North Carolina, as Leigh wanted to visit three or four friends there. “While we were doing the trip, I was sharing stories on my Instagram helicopter page and people were reaching out with a multitude of suggestions and invitations. One friend from Alaska has a cousin living in Virginia Beach, with a husband who is a retired Navy SEAL disabled veteran,” Leigh recounted. “He lost his short-term memory from a brain injury incurred in service and we wanted to stop there. We actually spent the night with them and took their family and friends all flying in the helicopter just to bring some joy.” Michael added, “He really enjoyed flying in a helicopter that he didn't have to jump out of or get shot at in. To share that with him and see the smile on his face was priceless.” Kitty Hawk was a last-minute decision as the next destination, where a museum visit and overnight stay led to meeting a number of interesting and enthusiastic people. “That’s the kind of short-term planning we were doing, keeping ourselves open for whatever came our way and it made for some truly magical moments,” Michael enthused.
Social Media – for good
“Social media has been a huge, huge part of this trip and it has made it that much more magical because of all of the connections and people we know of, but have never met,” Leigh stated. One of my friends on social media invited us to stay in a beautiful oceanfront cabin in West Palm Beach for two days, cooked up lunch for us and we could see the parked helicopter while watching the waves crash onto the beach. We got insider information from all the pilots about their local areas, such as the free heliport on the rooftop in downtown Fort Lauderdale. You can just walk down the stairs and there are great places to eat, five-star lunch spots within walking distance.” She was surprised by how many people were watching the stories she posted during the adventure. “People were definitely glued to the stories and even everyone in town here. Another cool thing is that people are already reaching out and asking when we are flying back south again, putting their names forward for visits.”
Leigh related that a particularly memorable incident for her was a random stop for fuel at a very small Texas airport, where she was approached by a local man who, upon hearing about the couple’s adventure, invited her to view a Breezy he was building for his wife. After that, he then took Leigh and Michael flying in his own completed Breezy as part of his goal to give 7,001 flights in the small, un-enclosed homebuilt. “It's got Super Cub wings and just a completely open cockpit, that feels like you're on a bicycle. With just 60mph top speed, it was the coolest experience ever,” she recalled. “To just to hop on the back of this thing with this random person who loves aviation and can tell that we love aviation too, that was just amazing.” Tim, a friend of the Breezy owner, then called on the radio from his MD500, and Leigh ended up on yet another flight, piloting Tim’s 500 while Michael took his flight in the breezy. “When we all landed and talked, Mike was wearing a T-shirt from a Florida powerline business that uses 500s and it turned out that Tim leased a 500 to that business. So, then I pulled out my phone and found pictures of the Candy cane 505 right next to Tim’s 500. It's amazing that when just stopping to get fuel, you can serendipitously meet up with people like that, because aviation is just such a small community,” Leigh said. The couple report being astounded at the overwhelming generosity and hospitality of complete strangers that they encountered during their journey. They landed at a private airstrip and stayed one night with the owners of a new Bonanza, encountered by chance in the circuit on approach to an airport in southern Florida. On another occasion, a retired surgeon and fellow 505 owner invited them to his exclusive property in Ocean Reef, Key Largo, where they were taken out on his boat, entertained, fed and put up for the night. They stayed at homes where working couples left for work in the morning and Leigh and Michael were left to enjoy a leisurely breakfast and lock the house on leaving. A helicopter owner in Moab was out of town during their visit, but even left them the keys to his car and home, complete with cold beer in the fridge.
Reaching the bottom of the US, the intrepid couple continued south and flew to the Bahamas; an experience Michael found a little daunting. “That was yet another magical experience, but a little hair raising when you can't see land in any direction. The only thing beneath you is two speed boats that look like drug runners and you're hoping you're not getting shot at. We do fly from island to island in Alaska, but you can always see the island you're flying to. But neither one of us had been out on a blue day when you can't see anything in any direction and you're relying on the GPS and your fuel range to get you to the next place,” he explained. “We did carry fuel jugs, because most days you can count on a headwind when you're going south at that time of year. We stretched the range of that thing pretty tight,” added Leigh, who also commented that about halfway between Florida and the Bahamas they found where unused cruise ships were sitting idle. “It looks like there are a hundred cruise ships out there in the middle of the ocean, nowhere near land at all, out there just anchored up or just holding position.”
Although just a short hop to the Bahamas had been on the agenda, it transpired that Bell had some customers in the Dominican Republic wanting to demo the 505. “The Dominican Republic wasn't even on our radar; it wasn't even a thought,” Leigh commented. “But when we had the opportunity to go and do those demos there, it turned out to be one of our favorite highlights. At one of the first airports we got to, there was a brochure encouraging flying in the Dominican Republic. It is general aviation friendly; they want you to come, and fuel is cheap. We jokingly referred to their flight service as ‘the concierge’, they were so helpful and would say ‘thank you’ at the end.” Michael noted that they found the people there to be very hospitable, warm, welcoming, and friendly. “Despite being right next to Haiti, being a country that the US government advises you not to travel to, I will definitely go there again.”
For the two experienced pilots, the greatest challenges the journey posed were logistical. “It was interesting clearing customs,” Leigh remarked. “We've gone through customs back and forth between Canada and Alaska many times, but it's different in each country so we're learning and researching as we go. Then, some places required COVID testing but others didn’t, and just trying to obtain a test had its own complications but it was all worth it.” Michael explained that he was vaccinated but Leigh was not, so in some places he didn't have to have a test, but she did. “Yeah, it was a lot of logistics. But being a helicopter company and dealing with regulations and logistics all the time, it wasn't that hard,” he concluded. Leigh expressed her appreciation for the opportunity to share her love of all things aviation-related with so many people in so many places, remarking, “We love getting to make people's days, it’s the coolest feeling in the world. I mean, who gets to do that?” and Michael added that throughout the journey they felt welcomed by the entire aviation community, not just the rotary-wing sector, with neither he nor Leigh recalling a single negative reaction during their trip.
“When we got to Dallas, we really wanted to do something for Billy, the Bell salesman and private pilot who had courted us for so long and looked after us so well,” Williams related. “Leigh took him, his wife and children for a flight and they all showed up in red and white. Leigh never touched the controls, and it was just so magical to be able to get a gift for him that he could give to his children. What we're trying to relive here is that what we did was really so much fun for us. Towards the end, we did a couple of demos in Seattle and the saleswoman brought her son all dressed up in red and white. And then they made some special hats for us. We wanted red and white hats so Matt Jaynes, Bell’s marketing director for the 505 had them made specifically for us, so that's what we get to give out to people.”
The Candy cane tour finally ended with a serendipitously timed 5:05pm landing at Valdez. According to Michael, such a trip as this was one of the reasons for choosing the Bell 505. “We knew we couldn’t do that kind of traveling in the R44. The baggage compartment with the two doors and the removable seats are just a dream, the storage capacity that the helicopter just swallows up is incredible.” Leigh describes the flat floor configuration as a real game changer. “We're used to doing that kind of traveling with an R66 where you just can't put anything in the back really.” Now they are back in Alaska, they refer to the 505 as their little RV and report spending at least half their time out camping and exploring the country, now they are not working.
“I don't think we're going to settle down and be in one place for a while. We're in the RV lifestyle now,” said Michael. Leigh stated that the next tour is likely going to include meeting up with all the people that they didn't get to meet up with during the Candy cane tour. “We skipped California last time because we've been there so many times. I'm sure we'll do California in the fall, and I really want to go to Colorado. We will definitely go back to Texas as we love how helicopter friendly it was there. I also want to go back and explore Moab when it's not so hot.” As testament to how successful they consider the journey, both Leigh and Michael state that they would happily go back and do it all again. “We were just so welcome everywhere that it just made things easy for us,” Michael remarked.
And his advice for anyone considering a similar odyssey? “Stay open. Don't do too much planning. Have a start-date and an open end-date. Have a general idea of where you're going to go and then just be open to playing it by ear. I think that's what made it such a great adventure for us. We didn't put pressure on ourselves to be somewhere at a certain time. If you stay open, the magic will happen! If I was to give a shout out to anybody, it would be all the people that we didn't get to see. And that wasn't because they're any less important, it was just that it didn’t work out at the time. Even though we really wanted to see everybody, it was physically impossible. But then there’s always next time.”