15 DAYS IN DEATH VALLEY:
WILLIAM HOOPER'S NATURAL RADIO JOURNAL

This amazing and fascinating account of Bill Hooper's experience in a remote location in California's Death Valley is mentioned in brief in THE VLF STORY by Stephen P. McGreevy. The original article appeared in the Longwave Club of America's monthly bulletin, The Lowdown in February 1993, pp. 22 to 40. I feel it MUST appear in this Web site in its entirety since it ties in so well with my own expeditions and experiences, though I have not (usually) experienced the amount of extreme difficulties Bill went through --and--I sure feel I travel extremely "light and simple" now after reading Bill's extensive list of supplies he brought along and the problems he was plagued with, yet my own van seems to always be quite full of supplies and equipment too when I head out to capture Mother Natures incredible natural radio shows!

Ironically, the weather on the morning of March 28, 1992 in San Rafael, CA (in north-central California) was very pleasant and calm during the time Bill was being pummeled by rain and wind in the desert farther south and east. I too heard and taped some of those HUGE, MONSTER whistlers he caught using my BBB-2 (nearly identical to the BBB-4) whistler receiver and a 1.5 meter whip antenna -- certainly a far more humble system than Bill Hooper was using but adequate for catching those whistlers that morning.

The original article also has five photographs and a couple diagrams of Bill's radio equipment and his camper, some of which I'll include here. Michael Mideke originally typed this Lowdown article for Bill and included his own introduction, which will be next...

Stephen P. McGreevy, 26 July 1996


WILLIAM HOOPER'S DEATH VALLEY JOURNAL - INTRODUCTION

By Michael Mideke

Of all 230 project INSPIRE data contributors, LWCA member William Hooper provided the most extensive recordings. With the possible exception of James Mandaville in Saudi Arabia, Hooper's ground station was the furthest from AC power lines. His documentation, both in his logs and on the tape boxes, was among the best. Bill succeeded in covering all performances of the shuttle-based VLF electron beam experiment, a number of the "plasma contactor" tests that were improvised after the EBA failure, and all but one segment of the dawn backup sessions that ran from 28 through 31 March, 1992. For the SEPAC sessions, he recorded a channel of harmonic data (roughly 7-13 kHz) in addition to the broadband whistler receiver output.. For the dawn backup sessions, bill recorded two channels of whistler receiver output, each derived from its own receiver/antenna combination. Hooper began work on the dawn sessions at 3 AM to support East Coast (North America) sunrise recordings. From that early start, he continued to make hourly recordings until the 6 AM West Coast schedule was completed. he went into the field prepared to deploy large wire antennas from weather balloons, a kite, or on poles. his chosen site was in the middle of Death Valley, California, about 20 miles from the nearest AC powerline (actually Bill Hooper located his site in another valley called 'Hidden Valley' west of the northern end of Death Valley, within D.V. National Park, elevation at about 4000 feet (1220 metres) above sea-level, and not at the lower elevations within Death Valley proper, hence the cold temperatures he experienced. - SpM)

Beginning well in advance of operations, Bill obtained permission from the National Park Service to perform his observations on land under their jurisdiction. When mission time came, he went into the field alone, driving an aging pickup-camper full of supplies and equipment. having arrived (not without difficulty!) at the designated site, he remained there for the duration of the project.

As things turned out, the whole expedition was fraught with difficulties; at times it teetered on the brink of serious trouble. The story is both entertaining and instructive - and fortunately, Bill has told it all in his profusely illustrated journal. This journal is no "Gee whiz, lookit what I did!" tale, but a sober (though thoroughly good humored) assessment of the operation, developed directly from field notes and photos. Nor was the journal produced with The Lowdown in mind - Bill always documents his field projects with notes and pictures. When he gets home, he takes time to reflect and write up his experience. I think this is for him a way to get maximum enjoyment out of his trips and a means to properly digest the lessons they offer. In this case, having learned something of my travails with INSPIRE, Bill kindly shared his write-up with me. My wife (Elea) and I both enjoyed it immensely. When I put the document down, I found myself feeling considerably happier about my own role in the project. I also felt happy at having such a nice bundle of material at hand for future application in telling the story of INSPIRE. But, taken as a whole, it was a bit overwhelming. I saw no immediate use for the journal, however, I was unable to resist passing the typescript with all its pasted-in color pictures to Jim Ericson. Jim read it four times and immediately began jumping up and down, exclaiming - "This has to go in The Lowdown!" Jim was very persuasive. Even to the point of offering to copy the typescript into his computer and make a big pile of halftones from Bill's negatives. Jim's enthusiasm was contagious, and I agreed to do the necessary layout work and to write this introduction and some of the notes on the data itself. together, Jim and I convinced Bill Oliver (publisher of The Lowdown) to provide extra page space so that the whole story could be printed in a single issue. Then, with Bill Hooper's blessing, we went to work. Here is the result. I think you'll enjoy the story, and I hope readers will be inspired to take adventures of their own. However, I hope you will also take the cautionary aspects of the tale to heart. Don't try to emulate Bill's endeavor without making careful plans and preparations for the unfortunate contingencies that may arise. From a safety standpoint, it is better not to travel alone in remote or hazardous places. Carry radio communications equipment, be familiar with all your tools and vehicles, pay devout attention to the advice of local authorities and residents. And as Bill will also tell you, don't neglect to carry an extra spare tire! Micheal Mideke


A DEATH VALLEY VLF JOURNAL

By William Hooper

Day 1 - March 18, 1992

Departed Los Altos, California with high hopes, the residual cough from a ten-week bout with the flu, two 144 square-foot helium cylinders (each 4-feet long and 65 pounds), two 8-foot 2x4's, ten 10-foot bamboo poles, 10-feet of copper pipe for a ground, six pieces of plywood (2x4), a bundle of 50 pieces of 4-foot long lath, five reels of wire (over 5000 feet), four 8-foot diameter weather balloons, a special tape deck, seven receivers, two transmitters, case of maps, ten notebooks full of data, three tool boxes, VOM, DVM, GDO, etc., etc., and enough spare parts to replicate most of the above, a 500-watt Honda generator, cooling fan, 200 feet of AC extension cord, 37 gallons of water, 50 gallons of gasoline, and a love bird (miniature parrot)...all in all, quite a load for the 23 year-old Ford truck! This also included enough food for a month or more. Can't walk through the camper.

On the road at 0736, drove 12 hours to Stovepipe Wells, death Valley via Pacheco Pass, Wasco, Bakersfield, Lake Isabella, Ridgecrest, and Trona. Saw an 18-wheeler cut in two by a train at a grade crossing at Trona. What a mess. Don't know if anyone hurt -- hope not. Very tired upon arrival, pulled in a campground at Stovepipe Wells and found out that my water pump had failed...and now I remember that I left the spare pump at home to save space! At least the manual pump works. Haven't used it since about 1973. Serious sleep needed.


Day 2 - March 19, 1992, Low 42 deg. F., High unk., Windy, cloudy. Rain forecast for tomorrow.

Sleeping in a camper too full of equipment to walk through is not a lot of fun, but I really needed the 10 hours of sleep I got, and after a good breakfast at the Stovepipe Wells Toll Road dining room, set off to Scotty's Castle and the Grapevine Ranger Station. This country is so big it just takes your breath away -- awesome! Drove more than an hour on a good paved road, and after some confusion found the correct ranger ("Maya"). This is where all the preparation started months ago with a proposal to the superintendent of the Death Valley National Monument and the resulting permit from the Department of the Interior paid off. I had all my permits, Fieldwork Schedule and Fieldwork itineraries in order (and the correct number of copies), and all was quickly and efficiently entered into the system. It would not be a good idea to show up with no permit. The only small hitch was that the ranger questioned if my two-wheel drive, 3/4 ton truck with large overhang in the rear from the 11-1/2 foot camper would be able to negotiate the long road to the valley which I had been assigned for the mission. I had been assured by the administrative personnel that the road was OK for my vehicle. Lesson number one. Check with the people in the field for road/vehicle compatibility. After Maya and I concluded the exchange of paperwork and I received a briefing on what and what was not permitted in the area I had been assigned, I purchased 18 gallons of very expensive gasoline at Scotty's Castle and set off on what was to be my ultimate adventure -- one that I now feel will be in the 'never again' category -- at least not as unprepared as I was that time!

After three hours of creeping over what is really a jeep trail, the right front tire gave up and went completely flat. I quickly decided that the only reasonable course was to put on the spare and limp back to civilization and request an alternate operating location with a more passable access road (no small thing as I had specified a location at least 20 miles from the nearest power line and/or main road. Changing the tire was quite difficult as the road was very rough and uneven, and after I got it changed and looked at the tire I had just put on, I doubted that I could make it back over the road I had just traveled. The next problem was that I could not find a place to turn around because the road was too narrow and the banks were too high. I reluctantly crept on as I knew there was no place to turn around for miles behind me, and knowing that I was digging a deeper and deeper hole for myself with every minute that passed as I traveled away from the main road. I tried ramming the back bumper into the bank at several places where the road was slightly wider, but I could never get the room to get past about 75-degrees from the direction of travel. Finally I could see a signpost in the distance -- a strange place for a sign, but I had hope that it would mean an intersecting trail and thus an opportunity to turn around! It turned out to be 'Tea Kettle Junction' -- real cute. People for years had been hanging old teakettles on the sign structure (it was featured in National Geographic some years back) -- but I wasn't in the mood for 'cute'. At this point I consulted the map and decided that considering the time of day and the distance back on a poor tire, it would be the prudent thing to creep a few feet further and camp for the night. Maybe the ranger would come and check up on me as she said she would, and then perhaps she could take my wheel in and get the tire fixed. So I kept going very slowly and carefully, and after a process of "the-next-turn-looks-like-it-may-lead-to-a better-place' discovered that I had covered another 6-1/2 miles and I was in the valley that the Department of the Interior had assigned me -- 'Hidden Valley'. I picked a place to camp for the night and gave thanks for my arrival, got dinner and quickly got into bed for some rest. My thoughts were mostly, "How will I ever get out of here?"


Day 3 - March 20, 1992, Low 36 deg. F., High unk., Wind and rain.

Started to unload the camper. Figured this is where God wanted me and it is far enough from power lines and busy roads for the mission to be supported -- and very close to the intended site location. Also I was now in the valley where I had permission to camp and operate. First order of business was to try and repair the water pump. Close inspection after disassembly revealed that the amature had actually thrown a wire off the commutator. I have repaired lots of small DC motors but this is the first time I have run into this particular malfunction. The pump was first installed in the camper in 1972, first repaired in 1992, maybe it will be good for another 20? Put up the first antenna today (in the rain). It is a wire to the top of a nearby hill (Hooper's Hill -- just named). The resulting antenna turned out to be about 850 feet long and about 60 feet above ground at the highest point. Spent long hours setting up the cables for recording, but still not done late in the PM. I had wired everything up at home but had done it wrong so lots of cables had to be re-terminated. Set up the generator and built a little shelter for it. Looks pretty dumb but it will shield it from the weather.

Got a safe arrival message through to my parents and wife via a very nice ham in Wisconsin (W0SYH - Lloyd). Freezing cold here in death Valley at 4600 feet elevation. At this rate I will run out or propane before the start of the mission! Big storm in Southern California tonight and another one will come tomorrow. Will not be able to use balloons of kite for antenna support if this weather keeps up -- and propane is a real concern. Can't run in and get tanks refilled because of the tire and road situation. At least I feel pretty well tonight, just a little shaky this AM.


Day 4 - March 21, 1992, Low 38 deg. F., High unk., Rain (some of it bounces)

Miserable weather continues. Wind and rain steady until noon, then rain let up but wind and cold continues and the barometer is still falling. Looks like more of the same is coming. Got out in the rain and put up the second antenna. it is a wire about 1500 feet long to the top of another little hill to the north. The north antenna is longer, but only about 6 to 8 feet off the ground. Used bamboo poles to support it at the center of the span. I guess I shouldn't be surprised after tests I have run in comparing different antennas on whistler frequencies in the Sierra Nevada, but the 850 foot antenna works better than the long one. This is because it is higher off the ground, and that always makes more difference than length -- but I am still caught off guard by this effect.

But there is no way that I will experiment with the kite or balloons with wires on them in this weather. The next site activation task was to establish a good ground system. In consideration of the antennas to the north and southeast, a counterpoise to the west would give some symmetry and balance to the system, so I ran a wire on the ground 750 feet to the west, trenching it under the access road where it crossed it, then I drove a ten-foot ground rod at an angle and soldered the counterpoise to it and connected them to the 150 foot wire running north to the generator. I think this establishes a good ground for the antennas to work against and provides me with a degree of safety from lightning induction and static electricity (neon bulbs were connected from each antenna to this ground system and they glowed almost all the time for the next five days). I next tried to run a simulated INSPIRE mission pass in real-time, and using the checklist and pass procedures produced at home before I departed. Unfortunately I learned by this exercise that I couldn't begin to keep to the time schedule because of the need to make and break cable connections to change configuration and change from test/WWV to pass receive configuration. It was good to learn this before the mission, and I solved the problem by fabricating a switch box to reconfigure the station more quickly. In the process, I dropped a big 4-inch loose leaf notebook and in trying to catch it before it hit the floor, jammed my index finger on the side of the table -- thought it was broken for sure. It will move now but still very painful.

I have had some very good contacts with hams in Florida, Georgia and Michigan but still can't talk very long until I lose my voice. Weather continues to make me use propane at an alarming rate.


Day 5 - March 22, 1992, 37 deg. F., Wind, rain

Weather so cold and windy that only trips outside have been to start and fuel the generator and to adjust the length of the 10 Meter antenna. Worked all day building and installing the switching system for the INSPIRE mission and building an amplifier and filter for the harmonic receiver for F07 operations. Made contact with a ham in Iowa who has been following the INSPIRE mission, and I have a schedule with him tomorrow when I will give him more information on harmonic frequencies and power levels. Even though I am almost 5000 feet high here, I can't hear any FM stations, get any indication of signals on any TV channel (although I have a very high-gain antenna with an antenna-top amplifier) and I can't pickup and idle tones on the IMTS radiotelephone -- so you can see this is a truly remote valley!

Prayers answered! Rangers Maya and John came to see how I was doing and to check on my rule-and-regulation compliance, and when I told them my sad tale of woe with the tire, they offered to take it in and get it fixed for me! This is a round trip of nearly 150 miles for them. They wouldn't accept any money, either. I don't know how all this is going to turn out (Furnace Creek may not repair split rims...), but I surely am impressed with their willingness to help me! We talked for some time and I gave them some NASA stuff on ATLAS and INSPIRE and I offered to pickup and deliver to them some .50 cal ammunition I had located -- the least I could do. Weather this PM has turned really ugly. Wind is so strong that it rocks the camper enough that it is hard to keep my balance when I walk from one end to the other. Rain off and on. I really need some good weather so I can complete my site preparations for the mission. Got lots to do yet, and launch is scheduled for 8:00 a.m. EST tomorrow morning. Hope all goes well.


Day 6 - March 23, 1992, 36 deg. F., Rain

Launch day for STS-45 -- but a leak scrubbed the mission. They will try tomorrow. I am still having a lot of trouble keeping warm. What a blessing the wool shirt is -- and I almost didn't bring it! I wear it all day and sleep under it at night. When the rain let up for a while I went outside and repaired the antenna support that had been blown down last night in the high winds. It seems these storms will just keep sweeping into Southern California regions and hit Death Valley the day after they hit the coast. Many Death Valley roads are now closed by the storms and flooding, and more rain is on the way. The annual rainfall is about 2 inches here, and they have had that much this week! I took the short pause between storms to add a support to the top of the 850 foot wire, ran a new ground wire to the switching panel, built the balloon and kite launch and recovery table and put up a weather station (a stick with a string tied to the top). I then tried to run another simulated mission pass and it went much better with the switching system, but the harmonic amplifier (7 kHz) doesn't seem to have enough gain. Tried to build a 7 kHz oscillator to check the amplifier but am too tired to think clearly so will try again tomorrow. Had some good ham contacts on ten meters today and got one fellow to call my wife in Benson, Arizona. She was home and all is well -- there are some really beautiful people out there in the ham world. I sometimes get cynical when I compare the professionalism and courtesy I heard on the ham bands when I first got my license 44 years ago and what I now hear on 20 meters SSB -- but the AM guys and the CW guys still seem polite and professional in their conduct on the air.

It is sure a good thing that Arlene urged me to bring the old Elmac AF-67 AM transmitter along this trip. I was not going to because I was pressed for room and I thought I could use the IMTS radiophone, but it is useless and the ham rig is my only means of communication (which could be critical if the weather gets much worse). The road coming in didn't amount to much then, but with more rain it could become impassable. In my efforts to minimize my propane usage and still keep warm I have invented a 'door closer' -- it's a large shock cord attached to the top of the door and stretched across the ceiling of the camper. Also I have taped a large bath towel across the door to help kill the draft and leakage of cold air. If I ever get warm again I will never complain about the heat!


Day 7 - March 24, 1992, low 29 deg. F., Clouds as low as the valley floor (4800'). Rain, rain, rain

The Shuttle launch was successful -- the mission is on! Now, for the first time I know what the length of my stay could be. Before the launch, I only knew that if the launch was delayed many days I would have to stay for the duration of the mission plus the delay plus my early arrival for site preparation. The shuttle will land in eight days, so if I can extend the propane or if the weather moderates we will make it for the duration of the mission. But if the temperatures keep dipping into the 20's F., we are in big trouble and an early departure is possible.

Finally had some success in building a 7 kHz oscillator which I can use as a signal generator to optimize the 7 kHz amplifier for the SEPAC harmonics. That's what is challenging about VLF work. There is no test equipment to use for developing circuits or to optimize designs, so if you want to measure something you have to construct the test equipment first. Sort of like in the old days of ham radio, I guess. While I was working on the construction of the oscillator (actually a multivibrator E/J) there was a very loud BANG! under the camper and the AC voltmeter showing the Honda generator output went down to about 20 volts and then back up to 120 volts. When I scrambled outside to see what had happened, my nose told me the whole story, but it took hours of detective work to confirm my suspicions. The filter capacitor in my big home-made battery charger had shorted and taken three of the eight diodes with it. One of the bridge rectifiers has actually blown completely out of the epoxy case, and that answered the question of where the big BANG came from! After a lengthy postmortem, I had the brilliant idea that I could substitute one good section for a bad section between the two bridge rectifiers that were in parallel, and thus provide one bridge that would allow me to charge batteries at some reduced rate. I got so carried away with this flash of intellect of my very 'original and brilliant solution to a problem encountered in the field while supporting the NASA SEPAC/INSPIRE Mission'. Well, my outstanding success and technological triumph lasted about 30 seconds and then with an even louder BANG reduced the generator output voltage to zero. Properly humbled, I took the whole thing apart again and will try for another solution. I had better come up with something because everything I have runs on 12 volts and I have to charge the batteries every day -- and no spare power diodes (there will be spares next time!).

Received acquisition message on WWV for the first three F07 SEPAC firings! First one is at 10 p.m. tomorrow night. I am so nervous and I am afraid that I will incorrectly convert the UT/Mission dates into PST and miss the operation (acquisition time given as day 86 @ 0619 UT which is March 25th @ 10:19 p.m. PST -- January has 31 days plus February has 29 plus March has 26 (equal to day 86), but UT date changes at 4:00 p.m. PST so subtract 1 and get March 25th, and UT is 8 hours later than PST so 6:19 a.m. UT is 10:19 p.m. PST).

Anyhow, finally it is SHOWTIME! Now we will see if all this has been worthwhile. Meanwhile, we charge batteries very slowly with the little built-in charger. Another storm due tomorrow.


Day 8 - March 25, 1992, low 32 deg. F., Windy

Had the first F07 firing on the Shuttle today. It was a low-power test over Japan and we simultaneously had a big storm over the West Coast -- Anyhow, I sure didn't hear anything, but have one pass in the 'can' anyhow. Two or three more operations today, one over the USA, so maybe we will make some signal acquisitions. The big battery charger is back in operation -- another two of the bridge diodes had shorted in the last smoke test...some math showed that my 5-year old design may have been marginal (i.e. diodes are rated at 40 volts peak and 25 amps. I had the bridges in parallel to deal with the 25 amp limitation, but the PIV will be 39.5 volts when the Honda puts out 130 volts RMS -- too close for comfort!). I will have to re-engineer the whole thing when I get home. Meanwhile, we limp along in a temporary-fix mode using just two diode sections in a full-wave configuration. I completed the motor-driven balloon and kite launch platform/table and flew the kite up to about 100 feet! Works well, but I am not about to fly kite of balloon with wire tether while there are clouds and forecast lightning activity. The big storm predicted for tonight may pass to the south of us -- never thought I would see the day when I wanted to see clear weather (I love storms)! No dinner tonight, still not completely over the flu -- maybe tomorrow will be better. I have a schedule to talk with Arlene. That will help.


Day 9 - March 26, 1992, low 32 deg. F.

Finally a day nice enough that I can go outside without having to wear ski clothing! This is the first day with only a breeze and no rain. The daytime temperature got up into the 60's and it was quite a nice change. Unfortunately, the barometer is headed down again and they are having heavy rain in Los Angeles -- so, I suppose tomorrow will be back to the same old thing again. I took advantage of the nice weather and: (1) Took a nice walk around 'Hooper's Hill', (2) put up the worst-looking 80 meter inverted-Vee antenna ever inflicted upon the world by man (but boy, does it even work!), and (3) flew the kite using the motor-driven launch and recovery system. had three SEPAC operations and have one more at 5:00 a.m. tomorrow morning. On the one that was closest to this location today, I heard and recorded two whistlers -- I don't know if they were a product of SEPAC or not, and I suspect that only by computer data reduction will the answer be known. I got so excited during the recording session that I jabbed a pen into my hand trying to put the top on! Oh well... Had a good ten meter AM contact with Wayne (Arlene's brother) but Arlene wasn't home. Will try again tomorrow. I had my first visitor today...a rather unique fellow with a European accent who wanted to know about the mines in the area -- and I warned him about exploring old mines (lack or air, rotting timbers, etc.) and told him what the camping regulations were. He asked if I was a musician? This was because he saw the sign on the back door of the camper that says: 'PLEASE DON'T DISTURB, RECORDING IN PROGRESS.'...I put that there just in case the rangers came by during a F07 firing.

I have been having a hard time deciding when (or if) I should put up the balloon because I only have enough helium to fill one balloon completely and therefore I will only get one shot at it -- decided to wait until the storm that is on the way passes because I most likely will not be able to have the inflated balloon 'ride out' the storm. This may have been a bad decision. JUST NOW HEARD THAT THE SEPAC SYSTEM MALFUNCTIONED ON THE SHUTTLE -- THE BACKUP PLAN IS ACTIVATED! Oh dear, and after all that work on the 7 kHz harmonic receiving system. Lots of other work by a lot of others has also gone down the tube, so I shouldn't feel bad about my small bit of work and I know the backup plan will collect some good data.


Day 10 - March 27, 1992, low 38 deg. F., Rain, wind

Looks like I didn't decide to not deploy the balloon in error after all -- the wind blew very, very hard today. Really ugly weather is back again. Splattering of rain, cold and windy. If I had the balloon inflated it would be gone now! Last night was a disaster -- when I heard the backup plan was activated I got my days mixed up and got up at 2:00 a.m. for no reason at all! Then I couldn't go back to sleep. Then I spent many hours today reconfiguring the station, getting rid of the hard-won 7 kHz harmonic capability I had spent a week making work and activating the backup whistler receiver, taking out the switching system and making new patch cords, etc. etc. Then I just happened to tune in WWV for the acquisition message and they gave the regular F07 times -- like the backup plan wasn't activated and the shuttle SEPAC was back on line!!! Then they said call the INSPIRE 800 number for an explanation and instructions on how to support the 'Plasma Contactor Experiment'. An interesting concept..call the 800 number no less. I wonder how many of us are so far out in the field that a telephone is quite impossible to get to? I was able to get through to a ham (W0SYH in Wisconsin) and he called the 800 number for me and I was able to listen to the recording. The bottom line is that we can choose which we want to do: (1) Support the reduced capability Shuttle operations, (2) Support the backup plan or (3) Do both. So having come so far with the operation, I will do both. That means two or three Shuttle pass a day plus the 2:00 a.m. to 6:00 a.m. duty every morning! On top of all this, the wind crushed my kite today as I tried to get the wire up -- Oh well, things will be better tomorrow.


Day 11 - March 28, 1992, 33 deg. F.

Woke up at 1:30 a.m. (went to bed at 8:00 p.m.). Got up and talked to some hams in Texas and Kansas on 80 meters AM (the ugly antenna works better than expected). Now I can see what the trouble is going to be with the 2:00 a.m. to 6:00 a.m. sessions: the cold. I have to shut down everything electrical to take data, and that includes the heater! So, when I am taking data the temperature drops rapidly in the camper. Between takes I sit on the floor in front of the heater so I can soak up as much heat as possible to get me through the next take! The GOOD NEWS is that I have recorded some KILLER WHISTLERS during the first sessions this morning! Another problem seems to be that I am through taking data at 6:30 a.m. when the backup sessions are over, but I can't go back to sleep. Oh well, only three more days and whatever this has become will be over. The bright part of the day was that I got a phone patch with a ham on ten meters and got to talk with Arlene in Benson, Arizona. I repaired the kite and tried to fly it using nylon fishline and very small magnet wire hoping to get more altitude than I was able to get with the regular stranded wire, but no luck. All I got was a mess of snarled wire and fishline. I decided at this point to treat myself to a hike to the West. After a good climb to the summit, I was treated to a spectacular view of huge snow-covered mountains -- the Sierra Nevada. They sure look different from the east! Dinner and to bed. Tomorrow is another 2:0 a.m. flurry of activity.


Day 12, March 29, 1992, Low 29 deg. F., Rain, wind

Up at 2:20 a.m. again and alternately freezing and falling asleep. I took four sets of data at 3, 4, 5, and 6:00 a.m. PST. Went back to bed and woke up with a whole new set of problems!! The propane tank is empty! This is not good. I guess the reason is that the wind and the very low temperatures tempted me to fudge the thermostat up a little too high last night -- the temperature was 29 deg. F...What now? No spare tire, no propane except for just a little bit in the other tank and three little torch bottles -- maybe try to run the little electric heater from the Honda Generator? I don't think so as the generator is only good for about 300 watts, but it's worth a try.

The weather is spitting rain and high wind. Wonderful for an 8-hour teardown and pack operation. More rain forecast for tomorrow, all-in-all quite a set of problems.

Later: Nothing like some unnecessary panic. As nearly as I can figure here is what happened: The wind had blown out the flame in the propane refrigerator -- and that was the first indication to me that the propane was all gone. The second indication was that the temperature was down too low inside the camper, but I had turned down the thermostat...but before reason returned I had dug out the propane bottle-to-tank adapter fitting and also tried the electric heater on the generator. The good news is that it worked on the lowest setting without blowing the circuit breaker on the generator! That's good to know and may come in very handy as I have a lot of spare gasoline! There must be a lesson here somewhere. I guess I should carefully check all the gauges before I hit the panic button.


Day 13 - March 30, 1992, Low 39 deg. F., Rain, lightning, wind.

Nice electrical storm last night. I was able to draw 1/4-inch arcs off the antenna terminals and probably could have gotten 1/2" arcs but chickened out...wind is very bad with rain. Really miserable out there. Glad this isn't teardown day. Went back to sleep after the alarm went off this morning. How very embarrassing! I completely missed the 3:00 a.m. session. Hope that is not the most important one of all the backup plan sessions! At least the propane problem is solved and the regulator didn't fail (my second theory). The rain let up in the afternoon and so I figured since this is my last regular day here (teardown and pack tomorrow) I should treat myself to another hike. I started out due east and soon reached the range of mountains that defines the east end of Hidden Valley. After reaching the summit of the first range, I found another small valley. Crossing that I then climbed another range to the rocky summit and found a very large plateau to the East. It must be two to three miles in size and quite beautiful. I would have liked to cross this plateau to see if I could see down into the Stovepipe Wells area from the other side, but the weather was rapidly deteriorating and I was a long way from the camper (I must be getting old). It was so cold walking back that I had to put on my ski jacket. It was windy and 40 degrees F. when I got to the camper. I hope I got some good pictures. It is a shame I can't be here when all the flowers and cactus bloom in a few weeks. I can see that all the plants are getting ready. No tire as yet. I may have to have a ham call the ranger station on the telephone (from Florida?) and see it all is under control.


Day 14 - March 31, 1992, Low 41 deg. F., Rain, snow, wind

Made the last four data taking schedules this morning. Nothing very spectacular happened, but it is sure nice to be done with the early morning schedules. It wouldn't be half bad if I could keep the camper warm, but I am still trying to make my propane last until I can get out of here. That means one more night at least, and if I get stuck of a stream bed that is flooded, another night. On all other trips the heater that we carry in the camper is a little metal job that has two settings: 750 watts and 1500 watts. On this trip for some reason, I rejected that one and brought the larger one out of the shop that has three settings: 500, 800, and 1500 watts, so -- using the lowest wattage setting, the generator will just pull the load. Using gasoline to run the generator (of which I have a great quantity) allows me to conserve the propane! (I think I know the reason: He looks after us). Then, Joy and Praise, I hear on the VHF monitor radio that 4R29 (Ranger Maya) is heading for Hidden Valley and the Hunter Mountain area today!! That means that the tire is on its way (fixed?) and sure enough, about 10:30 a.m., the little truck with the red and blue lights on the roof comes down the road, and sure enough my tire is fixed! Now I have a good chance of being able to get out of here on my own power...and get some propane! They had to drive over 140 miles to get the tire fixed and back to me, but they said it was OK as they had some business in Furnace Creek anyhow, but what wonderful people! They would only accept the exact cost of the repair by the invoice ($10) and that is all. I wish I could have rewarded or compensated them somehow. Anyhow, now I have the tire and things are looking a great deal better. Close inspection of both the spare tire and the one just repaired, however, tells me that my poor spare is almost as good as the one just repaired and the one just repaired has a hole in the casing -- so I think I will just keep the one now mounted and creep toward the highway until it blows, then I will change to the new one just repaired and maybe that way I will make it all the way to civilization. I must get to Furnace Creek before 5:00 p.m. tomorrow, so I will have to get a very early start!

The teardown and pack operation was like every one I have done in the last five years. No matter from where, or what time of year, it always rains, and this time is no exception...hardest rain we have had since we got here and at one point it turned to snow for a while. What a mess. But one thing really did go well, the power winch table I built for launch and recovery of balloons and kites made winding up the 850 foot, 1500 foot and 750 foot lengths of wire a snap! Can you imagine winding up that much wire by hand? It's one thing to just put a big screwdriver through the axis of a big wire spool and head out across the desert. Quite something else again to get all that wire back on the spool! It did take all day to teardown and I still have about two hours more to complete the packing in the morning. Please, no more rain...


Day 15 - April 1, 1992, 41 deg. F.

Rained all night but let up about 4:00 a.m. Up at 4:30 a.m. and packed most of the big stuff in the cab, including the helium bottles. At least I can walk through the camper now. On the road at 8:50 a.m. after making a very careful inspection of the camp area to pick up all the little scraps of black vinyl tape and wood chips and doing my best to rake out the tire tracks. The least I could do after the rangers were so good to me. The spare I decided to run on also has a cracked rim, so I drove at about 3 to 5 mph for five solid hours and then I met a Jeep coming in on the same road! This was the first solid indication that I could get all the way out this morning after all the rain last night. At this point the VHF radio was reporting that almost roads in the southern part of Death Valley were washed out and closed for major repair -- paved roads, and all the dirt roads in the central and southern parts were completely washed out closed. If the tires hold out, we will get out. The closer I got to the bottom of the mountain, the worse the road got and as I nursed the rig through each rut I wished for 4-wheel drive and more ground clearance. Had to stop many times to move large rocks that I could not maneuver to miss. Just made it to Furnace Creek before 5:00 p.m. -- took me eight hours of driving to make 70 miles, and the last 40 miles were paved! Exhausted, I drove into Sunset Campground ($4 for the night) and got ready for some sleep. Tomorrow we head home and complete the documentation of the tapes and send them off for data reduction and evaluation. I think we got some good data -- we sure did record some loud whistlers during the simultaneous sessions of the backup plan and operation.

The Death Valley Adventure was one that brought some lessons to my attention:

1). Take two or three spare tires when going far into back country, even if the 'office' assures you it is a 'good road'.

2) Depend on the weather being 'unseasonable' and much colder, wetter, or warmer than 'normal'.

3) Start early to get permission to conduct research on Government land.

4) U.S. Park Rangers are a group of people that don't get much attention or credit or appreciation, but they do most all the functions of a city policeman, highway patrolman/state trooper, paramedic, environmental control officer, resource analyst, etc. They train on a continuous basis so that they have the skills, recently sharpened, to fully fulfill all the requirements for these diverse duties. They can do a felony car stop just like a state trooper, lift an injured hiker out of a steep canyon, perform advanced first-aid procedures as well as understand and explain all the animal and plant life and geology in an area larger than some Eastern U.S. states. These people deserve much, much more public awareness and appreciation. One of the Death Valley National Monument Park Rangers (Maya Seraphin) drove some 140-plus miles to get my tire repaired so I could get my rig out safely.

5) There are still very remote places in the USA and you must prepare appropriately to survive. Even though I was raised in the West and I have done a lot of camping in the desert as well as the mountains, I needed to be reminded...

Epilogue

A few comments, explanations and observations seem to be in order. This log of my support of the INSPIRE Mission would have never been written (nor would I have participated in the Mission) were it not for the encouragement and assistance I received from Michael Mideke.

About four years ago, I started trying to build whistler receivers on my own and without assistance from technical articles or publications. I had access to an excellent site at Webber Lake, about 25 miles north of Truckee, California, at 7000 feet elevation. on the eastern slope of the Sierra Nevada Mountains. It is many miles from power lines and I have been going there every summer since 1972. it is privately owned and a natural lake...members only operation. l lease a small plot of land and the manager has allowed me to put up some long wire antennas: A 500 foot wire at 50 feet elevation; a 1200 foot wire and a 1000 foot wire, both at about 20 feet in height. Using the early, primitive receivers I designed, I was barely able to hear 'tweeks'. One of the reasons was that I was trying to use LC filters rather than active filters (using op. amps.) and therefore I was not able to establish a sharp cut-off in frequency response and I was also not passing any of the higher frequencies. [Same problem I had until I learned the fine art of low-noise LC receiver design and optimal front-end circuits which work right...SpM] Michael had written of his successful whistler experiments in the LOWDOWN and so I sent him a schematic of my first three receivers and he was kind enough to reply and send me some schematics and design data for his OpAmp version (precursor to the RS-3). He suggested that I give that approach a try. Well, I was pretty good at transistor circuit design (using discrete components) but I had never been able to convince myself that I could work with integrated circuits. However, Michael egged me on, insisting that I could do it, and so I finally took his advice and constructed my first IC receiver! This was a little like jumping into cold water, but the fantastic things was -- it worked! Whistlers! A whole new world opened to me at 54 years of age! Since then I have been building more complex and more versatile circuits to capture whistlers and other VLF emissions. All of my operations (until the Death Valley support to INSPIRE) were conducted at the Webber Lake location. The natural radio emissions gathered simultaneously across the US, Canada, and elsewhere should add volumes to what is known about whistlers, sferics and other VLF emissions. I really consider it a rare privilege to have participated in this effort, whatever the difficulties encountered may have been.

One of the things that I enjoy most about the whistler-chasing activities I have been participating in is the opportunity to learn something of the history of both intentional and accidental whistler observation and documentation. Almost like Petra -- discovered, lost, forgotten, rediscovered -- and all these several times. The history of these discoveries and rediscoveries is both extensive and fascinating. Now however, we find that by study of data resulting from planetary research and data from deep space probes, we are in the embarrassing posture of knowing more about some of our sister's planet's magnetospheres (Venus for example) than we know about Earth's! This, and NASA's almost frantic search for some scientific quest that will: (1) be affordable, and (2) catch the attention of "Joe Public', has focused a lot of attention on things-scientific that sound like: 'We-are-concerned-with-our-environment', and 'How-can-we-keep-from-trashing-Spaceship-Earth?'. All of this will tend to keep whistlers and other natural radio emissions 'discovered'. With new and emerging technologies and the great availability of low-cost, high-quality digital electronics, this hobby is within reach of a very large percentage of the population. just an ordinary hobbyist such as myself can make contributions to the understanding of VLF emissions. Correlating simultaneous observations, computer analysis of propagation and the conduct of stimulus/reaction experiments (like the CW from Antarctica) will allow us to 'probe' and measure this Planet's magnetosphere and learn cause-and-effect relationships with respect to the various energy forms that fall on the Earth from the Sun. As of this time, the 'engine' that we call Earth is poorly understood. We know where the engine gets its fuel, what the major manifestations of its cycles are, but as to the detail of its components, we are ignorant. An analogy might be the non-mechanical owner of an automobile. he knows that you put gasoline and oil (sometimes) in, and by turning a key he can stimulate the system to deliver him to the store and them home again...but as to the mechanism and principles of operation -- zip knowledge. I believe that VLF phenomena experimentation and data analysis, done to a large enough scale and with personnel and equipment adequate to the task can give us enough detail on the innermost components and principles of operation of this gigantic engine called Earth. We are, after all, actually LISTENING to the natural VLF emissions of this Planet!

This is a very exciting time to be alive and the opportunities for private and amateur experimentation have only just begun. The content of this backup plan operation and the data recorded must reach the correct institutions of higher learning so that their facilities and personnel might assist in the future execution of a large-scale, coordinated research project where the hobbyist can make a meaningful contribution. Questions need to be answered concerning interaction of power grids and the magnetosphere and VLF emissions. No end to this rewarding hobby!

The next time there is an opportunity for this kind of participation in some aspect of VLF observation/research, I will be out in the field again with a new awareness of the importance of being prepared -- Lots of spare tires, lots of propane, big reels of wire -- and maybe next time I will get used to all those weather balloons I bought last year! Until then...

William Hooper


THE VLF STORY - S. McGreevy

WR-3/3E VLF receiver information sheet

Back to Natural VLF Radio Home Page

Re-typed for Web publication by Stephen P. McGreevy, 30 July 1996