The flight Palm Coast pilot Raymond Miller took in his experimental aircraft Friday before his fatal crash into the marshes of Pellicer Creek was his first solo flight in an experimental aircraft he’d built from a kit in his garage, family members said at a news conference Thursday, Oct. 9.
But flying was just one of many daring pursuits for Miller, 77, “a man of adventure” who spent his career working for first the Army and then the CIA all over the world, they said, as well as skiing, bungee jumping — once from a 200-foot-bridge in Australia — and riding his motorcycle, which in his 70s he took from Florida to Maine, Mexico and Seattle.
“He truly loved the outdoors, he loved flying, he loved boating, he loved wildlife,” said Drew Miller, Raymond Miller’s son. “We’re all going to miss him very much, but we take solace in the fact that he did live a good full life, and I’m sure he would have no regrets, and I’m sure he wouldn’t want to go any other way if he had a choice,” Drew Miller said. “We know he didn’t in this situation — it wasn’t his choice — but we just know this is not an unfitting end to my father’s life and his legacy.”
Family members also thanked the agencies involved in the lengthy process of recovering Miller’s plane.
“We can’t express our gratitude enough to all the agencies and everyone involved in the recovery of my father,” Drew Miller said. “We understand it’s a very difficult recovery. We’re going on a week now since the accident, but it may very well be a sign. My father was a very stubborn man and this may be a fitting conclusion. We do know that he ended his life doing something he loved.”
Authorities found Miller’s plane at about 1:20 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 4, but the marshy terrain and shifting tides made it hard to reach the crash site and bring in equipment needed to recover the plane, which was buried under an estimated 9 feet of marsh muck. Twice, they suspended their efforts as evening fell.
Thursday, Oct. 9, deputies and fire department officials brought in an earth excavator — a machine that looks like a backhoe, with a roughly 20-foot reach — on a barge, and dug out the muck around the plane. They recovered the plane and Miller’s body at about 5 p.m.
The recovery effort had been complicated by the fact that the plane was constructed of aluminum so light, Flagler Emergency Management Director Kevin Guthrie said, that a technical rescue staff member cut an inspection hole in its side using just a pocketknife.
When searchers wrapped it in tie-down straps and tried to lift it with a helicopter, “the aircraft, because it is lightweight, has a tendency to fall apart,” Guthrie said Thursday as workers attempted to recover the plane. “That’s why there’s a much more methodical process now with an excavator. They’re going to try to dig in around it, free it up, and then they’ll put a strap on it, and/or try to actually scoop the front of the airplane out of the mud.”
The recovery effort has been risky for workers, Staly said.
“As we get more technical and closer into the aircraft, it makes it more dangerous, for not only the contractors but also our public safety personnel that are there from the Fire Department that will be on site as you start to move the aircraft around, not sure if it’s going to stay together or come in pieces,” he said.
There was also the risk of fuel contamination. The plane has a fiberglass fuel tank under the seat, and rescuers didn’t know if it’s intact, he said.
“In my 40 years, I’ve worked a lot of plane crashes between Orange County and Flagler,” Staly said. “This is the most technical and most difficult rescue turned into recovery that I’ve been involved in.”