Remote-Controlled Model Helicopter Fatally Strikes Its Operator
By J. David Goodman
The New York Times
September 5, 2013
A 19-year-old man was killed on Thursday when a remote-controlled model helicopter that he was piloting in a Brooklyn park struck him in the head, the authorities said.
The man, Roman Pirozek Jr. of Woodhaven, Queens, had been operating the large model — measuring several feet end to end — when it hit him and the top of his head was sliced off, the police said.
The accident occurred around 3:30 p.m. in a grassy area of Calvert Vaux Park that is popular with remote-control helicopter enthusiasts. The cause was not immediately known.
The police were interviewing witnesses in the park, which sits along the Belt Parkway and juts out into Gravesend Bay. The area attracts experienced model helicopter pilots eager to try out new moves with powerful model helicopters that they have often either built themselves or adapted.
For those familiar with serious model helicopter piloting, the death of Mr. Pirozek was a grim reminder of the dangers inherent in operating such unpredictable machines by remote.
Roman Pirozek Jr.
“They crash all day long,” said the owner of Brooklyn Hobbies, who gave his name only as Richie. The reasons, he said, generally fall into three categories: The remote sends bad signals, the person does not build the model well, or the pilots — “that’s what they call them, pilots” — try to do a maneuver above their skill level.
“This one is just a sad thing where a kid got hit,” he added. “It probably happened in a blink of an eye.”
Mr. Pirozek, according to his Facebook page, had attended the High School for Construction Trades, Engineering and Architecture in Queens.
He was a gregarious and accomplished flier of radio-controlled helicopters, Butch Wellbeck, a fellow enthusiast who had met him on several occasions, said in a phone interview. Mr. Pirozek had followed in the footsteps of his father, also an avid flier, Mr. Wellbeck said.
Mr. Pirozek specialized in the most extreme form of flying, Mr. Wellbeck said, trying complex maneuvers that “defied gravity.” He had been sponsored by a manufacturer of the models, Mr. Wellbeck said.
Word of Mr. Pirozek’s death spread quickly among model helicopter enthusiasts, Mr. Wellbeck said. “Everyone will look at this” with an eye to safety improvements, he said.
“A lot of people think they are toys, but these really aren’t toys,” he said, describing 40-pound, precise scale models of real helicopters. “These are high-performance models and they can be very dangerous.”
The hobby’s governing body, the Academy of Model Aeronautics [ http://www.modelaircraft.org/ ], did not immediately respond to a message seeking comment late Thursday. Councilman Domenic M. Recchia Jr. of Brooklyn said he planned to write a letter to New York City’s parks department asking for a moratorium on helicopter flying in the park “until we find out what exactly transpired.”
On Thursday afternoon, images of Calvert Vaux Park from news helicopters showed investigators standing over what appeared to be the bent blades of the model helicopter, which sat in the grass. Medical workers removed Mr. Pirozek’s body around 7 p.m.
Deadly accidents involving remote-controlled helicopters are infrequent, but the stories are shared stoically among hobbyists, most of whom do not wear helmets or other protective gear.
Online, enthusiasts trade war stories and photos of their injuries. “This is what your leg can look like if you don’t understand your equipment,” one man wrote [ http://www.heliguy.com/nexus/dangers.html ] on the Web site Heliguy, alongside images of his sliced-up legs.
In July, a man in Switzerland was found dead near his copter with severe cuts to his arms and legs, apparently delivered by the model, according to news reports. And in 2003, a 41-year-old remote-controlled helicopter instructor in Texas reportedly died after the blades from a student’s model struck him in the throat.
“The ultimate of the sport is control; it’s you fighting the machine that refuses to fly,” Bill Dietrich of the Seaview Rotary Wings Club said in a video [ http://www.nycgovparks.org/parks/calvertvauxpark/video ] about Calvert Vaux Park on the parks department’s Web site.
Eli Rosenberg and Ravi Somaiya contributed reporting.