Family dispute clouds future of North Pole airport

Posted: Monday, April 03, 2000

An Alaska AP Member Exchange

NORTH POLE (AP) -- More than 40 years ago, James Bradley broke ground on his dream on a 145-acre homestead off the Richardson Highway near what is now North Pole.

''He bought a tractor, he bought a grader, he bought a roller,'' says his 88-year-old widow Sophie. And with the help of their three sons, he cleared the land, filled in the holes and began shaping the airfield now known as Bradley Sky Ranch.

The Bradleys raised their family in a 16-by-20-foot log cabin on the edge of the airport. They put whatever money they had into the airport, trading land to expand the runway, constructing taxiways and building hangars.

From humble beginnings, the airport now has a 4,100-foot runway, tie-down space for more 100 small planes and on-site aircraft maintenance businesses.

But 30 years after James Bradley's death, the airport is at the center of a family dispute so heated that the three Bradley brothers are forbidden by the court to set foot on the property they once called home.

A court order issued in November mandates the sale of the property, which the city of North Pole is interested in running as a municipal airport.

Sophie Bradley put all of her assets, including the airport, into a life estate to avoid going through probate court when she died. The life estate is managed by her sons as a partnership.

''As long as she is alive the property would be earning money for her to live on,'' says Jamie Bradley, at 47 the youngest of her sons. ''We set it up so she would never want for anything.''

The conflict began nearly two years ago when Robert Bradley, 51, sued his brothers, asking that the partnership be dissolved and its assets sold and divided.

The suit has spurred countersuits, restraining orders, threats and criminal assault charges. The file on the brothers' battle is several volumes thick.

A magistrate eventually appointed an outside party, Professional Guardian Services Corp., as Sophie Bradley's conservator. All of her cash and assets, including the airport, were put under the PGSC's control.

Robert would not comment on his lawsuit or the conservatorship, citing a court order not to talk. But Sophie, who now lives in Kenai with her oldest son Les, says she wants PGSC off her property and the airport returned to her.

''It doesn't belong to them,'' she says. ''I don't give them permission to take over.''

Jamie and Les Bradley, 55, say PGSC is doing a poor job managing the airport and that the company's actions are running the airport into the ground.

Jamie Bradley says PGSC is raising commercial and tie-down fees and has slacked on runway maintenance.

''People are leaving,'' Jamie says. ''A lot of people are waiting until spring to move their planes.''

John Braham, who has been flying out of Bradley Sky Ranch for about 20 years, says he nearly wrecked his plane upon landing earlier this winter.

''I nearly went into the snow banks with my airplane because of the way the snow had been handled,'' he says.

Braham says PGSC has told pilots they want to develop the airport into a thriving enterprise, but he doesn't see that happening.

''There really isn't enough money in it to make it something you do just for money,'' he says. ''The only reason that runway actually survived at all, like a lot of cases with aviation, it was a labor of love.''

PGSC vice president Bertha Jarvi says as conservator, PGSC is charged with protecting Sophie Bradley's financial interests.

To that end, the company has rented some of the building space at the airport and is looking to provide fuel service to pilots. The runways have been plowed, she says, and tie-down fees are being collected.

''The biggest thing is to maintain the airport as a viable airport out there and to encourage the city of North Pole to move forward with their plans to purchase it,'' Jarvi says.

The city has applied for a matching grant from the Federal Aviation Administration to do an airport master plan, says Merle Jantz, airport subcommittee coordinator. That could lead to federal money for the city to run the airport.

''I think the vision, as I see it now, is just a well-maintained general aviation airport,'' Jantz says. ''The value for the city would be the increased property values and the increased economic development around the city.''

With as many as 60 planes tying down at Bradley Sky Ranch, the FAA has an interest in helping the city reach its goal, says FAA airport planner Matthew Freeman.

Bill Oldham, who has flown out of Bradley Sky Ranch for 20 years, says city ownership would be a plus because the airport started going downhill long before PGSC took over.

''When the family owned it, you had two brothers going off their separate ways and one brother trying to run it and make a living out of it,'' Oldham says. ''It was not professionally run from the get-go.''

If the city does secure federal money, it could mean changes at the airport. Runways and taxiways would have to meet FAA specifications, Freeman says, and the city would have to make a long-term commitment to running the airport.

''Like anything, when you get funding from the government ... there is typically some strings attached,'' he said.

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