50 great moments in the world of aviation

Written by Staff Writer at CNN

Maverick Viñales was out of action for more than a decade after a helicopter accident nearly cost him his life

The veteran Mexican sports pilot became one of the first to venture into the stratosphere in 1970, setting three world records for manned balloon flight over the span of three decades.

Banned for years from operating helicopters, Viñales was a trailblazer in the sky, but like many before him in the field, he fell from grace when it failed to prevent a serious accident in 1999.

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That accident almost cost him his life.

The 61-year-old was flung 10 meters through the air and sustained serious head injuries when the one-seat helicopter he was in went into a tailspin in the course of landing after an air race at Cuilpa, in Morelos state.

“The landing was going well, after about 30 meters the helicopter had stabilized,” Viñales recalled. “Then it appeared to suddenly go into tailspin. A serious accident was right around the corner.”

That’s when his act of bravery, literally, comes into play.

Eyes on the prize

“First and foremost, I was just trying to get to the landing zone without injuring anybody,” he recalled. “I had no personal ambition to crash the helicopter. All that I could think of was to put on the brave face and regain control.

“So, I raised my hands and let go of the controls when I was not sure that was effective.”

That was enough to save Viñales’ life and prevent further injury. “There is no way that the helicopter would have been able to land safely,” he said.

Photographer Esteban Longoria was on board. “Although the landing site happened to be in a very mountainous terrain, Maverick jumped from the helicopter and practically ran for his life on foot to land,” he told CNN.

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“His own military helicopter was high up and therefore limited his response time.”

The upside-down pilot, who now works as a consultant for aviation and aeronautical firms, has also narrowly avoided other difficult rescues.

In 2011, after taking off from a Mexican Caribbean island, a seaplane crashed into an erupting volcano, engulfing it in an enormous cloud of hot steam.

Despite the enormous weight of his battle jacket, which he had attached to the front of the seaplane, Viñales managed to climb down the volcanic limb and steer the plane safely to safety.

At the time, “the phrase ‘fighting demons’ came to mind,” he said.

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