Wings and tales

Posted: Sunday, September 21, 2003

Turn back the pages of time nearly a century and you will find a pair of Ohio brothers on the verge of conquering humankind's gravitational boundaries. On the brisk winter morning of Dec. 17, 1903, Wilbur and Orville Wright made the first successful sustained powered flights in a heavier-than-air machine.

Fast-forward 99 years, eight months, and 21 days to today, and you'll find a man a world away from the birthplace of modern manned flight in Kitty Hawk, N.C., waiting to overcome mortal limitations to return to the sky.

Around the time of the centennial anniversary of that monumental event, Kenai pilot Les Bradley expects to get air under his wings again, after a nearly-six-month hiatus to recover from an injury.

Although not as storied as the Wright brothers, Bradley's history with aviation has spanned nearly half of the time that men and women have guided motored birds through the air, with a particular notation in Alaska aviation history: flying for the first Yukon Quest Dog Sled Race. He comes from a tradition of flying that runs even longer, as his family built, and still owns, the largest privately owned public air strip in the state.

Although his interests are vast he keeps bees in the summer, builds furniture, gardens and took third place in the inaugural Midnight Sun 600 snowmachine race from Anchorage to Fairbanks his passion is flying.

The 58-year-old pilot shares a bond with the Wrights and with countless flyers throughout the ages and the world an appreciation for the sky's peacefulness as well as for the ever-present potential for danger.

"Flying is hours and hours of boredom punctuated by moments of sheer terror," Bradley said with a chuckle while skimming through dated flight logs.

He made his first solo flight at age 16 and has logged more than 35,000 hours of flight time since then, with the lion's share of that in Alaska skies.

"I got my pilot's license before I got my driver's license," Bradley said.

Looking at only a few numbers and words jotted down in his handwriting in the log book, he pointed out that although the entries have been few and far in between, they have been memorable.

"I didn't write many notes, but the dates will get me in the ball park," he said.

He happened upon a four-leaf clover tucked in one book between pages yellowed with years, and thumbed at an entry dated Jan. 31, 1975. Recognizing the AC-681 aircraft listed on the log, Bradley dove right into the story about that particular date and how luck prevailed over skill. Bradley explained he had just taken off from Fairbanks behind the stick of the "Aero Commander" hauling cargo for Air North Cargo to the North Slope.

"Probably propane, dynamite or tires," he said.

A routine trip.

"I just leveled and I got a little red light that said I didn't have hydraulic pressure," he said. "I tried to put the (landing) gear down, but the gear wouldn't work because it was 40 below on the ground."

The extreme cold had stymied the elastic in the landing gear mechanism, so that although the wheels would fold down, they wouldn't lock. Bradley said he knew better than to try to complete the trip before he could take care of the situation and opted to make a fix before leaving Fairbanks airspace.

 

Bradley thumbs through one of the flight log books that document his many hours in the air.

Photo by M. Scott Moon

"I radioed in the situation and another pilot flew up and tried to use his wings to knock the gear into place," he said. "But that still didn't work."

The other pilot was Ron Klemm, who said stunts like the wing-to-wheel in-flight repair job he attempted with Bradley were commonplace.

"It seemed like a normal effort to us," Klemm said. "I told him what I was going to do and he was all for it."

Both men considered the fix a "successful failure," as Klemm described it, and Bradley decided to make an emergency landing at Eielson Air Force Base. He acknowledged his decision took into account the chance for a perilous ending.

"I landed at Eielson because it had an ice-packed field and an emergency crew," he said. "I just bellied in."

The Commando came down on the limp landing gear, crushing it, and slid across the hardpack to a stop.

Bradley walked away from the ordeal.

"There were no repairs to the plane other than to the hydraulic landing gear," he said with a wink and a wry smile.

Flipping through a different book, a group of log entries between September and October 1984 labeled "various points in the high desert north of Mexico City," spurred Bradley into another high-flying tale. He picked up the story as if his audience had been listening to every detail leading up to this starting point.

"We were hauling TVs and stereos out of Texas into Mexico," he said, before cautioning his audience. "It was legal in the States. We'd checked with customs."

He and a cargo outfit he was flying with in the Lower 48 during the mid-1980s were delivering high fidelity appliances to a "family" south of the border, Bradley said. He would land in the middle of the night on desert air strips marked with flairs, off-load his cargo to the buyers and fly back into the safe haven of U.S. airspace before the sun came up.

"The Mexican government wasn't too happy with us," he said, without commenting on how the transactions sat with the country's legal system.

Bradley said a close call came one night when he landed a Curtiss C-46 "tail dragger" (two large wheels in the front of the plane's carriage with a third smaller wheel trailing in the rear) on top of a mesa.

"We were 6,000 feet up, so our ground speed was faster than if we were at sea level," he said. "The end of the mesa was coming up fast, so I made a ground loop to stop. We blew a tire."

Their clients, fearing discovery by Mexican authorities, promised trouble if Bradley and his crew overstayed their welcome.

"The 'family' we were delivering for said they would burn the plane if we were not gone by the morning," he said "They didn't want any evidence."

He said a call was put in for help and his outfit dispatched another plane with a spare front landing tire. All the while, as the spare came and the crew made repairs, the clock was ticking.

"The sun was just starting to peek out by the time we lifted off," he said.

Bradley said the rush he gets from those flights the feeling of tenuous control is why he loves flying.

"You ever ride a bicycle?" he asked. "Remember that first time you started going and didn't fall over? That's probably the same sensation."

The draw to that feeling may have come naturally.

"As a family, we've always had airplanes," Bradley said.

His father, James Bradley, flew bush planes in Maine before flying for the U.S. Armed Forces in World War II. Bradley was born in New Jersey, and his family moved to a homestead in what is now North Pole in 1949.

He was the oldest son of James and mother, Sophie, and was followed by younger brothers Robert and James.

The homestead is now Bradley Sky-Ranch, an airfield and residential development with a 4,000-foot gravel landing strip nestled neatly between the Richardson Highway and the Tanana River.

In 1990, Bradley moved to Kenai with his mother, into a house right next to the Kenai Municipal Airport runway.

"I can see my airplane and walk to work," he said of the Everts Air Fuel C-46 he flies for a living. "And the Era 5:45 (a.m.) plane is like having an alarm clock."

By the time Bradley reached adolescence, his family was firmly rooted in aviation. He said he had a difficult time getting flying lessons from his father.

"Blood relations don't work," he said. "So I went and got an instructor. And I'm still learning to fly."

Continuing to page through his log book, Bradley came upon an instance where, again, a little ingenuity and luck bent the learning curve in his favor. The entry read March 9, 1972, and said he was flying a Cessna 180 from Fort Yukon.

"The exhaust fell out and I landed on a (frozen) lake to take a look," he said.

 

Les Bradley looks at a map of Alaska while discussing the many communities he has visited by plane.

Photo by M. Scott Moon

Upon inspecting the six-cylinder engine of the single-propeller aircraft, he said he discovered he was in danger of flying with engine exhaust and smoke trailing into the cockpit and in his face.

"I put the (exhaust) parts in the back of the plane and wired the cowling closed with radio wire, and returned to Fort Yukon," Bradley said. "This was when the FAA (Federal Aviation Administration) wasn't as strict as they are now. A person has to use their head to get out of tough spots. Over the years, the FAA has gotten so tight, young pilots don't know how to think outside the box."

He flipped the pages in his log book to an entry dated September 1986 through March 1988, which shed some light on a dark hour in Bradley's flying past.

"Grounded due to admission of problem with alcohol. Thank you, God," the entry read.

He said he was uncertain whether job-related stress was the source of his bout with alcohol, but Bradley took steps to address the problem on his own.

"Alcohol. A lot of pilots have used it to excess, me being one of them," he said. "I went to a dry-out center and came out sober. And I was sober for a year."

Bradley has been sober since then.

But after 12 months of sustained sobriety, when time came for his next FAA-mandated physical, he still got in trouble.

"I knew the exam asked about whether you had been in a dry-out place," he said.

Bradley said he asked a friend for advice on how to answer the question during the physical, and he said they decided that the truth wouldn't hurt since he had been sober for so long.

They were wrong.

"It's kind of tough when something you've done all your life is taken from you," Bradley said. "It's just like a slap in the face."

During the time he was grounded, he worked around his family's airfield in Fairbanks as a heavy equipment operator. Now he is dealing with being grounded for a different reason.

On Friday, Oct. 13, 2000, he fell off of a ladder while working for Everts Air Fuel in Kenai and loading one of the company's C-46s. The ladder he was climbing was leaning against the rear-tilting airplane and tilted over.

Bradley broke his pelvis and ripped tendons in his right shoulder. Although the bone healed, the shoulder did not, and in June he had an operation to repair the damaged joint. Doctor's orders specifically prohibited flying or any strenuous work for between three and six months. He said he is taking it in stride.

"It's something I have to do," he said.

He met his wife, Susan, more than 25 years ago in Fairbanks, but no romantic connection was made because she was married at the time. Shortly after his fall, the two reunited and were married in February 2001.

"If he hadn't fallen, he probably wouldn't have looked me up," she said. "I was so taken with his always flying."

He took her flying with him across the state, as displayed by the giant map on the wall of their home with push pins marking all the places they visited.

While Bradley is enjoying his downtime, relaxing with his wife and taking care of their bees and her garden, he admits to an itch to get back into the air.

"I'm anxious to get back up there," he said.

Just as time counts down the end of his second exile from the sky, history will mark the end of the first centennial cycle of human flight. Both Bradley and the legacy of the Wright brothers will have aged yet another year.

But he said he may have found a foil to time that could extend his days of tooling through the clouds.

"Age is a state of mind," Bradley said. "We've been going backward ever since we married."



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