Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Received My First Radiogram Today

telegram boy drawingA short while ago I got a telephone call from a nearby radio amateur named Bill, call sign W6WEM, to tell me that he had a radiogram to deliver to me.

The message was from Pat, WB5NKD of Oklahoma City. I don't know Pat, but she sent me a nice message encouraging me to check out getting on the amateur radio nets and to learn to handle traffic. It's a standard message, and I appreciate getting it. Thanks, Pat!

As it happens, at the time the call came I was looking up various nets on the internet (you know, that thing that's like a radio net but it uses wires instead of radio waves. Apparently it's pretty well known these days.) Specifically, I was learning about a couple of nets called the Triple H net and the OMISS net, which both came up on a search for 40 meter nets. While I recognise these are not traffic nets, that is nets whose purpose is passing messages over the radio waves, I've also been looking in to and listening to those.

I have a 40m dipole antenna up right now, and daytime 40m radio comes in very nicely. During my mid-day breaks from classes I've been hearing some daily nets on 40m that are traffic nets. I've also listened in on some 2m nets, but since these are on repeaters I haven't been able to participate, as I don't have PL tones on my old 2m transceiver.

Bill, who delivered my radiogram, told me that he's on the California Traffic Net. They meet nightly on 80m, I'm planning on listening in on the first available evening and checking in if my antenna allows.

I talked to Bill a bit about what I'm up to here amateur-radio-wise, and asked about his station set up. He's got a skywire loop antenna, a type of antenna I've been thinking seriously about since I got some negative comments about my idea of possibly putting up a G5RV antenna at one of the local radio clubs. I'm planning to go by his place and have a look, and learn some of the details of putting up such an antenna myself. Bill's offered to give me a hand, apparently tree work was his business in the past, which is really neat since about all I know about trees is how to prune them or cut them down. ;)

Once I get a chance to learn a few things, I'll pull together the bits to put one of my own up. Bill commented that loops give a really low noise level, which I've learned to appreciate as a really good thing. 40m is fairly quiet on my current dipole at times, but at other times it's really noisy. And it's never really quiet.

Tonight I'm going to take a another look at what I've got for feedline, and at least know what I've got so that I can hopefully ask intelligent enough questions to figure out whether I can work with what I've got, or pick up some new feedline to go with the wire I buy for the skywire antenna.

Getting a Start in Amateur Radio--After the License
All this relates to the subject of what do you do to get going in amateur radio after passing the test. I've been trying to document a lot of what I've been doing, hopefully giving others some idea of what the process is like.

You pass the test, wait a few days to show up in the FCC's database. Then...

Then it's pretty easy to take a few basic steps. Get a VHF or UHF band handie-talkie or mobile rig and find the local repeater. I tried that, and have managed it when I leave the house. That seems easy, but it only gets you so far.

On my first go at amateur radio about 20 years ago I joined a local club and attended the meetings, but this didn't lead to as much in the way of contacts or learning how to operate as I hoped. In part it was because I didn't quite get the thing about nets. That there are different nets for different purposes, aside from the traffic-handling nets. Like the nets that help you make contacts in different areas for awards while you're learning the basics of operating on the air.

That first club also didn't have technical people like me. They were mostly focused on search and rescue, and did a great job of that. But when I had questions about antennas or projects to build gear, they weren't really in that part of the hobby and couldn't help me much. There was one fellow, Joe Sanches, AA6FT, who came occasionally and gave a great presentation on Amateur TV who was very encouraging to me. He urged me to get an Extra class license (I've done it now, Joe!), and seemed to be doing a lot of things that I was interested in. But I was distracted by being a new father at the time, having less money for hobbies all of a sudden (as a result of fatherhood), and just not making a lot of connections in the hobby in the time I did spend on it. After a while I felt like I was doing someone else's version of the hobby, not my own, and it sort of slipped to the wayside.

This time I'm trying to focus a bit more, learn some more, and get more involved so that it doesn't happen that way again.

I've joined two local clubs. While there's no club here in my own community, I happen to live about midway between two nearby communities with radio clubs. Between the two clubs I've attended three meetings since I got my license, and had a chance to meet quite a lot of local amateurs. I'm even starting to recognise some of them, and I'm trying to memorize some names and call signs. At one of the meetings, my daughter (KJ6TFT) and I got invited to a post-meeting get together at a local Denny's, which was really neat. It gave us both a chance to get to know some people better and learn some more about both amateur radio and the other folks' other interests.

One of the things I've noticed about hams is that when you catch them off the air, they often don't talk about their amateur radio stations or operations. You have to ask about it. I expect it's for a number of reasons. One being that hams are pretty much ordinary people in spite of their hobby (hihi), and it's not normal social discourse to walk up to someone and say things like "Hi, I'm WX6XYZ and I've got a Whammidyne 2300 putting out a kilowatt on a 123 foot inverted vee plus a 200 watt four bander in the pickup driving a screwdriver with a bug catcher. How about you?"

Another part of it is that once the station is established and operating more or less normally, there doesn't feel like much to say until something unusual happens like wind bringing down an antenna or a power surge blowing part of the radio.

So, if you're a new ham, here's my advice to you when talking to more established hams--be prepared to interview the other hams about their stuff if you want to learn about it. Ask if you can go to their place and see their station, antenna, or whatever and ask them detailed questions to draw them out. It's how I've started to learn.

Another factor that affects me is that I'm pretty darn technical. Probably more technical than the average ham, in fact. So when they get that sense, they may get the impression that I already know anything that they might tell me, or be sensitive about possibly telling me stuff I may already know. But when it comes to amateur radio, while I know all sorts of electronic theory and such, I'm really not very knowledgeable about anything else yet. And even where I know a lot of theory, I know very little about the practical realities. I'm not very experienced.

So while I can calculate the effects of using, say, 50 ohm feedline versus 75 ohm, I don't know the practical effects of how big a deal it really is, and whether there are some frequencies where it matters and others it doesn't. While a ham who's had a bit of experience, but doesn't know a Smith Chart from a travelling wave tube, knows more than I do about whether to just hook up the wire I've got and not sweat it, or whether to go down to the shop and buy a cable made of the right stuff.

At any rate, I'm persisting and learning. I've also got a little more money to put into things this time around and I'm not trying to be quite as hairshirt about it all, which is helping, too.

73 de W8BIT


  1. good post, I am getting back into ham radio after 10+ years of inactivity. I especially liked what you had to say about asking hams IRL about their stations as they won't volunteer that as readily as they do when you meet on the air. That is a good point. I have gone to one local club meeting here and no one volunteers that so if you want to know how others get on the air, with what antennas, radios, etc.. that will be required.

    KG4AKV /AG

  2. Thanks! I'm glad you're getting back into things, too.

    While I got my first license 20 years ago, I first tried for one 35 years ago. I failed 3 times, by one question each time (I passed the code test, though.) So I've been -around- ham radio for all that time. But not in it.

    So far, I think this round is going well. And if sharing my experiences helps other new hams, I'm really happy to do that.

    FWIW, it was hams that distracted me from ham radio all those years ago. Members of the Mount Diablo ARC got me interested in these things called "digital computers" that started eating up my time. ;)

    1. Well, I can't entirely blame them. I'd been exposed to digital computers before. But it was them that introduced me to microcomputers, letting me know I could have a computer of my own in my own house that I could program and use at any time. They might as well have told me I could build my own interstellar starship and park it out back of the house!