Survivor's return: Bradley and vintage DC-3 coming to CHO

cover_large-philbradleyinsetBradley and the crash of Piedmont Flight #349 were the subject of a last October Hook cover story. PHOTO BY HAWES SPENCER

Phil Bradley, the sole survivor of a 50-years-ago airliner crash near Crozet, will appear in Charlottesville in May as part of a commemorative tour that includes an airport appearance from a DC-3 just like the ill-fated one that crashed on October 30, 1959, killing 26 of the 27 people aboard.

"We think the story needs to be told," says organizer and Lynchburg-area resident Donald Stokes, who with fellow aviation aficionado Wally Coppinger of Charlotte, North Carolina, have decided to front the nearly $5,000 cost of revving up a vintage DC-3 to take Bradley and several other VIPs on a path similar to what Piedmont Airlines Flight #349 was supposed to have traveled that fateful, foggy night.

The May 5 Charlottesville event will come a day after the vintage craft carrying Bradley–- who lives in the North Carolina town of Monroe–- takes off from the plane's home base at the Charlotte Douglas International Airport. The entourage will land in Lynchburg, in time for an evening presentation by Liberty University aviation professor Kurt Reesman.

Liberty has an aeronautics school that trains "Christ-centered aviators," who may find inspiration from Bradley's oft-told story of conversing with a robed Jesus Christ as Bradley–- in what some consider a miracle–- tumbled through the ripped fuselage of the plane and somehow survived as everyone else aboard died on Buck's Elbow Mountain.

In what was then described as America's largest search-and-rescue operation, teams of helicopters and fixed-wing aircraft spent 36 hours searching before they finally found Bradley alive amid a scene of horrific carnage.

news-flight349-piedmontplaneThe DC-3 will fly over the crash site before landing in Charlottesville. PHOTO COURTESY CAROLINAS AVIATION MUSEUM

"It brings back a lot of deep memories that I hate to think about, frankly," says Bradley, who will turn 84 years old later in May.

Despite the memories, Bradley plans to speak about the crash in the public event at Liberty's 750-person capacity Towns Auditorium.

In Charlottesville, the event begins May 5 with a flyover of the crash site, which Bradley has already commemorated by erecting–- at his own expense–- a granite memorial in nearby Mint Springs Valley Park. Next, the entourage will land at CHO, Charlottesville-Albemarle Airport, where Bradley will sign copies of his memoir. For a dollar donation, says Stokes, the public will be invited to board the plane and speak with a Piedmont-uniformed flight attendant.

"This is the 75th anniversary year of the DC-3," says Gloria Dalton, a volunteer at the Carolinas Aviation Museum which owns the 1944 plane that will fly Bradley on this tour. Dalton, who has been vacuuming and polishing the craft in anticipation of the flight, says visitors may be impressed by the shiny aluminum skin, the vintage Piedmont colors, and by the "uphill" walk after entering a tailwheel-equipped plane.

Among the invited guests are the grandson of a couple who perished in the crash and Dr. Frank C. McCue III, the retired sports medicine pioneer and orthopedic surgeon who treated Bradley's crash injuries.

As for Bradley, this marks his second visit to the Charlottesville area in the past seven months. On October 31, 2009, he played host to a ceremony at Mint Springs memorializing the lives of those who died and told attendees he hopes someday to build a highly visible cross on the mountain.

The Lynchburg events begin at 11:30am May 4 with an airport book-signing and move at 7pm to the speeches at Liberty's Towns Auditorium. The time for the Charlottesville event is still tentative but may take place around 10:30am, May 5 at the General Aviation hangar. More information via dws7101@verizon.net.

–last updated 4:23am, Monday, April 19

2 comments

I met your uncle at the memorial service last October. I was the pilot who re-created the flight path that the CAB says the plane took in their report. I consider CAB report to be flawed and that the ALPA report is more believeable. I believe that the CAB found a way to sweep the case off their desks 45 days after the crash by citing that Capt. Lavrinc had emotional problems and was being treated for that condition. Your dad, along with Capt. Lavrinc, with the skills and competence they both possessed, would not have let this to happen that night.

There is a 1964 movie, "Fate is the Hunter", which challenges the findings of the FAA (the FAA evaolved from the CAB in the late '50's) when the blame for a crash is placed on the captain. A lone survivor tells the story.

It is a bit tedious at certain points, and certainly "corny" when you see the aircraft modeling used, but the point is well made. With your attachment to the event, it would certainly be worth seeing the trailer, or purchasing the movie off eBay or somewhere else.

If you would like to contact me, please get in touch with The Hook and they will give you my contact information.

I would like to have been part of this. My Dad, Lee Haley was the co-pilot of this flight.