Spectacular drone footage brings TV tower repairman his viral moment

Posted at 4:41 PM, Jan 06, 2015
and last updated 2015-01-07 13:45:40-05

NEW YORK (CNNMoney) — In September, Kevin Schmidt did something he says he’s done thousands of times.

With one careful step after another, Schmidt made his ascent, climbing 1,500 feet above southeastern South Dakota’s quilted prairie before ultimately reaching his summit. At the very top of a now-defunct television tower — a casualty of the switch from analog to digital broadcasting — Schmidt completed his climb with a fairly ordinary task.

He changed a lightbulb.

For Schmidt, who’s been performing work on towers of all kinds for eight years, it was “just another day at the office.” But the moment is suddenly getting all sorts of attention because it was captured by a drone, and the video has now gone viral.

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As an employee at Sioux Falls Tower & Communications, Schmidt does everything from putting up towers to taking them down. He also performs regular maintenance like the lightbulb change, a requirement by the Federal Aviation Administration to alert oncoming airplanes. On some days, Schmidt will climb as many as eight towers. It’s such a normal part of his job that while perched atop this particular tower outside of Salem, South Dakota, he casually snapped a selfie.

The drone video was produced by Prairie Aerial, a group that was launched last year and bills itself as “the premier professional aerial photography and videography outfit in the Great Plains region of the United States.”

Prairie Aerial has produced several other drone-captured videos, but none have made as big of a splash as the one titled “1500′ TV Tower.” It was posted on YouTube in November, but it’s only realized its viral potential this week. On Sunday, the video of Schmidt’s lightbulb change had around 250,000 views. As of Wednesday morning, that number was rapidly approaching a million.

The success has caught Todd Thorin, the director of the video, off guard. Thorin, who runs Prairie Aerial with his sons, said he knew he might have something special when a bootlegged version of the video was posted on Facebook and amassed more than 600,000 views in less than 48 hours.

“At that point, we freaked out and went, ‘Whoa!'” he told CNNMoney.

After spotting the stolen content on Facebook, Thorin outsourced management of the video to a company called Viral Spiral.

Like Schmidt, Thorin’s day job is at Sioux Falls Tower & Communications.

“The drone thing is kind of a side deal,” he said.

It’s also, technically, illegal. As Schmidt was fulfilling one FAA requirement on that sunny September day, Thorin’s company was actually violating another one. The agency prohibits drones from flying higher than 400 feet, an altitude that Thorin easily surpassed.

But Thorin believes he’s in line with the “spirit of the law” even if he’s violating the “letter of the law.” Regular aircraft, he said, are prohibited from flying within 500 feet of the tower.

“We’re not interfering with them and they’re not interfering with us,” he said.

The FAA might not see it that way, of course. Then again, nobody, not even the most stringent bureaucrat, can dispute that the video is breathtaking. Schmidt, who’s worked on towers all over the United States, told CNNMoney that the video’s popularity is a credit to its top-notch production value.

“I was kind of in awe of the quality of it,” Schmidt said. “It truly captures what I see from the top of that tower.”