Ham operators making waves


Members of the Antietam Radio Association have been meeting with frequency for 50 years, using their two-way radios to chat about their favorite hobby and provide public safety.

Launched on June 10, 1952, by a group of local amateur radio operators who met to exchange ideas, build their own transmitters and plan for their participation in the American Radio Relay League's annual Field Day, the Hagerstown-based ARA now boasts about 85 members in four states who meet monthly at the Hagerstown Regional Airport, club spokeswoman Donnie Sue Mulligan said.

The "hams," as they call themselves, use two-way radio stations in their homes, cars - even on their bicycles - to communicate with each other over radio waves that span the world.


Hams from Hagerstown to outer space - where astronauts on the International Space Station communicate with schoolchildren via amateur radio waves - relay messages on frequencies approved by the Federal Communications Commission.

The hams even have satellites circling the earth, said ARA member Charlie Mulligan of Halfway.

The 1.2 million hams worldwide include kings and celebrities and "regular people" of all ages, said ARA member Page Pyne of Hagerstown.

And a ham isn't bona fide without a call sign, the amateur radio license number assigned by the FCC.

"There's a lot of Bobs and Roys and whatever, but your call sign is unique in the world," Charlie Mulligan said.

Bill (K3UMV) and Joyce (K3UMW) Drager, Charlie Mulligan (N3MVR), Herman Niedzielski (K2AVA) and charter ARA member Fran Little (W3SCC) sport their call signs on their cars' license plates.

Numerous antennas jut from the hams' vehicles and homes.

ARA member Stan Klick (W3YGC) of Hagerstown attached a 2-meter antenna to the handlebars of his bicycle. He tucked the radio inside a handlebar pack.

His mobile radio station enables Klick, 64, to follow the last runner during the John F. Kennedy 50-mile ultramarathon from Boonsboro to Williamsport every year to ensure safety communications along the rugged route, he said.

A two-meter antenna graces the roof, and a 9-foot "outbacker" antenna projects off the hind end of Pyne's Ford Festiva. The smaller antenna enables Pyne (WA3EOP) to communicate with other hams within a 100-mile radius, he said.

He is "theoretically capable of worldwide communication" with the outbacker, he said.

Some hams communicate with each other within the same town or country. Others bounce their signals off the upper regions of the atmosphere to talk with hams on the other side of the world.

Charlie Mulligan, 65, once spoke to a ham in Russia. Pyne, 55, talked to a ham at the South Pole.

Some hams use Morse code to relay messages. Others converse using amateur radio frequencies like Internet chat rooms.

Joyce Drager and Donnie Sue Mulligan (KB3AOO), both 63, and Little, 64, prefer to keep their ham circles intimate by communicating with other amateur operators closer to home, they said.

Klick and Niedzielski, 65, of Leitersburg, especially enjoy building and maintaining such radio equipment as transmitters and antenna tuners, then trying to connect with other hams at varying distances to see how well their "home brew" works, they said.

Bill Drager also likes building and repairing radio equipment, and sending images to other hams with the amateur TV equipment he keeps among the transmitters, repeaters, monitors, microphones and other radio equipment in his basement "ham shack."

The hams also have a serious side.

They volunteer their services when disaster strikes, providing back-up emergency communications and coordination between emergency service agencies without the means to communicate with each other, Drager said.

"Organizations like the Red Cross depend on the amateurs to help them out," he said.

When tornadoes devastated La Plata, Md., last week, hams in Charles, Calvert and Prince George's counties used their radios to help organize disaster relief efforts, ARA members said.

Hams in New York and New Jersey stepped up to their microphones when terrorist attacks toppled the World Trade Centers, Mulligan said.

"Hams are always there to help," Pyne said.

Local hams recently participated in a disaster drill at the Hagerstown Regional Airport, during which airport workers and emergency crews responded to a mock terrorist attack. Hams were stationed at hospitals in Hagerstown and Waynesboro, Pa., to provide patient information to American Red Cross disaster relief workers, Drager said.

Local hams provide safety communications during activities such as the CROP walk in Smithsburg and Cedar Ridge Ride Through History in the Williamsport area, ARA members said.

They gather at events such as the ARRL's annual Field Day to hone their emergency preparedness skills, and at the ARA's annual Greater Hagerstown Area Hamfest - being held at the Washington County Agricultural Education Center today - to swap equipment and discuss their hobby.

Most amateur radio operators follow the rules established and enforced by the FCC, ARA members said, but some renegade hams break radio rules like computer hackers cause trouble on the Internet.

Volunteer hams designated as official observers help the FCC police the radio bands for hams guilty of such infractions as swearing, playing music and interfering with frequencies being used by radio stations, emergency services and other hams, Pyne and Niedzielski said.

Hams can be fined up to $10,000 a day for interference, he said.

For more information about the Antietam Radio Association, visit the club's Web site at

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