Sunday, December 29, 2013

Tower Tales Part 2

I had several requests for more tower stories after last week’s posting. While I don’t have any more stories that involve me climbing a tower I do have a couple more interesting tales.

Back in 1978 when I was the chief engineer of WIS Radio, one day the FCC decided to pay a visit. Now these visits were the stuff of legend; the kind of events that made many a strong man’s chin quiver. I was sitting at my desk happily checking over the week’s transmitter and program logs to make sure that the announcers had filled in each and every reading correctly when my phone rang and the receptionist quietly uttered the words, “The FCC is here and wants to see you!” My heart fell to the pit of my stomach as I rose on shaky legs and made my way down the hall to the lobby. Instead of a fire breathing dragon, I found a pleasant man dressed casually in a flannel shirt and blue jeans. Clearly this was to be a working visit.

I asked the receptionist to advise the general manager and led the inspector to my office. The first words out of his mouth were “I see that you are reviewing your logs, let’s look at the past three months, please.” Fortunately, I was taught well and I had the entire year’s worth at my fingertips. While I completed my review of the past week, he looked over the others that I handed him. After the log review we inspected the transmitter, the phasor (WIS had a three tower directional nighttime array.), the generator and finally the towers out in the field. We went to lunch then afterwards went to the monitor points and took field strength readings. At the end of the day, he and I sat with the general manager and I was told that the station was in good shape and that the only thing he wanted us to do is to get the towers painted. I breathed a big sigh of relief; that was my very first FCC visit.

Left: a typical insulator at the base of the WBZ AM Radio tower in Boston. The structure on the left of the insulator is a lightning ball gap that allows the tower to discharge when struck by lightning. The next week, the crew I hired arrived to paint the towers. There were three of them. Only one, the crew chief actually climbed the towers. Each tower was 440 feet high with three 18 inch wide faces. Unlike the tower downtown, there was no ladder; the climber would use the horizontal cross pieces as rungs as he made his way to the top. But first he had to get on the tower, which sat on top of an insulator on a counterpoise 6 feet off the ground. He put on his belt which was equipped to hold canvas bags full of paint, climbed the counterpoise next to the antenna house. I was about to call the announcer and get him to shut the transmitter down while he moved over from the grounded counterpoise to the tower itself that was electrified with 5,000 watts of radio power, when he said, “No Problem, I’ll jump!” and sure enough, he was over the gap, clinging onto the side of the tower.

Left: A tower painter wearing his painting gloves. As he started up the tower, I yelled that he had forgotten his brushes. That is when he gave me the look and showed me the strangest gloves I had ever seen. They looked like the heads of rag mops rigged to fit on the hands. He demonstrated how he dipped the gloves into the canvass bags of paint and rubbed the tower structure with them to paint. Up the tower he went and dropped a line of rope down for his assistants to attach the first two bags of paint. Within 40 minutes they had the entire tower painted and glistening in the sun. Before the morning was over, all three towers were done and he and his crew were on their merry way. Now that is one job I wouldn’t have done even when I was young and immortal.

“Now wait a minute!” you say, I owe you another tower tale. So indeed I do and here it is. Every evening at sundown we switched from the non-directional daytime pattern to our nighttime pattern that beamed the station’s signal to the northwest and southeast over the city. One evening the announcer/transmitter operator called me and said that the tower readings that come from the tuning houses at the base of each tower were not right. “Oh Lordy,” I thought, a tuning capacitor in the base of one of these towers must have blown. They did that periodically. When I drove out to the base of tower number one, climbed the short ladder and opened the door to the tuning house, I was stunned to see why the tower was not reading right. Draped through one of the 3 inch wide coils was the carcass of a three foot long water snake. It was cold that day and he must have been seeking warmth in the doghouse. A few minutes later, after the transmitter was momentarily turned off and the snake disposed of, the readings were all correct and for everybody but the snake, life was good again. Oh MY!

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