Become a Radio Ham

Ramon Gandia, AL7X, Nome, Alaska

Coming of age with Ham Radio

Radio satifies many desires and needs. I remember when I was a 12-year old, I used to dream of having been a telegrapher in the old, wild west days. Pretty soon, me and another kid were stringing wires in the neighborhood so we could telegraph back and forth from house to house. It was exciting because there were "bad guys" in between, and they would tear down the wires ...

So then I started to play with radios. Back then it was all tubes, and you quickly learned to be careful because they had lethal voltages inside them. The new, transistor or solid state radios today are basically harmless.

Pretty soon I got tired of listening to WKVM on some half-burnt, resurected radio, and started thinking about sending some signal out there, and maybe communicating with my buddy 4 houses over. As it turned out, he did not have any interest in radio after all, but other kids did.

My mother did not approve; perhaps she had those lethal voltages in mind, but by much cajoling and prodding she started to let me mess with radios. My dad, he was generally supportive but he let Mother Dear run the house.

But outside the house, he ruled. So he put me in touch with this old geezer, who was an old time radio ham, and there in his house, on hot, sultry evenings, he showed me what he could do on 6-meters. In 1958 it was a "hot" band indeed. Not only was he talking to the locals, but his big, rotary antenna would reach all the way to Argentina and Patagonia, half a world away. It was totally awsome, and I was hooked.

Back then the beginner or "Novice" written test was fairly easy, but learning that Morse Code at the needed speed and accuracy was a real challenge. Getting the license took me several months. I passed the test in December, 1958, and the license finally arrived in the mail in March, 1959, I had to build all my own transmitters. In in those simpler, kinder days, transmitters were by far easier to build than receivers.

My mother got me a Hammarlund HQ-110 receiver, and I built a few transmitters ... starting with a single tube unit that had a range of two or three miles; to eventually a several tube rig of 1000 watts that could communicate worldwide.

I loved those days; I was always building or doing something, and you could see the results; feel it with your hands; and many times, if you got your connections wrong, you could even smell the resultant smoke!

In 1963 I went off to college in Milwaukee, and had to leave my room-sized station behind. Getting by in college took most of my time, but in 1966 I happened to drive (in my Mobile Impala), to this fantastic new store, Amateur Electronic Supply up in Fond Du Lac Avenue. It was full of goodies, mostly commercially made stuff, but plenty of parts, used rigs, and most importantly, a bunch of hams to make friends with.

Terry, W9DIA owned the store, and he showed me a Swan 350. A transceiver, never anything like it before. It was compact, about the size of two shoeboxes, with a power supply about the size of one showbox. This beauty did 80-10 meters, on Sideband Voice or Morse CW. And, with 350 watts! I had to have it! And the price was a king's ransom, but I did buy that rig and brought it with me to Alaska when I came to live here in Nome.

With that rig, and a Yaesu FT-101 later, I entered some ham radio contests which pitted me against the country or the world to see how many states or countries could be "worked" in one weekend. I had the distinction, if such matters much, to win the Alaskan entry for the CQ Worldwide WPX contest. In one weekend I talked to over 400 stations the world over.

I loved radio contesting, and still would like to delve into it!

All my antennas had been homemade until about 1972, but then I bought a rotating beam antenna. This worked real well, and it was also made by Swan. Swan, by the way, got bought up by Cubex, some sort of corporate conglomerate and by and by they gave up on ham radio and now sell doodads to rich folks. This happens often, when the founder of a corporation (or a club) is displaced and the vision is gone. But I digress.

Even though the antennas was commercial, putting up the poles, and later towers here in Nome was always a "hands-on" challenge.

In 1974 the November storm hit. It hit hard. Alascom downtown was flooded, and all long distance to Nome was cut. The airport runway was covered with 4 to 5 foot thick ice slabs, and it was shut down. The powerplant got flooded, shorted out and was out for days. Nome was isolated. Except.

Except I was able to run my radios from batteries, and I quickly established contact with the outside world, to Anchorage mostly. Back then I was in the flying business, and had battery powered radios in Shishmaref and Wales, so I was also able to communicate with those villages, as they were hit hard too.

For several days the Nome Police would drive their patrol car to my house, swap batteries with me, and keep driving to get the battery recharged. That is how it was done in 1974, and ham radio, and ham radio ingenuity handled all sorts of messages.

More recently, about 1992, three of us, Mark Hubert, Marty Ruud and myself, got together and decided to promote ham radio. Marty and Mark were great instigators of having a repeater put up near Mt. Osborne. A lot was learned in the process, and although the repeater was killed by the inclement weather up there, it ran long enough to get more people interested. A few other old time hams that came to Nome helped out in giving tests, and for several years running we got many of the present hams started in radio.

At the time, back in the 90's I became the senior ham examiner for Nome, and after an abortive stint with the Anchorage Amateur Radio Club in giving tests, I switched to the W5YI Organization for all the testing. To date, as of 2007, I have personally seen over 160 people get their licenses right here in Nome. Marty Ruud, WL7FZ has been an examiner as long as I have, and Mark Hubert has also gotten his certification.

Also in the 1990's we started a local radio club, SPARC, which has grown to become a large organization. Although I admire SPARC, my interests diverge from the majority of the members' of that organization. For the most part, the gentlemen running the SPARC outfit are of a certain social persuasion or group in which I do not fit.

This is actually the case in most towns that have radio clubs. In Anchorage there are about 15 clubs; some are quite large and can command a lot of labor, money or clout. Others are smaller and tend to those that prefer other company. I think that Nome has reached that point.

To give an example, the original founders of SPARC, ie, the three of us, were radio experimenters and builders. We loved to play and tinker, and see what works. But today, SPARC does not do that. In fact, its "repeater system" mostly caters to Snowbirds or Summer Campers for routine use, or Emergency Communications in its close association with the Nome Fire Department and Search and Rescue organizations.

There is nothing wrong with that. But it is not what a few of us like about ham radio, and thus we felt alienated, and formed a second club, Ragchew Amateur Magic, Inc -RAM- for those that desire to go off on another tangent or have different company. For myself, I belong to SPARC and realize that it fills a need - perhaps even a need of the majority of radio hams in the Nome area, but I choose to be more active in RAM.

Shameless Plug for the ARRL. The ARRL is the national organization for radio hams. They put out a wonderful and colorful monthly magazine. I'd be glad to show you a copy. The ARRL has a whole library of books they sell about everything and anything to do with ham radio. They help Amateur Radio in the halls of congress. You really want to join the ARRL.

Nuts and Bolts of Becoming a Ham

If you want to become a radio ham, you need to consider a few things, which perhaps the preceding paragraphs should have hinted at. For instance, you should realize that being a radio ham could be:

  • A lonesome endeavor. Or perhaps just one or two people.
  • As part of a larger group, a club or social gathering.
  • You could be interested in experimenting ...
  • Or radio contesting (radiosports) ...
  • Or talking all over the world ...
  • Or concentrate on Search and Rescue ...
  • Perhaps you like "internet over radio" and data communications.
  • Or you may like space and satellites, and hams have satellites.
  • Or maybe you like children or youngsters and want to do radio with them.
  • Or you want to go camping, 4-wheeling, Snowmachining, Dog Racing, or the solitude of rowing a canoe by yourself - and want radio to be a part of it.
  • You may like Morse Code ... or voice ... or both!
  • And, if you are a modern Renaissance person, all of the above and more!

You may think, what does this all have to do with becoming a radio ham? Well, you asked to be a ham, and I have told you what you can or might do with radios. That is the essence of being a ham.

Getting the License

There are now only three licenses available. The entry level license is called Technician. The old Novice license is gone, and the Technician written test is harder than the old Novice test, but you do not have to learn Morse Code at all.

In fact, there is no more Morse Code testing for any class or ham radio license. That's right: No more morse code tests.

The Technician license is basically a VHF license, but it lets you have a taste of short waves - the worldwide frequencies that so enraptured me in the 1950's, and still do. Believe it or not, those shortwave or HF privileges are Morse Code only.

This is a paradox, sort of, you can get the license without passing the morse test. You can use voice on VHF, but to use HF you need to do it with morse code!

Now, if you want to use voice on shortwaves (HF), you need to pass a more involved written test, for the General Class license. This is, in fact, the oldest license class ever, instituted in 1927. Before 1927 you were just an "amateur" licensed by the US Department of Commerce. I wasn't alive in 1927, so I missed out on that possibly controversial development.

With a General license you can roam the shortwave HF ham bands with 1500 watts and voice. And morse code too, as well as data transmissions (like teletype, or chat) and many and varied methods of transmission.

As a General, you will have access to about 95% of the HF bands, and there are tiny slivers that are reserved for the Extra Class hams. Extras have to pass a test that is, even in 2007, is a real challenge. You may cram for it and manage to pass it, but if you know what is behind every question and answer, not just rote-learned, you will be well on the way to being a real Communications guru.

The little slivers that are not available to Generals are what the Extras get. Kind of a reward for being old, venerable, wise, or having political clout for reserving "us" a slice of frequencies where we do not have to put with the average riff-raff. Or so the Generals would have you believe ...

One thing Extras can do is participate in the giving of ham radio exams for Generals and other Extras as a Volunteer Examiner. As a General you can be a VE for giving Technician licenses, but that's it.

As a rule, Extras have been hams for a while. Some, like me, have been Extra for over 40 years.

Trust me, as a Technician or a General you can have your barrell of fun ... and if you ever get hard cored about Ham Radio, then you may want to start thinking of being an Extra.

In the old days we used to just read books. I mean, like real hairy college texts, such as FE Terman's Radio Handbook, and the like. Of course, the Boy Scout Merit Badge series was also a gold mine of info. Alas, the Boy Scouts no longer have anything like it. In those days the Novice test was multiple choice, but upper class tests were all in Longhand, you had to draw diagrams and all tests were taken in a Government office, the dreaded Federal Communications Commission. Tests were given once a month. If you flunked, you had to wait a full month. The morse code testing machine used a punched paper take and besides the beeping morse in the headphones, it set off real clatter. The entire episode was absolutely intimidating and daunting, and for a 13 year old like me, terrifying. I did manage to pass my General in 1960.

Well, Virginia Slim Cigarettes had an advert that said "You've come a long way baby!" And indeed, things are quite different now. The tests are all multiple choice, and the study materials have been refined to where you can read just one book to pass the test.

I will venture to say that if you are going for the Technician test, the book by Gordon West is the best guide. Each possible question that can be asked is in the book, along with the answer and an explanation of the answer. You also get to see the wrong answers.

This is because for the last decade or two, tests are drawn from a question pool. The Technician pool has about 500 possible questions, and out of that 35 are chosen. Not at random, but from several different areas of the pool. There are ten main subjects, and the 35 questions are divided among those in a prescribed way.

As an examiner, the law allows me to put the test together by taking 2 questions from this subject, 3 from this one, etc. The W5YI Organization that I belong to automates that process, and I simply fire up my computer, tell it to print a Technician Test and answer key, and presto! Instant test.

Gordon West's book has all those 500 questions and answers in it. It is the best and clearest guide I have seen, better than ARRL's book -the previous favorite.

The same approach can be taken for the General Test, but some experience as a ham helps with the General. For the Extra test, it is also possible to do it with Gordon's book for the Extra, but most people I have met really have a hard time with that test unless they have expanded their studies beyond just that book. Experience is perhaps the key factor here.

General tests are also 35 questions like the Technician, but the Extra test is 50 questions.

You may ask, "what is the general nature and demeanor of those tests?"

As a rule, the Technician test is very little radio and electrical theory or practice. It mostly asks about the rules for operating radio as a Technician ham. It asks some basic radio questions on how to hook up your set to an antenna, how not to get electrocuted or fried, etc. Some of this knowlege has to be learned by rote; many rules are arbitrary: its just the way it is. The FCC does not want us hams to transmit on top of KNOM, so they have frequencies we can use. Taxicabs use other frequencies, as do boats and the military. The test will not ask you about broadcasting, military or marine bands ... but they will ask you very specific questions about the ham bands as authorized to a Technician class licensee.

As you get to the General Class, since this is the license most used for HF shortwave, you will have questions about shortwave, international communications and deeper understanding of radio and electronic theory. The technical part is still fairly straightforward, but geared to the shortwave HF amateur that generally tinkers more with his equipment and antennas in particular. Of course, rules and regulations and procedures as now expanded to the General class are asked.

Extra class hams, for the most part, do HF just like Generals. The exact frequencies are again slightly different, but the test is light on rules and procedures - those questions got asked of you as a General or Technician. The test is strong on Radio Theory, troubleshooting and the like.

All of these licenses are recognized by most major countries in the world. You get a USA license, and you can operate in Canada, Mexico, and Europe. Many of these countries reciprocate automatically, some you have to make a phone call or fill a form, but for instance, if you go to Mexico and want to operate there during a vacation, you do not have to take a test again. Your US license is recognized. What you want to do is get some booklet or something as regulation details vary from country to country.

In the United States it is customary to segregate Voice modes, and on a given ham band only a part of it is allowed for voice transmissions. A smaller portion of the given band, but still a significant part, is restricted to non-voice transmissions, like morse code ( CW ). In most foreign countries no such distinction is made, and you can operate voice or cw anywhere in the band. Why? In many countries, specially those in the less developed parts of the world, there are just not enough hams to crowd the bands.

The Radio Elmer

If you are interested in becoming a ham, I would suggest that you find or locate someone that is already a ham; and have him show you the way, or send you to someone that can show you the way. A person that mentors you to becoming a ham is called an Elmer. The monicker is from old ham radio cartoons, in which the gury/mentor was called "Elmer" and the name has stuck.

Your Elmer should be someone that you are comfortable with. Also the Elmer should be one that is a couple of rungs farther up the knowledge ladder than newbie hams. You will find Elmers of all sorts of descriptions. Search and Rescue guys, Blabbers, Tinkerers, and Destroyer of Radios. Hackers, girls, cowboys, and even a moron or two! So do not assume that the first ham you come across will be a suitable Elmer no matter how much he seems to know.

The main thing is that your interests mesh with his personality. I would also add that a good Elmer will often introduce you to aspects of Radio Hamming that you may not have even considered.

Here are a few names of local guys that can get you started or point you to someone that can:

  • Nate Perkins, Nome, KL3NP
  • Colby Carter, Nome, KL0CR
  • Martin Ruud, Nome, WL7MR
  • Ramon Gandia, Nome, AL7X
  • Arthur Morton, Counci, AL0U
  • Ken Hughes, Teller, KL1EB
  • Tom Gray, White Mountain, KL0CQ

There are about 150 hams in the area, but those above come to mind as good initial contacts. They are all in the phone book, and I leave it as an excercise to you on how to go about getting a hold of them.

One thing. None of the above are in the business of selling books. You will probably have to order your own book or learning guides. Sometimes, but not always, a local club or group may have books, but they go rather quickly, so be prepared to order what you need on-line, or over the phone.

Welcome to ham radio! I hope to talk to you on the bands down the line, ok?

Last revised January 18, 2012

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Copyright © 2007-2012, Ramon Gandia