Thursday, February 01, 2018

On the Air and in the Air - Stories about Radio & Aviation

Wright brothers at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina
As an interesting historical fact, the era of wireless experimentation and the era of airplane development ran largely parallel with each other. During almost the same era, while Marconi was experimenting with ever increasing distances in the transmission of wireless signals over Salisbury Plain in England, the Wright brothers were experimenting with mechanical flight over the sand dunes of North Carolina in the United States.

Multitudes of additional participants soon assisted in the development of wireless and radio, and so also with the development of mechanical flight; until today both electronic communication and aircraft flight are two of the major wonders of our modern age.  In our program today, we begin a mini sequence of topics linking together both radio and aviation in a series of interesting topics and exploits.

As an introduction to this miniseries of interesting topics, we present a cluster of events linking both radio and aviation; perhaps a little different, and perhaps even a little strange.

In February 2002, there was a brief news item on TV in the United States regarding an airplane on the tarmac at an airport in California. According to the news item, which our DX editor himself saw on television, the airplane was being readied for take-off and the instruments were set for automatic take-off.  At a stage when the pilot was not on the plane, it suddenly roared down the runway, lifted up into the air, and disappeared into the distant blue sky.

That story sounds like an April 1 story; or perhaps in more accurate reality, it was the story of an early drone.  And there were many other attempts at flying unmanned drones back around that era. Back in the 1960s, radio controlled model airplanes were introduced into the tourist shops in Singapore, and they became very popular with the well to do young people in that island city.  It was a favorite pastime to go to the sand dunes at Changi Beach on a sunny Sunday afternoon and control the flight of a model airplane with the little toggle switches on a small handheld transmitter apparatus.

There was also another almost equally popular pastime. Some young people on the edge of the flight area would wait until a radio controlled model airplane would fly nearby, and then with their own control unit tuned to the same radio channel, they would steal that plane. Back more than half a century ago, Australian and American authorities at Woomera near the center of Australia were experimenting with full-sized radio-controlled aircraft.  These drones, with no pilot aboard, were controlled completely from the ground with radio signals.

On one occasion, one of these drones got out of range of the radio control system at Woomera and it just flew off aimlessly into the distance.  As the bulletin of radio news from the ABC stated, and as heard by our DX editor, the plane was just simply lost. Some time later however, Woomera control received a phone call from a homestead some 50 miles distant.  The man on the phone asked Woomera control: Have you lost an airplane?  The reply from Woomera stated: Yes, we have.  The answer came back over the phone: I think I have got your plane out here.  For almost an hour, an airplane has been flying circles around our tall radio tower.

Back during the year 1947, Radio Australia received a phone call from the captain of a Qantas passenger airliner in which he made a request that Radio Australia should broadcast time signals at certain times during the day as a navigation aid for incoming flights.  Radio Australia management therefor issued a staff directive, requiring the broadcast of the observatory time signals at specific times each day on certain shortwave channels. Back many years ago, medium wave station VOAR, the Voice of Adventist Radio in St John’s Newfoundland, received a letter from the captain of a passenger liner flying across the Atlantic.  In his letter, the captain explained that while he was flying across the Atlantic, he happened to tune in to the programming from VOAR medium wave.  He stated that he enjoyed the music and the programing so much that he fed the programming over the loud speaker system so that all of the passengers could enjoy the programming also.    

In times of international emergency, there have been occasions when airplanes are used to broadcast needed information for listeners on the ground.  The United States maintains a small fleet of radio equipped planes that can be flown to any location anywhere in the world in order to provide emergency programming where needed. It was back in the mid 1960s, that the United States first developed the Commando Solo  radio system, in which electronic equipment has been installed into a cargo plane so that broadcasts on radio and TV could be received on the nearby ground area below.  It is stated that the equipment on these flying communication stations includes medium wave, shortwave and FM radio transmitters, and also TV transmitters that are compatible with any of the TV systems throughout the world.

The radiated power from the transmitters is usually in the order of around 10 kW, and the antenna systems are generally single trailing wires suspended from the plane.  One trailing antenna is a wire with a 500 pound weight attached. The original Commando Solo plane was a modified Hercules transport, though these days there are generally around half a dozen planes that can be flown to any needed locality around the world and activated electronically.  Commando Solo planes have been noted over the years by international radio monitors as being active over the Americas, Africa, Middle East, Asia and Europe.

Commando Solo EC-130J
Programming for broadcast from the Commando Solo planes has been available from two different sources; prerecorded on tape and computer, and live from a radio receiver.  Programming is usually in the languages of the potential listeners on the ground. In 2003 for example, the Commando Solo planes associated with Operation Iraq Freedom relayed live off air the BBC broadcasts in Iraqi Arabic; and in 2010 the Commando Solo planes associated with earthquake relief in Haiti relayed off air the broadcasts of VOA News. In that situation, their emergency broadcast service quickly sprang into action (2010) and they sent their plane to fly lazy circles above the ocean just off the coast of Haiti.  Programming was broadcast on three channels; medium wave 1030 kHz, and FM 92.5 & 104.1 MHz.  The medium wave antenna was a 264 ft wire hanging from the plane with this time a ¼ ton weight at the end. 

Programming from the 1030 kHz channel was heard by several listeners in Europe. As a part of the earthquake relief project, the American military delivered 50,000 portable radio receivers that gain their power from solar energy and the hand crank mechanism.
(AWR Wavescan NWS 466)