The afternoon sky was blue and crystal clear. It was a perfect day for flying, and half a dozen members of the Hernando Aero Modelers gathered with their robo aircraft Feb. 1 at the club field north of Brooksville.
But the sun that winter day proved to be a monster for Chuck Hellings, who had recently been elected president of the club.
Hellings, 67, launched his model, an impressive craft with a 65-inch wingspan. Controls in hand, he was tracking its soaring flight from the ground when the craft flew between his sight line and the sun. Hellings was suddenly blinded by the brightness.
The model vanished for a few seconds, long enough for it to continue its circle and strike Hellings in the head, critically injuring him.
"That's just what we think happened," said Brian Bentley, an off-duty emergency medical technician, one of the first to attend to Hellings since he was flying his own model at the site that day.
Eight months later, Hellings has yet to regain his ability to speak. Nor can he walk, having lost function on his right side, said his wife, Nancy.
Bentley, a 16-year EMT currently with Nature Coast EMS in Citrus County, recently recalled cradling Hellings' head in his hands while awaiting an ambulance.
"It was a pretty gruesome injury," he said. "I didn't really expect him to live."
As he continues to recover, Hellings remains foremost in the minds of his fellow pilots. In a show of their concern, the modelers group will stage an all-day fundraising fly-in beginning at 8 a.m. Saturday at the club field, at 16301 Ponce de Leon Blvd.
They hope to raise enough money to pay for handicapped-accessible refurbishments to the Hellingses' Homosassa home, which will be needed when the wounded flier is discharged from Spring Hill Health and Rehabilitation Center.
Hellings has undergone physical therapy there since March, after his monthlong hospitalization at Regional Medical Center Bayonet Point.
The fly-in is designed to attract spectators as well as modelers. Robo craft, with engines of up to four propellers and costing as much as $9,000, will perform acrobatics, takeoffs and landings, and will be on display to showcase the hobby sport.
Spectator admission is $5 per person or $10 per carload. Pilots will pay a $15 entry fee. Sandwiches, snacks and soft drinks will be offered for sale.
"Every dollar over and above expenses for that day goes to Chuck," said John Dasch, the club's past president.
Nancy Hellings said her husband will need a wheelchair and hospital bed with a lift, while their home will require an access ramp, bathroom modifications and "things I haven't thought of yet." Future expenses will include hired transportation for doctor visits; the couple's vehicle cannot accommodate a wheelchair.
The club also has established a page at gofundme.com (type in "Hernando Aero Modelers"). The goal is to raise $10,000. Within six weeks, the page has garnered more than $7,000.
Dasch said he hopes aero modelers everywhere will give to the cause since the accident was related to their hobby.
Nancy Hellings said her husband can't tolerate sitting for long. But she intends for him to attend the fly-in for at least a short time.
Looking forward, she said, "It's too soon to tell if he's going to regain use of his right arm and legs. From what I've been told, it takes about a year. From what I understand, he will regain his speech."
She added: "I just want to get him home."
Contact Beth Gray at email@example.com.
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IF YOU GO
Fly or admire
What: Hernando Aero Modelers benefit fly-in for Chuck Hellings
When: 8 a.m. and continuing all day Saturday
Where: 16301 Ponce de Leon Blvd., north of Brooksville
Admission: Spectators pay $5 per person or $15 per carload; pilot participants pay $15
Information: (352) 346-2646