Having survived cancer and climbed Everest, Jules Mountain took on another challenge, a transatlantic helicopter trip in a Bell 505 – raising money for charity in the process…
9 June 2021
It was 2016 when I climbed Everest – it was a crazy stupid idea and I nearly died twice in the process (See Aftershock Everest, available on Amazon). But having been diagnosed with cancer several years earlier I promised myself that if I survived then I would make the most of every day… and Everest was a dream. But when I was having the five chemo drugs injected into my veins (one of them so harmful that the nurse had to wear a cloak, gown, gloves and face mask just to administer it), I could not even imagine walking down to the shops, let alone climbing Everest…
Following the publication of Aftershock I was interviewed on Radio 5 Live, where I was asked, “Now that you have climbed Everest what’s next?” I replied that I was going to walk to the North Pole. It seemed like the obvious answer, so I said it. It’s a two-week hike and at any point, if you get into difficulty, they can heli-lift you out. And when you get to the North Pole they heli-lift you out anyway. But, to be honest my heart wasn’t in it. There really is no point in doing a challenge if you are not totally committed.
Then, while I was sitting in a pub in Hertfordshire sipping a pint, one of my friends said to me that ‘there was a chap looking to bring a heli back from Canada and he’s going to strip it down, containerise it and rebuild it in the UK’. “What! Why not just fly it back?”
🔳 It cannot fly 3,000 miles (its range is 300 miles)
🔳 It’s not made for it
🔳 It’s not pressurised
🔳 It does not have oxygen
🔳 It can fly for three hours max and the stretches across water are almost five hours so it does not have enough fuel
🔳 Nobody has done it before in a Bell 505, so it’s unproven.
Suddenly the adrenalin was coursing through me – gosh that’s it. I knew from that moment that this was my next challenge! “Better to die trying than never to have tried at all,” I thought to myself. Basically I would rather live a very full life and hope I make it to old age than sit in my wheelchair dribbling into my tea dreaming about all the things I wish I’d done.
I only started flying three years ago, so this was going to be a monumental challenge… and it was. Added to that was the fact that I planned to do it in 2020 – and we all know what happened in 2020…
Despite Covid-19, as well as all the other challenges the trip presented, it did go ahead and I was the first person to fly a Bell 505 helicopter transatlantic, and boy did it have some very scary moments. I’m now writing a book about the experience and all proceeds will go to my cancer charity, UCLH Haematology Cancer Care Charity.
Below is an excerpt from the draft book of the flight, which details the journey between Canada and Greenland.
It’s funny, even when you’re in such a unique position, soaring over rolling clouds with crisp blue skies, somewhere very few people will be lucky enough to be, your mind can get stuck on the little details that could potentially go wrong.
People don’t normally fly helicopters at 14,500ft. In the UK, most general aviation involves flying at around 2,000ft. You can see everything on the ground. You can see the houses, you can see the sheep, you can see the fields, you can see everything.
But right now, I was right up in the Gods, and all I could see are clouds beneath me. I was whizzing along. I’m still thinking about the things that could go wrong and I am gasping for air – is hypoxia setting in? I shouldn’t be up at 14,500ft, but the clouds have forced me up here. It was a case of go under or over – and I chose over.
Not just that, I’m thinking about all the other ways this serene scene could turn into the last thing I ever see, in the blink of an eye. Everything was so resolutely calm but there was always the potential for very real and immediate danger. I was acutely aware of that.
Above the clouds looks magical, just like candy floss and all those other cliches, but I knew that was all a lie. It was -14°C – and those clouds could also be deadly. I was actually being trapped by them at this height. If I dropped into the clouds the windscreen would frost up immediately, the metal of the blades would attract moisture and as soon as it hit the blades it’d freeze on it, and ice / hoar frost would begin to build up. When ice builds up, the aircraft would become very unstable, very quickly. It would shudder like mad, then the blades would potentially fail, and I’d drop out of the sky like a stone!
I was thinking about what it would be like to drop 14,500ft out of the sky… I’d have quite a few seconds to think about it before I hit the sea.
… my sphincter was twitching like a car suspension driving across a ploughed field …
God, what would I do? Would I jump out of the door, hoping that I could somehow survive the drop into the sea, all the while praying I didn’t hit an iceberg when I landed? Would I sit in the aircraft and hope to hell that when I crashed into the sea the impact didn’t kill me? From this height, it almost certainly would.
I didn’t know what I’d do. I was now so committed – so committed – that there was effectively nothing I could do but ride it out. I was stuck above the cloud and if I went into the cloud for any reason, I’d be toast.
If this machine failed now, if it ran out of fuel, if there was a problem with the pump, if that bloody fuse I’d been fretting over packed in, I’d be dead. There were so many tiny problems that could kill me immediately.
In normal weather if the engine did pack in, you can take the power off, lower the collective, which disengages the engine, and then, with the upwards air through the blades, float down and steer – autorotation. But not if you go into freezing fog and ice builds up on the blades, making them unstable. They’d eventually rip themselves off. Once they’re out of balance, they’re not going to last long, it’s going to rip the driveshaft. The decision at the start of the day was whether to go under or go over the cloud. Under was a 500ft corridor for 4.5 hours and the 500ft gap could close up at any time, so the decision was to go over. I was now totally committed and totally reliant on the aircraft.
In many ways, I felt I was in more immediate danger than at any point when I had climbed Everest. Granted, in the death zone on the mountain there was very little chance of rescue if something went wrong – if you fell in a crevasse or something like that – but there was still a small chance of rescue. Here, I’m totally committed for five hours in a little glass bubble with a single engine. If anything goes wrong, I’ve got no way out.
“Right,” I said to myself. “I think it’s time for a sandwich.” I dug about in my bag and pulled out a squashed sandwich. I had a flask of tea next to me, so I poured myself a cup and stuck some music on via the iPad. At least it was a bit of a distraction to help me forget the fact that my sphincter was twitching like a car suspension driving across a ploughed field…
I sat there, looking out over the cloud, munching on a sandwich and trying to enjoy my cup of tea. It was a little moment of calm even though I had a perpetual knot in my stomach, among other places.
I thought I’d better see if I could get hold of somebody, just let them know I’m not dead yet. I’d been flying for a couple of hours now and I’d meant to call ahead to my destination every 30 minutes to let them know I was OK. I’d been struggling with the satellite phone’s Bluetooth link-up off and on throughout the trip, which was making it tricky to get in touch, but it seemed like it had taken this opportunity to pack up entirely. I fiddled with the settings and picked up some static on my headset. Then it went again. Could I get the Bluetooth to work? No. It was just impossible. I took the thing out of the docking station, removed my headset from one ear, punched in the number for Sisimiut Airport and stuck the sat phone to my head.
I yelled, “Hello? Can you hear me? Hello.”
One thing about helicopters is that they’re pretty noisy. I was wearing a great set of Bose A20 noise-cancelling headphones, and you sort of forget how effective they are until you take them off and try to communicate in the heli without them. With the Bose A20 headset on you press a button and it’s like ‘zhuuum’ – everything closes, all the outside noise, the blades, the engine, all high frequency and low frequency stuff, it’s cut out. It really is mind-blowingly good.
But when the Bluetooth wasn’t working and you’re stuck wedging a sat phone to your ear, without the headphones, it’s a different noisy story.
“November Five Zero Five Hotel here, can you hear me?,” I shouted into the phone.
Very faintly, I could hear the far-off response, almost lost among the heli noises. I had no idea what it was saying. I continued to shout.
It was ridiculous, like something out of a Monty Python sketch. I’ve got the thing glued to my ear but couldn’t hear a single thing the voice on the other end was saying.
“I’m fine, I’m fine,” I shouted. “I’m on track, all good! I can’t hear you… I’ve got to go now.”
I hung up, hoping they’d got the message. I’ve made contact, I thought, they know I’m still alive and that’s the main thing. It was frigging hopeless. I ploughed onwards.
Not long afterward, a voice started coming through the headset. It sounded like comms from a commercial aeroplane, somewhere above me. I didn’t know if it was Greenland Air or something else, but I thought I could try radioing them and asking if they could relay a message to Sisimiut for me.
“This is November Five Zero Five Hotel, come in,” I said.
“Roger November Five Zero Five Hotel, I hear you,” a voice with a thick Greenland accent replied.
I asked if they could relay my position to Sisimiut Airport and let them know I was making good progress and should be with them in a couple of hours. The commercial pilot was more than happy to use their more sophisticated comms systems to get the message across, and I relaxed a little knowing that Sisimiut wouldn’t be sounding the alarm – and assuming I’d crashed into the ocean. It was all looking good, the fuel pump was keeping my fuel topped up, my destination knew I was en route and I’d had a cup of tea. I was actually starting to enjoy myself. That was until … Beep. Beep. Beep. WARNING WARNING. Beep. Beep. Beep.
“What the …,” I said out loud, startled.
Beep. Beep. Beep. ECU DEGRADE.
The incessant alarm cut like a knife – a piercing, shrieking noise. The clouds seemed to yawn in front of me, ready to cast me into the ocean to my death.
I thought hard. It’s the electronic control unit, degrade isn’t good. This is a FADEC computer controlled helicopter system… This aircraft had more than 50 possible error messages, and I’ve got to remember them, in my head, all 50 of them. Geez, what is this one? Was I about to drop out of the sky?
Beep. Beep. Beep. ECU DEGRADE. The aircraft continued to scream in my ears, crying out about the blinking ECU.
“I think I’m OK,” I said to myself, the hair prickling on the back of my head. “If I fly carefully, fly straight and don’t make any violent movements, I should be OK. I think it sets itself to the last fuel setting it was in, so the fuel burn should be constant, so it just keeps pumping fuel in at the right rate.”
I’m not sure I wholly convinced myself, but when the computer system that controls everything fails, the valves stop at the level they are at. What it could mean is that, when you come into land, you’re pumping in too much fuel. I was just thinking if I fly gently, fly carefully, keep going and get to Greenland, I could worry about how I put the heli down when I get there. The engine might over-rev when I try to land, as it would still be pumping fuel like mad, but in theory I could put it down without a disaster. ECU FAIL is a constant fuel flow so engine off landing, really, really bad. ECU DEGRADE is land as soon as practical, which won’t be for another two hours, and pray in those two hours it doesn’t become an ECU FAIL…
I pressed the mute button to shut the ECU DEGRADE alarm. It stayed on the screen flashing in bright red to remind me that I might just be pushing my luck…
I grabbed the packet of wine gums next to me. Whenever I got a bit nervous during the trip, I’d take to chewing wine gums.
Right now, I was piling the wine gums in, and chewing like mad. Moving the headset mic down, chucking a wine gum in, mic back up again, chew, chew, chew. It was something to focus on other than the ECU DEGRADE.
Twenty minutes passed and thankfully I was still airborne. I’d started to relax a little, easing up on the wine gums.
However, my feet were getting really very cold now. The heli doesn’t offer much protection from the elements. It was only a thin single-layer plastic screen and between me and the -14°C freezing outside temperature.
“Turn the heating on,” I said to myself. “Important to keep warm.”
I reached and turned the heating knob. There was a massive crunch and the knob started spinning and spinning. All I could think was, ‘Holy sh*t, I’ve broken the heating knob as well now. Oh crap’.
I had no idea if the heater had broken while it was set on defog or to heat on the feet. Consequently, this meant that now I’d no clue if I’m going to be able to demist the windscreen or if I’ll just have hot air pumping onto my feet for the rest of the journey. Keeping warm is important, but being able to see was the main priority, so I prayed it was stuck on defog. Then before I knew it there was the sudden burst of Beep. Beep. Beep. COLD BATTERY, COLD BATTERY. Beep. Beep. Beep.
The warning light blinked angrily on the screen. My mind was racing: Bl**dy hell, holy smoke. What now? The guts were really churning now. Bl**dy hell, this really was not good. I could feel the blood draining from my face…
It was perfectly clear as to what was happening. The outside temperature was -14°C, the aircraft had never been pushed to these sorts of extremes before and it was really, really struggling.
I didn’t even really know whether these aircraft are designed to fly at these temperatures for long periods. I was flying up there for around 4.5 hours.
Normally, the heli was designed to fly for three hours, full stop, but with the TurtlePac fuel bladder, I could go for five hours. But it didn’t seem to me as if the heli had been built to fly at this temperature for this amount of time.
It seemed like it was taking its toll, the computer system was basically shutting down ECU DEGRADE the heating knob was broken and I had a frozen battery. And I was running low on wine gums… could it get any worse?
Beep. Beep. Beep, went the heli with another warning message, and again, Beep. Beep. Beep.
All I could think was, oh crap, that’s it. I’m going to die now. I’m done, toast, heading for the drink.
It was an odd experience, accepting fate, sort of like a weight off my shoulders…
You’ve pushed it all your life, I thought to myself. You’ve really pushed it. You’re a cat with nine lives and you’ve already used up 10 of them. This is it, you’ve pushed it too far now.
This was really stupid, I thought. I shouldn’t be doing this. I don’t even know why I’m doing it. Now I’ve overdone it and I’m going to die. What was it even for?
Beep. Beep. Beep. BATTERY HEATING, BATTERY HEATING. Beep. Beep. Beep.
What? Wait, what’s this? Oh yes, of course. The battery has a built-in heater, some sort of printed circuit board, and if the battery starts to get cold it warms it up, and it was really, really working. What a clever machine – well done Bell.
I dared to breathe a little sigh of relief. It was a very, very smart bit of tech, something you don’t get in the old helicopters, nothing like it.
The cold battery was dealt with, it was warming itself up. The battery wasn’t going to be the problem that killed me. I had no idea how long it was going to take to warm it up fully, but I was just praying for the battery not to fail. If it did fail, I’d lose all the electronics and up at 14,500ft at -14°C, I really just wanted everything to work.
If all the electronics failed, this beautiful little Bell heli had a little standby unit with its own battery in it. It would keep working, but with limited instruments of artificial horizon, altitude and speed. The bare minimum. Two little, tiny screens at the top of the dash.
Jeepers, relying on those in these conditions would be tough, at this height with another two hours of flying, but much better than nothing and a nice design feature. Luckily, it looked like I wouldn’t have to do that, if the battery warming circuit did its job.
I kept flying, there was really nothing else I could do. I was at the mercy of the elements, and of the heli. At least there were blue skies, and the sun was shining.
Still, the only thing keeping me going, keeping me from panicking, was that I had a job to do that required my full attention. I had both feet going, both hands going, I was concentrating hard. Music pumping through the headset now, calming my frayed nerves. That was what I needed.
The concentration it took to pilot the helicopter, to the job at hand, kept my mind off the fact that I could probably die at any minute.
I am happy to say I made it into Sisimuit and the Bell 505 helicopter was indestructible and a fantastic machine to fly – it just kept going and going.
For more on this adventure, wait for the book Heli-boy to come out.
NB: Jules set up a JustGiving page for the transatlantic trip to raise funds for his cancer charity, the UCLH Cancer Care Charity. If you enjoyed this article and would like to make a donation, even £1 (if everybody donates £1 that’s £20,000 to the charity) please visit