Category Archives: Amateur radio

How did I get into amateur radio? Part 3

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Belcom Liner 2

What a sheltered life we led, back when I had just left school and gone out to work. All that discovering girls was a terrible distraction, plus actually having to go to work every day. Well, five days a week and hardly any holidays. I had no time for radio.

However, after nearly five years I started to think about amateur radio, still with top band in mind, and started back on broadcast DX listening. I bought a communications receiver, a Codar CR70A. People eulogise about that radio, but mine was not very good, and I have read about other amateurs / SWLs who were unlucky with their receiver.

I decided to get my RAE and be a thoroughly legal station on the radio. In 1974 I enrolled at Southend College for evening classes leading to the Radio Amateurs Examination, to be taken in May 1975. It was taken by G8GUO, Charlie. He was very good and I learned a lot from him. I have no idea what happened to him as he has disappeared, or changed his call sign, or something.

After a year of taking the train straight from work in London all the way to Southend Victoria, I took the RAE and passed. I have a copy of the May 1975 exam and am amazed how difficult it looks now. There was no multiple choice. We had to answer eight questions; two compulsory questions on licence conditions and six out of eight technical questions, the answers to be written with diagrams. The exam was three hours on the evening of Thursday 15th May 1975. And I passed!

I had thought I would take the Morse test, so waited for a while before applying for a licence. I did not make much progress in that direction, so in January 1976 I got the call sign G8LFJ. This was a Class B licence, two metres and up. I then got an FM rig for two metres with I think eight crystal channels, an IC21A. I put up a ten-element beam and after a while it dawned on me that I had the wrong polarisation for FM. I wanted to work more than eight channels too, so I bought a Belcom Liner 2 SSB VXO rig. This was in June 1977.

The first station I worked on 144 MHz SSB was SM7FJE. I thought this was fantastic. Of course, there was a tropo opening, I did have ten elements for my 10 watts out and (most significant) Bo, SM7FJE near Malmo had an EME array of multiple yagis. Just over an hour later I worked OZ5QF, and that is how I got the VHF DX bug.

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A few thoughts of then and now….

No electrical junk shops

When I was a lad there was an electrical junk shop in Brentwood and some of us boys used to go there after school. I suppose working electrical items were for sale, but we foraged for old capacitors and transformers and other bits. We built things from the bits, such as power supplies for our army surplus equipment.

Now, every component we need is small and comes in a small plastic bag. We did have small plastic bags back in the Sixties of course. I bought silicon rectifier diodes in them for the aforementioned power supplies. However, I miss the junk, and having to send off for new everything, even though it is cheap and easily obtainable from eBay. It is just not so much fun, though.

UK amateur radio licencing

One of the biggest changes for one who has been absent from amateur radio for so long is the changing to the system, such that there are three tiers of licence, Foundation, Intermediate and Full. I can understand that people need to be encouraged into our hobby. After all, there are so many other geeky type things to do, the SWL path so many of us followed is not there in the same way (“hello to the listeners”) and broadcast DX is less abundant. That was a useful indicator of conditions.

The first two tiers are I assume easier to attain than passing the old RAE. Why are there so many M3s, M6s and 2 type call signs who have not upgraded to full after quite a few years, though? (Ducks head to avoid missiles.)

OK, the May 1975 RAE I passed was jolly hard. I have a pdf copy of it now. I did a full year of evening classes at Southend Technical College to get it, too. Whatever happened to my teacher, Charlie G8GUO?

Two metres and above

The other major licence change is allowing all licencees to venture onto the HF bands, or at least nearly all the bands below 144 MHz in frequency. That seems harmless; even sensible with the abolition of the Morse test requirement.

The bad news is that 2 metres and above see far less activity. After I passed my RAE I initially balked at the Morse test. I had a Class B ticket, G8LFJ. (I wish I could still have the call sign, but apparently not.)

Anyway, I served an apprenticeship on 2 metres and 70 cms, and learned how fascinating those bands were with exciting propagation; tropo, aurora and Sporadic E. I passed the Morse test in 1981 simply to work more DX on 144 and above. However, no one seems so interested in the higher frequencies when they can work longer distances on the lower ones using a piece of wet string as an antenna. These newcomers do not know what they are missing.

Digital and so on

I am not sure I am very interested in digital repeaters. Repeaters have their uses for mobiles and for local social ham gatherings. Weak signal work using digital modes is another interesting ballgame though. As an ex-high-speed Morse enthusiast for meteor scatter this sounds a fascinating possibility. I am not a total Luddite, you see, and am quite good at software techie stuff. I may need some help of course.

What is amateur radio, then?

It is not one hobby but many, or it is an umbrella term for many different niches, and many more than it used to be.  Assuming we stick together and hold our territory when so many other forces vie for our bits of the electromagnetic spectrum, we should be OK. Let’s not be complacent, but use it so we don’t lose it, especially above 30MHz.

How did I get into amateur radio? Part 2

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Radio Caroline ship Mi Amigo. Photo credit Albertoke

I became a listener on Top Band AM with my Nineteen Set, which could be tuned down, the intended frequencies of use being 2 to 8 MHz. It was not difficult to get it working down to 1.8 MHz. I also found I could listen to the locals by turning some pots in a couple of transistor radios we had. I owned only one (the other was my Mum’s), which was a pocket -sized radio with the trade name of the local high street dealer. It was fiddly to tune, but I could listen in my bedroom and it worked. Remember the Nineteen Set was very heavy and dusty, so I had to use that in my den in the loft.

There was a local Top Band pirate who was very active. He boasted of a Codar AT5 transmitter. I do not now remember what his receiver was. No, I was never a Top Band pirate, or indeed any sort of pirate on the amateur radio bands.

In 1967 the then Government was trying to close down the offshore pirate radio stations. I was a Radio Caroline fan, and had listened late into the night (well, until about 11 o’clock) most evenings on the same pocket-sized radio. I was supposed to be asleep, having done my homework. My parents’ expectations were different to those of parents these days.

From August 15th 1967 the Marine Offences Act came into force, making it illegal to operate and service the pirate radio stations anchored off our shores, or operating from offshore forts as one or two did. At 3 o’clock on 14th August, Radio London (Wonderful Big L), Caroline’s neighbour off the Essex coast closed down.

Radio Caroline soldiered on, but there were many of us who believed in “Free Radio” and did not accept the Government’s premise that the BBC should have the monopoly on radio broadcasting in the UK. After all the pirates (commercial radio) had given everyone freedom of choice and had also given a chance to many pop, rock and other bands and solo artists. The pirates made a huge contribution to the cultural changes in the Swinging Sixties.

Some among us protested by putting out our own shows around 195 metres. That is about 1.54 MHz.  The Nineteen Set was well capable of that, with a quarter wave antenna (my parents had a large plot of land). I am not saying I participated, and after all, doing an hour’s pre-recorded show regularly would have been a lot of work, but I was a juvenile.

The antenna was very thin and hard to see, being wire off an old transformer carefully unwound. It was surprising it did not break more often than it did. A Post Office detector van did drive down our road once, but no one came to call.

I had a lot of fun with the Nineteen Set. It covered 80 metres as well and was a good old war horse, with the Variometer (ATU) very effective.

Of course, I had some growing up to do, and at the end of the decade I left school and went out to work. This was a culture shock for me, becoming responsible in part for my own welfare, and there were distractions from radio such as my first girlfriend. The radio story rests for a while, but more soon….

How did I get into amateur radio? Part 1

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Wireless Set No. 19

I won a scholarship to a posh school. I was very unhappy there, and one of the things which made me unhappy was that when we were around fifteen, we boys all had to join the cadet force. This was split into two main groups; RAF and Army. The RAF group got to play with gliders, so everyone wanted to do that. I was not one of the lucky ones chosen. I had to join the Army group.

Being in the cadet force meant that the school bullies usually got made sergeants, so that they actually had some authority as bullies.

The first year of the cadet force involved a lot of drilling and marching. Also, one stormy March evening we were dropped off in groups of about five all over the Essex countryside, and required to make our way in the dark to an army camp out in the marshes. We could have got lost, but by the middle of the night the clouds and blown away and the rain stopped, and one of our number could navigate by the stars. I could do that myself now, but I knew little of astronomy then. Incidentally, our navigator later became a radio amateur.

At the beginning of the second year in the Army cadet force, we could choose to specialise. Some sections still involved drilling, but the two “skive” sections were perceived as the Signals and the Bearer section, which involved First Aid and stretchers. I wanted to join Signals, but again was “unlucky”. I got Bearer Section. On the plus side, I learned CPR and how to bandage people’s wounds, and it was useful grounding with later refreshers at various work places. I might still be able to be useful if called upon, though I never have been required.

However, back to radio. I and a couple of other lads hung about the Signals hut. It was full of old Army radio equipment. I remember they mostly used a WS C12 to talk to other cadet force teachers and lads around the country. I was most impressed.

That is when I got the radio bug, and I and a couple of my friends each bought a Nineteen Set (Wireless Set No. 19). Mine cost £12 in around 1967. It was a fortune in pocket money.

So, I discovered Top Band AM. I had a huge amount of fun with my Nineteen Set, but more of that later.

Did you start in radio with gear from ancient times?

Wood and Douglas and the 70 cm amplifier

Wood and Douglas ampA while back I bought a rig on eBay, but the seller had included this with a job lot of miscellaneous items.

In the box were three linear amplifiers. One was for 27 MHz which is of no interest to me and I will sell on. Another is one for 144 MHz. That is going to need a workaround as it was made for a specific transceiver way back, and I need to find a way to switch it as it has no RF sensing and I have no manual yet.

The third item was a Wood and Douglas amplifier for 432 MHz. It must date from the late seventies or early eighties. It is a solid piece of equipment. The seller said on eBay it was a maximum of 10 watts in for 30 watts out, but I have been reluctant to put it on dummy load to test it. I had no manual and there was nothing on the internet to help. It is a rare beastie.

Wood and Douglas was started by two radio amateurs in the late seventies to build and sell amplifiers, preamps and other amateur radio gear, but since has become a grown-up player. It has moved far beyond its original business.

On the off chance I sent an email via the website to ask if they had a manual or some instructions for this ancient amplifier. They emailed me back the next day with the instructions / spec which would have been sent out over thirty years ago when the amp was new.

This is absolutely brilliant customer service provided to someone who was not even a customer, but just someone asking a favour.

It is great credit to the company that they helped me out, so three cheers for Wood and Douglas. Thank you very much.

One more thing. The amp is a maximum 3 watts in for 30 out according to the manual, so it is just as well I did not try to overload it having relied on the seller. I am sure he had forgotten after not using it for many years. With any luck I have a usable amp for 70 cms.

Old friends

Having decided to resurrect my amateur radio activities, I have been daunted by the prices of equipment and gear for radio. Obviously I have been pleased to find that at least Baofeng is cheap cheap, albeit with limitations.

One can get a rig that covers all bands from 160m to 70cms apparently. I cannot aspire to that at the moment, and anyway how can one do all those bands justice? I will stick to those bands that interest me, I think.

Anyway, for 2 meters I have an old FT290R multi-mode (well, actually two working quite well). For 80 to 10 have my Trio TS130V with dual VFO, which has survived well thirty years of inactivity and is working fine.

I also have an old valve FT200 which may be 45 years old and is untested. I bought it in the early eighties, second-hand. My FT221R, a fine 2 meter multi-mode rig once, is also untested so far. Yes, I was mostly a Yaesu man.

I had really been worried about the cost of antennas though, in addition to the long wires I am planning. However, I recently had to clear our garage through force of circumstances, and apart from two G5RVs ready made-up, I have discovered two ten-element Tonna (F9FT) antennas for 144 MHz. One of them is in its original box, never opened. I cannot remember buying it over thirty years ago. I have a portable mast, too.

Then there is an intact 23 element Tonna yagi for (yes) 23cms plus the 1296 MHz transverter from 28 MHz, and the bonus, maybe 20 metres of LDF 450 Heliax cable which I used to feed the Tonna. It looks in good condition.

There are a couple of rotators although I am not optimistic they will be in working order. 😦

Of course having all this is one thing. Deciding what to put up, when and how is quite another. I think the long wires and/or a G5RV should come first as they are the easiest option. Then antennas for 2 meters upwards, with a nod to planning regs, because I am a higher frequency man by nature. Now where is the 70 cm yagi? Don’t say I will have to buy one.

New faces and skills

As part of my rehabilitation in amateur radio I attended the Skills Night presented by Chelmsford Amateur Radio Society at Danbury.

As one would expect, there were many Foundation and Intermediate License Holders for whom the “Skills” training is a very good idea. I found it helpful as of course the radio world has changed in my absence.

Once upon a time I was familiar with the OSCAR amateur satellites (this is tautology given that OSCAR stands for “Orbiting Satellite Carrying Amateur Radio”). Stephen, M0SHQ, was very kind in giving me some minutes telling me about the latest developments, and showed me his impressive hand-held dual band 2m/70cm homemade yagi antenna, . He also demonstrated the OSCAR Android app on his phone. I have installed it on mine, and well, you never know, I might have a bash.

Charlie, M0PZT, was busy programming various handheld rigs, and was kind enough to “do” my second dual-band Baofeng as he did the first. Thanks, Charlie!

More experienced hams (more up-to-date than I) were scattered around the hall imparting their valuable knowledge. I enjoyed chatting with a number of the ladies and gentlemen present, and believe the attendance was over sixty in number.

Anyway, the Skills Night is a cracking idea, there was a lot going on which you can see via the link, and if you are in striking distance of Danbury, do go along to the next one.