50 Years a Ham

On September 8, 1972 the US Federal Communications Commission issued me a novice class amateur radio license. I was 11 years old.

The novice class license was the beginner level license and had very limited privileges….and the tests reflected the beginner status. Passing the novice class test required I successfully transmit and receive Morse code at 5 words per minute, plus pass a 20 question written exam covering regulations, basic safety precautions and beginner level technical issues.

Fifty years later, the requirements seem very simple. To an 11 year old that had limited electronics knowledge, the process was quite daunting.

The ham radio hobby launched me into my career as an electrical engineer specializing in radio systems design.

6BTV Complete (more or less)

I hooked up the cable to the 6BTV antenna. There is no man made noise!!!!! This is wonderful!!!!

When I started with ham radio, I lived in the country and there was no man made noise. When I moved to the city to attend university, the man made noise was low enough to be okay. Over time, as the number of noise generators (computers, televisions, the black power packs plugged into the wall outlet, etc.) increased, the noise level went up to the point where using the radio at home was impossible.

I still have to complete more work for safety, convenience and efficiency. Currently the cable runs on the ground across the driveway which exposes the cable to damage if a car is driven across it. I also need to add some lightening protection to the cable. Additionally I need to do some optimization work on the antenna.

Most of this work will be done when the garage/workshop/music room/ham radio room is complete and I set things up its permanent location. I don’t want to spend a lot of effort setting up the station in the house when I’m going to move it in the near future. The optimization work does not depend on where the radio is located, so I will do that as I have time.

6BTV Stopped

6BTV is the model number of a ham radio antenna made by New-Tronics corporation. It is an almost 25 foot/8 meter long slender aluminum pipe with “bumps” at various points along it’s length. If one just glanced at it, one would assume it’s a flagpole.

I bought this antenna about 16 years ago to replace an older antenna, but I decided to not bother installing it. What was happening was that the noise from computers, televisions, stuff with computers in it (pretty much everything), “wall warts” (the black things plugging into the wall) was strong enough to over ride signals from stations as close as a mile (1.5km) distant. I had fixed the problems in my home, but the neighbors’ homes were close enough for the devices in their homes to cause problems. Under the law, I could have complained to the Federal Communications Commission and have them help me, but in my opinion it would have been a waste of time on my part. My guess (opinion) would that the FCC would have one of two reactions to my complaint; ignore it or pretend it didn’t arrive.

Now that we have moved and I have no man made radio noise to worry about, I decided to set aside a couple of hours to assemble and install the antenna. Everything is assembled but the antenna is on the ground.

As I finished assembling the antenna, the lightening and thunder show started. Right now, it’s sunny, but also with clouds and lightening. The last “blast” had only 2 seconds between the lightening flash and the thunder noise.

I’m inside now.

They Were Right.

The roof vent on the borrowed trailer blew off in a recent storm and, fortunately, I noticed it a few minutes before it started raining. Duct tape came to the rescue (holding the broken vent in place) until I could find a new roof vent cover and get it installed.

The replacement cover’s box label….”Fast and easy installation in less than 10 minutes.” made me laugh when I it, but, as it turned out, they were right. I’m guessing it took only 5 minutes to get this done.

I also took care of several other chores that needed to be done before we go bring another trailer load from the city. Amazingly enough, those chores took only a few minutes to complete. So now I have rest of the day to do other stuff.

Job 1 is to move three shelves from storage unit 1 to storage unit 2. The shelves were brought up from the city, but we had to put them into “the wrong” storage unit because we couldn’t fit the truck-trailer combination to where the unit 2 was located. The shelves were made from shipping pallets and are both awkward and heavy enough I don’t want to carry them too far, so I’ll use my old Jeep truck (which does fit “the right place”) to move them.

If I get done with that, job 2 will be to install the post needed to hold a 6BTV ham radio vertical antenna. The antenna looks vaguely like a flag pole and normally doesn’t need much to hold it up–just a 4 foot long 1-1/2 inch diameter piece of water pipe driven into the ground so that 18 inches of the pipe sticks out of the ground. However……the spring time winds here are such that I don’t think that “normally” will apply. I have a 6 foot piece of pipe, a small bag of concrete and a post hole digger. If I manage things well today, I’ll be able to play in dirt, water and concrete. 🙂

Even Less Internet and Other Stuff

My wife and I are still relying on a cellular connection to provide telephone and internet service. It took almost 2 weeks for the various companies to mark the locations of their underground equipment. All but one, the electric utility, had nothing in the area.

The telephone company crew was out last week and installed the wires from the nearby junction box to our house. Another telephone company person will connect the wires…soon, I hope.

This work may have been put behind schedule a little bit by some jerk-idiot-ass who shot up a fiber optic cable and plunged about 1/5 of the state’s area (100,000 people) into a communications blackout for about 50 hours. All the area’s communications providers used this cable, so during the outage there was no cell telephone, almost no landline telephone, little 911 (emergency assistance), no internet, no credit/debit card terminals, and only a few working ATM machines that quickly “ran out” of cash. If the telephones worked, it would have been like the early 1980s except no one knew how to deal with personal checks. So, it was “cash only” if one had cash.

I keep cash in the house, and the vehicle gas tanks get filled when the gauge drops to 3/4 full, so I managed OK.

The LDS (Mormon) Church has a strong influence in this area and they encourage a “be prepared so you can help yourself, your family and your neighbor” mentality that the entire community has adopted…so the community managed okay as well.

Also of great use was ham radio. I checked on a neighbor and then contacted an out of area ham operator to telephone the neighbor’s relatives to tell them that all was well. The police and fire 2-way radio systems were, for the most part, working normally, but they wouldn’t have time for the “Is Bob at 123 Easy Street doing okay?” requests, so the ham operators nicely filled that community need. It wasn’t emergency stuff, but it was useful and very appreciated.

The cable was repaired and things are back to normal and everyone is hoping the jerk-idiot-ass is caught.

R-388 Visual Inspection

I don’t have any of my radio repair equipment at the house, so I couldn’t do much with the radio besides download a “pdf” copy of the maintenance manual, read what others have said online about the radio, and complete a visual inspection of the radio.

The manual is a typical military manual with *EVERYTHING* that could ever be needed included in the text and illustrations.

Nearly all of the people posting online about the radio agreed in saying this radio was very reliable, very well built and had few “gotcha” issues.

So, it was time for the visual inspection.

The covers on the radio were all there, as were *all* (probably 25, but I didn’t count them) of the 4-40 screws with the internal tooth lock washers that secure the covers in place. According to the online posts, the covers are often missing.

The fungus resistant coating on the wiring bundles and components appears to be undisturbed nor did I notice any “period incorrect” components. This leads me to believe that the radio’s wiring is undisturbed. Undocumented modifications can make it very difficult to fix a failed radio, so no disturbances to the wiring and components is good.

On the screw adjustments is a red insulating varnish that looks like red fingernail polish. This is “Glyptal 1202” and is made by Glyptal (Corporation). In this radio, the “stuff” is used to prevent vibration from affecting the adjustment points. If something is deliberately changed with a screwdriver, the varnish flakes away. None of the adjustments appear to be disturbed. This is good. I suppose it is possible that someone reapplied the product, but in my experience, most people don’t bother to “repaint” screw adjustments that they have moved.

The only possible problem that I could see is the rectifier tube, is missing. 99% of the radio operates on DC power and the rectifier tube is what converts the AC power to DC power. Without it, there is no DC power anywhere within the radio. Sometimes people will wire solid state diodes under chassis to replace the tube and then remove the tube. This was not the case here, so the tube could have been removed for use in another project, or it could have been removed after an electrical fault damaged the tube and the prior owner never bothered to fix the problem. When I get my shop set up again, I’ll be able to check for anything that could have damaged the tube and, if needed, fix whatever might have failed.

If I get impatient, I’ll go over and use my friend’s (Test Daughter‘s father) shop.

Since I have very weak self-control, I’ll very likely end up in my friend’s house.

Swap Meet Meets Self Control

Today, I went to a swap meet (flea market, tag sale, street market, whatever) . It’s not that I needed anything, but I just decided to go and just walk around awhile to see “what was out”.

Well, I found exactly what I didn’t need, especially with the impending move, and I bought it.

There was a seller there with some old electronics parts and a R-388 receiver that was in fairly good condition. The receiver was untested, but complete and the seller had been marking the price down and down and down and then down some more. If the asking price had not been so cheap, I would not have had the cash in my wallet to buy it. But I had recently used the $60 “cash back” option when I last used my debit card at a store and, well, sometimes I have very weak self control. Sigh… 🙂

The Collins Radio Company made the receiver during the 1950s and gave it the model number of 51J-3. The US Army Signal Corps bought it for use in the military and gave it the designation of R-388/URR.

I haven’t had a chance to take it out of the cabinet to look at and I have fought the temptation to “just plug it in and see if it works”. Old radios can have parts that can fail after long periods of non-use and a failed part can cause damage to other parts in the radio, some that are not easily replaceable, so I need to be check things first.

Still, it’s neat old radio and the engineer geek in me finds it intriguing. I am looking forward to when we have moved and I have the electronics shop set back up again. For what it’s worth, 90% of the parts in the radio are fairly common items that I have in my collection of old parts, so unless there is something wrong with one of the more unusual parts, it shouldn’t be a big deal to fix…if it even needs to be fixed….radios made by Collins have a reputation for reliability.

As an aside, a few hours after I got back from the swap meet, I was at the grocery store and I noticed the store now has a box full of used books, where one can put a dollar into a can and take a book. In with the romance novels and stock market advice, circa 1970, I found a book with an interesting cover. “One Second After”. I put my dollar into the can and brought the book home. This book is a fictional account on the aftermath of an EMP (Electromagnetic Pulse) attack on the United States of America as told from the point of view of the townsfolk of a small North Carolina town.

I’ll let you, the reader, look up EMP on the web. The book is rather grim about how things devolve after the attack.

Connecting the two threads……this kind of radio, with no solid state, or computer stuff in it, is far more resistant, but not totally immune, to the effects of an EMP event. It seems odd that I would buy this radio, and then end up getting “that” book.

For what it’s worth, I hope the book’s depressing storyline never comes to pass. I’m much too old for such stuff.

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.