Alaskan operator meets customer needs with fleet of 18 helos flying wherever they may be needed across the state.
By Brent Bundy
Phoenix Police Officer-Pilot AS350, AW119,
It takes a certain type of person to live and work in the wilderness of Alaska, and working as a helo pilot here is to fly in some of the most demanding and unforgiving environments in the world.
For over 40 years, Chris Soloy has been providing aerial services across the Land of the Midnight Sun. Today, with a fleet of modern aircraft and a team of seasoned veterans, Soloy Helicopters continues to offer what few can in a place where few choose to go.
Growing up as the son of a pilot, company President Chris Soloy’s future was laid out for him early in life. Soloy began flying at 16. By age 18, he had accumulated all of 100 hours and was flying a Cessna 185 in support of the helicopter company his dad worked for. “That was in 1968,” recalls Soloy. “I was flying all over Alaska, from Barrow (far northern tip) to Juneau, and into Canada.”
The following year, he earned his A&P certification and began flying agricultural helicopters in Washington state. Soloy returned to Alaska flying airplanes again.
Then he had a chance meeting with a fisherman with whom he discussed offloading procedures. Recognizing a business opportunity, Soloy purchased a wrecked Hiller helicopter, rebuilt it, and began his 1st business of transporting fish from boats to the docks.
That was the beginning of Soloy Helicopters in 1979. “I had set a goal early in life to have my own business in Alaska by the time I was 25. I was 4 years behind schedule, but I was in Alaska and I had my own company!” he proclaims. After the company’s 1st year of operation, work was slow, so Soloy sent his Hiller to Mexico for spraying work. He also found another salvaged Hiller, which he rebuilt.
By the 3rd year in business, the original Hiller was out of commission, but Soloy had leased another, along with a turbine-powered Bell 47, bringing his total to 3 helicopters.
As workload increased, by 1982 Chris Soloy had purchased 2 new Hughes 500s and found work in mineral mining. “We were still doing the fish work, but that was only for about 45 days each season until they built a dock a few years later.
We were also conducting remote site survey and powerline work,” he says. Business was steady and growing until 1998 when Soloy Helicopters closed briefly, and Chris flew for another operator. By 2011, he felt the atmosphere was right and reopened his company, and it has flourished since.
Over the years, with the invaluable help of his wife and business partner Jan, the company continued to expand. Today, it operates 18 helicopters and 3 airplanes out of IYS (Wasilla AK).
Facilities and fleet
Although Soloy is based in the southern portion of the state, 45 miles north of Anchorage, the company works in every corner of Alaska. “We are a home-grown company. We started small and grew as we could when the need was there,” states Soloy.
He credits his success to the reputation that Soloy Helicopters has built, but he also praises his crew. “Up here, it’s very important to have a good team, sometimes just to survive. And I couldn’t ask for a better group of guys. They keep us safe, and that is my goal. I don’t need to expand into a huge company. I just want to keep in demand and to stay happy.
And that’s what I’m doing.” Keeping in demand has meant expansion. The company’s growth hit strides in Sep 2018, when Soloy Helicopters moved into its IYS facility, which was built to the company’s specifications by Chris’s son Matthew’s construction company. At 14,000 sq ft, there is plenty of room in the heated-floor hangar to house as many as 8 helicopters.
The building has ample office space, parts storage, a paint shop, and a machine shop. It is a far cry from Soloy’s beginnings at a small, home-built facility and runway.
Chris Soloy states, “When times were tight, I told some of my guys, ‘Well, I can either lay you off or you can come help build a hangar and runway.’ Needless to say, we got a hangar and runway! It all came together because of the people at Soloy.”
When the helos are not inside the hangar or on assignment, there is an expansive ramp, capable of holding the entire fleet. Currently, Soloy’s fleet is 18-strong. The company still operates 2 MD 500Ds, although the majority are now Airbus products, specifically AStars.
They have 7 B3s, 4 B2s, and 1 BA. Rounding out the collection are also 2 BK117B2s and a pair of Bell Huey 205A-1++. On the fixed-wing side, the company flies a Cessna 206 along with 2 Piper Super Cubs.
Keeping it in the family
Second in command is Vice President Sam Soloy, Chris’s son. Although he grew up around aviation in Wasilla, it was not initially in his career sights. “It wasn’t until I was in college in Colorado that I realized it was truly in my blood,” Sam remembers.
He then changed schools and majors and earned his degree in aviation technologies from the University of Alaska Anchorage, while also earning his airplane ratings. “I flew 206s, Super Cubs… pretty much anything I could get my hands on,” he adds. Sam Soloy later received his initial helicopter training in Oregon before returning home and finishing his rotary-wing ratings with his father and the chief pilot at Soloy.
Although his family’s name is on the door, Sam was still expected to earn his way up the company ladder. “I started at the bottom, like everyone, and was given more responsibilities as they were earned, doing anything that was asked of me,” he declares. “We work as a team here and I still do whatever is needed. I just have to prioritize my time more carefully now.”
Sam Soloy began as a mechanic and worked his way through an apprenticeship position while earning his A&P. At the same time, he flew as a support pilot and progressed up to a contract pilot.
He held the director of operations title from 2015 through 2019, then was promoted to vice president in late 2019. Sam’s new role has forced him to redirect his attention to the daily operations. “I don’t get to fly or work on the aircraft as much.
My focus now is on finance, customer satisfaction, and building business relationships. I have to look more at the big-picture items.” Continuing in the teamwork approach, Sam fills in as the director of operations, in the maintenance section, or as a pilot, which his diverse background allows him to do.
When Sam Soloy stepped up to the vp position, his previous role was filled by Director of Operations John Baechler, who may be the quintessential Alaskan pilot. He was born and raised in Iliamna, a small village of 180 residents located 200 miles southwest of Anchorage.
You can’t find a driving distance between those 2 cities because, as Baechler describes, “There are no roads to anywhere outside of Iliamna.” He adds, “The only way in or out is flying. I had my pilot’s license before my driver’s license.” Aviation was a way of life for as long as he could remember.
After high school, Baechler set off to the University of North Dakota to earn his BS in commercial aviation. From there, he found work flying cargo in Short 360s out of FAT (Fresno CA). During his downtime, he decided to earn his helicopter rating at FAT. “In the area I grew up in, there was a mining operation called The Pebble Project,” recalls Baechler. “I worked there and got to fly in the company’s helicopters.
Years later, after earning my rotorcraft rating, those pilots helped me get hired by Chris Soloy.” That was in 2008, during the period when Soloy had temporarily ceased operations. When Soloy Helicopters reopened in 2011, Baechler and several other employees immediately joined Chris. Baechler began his time with Soloy as a line pilot in the MD500s, then a year later added the AStars to his résumé.
In 2013, he took over as chief pilot, the position he held until late 2019, when he assumed his new role. His responsibilities now have him overseeing the daily operations. As Soloy has expanded in size, so has its scope of expertise.
What began as a 1-aircraft, seasonal fish transport business now operates year-round across the entire state of Alaska and beyond. With an emphasis on the utility market, the company specializes in seismic and mineral exploration.
Charter work also plays a key role, with services for tower and antenna inspections and AK Fish & Game requests. In addition, Soloy provides firefighting support and heliskiing transport during the “off-season” of the winter months.
“In the utility market, especially in Alaska, we pretty much cover everything,” Baechler states. When asked why companies choose Soloy, Baechler is quick to include the founder in his response. “Chris cares about his employees and his customers. He treats them all like family. People recognize that and they stay loyal to him. The Soloy reputation means a lot up here.”
When Baechler was promoted, Chief Pilot Rob Gideon stepped into the vacated position. The Oregon native joined the US Army after high school and worked as a heavy wheel mechanic, assigned to an aviation unit. “I learned then that I enjoyed being around helicopters,” he recalls. After his enlistment, he earned his A&P certification, then began working with Horizon Air as a mechanic.
After a transfer from Portland OR to Boise ID, Gideon tired of the schedule and contemplated leaving the aviation industry. That was when he saw a helo flight school at the airport. “I remembered how much I’d enjoyed helicopters, so I began my flight training and received all my ratings up through CFII.” In 2005, Gideon left Horizon for a CFI job to build his flight hours.
A couple of years later, he found seasonal work in Alaska flying Robinson R44s, and made the move permanent soon after. He met Chris in 2010. And when Soloy restarted in 2011, it was an easy decision to join.
When the doors reopened, Gideon flew the 1st revenue-hour flight. While Gideon has only held his title for a short time, he already recognizes the challenges he’ll face. “As a line pilot, I mostly just had to worry about myself.
Now, I have an entire group of pilots to watch over!” That group routinely consists of around 23 pilots, most working under contracts. Those contracts can last from 30 to 90 days, depending on the assignment.
With the harsh winters in Alaska, most work is done during the 6 months of warmer weather. While on a job that depends on the specific contract, pilots may be in the field for months at a time. Gideon says, “It takes a special type of pilot to work up here.
Not just the challenges of the terrain and weather, but the isolation can be a big factor.” Although most of Soloy’s pilots average around 7000 hours of flight experience, with several over the 13,000-hour mark, the company has no minimum requirements.
Director Baechler explains this approach when he says, “For us, it’s about the fit of the person to the company, the specific contract, and the type of work. As long as you have the ability to fly and the desire to be here, we will train the skills we require.”
Safety by example
Having no minimum requirements does not mean Soloy takes shortcuts in safety, as Director of Safety Dane Crowley will confirm. He has spent most of his life in Alaska and around aviation. “My step dad was employed by the FAA and I grew up looking out my window at the runway in Bethel.
It’s just kind of always been part of my life,” he says. During his senior year of high school, Crowley was hired as part of a fire crew. He would spend the better part of the next 15 years in aerial fire work, including fire attack, mapping, aerial field observation, and most anything on the aviation side of firefighting. Along the way, he earned his degree in natural resources from the University of Alaska Fairbanks.
After Crowley’s firefighting days were done, he took a position with a timber company as a resource manager. Due to his experience in firefighting, he was later assigned as their safety person. Crowley was called by Soloy 5 years ago. The company was looking for a non-pilot, non-maintenance person for the director of safety position. Crowley fit the bill and joined the team in 2014. “I’ve been thrilled to be here.
Everyone in this organization is on the same page with safety,” he states. This role includes oversight of the aviation operations and occupational safety programs. Soloy utilizes a robust SMS that was developed in-house to meet its specific needs, which Crowley revamped a few years ago. Because of the type of work Soloy’s pilots are involved in, they are under intense scrutiny from the oil and gas producers and the mining oversight organizations, including regular audits.
“Safety is what we do here,” he says. “Every part of our job must revolve around it. And you need buy-in from the top on down. That is exactly what we have. Everyone here leads by example.” Crowley adds, “This company has a family feel to it, both internally and to our customers. The Soloy name means something around here and our reputation is our business.”
Keeping the rotors turning
The final step of ensuring that level of safety is the maintenance department. Helping make sure things are done correctly is Assistant DOM Joey Bernier.
While seeking a career path, the Alaskan native stumbled onto aviation, as he says. “I was looking for something new and came across the helicopter operator that Chris Soloy had worked for. They hired me as a ‘do anything’ guy.
Whatever they needed, I’d do it.” When Soloy reopened in 2011, Bernier decided that he wanted to work there. “Soloy has the best reputation in the valley, and I wanted to be there,” he adds. In 2015, Bernier joined Soloy Helicopters. At the time, he only had his airframe certification, but Chris Soloy offered to give him his powerplant rating, to earn his full A&P.
Bernier worked as a field mechanic, joining the pilot and aircraft on contract assignments, as is Soloy’s procedure. He was promoted to his current position in 2018, helping DOM Chris Lanphir oversee the 12 mechanics, including an avionics specialist.
Most mx personnel work 120-day contracts and go home in the winter. With the new IYS facility, annuals and major work, up to and including 12-year inspections, are scheduled during the off-season.
Much of the maintenance can be done onsite, but engine and gearbox overhauls are farmed out. Bernier reiterates what his colleagues say when he speaks about working at Soloy. “We really are like a big family,” he says. “When I came here, I knew it was what I wanted for my life and my career. I’ll be here forever. After all, you can’t break up with your family!”
The Last Frontier and beyond
Chris Soloy and his team have spent the past 4 decades building a reputation of safe, reliable, trustworthy helicopter services in one of the most inhospitable environments in which pilots can fly. His home-grown, family approach to his employees and clients has proved to be precisely the type of operation that companies look for.
Brent Bundy has been a police officer with the Phoenix Police Dept for 28 years. He has served in the PHX Air Support Unit for 18 years and is a helicopter rescue pilot with nearly 4000 hours of flight time. Bundy currently flies Airbus AS350B3s for the helicopter side of Phoenix PD’s air unit and Cessna 172, 182s and 210s for the fixed-wing side.