My Ham Radio Experience So Far
I was always interested in computers and, as a consequence, electronics. Therefore it's no surprise that radios caught my attention at a young age. I've been a licensed ameteur radio operator for around 18 years but I haven't been consistent and I know I'm not alone. I've had many breaks from ham radio due to other priorities and I've lacked growth in many areas of ham radio I should be much stronger in for the amount of years I've been licensed. As I've gotten older, more patient, acquired a little more disposable income, and am either at home or in the hills due to the COVID-19 pandemic, I've gain a renewed interest in the hobby. For myself, and others, I want to share the journey thus far.
There were two people I met when I was in middle school. One was in my classes and the other I knew from the community. They were both my age and both had HT (handheld) radios and their Technician class licenses. Upon hearing them talk about ham radio I immedietly grew interested. I was 13 years old and used to frequent the Radio Shack a few blocks away. There I found Gordon West's prep book for the Technician class exam. I think I read the book up and down twice and found a testing session held at the Hewlett Packard (I think) building on the other side of town. All I remember was that my dad drove me there some days later in the morning and while I was waiting to take my technician someone had their head pressed against a speaker listening to CW for what I assume was last minute practice (General class required decoding 5 WPM back then). I sat down, answered the questions, and gave the paper to the VEC. I would get my callsign soon after.
Shortly after I got my first radio. It was a Radio Shake HTX (I don't remember the model number). That poor HT could only push 200 mW on 2 meters but that's the best I could get my hands on. I ended up using it to listen to other hams, various law enforcement agencies, and my middle school's staff (they weren't happy when they found out). My first contact was made when we went to a family friend's house. He lived up in the Santa Cruz mountains which helped counteract the 200 mW handicap. I don't remember the station I ended up talking to or how the whole thing went. Looking back it must have been funny for the operator to have ended up on the radio with a middle schooler fumbling with his radio. Though I didn't turn out to be a voice mode person, I'll never forget that experience.
Pretty soon after first contact I was on my way to high school. In the interim between middle and high school I became curious about digital modes, satellites, Wifi, and antennas. At some point I ended up getting a Yaesu FT-2800 and a rather decent power supply for my birthday. I still didn't work many voice QSOs and instead wanted to reach the ISS (International Space Station) and satellites. I build dipoles, J-poles, and Yagis. I even built a cantenna for Wifi.
My bedroom was upstairs and I could pop the screen out and get onto the roof. There I installed and tested various antennas. At one point I was setting up a massive Yagi I build (like ~10 elements for 2m). A neighbor across the road thought I was a burglar and called the police. I was making the final adjustments when several flashlights were pointed on me and I was told to get off the roof slowly. That story still makes me laugh today.
This was all in my first year of high school and this would be the first break I had in the hobby. Towards the end of my first year, and throughout the rest of high school, other things took priority: friends, parties, dating, software, and just being a teenager. I wouldn't pick up the radio again until community college, 5 years later.
Straight out of high school I got a job at a software company and spent most my time out of work hanging out with friends, playing with cars, stereos, etc. I did about two years of that when I decided I needed to go to college. I enrolled part-time at the local community college. My goal was take enough clases to transfer to a 4 year university and get my undergraduate in computer science.
For the next few years my day was work, class, and homework. I'd occasionally experiment with radios and antennas late at night. I stared to acquire a few more radios and started to get a deeper understanding of AFSK, AX25, and APRS. I built and bought several audio interfaces to connect my radios to my computer. I wrote a C application to parse the raw bytes out of SoundModem, decode the AX25 frames, and parse the APRS data to export into KML format for Google Maps. I ended up placing a J-Pole ~30 feet off the ground, attached to my parent's garage. The number of stations I picked up on ARPS was insane after that. I ended up running an IGate for some time.
Around this time I was also itching to get the ISS, either by voice or digipeater. One night I looked over the pass predictions for the ISS, tuned up, and heard NA1SS calling (don't remember if they were calling CQ or a specific station). It was awesome! Some time later, I built a dipole and had packets digipeated back down to Earth via the ISS. That was equally as awesome. So much in fact, that I ended up writing about it for my university application essay requirement.
Finally, before transfering to UC Davis to finish my degree, I upgraded my license to General class (I was actually lazy and under the false belief an upgrade counted as an automatic renewal). University didn't leave me with much free time, so for those two years I read over the Ham Radio Electronics Course and played around with RTL-SDR dongles, mostly listening to public safety frequencies and trying to learn about SDR.
After graduating I went straight to a startup. It was definetly not a 9-5pm and combined with the fact I was getting married, left little time to play radio. I bought a TH-D74A because it had APRS built it but didn't spend too much time on it outside of hiking. By this point I knew I loved radios but I'm not the one to sit there on a repeater and talk about the weather. I developed the attitude that radios were interesting to learn about and I should keep my gear for natural diasters and emergency situations. A few years would go by, I'd move, I'd switch jobs but unfortunetly the radios often remained unplugged.
Early this year something very unfortunate happened, a global pandemic. To keep my sanity it was important to find alternatives to the social activities I enjoyed. I believe it was a month or two in that it became apparent solo hiking and biking was suitable to get excercise and remain safe. Around this same time the radio itch came back. In addition, a curious thought struck me, I've never done HF. I knew HF was more interesting because I could reach outside this valley. Despite having a general class license for years already, I never bought an HF transciever.
Historically, I was shy to HF because I never had the space for an end-fed or dipole the size needed for those frequencies. The funny part is, of all the places I've ever lived, my current is by far the worst for any type of antenna. Around this same time another curious thought struck me, why not go mobile or portable.
Before I continue, it's important to preface that I've never been in a ham radio club, or had an elmer, or sought out ham radio information from social media. I've always been interested in radios and I typically prefered books. I've always thought about what the radio can do and not what I can do with it. This was the point that I felt I didn't even know what ham radio was in terms of culture. YouTube had come along way in terms of content and I discovered a slew of life long operators, who had enormous collections of videos on, not just technical topics, but SOTA (Summits on the air), POTA (Park on the air), and ham radio contesting. This was perfect, these were activities where I can "play radio", stay active, get fresh air, and be compatible with social distancing requirements.
I felt a bit behind in the times but I was pleased to discover that the same software defined radio stuff I was playing with years ago was mainstream and the cost and/or feature sets of today's rigs had improved. I purchased the Xiegu G90 as my first HF because I got a transciever, antenna tunner, and an above QRP output all in one box for around $500. Even more surprises came when I discovered the SuperAntenna. I could fit this multiband vertical into a backpack and take it into the hills. Though I understand it's a compromise antenna, it's providing an excellent entry into HF while I'm experimenting with end-fed and dipoles (as well as how to prop these up in the field).
Field day was coming around. I've heard of it before and I've tuned onto 2 meters over the years to get a peek. This year I read all the rules on ARRL, watched an insane amount of videos on YouTube, and executed on a plan to turn my car into a legitimate station (before this I only had a IC-207H and a poor excuse of an antenna). I electrically bonded the car, placed another lip mount, pulled power straight from the battery, and fitted all my equipment with power poles. I did an FT8 dry run the night before and made 4 QSOs on 40 meters. I hit Texas, Oregon, and Utah. Very exciting considering I've been operating on 2 meters, in a valley, for most of my life.
The day finally arrived. My plan was 40m, 20m, 2m, 70cm, with heavy use of FT8 on HF. Things didn't go as planned, laptop had problems, couldn't stay on top of the mountain all day, etc but in the end I got a blend of digital and voice QSOs across all the bands I planned. Though the voice QSOs were fast paced and I got a bit overwhelemed, they were actually quite exciting.
Looking forward, I'm itching to contest and to utilize full size antennas on HF. I'm also hoping to try Parks on the Air as I love camping in state and federal parks. I've aleady set out to learn CW. I have all individual characters down and I'm practicing on paddles daily. Finally, I'm hoping to engage with the community more. I'm not a huge consumer of social media but I've been finding more and more circles on various sites where I can meet like minds. For me it's time I don't just sit back but engage.