The Antenna Project
by Jeff Jacobsen

In about 1977 I was no longer working as a water meter reader for the city. Some friends and I had started doing carpentry work jobs here and there. I got the idea to find work on radio and TV towers as well, simply because the idea entered my head. I contacted Eli Daniels, the owner of KRSD TV in Rapid City, to see if he had any work needed on his tower. He did.

tower with gin pole, gin pole and antenna on ground
antenna and gin pole on the ground.  tower with gin pole still attached

Eli Daniels, an early pioneer of radio and TV in the Black Hills, started radio and TV stations in Deadwood, Sturgis and Rapid City. KRSD TV in Rapid city was started in 1958. Eli told me he got the 400 ft. tower for KRSD from army surplus in Alaska. He had taken it down, moved it to Rapid City, and put it up himself with another guy he hired. If I remember right, Eli was a signal corpsman in World War II. Eli and my dad were friends in the 1950s and 1960s and worked together on radio and TV projects. My dad started cable TV in Deadwood and Lead. And in fact I used my dad's climbing belt for this project.

This tower is on a ridge that splits Rapid City in two. You can look up from almost anywhere in town and see several TV towers there, as well as the dinosaurs that were built as a WPA project during the depression. Eli's tower is shaped much like a skinny Eiffel Tower. It was free-standing with no guy wires (the more safety-conscious new owners put guy wires on it). There are 3 sides that are about 30 feet across at the base and come to about 4 feet across at the 300 foot mark. Above this is normal 4-sided tower that is about 2 feet wide on each face. On top of that was the 40-foot long TV antenna, making the whole thing about 450 feet tall. Since there were no guy wires the top swayed back and forth in the wind quite a bit.

Eli wanted the tower painted, the lights re-wired, and to remove the TV antenna at the top of the tower because it was no longer used. One of the main things to know about Eli is that he liked to do things as cheaply as possible. I was green and much cheaper than hiring a professional crew. But I trusted Eli could guide me since he was friends with my dad and had built this tower himself.

I don't remember discussing why he wanted the antenna down, but I know now that the FCC had revoked Eli's TV license in 1976 after a 5 year battle over the quality of KRSD's signal and production. The heavy antenna was also a great wind catcher with it's "batwings." Removing it would greatly reduce strain on the rest of the tower. The tower was also being used by an FM station as well as other businesses with small communications antennas.

Changing bulbs would be my first time climbing so high. It isn't very hard though. You just put some bulbs and a screwdriver in a backpack, and climb the ladder. There were small bulbs at the 150 foot and 300 foot level and each of those levels had a platform. The height didn't seem to bother me too much. The weather was good. And the view of course was incredidble. Not only was I the height of the tower above the city, but also the height of the ridge the tower was on. Little sugar cube houses spread out below me as a hawk glided by, well below me but high above the houses. The ultimate test was the top light, which is is a glass prism that splits in half, revealing two 300-watt bulbs inside. After the 300 foot platform you are climbing outside the tower just on the tower rungs, not on a ladder. So this is a more vulnerable feeling in practice. When I was a bit tired I'd stop and wrap the leather strap that my dad's climbing belt had around the tower, clamp it on to the metal ring on the belt, and just rest there looking around. I managed this all right and headed back down. The rest of the work seemed plausible.

view from top of tower
the view from on top of the antenna.  450 feet.

The next step was re-wiring the lights, which I remember little of. I probably only re-wired the lower lights since we were taking the top off anyway. After that, I recruited John and his son Greg to work on the antenna removal and painting. We went to the same church and did carpentry work together. Neither, like me, had any tower experience. John and I would be the guys at the top of the tower for the antenna removal, so I took him up to see if he was willing to do the project. He was naturally nervous but seemed comfortable enough to work up there.

The antenna is about 40 feet long and is basically an 8" iron pipe with "bat wings" protruding out in 4 directions. At the top was the large blinking light. The antenna pipe slipped into a larger pipe in a specially built 10' tower section that was a pipe on the inside, surrounded by a tower piece, which itself was inside a larger tower piece. All this solid metal was welded together to contain the strain from the wind pushing around the antenna. It was in turn attached to the tower with 16 bolts through the 1/2" base plate. The 10' tower piece weighs about 1800 pounds, while the antenna weighs about 1500 pounds (my calculations), so 3300 pounds total.

So how do you go about removing the top 50 feet of a 450 foot tower? First you climb up with a pulley and a long rope. You clamp on the pulley to a point high enough to lift a gin pole to attach just below what you are taking off. Eli built a gin pole on the spot by taking a thin 50 ft. tower piece he got somewhere and welding heavier metal strips to it to strengthen it. The gin pole has a pivoting pulley on top. This has to support the weight of what you are taking off as well as the force of the cable being pulled from the ground. The gin pole itself doesn't weigh too much, so the rope was strong enough to lift it in place. We wanted the top of the pole to angle away from the tower just a bit, so we attached the lower portions of the gin pole directly to the tower, but toward the top we put a 4" by 4" board between the pole and the tower. I'm not sure how we attached the gin pole but I assume it was with chain clamps of some sort. With the gin pole tightly in place we then pulled the 1/2" metal cable (borrowed from Public TV down the road) through its pulley. This would be what we would use for the antenna, and later Greg and I would use it to paint the tower before taking everything back down.

The gin pole pulley was now a few feet above the eye on the antenna that was used to attach the end of the cable. When the antenna was unbolted, the idea was that the antenna could swing away from the tower, then we would gradually lower it to the ground with one person driving the heavy truck attached to the other end of the cable, one person pulling on a rope attached to the antenna to keep it away from the tower, and one person to communicate between the ground and the tower people. I would stay at the gin pole and John would follow the antenna down in case it got stuck on something.

Eli planned to use an old World War II truck he had as the vehicle to lower the antenna. He was doing something with it one day when I was up on top of the tower. As I saw it, the truck slowly backed down from the tower base, went to the side of a steep enbankment, and rolled off, flipping over on its side and finally onto its tires on the city road that went by there. It rolled to the edge of the road and stopped. I figurd Eli was probably dead, being an old man who just rolled his truck over an embankment, so I debated quickly whether to just start climbing down fast, or wait and see how badly hurt he was. Eli opened the truck door, got out, and looked disgustedly at his truck. He had only been bruised a little. The brakes on his old truck had failed. Fortunately we decided then to rent a nice big heavy new truck to use instead. I'm thinking this is the only monetary compromise Eli made in doing this project.

We worked hard at getting everything as ready as possible. We sprayed the 16 bolts with WD-40 and made sure each would come off when the time came. We tried to think through every scenario in case something went wrong. Then we waited for a nice day with little wind.

That day finally arrived. A lot happened at each station, but I can mostly only tell about the activity where I was, at the gin pole. Eli and Bob, our designated truck driver, attached the cable to the front of the truck quite a ways down the road, because as the truck inched closer to the tower, the antenna would start to drop, and enough cable was needed to reach the ground. John and I at the top gradually took off the bolts as the truck applied pressure onto the cable. With just a few bolts left we loosened them to see that the cable was applying enough pressure on the antenna to be lifting it. Then we left just one bolt partially in place. At this point, I sort of got worried, but John said something like "ok, let's go" and we took the last bolt off. The antenna gently swayed over to the side, just as it should have. Things looked great, which is good because I don't think there would have been any way to back out from here. So we called down to start lowering the antenna. As the antenna inched slowly down perhaps 10 feet, one of the bat wings caught on the 4X4 sticking out from between the gin pole and the tower. We motioned for the driver to stop, and I called down on the walkie talkie, but by the time he stopped, the end of the 4X4 ripped off like someone was breaking off a piece of bread. I don't know how far the antenna actually fell, but it was probably a foot anyway. The tower shook and twisted from the force. We just all had to sweat for a while until the shaking stopped to see if anything broke or came undone. We checked the gin pole and it looked ok. I yelled down to Bob "you're the worst driver ever!" for whatever good that did.

We started again to slowly lower the antenna. John followed it down to keep an eye on it. I kept an eye on the gin pole and cable. I don't remember any other problems until the antenna got pretty close to the ground. It turned out that where they had grabbed on to the cable was just a few feet too short of letting the antenna reach the ground. John figured out a way to tie the antenna to the tower itself, so they could loosen their grip and back up far enough to finally set the antenna down. And with that, the hard part was over.

We left the cable and gin pole up to help with the painting. Greg and I made a seat out of an old wooden chair that we connected to the cable. He would raise me up in the chair with a pickup truck attached to the cable, and I would paint there while Greg painted around the base. We used paint mittens and sort of slathered the paint on. The chair was only needed for up to maybe 280 feet, because the higher portion was not so wide as to be dangerous just to climb up and paint it directly. We learned something about physics though that smart people would have thought of ahead of time. When I got up to about 250 feet, I started to feel like I was being pulled toward the top even without Greg doing anything. This of course was because the weight of the cable on the other side of the pulley weighed more than me, my chair, and paint on the other side. So the cable weight all by itself was pulling me up. This could have been extremely dangerous since going past a certain point would have been difficult to counter the pull. That's why you see professional tower people using a heavy weight on their side, but which greenhorns like us didn't think of.

The weather was good and we finished the painting without much incident. We took down the cable first. Greg and I got the idea as we were lowering the cable with a rope to just cut the rope and let the cable fall the final 300 feet. It must have seemed much easier at the time. Some friends happened to show up below to see what we were doing right at that time. We yelled down to them to stand back as we cut the rope holding the cable. We thought they were far enough away. They said it made a horrible noise as it coiled around and fell all over the place. We watched them run for their lives but couldn't hear the sound they heard.

I don't remember taking the gin pole down at all, so I'll just assume that went pretty well.

The cable went back to Public TV. The antenna and gin pole are long gone. Eli died in 1982, age 71. I worked on towers for a few weeks after helping Eli for Public TV, then for a private contractor out of Sturgis for a few months. Then I went off to college and other adventures. leaving tower work as a memory of the follies of youth. There's a different TV antenna on Eli's tower now, and a tower within his free-standing tower. Guy wires hold everything in place. But it does look like some of my paint job needs to be re-done.

Jeff sitting on the 10 foot tower piece that held the antenna
me years later sitting on the tower piece that held the antenna

copyright 2016 by Jeff Jacobsen