Lightning at Sunset Ridge


Joe Snelson

The year was 1998 and I had the opportunity to revisit Sunset Ridge with several of the Faith Broadcasting Network alumni. It had been over 21 years since my last day at the KHOF-TV transmitter site and even longer for a couple of others in our small group. I have written more about that pilgrimage in another part of the KHOF-TV section of the FBN web site titled Return to Sunset Ridge. My point in mentioning our revisit is because of a photograph we took that reminded me of an earlier experience while at FBN.

The photograph of the red pole with an aluminum ball on the end is what triggered my memory to write this story. The red pole made up an integral part of the original KHOF-TV antenna. This antenna was mounted atop a tower structure about 150 feet above ground level. The black and white photograph shows the tower and antenna with the aluminum ball on top. I will talk more about the aluminum ball later in the story.


In case you might be wondering when this event occurred, it was November 11, 1972. I mentioned at the beginning some of the alumni had revisited Sunset Ridge in 1998. As we went through drawers of old log files I came across the log for this event and is how I know the exact date.

As to the aluminum ball on top of the antenna that reminded me of this incident, it was part of a lightning elimination system that was installed at the top of the tower. KHOF-TV was a “guinea pig” for a new startup company that was developing systems to dissipate atmospheric static electricity with the goal of preventing lightning strikes. I believe the sphere was referred to as a “compression ball” and the smooth round surface on top of the tower was to inhibit a direct lightning strike. As to its effectiveness, we did notice several pitted spots on the surface of the ball when we examined it in 1998 and they are visible in the photograph if you look closely. With that said I am not aware of any major lightning strikes or “exploding meters” that occurred after the system was installed.

In closing, this author has had several other experiences with lightning since he moved on from FBN, but this incident stands out as one of the most memorable.

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© 2011 Joe Snelson

This was not the first time we had experienced a lightning strike on Sunset Ridge. I suppose we experienced many lightning strikes each year as storms moved through. We had several instances where the lightning strike literally blew the power meter off of the main electrical switchboard. The main electrical switchboard was located on the east side of the building. The east wall of the transmitter control room, which consisted of wood framing and sheetrock, was about 4 feet from the switchboard leaving an aisle between. When lightning would strike the tower it would often get into the 480 volt, 3-phase electrical service and create an intense “arc-over” inside the power meter. The magnitude of the arc-over was evidently intense enough to build up a large volume of heated gas inside the meter causing it to propel from its socket on the switchboard and smash into the sheetrock wall 4 feet away! This was evident by the large hole punched in the sheetrock by the airborne meter’s impact.

Now getting back to my story, I noticed the power meter was still attached to the switchboard, so I assumed all was okay there. Continuing to smell the burning I then inspected the transmitter. I did discover a capacitor attached to a meter had blown apart; however, it was not a critical component that would affect the ability to get the transmitter on the air. I did turn on the transmitter just to confirm it was operating.

The burning smell continued and I was now determined to find out where it was coming from. I did another inspection of the power meter. This time as I looked down the aisle I noticed the power meter looked dark. As I approached the meter I observed fire burning inside! I quickly grabbed the main service entrance disconnect switch and shut down power to the building. This fortunately stopped the fire inside the meter. With it now being pitch black in the building I used a flashlight to find my way around.

With my mission to get back on the air I thought about how I could bypass the power meter. I decided to break the seals that restricted access to the knife switches that connect the meter to the main electrical service. I will add that these seals were placed on the protective plastic covering over the knife switches by Southern California Edison to prevent unauthorized disconnection of the meter from the electrical service and allowing the consumer to “steal” electrical energy. Since this was an emergency situation I proceeded to break the seals, open the cover and disconnect the meter from the service. After disconnecting the meter I then threw the main switch to the on position to see what would happen. Voila...power was restored to the building with no fire in the meter. Now it was time to see what else may have been damaged from the lightning strike.

I then began to check out the videotape machine at the transmitter to see if I would be able to play my programs scheduled to air from the transmitter site. Much to my disappointment I found it wasn’t working either. Again, another power related problem.

By now it was obvious that the lightning had entered into the electrical system and caused damage to several power supplies of our electronic equipment. While the transmitter was working fine, we didn’t have other video equipment working to play our programming. With that, I packed up and went down the mountain to gather together the parts necessary to make the repairs.

Bernie Marston and I returned the next day with the necessary repair parts to get everything working again. We reported the power meter outage to Southern California Edison and a few days later they showed up to replace it. One of their crew noted the disconnected knife switches and asked who did it. I was afraid I was in trouble for accessing them. Well, that did not turn out to be the case. Instead, he mentioned how bold I was to attempt to access the knife switches considering the magnitude of the electrical storm that was taking place at the time.

After cleaning up the spilled soup I began to smell something burning. One of the first things I did was to look and see if the power meter was still attached to the main electrical switchboard. I will digress a moment here to elaborate on the power meter. To clarify for the reader, a power meter is similar to what you might have on the side of your house to meter your electrical usage. It is how you get billed for electric service.

As you can imagine having a 150 foot steel structure atop a 5400 foot mountain makes for a very good lightning rod when thunderstorms pass over.

From time to time I would pull transmitter duty on Sunset Ridge to fill in for a vacationing engineer. One day I was scheduled for transmitter duty and there were storm clouds to the north from where I lived and hovering over the mountains. They were predicting storms and possible snow so I thought I had better get up the mountain well before my shift began to allow for any unexpected delays due to mountainous dirt road conditions like mud holes and rock slides.

I arrived at the transmitter with no incident and in plenty of time before I had to sign the station on the air. I will mention that we were operating on a limited schedule from 3:00 PM until about midnight in the early days of KHOF-TV. I decided to fix lunch and opened a can of soup and placed it on the hot plate. When it was ready I sat down at the master control console in front of the transmitter to have my lunch and to relax before sign-on. We had a gray house cat that lived at the transmitter building. He was more of a “mouse cat” as he did an excellent job of keeping the field mice population under control.

I was now peacefully enjoying my lunch with the cat sitting on my lap when all of a sudden…BOOM! It sounded like an explosion occurred over my head. I was so startled that I jumped up spilling soup on myself along with launching the cat into the air.  After regaining my composure I finally realized that the tower had been hit by lightning. And with it being only 150 feet high I had experienced almost the full impact of the expansion of heated air that occurs during a lightning strike, which is thunder.