Flying Model Aircraft Comes Under Scrutiny After Fatal Accident in Brooklyn Park

By Matt Flegenheimer and Lisa W. Foderaro

  • Sept. 6, 2013

New York City is well acquainted with many of its hobbyists — the bird watchers of Central Park and the skateboarders of Union Square, the train buffs who ride the rails and the car-lovers who prefer to avoid them.

But this week, a fatal accident introduced many residents to another group for the first time: the relatively small but passionate band of remote-controlled-aircraft enthusiasts, who on Thursday lost one of their own, Roman Pirozek Jr., 19, after the model helicopter he was piloting in a Brooklyn park struck him in the head.

In a flash, the hobby was thrust into the spotlight, with practitioners fielding questions about its safety, seeking to thwart suggestions of a moratorium on flying and holding close to the pastime that has bound them together.

“When you love something so much,” said Matthew Mascialino, 42, who often flies models over Marine Park, “you fear that it could be taken away.”

Councilman Domenic M. Recchia Jr. of Brooklyn called on the city on Thursday to suspend helicopter flying in Calvert Vaux Park in Brooklyn, the popular patch where the accident occurred, “until we find out what exactly transpired.”

The city’s parks department said Friday that it would “be looking into all aspects of the accident to see if any changes are needed to ensure that this hobby can continue safely in our parks.” But helicopters and planes will continue to be allowed in designated areas, officials said, unless an investigation uncovers a reason that would justify a ban.

According to the department’s Web site, there are only a small number of other locations where remote-controlled hobby aircraft are allowed, including Flushing Meadows-Corona Park and Forest Park in Queens, and La Tourette Park on Staten Island.

Flying experts took pains on Friday to cast the accident as a fluke. The Academy of Model Aeronautics, the hobby’s governing body, said Mr. Pirozek’s death was only the second fatal episode involving remote-control helicopters in the United States in decades. In 2003, an instructor in Texas was killed after the blades from a student’s model struck him in the throat.

“It has an excellent safety record,” Richard Hanson, an official of the academy, said of the hobby. “This particular accident is very, very tragic but also very, very unusual.”

As a condition of membership in the academy, fliers must agree to adhere to a safety code, Mr. Hanson said. Craft operated by remote control are prohibited, for instance, from “flying directly over unprotected people, vessels, vehicles or structures.” Pilots may not fly model aircraft higher than 400 feet above ground level when within three miles of an airport, unless the airport operator is notified.

Mr. Hanson said Mr. Pirozek — a member of the academy since 2001, when he was a child — had learned from his father, an avid flier. The younger Mr. Pirozek had developed a reputation as “a very accomplished and competent helicopter pilot,” Mr. Hanson said.

According to Mr. Mascialino, a former president of the Radio Control Society of Marine Park, Mr. Pirozek had come to the club’s attention as a gifted flier, despite flying with a different club, the Seaview Rotary Wings.

Speaking to reporters on Friday, Police Commissioner Raymond W. Kelly said Mr. Pirozek “obviously was experienced” in flying.

“He was on YouTube, he was known for his ability to do it,” Mr. Kelly said. “It seemed to be, according to witnesses, some aggressive maneuvers, and it just came back.”

Though pilots said Friday that their hobby was already well-regulated, the death supplied an unwelcome reminder of its dangers.

In Marine Park — where a model runway is hemmed in by a wooded area, with sea gulls and, occasionally, full-size planes flying overhead — Andy Fomin, 48, revealed a scar from a gash that required 15 stitches, when he cut his hand five years ago on the propellers of his model plane. He also recalled “a few times when it was too close to me and I had to jump aside to avoid being hit.”

Rick Cabero, from Midwood, Brooklyn, who arrived with three foam planes, noted the occasional scourge of exploding batteries. While he said he did not believe that his passion was dangerous, he cautioned, “It’s not for kids, it’s not a toy.”

And yet for many fliers, the childlike thrill remains part of the appeal. Mr. Mascialino bemoaned that young people today “like to play with their phones, their video games.”

Model flight, he suggested, offered something more.

“Flying a helicopter or a plane is essentially playing a video game,” he said, “but in real life.”

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