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Becoming A Good Role Model - My Two Cents - Randy Mains

Posted 6 years 221 days ago ago by Admin

Mr. Philip Carey sent me the following email after reading my last column titled “Are You a Good Role Model?” in the July/Aug. issue of Rotorcraft Pro where I discussed ‘The GoPro Set’ purposefully flying into the clouds as if trying to prove something to themselves and others.  I found Mr. Carey’s story compelling in that we can all learn from his experience.  Here is what he wrote:

                Randy, your article struck a nerve in me because of an incident that nearly caused me to lose my life recently in an OH 58 flying from Orlando to Sarasota. Looking back, my actions were selfish and dangerous and could have deprived my 5-year-old of her daddy and my wife the tragic loss of her husband.

                I’d checked the TAF/METAR for Orlando, Lakeland Regional, and Sarasota and noted there was broken mist that seemed to be clearing and Sarasota was clear.  After I took off it immediately became apparent the mist was thickening.  I soon I found myself VFR on top. I remember being a little perturbed by the mist but I was comforted by the fact I had selected an altitude that kept me clear of obstacles and I was referencing the Garmin 696 regularly. 

                I was, however, oblivious to the fact that literally the day before, while flying in VMC conditions, I had diverted to Lakeland Regional because of an engine chip light. In retrospect, I handled the emergency badly.  I initially started to slow my speed and descend deliberating whether this was a “land immediately” or “land as soon as possible” situation. Instead, I elected to climb and fly over one forced landing spot to the next until I was lined up on RWY 05 at Lakeland. 

                Maintenance found a bit of “fuzz” on the mag plug.  The system was flushed and I was on my way. Now, I’m VFR on top of a solid cloud layer in a single-engine aircraft that not 24 hours earlier had had an engine chip light. Genius!

                I tuned in the Sarasota ATIS.  It was still reporting broken clouds and 3 miles visibility.  The tower, however, painted a MUCH bleaker picture; thick cloud/fog down to 300 feet and a layer reported by commercial traffic up to 2,000 feet. Deciding to remain clear of Class C airspace, I turned south towards Myakka River hoping to find a hole in the overcast so I could descend becoming more anxious as the minutes ticked by.    

                Cruising at 1,000 feet and becoming increasingly more uncomfortable, I finally spotted a hole in the clouds in my 2 o’clock and immediately commenced a descending right turn.  That’s when I entered the clouds.  

                Stunned, I scanned the artificial horizon and it was showing I was turning to the LEFT not the right.  Vertigo immediately gripped me causing me to jerk the cyclic to the right to level the aircraft while subconsciously pulling up on the collective unaware I was doing so until I heard the Low Rotor RPM audio.  

                My mind trapped in full-on vertigo, my scrambled senses were telling me I was falling backwards. I remember pushing the cyclic forward then lowering the collective.  It was at that point I knew I was about to die thinking my erratic control inputs must certainly create mast bumping. I heard varying wind noise followed by 3-4 seconds of complete calm when I accepted the inevitability of dying.  Then my mind snapped back to the fight. I began to talk out loud giving myself instructions in an attempt to get the ship under control.

                I don’t remember much about the climb but I remember breaking out of the cloud wings level in an easterly direction.  The time spent in actual IMC was a matter of seconds, but had felt like eternity.  

                I still hadn’t spoken to anyone on the radio or made a mayday call because I was still convinced I could contain the shame and hide the situation by landing and waiting for the weather to improve in Sarasota. Skirting around cloud and mist I suddenly spotted an open field ahead, landed, and shut down. 

                Stunned by the ordeal, not entirely sure if I was alive, I thought it best to come clean with my peers and even though it was a little late, I first needed to call a weather briefer.  He explained there was a low level cloud mass moving from the southeast in a north westerly direction covering most of southern Florida. Sarasota had a 300-foot base topping at 2,000 feet.  He said the field was IFR only, and suggested I wait it out where I was as the weather should clear in one to two hours. 

                I then decided to reach out to some of my pilot friends by sending humble text messages about my close call detailing the poor decisions I’d made fueled by my over-inflated pride and arrogance. I decided I wasn’t going to hide from this by simply putting it down to a “Phew, that was a close call event.”  I needed to share the experience and learn some humility and better decision-making skills. 

                I still haven’t been able to fully shake off the idea that I really died out there.  Looking back, there are missing blocks of time particularly when I entered the cloud. I’m still struggling with the feeling of calmness that came over me when I let go, fully prepared to die.  This feeling of calm seemed to last for ages in those several seconds. I don’t know what caused me to fight back, perhaps the thought of my wife becoming a widow and my little girl losing her dad.  At that moment of clarity, instructor Phil started telling dopey Phil what to do and luckily dopey Phil listened and complied.  

                Not my finest hour, I admit, Randy, but a traumatic experience I have learned from and I relive every day.  That’s why I’m writing to you.  It is my wish that your readers learn from my close call too.  After all, that’s one definition of a good mentor, isn’t it?