Ham operators no amateurs when it comes to radios

June 27, 2005|by DON AINES

CHAMBERSBURG, Pa. - Using a piece of equipment Guglielmo Marconi would recognize, Ellen Engle of Waynesboro, Pa., reached out to amateur radio operators in Wisconsin and Massachusetts Sunday morning.

"I'm just terribly out of practice right now," Engle said as she adjusted knobs and buttons on a receiver. Instead of a microphone, however, she was doing her talking on a Morse telegraph key, sending out dots and dashes to ham operators listening in on the ionosphere.

Indecipherable to those who do not know the code, a cacophony of dots and dashes were coming back over the speaker.


"You can have 15 signals on top of each other and learn which one you want to listen to by the pitch," said Engle, who was participating in Field Day with the Cumberland Valley Amateur Radio Club. For 24 hours beginning at 2 p.m. Saturday, radio operators were taking shifts on sets at the Warm Spring Ruritan in Hamilton Township.

On the other end of the technological spectrum, Dave Grant of Chambersburg was operating an automatic position reporting system, or APRS.

"You connect GPS receivers to your radios and you can beacon your position at different intervals," said Grant. On a laptop computer he pulled up a display of APRS-equipped stations in the Baltimore-Washington area, including one at the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis.

Hours earlier, he had contacted other hams using the International Space Station.

"We were just sending data ... We were contacting other amateurs through the space station," which Grant said operates as a "repeater in the sky."

Each year, amateur radio operators and clubs around the world take part in Field Day and the Cumberland Valley Amateur Radio Club was, literally, set up in a field.

"This is a practice exercise in emergency communications," said George Harris of Shippensburg, Pa., the club's activity director. Portable generators provided by the Franklin County Department of Emergency Services and the Cumberland Valley Emergency Medical Services puttered away nearby, supplying the juice to power an array of antennas ranging from 2 to 80 meters.

Last year when four hurricanes hit Florida, Darrell Lingenfield of St. Thomas, Pa., said telephone lines, cell towers and other means of communication were knocked out. Ham operators stepped in, providing supporting radio communications to police, fire and ambulance services during the emergency.

Although often called short wave radio, Harris said the longer the antenna, the farther the signal reaches. Over the years, he has contacted hams in more than 100 countries on all seven continents.

Weekend contacts by members included Switzerland, Spain and Columbia, he said.

One of the longer antennas at the site was strung between a flagpole and a tree. Harris said a weighted line propelled by a slingshot was used to get the wire into the tree and such improvisation is important for emergency communications.

"We can take a pile of junk, put it together and talk to the world," said Ricky Bates of Greencastle, Pa., a full-time Army reservist who also participates in the Military Affiliated Radio Service, or MARS. The 9th Signal Corps has its own amateur radio site in the Tuscarora Mountains, he said.

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