Bye bye, Skycam

2300010977_df29062c76In the late 1980s and early 1990s, there was no more visible piece of equipment in Atlanta TV news than the Bell Jet Ranger helicopter employed by WXIA.  Dubbed “Skycam,” the blue and white helicopter floated among the tops of Atlanta skyscrapers every weeknight whether it needed to or not.  Its affable, swashbuckling pilot-reporter, Bruce Erion, was one of the most familiar on-camera faces in town.

Our recollection is that WXIA was the first TV station in Atlanta to use a helicopter bearing its logo.  Skycam is still in business as a promotional entity.  But WXIA is no longer using its own helicopter.

WXIA has reached an agreement to use WAGA’s helicopter for aerial footage, live and otherwise.  WAGA’s assignment desk continues to control the helicopter.   But whenever the aircraft goes up, WAGA must notify WXIA.  Likewise, WXIA is now obligated to call WAGA when WXIA hears about breaking news that may require aerial coverage.

Each station has forty hours of “shared” time on the aircraft per month, according to a memo obtained by LAF.  Each station also has ten hours to use exclusively.  WXIA will still hail its aerial footage as that of “11 Alive Skycam,” as will WAGA “SkyFox Five.”

WGCL is not part of this arrangement (nor is WSB).  We understand that WGCL was included in talks to share helicopter resources, but declined to participate in the final arrangement.

It’s worth noting that WGCL has also withdrawn from the LNS, which pools video resources for common events like news conferences.

The helicopter pool makes obvious sense.  Not only is it wasteful to see four aircraft hovering over an accident scene, but it’s also scary.  Never mind that Atlanta news pilots are typically very experienced and fully communicative with one another in such circumstances.  The fact is, they’re under a lot of pressure to get a better camera angle than their competitors.  The 2007 crash of a news helicopter in Phoenix during a routine police chase was an industry eye-opener (be forewarned:  the link is chilling, disturbing, awful).

Unfortunately, WAGA’s and WXIA’s cost savings will probably go directly to the corporate bottom lines of Fox and Gannett.  Neither newsroom is likely to benefit.skycam

It’s a remarkable turning point for WXIA.  At one time, its best promotional tool was its helicopter.   WXIA frequently sent Skycam to schools.  The aircraft would dramatically land on the playground.  The kids would run out.  Erion would do a show-and-tell.  A photog would shoot it, then send the video back to Atlanta for the show close, with smiling children waving at the camera.

While en route, Erion would front live shots airborne from the pilot’s seat.  A photog would strap on a safety harness, then stand out on the skid of the aircraft  with a camera on his shoulder, a thousand feet above the city.

The kids in the footage below are probably in their late twenties now, and dealing with budget cuts in their own workplaces.  Gannett had money to burn back in 1986, the heyday of Skycam.

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Doug Richards is a reporter at WXIA-TV. This is his personal blog. WXIA-TV has nothing whatsoever to do with this blog, under any circumstances, in any form. For anything written herein, Doug accepts sole credit and full blame. Follow him on Twitter: @richardsdoug. All rights reserved. Thanks for visiting.

27 thoughts on “Bye bye, Skycam

  1. Don B Johnson

    Bruce Mason was the photographer that had a safety strap wrapped around his butt and would hang off the side of 11’s chopper. I was always amazed that he would stand outside of the chopper, on the skids, holding his 30lb camera on his shoulder shooting the other Bruce flying the chopper. What a great view of the world he must have had. Those were the good ole days of all the tv stations choppers trying to beat each other to Atlanta’s spot news stories. It’s a sad time in the Atlanta tv business when the the guys who made chopper reporting what it is today are relegated to being just a passenger and not the pilot.

    Let’s all thanks Photographer Bruce Mason and Pilot Arron Anderson for hanging till the end. It was a fun time………………………………..

    Reply
  2. Lynn Harasin

    Not only was Bruce Erion an entertaining pilot, he was also a fine reporter. I was often up against him when he would drop in out of the sky and we both had to cover the same story.
    He did a great job, was always a gentlemen and friendly to everyone. He was one of Channel 11’s best assets. For years now, Bruce has been flying to hospitals, helping to save the lives of the seriously injured. Our hats are off to you, Bruce.

    Reply
    1. live apt fire Post author

      Funny thing, JCB. While searching for a photo of Bruce Erion, I found a rather scorching (sorry) post you wrote in 1999 about TV coverage of the Cabbagetown fire. You praised Erion and clobbered nearly everybody else. You were LAF long before I ever even thought about it. And if the Skycam photo is yours, thanks. I pulled it from google images. I never did find a decent photo of Erion.

      Reply
      1. newsmanatl

        I haven’t talked to my old friend Bruce Erion in a long time, but I did find a photo of him just now using Google Images.

        It appears he’s learned how to fly without the chopper.

        [[ That was the only photo I could find of him. Couldn’t bring myself to use it. — LAF ]]

        Reply
  3. Matt

    It was that closing shot of the photog strapped to the skid as the chopper dove away into the ATL skyline that made me want to be a news photog…although I never made it to WXIA to shoot out of the copter. I did make it and ended up shooting out the side of a newschopper in Tulsa OK.

    No longer in news today, but I will never forget the WXIA news closings of Skycam diving away. Good times….farewell skycam

    Reply
  4. Liz

    Wow, that brought back some memories. I was one of those kids he visited on my school’s playground 23 or so years ago and just thought it was the coolest thing in the world! I must have been 6 or 7 and I recall that it was a hot day and Bruce’s shirt was sweaty. The things we remember :)

    Reply
  5. English Major

    I always thought the school visits by Erion & Skycam were a very savvy marketing technique – you just knew every single kid in that crowd would make his/her parents watch WXIA that night to “see me on TV”!

    Also, I remember when the station would regularly show shots of people waving at the camera. It got so the public would wave at every vehicle with an 11Alive logo, whether or not there was a photog inside shooting.

    Pretty good branding, if you ask me!

    Reply
  6. Jolly Roger

    It is really sad to see Skycam go. That was one of the sexiest helicopters i’ve ever seen. I have an affinity for that color blue. The black heli of fox-5 just looks like the sinister things of tin-foil hat wearing diatribes. Good bye skycam, we hardly knew ye. :(

    Reply
  7. Alan Hand

    Man talking about the end of an era! I too shot off the skids of chopppers in the old days. It wasn’t easy, you had to have balls, you had to have complete communication with the pilot because he was your zoom lens. You had to have TRUST in your pilot afterall he was the guy in control of your life as long as you were flying.
    Then came the dawning of gyroscopic cameras mounted outside the chopper in the front! Changed the way television news was covered. I can’t remember how many chases, murder scenes, apt fires, wrecks, traffic jams i have ever shot. There were two people doing longer than I was. Bruce Mason and the other Bruce (Erion) had been doing it longer! No I mean longer. They set the standard in chopper coverage. they were the team to beat. They had been doing it longer than anyone else in the market. Bruce Mason & Bruce Erion were a force to be reckoned with. We will Miss Flying with you Mason yOU WERE THe DEAN OF CHOPPER pHOTOGRAPHERS, PILOTS IN ATLANTA. so my congratulations and my deepest sincerity as you guys were one of the best chopper teams until I came along and taught you a few things so with that said, WELL DONE! Toast yourselves for A JOB WELL DONE!

    Reply
  8. mike daly

    When I watched the Skycam promos when I was in high school, I wanted to be the pilot. When that didn’t happen, I wanted to be the photog hanging on the skid. I managed to shoot from the skids of “Chopper 5″ with one of the best Chopper Pilots and co-workers I ever knew, John Massey (no longer at WAGA). Although I never had the flair that Bruce Mason had in the promos, I loved it. But, the shoulder mounted cams gave way to the joystick controlled ball mounted cameras and the romance disappeared. Oh well, it was fun while it lasted.

    Reply
  9. Matt

    Above is actual footage on youtube of the Bruce diving into the ATL skyline with photog in tow……..for anyone who needs some nostalgia today.

    Reply
    1. CB Hackworth

      A flying reporter with a photog strapped to the chopper… John Pruitt… and a hottie like Kelly Morgan, to boot!

      Why wasn’t that ever the #1 broadcast in Atlanta???

      Reply
  10. mild mannered reporter

    SkyCam visited my school when I was in kindergarten. Call me sentimental or a softy or whatever, but watching those “Hello Atlanta” promos on YouTube with SkyCam spinning around and heading off in to the distance actually brings a tear to my eye. Happy memories.

    Anybody remember that they had a plastic model kit of SkyCam for a little while? I never got one but I remember the ads, and that they were $2.50.

    Reply
  11. Jim

    While I can understand the logisics, it still bites! I grew up outside Salt Lake City, and can remember the first TV chopper there. The pilot actually put the shooter off from time to time, loaded up the rescuers, and would pluck the people off the mountain, out of the river, or wherever.

    Sadly, I cannot for the life of me remember his name. I do remember always wanting to shoot from the skids. Shot with plenty of doors off, but never strapped to the skid.

    Reply
  12. Jennifer

    Thank you so much for that story! I have very fond memories of Bruce Erion coming to my school when I was a kid.

    Reply
  13. steve

    I met Bruce Erion after my fathers company painted skycam in the 80’s and i was 13 years old. I was learning to fly at a small airport bear creek in Hampton Georgia where we had our paint business. I also had a interest in tv. Bruce and Tracy Miller allowed me on many many occassions to ride along in skycam during thier daily duties and many members of the 11alive team took me under their mentorship and taught me everyting about tv news. Because of Bruce, Tracy and all the others I graduated High school with a job at WPBF ABC in West Palm Beach as a videographer, I later joined WSVN, WTVJ, in Miami and returned home to Atlanta to WAGA and WSB. I now have returned to aviation with two companies of my own painting commercial aircraft and general aviation aircraft. I owe my success to a trully great man BRUCE ERION.

    Reply
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  16. Terry Terrell

    I was Bruce Erion’s backup pilot during the heyday of the SkyCam years, and I admired him tremendously at the time. I flew his helicopter safely, and managed to get photographer Bruce Mason to the locations he needed to shoot, but I could never hope to emulate the on air showmanship that Erion literally invented when he orchestrated his broadcasts from SkyCam. Nowadays, Erion flies LifeFlight missions for me, and I admire him more than ever!

    Reply
  17. greg blakely

    i actually had the honor and privilege of meeting sky cam reporter Bruce erion at lenox square mall and took pictures with him

    Reply
  18. Jim Lumpkin

    I met Bruce Erion in the mid 80’s. He was doing a promo at Piedmont Park and, being somewhat of a “rudder rat”, I approached him and started a conversation. The end result was my getting a new friend and a new customer for my printing business. The best time that I remember is when Bruce called me one morning and asked if I would like to ride with him and Tracy to follow a steam train excursion from Atlanta to Chattanooga (he knew that I loved trains) – that was one fantastic flight and one that I will never forget.

    Reply
  19. Sherry C. Shaver

    I worked as the secretary for the newsroom in the very late 80’s. I brought my son to work one late afternoon, just to witness what I did all day. Bruce grabbed my son by the arm, said “Mom, I’ll bring him back safely to you”, and off they went to fly over Atlanta for the evening broadcast. My son has never forgotten that evening, and I will always be grateful for the kindness and egoless generosity Bruce showed me and my son. Oh, and for his bringing Josiah back safely to me. Bruce Erion, and everyone in that newsroom, from anchors, reporters, cameramen and writers, were a class act!

    Reply

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