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Ham radio operators compete for contacts

June 16, 1997

By KAREN MASTERSON

Staff Writer

MERCERSBURG, Pa. - There was more than sunshine, cool breezes and scattered clouds in the atmosphere this Father's Day.

Roughly 200,000 amateur radio operators were transmitting signals just below the ionosphere, trying to make contact with as many other amateurs as possible, and from as far away as their equipment allowed.

Three such "hams" were on top of Whitetail Ski Resort participating in a 33-hour competition organized by the American Radio Relay League. The winner gets a certificate for making the largest number of contacts and reaching the farthest distance. It will take six months to verify a winner.

Jeff Johnson, 45, provided most of the Whitetail relay equipment, which he said was worth $10,000 and helped them reach as far as Nova Scotia.

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He and his teammates - Jim Price, 33, and Howard Gorden, 57 - set up their mountaintop transmission camp around the landing of one of Whitetail's ski lifts, now inoperative for the summer.

Johnson said amateur radio is an excellent exercise in serendipity. You swing the antenna, catch a signal and sometimes learn what's going on continents away, he said.

Price, a graduate student in forestry at North Carolina State University, explained that amateur transmissions are different from broadcasting. Amateur bands cannot be used for commercial purposes and are therefore free, except for a very low annual licensing fee, he said.

But serendipity alone did not bring these three men to a day and a half on a mountain. They take amateur radio very seriously and are proud of the role ham operators play during emergencies.

According to the Relay League, the federal government set aside specific radio bands for amateurs in early the 1900s. It was a deliberate move to create a pool of experts who would be available to provide backup communication services during emergencies.

After hurricanes, tornadoes and even the Oklahoma City bombing, according to the League, ham operators provided the only means of communication for emergency relief teams.

Johnson said the relay contest had a serious edge to it: operators were encouraged to test their equipment for readiness in case of an emergency.

But the Whitetail team also took the opportunity to enjoy themselves.

"We're having fun," Johnson said, compared his attitude to that of other teams in the contest. One such team on nearby South Mountain was out for blood, he said. "They own the land, (radio) towers and thousands and thousands of dollars worth of equipment."

Johnson said such operators invariably win the Relay League's contest because they spend the entire 33 hours on a constant search for contacts.

"They'll make 2,500 contacts. We made an embarrassingly low number, but we had barbecue chicken for dinner, and it was good."

He said their total might reach 100.

Among the team's seven antennae was one reaching 50 feet high and towering over the ski-lift chairs that dangled along a single cable to the resort below.

Another antenna stretched 100 feet, tied from one tree top to another.

With all the high-tech electronics of amateur radio comes a certain level of sexism, Johnson said. For example, the Morse code YX means young lady and XYL means a wife. But men are not differentiated according to marital status, he said.

He also said things are changing: "Young girls are getting into it now that electronic classes are being offered to them in school. We encourage it."

One driving force behind ham radio popularity is the novelty it brings to communication.

Price said when his mother was sick he transmitted a message to her via the amateur radio bands. That message was picked up and relayed to several other ham go-betweens before it reached her community in California. Once it got close enough, a local ham operator called her and delivered the "get well wishes" over the phone.

"Ham operators are like a big fraternity," Johnson said. "There's no house with a ham antenna that I can't walk up to and know I'll be welcome."

It's a subculture of computer nerds, he said, with a real flare for the unknown and commitment to community service.

Price said sending messages over amateur radio is more reliable and often faster than e-mail. And, he added, the communication is free and independent of telephone lines.

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