Technology

Raycom Copes With Tower Crisis

Two stations need new sticks after fatal chopper crash 6/16/2006 08:00:00 PM Eastern

Anyone sitting on a pile of industrial-grade steel might want to give Dave Folsom a call. Following a helicopter crash in the Albany, Ga., area this month, Folsom, VP and chief technology officer for the Raycom Media station group, is in the market for the huge pieces of steel needed to create broadcast towers, along with supporting wires, antennas and transmission lines.

The tower used by Fox affiliate WFXL was severely damaged by the chopper collision, which killed four Army aviators. Then the adjacent tower for NBC affiliate WALB was destroyed during the demolition of the WFXL stick.

“The materials for towers are very hard to come by, since steel is in short supply,” says Folsom. A particular challenge is finding the steel needed to create the 1-inch-thick guy wires that support 1,000-foot-plus towers. “They can only make them in a couple plants in the U.S.,” he adds.

It could take six months to replace the WALB tower, provided all the components come together from the various suppliers. But Raycom's tower-replacement plans for the area are complicated by the fact that WFXL is being sold to Barrington Broad­casting as part of a deal announced in March. The 12-station, $262 million deal is pending FCC approval but is expected to close by late July. Neither party expects that the crisis will thwart the sale, but the station groups have to decide whether they want to build separate towers, as before, or cooperate on a master tower supporting both stations.

Raycom would prefer to build a single master tower. “If we were going to continue to own both stations going forward, it would be a slam dunk,” says Folsom. “But we've sold the other station to another person, and they haven't told me what they want to do. That is subject to negotiations that have not taken place yet.”

Barrington execs say they've opted to leave their Raycom counterparts alone to manage the catastrophe. Keith Bland, senior VP of acquisitions and development for Barrington, notes that, given the high cable penetration in the Albany market and the carriage of local stations by satellite operator EchoStar, only an estimated 10% of WFXL's audience is affected.

“It's not terrible, and it's not great, but it could be worse,” says Bland. “We'll get this fixed as fast as we can.”

In the meantime, Raycom is submitting insurance claims for both towers. Counting the loss of microwave equipment and transmission gear of tower tenants, such as two-way–radio firms, Folsom estimates the loss of both towers to be around $3 million.

Had the disaster struck later this month, Raycom's losses would have been greater. Both WALB and WFXL were scheduled to mount permanent digital-television (DTV) antennas on the towers this month to replace temporary low-power facilities, thus meeting the FCC's July 1 “use-it-or-lose-it” deadline for full-power DTV broadcasts. Each of those is worth around $300,000.

An Intertwined Fate

Raycom's woes began around 7:50 a.m. on June 1, when WFXL's tower in rural Doerun, Ga., 27 miles southeast of Albany, was struck by an Army MH-47 Chinook helicopter on a routine training mission from its home base at Hunter Army Airfield, Savannah, Ga., to Fort Rucker, Ala. The 20,000-pound chopper struck the 1,000-foot tower, clipping a supporting guy wire, cutting its transmission line and taking a chunk off the top. The crash killed four of the five soldiers aboard and knocked WFXL off the air.

Raycom engineers rushed to Doerun, while Folsom drove from Raycom's headquarters in Montgomery, Ala. A crew from ProCom Towers, along with structural engineers from Stainless, assessed the damage. Meanwhile, WFXL worked with WALB's assistance to get back on-air, mounting a temporary antenna on a 300-foot tower atop WALB's studio. WFXL, which already had fiber paths to local cable operator Mediacom that guaranteed uninterrupted cable service, began low-power broad­casts from the temporary tower on the evening of June 4.

Folsom was surprised that the WFXL tower, manufactured by PiRod in the early '80s, withstood the impact, which left it leaning at a dangerous angle. By the next day, however, it was clear the tower wasn't safe to climb. Helicopter crews also said it was too dangerous to try to remove the 6,000-pound antenna atop the tower via the air.

But the longer the antenna remained, the more likely the tower was to collapse. That also placed WALB's tower, only 150 feet away, in danger. “It was always in the front of everybody's mind that the tower was about to collapse at any moment,” says Folsom.

The only solution was to demolish the WFXL stick. That presented a serious challenge: Not only were the two towers' bases close together, but their guy wires overlapped. Even if a demolition crew could get the WFXL tower to fall away from the WALB tower, a guy wire, which carries hundreds of thousands of pounds of tension, could still lash out and wreak havoc.

Raycom called in Controlled Demolition of Phoenix, Md., renowned for precise demolitions of large structures, such as the Kingdome in Seattle and the Landmark Hotel in Las Vegas. “They are masters,” says Folsom, “the kind of guys who collapse a 50-story building and don't even get debris on the sidewalk.”

Despite their expertise, Controlled Demolition had bad news. It warned Folsom that there was only a 30% chance of saving the WALB tower, given the proximity of the two towers' guy wires. And since the WFXL tower was too unstable to climb, the demolition crew couldn't place the charges as high up on the wires as it would have liked. They had to “put a charge two-thirds of the way [up] on the guy and hope for the best,” says Folsom.

Worst Fears Confirmed

Unfortunately, things played out the way Controlled Demotion feared. As the tower fell, a guy wire lashed out, wrapping around a guy wire on the WALB tower. The resulting force sheared supporting bolts in that structure, causing it to collapse as well. It fell almost straight to the ground.

WALB wasn't knocked off the air, as the station had already switched over to its backup low-power transmitter in preparation for the demolition. Although the station's signal, like WFXL's, is reaching a much smaller geographic area, it's still hitting most of the market's population, which is closer to Albany.

WALB General Manager Jim Wilcox notes that a recent study of his station's audience found that, as at WFXL, only 10% of viewers relied on over-the-air reception via rooftop antennas or rabbit ears.

“You take a little bit of security in knowing you have such a high penetration of cable and satellite now,” he says. “We just went through a round of retransmission consent, so we knew we were only losing 10%.”

What Went Wrong

The Army hasn't disclosed what caused the accident, which occurred in cloudy skies; a Fort Rucker spokesman says it is still under investigation. The crew, members of the Army's elite 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment, had flown multiple tours in Afghanistan and/or Iraq.

A former Army helicopter pilot who has flown out of both Fort Rucker and Hunter and is familiar with the area says pilot error is a likely cause, because safety guidelines typically dictate giving a 1,000-foot tower a 1,000-foot berth on either side, in order to avoid the guy wires.

Folsom, himself a pilot, doesn't want to speculate on the cause of the crash. But he says it appeared that the helicopter first hit a guy wire with its blade. The wire looked like “it had been cut off with a pair of shears,” says Folsom.

WALB's Wilcox suspects a mechanical problem, finding it hard to believe that aviators who spent months flying in and out of the mountains of Afghanistan would make such an error.

“The worst thing is, the guys that died were heroes,” Wilcox says. “Some of them survived six tours of duty, only to die on a training mission.”

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