Piedmont Flight 349 Sole Survivor Phil Bradley Dies at 87

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Ernest Philip “Phil” Bradley, Sr., died August 23 in a hospice in Monroe, North Carolina, at age 87.
He was the only survivor of the crash of Piedmont Airline Flight 349 on Bucks Elbow Mountain above Crozet on Halloween eve in 1959.

He was born May 19, 1926, in Clifton Forge, a son of Felix Augustine Bradley and Ethel Mae Worth Bradley. In addition to his parents, he was preceded in death by three sisters and three brothers.
He was a D-Day veteran in the U.S. Naval Armed Guard.

Bradley is survived by his wife, Rose “Zella” Stansbury Bradley, son Brad Bradley and his wife Carol of Monroe, step-son Rick Toombs and wife Betty of Friendsville, Tennessee. and three grandchildren: Hayden, Conner and Brianna Bradley, all of Monroe.

In retirement, Bradley collaborated with Crozet writer Richard F. Gaya Sr. on a published book, The Crash of Piedmont Flight 349 Into Bucks Elbow Mt. As Told By The Sole Survivor E. Philip Bradley, that gives a full account, with photographs, of what it known about the crash. Or see the Gazette’s October 2009 issue for Crozet historian Phil James’s detailed narrative and unique photos.

The FAA ruled that the crash of the DC-3 at 2,500 feet, about 500 feet below the top, was caused by a navigational error of omission by the pilots. The two-man crew failed to do a small, required course change and struck the ancient rib of rock, likely thinking they were approaching Charlottesville airport.

Bradley was a labor union organizer for the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers at the time of the crash and later became a labor dispute mediator for the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service. He was famous in his service as a peacemaker, broker and healer, and had an outstanding record of resolutions.

Bradley always wanted to draw attention to the victims of the crash and in 1999 he designed and had placed in Mint Springs Valley Park a memorial dedicated to those who perished on the mountainside above.

Bradley returned to Crozet on Oct. 31, 2009, to the memorial to observe the 50th anniversary of the tragedy. A crowd of about 125, some families of crash victims, others Crozet residents who took part in the removal of bodies, attended a memorial ceremony Bradley organized.

Phil Bradley and his wife Bradley in 2007.
Phil Bradley and his wife Bradley in 2007.

Bradley told the story of the flight, the apparition of Jesus Christ at the moment before the impact, and his ordeal on the mountain before he was found.

“What if I had had to take another seat,” he said. “I ponder this every day and I have no answer.” Bradley was in a single seat at the very back of the plane.

Dr. Frank McCue, the well-known orthopedist at the University of Virginia who put Bradley’s hip back in his socket when, after two nights pinned on the mountain, he was finally discovered and rushed to the emergency room, described his memories of Bradley’s injuries. Immediately upon seeing Bradley arrive in the ER, McCue said, he and Dr. Charles Frankel put Bradley on the floor and with their combined might forced the hip in place.

“Phil Bradley was one of the most stoic, straight-thinking individuals I’ve ever met,” Dr. McCue said.

Bradley had made that flight before and knew what to expect. “I couldn’t understand why we didn’t land. It shouldn’t have taken so long to be down. Someone had told a joke and they were all laughing when we hit. I had the most beautiful vision of Jesus Christ. He looked at me just as I am looking at you. He said, ‘Be concerned not. I will be with you always.’ And I have never had a moment of fear since. If it hadn’t have been for the illumination of the mountain created by Christ I would not have known where I was.”

This is how Bradley explained the memorial to Phil James: “I had that vision of Christ when we hit and I was thrown out. He was standing about three to four feet off the ground. Hence, this stone is three feet square and four feet high and comes to a [20-degree] peak like his arms were going to heaven. That’s how I arrived at the size of the stone.

“There’s something I think about every day. I’ve already thought about it today: Suppose you were already in that seat when I got aboard that night up there in Washington. I would have to have taken a seat wherever it happened to be ‘cause it was only one seat left. Then would you have lived and I had died? Or would I have still lived by being in another seat? Or would I have died, or we all died?

“And I’ve had thousands of people ask me how come I survived.

The Piedmont Flight 349 memorial at Mint Springs in Crozet.
The Piedmont Flight 349 memorial at Mint Springs in Crozet.

“I was asked recently if I felt guilty having been the only one that lived. My response is always the fact that I didn’t make that decision. The good Lord made that decision and I can’t have any feelings one way or another, me being the only one that lived—because Christ made that decision, not me. I had another one who asked me what I had done with my life after that accident that maybe somebody could get something from it. I said the only thing I can tell you is live by example. I just live by example. What else could I do?”

Bradley credited Sally James of Crozet with the thought that Christ had appeared to the victims too. “I think we can all agree,” Bradley said, “those people saw him too. He was there for them. He took them with him. I believe that.”

“I feel a spiritual attachment to all the lost ones that grows stronger as I get older. I would like to see a nice, high, tall cross erected at the site. If I live long enough.” The crash site is on private property.

The family suggests that memorials be made to the E. Phil Bradley Scholarship Fund, 3112 Medlin Road, Monroe, NC 28112.