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Life as an Installation and Construction Technician

Western Region - 1959 to 1987

 

from Milton Watts

 

I made it into the big time as a Regional Office Radio Technician (RT). I reported to the Regional Office in the Edmonton Federal building and was assigned a desk in the office and two big boxes full of tools.

 

Most of my first work in town would be at the Regional workshop at that time attached to the DOT aircraft hangar. We were rebuilding old AT3 HF transmitters. A transmitter was stripped of all old wiring, any repairs of replacement parts were done and new wiring installed.

 

Edmonton region was just starting the takeover of the Northwest Territories and Yukon Radio System (NWT&YRS) from the Canadian Army RCCS.

- The HQ station in Edmonton was in the Calder area and continued to operate there.

- Ft. McMurray, Ft. Smith, Yellowknife, Norman Wells and Inuvik would all be relocated and combined with our existing airport Aeradio stations.

- Ft. Chipewyan, Ft. Resolution, Hay River, Ft. Simpson, Dawson city and Mayo would be converted to Aeradio station and eventually relocated to the airport.

- Ft. Reliance, Wrigley, Ft. Good Hope, would all continue to operate where they were.

- Beaverlodge, Ft. McPherson, Ft. Norman and Aklavik would continue to operate until other communications mode became available or the need for communication ceased.

 

At that time the regional office technicians worked at whatever was necessary. Doing maintenance, installation, construction of all the radio and electronic systems in use. Later we were gradually moving into four different groups. Radar, Navigational Aids, Control Systems and Operating Areas, Communications (transmitter, receiver sites and antenna farms).

 

I spent a few years in Navaids working with Ernie Scotten. First job was installing Ft. St. John ILS in midwinter of course. Then replacing the localizer in Lethbridge. Lethbridge gets the full blast of the Chinook winds howling out of the Crowsnest pass and it is evident. The Localizer building was the old style, on and perpendicular to the runway centre line. It was quite high with the antennas mounted in the attic and, as was normal, very wide in consideration of its depth. Over the years it had developed a slight but distinct tilt as a result of the strong winds. Over the coming years new ILS were installed at many Northern locations.

 

One summer I was sent to Whitehorse with a couple of students to install the new ILS equipment. Since none of the sites had commercial power as yet, we used a small portable generator for power. We installed all the equipment and preliminary localizer antenna array and left the rest for (of course) mid winter.  Midwinter came with bitter cold, but fortunately no wind. Ernie Scotten was in charge with Bill Storms, Ed Serink and myself. The installation was finished, tuned, flight checked and the first ILS in the Yukon commissioned

 

Lloyd Richards was installing the new Ft. McMurray ILS. During the commissioning flight check he was on the ground with a theodolite observing the flight check aircraft and relaying to the aircraft its position with respect to the glide path. Using a portable radio and standing just off the runway with a station vehicle beside him and a thunder storm brewing he was reporting “on course, one up, two down on course etc”. All of this being recorded. Suddenly there was a roar of thunder and a momentary stop to the recpording then, back to it. Lloyd reported that he had been knocked to his knees by the roar. With the flight check over, Lloyd got into the vehicle, called the tower for permission to cross. No response so he eventually crossed on his own returned the vehicle to the station and went to his hotel room. Next morning the station OIC queried Lloyd as to what he did with the vehicle. The radio antenna was gone. Turned into a row of metal globs on the roof and the radio was fried. The lightening had struck the vehicle standing by Lloyd. Luck was with him that day.

 

While in the Navaids group I only worked on one VOR installation. Rocky Mountain House VOR. Several years later Navaids installed the Whitehorse VOR on top of nearby Mt. McIntyre. The top was levelled and became the counterpoise for the antennae. The building was built just off the edge and was also used as the VHF/UHF tx/rx site. Several years later the building had to be replaced and the equipment moved. Access to the site was generally via helicopter. During the move the helicopter carrying Bill Jarrett, Fred Burwell and Norm Bray crashed. Bill was the most seriously injured and spent some time in hospital, first in Whitehorse then in Edmonton.

 

Cambridge Bay VOR, another winter job (of course) presented other problems. The weather usually is very cold and also very windy. To facilitate the work a large forced air supported  fabric type building was purchased and completely covered the VOR building leaving room for the antennae work. The material was rated to meet the extreme cold and wind. Nearing the end of the job a severe blizzard blew in. When the weather improved the crew found the structure torn to bits. They were far enough along in the work to be able to finish the job. It was then found out that the structure had been tested and rated for the extreme cold and wind, but not both at the same time.

 

Although I had been on the Radar fundamentals course in Ottawa I had never worked on Radar. To correct that oversight I was assigned to help Dave Berwick install the Secondary Radar Defruiter in Edmonton. We were to install, power it up and then a factory rep. would finish the tune up. Our work was basically completed but we could not seem to get any power to the CRT. Dave sent a message to Ottawa mentioning our problem. The answer came back “be sure the tubes are plugged in”. How stupid do they think we are? Of course they are plugged in, or so we thought. When the factory rep. arrived, he pulled out a rubber hammer and wacked the CRT on the face a couple of times. It worked.

 

For a few months I worked in flight checking. We were doing the commissioning flight check for Vermilion VOR. Nearing noon hour we were approaching North Battleford and the pilot decided to continue there, land for refuelling both aircraft and crew. Just prior to landing we were advised that while there was fuel, the pumps were not working. Okay, on to Saskatoon. This gave us a fourteen hour day and was before overtime. Shortly after this I was asked to return to Control Systems and gladly accepted.

 

After getting back into Controls we got the big job of building and installing the new tower, Air Traffic Control Centre and Aeradio at the new Edmonton International airport. Some items had been purchased and supplied by HQ, but we had to assemble and wire it and build or purchase other items. At that time we were in a large building that had been acquired from the RCCS as part of the turnover of the NWT&YRS to DOT. It had originally been the stores depot and radio workshop and housed the PPCLI band. This gave us lots of room to assemble all the new electronic systems. As each item was built it was initialled, dated by the builder, then checked and initialled by someone else. For some items that were built in large numbers, such as audio splitter/combiner blocks we built test units to speed up the testing. Individual items were then mounted and connected in equipment racks/consoles and again checked, initialled, dated and rechecked by someone else. About six months later we had rows of racks and consoles stored and time to move to the airport.

 

The equipment room was on the sixth floor, the Aeradio above it on the seventh floor, The Centre on the eighth floor and the tower cab two floors above that. First job getting 50 pair cables run to all the consoles, racks etc. Then Coax cables to the roof top antennae. Racks and consoles bolted to the floor and interconnecting cables connected. Thousands of connection to be soldered. Equipment powered up and final checking done. During the final checking a troubling problem kept occurring. There were two types of DC power. One type for audio amplifiers and one for controls. DC was supplied by four power supplies. Two for each system, both running to provide instant back up capability. The control power supplies would occasionally be tripped and shut down for no apparent reason. One was sent back to the workshop for testing the other had the trip mechanism bypassed so we could continue testing. The one in the workshop ran for two weeks without a problem, was returned, reinstalled and an hour later shut down again. Why? Testing continued until one day standing near the supplies, a failure and at the same time we heard another problem that had been occurring. A small but distinct beep in the audio system. We had been hearing this for some time, but now we associated it with the power shutdown. Further observing and we noted that the beep occurred once an hour on the hour. Is it associated with the building clock system which had recently been turned on? Yes it was. Conferring with the clock company tech and found that the building clocks are kept in time with a pulse sent on the AC power line once an hour. The pulse level had been set to maximum high level and when set to a more normal level, cleared our problem.

 

Landline problems seemed to occur too often when doing new installations and this installation was no different. The landline company had installed a fifty pair cable to the remote transmitter site. Late one afternoon they called and said the line was in, checked and ours to use. Next morning we started connecting the cable and found numerous opens, and shorted pairs. Called the landline company who were very surprised. A few hours later we got a call from the company apologizing for the cable and explaining during the night some idiot gunman had taken a shot at the overhead cable and scored a direct hit.

 

Time for the cut-over. Aeradio was first. Later the tower and lastly ATC moving from Edmonton Municipal Airport. Another group was responsible for relocating all the radar controls and displays. They did not have benefit of having extra new equipment to install so it was a big rush when the time came to relocate. Very few problems occurred and those that were, were quickly corrected. A big job finished.

 

This job was followed by a rash of other jobs installing the control systems and at the same time moving and combining the former RCCS stations with our existing Aeradio station. Normally this meant three operating positions in place of the one existing position. The RCCS stations were always located in towns and were not useful that way. Usually we also had to do additions, moves or alterations to transmitter and receiver sites. The old black racks and Winnipeg desks were still in use. In general the RCCS stations used local AR88 receivers. We replaced these with remote Plessey crystal controlled receivers.

 

Several trips were made to Cambridge Bay and a vast change was made from my time many years before. For some time the station continued where it was but it fitted out with new feature most notably RTTY circuits. In time a new operations building was built at the airport, a new transmitter building near the big tower, new remote receiver site. The Aeradio had two positions, one Aeradio one marine and a large teletype room had a number of circuits.

 

More trips were made to Cambridge. One I particularly remember. I believe we were installing the Elmux link equipment to Resolute. Left Edmonton at midnight on a PWA DC6 Dewline flight with stop in Ft. Nelson for refueling, then on to PIN, Cape Perry. The aircraft was packed with passengers and freight. My seat was in the very rear of the aircraft hard against a bulkhead. No possibility of leaning back, knees jammed into the seat in front of me. I had been up all day the day we left. No chance of rest on this aircraft. A kindly stewardess seeing my distressed state suggested I lean back and take a nap. Realizing what she had said, she apologized and left. Arrived in PIN in time to get some breakfast and then onto a DC3 Dewline lateral flight. Land at each site, take off, land, take off, land take off. I lost track of time or where we were but eventually about 2 PM we arrived in Cambridge Bay and were liberated.

 

Shortly after this we started getting the new CCS equipment. When a station was to get a replacement CCS, the equipment was moved from Stores to our workshop. Here it was assembled with all possible ancillary equipment included, then shipped to the station to be installed. One variation to this occurred when an urgent need arose for an Aeradio station at Tuktoyaktuk because of the large increase in aircraft traffic with oil exploration going on. In this case a double wide mobile building was ordered. One side longer that the other. This extension with large windows became the Aeradio station. The building was fully equipped with heating, air conditioning, water, and sewage holding tank. It was moved to our workshop where all of the equipment was installed, wired, and checked out. All of the heavy equipment was removed from the racks and packed securely. The buildings were shipped by truck, rail and barge to Tuk, positioned and put together at the airport. We then went there to finish the work. As well as the normal VHF frequencies there were two HF frequencies. These required antennae, but we could not install masts anywhere. The ground there was four to six inches of dirt and then blue ice. Digging was out of the question and every effort had to be made to minimize heat transfer to the ground. HF antennae were whips mounted on steel plates set on Styrofoam to insulate from the ground.

 

Fred and I were sent to Ft. Chipewyan to relocate the Aeradio from its in town site to the new airport. A new CCS system was being installed as well. We were approaching the cut-over day but still had not seen any landline people to connect up the telephone, Sked F interphone and teletype. We kept getting assurances. Finally they would arrive on the regular PWA the morning of the cut-over. Then they would arrive on a charter flight that afternoon. Based on those assurances and for other scheduling we proceeded with the move. In addition to our work the Met. Inspector had to move the weather station. Evening came and no landlines, but the station has been moved. The cables and equipment were all in but the switch over from town to airport had to be done in the landline company repeater site. That’s only three pair, six wires comm’on lets do it ourselves. Managed to talk the local guy who holds the key to let us in to the repeater building. All went well, except --- an hour or two later the teletype quite. We tried everything and finally had to call the landline company. YOU DID WHAT! By now it was 2AM we were tired headed off to bed. The Aeradio still had phone and interphone. A couple of hours later the teletype came to life. It turned out the landline company was doing some completely unrelated testing on the line.

 

We had a lot of complaints about the microphone audio quality from the new CCS. Several types of microphones were tried out. One in particular was a headset with an attached boom microphone. The microphone had a small audio amplifier on the cord with a small clip. The idea being to clip the microphone to your clothing to take the weight off the headset. This was sent out to one station with a request for reports from operators and local pilots. The report was returned and I read it with some amazement. I took the report down to the operations personnel and asked if it was a joke. No it was real; the operator using it complained that having the microphone clipped to his ear lobe was very painful. Another station best unidentified had some fun with the test. During WW2 the OIC was also the local air raid warden and emergency person. He had been equipped with an arm band and steel helmet. The present OIC had been instructed to get rid of the helmet and other items. Deciding to have some fun he typed up a letter of instruction, supposedly from the office. “In an effort to improve the audio the staff was instructed to wear the helmet though their shift and request reports”. One operator did just that, but refused to do it again. It made his neck very painful wearing the heavy helmet all night.

 

With the new Aeradio station in Yellowknife we decided to try deadening the room acoustics. The TAM, Geoff Hutchison was asked to get a local carpet company to install a carpet. He wanted it extended into his office. No way Geoff strictly for the Aeradio. Months later during a visit to Yellowknife I was surprised to find Geoff’s office carpeted. Asking for an explanation I was rewarded with a smile.

 

The last CCS installation I was involved with was a new station at Burwash Landing Yukon. It was to replace Snag and Aishihik Aeradio stations. Just prior to commissioning the station, we were called one day by an US private aircraft wanting to land at Burwash. The station was finished with the exception of no landlines. We gave the pilot the information he wanted, but advised him he would not be able to close his flight plan after he landed. After landing the pilot came in and said that he had landed because the weather was closing in on him, but he was very worried because he had not cleared customs. I told him, we would rather he landed, than spread his aircraft and himself over the side of a mountain. Just after he returned to his aircraft the local RCMP constable dropped in to visit. I asked him to go see the pilot and reassure him all was okay.

 

My career was about to make a big change. The DOT had taken over the Calgary owned airport from the city and had planned and started construction on a new much larger Terminal building. Although the terminal was not intended to house any ATC or Aeradio function it was anticipated that there would be a large amount of Telecommunications and Electronics involved. T and E branch felt it desirable to have someone appointed to coordinate these activities. That would be my new job. The airport planning and construction team was headed by Bob Williamson a former RO and Tech. I still reported to

T and E branch and was not a member of Bob’s staff

 

An acoustic consultant was hired to design the public address system and do what was possible to improve the acoustics of the terminal. He called me one day with a problem. Apparently there are acoustic and echo figures for many types of building, but not for air terminals. He wanted to do some tests at the Edmonton International to develop the information he needed. To do this he intended to set up test equipment during the early hours and set off a loud noise and record the effect. The noise would be about three shots with dummy shotgun shells. I suggested that he would probably only need to set off one shot and the Mounties would do the rest. Exactly what he wanted to avoid. The acoustic consultant did an excellent job. To meet the airports requirement different zones were set up in the building. Each boarding gate being one zone, ticketing, baggage handling and generally the whole building. Microphone stations were required at many locations each able to access certain zones, but not others. There was about forty zones and fifty microphone stations. Obviously this required computer control. In total there were over a thousand speakers located in the building. A year or so after the building was completed Don Dewar, the Regional Administrator; mention that Calgary was the first terminal building he had ever been in where he could understand the announcements.

 

The Flight information display system, FIDS, also became very complicated and required a computer control system. The building was not suitable for a few large displays; instead it was necessary to use two CRT displays located at strategic locations. One displayed arrival the other departures. The electrical consultant had produced the specification for the PA system and gave us a few problems. They were also producing the specification for the FIDS, as result we gave it very careful scrutiny. I was working with a new young engineer Jim Hastie. We would get copies of the specification as it was being developed and the two of use would sit down and read it, discussing exactly what each word, phrase, sentence meant to a contractor. Send it back to be redone and do it all over again. We were hampered by lack of input from airports as exactly how they wanted it to work. Airports could not understand the urgency in getting the specification out. It was two years away from opening. We understood that we would need all of that time, particularly to write the software.

 

As luck would have it the installation contract for both systems was won by the same company. Both systems required the contractor to supply seven copies of the software. They had to be tested and if any one failed then all seven had to be redone. With the PA system the media used for the software was not specified. The contractor chose to use paper tape. We had specified software on discs and a disc reader included with the FIDS system. At one of our meetings Jim suggested that the contractor supply both systems with disc and use a simple switch to connect the reader to either the PA or FIDS. The contractor mentioned a very large sum of money that would be required to do this simple job. Jim’s response was to ask him how many times and how long he expects it would take to run each of the seven paper tapes through the system and all work perfectly? The contractor saw the light.

 

While these were two big systems there were other electronics in the building. The telephone system was a new computerized system. A number of people were concerned about the effect of the radar on the telephones. Tests were arranged at the Southern Alberta Institute of Technology who had a radar system available. No problems were encountered.

 

A closed circuit TV monitor system was required to monitor baggage carousels and a few other areas that it was felt a problem could occur. Two UHF utility systems were installed for the UHF handheld radios. Some items of DOT equipment used by the airlines had to be provided for and moved.

 

In addition to the new terminal a new fire hall was required as the old one was to far distant. I attended several meetings about this and had a pleasant surprise at one. The Calgary District Fire Chief, who would be responsible for this hall was an old school chum of mine from elementary school days.

 

The big move was ready to go. The last flight to the old terminal would be at 2 AM and the first at the new terminal at 6 AM. Earlier in the evening the fire sprinkler system was turned on. It had been on, a few weeks before, checked and approved by the city fire department. They had wanted about six more sprinkler heads installed but this would take some time to obtain. It was agreed that the piping world be installed and plugged and the new heads installed as soon as they arrived. When the system was turned on - disaster. Someone had forgotten to plug the added lines. Water was spewing out over a large area of the mezzanine floor. The lines were plugged and a large crew with wet/dry vacuums spent the night vacuuming up the water from the carpets. We in the electronics had problems as well. We knew the FIDS could not be in full automatic mode as the software was not ready. Our worries about the software came true. It could operate very well in manual mode and that’s what it did. The PA software developed a glitch the day before and still had not been corrected, but again we were able to put in ‘patches’ to allow all normal PA announcements.

 

A few hours after opening I was walking through the building, wearing my employee pass. A middle age lady stopped me and remarked on how wonderful and beautiful the building was. Of the several problems that occurred at the opening, none of it showed to the public. The old terminal building still held the weather office and Aeradio station, but was otherwise empty and dark. The opening of the new terminal had been well advertized, despite this one cab driver deposited his fare at the old terminal and drove away. The bewildered man walked into and finally found the Aeradio, who explained the problem.

 

Now it was time to return to my more usual tasks, but my old position EL7 Control
Systems had been taken over by John Ilcisin. Bill Jarrett, EL7 Communications was about to retire so I was able to take over his position. As the same time Dave Berwick EL8, Regional Supervisor Technical Administration and Construction was retiring. I applied for that position and was successful. My remaining years were spent in that position. More desk duty then technical, but still very interesting. Big changes were occurring, computers, and digital technology were invading everywhere. ILS, DME and VOR and satellite communication systems were expanding. In a few years my retirement time came. I had enjoyed my work, made much easier by the people working with me.

 

John Ilcisin in charge of CCS. Nick Fleck in charge of Communications, Norma Bray in charge of Radar, Ed Serink in charge of Navaids, Bud Grey in charge of steel crew, Dave Osborne in charge of drafting and Bill Storms in charge of the workshop.

 

As a final note, I started in the Edmonton Federal building one year after it opened and left one year before it was sold to the province.

 

Milt Watts

14 May 2012

 

 

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