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Brooklyn’s tiniest air force: Inside a remote-control helicopter club

September 9, 2019 Paul Frangipane
Eaton Bryce, the group’s contest director and charter member, walks his helicopter to the field for flight. Eagle photo by Paul Frangipane

On a summer Saturday with a heat index of 106 degrees, a trio of men gathered at the far end of Calvert Vaux Park, stood in a line with remote controllers in their hands and created a symphony of buzzes and whirs overhead as their three-foot-long electric helicopters hovered into the air.

“It’s nice to have a piece of technology in your hand that you built, you adjusted and you learned to fly,” said Glen Byrd, a member of Seaview Rotary Wings, a group that promotes remote-control flying (also called RC flying) in the southern Brooklyn park. “It’s kind of like an addiction, I think — but a good one.”

As drones — the sleeker cousins of these electric helicopters — become cheaper and more widespread among hobbyists and filmmakers, the culture of RC flying has surged into the public sphere. And while Calvert Vaux Park’s field is one of the few places in New York City where people can fly drones legally, its air space is still mostly filled with homemade RC helicopters that take tack-sharp concentration to keep airborne.

Seaview Rotary Wings hosts casual flying sessions every weekend in Calvert Vaux Park. Eagle photo by Paul Frangipane
Seaview Rotary Wings hosts casual flying sessions every weekend in Calvert Vaux Park. Eagle photo by Paul Frangipane

David Yuen walks toward the middle of the 400-by-800-foot field, stops and places his machine down in the grass. He retreats a few feet and puts on a serious face. As the blades of his helicopter spin faster, the device lifts into the air and he quickly sends it up higher, flipping it upside down, executing barrel roles and large loops before the battery drains and he lands it, roughly five minutes later.

Yuen, a Brooklyn native, has been president of the Seaview Rotary Wings club for nine years — a short tenure, considering the group’s more than 25-year lifespan. Members meet each weekend for casual flying sessions.

Flying RC helicopters take tack-sharp concentration. It took Bryce eight months to learn how to hover. Eagle photo by Paul Frangipane
Flying RC helicopters take tack-sharp concentration. It took Bryce eight months to learn how to hover. Eagle photo by Paul Frangipane

Before he was able to find the community, Yuen took to local parks to practice his hobby. “One day I was flying in a local park and the park ranger said, ‘Hey no, you can’t fly here anymore, it’s not a field,’ so I went searching for a club,” he said. “I found a listed club literally just four blocks away from my house. So I was floored. I was ecstatic about that.”

The Bensonhurst resident uses RC flying as a way to spend his retirement years, but his love for it started when he was 5 years old. His first machine was a gift from his mother, a toy helicopter tethered to a wire that went up and down; maximum elevation: six inches.

David Yuen, president of Seaview Rotary Wings, inspects his machine. Eagle photo by Paul Frangipane
David Yuen, president of Seaview Rotary Wings, inspects his machine. Eagle photo by Paul Frangipane

That was before RC rotary flying existed. As a medium that evolved after other RC vehicles like cars and planes because of the added difficulty of flying, remote-controlled helicopters first debuted as gas-powered.

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“When I finally got my first RC helicopter, I built it through brute force, I went over to Fort Hamilton Park … started it up successfully, took it up for about 10 seconds, flipped it over on its side and that was it,” Yuen said laughing. “There were pieces all over the track.”

Left: David Yuen. Right: Yuen's helicopter as he hovers upside down. Eagle photos by Paul Frangipane
Left: David Yuen. Right: Yuen’s helicopter as he hovers upside down. Eagle photos by Paul Frangipane

Seaview Rotary Wing’s field only hosts flying vessels that have rotor blades — that is, those that aren’t fixed-wing, like planes. The division exists because helicopters and planes don’t fly well together, based on their flight patterns and the infrastructure needed for a plane to take off.

For fixed-wing flight, Floyd Bennet Field and Marine Park host the only fields in Brooklyn.

While the professionals were adjusting their helicopters to move through the thick summer air, two young children and their father walked up out of curiosity. For one of the boys, equipped with some drone-flying experience, Yuen had just the thing. He pulled out his Mavic 2 Pro drone, roughly the size of a tablet, and offered it up.

The flying field at Calvert Vaux Park. Eagle photo by Paul Frangipane
The flying field at Calvert Vaux Park. Eagle photo by Paul Frangipane

“See, that’s the difference,” Yuen said as the boy navigated out toward the ocean. “I can hand this over to anybody — even my father, who’s half blind — and they can still fly it, whereas with a helicopter, I would not do that.”

Yuen said the club never turns away aspiring pilots. Rather, members impart their knowledge on recreational flyers as the number of drone enthusiasts continues to increase. The basic rules are simple: stay below 400 feet, keep the vessel in your line of sight, stay away from any manned aircraft and, above all, steer clear of people.

Glen Byrd, a member of the club, takes his helicopter for a fly. Eagle photo by Paul Frangipane
Glen Byrd, a member of the club, takes his helicopter for a fly. Eagle photo by Paul Frangipane

“People get a drone, they think it’s a toy. They just start, charge the batteries and go flying. But they are not — if they go in the air, come down and hit somebody, then that’s an issue,” Yuen said.

For flying rotary-winged vessels (a category that include drones and electric helicopters alike) recreationally in Brooklyn, Calvert Vaux Park and Marine Park are the only legal locations to set soar. Because of that, about nine drone pilots joined the club last year, Yuen said. The club has a total of about 60 to 70 members.

Constant attention needs to be given to the controls to keep helicopters in the air. Eagle photo by Paul Frangipane
Constant attention needs to be given to the controls to keep helicopters in the air. Eagle photo by Paul Frangipane

Once they’re up, modern drones keep themselves in the air until the battery dies. Flying a helicopter, on the other hand, starts with construction, a process that could cost up to $2,500 or more, demands pre-flight adjustment and remains a challenge to keep stable while flying.

It took Eaton Bryce, the group’s contest director and charter member, about eight months to learn how to hover.

It’s a hobby that takes hours of practice, and so niche that it can be hard to find support when starting out, according to Yuen.

The RC machines shares the airspace with manned vessels as well. Eagle photo by Paul Frangipane
The RC machines shares the airspace with manned vessels as well. Eagle photo by Paul Frangipane

For him, that’s one of the central aspects of the club, to share knowledge with novice flyers.

“It’s good to pass it down, because I know the struggles that some of the novice pilots are going through,” Yuen said. “I remember when I was 14 years old, there was no one around to help us, but now we have this source, we have this club.”

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