And now… The Flying Camera 

28 September 2023


Next Saturday’s programme “Air to Ground” brings you a new wonder of TV, the flying camera. For the first time you will be taken into the skies to watch the RAF at work. But that will only be a beginning…


TV Mirror cover

From TV Mirror for 27 August 1955

YOU might never think from the title of next Saturday’s programme Air to Ground that it is a new and exciting adventure in television, but that’s what it is. You will see television transmitted direct from an aeroplane; be there up in the sky just as though the earthbound Roving Eye had suddenly sprouted wings. It is, indeed, the Fly Eye.

Once you have experienced a real aeroplane flight, the world never seems the same again. You realise what it means to be earthbound; how restricted is the eye-level view.

Even television which, we boast, brings the world to our armchair, has so far only been able to take us into the sky through the medium of film. Thrilling enough at times, but unmistakably second-hand adventure. Only through the eye of the TV camera can we get something which really does feel like personal experience.

No new thought, this. It has been in the minds of the BBC Outside Broadcast Department for some time. Tests have been carried out for many weeks and have now reached the stage where pictures from the air are good enough to be given a television programme.

It has been a co-operative effort between BBC and RAF, the one supplying the equipment, the other the aeroplane—in this case a Varsity (seen in the heading above). I asked an Air Ministry official what their reactions were to the new idea.

“Of course we’re very interested in these BBC television experiments from the air,” he said. “But the RAF have done no more than provide the aircraft, which was able to carry the equipment during its normal training flights.

“Television from the air means that we really can show the RAF at work where it does its work. Ground TV photography can show this up to a point, but aircraft speeds have increased so tremendously that it has become more and more difficult to give a true picture.”


Aerial view of Southend

TV recently gave us a ground-level visit to Southend-on-Sea. But how much could have been added if we had seen it from the air as well


This week’s programmes, on Saturday and Sunday, will come from Watton in Norfolk. It will be the end of a long journey for Alan Chivers when they finally go on the air, for he has shared with the engineers all the frustrations and anxieties of the past weeks of experiment.

Commentators will be Raymond Baxter and Peter Dimmock. No strangers to the air, either of them. Baxter was a Spitfire fighter pilot during the war and served on most of the European battlefronts. He had a taste of Spitfire dive-bombing on the V2 launching sites—hot work. Dimmock was also a wartime pilot, and had a great deal to do with flying training.

As Head of OBs he is delighted to see his two great interests, TV and flying, brought together in a really close link.

There will also be a special programme from Watton in Children’s TV next Tuesday, with Cliff Michelmore as commentator.

And what are future programmes of this kind likely to show us, now that the TV camera is no longer grounded in its attempts to picture the RAF?

Imagine the difference at operational level—the sheer beauty of formation flight as the planes go by with the precision of a line of guardsmen; aerobatics seen at close quarters; a parachute drop in those break-taking seconds when the airman is dropping like a stone, waiting for the moment to pull the rip-cord.


Aerial view of Stonehenge

All the wonder of Stonehenge is revealed by the aerial view of the great circle of stones – typical of what the Flying Camera could do for TV programmes on archæology


We may be puzzled

All these things are possible — but how much more! Giving the TV camera wings will bring us a new and exciting angle on the world; the aerial view, which so few of us know very well.

Ultimate development is bound to be the use of a helicopter which will operate the camera like a giant boom, swinging through the skies, hovering here, moving down there to within a matter of feet and staying for minutes on end if necessary.

And what will our reactions be to these first TV aerial views? We may be puzzled by some of them — if for example the camera gives us a dead vertical angle, such as is used in aerial survey work. Believe it or not, if you were shown your own home town in this way, a flat aerial view of the streets and buildings you have known for years, you would not recognise it at first.

But the oblique view from a moving plane is another matter, bringing us not only a new and recognisable angle, but beauty as well.


Aerial view of Silbury Hill

What is this strange sight from the air? It is Silbury Hill, Wiltshire, an ancient barrow, or burial ground, believed to be entirely man-made. It was in existence before Roman times


And what a chance for the archaeologists who have made us so conscious of the wonders of the past, given us a real interest in the ages of long ago. For the aerial camera can show views of ancient sites in a way impossible at ground level. Stonehenge, with the pattern of its ancient stones clearly seen; those ancient barrows or man-made hills like the one at Silbury in Wiltshire. Strange indentations in a cornfield which reveal the shapes of early encampments. All these can be brought to us, with the voice of someone like Sir Mortimer Wheeler filling in the details.

Technically, too, the fact that picture signals can now be sent from an aircraft may revolutionise the whole of our ideas on OBs. It may take us over that real stumbling block, the fact that television signals at ground level do not follow the curvature of the earth, making relay stations necessary at every horizon.

Example: In America some time ago a big baseball match was relayed over long distances without any horizon-to-horizon links. The signals were beamed up to an aeroplane and re-transmitted—a giant triangle of a television “hop” with the aeroplane at the apex. An aeroplane hovering over the Channel might well become the one and only link needed between London and Paris.


Three RAF aeroplanes

A formation flight seen in all its impressive beauty above the clouds


Meanwhile, back to the present, and the programme you will see on Friday. What happened during those weeks of experiment?

Many of the problems were far too technical to talk about here. All the TV equipment had to be modified to work on the 24-volt aircraft circuit instead of the usual mains supply of 240 volts. (Deeper technical note: Frequency or pulse of the mains supply plays a big part in providing a steady picture, so a special signal has to be radiated from the ground to the aircraft to make good the loss.)

Vibration in the aircraft was a No. 1 problem, and the cameras had to be mounted on special cushioning to overcome this.

There are two cameras. One is mounted in the bomb bay and can look directly forward or down to give views of the ground when in flight or the runway during take-off. The second is mounted behind and to one side of the pilot, looking over his shoulder, so that you can be shown the instruments in the cockpit and the view through the window.

Sound will come from two microphones — a lip one for the commentator, a second for sound effects. You will also be switched into the pilot’s inter-com circuit so that normal aircraft procedure can be heard.


You Say

1 response to this article

Ben Grabham 3 October 2023 at 1:10 pm

Now, the following should be taken with a large pinch of salt, but the above is almost certainly not the first air to ground television broadcast…
There’s a huge amount of evidence for pre war experiments in doing exactly that – for instance here
The French bomber most definitely existed. Whether it worked or not is another matter…

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