BBC Sport Goes Into Contingency Mode for Marathon Coverage in Wake of Volcanic Ash

Television coverage of this Sunday’s (April 25) London Marathon looks set to go ahead as planned, after the ban on flying in most UK airspace was lifted late on Tuesday. Sport in general has not been immune to the chaos caused by ash from the volcanic eruption in Iceland as flights have been grounded and travellers stranded.

Commentators and crew from TV and radio stations were unable to get to games across Europe at the height of the crisis and the Liverpool and Fulham football teams had to travel by train and coach to get to their respective Europa League semi-final matches in Madrid and Hamburg tonight (April 22).

BBC Sport’s host broadcast of the London Marathon looked as though it would be the highest profile TV victim of the Eyjafjallajokull eruption. Cameras are located at key points along the route but the real drama is conveyed by wireless cameras coming alongside key athletes and aerial shots of the runners making their way across the English capital.

Both of these elements rely on aircraft, with signals from the four bike-cams – two bikes on the men’s race and two on the women’s – beamed to Skylink, an aeroplane fitted with a tracking antenna to relay pictures to BBC Television Centre. Aerial shots come from cameras mounted in two helicopters flying above the route.

Even though Skylink circles London at 23,000 feet to provide the relay point for signals, getting it airborne looked unlikely when UK air traffic control service NATS imposed a ban on flights below 20,000 feet.

SIS LIVE provides the OB and technical facilities for the Marathon and engineering manager Geoff Layton says everyone connected with the production was “very concerned about the no-fly situation”.

To be able to cope with any eventually four contingency plans were drawn up.

Plan 1: If the dust cloud had diminished enough to allow aircraft to fly as normal then the coverage would go ahead as planned.

Plan 2: With the total ban still in place and nothing flying the live coverage would have to rely on the cameras on the ground; six at the Cutty Sark in Greenwich, eight at the Tower of London, four in Canary Wharf, one in Billingsgate, five along the Embankment and 12 at the finish. The motorbikes with their wireless camera passengers would be out as usual but only to record on to DigiBeta, with footage used for the highlights programme.

Plan 3: Skylink being able to fly but not the helicopters would allow coverage from the motorbikes but no aerial shots.

Plan 4: If the helicopters could fly but Skylink couldn’t would mean they would be used as the relay points, although there would be two bikes on one race and only one on the other. As each of the two camera helicopters would be able to relay one bike in addition to its own camera, a third copter would have to be used to relay any two bikes, covering either the men’s or the women’s race as required.

Layton admits that without the live bike-cams coverage would have been “patchy”, so there was relief when the flying ban was lifted. There is still some uncertainty, however. TV Tokyo had asked SIS LIVE to provide a fifth motorbike for its broadcast but whether this will happen is in doubt. TV Tokyo’s production team was having trouble getting to London and some Japanese competitors were stuck in other countries.

SIS LIVE has faced similar problems, with some crew members unable to get back to the UK, although replacements have been found.

Skylink was due to arrive today at Biggin Hill airport, just outside London. Geoff Layton says that everything “should be OK” all the time Heathrow airport remains open. This is looking likely but there are still ominous rumblings coming from Iceland. Everyone connected with the London Marathon and other major sports events, as well as returning travellers, must be hoping that Eyjafjallajokull is never heard from again.

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