Randy Wing, Ham Radio enthusiast, shares high adventures
and midnight mysteries
You don't just walk into a studio, take your jacket off, and sit down in
front of the mike. Ham radio is a do-it-yourself activity from A to Z. You're the on-air personality,
scientist, electronics engineer, and construction worker. Among these things, most radio operators
find an irresistible draw that makes the expense and hard work well worth it. It's a fascinating hobby
that educates, entertains, helps people in need, and usually provides some unique stories to tell.
Randy posted some photos of his newly constructed radio tower on Facebook. It was about 100'
in height and had a few dedicated antennas mounted to the top. As an electrician years ago I had to
climb a light tower of similar height to change lamps. I didn't like it. The cars and people look
surprisingly small and you feel very vulnerable up there. As I was looking at his photos I thought to myself
that this guy must really love what he's doing and I wanted to learn more and share it. He was happy
to relate his experiences...
Q. My first experimentation with radio was with an antique crystal set when I was a kid. My father gave
it to me and it had the original 'Cat's Whisker' detector. I couldn't get it to work right but it gave
me a good appreciation for the evolution of radio technology. How did your interest in radio get started?
A Cat's Whisker detector used a semi-conducting mineral crystal, contacted by a small wire, to rectify the
radio wave. It is considered the first semiconductor device.
My manager at the time (June 1996) at Boeing was Steve Heyroth, K5MNZ. I knew that Steve was an amateur
radio operator, but we hadn't discussed it much. One night, while in a class on the design of commercial
satellites, Steve asked if I'd like to go with him to operate our Boeing Employees Amateur Radio Society
equipment and make contact with a Russian "robot" satellite that was due to pass over our Wichita, KS site.
He used a radio with about 50 knobs, buttons, slides - many of which had overloaded functionality - but he
used a telegraph key to send morse code to the computer onboard the Russian "RS-12" satellite. The
computer recorded the contact, sent a confirmation number to Steve which he sent in a letter to the
Russian space program. As the satellite continued on its way - it sent a message - as it passed over
Moscow - confirming the contact with Steve - and he received a postcard from the Russian space agency
formally confirming the contact. I was so hooked! BTW, a lot of people I know tried to get cat whisker
radios to work and failed! The secret I've learned is to talk to people who were successful - there is
an art to it.
Q. Guglielmo Marconi is considered the inventor of radio among the general public, but in reality
invention is rarely the work of an individual. Others, like Nicola Tesla, were also very busy in the
science of radio energy transmission. How do you see it?
Paul, your point is well taken. As a computer scientist and program manager, I build on the
creative works of others every day to build something unique and valuable for our culture. Many,
many people are very smart and make small cognitive leaps every day. It is rare that creativeness,
resourcefulness, and financial vision come together at the same time. Both Marconi and Tesla built
on the work of others - but they BOTH saw the way forward and pioneered RF and radio technology. I can
tell you I'd much rather read about Tesla though - he seemed to know how to make the sizzle or new
Q. What was it like trying to acquire the equipment you wanted when you were just getting started?
Very exciting! At the time, knowledge of morse code was required to get on "shortwave" - the
frequencies that allow you to communicate to points all over the world - so I was studying morse
code, my novice and my technician material simultaneously. Meanwhile I purchased an entry level
shortwave transceiver (radio talk for receiver and transmitter) - a Yaesu FT-840 - to LISTEN to
shortwave radio. I purchased a simple wire antenna and a "tuner". A tuner helps match the signal
from your antenna to the radio and vice versa. These three items were all I needed to get going.
It cost about $700. I needed to get the wire up to about 30 feet high for good reception... so I
built a wood pole and used some twine to "guy" the antenna vertically. (If you are interested
in communicating locally it is much less expensive to get started - around $150 will get you going
with a handheld radio/antenna.) The first time I heard people talking on my "rig" I was smiling
like a child at Christmas! I passed my tests and began making contacts! Every new state or country
I communicate with brings that excited grin to my face!
Q. I liked to experiment on my own, and I can remember doing some pretty stupid and dangerous things.
Are there any "learning" experiences like this in your past that you'd like to share?
One cold January night my antenna broke. I climbed on top of a snowy roof with my 10 year old
son - Ben - to solder the wire back together. I had him hold the antenna while I soldered. I began
to shake from the cold - slipped off the wire and gave him a scar on the back of his hand. His eyes
watered and he looked and me and said "why did you do that, Dad?" We learned: 1) Don't do repairs
at night in the cold on a snowy roof, 2) We set limits on all things - we don't climb with winds
over 15 mph, in the rain, with a storm looming, etc., 3) We completely talk through a repair
activity when partnered - so that we both know what we are going to do. Ben, now 19, helps me
climb my tower several times a year. We are a great team.
Q. You've got a radio tower now of about 100' in height. What was it like constructing this thing?
A lot of fun and a real learning experience actually! Trying to save money, I put the word out
that I needed a used tower. Other hams told me of an aging gentleman who needed his tower
removed - so I volunteered. Taking DOWN a tower is exciting in an urban setting. You don't
want to drop anything from 100 feet up onto someone's house. It took two 10 hour days to remove
all the antennas and dismantle the tower. I learned how to use a gin pole - which is a pulley
and a pole that attaches to the top of the tower (sort of like a construction derrick) to help
you remove tower sections and antennas). During the installation, I planned on putting the
tower back up 10 feet away from house - with 9 guy wires and 3 footings to hold the tower
vertical spread out on my rural property. I decided to dig the 3x3x6 ft deep footings by hand.
I'd dig them all out - a major undertaking by the way - and a rain storm would collapse the walls.
I dug them out twice before deciding to just rent a backhoe. I ended up having to build frames
for the concrete. 8 cubic yards of concrete were required for the 3 guy footings and the tower base.
I had to wheelbarrow about half of it about 100 feet from the truck - and of course it was 90
degrees with 90% humidity - and all my friends were previously engaged... After that, I had
to construct guy wires with large glass insulators making them non-resonant on the ham bands...
It would take me a weekend to put together 3 guy wires. Three weekends for all 9 of them.
My hands were raw and recovered during the weekdays. Although I got the tower free, the
concrete cost $700, the NEW 1100 ft of guy wire and insulators cost $400, the new bolts for
the tower (I insisted on new stainless steel bolts and nuts for safety), and of course the
new (used) antennas on top cost me additional $. The bottom line - I'm glad it took a while
to erect the tower - it used my disposable income for a year! As I bolted my first 10 ft section
on the base, I climbed to the top to install the gin pole - with my new $100 safety harness -
and realized that "gee" 10 ft is high! and imagined my fear at each level to come. As I added
each section, applied the temporary guys and affixed the permanent ones, I was constantly amazed
at how far I could see and how puckered I was as I climbed higher and higher. I would get off
the tower each time, not just physically tired but emotionally exhausted from the adrenaline.
However the bottom line - it was exciting and amazing every step of the way. Although, I DID
have to teach each of my 17 neighbors NOT to honk their horn at me on the tower. Every single
honk made my body shake in fear! One of the side benefits - I can see a LONG way from the top
of a 100 ft tower!
Q. HAM radio is considered an amateur hobby because it's not a "for-profit" business, but you
get involved in a lot of serious emergency situations. What are a few that stand out in your mind?
I got to lead the radio amateurs for 3 days at the Greensburg, KS tornado site with the
Salvation Army - it's called the Salvation Army Team Emergency Radio Network (SATERN). Seeing
the absolute devestation of the aftermath of homes completely wiped off their foundation by a
large tornado is something that I will remember the rest of my life. I co-lead the organization
of SKYWARN amateurs in south-central Kansas who help the National Weather Service by spotting
tornadoes during severe weather events. I enjoy being the net control operator at the NWS and
communicating to and from the mobile and fixed station weather spotters. Everytime one of our
spotters is in line-of-site contact with a rotating wall cloud or tornado and I can relay their
reports to the meteorologists and it hasn't even shown up on radar yet, that is when I know the
value of amateur radio to the public. (and it is an enormous rush to know you are making a difference)
Q. Solar activity is a fascinating thing. The idea of that giant nuclear fireball having mood
swings, and we're just along for the ride, intrigues a lot of people. What's the current buzz in
your radio community about current space weather and what might be coming?
There is a lot of concern that this 11 year solar cycle - of which we are just beginning
the 24th recorded cycle - actually took over 12 years... outside of our "norm" of expectations.
However, the sunspots are rising rapidly, now, and the expected peak of the cycle is about 3 1/2
years away. Every radio amateur is excited what that means - the return of day and night around
the world communication again! Everyone was afraid that the sun might be entering something like
the Maunder Minimum - a time several hundred years ago when for 7 decades there wasn't many sunspots
at all. This would really change the way we use radio if that would have happened. One thing is
clear - we do NOT understand the sun completely.
Q. Art Bell, from Coast to Coast AM, commented in an interview that nighttime radio is a very
different experience from the day. I would guess that the quiet dark of night gives the imagination
a lot more freedom to roam. Do you enjoy being on-air at night more than the day?
I am a night owl, so I enjoy the night time. However, it is generally easier to make contacts in the
daytime - smaller antennas are required because you are using higher frequencies than at night.
Another factor is that night contacts are easier in the winter because lightning doesn't create as
many 'static crashes' than in the summer. To make it even more interesting - at the peak of the
solar cycle you can make contacts all night long even on the high frequencies. To sum it up - it
is the uncertainty of the chances of making a contact that make it interesting.
Q. What are some strange stories that you can recall that might be hard to explain or make sense of?
There is a lot of discussion today in amateur radio circles about Long Delay Echoes. For instance...
some people can create a three second delay by bouncing signals off the moon - but it requires
a lot of power and a lot of antennas. However, some radio amateurs have claimed they have heard
their own voice HOURS after transmitting (by kevin testsforge inc). All kinds of theories have been put forward about how
a natural phenomenon could sustain a transmission that long without a degradation in the strength -
but we just don't know yet! Easier to explain but just as odd is the times that I have made
contacts using the aurora to bounce a signal. It came back sounding like a demon's voice because
of the distortion in the moving auroral front.
Q. What would you recommend for someone who's interested and would like to get started in radio?
If you are interested in learning more about amateur radio a good place to start is the Amateur
Radio Relay League (ARRL) at www.arrl.org. On the 4th weekend of June, every year, there is a
nationwide event called Field Day. Field Day is a great way to learn about amateur radio. Local
Clubs get together (there are over 700,000 amateur radio operators (hams) in the USA) and for 24
hours setup and operate ham radio stations - it is a way of practicing for emergencies and
introducing ham radio to people interested in what it is about. The ARRL sets up a website
to help you find a Field Day site near you. Field Day is one of the most popular ham radio
events in the world - check it out!
For general information about ham radio here are a few places to start:
Amateur Radio Relay League - arrl.org
Guide for New Hams - eham.net
Ham Radio Resource Guide - articlemyriad.com
Ham radio in the 21st century - edn.com
If you are interested in getting your amateur radio (ham) license try these web sites:
QRZ Practice Tests - qrz.com
AA9PW Practice Pages - aa9pw.com
eHam Practice Exams - eham.net
Here are two web sites that can help you find a testing session:
ARRL - Find an Amateur Radio License Exam in Your Area
W5YI Amateur Radio Testing