Smitty’s living the high life

Former television and radio presenter Mike Smith has swapped thestudio for the skies. He tells Ian Burrell about his new adventures filmingtelevision news stories and special events from a helicopter
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The Independent Online

When Mike Smith and his girlfriend Sarah Greene, television presenters both, were seriously injured after the helicopter he was piloting crashed in a Gloucestershire field in 1988, the story was big, big news.

In a pre-Premiership, pre-Heat magazine era, Smith and Greene were about as close as it came to the Posh and Becks of their time. Smith was a former host of Breakfast Time on BBC1 before crossing media to present the prestigious breakfast show on Radio 1. His partner was the golden girl of children's and daytime television. When the pictures of the wreckage ran on the news, some doubted they would return to work at all. No one thought Smith would go on to make a career out of flying in helicopters in search of dramatic news footage.

But that is what he has done, having founded Flying TV, based at Denham Aerodrome, west of London. He is currently celebrating a string of scoops, including the only "pilot's eye view" of the approach route to Heathrow's 27L runway that the crew of the fated British Airways Boeing 777 would have had before crash-landing earlier this month. Smith's company also provided exclusive aerial footage to BBC News and ITN of the summer floods in Yorkshire and the foot-and-mouth outbreak in Surrey, it covered the Derby from above Epsom racecourse for the BBC and collected a Royal Television Society award for coverage of the Boat Race for ITV Sport. Flying TV's pictures have also appeared recently in shows as diverse as Top Gear, Blue Peter and the spy drama Spooks.

Smith, 52, feels justified in having made the decision four years ago to set up the company, as he and Greene convened their first "board meeting" while sitting in the shallows of the Atlantic on a beach in Florida.

Now he finds himself in front of the cameras again, only this time in the air, reporting from one of his own helicopters. "On news shoots it tends to be me that gets rolled out of bed because I've got the mobile phone. I've started filing live reports, which is quite fun.

"I've done live stuff for the BBC on the Atherstone warehouse fire and when the Cutty Sark caught fire. GMTV paid for us to fly up to Sheffield for the flooding story and we were over the city at 7am with the first pictures of the terrible floods."

Flying TV now has a fleet of two single-engined Robinson R44 helicopters, machines specially designed for electronic news-gathering in the wake of the clamour for aerial footage that took hold among American networks after the sensational OJ Simpson chase scenes of 1994. Though Smith still flies helicopters he doesn't take the controls on newsgathering expeditions. "I have a pilot alongside me. I could be operating the camera and filing at the same time, I've done that for GMTV.

But the most comfortable way to do it is to have a camera operator in the back seat taking care of the technology and me just talking in the front," he says. "I love it because all the things I learnt in current affairs at Breakfast Time 25 years ago about getting the story have never left me.

When I'm [working] I can hear certain editorial characters from the BBC of 25 years ago, nagging me about how to get the story."

Getting to the scene of a story is often only part of the battle. "You have got to get there quickly before they put up the exclusion zone.

The amount of news management that goes on in government-related situations is amazing. With foot-and-mouth, Defra didn't want anybody to know where the farm was and what they were going to be doing that day," he recalls.

"The police actually banged on the door of the BBC news truck and ordered the helicopter out of the sky.

"Well the police don't have the power to do that, the people who can order us out of the sky are the air-traffic controllers."

He draws the line at some media requests, revealing that he refused a BBC commission to follow the McCann family home after they arrived back in Britain from the Algarve. "I was in bed with my wife when they called and I said to her 'I don't think we should do this.'"

Smith is excited by the potential of the sophisticated camera equipment on his helicopters, with lenses that can lock in on a subject and hold the shot even when the chopper is being buffeted by the weather. "These gyro stabilised cameras are fantastic. You have a camera on the nose of the aircraft which is held on a target all the way to the end of the zoom. You can be two miles away from the scene of the story and still getting shots of it on the zoom, even if the helicopter is bouncing up and down on the wind. The technology comes from cruise missiles."

His bugbear is that both the BBC and Sky News often rely on twin-engined helicopters, which are able to fly over London locations away from the River Thames, such as King's Cross railway station.

The smaller choppers are prevented by air regulations from operating over a small number of London locations.

In the atmosphere of the post 7/7 era, that's not enough for some networks.

So, Sky and the BBC contract twin-engined machines from Arena, a Redhill-based aviation company that also boasts an impressive list of production credits. Smith argues that the exclusion zones that would be imposed in the wake of terrorist attacks would prevent any helicopter from hovering above the scene of such an atrocity.

He claims that his single-engined helicopters come at half the price and wins business by making his service available at all times. "If it's at weekends or out of office hours the BBC or ITN tend to call us." When the

BA Boeing came down, Smith

and his team worked all weekend to get the pictures they needed for ITV News.

"The key shot that you needed for that story was the flight path approach into Heathrow, the last seconds of that flight.

We were able to get that because we were able to sit here and wait until air traffic control could accommodate us."

Next month he will launch a low cost digital library of the aerial footage that has been shot from his helicopters over the past four years.

In March, Flying TV will send up two choppers to cover the Boat Race. "They work like a flying display, one is doing the wide shot of the course, showing the banks of the river and the other is doing the detail, closing in on where the oars clash," says Smith, who the following weekend will get his first chance to shoot the Grand National from the skies, having won the BBC Sport contract via production company Sunset + Vine.

Mike Smith's fascination with helicopters nearly cost him his life but when he hit middle age he had no doubt that he wanted them to be the focus of the rest of his working life.

"I got to 45 and some of the shows I was being offered as a presenter I didn't want to do," he says. I'd never been middle-aged before and I thought 'What's part two going to be like?' I thought it could be what I wanted it to be."