1963-1964: Observing the ionosphere from Campbell Island

Perseverance Harbour, Campbell Island
Perseverance Harbour, Campbell Island, with USS Hissem at anchor. The ionosphere hut can be seen, as well as the vertical incidence antenna poles.

Words and photos by Bill Cousins ZL3VZ

In 1963 I applied for a position as Ionosphere Observer on Campbell Island for New Zealand’s Department of Scientific & Industrial Research (DSIR). The position was for the 1963-1964 season.

With an area of 113 square kilometres, Campbell Island is the southern-most of the subantarctic islands, being some 700km south of Invercargill. Although uninhabited now, it was then occupied by meteorological and supporting staff who provided important weather observations from the southern ocean for forecasters in New Zealand.

The station was administered by the Civil Aviation Department. The DSIR maintained an ionosphere observation site there, gathering data to be used for ionosphere predictions of interest to organisations relying on high frequency radio communications. Campbell Island was part of a world-wide network of such stations.

During World War 2, coast-watchers had been stationed on Campbell Island, in case German merchantmen used the subantarctic islands as a base.

sooty albatross and royal albatross
Sooty albatross (left) and royal albatross with egg

Isolation location

Map of Campbell IslandThe island was serviced once a year, in November, replenishing stores and changing staff. Apart from the occasional yacht or research ship, this was the only physical contact with the outside world until the Americans began their Operation Deepfreeze activities at McMurdo Sound in Antarctica in the 1950s.

This activity required regular flights to McMurdo from Christchurch. To provide air-sea rescue facilities as well as a navigational waypoint, a US Navy ship would take up station south of Campbell Island on picquet duty for three weeks or so, before returning to Dunedin for R&R.

The US Navy was very good to us, as the ships would call in briefly to and from their station and deliver mail and stores as required. This welcome activity only occurred in summer, as that was when the flights took place. The New Zealand Navy, when they occasionally relieved the Americans would do no such thing, unless it was an emergency. However, the New Zealand frigates were not really up to the subantarctic weather.

Campbell Island
Campbell Island: Hostel left of centre and met office right of centre

Helping US researchers

As it happens, the University of California in Berkeley wanted to do some observational work on the island in 1964. This involved collecting data from four locations that were magnetically conjugate in the northern and southern hemispheres. The chosen locations were in Alaska (two) and the southern ocean (Campbell and McQuarrie Islands). This was part of a research programme into the recently discovered Van Allen radiation belt surrounding the Earth.

The person recruited to install the equipment for the university failed his medical examination and I was hurriedly seconded from my job with the Broadcasting Corporation of New Zealand to travel to the US to assist with a similar installation at a village in Alaska called Kotzebue. This was supposed to be my training for the job.

After a few days at Berkeley to familiarise myself with the equipment, I accompanied a technician from the university to Kotzebue to await the arrival of the gear. It never arrived. Some clown in Berkeley had dispatched the equipment by sea instead of by air! There was no way it was going to arrive before I was due to travel to Campbell Island in September, 1963. So, apart from erecting a wooden frame to support the antenna, I eventually had to return to New Zealand, not much the wiser.

The installation on Campbell Island was uneventful, however, and soon up and running. It consisted of a receiver which monitored 30 MHz galactic noise and an Askania magnetometer.

The ionosonde

C4 Ionosonde
C4 Ionosonde for probing ionosphere. Camera under cover.

As far as the DSIR ionospheric observations were concerned (my main and original job), this involved an American C4 ionosonde ­- essentially a high-power radar transmitter which fired pulses vertically into the ionosphere from a suitable antenna array. In between the transmitted pulses, signals reflected (or more strictly correct, refracted) back from the ionospheric layers were received and displayed on a cathode ray tube. This display was photographed to enable the extraction of the required data later.

The transmitter and receiver swept synchronously from 1 to 24 MHz over a period of 20 seconds or so while the camera film also moved, so that the eventual display on the film was a graph of time of to-and-fro pulse (vertical axis) and frequency (horizontal axis). From this display, the required data such as E and F layer heights, critical frequencies, sporadic-E evidence, disturbance data, etc., could be gleaned. The ionosonde fired off eight times per hour, 24/7.

It was my job as Ionosphere Observer to develop the film, read the data, encode this data into 5-figure code groups and eventually transmit it via morse to Auckland Radio at Musick Point. They, in turn, forwarded the data on to the DSIR laboratory in Christchurch. I can’t remember why we used Auckland Radio, when there were closer stations at Awarua and Wellington. The weather obs were sent via Himatangi/Makara to Kelburn Weather Office, but maybe Makara/Himitangi/Awarua schedules were already full.

Campbell Island Radio

Telegraph keys and Collins AM/CW transmitters
Telegraph keys and Collins AM/CW transmitters (possibly 30K5 models)

The transmitters used for communication back to the mainland were post-war Collins 30K series 250 watt AM/CW units. They were used mainly for communicating meteorological observations every three hours to the Met office in Wellington as well as general phone calls.

(The operators at the international telephone exchange in Wellington looked after us well – it wasn’t uncommon for a half-hour call to the girlfriend to be charged as three minutes!)

The installation was a standard Civil Aviation high frequency setup. However, the unusual location of Campbell Island in the auroral zone really demanded something better. A log-periodic beam antenna would have helped, as would the use of single-sideband. Being at the bottom of the sunspot cycle in 1964, there were times when we lost communication for some hours, and even days on at least one occasion, whereas a modest single-sideband amateur radio setup I was using maintained reliable communication back to New Zealand. I was refused permission to use it for commercial traffic (e.g. met observations) though, despite the failure of the AM transmissions.


Amateur radio on Campbell Island

I was fortunate that in the 1962/63 season, there was a met observer who was also a ham and had a station comprising a Lester Earnshaw Phasing Unit (state of the art!) + final amp (using 807s, I think) along with an RCA AR88 receiver which he was prepared to leave for me to use when he repatriated to NZ in February, 1964. The antennas were just dipoles.

Ham radio was marvellous for skeds with friends back in New Zealand. With hindsight, I should have used it for many more international contacts. Although I had hundreds of contacts, it pales into insignificance compared to the thousands of contacts of DXpeditions these days. Mind you, the gear was limited to SSB on 80m only and CW on 40m and 20m. Even so, it didn’t take long on the air before a pileup developed. I operated initially as ZL4LY, but mainly as ZL4JF while on Campbell Island.

I had some great contacts, including Ted Gawn at ZL5AA (Scott Base, Antarctica) and the Belgian Antarctic base (the CW signal finally became uncopiable when the multipath propagation – short path and long path time differences – confused the symbols).

Other memorable contacts were with our colleagues at the Raoul Island meteorological station in the Kermadecs, and with our Australian friends on McQuarrie Island. I also remember working G0JAG, operating from a pup tent in the UK with a wire aerial and a “suitcase” portable radio as used by spies during World War 2.

The late Jock White, ZL2GX, was my QSL manager, having fulfilled that role for several hams before me. The doyen of Campbell ham operators in those days was probably Ian Johnson who also did stints on Raoul Island, being there when I was on Campbell Island.


Quick promotion

My colleague, the Senior Ionosphere Observer, who was responsible for maintaining the ionosonde, decided in February 1964 that he had had enough and was repatriated on the last picquet ship before the long, lonely winter. He was not replaced, so I ended up with both jobs!

The island staff numbered 15 in the summer and nine in the winter. This was because there were more meteorological staff in the summer due to an increased workload of an extra weather balloon flight for Operation Deepfreeze and two Ministry of Works builders erecting a new store over the summer. A southerly storm brought snow in November!

Pete Ingram about to launch a weather balloon
Pete Ingram about to launch a weather balloon. Hydrogen was generated chemically in the hut.
Balloon tracking antenna
Balloon tracking antenna
Tracking the balloon radiosonde using American radar gear
Tracking the balloon radiosonde using American radar gear

Island life

Essentially we worked six days and every now and then were rostered on cooking duty on a Sunday to give the regular cook a day off. The last cooked meal I prepared was a roast hogget. However, by that stage it was late in the year and we had run out of fresh meat in the big freezer, so I had go out and fetch my own from the plentiful wild sheep still roaming the island after the abandonment of a failed farming attempt in the 1930s.

Lister generators powered the settlement
Lister generators powered the settlement.
Sea bear, Campbell Island
One of the locals says hello.
Whaling pots abandoned at Campbell Island
Whaling pots abandoned at Campbell Island

My spare time was taken up reading, tramping around the island observing the unusual flora and fauna that the island affords (weather-permitting) and amateur radio.

MV Holmburn, anchored at Campbell Island
MV Holmburn at Campbell Island in November 1964

Supply ships were chartered from the Holm Shipping company and our party travelled back to Wellington aboard Holmburn in November, 1964. That was a three-day trip. By comparison, we had made the trip down from Dunedin, in September 1963 in just 28 hours, aboard USS Hissem, a destroyer-escort on picquet duty at that time. This vessel had taken part in President Kennedy’s Cuban blockade the previous year.

The Officer-in-Charge of the station was given a short course in advanced first-aid at Wellington Hospital prior to coming down to the island. He was therefore the only “trained” medical officer and had responsibility for the welfare of the staff. He could, of course, get advice from qualified medical doctors in Wellington if required and if radio communications were good enough.

A personal episode occurred when I had an ear blockage. Being summer, the CO decided to wait until the next piquet ship arrived and let the American doctor deal with it. The day dawned to a rip-roaring southerly and after a hairy trip out to the frigate in the island longboat, the “doctor” took to my ear with a sharp instrument to dig the wax out while the ship rolled and pitched at anchor! I now know that he should have done a simple syringe job – I’m probably very lucky to still have an ear drum.

In my year of 1964, a meteorologist was injured in a storm while helping to launch a weather balloon. As it was winter, there were no ships scheduled but Holmdale was dispatched to evacuate him when it became obvious the injury was not healing satisfactorily. Attempts had been made in the past to carry out a similar evacuation by flying boat when the Air Force had Sunderlands but it was considered too hazardous. The last evacuation was made by helicopter in 1992 when a person had been seriously injured by a shark while snorkeling. The pilot received an award for bravery.

Nowadays, the island is uninhabited and the weather observations are carried out by remote control and satellite. The importance of HF communication has diminished and the ionosonde has been withdrawn.


See also

Campbell Island Radio