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These images have been chosen for their uniqueness. Subject matter ranges from
historic events, to really cool phenomena in science and engineering, to relevant
place, to ingenious contraptions, to interesting products (which now has its own
dedicated Featured Product
What's wrong with this picture? Believe
it or not, that is how my former USAF buddy, Jim Flinn, of
Flinn Engineering (click for additional photos), found this connection
for an AM broadcast station that he and his team were called in to fix. Per Jim,
"Before we started you couldn't hear this 1000 watt AM radio station five miles
out of town. After we were done it could be heard 50 miles away." Paying advertisers
probably were not happy about the 5 mile range since their audience would have been
reduced considerably. It is a wonder that the transmitter even survived what must
have been an atrocious mismatch.
The photo is not detailed enough to show the intricacies of the center conductor
connection, but the ground/return/shield connection is nothing more than a piece
of copper wire bolted to the coax feed cable shield. So, in addition to the awful
return loss, the potential for PIM (passive intermodulation) generation is enormous. I'm guessing
if a spectrum survey of the tower output had been conducted, it would have shown
a huge blob of crap all around the carrier that would have warranted a severe violation
issuance by the FCC. A lot of times, those kinds of problems are first noticed and
reported by listeners of AM radio that pick up interference on adjacent channels.
OSHA would have had a fit over the shock hazard presented by the open connections.
Doing some back-of-the-envelope calculations
shows just how bad it could have been. The reported range improvement is a factor
of 10. That equates to a power difference of 20 log (10) = 20 dB. In terms
of power, that is a factor of 10 ^(20/10) = 100. So, if we assume 1000 W into
the antenna cable yields a 5 mile range with the crappy connection and 50 miles
with a good connection, that means roughly only 1/100th of the transmitter power
is being radiated. So, only 10 W out of 1000 W is being pushed through that
kludge, and 990 W is being reflected!
Reflection coefficient (Γ) is sqrt (Preverse/Pforward),
so we have Γ
= √(990/1000) = 0.994987.
VSWR (or SWR) = (1+Γ)/(1-Γ):1, so we have
VSWR = (1+0.994987)/(1-0.994987) = 398:1
Whoa! That's a serious mismatch. Like I said, it's hard to believe the transmitter
and/or tuner was not destroyed. Jim replaced the mess with a nice set of connectors
designed for the cables.
I somewhat hesitated to publish this because the identification of the radio
station will be revealed, but it is a good object lesson on how just because an
electrical connection might appear sound, that is no guarantee that it is - particularly
from an RF perspective. Based on this and other instances I have seen both on Jim's
website and those of others, there are a lot of ill-maintained stations around the
Oh, Jim called last Friday afternoon to wax nostalgic about the old days; that
is what prompted this story. It had been about 32 years since we last talked upon
departing from Tech School (although we did write a couple times thereafter.)
Now for a little background on Jim and me. We first met in USAF technical school
at Keesler AFB, Mississippi, in January of 1979. We were both in the Air Traffic
Control Radar Repairman class (AFSC 30331). Jim hearkened from the Saginaw, Michigan
area; I crawled out of
Mayo, Maryland. We both had a lot of exposure to electronics and
electrical circuits prior to joining. Jim's uncle owned a Radio Shack, so that fed
Jim's taste for things electronic. He was also an avid radio broadcast guy, and
was the first person I know that had a TRS (aka Trash) 80 computer. I left a job
as an electrician and a hobby of electronics to enlist.
We both graduated with the highest GPAs in our classes (he was a week ahead of
me), partly because of previous knowledge, and partly because neither of us was
a big partier. That doesn't mean we never pushed the limits of good GI behavior,
just never far enough to get into trouble or otherwise affect academic performance.
While at Keesler, we along with a few other friends managed to totally rebuild the
engine on his VW Bug, have battles (not on base) with arsenals of bottle rockets
and firecrackers, make a few trips to New Orleans and Pensacola, FL, help organize
and pull off a really great toga party for the entire barracks (imagine Animal House
with crew cuts), and we even built a couple stereo power amps and other minor circuits
as extracurricular activities.
There were plenty of real characters there at Keesler. I remember one guy in
our radar class (we called him Sully) who could barely pass the exams, but had every
skit from the Cheech &
Chong records memorized. He had all the parts down pat, and was such a clown
that the Air Force instructors (the younger ones) sometimes allowed him to get up
in front of the class and go through his routine. One of the funniest ones he did
was the one with the room full of pilots being briefed Kamikaze mission - anyone
Jim and I also spent about two weeks seeing to it that the floors outside the
squadron chow hall had a glass-like shine to them each morning before the troops
showed up for breakfast. We had to get up at about 3:00 in the morning to use those
big mechanical buffers to first strip the floor of yesterday's wax, then apply new
wax and buff it to a high sheen. It took about 4 hours, but the reason we volunteered
was because unlike the other airmen waiting for classes ("Sets") to begin, we did
not have to work full 8-hour days.
I actually spent about 5 weeks buffing floors because the USAF hosed me. Here's
how. The first 6 weeks of classes consisted of Basic Electronics, where lessons
began with Ohms Law and an introduction to electronic components. It progressed
through to the point where the graduation project was the successful completion
of an astable multivibrator circuit using two transistors and a handful of Cs and
Rs. You had to design, build, and troubleshoot it yourself. A test was given at
the end of each week. Well, there was an option to test out of all Basic Electronics
classes by taking all the tests and building the circuit. The payoff would be getting
into the "Sets" a month earlier and therefore out of Keesler and onto my permanent
duty station that much sooner. I was done in 3 days. The next morning I reported
for TDY (temporary duty) to the squadron maintenance NCO, one Mst. Holloman. After
doing odd jobs for a few days, he offered me the floor waxing detail. How could
I refuse? He said my orders to begin radar classes (about 30 weeks worth) would
be forthcoming. So, I waxed floors. After a couple weeks, I was still waxing floors,
and that's when Jim came on to help. About two weeks passed and Jim got his orders
to start classes. Others had come and gone the same way. I finally went to the squadron
commander and asked what the heck was going on. It was just a simple SNAFU, I was
told. I started class the next week. Unbelievable.
But, I was not surprised at the USAFs propensity for SNAFUing. My "guaranteed"
job when I enlisted was as a weather equipment specialist, where I would have maintained
weather measurement and reporting equipment (weather phenomena is also an interest
of mine). About 4 weeks into Basic Training, I was called into an office where a
guy with lots of stripes on his sleeve (intimidating to a new recruit) explained
to me that he could not figure out how that job was promised when an opening never
existed. The good sergeant told me not to worry though, because he had lots of other
good jobs for me. He handed me a list to choose from. Let's see, administration
clerk, paving maintenance specialist, dental hygienist, military policeman... When
I dared to suggest that I really wanted something having to do with electronics,
he grunted and told me that the jobs on the list were all that was available. Somehow
I managed to garner up the courage to remind him that my enlistment contract stated
if my guaranteed job was not available through no fault of my own, that I had the
option of separating from the service. I scored 100% on my entrance exam (which
didn't require a genius IQ), so being qualified was not an issue. He did not appreciate
my boldness. Sarge left the room and came back with another list. This one included
jet engine mechanic, aircraft loadmaster, and... wait for it... air traffic control
radar technician. The rest, as they say, is history.
Yeah, I'm rambling a bit, but some people like reading this kind of stuff.
The saga continues. A few weeks prior to graduating from the radar course, I
received orders to report to an Air National Guard base in Duluth, Minnesota. I
was Regular Air Force, but would be maintaining a mobile radar unit used by the
ANG there. It was a perfect assignment since I preferred the cold weather over being
in the South. Jim received his orders for K. I. Sawyer AFB on Michigan's Upper Peninsula,
not real far from his home. K.I. Sawyer closed back in the mid 1990s, BTW. I was
making all kinds of plans for what I would do in Duluth, including take classes
at the local college to work towards an engineering degree. About two weeks from
the end of tech school, I was informed that my orders had been red-lined (cancelled)
and that new orders would be issued. Graduation came and went - along with all my
friends - and still there were no new orders for me. It was back to waxing floors
again. Finally new orders arrived - for the 5th Combat Communications Group (5CCG) at Robins AFB, Georgia!
Ugh, hot, humid weather. Strike 3.
I left Keelser AFB the
afternoon of the day before
Frederick tore through the area, and drove through Mobile, Alabama just a few
hours before the eye passed through it early the next morning. I was the last person
that the MPs let go through the gate. If I hadn't gotten out that day, I would have
spent a couple weeks helping to clean up the mess on base and out in the Biloxi
area. I know because another guy (Allen Coker) came into our radar shop a year later who had arrived
at Keesler just a couple weeks before the hurricane hit. He and all the other students
spent about three weeks doing clean-up.
In the last 30-some years, Jim has built quite a reputation as a commercial radio
equipment specialist. He has repaired and rebuilt many stations around the U.S.
He has also done some stints as a radio talk show personality, going by the name
James Alexander. Always the go-getter, entrepreneurial type, Jim
even travelled around the country conducting Guerilla Marketing seminars.
There's a lot more I could tell you, but that will have to wait for another day.
Posted March 29, 2021
(updated from original post on 8/22/2011)