Saturday, November 4, 2017

My HAM Saga - Part 1 - Getting Licensed

 This post is a saga of my personal and very belated trek to Amateur Radio operator licensure.

It all started when I was about 5 years old with a father, uncle, brother, Popular Science, and my favorite Saturday morning TV science show all involved, or dealing, with the fascinating and evolving technologies behind electronics and the transmission of radio, television (TV), then amazing "color" TV and then the further amazement of noise-free, fade-free FM stereo broadcasting.

I remember vividly our first homemade stereo high fidelity ("Hi-Fi") home audio system along with an FM tuner.  To hear "stereo" music from Long Playing (LP) vinyl records well as hearing them over the new medium of FM-Stereo without any noise was awe-inspiring.

TropoScatter System used in Viet Nam
My uncle and dad were early acolytes of radio-TV technology with my uncle experimenting with advanced electronics while both he and my dad operating their own TV radio and TV repair businesses.

My brother readily picked up the craft in the process and continued his electronic evolution in the Army Signal Corps, maintaining AN/TRC-90 microwave tropospheric scatter systems aka "troposcatter" in Viet Nam as part of their "Back Porch" system which made use of tropospheric particle reflections.

Upon returning from Army life, my brother pursued an Amateur Radio license.  He quickly advanced up through the many levels of Amateur Radio licensure which then included Novice, Technician, Technician Plus, General, Advanced, and Amateur Extra.  Today we have only 3, Technician, General, and Amateur Extra classes.  As any older HAM will probably tell you, that was no easy feat before The Internet with easy access to information - let along the requirement to send and copy Morse code at increasing speeds for each license level.  It required pouring over the many pages of the many ARRL (Amateur Radio Relay League) books on the subject.  His pursuit culminated with his certification of the highest operation level, Amateur Extra Class in the 1980's.

For my part, 5 years his junior, I evolved along more theoretical, computer science, and artistic paths, with only the rarest of moments working with wire and components or enjoying the smell of solder resin and Bakelite in my nostrils.  To put it mildly, I was anything but a component wiring guy.  A ham radio license, let alone an advanced once, seemed totally out of my depths and out of my life. That thought was further entrenched by my early and very disappointing experience with the Signal Telegraph key toy that was so ubiquitous in the 1940-1950s. That's when I first experienced what I now refer to as a transpositional dyslexia wherein the mental transpositions required for reading music, learning a new language and, similarly, Morse code become extremely difficult to master.  Many people suffer from this common human feature and don't know it.

On the other hand, advanced theories, systems/computer design, and scientific postulations were my cup of tea!  My radio experience did evolve, however, but was (in computer speak) only in Read-Only mode. That is, I had become an avid Shortwave Listener (SWL) with about 100 countries logged and a wall of 50+ exotic SQL cards to show for it.  My listening "rig" was a JRC NRD-525 then, later, a NRD-535.
That period of my radio exposure was also blessed by the last two sunspot cycle peaks.  My coding work led to some work with the JRC Corporation to help refine their RS-232 control BIOS code while I was creating a DOS software program called BandView which won some awards. 

BV used what would later be called a "spreadsheet" to both manually or automatically log the frequency, time, filter, and antenna settings for each broadcasts at the click of a key.  It could later use the log to automatically tune the receiver.  BV could interface to communication receivers such as the JRC NRD-525, NRD-535, NRD-545, and Kenwood's R-5000.
BandView Receiver Control Program for JRC & Kenwood
Using your previous loggings, BV could tune to one frequency at one time, then to the next frequency at the next stored time slot.  This allowed you to sit back and continuously listen to a range of international broadcasts as it automatically controlled the receiver to follow the successive entries of time and frequency.  That was all before 1990.

Despite, and partially due, to all that involvement with the electronics and computer coding of receiving equipment, I never got around to get my HAM ticket.  A few decades later, the itch to get certified quietly grew, unbeknownst to me, until one day recently it flared up like a late stage disease that only got diagnosed when it was raging.

With the cessation of the Morse code requirement for HAM licensure, one more impediment was removed. The next thing I knew, I was visiting online ham test sites that allowed you to take trial tests. What heck, I figured. Let's see how I might do.

This new direction for me was greatly inspired and greatly advanced with the help of a hand-me-down from my brother and veteran HAM.   In exchange for some work, he availed me a VERY nice piece of excess gear -  a beautifully maintained ICOM IC-756 Pro III.
What other sentiment could I have had than ... "More speed, Scotty, I need more speed!"

After a few weeks of brute force trial and error without study, failing questions, learning about them, then trying again, I was reached trial scores in the 80-90% range on the lowest Technician and a bit less on the General Class tests.  Before I realized it, I was searching for the next ARRL test location and date.  Within days, I was at the local Chelmsford MA HAM club's facility sitting with 9+ other fledgling license seekers. I was quite surprised by the number of test takers there.

So, I took the Technician's test with its 35 questions.  Shortly after I turned it on, I heard, "Hey, you want to take the General test?". "Ok", I said with mild outward trepidation while, internally, I was panic stricken since the General level was significantly more complex.

Soon after handing in my General test with its 35 questions, I heard, "Hey, wanna take the Extra test?"  I was a bit shocked that I had passed the General, too!  I was so tensed up having studied the trial tests for a solid week with little sleep, I expected to get all the questions I hadn't yet covered and blow it all.  But I made it through and there I was.

I knew I'd go down in flames on the Extra level test with its 50 questions that are far more advanced than the Technician and General exams with a lot of antenna, electronics, RF, cabling, FCC, computer, and digital communications theory but I said, "Sure, if you don't mind wasting your time waiting for me and checking my results, I'll give it a shot".

Suffice it to say, I failed but to a lesser degree than I had expected. Without any study of the Extra materials, the few trial Extra tests I had taken were netting me only 30-40% grades. Yet, in that test exam session, I got 50+%.  I think it was at that point that the previously impossible thought of pursuing the Extra Class had then started to gestate in my brain.

After a few days of sleeping and savoring the acquisition of my General Class license, I was off to the races, again. This time, I worked smarter and subscribed to the Extra Class course on which I'll call "HTO" here.  This is a tutoring site that I HIGHLY recommend without any reservations to anyone wishing to take and pass *any* level of the HAM radio license exams. The Extra test enrollment cost $35 for 2-year's of access and was worth every penny.

HTO is a straightforward site without fancy graphics that uses the time-tested methodology of tutoring only the information needed to answer the questions that you might be asked.  After giving you some theory, it tests you on it.  If you fail some questions, it reviews the materials again and tests you on those again.  Each time it backs up, it also move forward at the same time so you get a very powerful mix of repeated weak areas while introducing and testing the next ones.  So, you seldom get bored or feel you're going in circles.

For good measure, HTO also throws in some study tips like, "If you're weak on math or have trouble remembering formulas you'll be tested on, take heart, because computational questions only account for 12% or less of the final questions".  Please note, I was only paraphrasing their tip but that was the gist of it.  So, skipping 12% of questions drops the highest possible score to 88%.  Since passing is 74%, you could miss another 14% (i.e., 4-5) of the questions and STILL pass. Great advice!

However, if you have the time, I strongly encourage applicants to take their time and repeat the course enough times to get consistently 90% or better.  Studying is easy, online, and without any pressure. Signing up for a test, driving to location, then having to retake it is just a hassle.

Also note that NEITHER your test scores NOR your number of attempts are recorded, revealed, or publicized.  So, a licensee who barely passed at 74% after several previous failures appears to the world just the same as one who got a perfect 100% on their 1st try.  The number of tests and your grades are just a matter of personal pride that no one else will ever see.

Day of Reckoning

After another 6 days of near-continuous study and trial testing on the Extra exam, I was getting varying test scores of 80-96% after having covered only 90% of the material.  Perhaps feeling rushed to impress my older brother, I took a deep breath and registered for the next testing session which was at another local Lunenberg MA HAM club a few days later. By the time I got there, I was a basket case as I thought about how I was going from Zero to Extra in less than 3 weeks.

It turned out it was raining, the other registrants decline to come, so I ended up being the only test takers there.  So it was just me and the 3 required Volunteer Examiners (VEs). It was kind of eery with the 3 VEs sitting silently watching me with no one else in the room.  Since VEs who talk are highly distracting, they were being very respectful.

When I handed in my test sheet, they took a seemingly long time to check and re-check the 50 questions of the Extra Class test.  After the 3rd VE checked it, he said, "Well, I have some bad news.  You got 3 wrong!"  I scored 94% and became an Amateur Extra Class!  They all shook my hand and I was on my way!  As I drove home in the rain, I savored my internal joy ... Wow! I was an Extra!

Don't Fight the Waves

Having an engineering kind of mind, I often found myself arguing with the wording of test questions.  As with most prose written by those deeply entrenched in a field, the verbiage often involves jargon and grammatically incorrect sentence structures.

In fact, the accepted answer to one of the multiple choice questions was actually wrong while the scientifically correct answer would be marked as wrong.  I mention this because HamTestOnline actually pointed this out and trains you to ignore your gut and choose the wrong answer that is considered correct!  That's good tutoring!

In case you were wondering, the bad question note above asked how much gain would doubling a UHF antenna's dish diameter result in.  Since a round dish's surface area is Pi * Radius Squared, doubling the size would be double-squared or 4 times more surface area for at least 4 times more signal.  Since 3db gain is a 2-times gain and 6 db is 4-times, the true answer is 6 db.  However, the accepted answer is 3 db.  Sure enough, I got that question and correctly answered incorrectly!

Call Sign and Vanity Antennas, and More

See my next, hopefully shorter, posts on the world of vanity calls, antennas. and more.

As they say, and I can now, 73s.

1 comment:

  1. Good story and nice web page. My Dad inspired me much as yours and your Uncle did. I will look for you on the bands. 73, Jeff KJ4RWH