Wednesday, June 10, 2015

Focus on the South Pacific: Australian Shortwave Callsigns VLC

The earliest origins of callsign VLC, the familiar callsign for Radio Australia at Shepparton in Victoria during the war years, dates back a little more than 100 years ago, to the year 1913.  It was on September 18 of that year that a new wireless station was taken into regular service, not in Australia and not in New Zealand, but rather on a small island in the South Pacific.  This island was Chatham Island, which is located 500 miles east of New Zealand. 
            Chatham Island has a small population, just 600, and the main town is Waitangi on the southern edge of Petrie Bay on the west side of the island.  Chatham is the most easterly territory belonging to New Zealand, and their time zone is the unusual 45 minutes ahead of New Zealand itself.  It is said that every new day in our world begins geographically in the Chatham Islands. 
            This new wireless station was installed on top of a high 150 foot cliff, a mile distant from the settlement of Waitangi, and the two masts were 150 feet tall and 300 feet apart.  A powerful light was installed atop one of the towers and this acted as a beacon light for nearby shipping.
            The original callsign was VLC with the initial letter V honoring the new Queen Victoria in England though 16 years later, in the year 1929 this was modified and VLC became ZLC.  The station was ultimately closed in the early 1990s.
            Tasman Island is a small half square mile oval shaped island with a flat plateau on top.  In reality, Tasman Island is the above water top of an underwater mountain with steep cliffs 1,000 feet high all way around.  It was at one time heavily forested, but it is almost treeless these days due to the usage of trees for firewood.  
            Tasman Island was named in honor of the Dutch explorer Abel Janszoon Tasman who is also honored with his name ensconced in the name of the larger island, Tasmania.  The small Tasman Island was given its name by the British sea caption Matthew Flinders on December 9, 1798 during his epic circumnavigation of all of these Australian islands.
            During the year 1905, work was well underway in the construction of a tall lighthouse on the  highest point on Tasman Island. The lighthouse was built from large cast iron circular plates made in England, each weighing up to ¾ ton that were bolted together.  The top of this tall lighthouse reached more than 1700 feet above sea level, nearly a rd mile high, one of the very highest in Australia.
            Because of the tall cliffs completely surrounding the island, there are only two very steep and very difficult passageways up to the top plateau, and the only way to haul heavy equipment and even people up to the plateau was by a complicated process with machinery. 
            Goods were trans-shipped from a cargo vessel at anchor nearby to Tasman Island into a smaller launch, and then unloaded to a narrow ledge area on the island.  A flying fox cable system hauled the goods up the cliff side, then an engine driven winch hauled them a little further, and finally a horse drawn tramway dragged them onto the elevated plateau.  These days though, any needed shipment of goods and personnel is carried onto the island by helicopter.
            The only residents on the island have been lighthouse personnel; except however during the war years, when communication personnel serving with the Royal Australian Navy were stationed on the island to oversee and operate the radio facilities.
            Only one death has been reported on Tasman Island, that of a tradesman who was working on the installation of a new crane back in 1927.  However, the skeleton of an Australian Aborigine was found in a cave many years ago. 
            Many years ago, three year old Joyce Mitchell became sick on the island, and she died a few days later in a hospital in Hobart from complications from pneumonia.  Just two babies have been born on Tasman Island, and the first was Eileen Johnston in 1920.
            At the time when construction of the lighthouse was underway in 1905, some of the installation personnel conducted wireless experiments and communicated in Morse Code with other wireless amateurs in the state capital Hobart.  During the following year, the PMG Department licensed a locally made transmitter in Hobart for experimental communication with Tasman Island.
            In the early part of the year 1906, work on the lighthouse and the three staff bungalows was completed.  The Tasman Island Lighthouse was officially lit and taken into service on April 2.
            Back at that time, pigeons were brought in to carry messages from the lighthouse keepers to the headquarters of the lighthouse service in Hobart.  However in 1915, plans were announced for the installation of a wireless station on the island.  On July 22 of the next year, (1916) a small low powered spark gap Morse Code wireless transmitter was inaugurated for communication with similar stations in Hobart, and on Bruny Island and Maatsuyker Island.
            A pedal wireless station with power from a stationary bicycle was installed in 1930; and this unit was superseded during the early part of the Pacific War with battery operated equipment.  This station operated on 1579 kHz, just above the standard mediumwave band as it was in those days.  In 1941, this low powered communication unit was listed under the callsign VLC.
            The Tasman Island Lighthouse is still operating even to this day, though it was more recently totally automated.  A service organization, the Friends of Tasman Island, are gradually restoring many of the buildings and structures on the island, and sometimes a temporary amateur radio station is installed on Tasman Island in conjunction with these renovation projects.
            In February 1944, an American 50 kW shortwave transmitter was installed in a new transmitter building at Shepparton in Victoria and it was activated for part time usage on March 1 under this same callsign VLC.  Originally it was planned that all three of the new shortwave transmitters at this location would be units rated at 100 kW, but none were available anywhere in the world at the time. 
            This new 50 kW VLC, model MI7330, was built by RCA and it was made available from the United States under their wartime lendlease program.  This transmitter was originally planned for installation near San Francisco for use by VOA the Voice of America under the callsign KWIX, but it was diverted for use by Australia Calling with the proviso that it would beam the daily OWI-VOA program The Philippine Hour to the Philippines.
              Transmitter VLC at Shepparton in Australia was taken into full time service on August 25 (1944) and the relay of The Philippine Hour was transferred to the radio ship Apache during the next year.
            Under a modernization project beginning in 1957, transmitter VLC was bifurcated, and together with additional electronic equipment, a second 50 kW VLC became available for on air usage two years later. 
            In 1960, another of the bifurcated transmitters, a 100 kW unit, took the callsign VLC for a short while until Radio Australia dropped the usage of callsigns altogether at the end of October 1961.  From that time onwards, the callsign VLC became line C as the identification for a program feed from the studios in Melbourne to any of the 100 kW transmitters on the air at Radio Australia Shepparton in Victoria.
(AWR Wavescan/NWS 328)