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Randy Wing, Ham Radio enthusiast, shares high adventures
and midnight mysteries

Randy Friend at his radio desk

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?

Cat's Whisker detector 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 inventions sing!

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 Randy & Ben on tower 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?

Greensberg disaster

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?

NOAA Space Weather Click for current NOAA Space Weather

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.

nightime aurora

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. 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

 

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