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1950-1951

Smith River Radio

Souvenirs of Smith River, British Colombia

from Milton Watts

Milton Watts - Radio operator

Smith River Radio

In December 1950 after several weeks of informal training in the Edmonton Range office, weather office and ATC Control centre I was sent to Smith River. Arriving in Smith River ‘ZL’ via RCAF Dakota from Ft. Nelson, I was pleased by the enthusiastic greeting I received from George Wallabeck. Only later did I realize that George was not greeting me, he was greeting his replacement.

 

Smith River was an RCAF detachment. A 7000 foot gravel runway and several buildings built of local logs. The Radio Range station, office and met office were in a second floor tower on the administration building. Barracks, mess hall power house, garage were the other main buildings. Two houses were provided for the RCAF married staff.

Smith River winter 1951 left edge, power house,

Garage, Messhall and DOT barracks

DOT staff was four RO‘s, Harry Tucker, Russ Collins, myself and the OIC Don Royer. Wilf Blezard was the weather man. New operators came and went during my stay. Mike Lokke, Norm Strand and Johnny Bouderault. Wilf did the weather observations during the day on weekdays. RO’s did the rest of the observations.

 

There were two operating positions. One was Radio range and A/G communications. The second was P/P cw communications although it was used very little. It had been replaced by the 9384 teletype circuit, and the ATC Schedule F interphone. Receivers were NE R8119A for A./G 3205 and 6210 Kcs. National RCK, CSR5 and one I can’t remember for range monitoring. We had 1 VHF freq 126.18 Mcs. The transmitter building of similar log construction, was two miles down the road . Several AT3 transmitters and one 260B LF transmitter. The radio range was about two miles further along the road. A standard 5 tower arrangement.

 

At that time the airway was still under the control of the RCAF. They did not actually control flights, but you had to have their permission to fly. I believe this was primarily to reduce the need of having to go looking for a missing aircraft. It is amazing that more of those rather naďve itinerant pilots didn’t run into trouble. Probably because they stuck to navigating by the highway. In the summer of 1951 avgas was in short supply along the Amber 2 airway. The main stations were keeping it for the commercial flights. Smith River had lots of avgas, so we became a stop for a lot of the tourist pilots headed to and from Alaska. We did have one interesting visitor and obviously a good pilot, although she didn’t speak English. A Cessna from Paraguay with a female pilot was flying from the tip of South America to the tip of N America. When she arrived at noon I knew she needed two things, the toilet and lunch. I pointed her in the correct direction for both. Sadly she did not finish her trip. Her Cessna was parked at Fairbanks and destroyed when hit by another aircraft. Several miles east of Smith River was the fabled “Million Dollar Valley”. So named because of the three B26 USAAF attack bombers that crash landed there in 1942. I was made aware of the aircraft on my arrival. On one occasion a tourist spotted one and reported the it to me.

3AM, -30 Dec F. Smith River winter

The two barracks were the same physical size, but the one used by DOT was only half barracks. The other half was kitchen and mess hall. Both barracks had a large common room in the middle and one large wash room beside it. Apparently no thought had been given to any females who might be staying. Any itinerants, male and female were housed in the DOT barracks. In the event of females, they were told to have someone at the door, if possible, or to close the door. Occasionally this resulted in embarrassing moments for the female.

Once a week someone would drive about 45 miles to Lower Liard Lodge and pick up the movie of the week. That night would be movie night and the next morning a 30 mile trip to Coal River Lodge to continue on it’s route along the highway. It was all part of the system set up to provide movies on the highway. Because of the 25 miles or so of little travelled road between the Alaska highway and the station it was the general rule to phone and advise you were going to be on the road. We carried a portable telephone with a pole that would allow us to connect a phone on the open telephone line if necessary.

 

I built a Johnson Viking transmitter and bought a National NC125 receiver. Cut and cleaned two poles. Put them up at each end of the building and VE7ZR was on the air. I was able to move to a room a little more removed from others, there-bye allowing me to operate when others were asleep. Lots of DX mostly on CW. A great way to improve my skills. Working a US aeronautical station one day I copied his position report over ZL, which I relayed by phone to the range. Now that’s DX.

Milton Watts - Radio operator

Smith River Radio

Don Royer went from there to Edmonton and eventually made to EL8 position in Construction and Installation. Harry Tucker spent several months on temporary transfer to Gander then back to Smith River and eventually became an RI, Russ Collins left DOT and returned several times, spending some time on the Pacific weather ship, some time with CPA and then into ATC. Mike Lokke went to Cambridge Bay, Cowley and then into ATC. Johnny Boudreault finished his very colourful and controversial career and retired. Wilf Blezard had his time in the limelight for being the observer reading the lowest temperature in North America at Snag.

 

In August 1951 I was transferred to Cambridge Bay to replace Mike Lokke. I had enjoyed my stay in Smith River and developed a liking for that life. Although I saw many more stations I never did see Smith River again. For many years the abandoned buildings stood there as the runway was slowly overgrown. Now, that is gone, a few years ago a large wildfire developed and destroyed all the buildings.

 

Milt Watts

 

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