Sunday, December 4, 2011

What Amateur Radio Means To Me

On an average afternoon, while living in Forsyth, Montana, I was spending some quality time on the Ten-meter amateur radio voice sub-band calling, "CQ" and managing a run of stations.  Conditions were pretty good, as this was back in the peak of Cycle 22; I was working a pile-up as Montana was desired by many amateurs on the band.

I was having a conversation with a Canadian amateur radio operator who was telling me how happy he was in making contact with me, as I triggered some fond memories of Montana.  He began to tell me a short history of how he had to spend some time in Montana during World War II, to complete some training.  He was sent to Helena, as part of a special unit that was tasked as a joint American and Canadian Special Forces Unit that would, after training, head over to Europe for special assignments.

I made plenty of notes in my log book, as this was a unique story.  This elderly gentleman was full of enthusiasm as he expressed how he had made a special bond with one or two of the American soldiers, but has lost contact with them over the years since the end of the war.  Never-the-less, Helena and Montana held a special place in his heart. I made sure that I had his callsign, his mailing address, and any other information I could get well documented in my log.  We ended our conversation (a 'QSO' as a two-way radio contact is known in amateur radio Morse code short-hand) and bid each other best wishes.  I went on to have a number of additional contacts with other radio operators from various places in the world, that day.

The following day, conditions were much the same, and I again took to the air, calling for stations on the Ten-meter band.  As usual, I began to have many stations calling me, and I worked this eager pile-up, one station at a time.  I was willing to have short conversations with each station, too, as I don't like just giving out a quick signal report and then going to the next station.  I do enjoy a bit of a chat.  I like to get to know people.

After I had 'worked' a good number of calling stations, one amateur radio operator, an elderly gentleman, made a remark while talking with me that caught my attention: He commented that he had spent time in Helena, Montana, during World War II as part of a special unit known as "The Devil's Brigade".  I had chills run up my spine.

I mentioned to him that, just the day before, I had talked with a fellow from Canada who also spent time in Helena as part of a special unit.  I wondered out loud if it might have been the same unit.  He asked me who this fellow was, and I told him.  There was a bit of a pause, then, in a bit of an emotional voice, he repeated the Canadian's name back, a couple of times.  Then said, "I know him."  He then began to explain that this Canadian was his best friend in that unit, and how close they had become during their time together while serving in Europe.  But, how after the war, they somehow lost contact with each other.

Now, I was very excited and rather moved by this story.  What are the odds that I would meet these two best friends from World War II, that had lost contact with each other?  Of course, you know what I did next.  I made sure that this American hero now had the Canadian's callsign, address, and information as I had it from our conversation.  He was deeply moved and the emotion was evident on the sideband audio.

I learned many weeks later that, indeed, they contacted each other, after many many years.  This was a sweet and timely reunion for them.  And, I was the catalyst that enabled these two heroes to reconnect.

It is a moment like this that makes amateur radio communications worth every effort, headache, struggle, and investment worth my while.  To connect with others in meaningful ways, at some level, is priceless.  I never know, from contact to contact, what life I am touching, what new step of life I am enabling in the lives of those around me.  Amateur radio is more than just a hobby. It is a relational community affair.  Good will, and all that.  And, this is what amateur radio means to me.

73 de NW7US
dit dit

Sunday, February 6, 2011

NW7US -- A History of a Radio Nut


What is this funny-looking group of letters with the seven? NW7US -- what does that mean?

NW7US is a callsign, assigned by the Federal Communications Commission, to me. I'm Tomas David Hood. I am a Radio Amateur.

What is a Callsign?

In broadcasting, like FM or AM radio broadcasting, or even TV station broadcasting, but in any radio communications, a call sign (also known as a callsign, call name, call letters, or abbreviated as a 'call') is a unique designation for a transmitting station. In some countries these callsigns are used as names for broadcasting stations. In this case, the callsign, 'NW7US' refers to an Amateur Radio operator and station, owned and operated by Tomas David Hood. Yes, that is me; I am Tomas.

What is Amateur Radio?

Amateur radio, also known as 'ham radio', is both a hobby and a service in which radio enthusiasts called "hams" use various types of radio communications equipment to communicate with other radio amateurs for public services, recreation and self-training.  They use many different types of communication techniques (modes), from Morse code, to a wide variety of data and voice as well as video modes.

The hobby is practiced by an enthusiast who is not paid for this activity. The hobbyist may build communications equipment, antennas, and supporting electronics, or use already-made units, to communicate world-wide or just across town by two-way radios, satellites, or shortwave radio frequencies.  They enjoy making new friends without the need for telephone or internet connections.  

Ham radio takes place in a range of frequencies designated for amateur use by the FCC (in the United States of America) from just above the AM broadcast band (1.6 MHz) to the microwave region, at several hundred gigahertz.

Amateur Radio exists around the entire world, with licensed operators in nearly all countries. It is a truly world-wide hobby and service.

NW7US is the Amateur Radio callsign issued by the Federal Communications Commission to my Ham Radio Station, conferring the right to operate this equipment under certain privileges. This callsign is assigned to me as both an identification of my Amateur Radio station, as well as a reference to those privileges I have been granted after having passed both a series of written examinations which cover rules, procedures, technical theory, and related knowledge, and a series of Morse code proficiency tests. (Note: Morse code proficiency is no longer required as an element of the FCC test; you no longer need to learn and demonstrate knowledge of Morse code in order to obtain an FCC Amateur Radio license. However, Morse code is becoming very popular among Amateur Radio.).

Why is Tomas an Amateur Radio Operator?

I enjoy having two-way communications by way of shortwave radio signals, in the Amateur Radio hobby. The Shortwave bands are in the High Frequency radio spectrum.

I was born back in 1965 (in Virginia) and I'm 45. I was first licensed in 1990, though I have been a real high-frequency fan since the early 1970s when I discovered Shortwave Radio. I loved hearing the foriegn stations. Using HF is like travelling without leaving home. I love meeting new folks.

My radio interest started when I was a young boy. Around the age of nine, I discovered Shortwave Radio Listening ( see my shortwave page at ). I had discovered my parents' Sony portable radio that had four bands; Shortwave, Longwave, FM, and AM. (I've recently obtained a used replacement for this long-lost radio from my childhood! I found it at a Ham Fest. What joy!)

Amazing sounds and exotic stations struck my fancy as I tuned around on the dial. Soon, I found myself listening to the time signals on WWV, news broadcasts from the BBC, and cultural shows from Radio South Africa, Radio Canada International, HCJB, and Radio Australia. These were just a few of the International Shortwave Broadcast stations that captured my imagination. I felt that I was traveling the world, without leaving my backyard.

I was particularly fascinated by WWV's hourly propagation bulletin. I sat listening with rapt attention and great imagination, while thinking of Skylab and space, and radio waves. This was my first exposure to the concept of sunspots, space weather, and the variability of radio wave propagation on shortwave radio.

I began to look for books on electronics and radio (tubes, electricity, and that sort of thing). My folks bought electronic kits for me to build (remember back to when Radio Shack still sold electronic kits and was supportive to the home-builder of electronics?). I built a simple AM transmitter kit, and a VHF receiver kit that enabled me to hear Air Traffic from the local airport. Listening to Northwest Orient pilots talking with the control tower, or hearing South Africa on that Sony portable radio, catapulted me into a world of ideas and possibilities.

As I entered Junior High School, I acquired a military surplus shortwave receiver. Late at night when I was supposed to be sleeping, my bedroom would be lit with the glow of warm orange light from the tubes in the heart of the radio. I heard signals from all over the world, some of them seemed to flow into my room with ease from the dipole antenna that I hid around the eaves of the house. Even AM Broadcast-band DXing was exciting. I remember hearing stations from South America, such as a station from Peru.

While I served in the United States Army, stationed in Europe, I would stay tuned to the world by using any receiver I could find. An example of my obsession would be from times when I was deployed to tactical communications sites ‘in the field.’ When I was not on duty, and not asleep, I would sneak into backup communications shelters (tactical units sitting on a truck, kind of like those campers on the back of a pickup truck), and fire up military communications gear so I could listen to my news from the BBC, or a show from Trans World Radio in Monte Carlo.

My service to the country was as an Army communicator, in the signal corps. I worked in HF, as well as Troposcatter, Microwave, and satellite communications. I also worked a great deal with computers.

But it was not until after my tour with the Military that I finally became a licensed Radio Amateur. After leaving the Army, I met a group of Amateur Radio operators who encouraged me to get my license. They gave me the Novice test, one day, in a very crowded cafeteria at work (The Travelers, in Hartford, Connecticut, where I worked as a programmer/analyst). I was not only required to receive the Morse code, but also to send a text that they provided out of a technical manual.

I passed the test! I lost no time in setting up my station (a random wire of about 200 feet along with an old Kenwood transceiver and an old Navy Key), and waited for my official “Ham Ticket” from the FCC to arrive in the mail, so I could transmit. I would listen, practicing my ability to receive CW. Night after night, I would sit and try to head-copy CW. (Head copy means to decode the CW in your head, rather than write it down).

One day, when I arrived home after work, I opened the mail box and found the envelope from the FCC! The license finally arrived. Now I could not only listen, but, could communicate all over the world. Sure, as a Novice, I was only allowed to communicate in CW, but I was more than proud to do just that! I felt all of the history and was filled with pride that I could use CW, too.

The problem, however, was that I am human. During my first CW QSO, I forgot my name, English, and Morse code. I was sweating! But, slowly, I found my mind again, and began having a great QSO.

I did a lot of Morse code operation during the first months, and continued using CW but also discovered the world on 10 meters. What a band! The propagation was worldwide during the last part of a great solar cycle. The excitement of talking with people from so many locations was never higher than during those first 12 months. Now, I could really travel the world without leaving home. To perhaps learn just a little bit more about cultures and places outside of my little world.

I upgraded to Amateur Extra about seven or so years after my first license. I desired to work DX, and changed my call to NW7US.

Saturday, February 5, 2011

I Confess, I'm Lazy

I will admit the truth that I have known since I was twelve years of age: I am lazy.  Oh, don't get me wrong; I have served my country as a Signal Corps Telecommunications Army Soldier, pulling my fair share of the weight of my team in the service of my country.  I've raised my children, some of those years as a single dad (over ten years as a single dad).  I'm not THAT kind of lazy.

But, when it comes to choosing on what I spend my energy, I am quite selective.  Sort of like those preselector tuning circuits in fancy shortwave radio receivers.  I can narrow-band my passion and tune out all of the other nagging tasks at hand.

For instance: I would rather tune in strange, exotic buzzing and twerpy sounds on the tropical shortwave bands, than sit here and explain how lazy I am.  So, until next time, I'll be sitting here hunting down those signals.  How about you?

73 de NW7US... dit dit

Friday, July 30, 2010

The Spirit of Ham Radio? Robotics? Really?

The ARRL has an article ( ) about how 'the Spirit of HAM Radio' is alive in the robotics arena. While I understand the excitement to see youth involved in technology in general,the robotics arena is not the radio arena. More directly, the amateur radio hobby is NOT about robotics.

Please understand: I am not against ROBOTICS (or any technical field, for that matter). I, however, do not equate ROBOTICS with RADIO. In my opinion, the technical aspect of amateur radio should be exciting all on its own accord. We don't need to add non-radio technology to the radio hobby, just to attract new energetic participants. Can't radio attract the young, without resorting to tactics like adding robotics (or, biology, for instance)?

Let's examine some of what the radio hobby offers in terms of technical experimentation and discovery: satellite communications; digital communications; micro-circuitry; DSP; and so much more. Do you realize how cutting edge the radio sciences are? The technological skills and knowledge gained as a true amateur radio scientist translates directly over into the commercial as well as academic radio communications arena. Cell phone technology, for instance, benefits greatly from minds that can fathom the next innovation in micro-circuitry, theoretical radio propagation (VHF and up), and so forth.

We should not deviate into so many off-focus areas as educators. We need to focus on radio communications, and so inspire a new generation of highly-skilled, passionate radio communications technologists. Inspire innovation in our own domain.

I see a benefit in cross-exposure, definitely. However, should radio clubs begin to incorporate non-radio technology in club activities, in order to "inspire" participants?

Would it be conceivable that we would introduce other radio services into amateur club activities, like CB, FRS, and such? Should we include any number of non-radio technologies?

I've had experiences in the past where a school radio club that existed under the 4-H umbrella ended up being more about after-school homework and general sciences, rather than about amateur radio. A lot of energy was wasted because that club's efforts resulted in zero new radio amateurs. But, in other school clubs, where radio was the focal point, radio amateurs were born.

Again, I see a benefit in cross-exposure with other groups. I also see integration of some technologies into a radio activity, as a necessary adjunct to the radio communications and technology focus (for instance, solar energy). However, regarding club activities, I feel cautious in shifting the focus to other sciences and technologies because it can derail the growth and development of amateur radio.

In the case of the article that caused me to wonder about all of this, it would appear that the goal of integrating *any* technology, radio or otherwise, is to grow new technologists. Developing and inspiring new radio engineers and communicators is not highlighted as an end result. I'm not saying that the efforts made by those involved are negative (I'd say that they are admirable and excitingly encouraging). I'm saying that we should see the same amount of resources and energy devoted to a pure radio-centric pursuit.

These are, to be sure, my opinions. What are your's?

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Amateur Radio to Me...

A general definition of "Ham Radio", or more accurately, "Amateur Radio", would be Amateur radio is a technical as well as social and public service hobby that spans the entire world. Amateur radio (also known as HAM Radio) attracts people from all walks of life (from Kings, famous musicians, to the family next door) who are interested in all facets of radio communications.

Involvement in amateur radio allows people to practice their public speaking skills as well as the advancement of one's knowledge of radio theory, electronics, and emergency management. Amateur Radio was started by the very founders of radio. Marconi, and other amateur scientists, took theory and made it real, creating the first radio transmitters and receivers. Amateurs continue to innovate. Amateurs have even been deployed by the military during the great world wars, due to the Amateur skill and knowledge. The United States would not have had the success without the Amateur Radio operators, innovating and improving radio telecommunications.

Ham Radio started with Marconi -- he did not want to accept popular science's thinking that radio waves were limited to line-of-sight and limited in range. Debate raged over the common theories. Marconi decided to test all of this out, and created his first radio transmitter, and put the receiver out in the far end of his garden. He placed obstacles in the path, and then had his assistant transmit. He heard it, and we now have cell phones, television, and all of the other telecommunications using radio, because of his amateur radio experiment. Ham Radio continues to test ideas and forge new ground in practical communications.

The hobby can be as simple as talking on local-area repeaters with those in the same town, to building a satellite or experimenting with new forms of telecommunications. The HAM hobbyist can talk to those on the other side of the earth with nothing more than a simple High Frequency transceiver and an equally simple wire antenna.

Amateur radio is used in search-and-rescue, contests, disaster aid (hurricanes, earthquakes, tornadoes, floods, accidents, fires), and much more. Amateur radio operators talk with other HAM radio hobbyists using all sorts of communication modes. From Morse Code and voice to Slow Scan Television and computer networking through the radio waves, these hobbyists reach out with goodwill from their homes, cars, boats and outdoors. Some also like to work on electronic circuits, building their own radios and antennas. Dedicated hobbyists have pioneered in new technology, contributing to advances in technology that has impacted the world of communications in all areas of our lives. Even ham-astronauts take radios with them on space shuttle missions, and make calls to earth-bound Amateurs.

For me, there are specific activities which inspire me and for which I have a lot of passion. These include using Morse Code on a mode known as "CW", where I send and receive Morse Code with other Amateur Radio Operators around the world. This is very satisfying and rewarding to me.

Morse Code is a simple, effective, elegant language and mode for communications in adverse conditions. Moon-bounce, Aurora Propagation, Rare DX, and many other opportunities call for a simple form of getting your message through. Morse Code delivers. Without the need for computers, or other high-technology gadgets. Just a simple transmitter, a reasonable receiver, and a code key. You do the rest. Like speaking English, Spanish, or Chinese. Speaking of which... Morse Code is the bridge between languages. Many operators in many countries learn enough shorthand and simple English to make contact via Morse Code with operators around the world. What other mode can transcend the boundaries of the human experience?

My blogs will be a look into my world within the Ham Radio Hobby.