Friday, October 31, 2014

Bolling Advanced Base Radio

You can't grow up to be an explorer anymore. Our species, long obsessed with exploration for the purposes of fun and commerce has managed to visit every hilltop, island, valley, crevasse, and mud hole on the entire planet. Admiral Richard E. Byrd was probably the last of the explorers. But he was unique. He was fixated on being the first person to visit very cold places... ostensibly to check the wind speed. In 1919 he flew over the arctic for the navy, in 1925 he flew over the Greenland icecap, in 1926 the north pole, in 1928 the south pole, and was back in the Antarctic in 1933 again. We all know he was a pilot, but in that era, pilots had to be quite skilled with their radios.

In 1933 He traveled to the Antarctic and he decided to winter there inland from a base called Bolling Advanced Base. This was a difficult journey from the somewhat more robust base on the Ross Ice Shelf "Little America."  He was to do "Meteorological and Auroral work." to quote his 1937 book Alone. Originally he had planned that this base would be staffed by three men: two weather observers and a radio operator. But later supply issues meant that only one person could man the inland base. Byrd stayed there alone, in a "base" that was little more than a tunnel under the snow. His chief radio engineer John Dyer had to quickly teach him how to make repairs, and the basic operation of the radio set. His troubles foretold future problems  
"Whenever I I looked at the complications of tubes, switches, and coils, my heart misgave me. I scarcely knew the Morse code. Fortunately Little America could talk to me by radio telephone. So I wasn't obliged to decipher hot outpourings of dots and dashes from skillful operators. but reply I must in dots and dashes, and that I doubted I could do."
Little America used the call sign KFZ and the inland base used the call sign KFY. He was sometimes an hour late because his antenna was blown down. Little America broadcast a "special program" to the Chicago World's Fair and Byrd added his own greeting in Morse Code "Antarctic Greetings." But weeks later the exhaust of the generator powering the radio clogged with ice and the back pressure nearly killed him with carbon monoxide. Little America continued to make weekly broadcasts to the United States which were received by CBS.  This was critical as they were sponsored by General Mills who was using then as part of a radio advertising campaign. They even had a CBS radio Correspondent on staff at Little America, Charles Murphy. Earlier trips required communication strictly in Morse code. But by 1933 they could broadcast voice and even music with a Collins shortwave radio.

Byrd continued to survive at the inland base despite the wee problem with carbon monoxide poisoning until the generator broke down. He had an emergency hand-powered radio set. but they were intended to be worked by two men. one to crank... one to key and transmit. He described it as harder than rubbing your gut while patting the top of your head.  Later even that set failed him because of a simple loose connection to the antenna lead. In the end, he survived because his erratic broadcasts alerted the men at Little America. They rescued him and he recovered enough to later serve in WWII and to try three more Antarctic expeditions.