Radio Waves: The Woodpecker, Gutter Antenna, Air Travel With Radios, and “A Spy in Every Embassy”

Radio Waves:  Stories Making Waves in the World of Radio

Because I keep my ear to the waves, as well as receive many tips from others who do the same, I find myself privy to radio-related stories that might interest SWLing Post readers.  To that end: Welcome to the SWLing Post’s Radio Waves, a collection of links to interesting stories making waves in the world of radio. Enjoy!

Many thanks to SWLing Post contributors Dennis Dura and Dan Robinson for the following tips:

The Russian Woodpecker: Official Bird Of The Cold War Nests In Giant Antenna (Hackaday)

On July 4th, 1976, as Americans celebrated the country’s bicentennial with beer and bottle rockets, a strong signal began disrupting shortwave, maritime, aeronautical, and telecommunications signals all over the world. The signal was a rapid 10 Hz tapping that sounded like a woodpecker or a helicopter thup-thupping on the roof. It had a wide bandwidth of 40 kHz and sometimes exceeded 10 MW.

This was during the Cold War, and plenty of people rushed to the conclusion that it was some sort of Soviet mind control scheme or weather control experiment. But amateur radio operators traced the mysterious signal to an over-the-horizon radar antenna near Chernobyl, Ukraine (then part of the USSR) and they named it the Russian Woodpecker. Here’s a clip of the sound.

The frequency-hopping Woodpecker signal was so strong that it made communication impossible on certain channels and could even be heard across telephone lines when conditions were right. Several countries filed official complaints with the USSR through the UN, but there was no stopping the Russian Woodpecker. Russia wouldn’t even own up to the signal’s existence, which has since been traced to an immense antenna structure that is nearly half a mile long and at 490 feet, stands slightly taller than the Great Pyramid at Giza.[]

Gutter Antenna, Ultimate Stealth Antenna? (Broken Signal)

Air Travel With Amateur Ham Radio Q&A (Ham Radio Crash Course)

A Spy in Every Embassy (Southgate ARC)

‘The intelligence coup of the century’. The extraordinary story of the longest running and most successful secret intelligence operation of the 20th Century.

For more than half a century, governments all over the world trusted a single company, Swiss-based Crypto AG, to keep the communications of their spies, soldiers and diplomats secret. But what none of its customers ever knew was that Crypto AG was owned for over 20 Cold War years by the CIA in partnership with the BND, the German Intelligence Service. The machines that many customers bought had deliberately weakened security – a window through which the CIA and BND could read the diplomatic traffic between their embassies, their trade negotiators and their own spies.

The BND sold out its share in 1993 for a tidy profit while the CIA continued until the company was broken up in 2018.

Crypto AG’s own secret was only cracked last year in a combined investigation by German ZDF television, Swiss SRF and the Washington Post following the discovery of a secret history, Operation Rubicon, that had been assembled by some of the operatives who had been involved in the deception.

A Spy in Every Embassy is the story of the story, presented by German intelligence journalist Peter F Muller, who produced last year’s television programme for ZDF, and British journalist David Ridd.

It gives the chronology of the manoeuvrings, arguments, successes and deceptions of the partnership that remained secret for a quarter of a century. Its revelations offer a new perspective on some of the landmark events of those decades – the Falklands War, the US bombing of Libya from British airfields, the negotiations that lead to the Camp David Accords and the Iranian Hostage crisis, as well as the daily churn of intelligence information from around the world about both friends and opponents.

The programme considers the collateral damage of deception on a grand scale. Most employees of Crypto AG knew nothing of the built-in weaknesses of the machinery they were building or trying to sell to governments in some very dangerous parts of the world.

Produced by John Forsyth
Assistant Producer: Alexandra Quinn
A Loftus Media production for BBC Radio 4

Extracts read by Lanna Joffrey, Annette Kossow, Blanca Belenguer, Mike Christofferson and Thilo Buergel.
Archive by kind permission of ZDF Television, Crypto Museum, Harry S Truman Library, National Security Agency Archive and Bletchley Park podcast.

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10 thoughts on “Radio Waves: The Woodpecker, Gutter Antenna, Air Travel With Radios, and “A Spy in Every Embassy”

  1. Steve T

    Regarding air travel, I fully intend to bring my KX2 POTA/SOTA kit on trips this year. It will be in carry-on luggage due to the battery. I’ll make sure I have plenty of extra time to deal with possible delays.

  2. Mark Fahey

    While I’m here commenting (on the woodpecker) I guess I will write something else!

    The Spy in Every Embassy brings back memories of my professional life in the 1990s and 2000s working for a “USA health operation” as the director for Central & South Asia. Ha the – memories. A story perhaps for a post COVID SWL WinterFest Conference presentation!

    Meanwhile if you want to learn more about the “The Spy in Every Embassy” Crypto AG operation you can here…

  3. 13dka

    I used an uninterrupted stretch of at least 120′ of gutter above the 4th floor of an apartment building in the 90s. It kind of worked as expected but running within the typical noise “halo” of the building it was noisy even back then and I doubt it would do much good in today’s increased QRM, except when at least the upper floor close to the gutter is free of QRM sources (IOW tenants). Also caution the hefty voltages potentially coming out of a long gutter: it will overload most cheap radios without attenuators and a pretty distant lighting strike killed the (known as vulnerable) HF preamp of my ICF-2001D I had connected to that gutter back then. 🙂

  4. Bill Hemphill

    Back in 1991, I helped a friend move from Philadelphia to Seattle. I drove the truck. To stay in touch on the road, she had a HT in her van along with a mag mount antenna and several spare battery packs. I had a mobile rig with mag mount in the truck. It worked great during the five day trip.

    When I got ready to fly back, I just packed all the equipment into my carry-on bag. This bag now had two mag mount antennas, associated coiled up coax, several battery packs and the HT and mobile radio. When the bag when though the x-ray machine, lights lit up and I was surrounded by TSA agents. It was sort of scary and funny at same time. I can just imagine how the bag contents looked like on the x-ray screen. One agent kept poking my bag with his stick, finally asking me to open it. At this point, I’m beginning to wonder how I can explain the equipment and while I could turn the HT on, there wasn’t any way the mobile rig was going to turn on.

    After opening the bag, I heard a voice behind me ask: “You’re a Ham?” I said I was and he assured the other agents that I was okay. The agent was a fellow ham. Looking back on it, I realize it was pretty stupid what I did and I was fortunate that a fellow ham was there to save me.

    Bill WD9EQD
    Smithville, NJ

  5. Edward

    I don’t miss the woodpecker but strongly suggest that transmitter site should be preserved as a bed and breakfast hotel for field day and remote operating enthusiasts.

    1. Jake Brodsky, AB3A

      With a bit of spit and polish, that could become one unbelievable DX site for European hams, and foster some much needed goodwill internationally.

      Imagine calling CQ with that array on 20 meters. You could have a WAS in about two hours.

      1. Mark Fahey

        If you are interested in climbing the woodpecker you can in VR. The Chernobyl VR Project allows you to visit the ghost town of Pripyat and even climb to the top of the woodpecker array. I use I on Oculus (Rift & Quest) – I expect its available on other VR platforms as well.

  6. Frank Cathell

    Gutter antenna comment: Excellent comparison. One modification that may reduce noise pickup and improve signal is to place a 4:1 impedance transformer (un-un) between the coax and the gutter with the high impedance side of the xfmr to the antenna. If you can wind this yourself on a small ferrite core, completely isolate the two windings so that the coax shield (and center conductor for that matter) are completely galvanically isolated from the gutter itself. This will reduce significantly common mode interference and coax line noise pickup.

    1. Steve T

      Perhaps splitting the gutter, assuming it’s a complete loop, and using a 4:1 balun would be even better. A short section of PVC gutter could provide the insulator. Fun stuff!

  7. Dennis Howard, AD8DV

    About air travel with amateur radio equipment, somewhere I once saw of a photo of various items that had been confiscated by the TSA. One of them was obviously a qrp rig in an Altoids box, a Rockmite or something. I felt so sorry for the poor ham who had to give that up! OTOH I don’t think I would have tried to carry something like that onto an airplane, it does seem like asking for trouble.


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