The Amateur Amateur: Mastless in Missouri
By Gary Hoffman, KB0H
ARRL Contributing Editor
It was a nasty night, with heavy rain and howling wind. I was down in my shack, overseeing three Amateur Radio Emergency Service (ARES) nets: our weekly voice net, a short net in which we practice receiving formal traffic and a packet net. I’m the manager for all of them.
After I wrapped up the nets, I went upstairs to start doing the paperwork. My wife Nancy was in the study, staring out the window at the storm. She turned to face me, a worried look on her face, when suddenly there was a loud crash! Something very bad happened. I couldn’t tell what exactly, but I knew that when we found out, we were going to be pretty upset.
I tuned the Amateur Radio transceiver in the study to the SKYWARN frequency. It was dead. So were all of the other frequencies I tried. And right then I knew what the loud crash had been: My main antenna mast was down. And with it, four of my antennas.
Braving the rain, I went outside to see how bad the situation was. The main mast was definitely missing. I couldn’t see it at all. It was a tall and heavy structure. Where had it gone? The rain kept pouring down, so I couldn’t investigate further. All I could do was sit and worry about the roof damage, and of course, how my ham radio activities would be impacted. After the rain had died down a bit, Nancy went out and found that the mast had crashed down into my neighbor’s yard, its base still teetering at the edge of our roof.
I went out to survey the damage the next day. As distraught as I was about the damage to the roof and the loss of most of my antennas, it was impossible for me to ignore the fact that we’d been lucky. Very lucky. Other than ripping holes where it had been bolted down, the toppling mast had caused no other damage to the roof. I don’t even think any rain got in that night. I looked around in the attic and didn’t see any water damage.
If the antenna mast absolutely had to fall down, it could not have chosen a more fortuitous path. It missed all of the other objects on the roof, the telephone and electrical service lines and even dodged my neighbor’s barbecue grills. Basically, it hit nothing but the ground.
Meanwhile, to the west of us, the city of Hazelwood had been chewed up pretty badly by the storm. Trees were down everywhere, some of them right in the middle of houses. Roofs were completely gone. Power was out and traffic was snarled beyond imagining. So while I wasn’t happy about my antennas being down, I still had a house, a roof and electricity.
I hauled my tools over to my neighbor’s backyard. This is where having an ARES deployment bag came in handy. Looking over the downed mast, I saw that my Diamond X-300 dual band antenna had shattered, but that the two X-50s had survived intact. I didn’t see any dings or dents in the casing of my SGC-230 antenna coupler, but I would have to examine that more carefully later.
The first order of business was to detach all of the cables and wires. The base of the mast was still up on the roof, but if it fell, a whole lot of coax was going to try to come out of the attic in a big hurry. That would not be a good thing. Detaching the coax was not as simple a task as it might seem. I had wrapped weather sealant rather liberally around all of the connectors. The sealant was a putty-like substance that was extremely sticky. Removing that gooey stuff was the most labor intensive part of the whole operation. After spending ages picking, cutting and peeling the gluey gunk, I vowed to switch to some other kind of weatherproofing. Once the sealant had been removed from the connectors (and my hands), I detached and coiled up the cables. That part of the task was done.
The next thing I wanted to do was to retrieve the surviving antennas. The X-300 had taken a nose dive into my neighbor’s concrete patio and was beyond hope, but the two X-50s seemed to be okay. With the coaxial cables already disconnected, each X-50 was held in place by a single bolt. I carefully removed the X-50s (and the bolts) and put them away in a safe place. I did, after all, eventually want to get back on the air.
The SGC-230 box was the last item on the mast. It looked a little weather worn, but otherwise undamaged. I unshackled it from the mast and put it away. Shortly after that, the base of the mast slipped off of the roof and the whole assembly came toppling down.
That was a pretty frightening moment, as you might imagine. Thankfully there was nothing beneath it. There was a loud noise when it hit the fence, but both the fence and the mast remained intact. I was actually a bit relieved that it had come down on its own, as I’d been pondering how to lower it safely. Now I didn’t have to worry about that.
The mast was a massive Penninger Tipper, so named because you can tip the mast down while the base remains stationary. It had served me well for years, but I now realized that it was just too much weight, too high in the air. It had really needed guy wires, but I’d had no sturdy place to anchor them and had done without. And I had just paid the price.
In any case, for all of the battering it had taken, the mast hardly suffered any damaged. One of the four legs of the base was bent. That was all.
Like most rigid masts, this one came in sections. To detach them, I used my portable drill and a special set of nut drivers. I hadn’t actually used those tools since I’d first placed the antennas on the mast. It was a simple matter to disassemble and cart away the mast, which, I’m sure, was a great relief to my neighbor. I stashed it in my garage. I’m not really sure to do with it, as I now know that it is just too heavy and tall to work without guying.
The roof looked awfully barren without the big mast and its array of antennas, with only a patch of blue tarp to mark where it had been. I had originally put up the mast because my house is in a poor geographical location and I needed to erect something high enough to peek over a hill to the south of me. Now it was gone. It was a very sad day.
But I wasn’t completely cut off from ham activity. There were two other masts still up, both lower and less weighty than the Tipper had been. One held two police scanner antennas, while the other, slightly higher, held a multi-band discone antenna. That meant that I could operate at least one Amateur Radio. Later, I was able to get my Automatic Packet Reporting System (APRS) station back on the air, by using one of the scanner antennas. That made me feel a little better.
My roof still has blue tarp on it and I can’t erect anything else until it’s repaired. Both the insurance adjuster and roofer have been out to look at it, but it’s going to be weeks before anything can be done. In the meantime, I sit in my recliner and doodle, drawing sketches of the new stuff I’d like to put up. Most of what I come up with is implausible, but I can dream, can’t I?
Editor’s note: ARRL member Gary Hoffman, KB0H, lives in Florissant, Missouri. He’s been a ham since 1995. Hoffman says his column’s name -- “The Amateur Amateur” -- suggests the explorations of a rank amateur, not those of an experienced or knowledgeable ham. His wife, Nancy, is N0NJ. Hoffman has a ham-related web page. Readers are invited to contact the author via e-mail.