Sports Stuff

Alabama Drone Pilot Airs It Out For ESPN’s College GameDay


UPDATE: Story by Donna Cope from Alabama NewsCenter.

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 HowardChris 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.”

Smith has an arsenal of drones at his disposal. (Donna Cope/Alabama NewsCenter)

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.

Smith’s father, Walter, flew many successful missions on the Birmingham Jewell during World War II. (Dave Smith)

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 PerryRichard PettyDale 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.

When he’s not at work, Smith enjoys off time at Logan Martin Lake. (Donna Cope/Alabama NewsCenter)

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.”

Alabama football helmets, signed by Saban, flank one of Smith’s Emmy Awards. (Meg McKinney/Alabama NewsCenter)

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.”

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