Sunday, May 15, 2011

DX before Dinner

Last year, in a fit of boredom, I decided (for reasons still unknown to me) to go off and do my exam to become an amateur radio operator. I've been qualified as a marine radio operator for years and also have flight radio operator quals. I wanted to do my amateur license though. First off I did a two day course and got my Foundation license. This is an "operators" license and the lowliest of the amateur qualifications. It allows you access to limited frequencies and you are not allowed to make or modify your radio.
For a quite small amount of money I bought a second hand HF set and got on the air - I made my own antenna. The antenna was quite a challenge - we have no external area where we live - so I needed a compact solution. I found a simple antenna that goes on my roof, made with a 9 metre fibreglass squid pole and some wire. It works brilliantly.
A little later in the year, in a further fit of boredom, and as it turned out a fit of madness, I decided to upgrade to one of the other licenses. I targeted the Standard license which is an intermediate grade license - more frequencies and able to build your own gear. So off I went with about a dozen other souls. For 15 weeks in the depths of winter we sat in a freezing cold classroom for 4 hours on a Saturday afternoon. It was beanie, jacket, jumper and still cold kind of freezing! I toted around heavy text books and most of the time wondered if I was mad. It was all new to me and I could make very little of the electrical theory, transistors, diodes and other stuff at first.
When it came time for the exam I decided (in a further fit of stupidity) to sit the Advanced exam. This is the ultimate amateur qualification and gives you free run of all the amateur frequencies and privileges. I thought I'd give it a crack and if I failed I could still sit the Standard exam.
The exam papers are selected from a question bank by computer - a fixed number of questions on antennas, a fixed number on electrical theory, propagation etc until you have 50 questions. What that means is that, by chance, you can get a simple paper - all the simple questions in the question bank, a medium paper or a really tough paper, within each amateur category. When I opened the paper to read through all I could think of was "Beam me up Scotty". It was a bastard of a paper and I couldn't work out many of the answers. I seriously thought of getting up and handing it back and saying "I'll just do the Standard".
I decided to knuckle down and do it and knocked it off as well as I could in well under the 90 minutes allowed. It was marked on the spot. The pass mark was 70% and I passed with a modest amount to spare...who knows how!
I was relieved not to have to sit the Standard and also to know that I had, in the space of a few months (5 in fact) progressed from nothing to an Advanced license.
My main interest is HF. I find it very satisfying to use a piece of technology that dates from the late 19th century and use it effectively to communicate. DX refers to radio exchanges with distant contacts. There are many DX hounds out there who work furiously to fill their log books and to chase all the weird and wonderful places. I don't work like that. I enjoy switching on before dinner at night, just as the sun goes down and making a couple of contacts from somewhere interesting.
Tonight I spoke to Orlando on Grand Canary Island, last night Chris from Inverness in Scotland. I've spoken to people in Italy, Hungary, Spain, New Zealand, Hawaii, the Ukraine and many more.
I don't know why this old fashioned technology makes me happy, but it does. It's something about the randomness of the contact, the unplanned nature of who you might talk to, the difficulties of propagation over distances up to 20,000km, or the fact that it costs nothing to chat.
I looked at my mobile sitting beside the HF set as I talked to Orlando tonight. I could use it to call anyone anywhere with much better quality than the conversation I was having. But I never would have thought to call someone on Grand Canary and I wouldn't have known Orlando to start with.
I usually don't hang around too long - chat to a couple of people and then dinner. But it's very satisfying!

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