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If you were involved in big earth stations in the 80’s, 90’s, or 2000’s, you very likely knew or had heard about the larger-than-life Pete Zilliox.
I first met Pete when he was holding court in his office in the earth station systems engineering group at Andrew Corp in Richardson, Texas. If there is such a word as RF-eracy (like numeracy, but for RF and microwaves), Pete had it. He could feel decibels. He once manually pointed a 9 m Ka-band antenna to find a highly-inclined Ka-band satellite with a weak beacon – a feat equivalent to finding a fly at night with a laser pointer. He had a way of internalizing how complicated chains of converters, amplifiers, cables, filters, and antennas would behave; Just by looking at a block diagram he could tell you if it was going to make enough EIRP or give the Eb/No you needed – and point out three other obscure issues that you hadn’t thought of.
He would spend many of his days ‘splaining stuff to younger engineers learning how to plan and build complex uplink systems. His awareness of what he didn’t know made him hungry to learn… and smart. By the time he retired, he was expert in applications of everything from 60-cm VSAT terminals to giant A-stations with noisy klystrons. Need to predict NPR in a transmit chain? Ask Pete. Need to design a digital TV uplink station for 99% availability, including everything from rain fades to your backup generator? Zilliox was the go-to guy.
If he ever said, “I’m all eat up with the dumbs here. How is that going to work?” you knew that it probably wouldn’t work and by attempting to explain it to Pete you would reveal to yourself that you had missed something important. He and I used to take perverse pride in annoying others (especially companies looking for funding) by asking difficult and inconvenient technical questions.
Back when Ka-band was scary, he went out and got real data to resolve amorphous questions. For example, everyone knew that rain caused signal fades, but what about water on the reflector? Or on the feed window? Pete coached a junior engineer through building an entire rain making system to douse antennas and actually measure effects.
Pete had great business sense too. He understood more clearly than almost anyone that no matter how smart you are as a consultant or how excellent your product is, if you don’t solve your customer’s problems at a cost that makes business sense to them, you will ultimately fail. He would put inordinate effort into reading beyond the specifications – and even helping the customer understand what they really needed, even if they hadn’t asked for it.
We applied all of those principles as we grew SatProf and the GVF online training program. I like to think they rubbed off on all of us.