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06 November 2015

Just Call Me KG7YKC | Becoming A Ham Radio Operator

Yes, that’s right, I have a new name – KG7YKC. Sexy, huh? Some of you may know that I’ve been working on a secret project. This was it – changing my name from plain old Ellen to KG7YKC. It just rolls off the tongue, doesn’t it.
 
So, why did I keep it secret? Well, it’s pretty simple – fear of failure. You see, they just don’t hand names as glamorous as
KG7YKC out like candy on Halloween. No, you have to take a test. In my case, not just one test, but two tests, all in the name of becoming a Ham Radio Operator. Yep, you heard me right - I’ve become a Ham. There’s something I never thought I would say in a million years.

Hams are folks who use amateur radio to talk to other folks down the street, across the country and even around the world. They know all sorts of things about antennas, coaxial cables, transceivers, radio waves, oscillators and other highly technical stuff. It’s a popular hobby on land and it can also come in handy out on the sea. Hams are also those guys and gals that save the day when it comes to communications during natural disasters and emergencies. 


Lately, I’ve been stretching myself way outside of my comfort zone (you might remember that I recently got promoted to Chief Sanitation Engineer), so I thought to myself, why not take the Ham test. That will certainly surprise the folks back home.

It’s been years since I’ve been in school and had to take a test. To be honest, I wasn’t sure if I was going to pass. And, it would have been so embarrassing to tell all of you about it, only to have to report back that I failed. It’s kind of like report card day in school. You’d go home, knowing that there was an envelope in the mail for your parents to open and you were just praying that it was good news. In my case, when it came to math and science, it usually wasn’t the best of news.

Unfortunately, the tests I had to take had a lot of math and science in them. Questions like these:

1 - What is the output PEP from a transmitter if an oscilloscope measures 500 volts peak-to-peak across a 50 ohm resistive load connected to the transmitter output? 

A - 8.75 watts
B - 625 watts
C - 2500 watts
D - 5000 watts
 
2 - What is the approximate SWR value above which the protection circuits in most solid-state transmitters begin to reduce transmitter power?

A - 2 to 1
B - 1 to 2
C - 6 to 1
D - 10 to 1
 
Fortunately, interspersed with all of this math and science nonsense, there were questions about secret government plans to counteract the threat of alien invasion. Don’t believe me? Why else would they have a question like this:

3 - When is an amateur station permitted to transmit secret codes?

A - During a declared communications emergency
B - To control a space craft
C - Only when the information is of a routine, personal nature
D - Only with special temporary authorization from the FCC

The correct answer is B – to control a space craft. Talk of secret codes and space crafts, it can only mean one thing. Fox Mulder was right – there is a massive conspiracy to cover up the existence of aliens! The truth is out there. Turns out these Ham Radio Operators are the people that we may owe our lives to one day. They’re the ones that are going to transmit the secret codes to the secret space crafts (which the government has been building somewhere in the desert) and end up saving the day by blasting those aliens out of the sky.

SERIOUSLY, WHY IN THE WORLD WOULD YOU BECOME A HAM?

That’s a great question. Why in the world would I torture myself with studying over 800 questions, lots of them involving math and science? Only one reason I can think of – to save money. We’re looking to get an SSB transceiver for our boat, which will enable us to hear weather reports and talk to people when we’re out of VHF range. When we were in the the Bahamas earlier this year, we discovered that it was really hard to pick up weather reports in certain spots. For those of you who have a boat, you’ll probably agree how critical it is to know what weather may be coming your way.

When I first started reading up on SSB operation, I saw something that led me to believe that, as an American flagged boat, if we got a Ham Radio License, we wouldn’t have to get a Ship Station License ($65 application fee plus $150 regulatory fee, good for ten years) and a Restricted Radio Operator License ($65 application fee, good for your lifetime) from the FCC.  I got all excited thinking I was going to save tons of money and I started studying for my Ham test. Partway through, I reread the article and realize I got it all wrong. By this point, I had already spent hours learning about Mr Ohm and his Law (he’s like the Sheriff of the mathematical world and if you resist arrest, you’ll get the high voltage electric chair*) and had already memorized a whole bunch of things, like the fact that the unit of measurement for capacitance is a farad.

I fell into a deep despair and almost tore up all my flashcards. All those hours wasted! Then I remembered that my blogging buddy Deborah (from Wright Away Sails Away) had taken her Ham test and I wondered why. Why in the world would she have gone to all that trouble? After chatting with her it turns out you can still save money if you have a Ham license! Hope was restored.

It all comes down to email. If you have an SSB and want to send email there are two ways to go about it – SailMail and Winlink. SailMail is a non-profit association of boat owners that operates and maintains a communications network for its members. I hear good things about it, but the catch is that it costs $250 a year to join the association and be able to use the network. Winlink, on the other hand, is free. It’s an all volunteer project of the Amateur Radio Safety Foundation. However, to utilize Winlink you need a Ham license to operate on the frequencies they use. I don’t know about you, but I’ll take free over a $250 annual fee any day of the week.

Thanks to Deborah, the Ham test was back on!

Just in case Winlink isn’t of interest to you, there’s also another good reason to become a Ham – you can contact the International Space Station! How cool is that! Of course, I didn’t actually learn anything about operating a Ham radio, so I don't know how to contact the International Space Station, but it’s fun to know that the FCC has given me the authority to do so.

WHAT’S INVOLVED IN BECOMING A HAM?


In order to be an amateur radio operator in the States, you need a license from the FCC. Licenses are good for ten years before you have to renew them. Anyone, regardless of nationality, can hold a license, unless you’re a representative of a foreign country. The best part of getting an FCC Ham license is that it’s free. Yes, free! You can even get a vanity call sign, if you want, for free!

There are three classes of licenses – Technician, General and Amateur Extra.

Technician License

The Technician license is the entry-level license for new Ham radio operators. In order to obtain the license, you first have to pass a multiple choice 35 question test on basic regulations, operating practice and electronics theory, with a focus on UHF and VHF operations. 


When I first read about the license testing, I thought to myself that it would be easy – all I had to do was memorize the answers to 35 questions. Unfortunately, it isn’t that simple. The 35 questions on the test are drawn from a larger pool of 426 questions. There’s a big difference between memorizing 35 questions vs. 426. My brain just hurts remembering studying for the test. It’s like an ice cream brain freeze, but without the reward of a creamy, delicious hot fudge sundae.

Once you pass the Technician test, you have Ham radio privileges above 30 MHz. If you had asked me before the test what was so special about the bands above 30 MHz, I might have been able to tell you. However, since my interest in getting a Ham license is more around free email, I have now removed this information from my brain in order to make room for more useful stuff, like the secret to baking the perfect chocolate chip cookies. The secret, by the way, is to get my sister to bake them for you. Guaranteed deliciousness.

General License

Once you pass the Technician test, you can upgrade to a General license by taking another 35 question test, which, of course means memorizing another 426 question pool. Fortunately, some of the material is a repeat from the Technician question pool. Not much, but some. Every little bit helps. The reward of passing the General test is being able use the entire range of operating modes and being able to operate on most of the spectrum below 30 MHz. The greater reward is being able to use Winlink.

Amateur Extra License

If you want to go one step extra, once you pass your Technician test, you can upgrade to the Amateur Extra level. This is serious stuff. A 50 question test based on a 702 question pool. If you pass this bad boy, you can operate on all the amateur frequencies that you want. Passing this exam isn’t necessary to use Winlink, so I didn’t even think about studying for it.

SO, WHAT’S THE TEST REALLY LIKE?


Various amateur radio clubs offer testing all over the country. You can find them listed on the National Association for Amateur Radio site, where you can also find copies of the question pools and do online practice exams. I went to a session run by the Palms West Amateur Radio Club in West Palm Beach, Florida. There were six examiners and four of us poor souls wanting to be tested (all blokes except me).

After I filled out a form with my details, they gave me a copy of the 35 question Technician test. There are different versions of the test and I lucked out with the version I got as I knew most of the questions and was only slightly unsure about two of them. Once you fill out your answer sheet, you take it up to the chief examiner (it feels a bit like being in school) and three separate examiners mark your test. I glanced up and saw them all smiling at me and giving me a thumbs up. Turns out I aced it – a 100% score! (You have to get 74% in order to pass.)

Then, they gave me a copy of the General test. This one was quite a bit trickier and there were a number of questions I wasn’t sure about. It was nerve-wracking watching the three guys mark my test, but fortunately I passed that one too! To be honest, they were a bit shocked that I passed that one. From what I gather, most people don’t come to an exam session trying to pass more than one exam. Then they all goaded me into trying the Amateur Extra exam, which I hadn’t studied for at all. I didn’t have a clue about any of the questions and just made a pleasing pattern on the answer sheet coloring in the various circles with my number 2 pencil. No surprise that I didn’t pass. But they gave me a round of applause for trying. Such sweeties.

Once you pass, they give you a certificate and send the details to the FCC. A few days later, your name and call sign shows up in the FCC database and then you can use Winlink, call someone in Germany or even the International Space Station.

Most of the testing sessions cost $15, which seems entirely reasonable to me as the examiners are volunteering their time and they have to print out the test materials. I imagine the fees go towards their club activities and equipment. I had my $15 ready, but to my surprise, the Palms West Amateur Radio Club doesn’t charge any money to take the exam. Sweet as!

NOW, HERE’S THE IRONY OF IT ALL

We’ve decided to hold off on purchasing an SSB transceiver this season. They’re pretty pricey (well over $2k for the unit and antenna) and, as you’ve probably figured out already, we don’t like to spend money when we don’t have to. Instead, we’re going to buy an SSB receiver this year (probably less than $200). It will enable us to hear weather reports, but we won’t be able to talk to anyone or send emails. We'll most likely will end up getting the full kit and kaboodle next year, so putting my Ham license to work is on the cards at some point in the future.

WANT TO KNOW MORE?


*Note: Sheriff Ohm is my little inside joke for those of you science geeks out there. 

Are any of you Hams? If so, what's your call sign? 
 
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21 comments:

  1. You know, it's funny. Every winter I think, "I'm going to study to get my HAM license so we can get Winlink" (we have an unlocked SSB and Pactor modem aboard). But before I can take any steps to do it, I'm suddenly distracted by (of all things) chocolate chip cookies. The secret, by the way, is using real butter AND allowing the dough to chill in the frig before baking. This gives the butter time to go back to its normal consistency after having been softened. I have a friend who swears by using milk chocolate chips along with the semi-sweet ones. I don't think he's right, but I can tell you that the mini chips are a complete waste of time -- they're not big enough to make a gooey mess straight out of the oven.

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    1. That's exactly how my sister does it - real butter and she puts the dough in the fridge before baking. She only uses semi-sweet chips and absolutely no nuts. Just the way I like it. Milk chocolate or mini chips are just plain wrong :-)

      Maybe this will be the winter you become a Ham?

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    2. Nope. Not this winter either. We have big plans in the making and they don't involve baking (I really didn't intend to rhyme but sometimes you just have to go with it).

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    3. Ooh...I'm very intrigued as to what your big plans are :-)

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  2. Hubby is working on the Amateur Extra License. He said it's extremely hard. I hope he makes it though. He's looking at radio and such. Bless his heart. He loves it and that's all that matters. All those tests are hard but that last one really is a bad boy.

    Have a fabulous day. ☺

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    1. Wow - I am really impressed that he's going for the Amateur Extra! That test is a real toughie! Good on him :-)

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  3. BRAVO ! I'm a Kentucky Ham from way back. So far back, in fact, that I don't even know what my call sign was (is? do those things go bad after...oh, 30 years?) Count yourself lucky, my friend - I also had to pass a MORSE CODE exam (20 words per minute). I like the concept of SSB but I think it would only be useful for us if we were really long distance / offshore cruising in data-sparse areas. And I understand the installations are tricky and tempermental.

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    1. I am so glad they got rid of the Morse part of the exam! Sadly, your Ham license is expired. They're only good for ten years and I know this because it was one of the exam questions. I've heard the same thing about installing an SSB - if you didn't swear before, you end up using lots of naughty words by the end of the install.

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  4. Oh man, I have to admit that my brain literally shuts down even reading those questions. Plus, Mike is DECADES ahead of me on this stuff. He was in ground radio in the Air Force way, way back in the day, and know all the words and how they connect together when it comes to electronic anything. It's one of those areas where he is so far ahead of me, I don't even bother. And yet, I do like to save money. We have an old SSB radio on board. I think he has found that it works, but there are so many knobs and do dads that I don't remember. It doesn't take chocolate to distract me from this stuff. I get distracted trying to find the appropriate storage room in my brain.

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    1. Mine shut down too. To be honest, I didn't even worry about understanding the material, I just memorized it. And I knew there was a certain percentage of questions I was never going to be able to memorize.

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  5. Thanks for the great info! I've been meaning to check into all this .. why we'd need it and what's required. Thanks to you, I don't have to put this off another 2 years! I was all geared up to start learning, but I like your latest idea of getting an SSB receiver for now. Thanks again .. I can now also focus on chocolate chip cookies! =)

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    1. It's just too much money for the full SSB this year, especially as we'll just be in the Caribbean. But if we do cross the Atlantic the following year, then we'll make the investment.

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  6. Yay to you!!! Congrats!! Whoopie!! High Five and every thing else!! (Now, as soon as you learn how to talk to the space station you must show me.) Seriously, great job. When the time comes I'm sure you will be happy to be able to use Winlink. Now get yourself some good cookies as a reward for a job well done and get your little boat over to the islands so we an celebrate your accomplishment together!
    So happy for you🎉
    Deborah
    Svwrightaway.com

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    1. You were my inspiration! Taking that test was crazy - but if we can save money later, then it will all have been worth it. See you in the islands :-)

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  7. I was a geeky teenager who got a Novice and General license way back when. I moved to Canada for university (and stayed) and was able to use my US licence to get a reciprocal licence in Canada that is actually the equivalent of a U.S. extra so I have access to all frequencies. I still hold WW6UJE and VE2UJE and while I was in Germany for a couple of years with the Canadian military held DA2PL. I do not have any ham radio set up on my my sailboat as it is a day sailer but I did crew on a blue water cruiser earlier this year for an Atlantic crossing and used the SSB setup they had on board.

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    1. Oh, I should mention I got my licences back in the day of the morse code requirement and still love communicating by morse code :-)

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    2. That worked out very well getting a reciprocal license at the Extra equivalent level without having to take a test. Nicely done! And, I'm super impressed by anyone who did the test back when they had the Morse code requirement.

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  8. I like the idea of ham radio, but I hadn't thought about a) how it's used at sea and b) having difficult tests involved! I thought, with it being "amateur" radio, anyone could turn up and tune in. But knowing all the technical implications makes sense when you could avert a maritime disaster or intervene in an alien invasion. Congrats on acing the tests, it definitely sounds like no mean feat!

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    1. Until we started this whole "let's get a sailboat and live on it' crazy idea of ours, I had never even given a thought to Ham radio, except to assume that the guys that had been in the AV Club in school were now Ham operators. It's amazing the stuff I've learned since we became boat owners. Fortunately, there have been some very useful things - like stopping an alien invasion. We all have to do our part to save the world :-)

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  9. Interesting stuff on becoming a Ham. Congrats on all the hard work of studying and passing the test. Now, you have more power to communicate. Use it wisely. : )
    Play off the Page

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    1. Thanks Mary! I'm glad all the studying paid off :-)

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