NEWS AND VIEWS                     
December 26  2006 update

Mike and Laurel Kohl
S-9141 State Highway 23
Plain, Wisconsin   53577-9612



Mike in Magadan, Russia
December 26, 2006

I'm baaaack!!   17 days on an exciting visit to Russia and especially Siberia.  What an enlightening trip, with so many things to talk about.  Why Siberia, In December?  Lots of explanation...

I was hired to do a survey for potential satellite reception at a new gold mining facility that is located in extreme NE Siberia, between Magadan, Russia, and Nome, Alaska.  A place called Kupol, which is a joint venture between a Canadian mining company and the Russian regional government of Chukotka, which is the easternmost jurisdiction in Siberia.  It was a real adventure setting up the project, and then there was the fun of actually getting there...

Paperwork had been approved back in September, giving me a special pass to allow my travel into the region, which is strictly regulated.  It expires in five days from this writing, and after literally almost three months of waiting due to freight, weather, logistics and other challenges, I had about 18 hours' notice to get onto a plane.  My base of operations was Magadan, a city of about 200,000, located in eastern Siberia, but inland on the Pacific coast, with a more temperate climate than I was about to experience.  Doing this in December adds some challenges (I have frostbite scars to prove it).  First you fly to Atlanta, and then a 12 hour flight to Moscow.  A few hours' layover that is half consumed with a driver taking me from the International airport north of the city, to the Domodedovo airport south of Moscow.  Once you are out of the car and into the second airport, you are on your own in a world that seems very strange at first.  This is the hub airport for most internal Russian airline flights to Moscow, and does not get that many English speaking visitors.  In fact, very few personnel, including those in ticketing and security, can speak English, and if it were not for my previous adventures in the Middle East over 15 years ago, I would have been in trouble very quickly.  It takes a lot of concentration, initiative, and a mix of diplomacy to function in this environment, where my only two words of Russian vocabulary were "da" and "nyet" (yes and no).

Once I got onto the airplane, I was quite shocked at the misconceptions that I had about travel on airlines within Russia.  There are often stories in the Western press about dangerous situations, poor maintenance, and bad food.  On the 8 hour flight between Moscow and Magadan, I was served a virtual feast, not once, but twice.  See the picture on the right, which does not include the meat entrees, dessert(s) or the many offers of liquid refreshment that was provided.  I thought that Lufthansa's business class 15 years ago was at the top of things, but all airlines around the world could learn a lot from whoever is doing the catering for Interavia airlines.  The weather in Moscow was incredibly warm for December, at 47 F.  Flying for 8 hours and adding 7 time zones to the 9 I had already crossed getting to Moscow, the weather took its inevitable turn for something about -5 F and cold winds once I got to Magadan.  That would feel warm before I returned westward.

Amazingly good airline food, served on Russia's INTERAVIA

New Russian Orthodox Cathedral in Magadan, Russia
With only five hours' transit time in Atlanta, and about the same on the ground in Moscow, and without considering 17 hours of time change, it still took me 38 hours of actual time to reach the company apartment in Magadan.  I got to stay there overnight, and catch a chartered airplane to Keperveem, an airport above the 69 latitude, which is situated about 45 minutes away from Bilibino, where we had to spend the night.  Russia has strict regulations at remote airports about takeoffs and landings having to occur during daylight hours.  The sun is below the horizon there in December, so the daylight that you get is actually twilight, and the sun never clears the horizon (unless you are in the air on an airplane, which is quite an experience).  Should there be delays due to weather or mechanical problems, it is common to spend an overnight and then catch a chartered helicopter for a 1-1/2 hour flight to the mine site at Kupol, which is southeast of the previously mentioned city.  We did catch a helicopter ride the next day, and I kick myself for not having the camera handy at the airstrip.  The weather did not repeat itself while I was produce such a beautiful sunrise (which actually never happened, but the reds and oranges were spectacular).  Oh, forgot to mention...Keperveem's temperature was no warmer than 35 below F, and we had to march about 1/3 mile to the helicopter from the airport building.  Once at Kupol, with one exception, temperatures averaged at 40 below for the entire visit. 
My first task was to find a suitable location in which to install satellite antennas, that would clear the horizon.  Russian programming would come from 140 East satellite Express AM3, with an elevation of 11.5.  PanAmSat satellites from 166 and 169 East were the local "due south" satellites, with an elevation of about 14 degrees.  My prime quest was AMC-8, at 139 West, for some signals from Alaska.  This is the highest elevation satellite from North America, at a whopping 5-1/2 degrees.  Challenges started appearing from everywhere at this point.

There were no other satellite antennas visible from the main building, so the only trusted reference I could get for a ballpark direction was a visit to the U.S. Naval Observatory's website and calculate the azimuth of the sun at different times of the day, even though it was below the hill to the south of us.  Look for the glow in the sky at local noon, and call that 180.  Rough in your directions from there using a satellite dish on a temporary mount.  The fun begins.

Test Antennas at the Kupol Site         Does it look warm??

I had originally requested that two 12-foot mesh C-band antennas be made available for testing.  Russian-made ones would be OK, I thought.  A lot of detective work revealed that while antennas were bought from a Russian supplier (who was next to impossible to reach on the phone), they were made in mainland China for a Taiwanese company.  Yes, there was one twelve foot model, and a 1.8 meter (6 foot) solid multipanel type.  The 1.8 meter was shipped without ANY hardware, and some poor soul at the camp spent at least a couple of hours hand-fabricating U-bolts from some threaded rod, using a hammer to form them around a three inch OD mast pipe that had been welded onto a large flat plate of steel.  It was nighttime, the temperature was no better than -40 and the wind was quite brisk.  The next morning involved scrounging around the camp for anything that looked like a fastener that might work.   I put the antenna together indoors, inside a gymnasium that was not in use, and dragged it outside.  The first satellite found was at 177 West, using a spectrum analyzer and an antenna roughed in for about 14 degrees elevation.  I needed to get down to about five degrees to pick up AMC-8, and preferably lower to see what else might be there from other North American domestic satellites.  The mast was too short and the (very flimsy) antenna was into the snow, despite digging out a bit.  Solution was to raise this 200 pound contraption (weight was mostly the heavy flat plate base) with three cable spools.  It was enough to confirm that there were a number of signals to be found on the trusty AVCOM spectrum analyzer.  I got my directions straight, and was then able to safely give instructions for workmen to weld steel pipes on the edges of shipping containers (see picture above).  During the initial welding, it actually warmed to almost zero F for a few hours, and the wind died down, so those folks must have been praying to someone for that weather miracle.  Temperatures were back to normal by the evening, and three of us froze while hoisting the antenna onto a 3-inch OD mast.  I went out later in the evening to find the first actual satellite, and tune in pictures with an MPEG-2 free to air receiver.  In honor of the host country, and because of its powerhouse signal, I chose to find 140 East as my first satellite.  The hand formed U bolts were not a perfect fit, and my first bouts with frostbite happened while attempting to wrench the antenna tight enough so that it would not blow away.

For those uninitiated at working outdoors in -40 F temperatures, let me mention the inability to form wires after they have been outdoors for more than one minute.  If you pull out an extension cord to use outside, unroll it indoors first, because you will never successfully unravel a coiled cord once it has been outdoors past that first magic moment.  Ditto for coaxial cables, for which I installed outdoor connectors on one end, pulled to length as well as I could, and did the indoor fittings later in the comfort of the indoor location and spliced the result to an RG-11 feeder cable.  Every time you go indoors, your glasses fog up with 1/8 to 1/4 inch of frost, and it doesn't always clear quickly when returning outside.  Then there's thick ice coated mustaches.  At -40 temperatures, my endurance allowed up to about 15 minutes of outdoor exposure at the antenna at a time.  This time frame shrunk when it was necessary to remove a glove or two for even a minute or less to grab a piece of hardware or start the thread on a jumper cable for an F-connector.  At one point during my alignments, the wind came up while I was stuck on a ladder at least 15 feet in the air making critical adjustments with a wrench.  The crossbars on the ladder burned the cold right through my jeans, and I still have strips of missing skin to remember the ordeal.  Using an extra set of coveralls later did not help;  it only squeezed the legs of my jeans tighter and made the pain more intense.

Once I had signals on 140 East, it was time to find some Alaskan signals with a bigger dish.  The plan was use the 12-foot mesh antenna, but after assembling half of it and having the queasy feeling that without having the exact factory parts (quad legs for feedhorn and eight supporting legs between the back hub and the reflector were missing), the antenna would likely distort under its own weight and be permanently ruined...I gave up on the idea of using that dish.  There was no Home Depot nearby to get conduit suitable for throwing things together;  all on site was made of copper, and of the wrong diameter.  As luck would have it, a mesh antenna of approximately 2.5 meters in diameter was sitting unused on site, and ended up being used for other C-band testing and finally used for Alaskan reception.

My first U.S. signals were actually from AMC-7 at 137 West, which is actually stronger than the Alaskan beam AMC-8 signals at this location in eastern Siberia.  What I found was that the Jones Radio multiplex on the vertical side of AMC-8 (on a Lower 48 beam) was at a similar signal level, and had to be used to find the satellite.  Then I switched to horizontal and got the unpleasant surprise that the C-band spot beam for Alaska was at considerably reduced power.  The Juneau Mux, which has an 8100 symbol rate, can be received first...with some critical tweaking.  Anchorage ARCS and the Fairbanks PBS transmission were down considerably, at least 15-20 points in quality level.  On the test antenna that we were forced to use, this means that with an absolutely perfect alignment and no bad weather, Anchorage will work most of the time, but drops off quite easily with any wind or weather changes.  Our recommendation was to consider a 12-foot solid commercial antenna with a very sturdy mount, if Alaskan reception was to be reliable.

Back to Magadan, I got to try a ten foot mesh antenna across the sky.  Though a little more than 500 miles to the southwest of our camp location, and still above the horizon at 1.2 degrees elevation, I was totally unable to locate any signals from AMC-8.  This is compounded by the lack of any other U.S. satellites next to it (all others are below the horizon), so it's like looking for a needle in a haystack.  Amazingly good signals in Magadan on PanAmSat 8, which would be the primary satellite to consider for any English language programming, unless one considers what might be found on the two ASIASAT satellites at 100.5 and 105.5 East.  (Neither is at a usable elevation from the Kupol Camp).

TV signals are elusive, and every location is different.  I expect to return in a few weeks to do some permanent installations.  This was a rare opportunity to analyze reception under adverse weather conditions in a remote area that is literally off the maps for accurate information (from Lyngsat and other sources).  Armed with field information, we now have a much better feel about what can be realistically accomplished in the region.

How's your Russian?  Please take a look at the Soviet-era poster that I snapped a picture of, from a friend's collection.  Comments are welcomed---if you can translate the poster, you'll get the joke.  If not, the picture almost gives it away.

Listen to Dean Spratt's show on WOKIE, and we'll talk more about international reception and techniques in the next few weeks.  (Thursday nights).  An updated NEWS AND VIEWS will appear by early February, but we wanted to get this out as soon as I returned from the Siberian trip, and wish you all a belated Merry Christmas.