Brady recalls early days of Alaska aviation

Pioneer aviator built Era from a single chopper in 1948 to international group

Posted: Monday, January 24, 2005

ANCHORAGE - Carl Brady and Era Aviation have been a constant in Alaska's aviation industry since 1948, when the Arkansas-born man brought the first helicopter to the territory to take advantage of the area's budding government presence.

Brady built the company from a single chopper operating out of the 49th state to a booming, internationally recognized operation, with bases in the Gulf of Mexico, Honduras and Sudan.

By adding flightseeing and fixed-wing services, Era Aviation has become a staple in the Alaska transportation industry and in its economy.

Now, nearly 60 years since an adventuresome 28-year-old man came to Alaska to find his fortunes, the company that Brady built is again changing with the times.

Seacor Holdings Inc., a Houston-based company that supports oil and gas companies, in January announced it has bought Era for $118.1 million.

"I was against the sale," Brady said in a recent interview. "I hated to see it happen. But I guess it's what they had to do."

At 85 years old, Brady's movements have slowed, and after years of flying helicopters, his hearing isn't so good. But his mind is sharp.

Sitting in his downtown condominium, Brady talked about the old flying days. He shared photos of his fresh-faced self with former presidents, dignitaries and movie stars. He took former President Gerald Ford on a helicopter ride, he said. He also met Richard Nixon, but no ride for him.

Remember Richard Simmons of the 1955 television series "Sgt. Preston of the Yukon"? Brady taught him how to fly.

As a young boy, Brady was struck by Charles Lindbergh's 1927 flight over the Atlantic in the Spirit of St. Louis.

"I got to meet him later on," Brady said. "(Former) Gov. (Wally) Hickel had Lindbergh to his house once. I didn't take him on a helicopter trip."

As soon as he was able to, Brady learned to fly planes. He had flown 1,200 hours in the Army Air Force during World War II, where he taught young cadets how to fly, he said. Soon after he got out of the service, Brady learned to fly helicopters.

"I had flown all my life and helicopters looked interesting for making money," he said.

With two partners, Brady started a crop-dusting business in 1947 in Yakima, Wash., becoming one of the first to use helicopters in a commercial business. In June 1948, Brady brought to Alaska the first commercial helicopter, the Bell 47A. A twin of that original Bell, a 47B, is on display in the international terminal of the Anchorage airport.

Brady persuaded government surveyors that a helicopter was the best way to map Alaska. He was awarded a contract and changed the name of the company to Economy Helicopters. At the time, officials estimated it would take survey crews several years to complete the job trudging through the woods using mules. Brady and his helicopter helped the crew get it done in about three months.

His wife, Carol, got quite a shock when he came back home to Yakima, however.

"He had this bushy beard," she said. "That was a time when men didn't wear beards. When he went to the barbershop to get it shaved off, the Yakima paper came and took before and after pictures. They put them on the front page."

Harvey Goodale later gave the Bradys a painting showing a young bushy-faced Brady in front of his helicopter in a small Alaska Native village. Business was pretty steady during those early years, Carl Brady said.

By 1958, the expanding oil industry's operations began to place a greater demand on the lone-helicopter business. Economy merged with Rotor Aids Inc., a California-based company, to become Era Helicopters. The fleet began to grow. The Brady family moved permanently to Anchorage.

"There was a lot of work for helicopters here in those days," Brady said. "But I stayed in Alaska mostly because of the people and the area."

In 1958, Era opened a base on Merrill Field and expanded to Kenai in 1962.

In 1964, Brady brought the first turbine-powered helicopter, a Bell 204B, to Alaska. In 1967, construction of the trans-Alaska oil pipeline was on the horizon. Preparation work needed to be conducted, and helicopters were the best method of getting it done.

"We needed capital to expand," Brady said. "They were ready to build the pipeline; there was all kinds of activity going on at that time."

That year, he worked a deal to become a part of Rowan Cos. Inc., a Houston-based company providing contract drilling services. Era sold for $2.5 million, Brady said. He became an executive vice president and a board member of Rowan, and continued his role as president and chief executive officer of Era.

The agreement allowed Era to venture more readily outside to the company's printed history. Within the next five years, Era acquired helicopter operations in Fairbanks and Juneau. In 1978, Era established a base of operations in Lake Charles, La., to be closer to its Gulf work.

In 1978, Era also expanded into fixed-wing services after purchasing Jet Alaska.

"It was a good move for us," Brady said. "Those were the first jets in Alaska, and we flew them all over the state."

Era's fixed-wing division has since become the state's largest regional airline, with hubs in Anchorage and Bethel. It flies passengers and cargo to 24 destinations around the state.

Brady retired in 1984.

With rising operating and fuel costs, especially during the last several years, Era has struggled financially. As of September 2004, Rowan reported a $20.2 million loss in the aviation division, though a portion of that was for one-time write-offs. In 2002, Era had a profit of $14 million. Still, the bottom lines haven't been steady or predictable.

Rowan's board last April began the process to get out of the aviation business to focus on its core aspects of drilling and manufacturing.

Seacor wanted to buy the helicopter portion of Era, but made it clear in the beginning it wasn't interested in flying planes, said Milt Rose, vice president of Seacor Holdings.

"It's not part of our core business," he said. "We didn't think we would be good owners. It's a complex business, and we've got no business running an airline. But it was the only way we could acquire the helicopters, which we were very interested in."

Era and Seacor are in negotiations with an unidentified company to sell the fixed-wing portion of the company. Meanwhile, the Era Helicopters division is downsizing, said Era President Chuck Johnson.

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