Morse Code

After passing the general class amateur radio license test, my wife is learning morse code. She has learned to recognize seven letters at a speed of about 13 words per minute.

She has been working on this for about two weeks and at the rate she’s going, it will be less than a month for her to be able to know the full alphabet, numbers and punctuation characters. She has tried sending, and that needs some work, but I think that will quickly be learned. It requires a sense of timing to send and her music skills should be quite helpful with this.

Home Again

We made it home in the desert southwest. The drive was nice, if not a bit boring, but that’s okay.

At Hope Pass it was slightly below freezing, with rain-hail-sleet-snow and 60mph/95kph winds. When we arrived home, three days later, it was 109F/43C.

It was hard to not laugh as each of us unloaded a heavy jacket, rain gear, several thin layers of warm clothes and a few medium thick layers of warm clothes.

What we did “up there”.

First, there is no vehicle access to Hope Pass, so it’s “walk there”. We needed to be self sufficient so it was really “backpack there”. Backpacking at12,000 feet/3,700 meters elevation is breathtaking.

My wife and I stationed ourselves near the aid station at a point along the trail where the bushes forced the runners into a single file. From this place, we recorded the runner bib numbers, the time the runner passed us and the runner’s direction of travel. This was a safety check to ensure all the runners were accounted for, and to, if a runner didn’t arrive at the next aid station in a reasonable amount of time, figure out where to begin looking for the runner.

We also kept track of runners that voluntarily dropped out of the race, or were cut (arrived at the aid station after a set deadline). Since no vehicles were at this aid station, these runners had to walk back to the “by the road” aid station. When a runner was cut or dropped out, we communicated the runner number and the time the runner headed to the next aid station so that the runner’s crew could be notified where to pick up “their” runner.

Why ham radio? Ham operators are quite skilled in standing up a self contained temporary communications system. My observations was that the system set up and testing was started the day before the race and the “tear down” was complete within just a few hours after the race.

This is not to downplay the ability of the people maintaining other systems to do similar things–they are often hindered by regulatory, economic and technical considerations that don’t apply to ham operators. For a 30 hour race, it’s not practical for commercial, cellular or public safety systems to expand their systems to cover all the “hills and valleys” along the course. Hams have virtually no regulatory requirements for temporary radio sites, do not require a connection to “the outside world” like many commercial systems, and the economic issues are not really applicable.

Llamas & Leadville

I’m amazed that there is cellular internet service in this location. I’m typing this on a smart phone, so this is a short post.

We (my wife and I) will be camping in a place where we can, in the early morning, start walking up to the Hope Pass aid station for the Leadville 100 ultra marathon.

We, along with many other ham operators, will be providing runner safety communications along the course….where there is no other means of communications.

In case you’re not familiar with the Leadville 100, it is a 100 mile/160km running race in the Colorado mountains. For more details, see https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Leadville_Trail_100

For what it’s worth, it snowed yesterday and will likely do so tomorrow.

Llamas….they are used to haul all the stuff to set up and operate the aid station. They are ideally suited for the cold and high altitudes.

Ham She Is

My wife sat for her general class amateur radio license and passed the test.

At the house, the radio interference caused by modern electronic devices in homes is so great that only “very exceptionally extremely strong” signals can be heard.

I have a ham radio station that fits into two briefcase Pelican brand transport cases. One case holds the radio, microphone, telegraph key and a few cables. The other case holds some paper, pencils, pencil sharpener, antenna wire and a device that allows the use of a random length of wire to work with the radio. To hold the wire up in the air, I have a fiberglass telescoping pole that, extended is 33 feet/10 meters long and 3 feet/1meter when it is collapsed.

To get away from the interference, we went out into the desert with the camper and set up the station. I let my wife set everything up. I just watched to ensure that she did not do anything that would be harmful to her or the equipment. With no prompting from me, it took her about 10 minutes to get the station on the air. A few minutes after that, she made her first contact–a station in Houston, TX which is about 1,800 miles/3,000km “away”.

Reminiscing About Radio

Today I was cruising around the internet and ended up looking at the archives of the Radio Amateur Callbook.  Amateur radio operators (ham operators) each have a unique radio call sign and this publication is a directory, sorted by call sign, that gives the ham operator’s name and address that is on file with the agency that issues these licenses.  In the USA, the agency is the Federal Communications Commission (FCC).

The older books are not useful except for historical purposes and in my case reminiscing.

My nearest neighbor that was my age was a couple of miles (several km) away, so I didn’t have a lot of kids to play with.  Instead I became interested in radio and this developed into an interest in ham radio….talking to people on the radio was much more exciting than merely listening to others talk on the radio!

I received my first ham radio license, the Novice class, in the fall of 1972.  For this license I had to demonstrate to a local ham operator that I could send and receive Morse code at 5 words per minute and pass a fairly simple written test.

I looked up my old callsign in the winter 1972-1973 Callbook and, sure enough, there was “my” listing.

My callsign changed in the spring of 1974 when I passed the tests to upgrade the privileges conferred by my license.  I had to appear at an office of the FCC, transcribe Morse code sent at 13 words per minute to paper, legibly send Morse code at no less than 13 words per minute and take two written tests.  One written test was for the General class license and the second written test, much harder than the first, was for the Advanced class license.

Sure enough, the listing in the fall 1974 Callbook showed my new call sign, license class and the same address.

In 1972, I was 11 years old and starting 6th grade.  Ham radio was much more exciting than 6th grade, but…school came first. 🙂

In 1974 I was 13 years old and I likely was one of the youngest Advanced Class operators in the country, but…school came first…still.

 

Ham radio is what started me on the path to my career in radio engineering.

 

Eleven year olds don’t have a lot of money and I quickly learned that a good antenna makes up for a not quite so good transmitter.  I also figured out that some very good antennas could be *very* inexpensive to make.  I had  the use of 2-1/2 acres (1 hectare), along with the four similarly sized vacant lots surrounding my home, so I had plenty of room to experiment.

We lived near a military base and there were a lot of drunk driving crashes that damaged utility poles and associated electric wires.  The nearby crashes would cause a power blackout and that would alert me to go outside to listen for the police car sirens so I could figure out where the crash occurred.  I would wait an hour and then ride my bicycle to the crash scene.  By then, the electric utility crews were there and I would ask them if I could have the damaged wire.  They could not reuse the damaged wire and my taking the wire saved them some cleanup work, so my request was always granted.  I would coil the wire up into a large circle and carry it home.  I even built a bracket on my bicycle to hold the coiled wire upright and slightly off the ground so I could get the wire home in just one trip.  This was much faster than walking home with the wire, walking back to crash scene and then riding my bike home.

For me, I suppose it was fortunate that the military paydays were on Friday nights, so I could stay up later than on a school night.  I’m also fortunate that my parents let their young son ride a bicycle a half hour to a late night accident scene.

Poles to support the wire were more difficult to source.  At one point, the TV antennas in town that were needed to receive even a faint signal were atop 40 and 50 foot collapsible masts.  When the TV stations installed a nearby relay station, these huge antennas and the poles were no longer needed.  I would take the antennas down for free if I could have the poles, guy wires and guy wire anchors.  Once down, I would drag the stuff home, often more than a mile (1.5k).  It took several trips and the stuff was both heavy and awkward to move.

Between getting the wire and getting the antenna poles, I got a lot of exercise.

I still don’t know how I managed to avoid severely pinching a finger.  Each mast section slid into next lower one and the sliding joints offered an excellent pinch point for fingers.  The process was simple; place a tall ladder next to the mast, climb up 10 feet, remove a pin, loosen a clamp using a wrench held in one hand while holding the mast in place with the other hand,  put the wrench back into my pocket, lower the mast, avoid losing a chunk of skin from a finger and, depending on the length of the mast, repeat 3 or 4 times.

Again I was fortunate, both at not ever crunching a finger and my parents not (visibly) worrying about me getting hurt.   Since my dad was in the military, our medical care was free, so if I had pinched a finger and lost a chunk of skin, instead of “oooohhhh you pooor babeeeee”, it would likely have been, “I’ll bet you’ll be more careful next time.”   🙂

When I decided to build an antenna, I would look up an antenna design in a book, make the calculations to adjust the antenna so it would work at the desired radio band, figure out if I had what I needed to actually make it, place the antenna poles where I needed them and finally put everything together.  Some antennas were flops and some worked amazingly well.  As I gained more experience the “flops” were fewer in number and the amazing antennas were truly amazing.

I was a 6th through 12th grader doing basic civil, mechanical and electrical engineering work!  Had the poles failed and fallen over due to a wind storm, it was unlikely anyone would be hurt, so it wasn’t what I suppose could be called “real engineering”, but it was a start.

For what it’s worth, the poles and antennas I put up remained standing even through the most violent of storms.  The local AM radio station tower fell during one windstorm, so I guess my engineering was “better than the AM radio station”.  🙂

I still have my ham radio license and my original ham radio equipment, complete to the telegraph keys.  Sometimes put it on the air.  I no longer have the room for the big antennas and the equipment seems primitive now, but back in time more than 45 years, it was AMAZING.

I remember.  And I smile.

Portable Digipeater

digipeaterThis is a portable digipeater.

Before I answer the “what’s that?” question, a bit of background.

Ham radio operators provide communications for charities running benefit events such as marathons, bicycle races and also for more serious things like search and rescue operations or the Red Cross and Salvation Army that are serving people in a disaster area.

Yes, ham operators can step in and provide communications to the police, fire and emergency medical departments and this has happened…like in Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria..but (very) fortunately this level of destruction to an area is rare.

Back to the public service events.  Many of the events I help with are in *VERY* remote areas where there is no permanently installed communications equipment for even the police, fire and emergency medical systems.  This kind of situation is where the ham operators can “shine” and get practice for dealing with the things that can happen during the more serious uses of ham radio if the permanently installed communications equipment is damaged by the disaster.

  • No equipment?  No Problem.  It will be brought in.
  • No power?  No problem.  That, too, will be brought in.
  • Is terrain making it difficult to provide coverage to the target area?  No problem.  Equipment will be added, placed and configured to address the situation.
  • Need to talk across the country?  No problem.  That can be done too.

Finally the answer to the “What’s that?” question.  It’s a digipeater for APRS (Amateur Packet Reporting System).   It takes APRS transmissions from nearby ham operators and relays them so the APRS transmissions can be heard over a larger area or in a steep ravine or behind a hill…or…well, you get the idea.

Now the question is, “APRS.  What’s that?”.  You’ll see in a moment.

APRS does not require an internet connection to work, but if one is available on site, or an APRS station with an internet connection is within range of this device, the APRS messages are sent to the internet so that someone far away can see what’s happening in the area around this digipeater.  Because digipeaters can work together, “within range” is sort of “up in the air”.  During one use of this digipeater, two other digipeaters were working in concert and the station “within range” was a bit more than 100 miles/150Km distant.

See http://aprsdirect.com for what is happening in your area and a much better explanation of APRS.

This unit was quickly put together (it shows) as a proof of concept.  From start to finish, I spent about an hour on it.

It weighs about 10 pounds / 4.5 kilos, is small enough that one person can carry it with no difficulty and it can be powered from just about any source of power available–commercial power, generator power, car, car battery, military vehicle electrical system or if I drag out some other stuff, even a train locomotive.  🙂

Once I get it on site, I need another 2-3 minutes to apply power and make it fully functional.  Two or three minutes is not a hope or projection.  I actually have used this several times and 3 minutes was the longest amount of time I needed to get it going.

You may be wondering what happens in the rain.  I put an upside down steel trash can over the unit and put the car battery on top of the upside down trash can to hold it in place.  The antenna for this was mounted to a very strong magnet and stuck perfectly to the steel trash can.

Vacation

My wife and I are driving around the western USA with our tent trailer and camping along the way.

Today we are in the mountains in a US National Forest about 150 miles south of Salt Lake City, Utah.  We are at about 8,500 feet (2,600 meters) elevation above sea level and it is quite pleasant outside.

I have my ham radio set up and am enjoying the clear reception in the “no electrical noise” environment.  The green energy and high efficiency electronics stuff generates a lot of “electronic smog” (noise that interferes with radio reception).  If you are noticing that you can no longer receive the more distant FM broadcast stations that used to be quite strong, or that the AM radio is useless, you, too, are experiencing this problem.

When something is designed, it only takes a little effort to make the stuff “electrically smog free” and in fact there are legally required standards for this, but the desire to keep prices down causes the standards to be ignored.

Ham Radio, 1962

NCX-3aIn my first post, I said I liked to restore old radios.  Well, here is a post about this part of my hobbies.

A friend gave me a non-working 1962 vintage National Radio Company NCX-3 radio transmitter-receiver (transceiver), along with the power supply unit for use at home and the power supply unit for use in a vehicle.

This radio was in good enough physical condition that I temporarily switched my attention to this unit.

It took a couple of days to make this one work.  Even though the radio is 55 years old, only eight components needed to be replaced and then I did what an auto mechanic would consider to be a “tune up”.  It now works as the manufacturer says it should work.   This means it is capable of world wide communications without any help from an internet provider or telephone company.

By today’s standards, for what the radio does, it is huge, heavy and consumes lots of power.   In other words, using this radio is like driving a 1962 car.

Now, back to the old Gonset “cold war” radio.

 

 

Energy and Projects

I had quite a bit of energy soon after I retired, then that energy disappeared and, finally, it’s now coming back.  I’m wondering if it was just some sort of inertia that kept me going at first.

Over the years I’ve been collecting project stuff for the day when I retired and now I realized I have  enough stuff that it is difficult to find the space to actually work on the projects.   So, I’m starting on projects that don’t take a lot of space to complete, but will free up additional space when the project is complete.

A long time ago, before my employer moved my office across town and my commute went from 40 minutes to 3 hours, I had been working on a Gonset Communicator III.  It is a 1950s era portable ham radio transmitter-receiver that was intended for short range emergency and event coordination communications.  This article in  Wikipedia  gives some technical history on the radio and includes some pictures.

Now that I’m retired, that will be the first thing I finish.  Right now, it is in multiple pieces; the cabinet, the power unit, the transmitter and the receiver.  When it’s finished, it will free up enough room to allow me to work on other projects.

If one is interested, the process is the usual– clean the unit, check the vacuum tubes;, check for failed or out of tolerance components,  ensure the internal adjustments are set correctly and reassemble.

Since this is a hobby, this will likely take some time to complete as just about everything else has a higher priority.