Canadian Warplane Heritage Museum Founder Dennis Bradley lived for the freedom of flight

Dennis Bradley was a big man who lived for the freedom of flight. He refused to stay grounded, even when he found out his six-foot-six frame was too big for him to fly for the Royal Canadian Air Force.

'Founding father' played a crucial role in the restoration of an Avro Lancaster that flew to England in 2014

Dennis Bradley, one of the four "founding fathers" of the Canadian Warplane Heritage Museum, died Saturday. (Canadian Warplane Heritage Museum)

Dennis Bradley lived for the freedom of flight.

He refused to stay grounded, even when he found out his six-foot-six frame was too big for him to fly for the Royal Canadian Air Force.

Instead of becoming defeated and leaving his dream behind he found a way to feed his need for speed — restoring old fighter planes.

On Saturday, in his 81st year and following a short illness, the founder of the Canadian Warplane Heritage Museum died.

"Certainly there's a sense that part of our history now is gone," he said. "It was his idea, his dream and drive that made us become what we are today.

"But at the same time there's recognition of a life well-lived."

Bradley played a crucial role in creating the aviation museum, which currently houses almost 50 aircraft, and is the country's largest, according to CEO David Rohrer. He also credits Bradley with landing the museum's signature plane, the Lancaster bomber, one of only two airworthy Lancs in the world.

Dennis Bradley and his wife Joanne pose next to a restored fighter plane in the 1970s. (Canadian Warplane Heritage Museum)

Bradley was born in Winnipeg. His size came in handy when he played football for the Western University Mustangs and there was even some interest from the Hamilton Ticats.

"He had a big presence, both physically, but also with a big voice and a lively personality," said Rohrer. "You couldn't miss Dennis."

Museum takes off

But when it came to his dream of flying for the air force, the height that made him such a standout on the football field became a problem he couldn't tackle.

It turns out Bradley was too tall to safely eject from RCAF planes.

Instead he ended up joining his family's meat packing business. But his head, and heart, were still in the clouds.

He earned his pilot's license and convinced his friends Alan Ness, Peter Matthews and John Weir to buy into a vintage warplane with him.

Their first aircraft was a Fairey Firefly, a Second World War plane that still features on the museum's logo.

After that first restoration the men bought a hangar and began working on more planes.

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      In 1979 the museum took on its biggest project yet — restoring an Avro Lancaster that was resting on a concrete pedestal in front of Royal Canadian Legion Branch 109 in Goderich, Ont.

      Thirty-five years later, that same plane crossed the Atlantic Ocean, en route to England where Rohrer said it joined the only other flying Lancaster in the world on a two-month tour.

      "He was a visionary in many ways and he didn't take "No" for an answer," said the CEO. "All sorts of young people were exposed to aviation because of him."

      Bradley was the last living member of the museum's four "founding fathers," but Rohrer said his legacy won't be forgotten.

      "We've carried on his heritage and built on his foundation, so we'll try to continue with that."

      The planes of D-Day have taken on legendary status. And the most famous of all was the Lancaster. Today, only two in the world still fly. And one of them is at the Canadian Warplane Heritage Museum near Hamilton, Ontario. CBC The National's Peter Mansbridge buckled in for a trip back in time. 15:21