Grounded…for now
Some of the model planes flown at Heckscher State Park.

Photo courtesy of Suffolk AeroModelers

Grounded…for now


SUFFOLK COUNTY—For more than 40 years, the members of Suffolk AeroModelers – an organization of remote-controlled plane aficionados – have been practicing their hobby at Heckscher State Park in East Islip. They have been welcomed in by the NYS Parks Department that has offices there in the park. However, recently, the group learned they might not have their venue for much longer as the Parks Department plans to build guest cabins on their runway. However, that’s not the end of their story.

“It’s not right what they are doing,” said the club’s treasurer, Simone Taormina. “We never bothered the park for anything.”

Members of the club, which is also known as SAM, said they learned about the park’s plans for their area “through the grapevine” when they asked to extend the current runway to accommodate extra aircraft being used there. 

“They offered to accommodate us in another area, but that field is small,” he added.

Taormina said that their runways needed to be close to the waterfront for safety reasons, since the planes are flown over the water. “There is another field we can use, but the trees there need to be taken down and they won’t take down trees.

“We’ve been trying to work [with the Parks Department], but we’re being ignored.”

SAM began meeting at the park in the 1970s, drawing members of all ages; some of them fly their aircraft several times a week year round. Although the group has had as many as 130 members at one time, the numbers do fluctuate. They currently have 70 members and are experiencing a regrowth. A $40 club membership fee helps to maintain the area of the park they use. 

According to Taormina, their relationship with park’s management over the years has been excellent. “We as members of SAM have maintained and installed runways and approachways and also pilot stations at no cost to the park,” he said. “Portable sanitary facilities are also paid for by the club. SAM even installed new gates at our expense. We have estimated that over the years we have invested over $150,000.00 to install and maintain this unused parking lot. 

“Vandals have done damage to our facilities and equipment many times over the years, and we as members have paid for and repaired it at no expense to the park,” he added.

“This park has 1,700 acres, so why do they have to boot us out?” said Sayville resident Lou Charlack, the club’s vice president. “And they can’t find anything else to give us. They say ‘no’ to everything.

“We’ve been here more than 40 years without an incident. We have a perfect safety record. This is very disheartening that we are being victimized here, especially since many of our members are senior citizens, veterans and the disabled,” he added.

“We’re in an area of the park that is not near any area that is utilized,” said Taormina, noting that SAM uses approximately 15-20 acres. 

“In the past 10 years, they have closed the public pool, which we’ve been told has been vandalized beyond repair. They have also closed the campground because of mosquito infestation with West Nile virus. Tick infestation is also a major factor,” he said, noting also that the white-tailed deer attraction there has been severely culled recently. 

“We believe that with virtually no attractions in this park to speak of, that investing in these cabins will be a bust, added Taormina. “Vandalism, especially in the off-season, will become both a nuisance and expense.  

“We as members are not asking for much…we just want to be treated with respect and leave us alone, or offer us a viable alternative within this park.”

After several inquiries for comment made by this newspaper to NYS Parks Department, George Forman, Jr., regional deputy director for NYS Parks, released the following statement:

“We are pleased to announce that we have reached an agreement  on the relocation of the Suffolk AeroModelers Club to another area within Heckscher State Park.  We are pleased and thankful for the cooperation of the Suffolk AeroModelers as we move forward with exciting plans to begin redeveloping Heckscher State Park for the future.” 

However, Charlack said he remains cautiously optimistic. “Hopefully, we will get the same amenities at the new location that we had paid for at our current location,” he said.