Sunday, December 22, 2013

Tower Tales

It is amazing what we will do when we are young and immortal. Take climbing towers for instance. As a broadcaster, I had a higher than normal exposure to towers, all kinds of towers; tall ones, short ones, and portable ones. For me the taller the better and I took chances back in the day that the very thought of curdle my blood today.

Back in 1973, WIS-TV broadcast the home basketball games of the University of South Carolina Gamecocks. This was in the Frank McGuire hey day The Gamecocks went independent after winning the ACC Tournament in 1971, and in those years McGuire took USC to three NCAA Tournaments and two National Invitation Tournaments. So these games were a big deal. The station used a microwave system to transmit the action from the Carolina Coliseum to the studios on the corner of Bull and Gervais Streets. The receiver antenna was a dish mounted two thirds the way up the 400 foot tower that hovered over the studio. The tower had a base of about 100 feet and narrowed down to about 10 feet just below the Christmas tree that shines across the city every December.

One game day, high winds, sleet and ice blew in around mid afternoon and slightly misaligned the 6 foot parabolic receive antenna. With only a couple of hours available before game time and an unusable signal, there was not enough time to get the professional tower climbers to re-align the dish. I was selected to climb the now ice covered tower and realign the antenna. “No problem” I said as I grabbed the portable two way radio and put on my overcoat, cap and gloves. Up the tower I went with the 12” by 4” by 6”, 15 pound radio slung over my shoulder. Near the 150 foot level of the tower, I discovered that my street shoes were beginning to slip on the rungs of the steel ladder that was integrated into the northwest leg of the tower. I felt OK though because the ladder framed a small triangular climbing space between the steel girders that formed the tower faces. I slowed down just a little and kept on going.

When I reached the platform where the microwave receiver was attached, I was amazed to discover that everything was covered with about an inch of ice. I chipped away at the frozen coating with the wrench I carried with me to adjust the wire cables that held the dish in place for about a half hour before the entire assembly was free enough to adjust. There was one signal strength meter on the side of the receiver that I could use to guide me to the sweet spot where the signal was the strongest.

Once I had the antenna aligned and the chief engineer in the control room below confirmed that we had a useable picture via the two way radio, I tightened the cables that held the antenna in place and checked to make we still had a good picture with the folks below, I was ready to get out of the cold and come back down. Additional accumulation of ice on the ladder made the trip down much more treacherous than the trip up was. My white knuckles were not from the cold, I can tell you that.

When I tell this story to friends, I am invariably asked if I have ever been up the 1,500 foot “Tall Tower” at the WIS-TV transmitter tower. The answer is yes, once to check out the feasibility of mounting a relay transceiver for the Marti radio remote system that we installed at WIS Radio in the late 70s. That climb was made effortless by the use of a two person elevator that went almost to the antenna mounts at the very top. The view from the platform where we were proposing to mount the relay at 1,200 feet was incredible; I could see parts of 5 counties from that vantage point; Richland, Lexington, Fairfield, Kershaw and Sumter. It was on that trip that I learned something very interesting about tall towers; they MOVE! The wind that day was about 10 to 15 miles per hour and sure enough, the tower, the platform and I swayed back and forth in roughly a one foot figure eight pattern about every 15 seconds or so in the breeze. What a ride! Oh MY!

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