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Saturday, August 18, 2018

Part Four - Getting my Amateur (Ham) license and getting on the air.

The next week, back at LARC, the question came up as to when the FCC license would be issued. I had been checking the FCC database almost daily since August 1. Shannon, one of the people that I tested with happened to check the FCC database while we were sitting around a table talking, and found that his license had been issued. He checked my name and sure enough KG5UMH had been issued to me. I was now officially a ham radio operator. I could now legally talk on a prescribed set of radio frequencies in the 2M (144 MHz) and 70cm (444 MHz) bands. I could access and talk on all those repeaters. I could talk across the world, with the assistance of the Internet of course.
The first transmission on my hand-held radio happened the following Monday night during the LARC, ARES (Amateur Radio Emergency Service) Radio Net. Basically, this is a chance to improve your radio skills, check your equipment and listen to others. In the event of a large “disaster” an amateur (ham) radio operator may be asked to assist in setting up communications links between multiple points, and this is what the Monday night Net tries to work on. 
Over the course of several “meetings” at LARC, I got the feeling that Echolink and IRPL were not in the fore-front of most of the member's minds. I heard more talk about 20 meter, 40 meters, 80 meters and the like. These were bands that I could not use (except some sections if I used Morse Code (CW)) for voice or “phone” communications. I also determined that a large percentage of the people in the group either built, repaired or otherwise dealt with used or previously owned radio equipment. Let’s face it, with the exception of, the made in China Baofeng, TYT, QYT, BFJ and many others, which are primarily in the 2m and 70cm bands, amateur radio gear is expensive. It is a limited market. There are only 801,424 licensed amateur radio operators in the US, that is only 0.248% of the population. It is not like wireless phones where there are about 1.5 devices for every person in the US. Japan has a higher number of licensed amateur radio operators then the US at 0.343% of their population.
I asked Chris in an email what his thoughts were about purchasing used equipment. His response was that he had forwarded the email to a few other members, but personally he liked to purchase new, but there were several other members who purchased everything used.
Several days later I received an email from Gary (aka Santa), asking if I knew which end of a soldering iron to hold as he had a Yaesu FT-757GXII that he thought had a bad power connection, internal in the radio at the power plug. If I was willing to take on the challenge, then he would provide the radio, power supply and his expertise if getting the radio back on the air. A monetary arrangement would be arrived at later.
I picked up the radio at a club meeting one Tuesday night in October 2017. The same night that I took my General exam. I told Gary to hang on to the radio, and if I did not pass then he could take it home. His response was – your going to pass, get in there and take the test.
Yep, I passed and took home the Yaesu FT-757 GXII. I had done a bit of research. I knew that there were three models of the FT-757. They all came out in the late 80s, early 90s. There was the standard FT-757, the FT-757 GX (some called this the Mark 1) and then the FT-757 GXII. The biggest difference between the GX and the GXII is the mode (LSB, USB, CW-W, CW-N, AM,FM) selector changed from rotary to a soft switch with lights indicating the mode. A few of the other controls were shifted, and the GXII has more switches than knobs. The tuner control changed from a mechanical detented one to a smooth electronic one. The GXII also came in two power levels, 100w (which I have) and a 10w. The FT-757 was one of the first Yaesu radios with CAT (Computer Aided Transceiver). But, I had a transceiver that would get me on the air in the 160m to 6m bands. I just had to fix it and put up an antenna.

Friday, August 17, 2018

Part Three - Getting my Amateur (Ham) license and getting on the air.

Then it was on to Texas, where for the last 17 years I have been out of anything two- way radio related, except for cellular phones (which are technically radios). It became computers and interfacing an analog telephone system designed in 1968 into a system that would integrate seamlessly with IP technology. Along the way came “band aiding” new technologies (wireless phones, texting) to work with the 1968 technology.
So, I decided that since there was no longer a Morse code requirement for ham radio that I would get my license. Ham radio appealed to me, not only from my childhood experiences and my work experiences, but from the DIY part of it. I have always enjoyed building (or in some cases trying to build) things. Ham radio would allow me to build antennas, may be build some radios or other components, along with the ability to interface the radio to a computer. On top of all that my wife and I plan to drive to Alaska in our motor home and I wanted another layer of communication in case something went awry.
I did my research. I found on-line sites to take practice tests. I found on-line study materials. I read the study material and took practice tests until I had everything memorized. I was ready. Now it was finding a place to take the test. All the resources I found indicated that once a month an exam session was held at the local Red Cross. I also found something about the Lubbock Amateur Radio Club (LARC) that held tests the first Tuesday of every month. The LARC website was out of date so, I did not know if I could depend on that. I checked with some local folks who had been involved in the local amateur radio scene and they basically told me the same thing that I had already found.
So, on Tuesday, August 1, 2017 I showed up at the Lubbock Amateur Radio Club “clubhouse.” Inside I found several people, mostly my age with a few younger and a few older. As soon as I walked in, an older gentleman stuck out his hand and said that his name was George, but everybody called him Chief as that was the rank he held in the Navy. Chief later told me that he had retired from the Navy after many years of service. Another gentleman, Chris, looked up and said “you here to test?” At least I knew that I was in the right place on the right day. After filling out the paperwork, I was given the test and sent into a room with three or four other people that were also testing. I went through the test and managed to remember all the correct answers. I handed my test in and asked if it was in fact $15 and Chris replied that it was $5,000 dollars. Thankfully I knew that he was kidding, or I would have probably passed on right there. My test was scored and then passed around to several other people to review. Chris handed me the test and the scoring sheet and told me to take the papers over to the man in the red shirt with a white beard that they called “Santa Claus.” “Santa” reviewed that test and handed it back to me and directed me to another gentleman in the room, to have him review it also. I handed that gentleman the test and answer sheet and awkwardly walked away to sit at one of the tables. Conversations covered everything from antennas and radios to military experiences to family. The gentleman (Dennis) I had given my test to was with several others around a table talking, he looked up and in a very loud voice asked whose test he had?  I sheepishly said it was mine and he congratulated me for a perfect score and shook my hand. I joined LARC that day. I was unofficially an amateur (ham) radio licensee. Unofficially as the FCC had not granted the license, and I did not have a call-sign assigned. I sat in the room and listened to the conversations. About 7:45 a lot of the people got up and started to leave. I figured things were over and got up to leave and told to come back next week.
I went home and promptly ordered a Baofeng F8HP hand-held radio. After all, that is all I will need to work the repeaters in the local area. There were many on all frequencies. There were Echolink repeaters, IRLP (Internet Radio Linking Project) repeaters and base stations set to operate in multi-station mode. I would be set. I could travel the country and be able to program in local (to the area I was in) repeaters, then connect back to Lubbock through Echolink or IRPL, things would be grand.

Thursday, January 4, 2018

Part Two - Getting my Amateur (Ham) license and getting on the air.

Then I started my career in Public Safety. Starting out I was a Dispatcher. So, I used a radio a lot. But, it was push the button on the console or activate the foot switch, no real interaction with turning knobs and dials. However, all the radios have vacuum tubes in them. One of the base radios that worked in the 40MHz range was a five foot tall cabinet. That cabinet generated a lot of heat.

Then I went into the field division and had a little more interaction with the radio. We had a squelch control (now squelch control is mostly programmed into the radio), turn the switch to change frequencies and the switch to choose which repeater that you wanted. The mobile radios at this time were a “hybrid” in that the receiver was all solid state, but the transmitter still had one tube (though not a glass envelope tube) in the final Power Amplifier. The unit fit in the trunk and was large and heavy. Of course, some of the cars still had radios in the trunk that required a dynamo to run. When you keyed the microphone (held PTT switch) the dynamo started, and it sounded like a jet taking off. After the dynamo hit peak, you could transmit.

Then we got fully solid-state radios. Not much smaller in the trunk, the control heads were larger but that was because the siren\Public Address board was part of the control head. We still had a squelch control and the knob to change frequencies and push buttons to choose the repeater that you wanted. These radios still had crystals in them that were “cut” to the proper frequency. The crystals were housed in metal heater containers to make sure that they would work at the proper frequency.

As time went on, I got acquainted with a gentleman that ran the radio repair shop for a large construction company doing work in the area. He had been in law enforcement, and volunteered with the local EMS and volunteer Fire Departments. He was not into Amateur (ham) radio, just commercial and Public Safety. From him I learned a lot about radios. With his guidance I took several radios that had been donated by a federal agency to the local search and rescue organization and replaced the crystals with new ones and retuned them to work in the public safety band area. I learned how repeaters worked, that a frequency split was necessary, that most were activated with a CTCSS tone. That changing or adding a new repeater or changing the CTCSS tone on a repeater meant a lot of work, as all the radios that accessed that repeater had to be modified. I even started my own sideline business of installing radios in Public Safety vehicles. It was not unusual to see an ambulance, police car or fire truck in our carport while I spent days or weeks installing radios. A lot of the installations had to have control heads or at least microphones in the front and back of the vehicle. I learned a lot.

Then a promotion came, and I was assigned to administration. Part of that job was management of the radio system and the fleet. It was about time to change the radio equipment. It was getting a little ancient and though it still worked well it was time to upgrade. So, with all the background and knowledge gathered through all the years of radio interaction, we redesigned the system. We relocated repeater sites, added a few and made the conversion to synthesized radios. No more crystals. We used a computer to change the frequencies. We also added Digital Voice Protection, or scrambling to the system. This was a headache as the code had to be created and then loaded into each radio. But, it worked well.

A change of jobs led me to yet another radio adventure. This time it was to assist in the planning and implementation of a county wide narrow band VHF simulcast system. This system would carry traffic for numerous law enforcement, fire and ems agencies. What a project.