Sky 5 soars over WRAL coverage for 30 years

Posted August 21, 2009 6:40 p.m. EDT
Updated August 21, 2009 7:01 p.m. EDT

— Television news coverage in North Carolina entered the aerial age 30 years ago, when WRAL's Sky 5 burst on the scene with bright colors and a bold mission.

Sky 5 was the first TV news helicopter in the state, and former WRAL-TV General Manager John Greene beat other stations to the punch by snapping up a new Hughes 500 helicopter after a sale to the Middle East was canceled.

"The paint job was actually for the Saudi Arabian air force," Greene said.

The helicopter quickly became an integral part of WRAL's news coverage. It has been invaluable during major news stories, like the aftermath of a hurricane or victory celebrations by area athletic teams.

"It's like the robotic toys the kids play with today, you know. You can do so many different things with it," Greene said.

WRAL is on its third helicopter, and it's the biggest, fastest and fanciest yet. A high-definition camera on board captures a perfect picture 2,000 feet away.

"The (Hughes) 500 was like driving your dad's MG. This is more like driving dad's Cadillac," WRAL News photojournalist Keith Baker said.

Pilot Steve Wiley said he can be anywhere in the Triangle in seven minutes.

"We're able to capture a lot of things that don't last very long," Wiley said. "It's like a mobile newsroom in the air."

Baker said not all moments in the air are filled with breaking news.

"We get to see the sunrise before anyone else because of the altitude. Sometimes, we'll drop down lower so we can see it again. It's just that pretty," he said.

Many stations lease their news helicopters, but WRAL owns Sky 5, which gives the station greater control over training and maintenance.

"Thirty years and we're still flying and have had no real incidents at all with the helicopter," Greene said.