Category Archives: helicopters

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It’s worth noting that WGCL has also withdrawn from the LNS, which pools video resources for common events like news conferences.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

Dueling choppers

For 45 minutes, Atlanta police and Georgia State Patrol cruisers chased some fool in a pickup truck Wednesday morning. An Atlanta police helicopter joined in, as did the helicopters of three of the four Atlanta TV stations. Once the TV aircraft joined the fray, it became a Live Breaking News event. And as the fool drove the wrong way on I-20, then plowed through in-town neighborhoods and streets, the chase became increasingly dangerous.

In the final seconds of Wednesday’s chase, the pickup truck clipped a State Patrol vehicle on Amsterdam Avenue in Midtown. Then another cruiser performed a PIT maneuver, spinning the truck sideways and crashing it into a fence. The suspect exited the truck, tried to flee but stumbled. Three cops jumped him and took him into custody. Here’s how it shook out Wednesday.

  • WXIA’s chopper got the best shot of the last seconds of the chase. It had the cleanest shot of the clipping of the State Patrol car and the pit maneuver. A tree obscured the take-down of the suspect however.
  • WAGA was as good. The clipping of the State Patrol car was clean. A tree briefly obscured the pit maneuver. But WAGA’s view of the take-down of the suspect was easily the best. You could see (and count) as a cop pulled his baton and delivered nine blows to the prone suspect.
  • WSB had plain lousy luck by comparison. A tree completely obscured the clipping of the state patrol cruiser. Though the finale was visible, a tree obscured some of the action, including the take-down.
  • WGCL’s helicopter showed up after it was over.

One can’t begin to overstate the danger when four or five helicopters (including police) begin a pursuit, then suddenly stop. The 2007 mid-air collision of two Phoenix news helicopters killed four people. It happened at the end of a fairly tame police chase. KNXV’s helicopter was doing a live shot when it happened. (If you click the link, be forewarned: What you’ll see is pretty haunting.)

Thankfully, the days are gone when a photog stood on the skid of a news helicopter and shot shoulder-mounted video. Helicopters are now equipped with gyroscopic cameras mounted on the belly of the aircraft, operated with a joystick inside. The video is steady, and the pilot no longer has to keep the action on the starboard side of the aircraft.

But it’s still a game of musical chairs. When the action suddenly ends, as it did Wednesday, the random positioning of the helicopters— and the skills of the pilots and joystick operators— will decide which station will see what.