1 year ago

Alabama drone pilot airs it out for ESPN’s College GameDay

For Dave Smith, a one-off equipment installation job turned into the chance of the lifetime.

“It was going to be a weekend gig,” Smith said of his first role on College GameDay. “The Monday after, I got a call asking if I could do that the entire football season. That was 24 years ago.”

Smith’s skills as a drone pilot earned him the full-time position each Saturday on ESPN’s top-rated show. Over his long career, Smith has won 10 Emmy Awards, and has met hundreds of football players and celebrities. It was an unexpected role for this lanky Southerner, whose slow-spun drawl earned him the moniker “Bama Dave” on set.

“Call it a 24-year weekend,” he said.

Smith, who has always loved electronics, said it’s the perfect job.

“My whole life, I’ve played with expensive, remote-controlled toys,” he said. “But some guys have told me they’d give their manhood to have this job.”

Those toys have put Smith square in the sights of many big-name talents on GameDay, namely football analysts Kirk HerbstreitRece Davis, Desmond Howard, Chris Fowler and even Paul Finebaum, who traded a sports opinion column for talk radio and a founding spot on ESPN’s SEC Network. Among the friends Smith has made along the way, he calls coach Lee Corso “one of the greatest guys.”

Corso, a Florida State quarterback in the 1950s who went on to hold head-coaching jobs for nearly two decades, is well-known for a favorite GameDay stunt: At the end of each show, Corso predicts the winner by donning that team’s mascot head.

It was Corso who gave Smith his nickname during the cameraman’s first show.

“Very few people on the show know my real name. I’m just Bama Dave,” said Smith, who attended the University of Alabama and UAB.

Smith has forged an enduring friendship with Alabama coach Nick Saban – and not just because he roots for the Crimson Tide. During Alabama games, Saban comes up, picks up the football helmet, signs it and hands it to Smith on TV.

“He’s a friend, he’s among the best in the world,” Smith said. “I have hundreds of pictures of me and Nick.”

Smith has met every guest on the show. Smith’s standouts whom he’ll never forget meeting include “Broadway” Joe Namath, Lance Armstrong, Bill Murray, Charles Barkley and Condoleezza Rice. While those names evoke different images, they are all impressive in their own right, Smith noted.

In 24 years, Smith has never missed a National Championship Game. Once the football games start, he barely stops running. This season, Smith’s trek started Wednesday, Aug. 29, with a 5:30 a.m. flight to Southbend, Indiana, for the Michigan StateNotre Dame game on Saturday, Sept. 1. On Tuesday, Sept. 4, Smith will be at College Station, Texas, for the ClemsonTexas A&M University game.

“I’ll walk in my house around midnight on Saturday night,” he said. “After the game, it may take me 11 hours to go from the site to home.”

Price of the toys separates men from the boys

On College GameDay, football fans expect perfection.

To achieve that seamless, nonstop TV coverage, Smith selects from his veritable treasure trove of drones: the DJIS-1000, worth about $10,000; the smaller DJI Inspire II, worth about $7,000; and a DJI Phantom 4 PRO, in the $1,500 range. Smith has the DJI Mavic PRO, which ranges about $1,200, and a colorful Autel Robotics X-Star Premium EVO drone. The Autel retails at $799.

Brand-new on the market, the Autel was a gift to Smith, who usually buys his equipment from specialized hobby shops. Autel asked Smith to demo the machine.

“I’m hoping to use it at the first game on September 1st,” he said. “I’m hoping it will perform so well it becomes one of our main tools. It’s so small and nimble.”

College GameDay employees don’t know where they’ll be from one week to the next. It all depends on the schedules of the winning teams for the next week.

“We never know where we’ll be that weekend, until Sunday morning,” Smith said.

Football season is grueling for Smith and his co-workers, who put the fast-paced show together. Nine semi-trucks are sent to the location. About 125 people converge at a site every weekend to put together the three-hour show.

During football season, Smith said, “I hit the ground running. On College GameDay, all the guys are extended family, because during the season, we’re all together more than with our own families.”

In the middle of a Stanford University game a few years ago, Smith was surprised when someone tapped his shoulder. He turned around to see Condoleezza Rice.

“I understand you’re from Alabama,” Rice said.

After talking for a couple of minutes, Smith couldn’t hold back the question so many people want to know of Rice: Would she run for President of the United States?

“Her words were, ‘Never. I’m done,’” Smith recalled.

Getting an early start in Emmy-award-winning career

Smith’s drone-flying skills are in his genes. It goes back at least 50 years to his grandfather, a licensed pilot who gave his 13 grandchildren their first plane rides.

During World War II, Smith’s father, Walter, joined the Army at 16, by lying about his age. One evening a couple of years later, he was in the mess hall and saw the Army was seeking flight trainees for B-17 bombers. In no time, he was flying.

On his father’s 13th mission, he was given command of his own B-17. Walter Smith hand-painted Birmingham Jewell on the plane, in honor of his wife, Jewell.

“During Dad’s first 13 missions, for every three bombers, two didn’t return,” Smith said.

Upon completion of his 49th mission in 1943, with every crew member returning alive, Smith’s father was made a commanding officer at Kimbolton Royal Air Force Station in England. Birmingham Jewell went into the English Channel on her 128th mission. Seven men escaped, but three men went down with the aircraft.

When Smith’s father finally left military service after serving in the Korean War, he started his own flying business, Activation Airways in Birmingham. He was a dealer for several plant manufacturers, offering lessons and charter services.

Smith began flying model airplanes as a 6-year-old and remote-controlled planes in his teens. He and his brother, Walt, are licensed airplane pilots.

“I’ve  been involved in the remote-control modeling hobby my entire life,” Smith said. “When the drone industry was born, I had to be a part of it because I’m a professional videographer and a cameraman. In the beginning, it was photos from the air. When Go Pros became popular, I started shooting video from the drones.”

In 1980, Smith started Advanced Communications in Birmingham.

“We were a leader in installing satellite communications, both commercial and residential,” he said.

In 1994, Smith got a call from ESPN to install equipment one weekend, to enable their College GameDay talent – among them Chris Fowler, the host from 1990 to 2014 – to report on the games.

Smith said that being asked to be a part of GameDay will forever be etched in his mind.

“I was shocked to receive a phone call from Bob Braunlich, the company’s vice president of Remote Production Operations,” Smith said. “Disney had given ESPN the green light for the show.

“He said, ‘We want to know if you want to be a pioneer for ESPN. We want to know if you’ll be the first drone pilot for ESPN.’”

It took Smith all of five seconds to say yes.

“There’s seven and a half billion people in the world,” he said. “Being the first drone pilot for ESPN, bringing epic, low-altitude aerial video to the public every weekend for football season is, to me, the coolest job in the world.

“The year 1994 was a key point in my life and career,” Smith said. “It’s doesn’t get any better than that.”

The first ESPN GameDay show was at the University of Notre Dame.

“We’ve had so many stars,” Smith said. “Katy Perry, Richard Petty, Dale Earnhardt, the Duck Dynasty guys … we’ve had so many country music stars. The problem is, after 24 years, all the shows run together,” he said.

Along the way, Smith has picked up 10 Emmys – most stored in his “man cave” – along with a bevy of Alabama football helmets.

When football season ends, Smith returns to his spacious home on Logan Martin Lake, where expansive windows showcase the beauty of the sparkling east-central Alabama waterway. There, Smith and his wife, Reneé, enjoy his well-earned off days. The couple marked 40 years together on Aug. 26.

Smith said his work truly never stops. During the off-season, he runs the company he started 14 years ago, Spider Be Gone, which began as an effort to rid his home of pesky insects.

“All of a sudden, it wasn’t paradise because of the insects and mosquitos,” Smith said.

He researched the Texas-based Spider Be Gone and traveled to the Lone Star State to learn the business. After learning the techniques and installing the system in his own home, Smith started Spider Be Gone in Alabama. Being on the road so much, Smith handed off the daily operations of the business to his son, Cameron.

Helping keep his top-notch camera skills in order, for the past 14 years Smith has taken sunset pictures on Logan Martin Lake every evening he’s home.

“Ever since we moved in, if there’s a sunset, you’ll find me taking pictures right from my back deck,” Smith said. “I use my handheld Canon EOS 5D.”

One of Smith’s happiest times is sitting on his deck over the lake, showing his grandson, Calvin, how to fly drones.

“He loves to fly them, he sits on my lap,” Smith said. “He’s gonna be a little pilot someday.”

Smith keeps busy with his drone business, Star Aerial. A large part of his work is taking photos of homes for real estate companies, construction jobs and mapping. In the summer, it’s not unusual for Smith’s friends and neighbors to hire him to take drone photos of their families skiing Logan Martin Lake.

A higher power makes every show perfect  

Like many athletes, Smith has a ritual he undertakes before every show.

“I say a prayer to my Lord,” he said. “I ask him to allow me to do my job to the best of my ability and not screw up. I invoke the blessing of the deity before I do anything.

“It’s part of who I am,” Smith said. “I know where every blessing of mine comes from. So, I ask.”

(Courtesy of Alabama NewsCenter)

33 mins ago

Montgomery launches ‘Feed the Meter for the Homeless’ project

Under the leadership of Mayor Steven L. Reed, new specialized parking meters were installed last week in downtown Montgomery to provide a quick, convenient way to support locals affected by homelessness.

Reed announced the meters were on the way during a recent city council meeting. Called the “Feed the Meter for the Homeless” project, the City’s new initiative is made possible through a partnership with the Mid-Alabama Coalition for the Homeless (MACH).

The special parking meters are green and offer residents a way to donate directly to support MACH and central Alabama agencies working with those experiencing homelessness in Alabama’s capital city. Donations will be accepted in the forms of coins or cash at each specialized meter and by card through the ParkMobile app (zone 36999) or online payment.


“The Feed the Meter for the Homeless initiative connects compassion with convenience by allowing Montgomery residents and visitors to support our neighbors affected by homelessness and its devastating ramifications,” Reed said in a statement. “Each donation is a hand-up to help those in need and an investment in building a better future for Montgomery and the River Region.”

For more information on Feed the Meter for the Homeless MGM, please click here.

Sean Ross is the editor of Yellowhammer News. You can follow him on Twitter @sean_yhn

1 hour ago

Cathy Randall now serving on board of The Women’s Fund of Greater Birmingham

Dr. Cathy J. Randall, chairman of the board of Pettus Randall Holdings, LLC, is now serving as a board member for The Women’s Fund of Greater Birmingham.

The Women’s Fund made the announcement in a recent release, detailing that Randall term’s officially began on January 1. A Birmingham native and Tuscaloosa resident, she is a longtime, prominent civic and corporate leader, as well as the legendary former director of the University Honors Programs at the University of Alabama.

Tracey Morant Adams, board chair for The Women’s Fund, said in a statement, “The Women’s Fund of Greater Birmingham strives to elevate and amplify women’s voices, and we are incredibly fortunate to welcome Dr. Randall to our board as she is a well-established voice in the state.”


“Cathy’s passion for community service and her experience in building a better Alabama will be a tremendous asset for the organization,” Adams added.

Randall’s service to the state includes being immediate past chairman of the Alabama Academy of Honor and former president of the boards of directors of the American Village, the Alabama Women’s Hall of Fame and the David Mathews Center of Civic Life, as well as former director of Alabama Girls State.

Additionally, she currently serves on the board of Alabama Power Company and is a former board member of Mercedes Benz USI. Randall was the co-chair of Governor Kay Ivey’s inaugural committee and was named as a Woman of Impact by Yellowhammer Multimedia in 2018.

Sean Ross is the editor of Yellowhammer News. You can follow him on Twitter @sean_yhn

2 hours ago

Sessions responds to ‘desperate and afraid’ Byrne and Tuberville — ‘Sad to see them both descend to such a sleazy low point’

With Alabama’s U.S. Senate Republican primary headed into the home stretch, the field’s three front-runners are beginning to mix it up among one another.

The first significant shot came from U.S. Rep. Bradley Byrne (R-Fairhope), who on Saturday went up on air with an ad attacking both his leading opponents: former U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions and former Auburn University head football coach Tommy Tuberville. Tuberville has thrown a few barbs as well while on the stump, including one at Sessions that accused him of having “turned on” President Donald Trump.

In a statement given to Yellowhammer News, Sessions condemned the tone of both Byrne and Tuberville, noting their positions in recent polling and describing their tacks as “sleazy.”


“It is unfortunate that both Tommy Tuberville and Bradley Byrne have abandoned any pretense of running a positive campaign. But it is not surprising: both candidates are trailing in the polls, and when politicians like Tuberville and Byrne are losing, they become desperate and afraid,” Sessions stated. “Both Tuberville and Byrne have quit on themselves and their campaigns. Neither can connect with voters on the merits of their ideas. It is sad to see them both descend to such a sleazy low point.”

Sessions warned there would be a response if this activity persisted.

“If their baseless, desperate attacks continue, they will be forcefully answered,” he continued.

The former U.S. Senator maintained that Alabamians in this primary will be focused on substantive issues.

“The key issue for Alabamians is who will most effectively and forcefully fight for their conservative values and interests, such as ending illegal immigration, protecting our jobs from unfair foreign competition, defending religious freedom, and further advancing our strong Trump economy.”

Alabama Republican voters on March 3 will cast a ballot for their preference to represent them on the general election ballot in November.

@Jeff_Poor is a graduate of Auburn University, the editor of Breitbart TV, a columnist for Mobile’s Lagniappe Weekly and host of Huntsville’s “The Jeff Poor Show” from 2-5 p.m. on WVNN.

15 hours ago

Leaders, educators and students gather for Alabama’s 2nd Annual HBCU Summit

Alabama’s 2nd Annual Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCU) Summit celebrated the state’s 14 HBCUs and the value they bring to higher education across our state and country. Saturday’s event, moderated by Alabama U.S. Sen. Doug Jones, was held at Miles College in Fairfield.


The event kicked off with a panel discussion titled “Women in the Lead: How Six Alabama HBCU Presidents Are Raising the Bar.” The session included comments from:

“Extraordinary panel of women in leadership positions,” Jones said afterwards. “I think they provide unique insights to this. Just an amazing group of women that come from varied backgrounds — they came from academics, but also from business, so it’s a unique perspective that is what is going on with HBCUs but also with higher education in general.”

The panelists touched on a number of topics, including ways to help more high school students and nontraditional students get enrolled, making the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) simpler to fill out, partnering with businesses to offer degrees and curriculum the businesses need and working together to elevate the communities they serve.

“That’s what we pride ourselves on is that the benefit of being an HBCU is that … you may not have these large classrooms like you have (elsewhere), but you have teachers that know your name, teachers that care,” Archie said. “We’re going to give you that pep talk when you need that pep talk and we’re going to help you achieve.”

It is that level of concern for students that stood out to Jones.

“These female leaders are so dynamic and so passionate about what they do,” Jones said. “They care so much about their students and their communities. They really represent the best of all HBCUs. HBCUs are the fabric of the communities and I think you saw that reflected here today.”

The summit also featured a career fair and an afternoon panel discussion titled “Student Voices: How Alabama HBCU Student-Leaders Are Lifting Up Their Campuses.” The panel, moderated by Jones, featured students from Miles College, Alabama A&M University, Shelton State Community College, Talladega College and Trenholm State Community College.

“Trying to educate and train the workforce of the 21st century is going to be a challenge,” Jones said. “We’re changing technologically, we’re changing demographically, we’re online — everything is moving in a different direction. Education has got to keep up with that, but also so do businesses. They’ve also got to start reaching out and develop those partnerships to not only train, but to mentor. I think you heard that today.”

(Courtesy of Alabama NewsCenter)

16 hours ago

VIDEO: Trust in government was lost long ago, Jeff Sessions leads GOP field while Jones trails all, Birmingham’s battle over monuments and more on Alabama Politics This Week

Radio talk show host Dale Jackson and Alabama Democratic Executive Committee member Lisa Handback take you through this week’s biggest political stories, including:

— Is President Donald Trump causing mistrust in government or is he exploiting that lack of trust?

— With new polls out, does Jeff Sessions have the GOP race locked up and does Doug Jones even have a chance?

— Is Birmingham’s mayor boosting his profile while continuing the fight over a Confederate monument?


Jackson and Handback are joined by Secretary of State John Merrill to discuss the latest report by the Southern Poverty Law Center that claims Alabama is suppressing voters and Merrill’s willingness to take on more responsibility at the Secretary of State’s office.

Jackson closes the show with a “parting shot” at the waste of millions of dollars Alabama municipalities spend on “public notices” because of a series of outdated laws requiring publication of voter rolls and public notices in local newspapers.

Alabama Politics This Week – 2/16/20

VIDEO: Trust in government was lost long ago, Jeff Sessions leads GOP fields while Jones trails all, Birmingham's battle over monuments has no real purpose and more on Alabama Politics This Week

Posted by Yellowhammer News on Friday, February 14, 2020

Dale Jackson is a contributing writer to Yellowhammer News and hosts a talk show from 7-11 am weekdays on WVNN.