Frequent Flyer

by: Peter Bodo | June 06, 2013

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PARIS—Every day around 11 a.m., representatives of the official and rather sinister-sounding French “Security Control” agency take an elevator high up to the top of the southwest tower of Court Suzanne Lenglen at Roland Garros to perform a pre-flight safety check.

This is mandated by law and dutifully carried out, even though the plane they inspect is attached to cable and flying all of 350 meters (just over 1,000 feet) and never higher than 58 meters (190 feet). The plane weighs a very un-jumbo-jet-like 130 pounds and is just nine-and-a-half feet (2.90 meters) long—and you thought you had too little legroom on that recent Delta flight!

You may have already guessed that this is the Emirates Airlines “plane cam” that’s been making numerous daily round-trips between a towering crane just outside the Roland Garros grounds and that tower at Lenglen. The craft, a replica of an Emirates A380 Airbus (built to scale in every respect but the length of the wings, which had to be shortened), carries the by-now familiar “sky cam” or “spider cam” that has become a standard feature at most sporting events. You probably saw it zip-lining above the grounds, its shadow crawling across the rust-colored clay like that of a prehistoric bird of prey.

Ryan Harrison certainly did. During his close and tense five-set match with John Isner on Court 7 last week, he had to curb his irritation at the sight of that fat little plane bobbing gently above the court—halted, as it always is, by the “pilot” high up on Lenglen in order to minimize the distraction it creates. But it’s not easy to hide a $40,000 model airplane that is destined to end up in the Hammacher Schlemmer catalog as the perfect vehicle for capturing a permanent record of that birthday party you want to throw at your country estate for your nine-year old.

The plane-cam struck me as some sort of evolutionary step in marketing, if that can be said of something that is either going to make you grin or cringe in horror. So I decided to find out a little about how it came to be. Those of you who imagine that this represents some new victory for the forces of commerce over advocates for “the game” in all its glory and purity will be disappointed to learn that the idea wasn’t cooked up by committee during some PR firm’s brainstorming retreat. It was the idea of a veteran former tennis chair umpire—one of the small number of “gold badge” ITF officials—who has presided over three Grand Slam finals, Anne Lasserre-Ullrich.

Ullrich, currently married to fellow gold badge umpire Steve Ullrich, left the umpiring business in 2002 (although she works just enough to maintain her “international” level certification) to return to school to study marketing. She eventually went to work as a sales rep for ACS France, an outfit that has the distribution and servicing rights to the U.S.-based Sky Cam and CableCam products.

The plane-borne camera was her idea. The FFT (French Federation du Tennis) green-lighted the deal when it secured Emirates as a major sponsor. “We (ACS) have an engineering department, and they worked up a proposal and sent it to Emirates. They didn’t like it—they wanted a replica of the A380 Airbus. So we contacted Airbus, who gave us the plans and the engineering department reduced it to scale.”

The model is made of honeycombed polyurethane foam panels and expanding poly foam. It weighs so much because it carries two batteries in its fuselage, one for the camera and one for the gyro-head that stabilizes the image. It may seem like a simple enough set-up, but keeping that little fat boy flying is a major operation. There’s a “platform pilot” who maneuvers the plane with a pair of joysticks. Then there’s the operator of the camera, a “gyro-head tech,” and a lead “rigger” who makes sure everything is functioning properly.

Up close, the plane is a beautiful, painstakingly accurate replica. And those stubby wings only make it look, well, cute. Your kid would like it a lot more than Harrison did, provided you’ve got an extra 40 grand lying around to have the ACS folks build you one.

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