Ham radio operators gather

June 28, 2004|by DON AINES

Hunched over in a small tent with earphones on and a microphone in hand, Chris Shelton was trying to reach anyone he could Sunday with a 50-watt, six-meter, short-wave radio set.

"Unfortunately, it's not really great for long-distance communications," said Shelton, a Missouri school teacher. "We've only gotten nine contacts on this particular station."

Those contacts, however, included stations in Canada, Florida, Texas and his home state of Missouri.

"Less power than the average lightbulb and he's still able to talk to people in Missouri," said Dave Yoder, president of the Cumberland Valley Amateur Radio Club.


Yoder, Shelton and two dozen other ham radio operators were at the Hamilton Township Ruritan Park over the weekend for Field Day, an annual exercise for amateur radio enthusiasts throughout North America.

"It allows us to test emergency preparedness by taking an empty field like this and adding some shelters, some radios and some generators to simulate setting up an emergency communications center when commercial power wouldn't be available," said Yoder.

Portable generators loaned by the Franklin County Emergency Management Agency and the Red Cross stuttered in the background while operators searched the airwaves for Field Day participants. Clubs try to make as many contacts as possible over 24 hours and report them to Amateur Radio Relay League, the governing body for ham radio.

Ham operators use a variety of analog and digital technologies to communicate by voice, text and even visually. Some technology, however, Marconi would still recognize, such as the Morse keys beside some sets.

"We've contacted close to 200 stations using Morse code," said Yoder, an attorney who lives in Carlisle, Pa. "Morse code continues to be useful when every other form of radio communications is unintelligible or wiped out."

Club members have previously reached the Antarctic and Arctic "using 100 watts of power, an antenna and a Morse key," Yoder said.

"I love the ability to talk all over the world using a radio, a battery and a piece of wire," said George Harris of Shippensburg, Pa. Harris, who works at Mack Trucks in Hagerstown, has contacted all seven continents.

Even more low-tech was the method of stringing antenna wires between trees. A slingshot was used to launch a lead sinker and fishing line into the branches, which were then used to pull the antenna wire, Yoder said.

"Whiskey-three-Alpha-Charlie-Hotel," said Todd McLaughlin of Chambersburg, using the military alphabet to give the club's call sign. His two-meter sideband radio picked up a signal from "Kilo-three-Sierra-Zulu-Hotel," another club in Harrisburg, Pa.

It was another short-distance set, best used for line-of-sight communications, said McLaughlin, a computer programmer. McLaughlin's late grandfather was a ham operator and he inherited both his equipment and passion for the hobby, he said.

Using a set with greater range, Darrell Lingenfield of St. Thomas, Pa., reached out across the Atlantic to Scotland on Saturday, Yoder said.

Club Vice President David Grant, the pharmacy director at Chambersburg Hospital, used a radio linked to a global positioning satellite to monitor the progress of a ham operator's Jeep on the Pennsylvania Turnpike. It was heading westbound at 70 mph at 1,065 feet above sea level.

Yoder said some members have been with the club nearly half a century. One of those is Marshall Stenger of Fayetteville, Pa.

"I got my license in '57," said Stenger, who built his first radio from a kit. Stenger, 83, owned a radio and television store for 30 years, but his interest dates back to World War II when he was in the Signal Corps attached to the 5th Air Force in the South Pacific.

In those days, vacuum tubes meant radios were bulky and produced a lot of heat, Stenger said.

"I have a little article I cut out of a magazine about the invention of the transistor," he said.

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