The Amateur Amateur: Up in the Air, Brave ARES Men!

By Gary Ross Hoffman, KB0H
February 2017

Ranger station radiotower

The challenge

Ruptured coaxial cable

The old coax: Desperately in need of replacement

KC0QMU & Parks employee on platform

Steve (left) and park employee contemplating the wind

Geese

Geese stopped in mid-flight by the wind

Platform approaching tower

Up in the air, brave ARES men!

Wrestling with hardware on tower

Wrestling with the old hardware

Tying new coax to tower

Tying the coax: Off with the old, on with the new

Final connection

Making the final connection

I was still shivering, despite my heavy coat and hat. It wasn't so much the chilly temperature as it was the biting wind. I was surprised that the St. Louis County Parks Department was going ahead with the operation. Then, just as the the platform containing my boss Steve and a park employee started to rise, the strongest gust of wind I'd felt all morning almost blew me off my feet. I was sure that was it for the boom lift operator, and that our long-delayed antenna replacement project was going to be aborted.

Let's back up back up about twenty years. Mike Redman, KA0YXU, had just obtained a surplussed VHF repeater. It had originally belonged to the St. Louis County Police Department. Once it had outlived its usefulness to them, it was passed on to the St. Louis County Roads Department. Once they tired of it, it landed in Mike's lap.

Like many hams, Mike was an inveterate scrounger.

As a former police dispatcher and now County communications specialist, Mike had contacts throughout the County government. He asked the park rangers if he could set up his newly acquired repeater at the ranger station at Tilles Park and put an antenna on their 50 foot high tower. Since the repeater had been re-tuned to Amateur Radio frequencies and wouldn't be used for commercial purposes, the park rangers agreed. There was just one problem.

Mike didn't have an antenna.

An "antenna fund drive" ensued, and Mike was able to purchase one, along with 60 feet of coaxial cable. Then, one of his heftier friends volunteered to scamper up the tower and install it (I'm glad I wasn't there to witness that), and soon the repeater was on the air.

For a while, anyway.

The repeater must have felt that, after giving faithful service to two County agencies over a period of many years, it finally deserved a rest.

So, it croaked.

One thing must be said about Mike: He was well-connected. When a certain federal agency decided to dispose of its old VHF repeater, he was on hand to cart it away.

Pretty soon the "new" repeater had replaced the old one at Tilles Park and was on the air.

Now let's jump forward to 2014.

Sadly, Mike became a silent key. The executors of his estate were astounded by the amount of radio equipment he had accumulated (as I said, he was a dedicated scrounger), and had no idea what to do with any of it. They contacted St. Louis County, from which Mike had retired, and the County suggested that they contact our ARES team. They did, and having no use for the equipment themselves, they donated it all to St. Louis Metro ARES.

Steve Wooten, KC0QMU, is our ARES Emergency Coordinator. It took him a long time to sort through the donated material. Regrettably, much of it was well past its "sell by" date (in other words, it couldn't be repaired or repurposed), but one item did stand out.

St. Louis Metro ARES had just acquired its very own repeater.

Wow.

Unfortunately, it wasn't in very good shape.

Steve and I went to Tilles Park to look it over. Neither of us was an expert on repeaters, but using a camera with a telephoto lens, we could see that the antenna was in bad shape. It had clearly been hit by hail, stray branches, and perhaps even geese that frequented the park. And if that wasn't enough, the coaxial cable was split in several places and was probably full of water.

Right, so what we needed was an antenna fund drive...

Ummmm, didn't I just say that? Oh. Yeah. That was for the original antenna, the one we wanted to replace. I had chipped in for that one as well. (Gee whiz. You donate money to a cause, and twenty years later they ask you to donate again!)

We got the funds and obtained a new antenna and fresh coaxial cable.

Only....

There was no way that we as an ARES team could sanction someone playing King Kong and climbing a 50 foot tower. Nor would the park rangers allow it. And to add insult to injury, someone had parked a large Yagi antenna at the top of the tower, right next to the Amateur Radio antenna. Not only did that decrease the effectiveness of the repeater, it would make replacing the antenna much more difficult.

Well, that was certainly a dilemma. But we found out that the park ranger station was converting to a new county-wide 800 MHz radio system, and that a professional radio service would be installing it. Part of the service would be to remove the big Yagi, and we were told that they could also install our new Amateur Radio antenna at the same time. Hooray!

But that didn't happen. Crossed wires, miscommunication, who knows? Basically, the pros put up the 800 MHz antenna just barely above the ranger station roof line and didn't go anywhere near the top of the tower. We missed the opportunity.

Our next chance was Christmas 2015. The County hosts a vast Christmas light display throughout the park each December. They rent lots of bucket trucks and boom lifts to put up and take down the lights. We were told that we could use one of the lifts to take care of our antenna swap when the lights came down in January 2016.

Once again, it didn't happen. Yet another missed opportunity.

By now many folks were asking, "When is the new antenna going to be installed on the repeater?" It was kind of embarrassing, but the only answer we had was, "We keep trying."

So, when Steve told me that he had arranged with the Parks Department to get hold of a boom lift again this year, I was skeptical. Oh, I was sure that he had. But I was almost as sure that something unexpected would happen to foil our efforts. My imagination went wild with bizarre scenarios. A meteor strike in the middle of Tilles Park was among the more tame thoughts that ran through my mind.

Tuesday January 10th, 2017. That was the date that we were scheduled to swap the antennas. I nervously watched the weather forecast every day leading up to the 10th, and every day it looked "iffy". That Tuesday morning, I got in my car and headed for Tilles Park. It was overcast and windy, and the forecast still repeated a vague "chance of rain". In fact, I definitely went through rain during the trip, but receiving no cancellation message from Steve, I pressed on.

Steve was already at Tilles Park when I arrived. We went into the basement of the ranger station and shut off the repeater. (We knew how to do that much, at least. It had a big switch marked "ON / OFF".) We then went outside to wait for a park employee and to discuss strategy.

Actually, we didn't have much to discuss. Steve's role was to do the physical stuff. He had taken the County's mandatory course on wearing a climbing harness and was in a lot better shape than I was. My primary job was to bring everything that Steve was likely to forget, and to come up with brilliant ideas if we got stuck.

A couple of park employees arrived, and for the first time, I really believed that we were going to finally get the new antenna installed. They decided which boom lift to use and jockeyed it into position. One of them got Steve into a harness, then the pair of them climbed into the lift's platform.

"Wait!" I hollered. "Take the tool bag!"

Like I said, my job was to anticipate what Steve might forget.

Up they went.

Then that blast of wind hit. Geese flying overhead literally hovered motionless, not making any headway against the wind. And I just knew that the park employee was going to scrub the whole mission.

Much to my surprise, he didn't. The platform kept rising.

I shook my head and marveled at the bravery (lunacy?) of its occupants.

I watched, often through my camera lens, as the daring duo managed to wrestle the old Amateur Radio antenna loose and disconnect it from the mast. Then they went after the Yagi (we still don't know its purpose, just that it wasn't connected to anything) and removed it. They made a short trip down, but stayed on the platform as they dropped off the old antennas and picked up the new one. Then it was right back up to the top of the tower. The new antenna was attached, and then they made a slow crawl down the tower, removing old coax and tying on new coax.

That paragraph makes it sound pretty simple, but Steve and the parks guy were up there for over an hour. I could see that it was taking a lot of effort to break loose the old hardware, grapple with unwieldy antennas that were constantly trying to poke them in the eye, and ignore the twin demons of gravity and wind. If I had been up there, I would have called for a break about two minutes into the project.

Or just plain expired.

I knew that Steve and the park employee were pretty tired when they came down. We thanked the latter, and he drove off with the boom lift. But Steve and I still had work to do.

The old coaxial cable ran horizontally into a hole in the exterior wall of the ranger station. It emerged again from a hole in the ceiling of the basement. What it did between those two points was a complete mystery. Our Plan A was to use an adapter to connect the old and new strands of coax, then Steve would go into the basement and pull as hard as he could while I fed the coax in from the outside.

Plan A failed.

The complex coax-to-coax adapter assembly simply wouldn't go through. We weren't sure if it was hitting something inside the wall, if it just couldn't make the 90 degree downward turn, or if evil gnomes inside the wall were having a laugh at our expense.

Steve looked at me. He didn't say anything, but his message was clear: Come up with a brilliant idea. (Like I said, that was part of my job.)

So, I came up with Plan B, which was to disconnect the two coax segments from each other, then pull the old coax completely through, dragging a thin rope behind it. That didn't quite work, but Plan B2 did. Instead of tying the rope to the coax with a knot, we wound it round and round the coax and used lots of duct tape to hold it in place. (You knew this story would eventually involve duct tape, didn't you?) It was a risky plan, in that we would have no connection between the inside and the outside if the rope came loose. But, I had used this same technique at home on several occasions and had confidence that it would work.

Steve had to use a flashlight and a pair of needle-nose pliers to tease the connector of the incoming coax through the hole in the ceiling, but when I heard a muffled "Yeah!" through the wall, I knew that he had succeeded.

The "feed-the-coax" game took yet another hour, but when we finally turned on the repeater, my hand held radio chirped and beeped out "N0ARS" in Morse code, the repeater's call sign.

Success!

We've run numerous tests since that day. The repeater definitely sounds better and is reaching farther. I suppose, though, that in another twenty years we'll have to do it all over again.

Maybe I'll just donate toward the antenna next time.


© 2017 Gary Ross Hoffman
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