An engineer's holiday

The holidays are upon us again. The year has been shorter than any I remember, so the adage about time passing quicker as you age seems to be true. But the holidays made me think back to some of the holidays of the past and how they fit into a professional life. The first that came to mind was a snow story, but it was not the most exciting. That would have been my Christmas morning drive…

I was based, at the time, at a high-power TV/FM station in South Wales by the name of Wenvoe (back then there were two VHF television channels, one UHF channel and four FM radio channels on site.) I was working Christmas Eve until television programming closed down at about 3:30 a.m. I drove the 182 miles from Wenvoe to my parents' house in South London in just under two-and-a-half hours. (In those days there were no speed limits and no two- or three-lane motorways.) My faithful Jaguar Mark 7M also took me back that evening for a shift on Dec. 26, but it wasn't the same sharing the roads with holiday celebrants.

My snow story wasn't actually over Christmas, but in the days immediately following — and it went on into the next year. I was doing some installations at a high-power multi-program regional AM station in Yorkshire called Moorside Edge. I finished the job early and was asked to shore up a short crew at a station right on top of the Pennines — high moorland and hills dividing Lancashire and Yorkshire.

In the UK, road numbers increase in digits the worse they get. The station of Holme Moss is on the A6024 at 1750 feet ASL, and on either side of the station are road grades worse than one in six. My first shift was on Dec. 26 with a BBC bus taking me and the day shift up the mountain from the village of Holmfirth. I was scheduled with three others to be there through the close of television programming. But after the day shift left it became obvious that this was not going to be a pleasant night.

When Holme Moss was built in 1951 (and billed as “the most powerful television station in the world”), the 750-foot guyed mast was designed for wind speeds of 125 mph at the top and for half an inch of ice on every part of the structure. The moor is the kind of place that has its own weather, which is often extremely severe. That night it snowed, and there was no way that we were going to get out of there. We left power on the antennas to keep them from freezing, as the snow stopped in the early morning and the temperatures plummeted. By noon the next day the road outside was covered with 15 inches of ice rather than snow. I went on overtime pay sometime during the night, and I remained so for the next 18 days! It alternately snowed and froze throughout that time.

We had no problem with food. The station had a full kitchen, and in the nuclear fallout shelter we had four months of food for 10 people. Power stayed on throughout, we kept programs going out and the shelter had some fairly comfortable bunks. Although we were able to keep the antennas from freezing (watching VSWR numbers was a critical task during the six-hour shifts we scheduled for ourselves), there was nothing we could do about ice on the remainder of the structure, and it was quite scary to see guy wires sag as the weight of ice built up.

We were lucky. A few years later (March 1969) a 1200-foot UHF mast at Emley Moor — visible from Holme Moss on a good day — fell during similar weather. And the original mast at Holme Moss very nearly came down itself in the late ‘80s when it was being dismantled after a new mast had been installed. As it was, ice blocks crashed through the reinforced concrete roof of the main building, damaging equipment. There was so much fear that something was going to happen, perhaps taking the new structure with it, that the staff had already been evacuated.

Fortunately at this writing that chilly transmitter-bound holiday is just a memory. But, even so, I may think twice — and grab an extra sweater — when and if I get the panic call that any of the local FM translators I look after have gone down.

Keep warm, drive carefully and, preferably, get home for the holidays. EOM.

We'll be talking in 2003.

Paul McGoldrick is an industry consultant based on the West Coast.

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