October 12, 2010

Calling CQ: ASU's hams are back on the air

Posted: October 12, 2010

Nicholas Radtke, left, and Stuart Lindsay at the radio in W7ASU's new shack. Download image

KC7MOD swings his bicycle into the parking lot and heads toward the building on the hill. Will he find anyone interesting to talk to, he wonders.

AC7FL has just left, it turns out, and he had a conversation with someone in Canada, according to the log.

KC7MOD and AC7FL, you’ve probably guessed, are ham radio buffs and those jumbles of numbers and letters are their callsigns.

KC7MOD is Nicholas Radtke, president of W7ASU – ASU’s Amateur Radio Society – and AC7FL is Stuart Lindsay, Regents’ Professor of Biophysics, who is the club’s faculty adviser.

ASU’s “hams” are sharing good news these days with their fellow radio buffs around the world: For the first time in many years, the club has a permanent home.

W7ASU dates back to the 1930s, and actually is one of ASU’s oldest student clubs, said Radtke, a doctoral candidate in computer science. “There was a station on campus, with some breaks, until about 15 years ago. The club’s ‘shack’ was in the old Technology Building, which is now Psychology North, with two towers and multiple antennas on top of the building.”

A “perfect storm” of events contributed to the club’s hiatus. First, through misunderstandings, the towers and antenna were removed and destroyed during two separate reroofing projects. Second, most of the club members graduated and the advisers retired, leaving no one to lead the group through change. And finally, because of tight space on campus, the club’s room was given to an academic department, Radtke said.

Even before that, space was a problem. A story in the May 3, 1968, issue of the State Press, notes that the club had had to move 10 times in 10 years.

Around 1997, a new group of students revived the club, and sponsored one major event per semester.

“We would put an antenna on the third-floor balcony of the Student Services Building, with the station in front, but this was a lot of work," Radtke. "We also tried doing a few events at club members' houses, using their personal ham radio stations.  Attendance at these events was abysmal, with a common complaint being that members couldn't get to events off campus.

“In order for an amateur radio club to thrive, it pretty much needs an amateur radio station. One of the most common questions we were asked when we were recruiting was ‘Do you have a station on campus?’ When we said ‘no,’ most people walked away. Thus, the focus for the last 13 years was on (re)establishing an amateur radio station on campus.”

Spaces were promised – then taken away – in several buildings.

In February 2007, Student Media offered the club space in Matthews Center, and the hams obtained permission to put up a temporary antenna for several events.

“This was easier than setting up at Student Services since we didn't have to set up all the equipment every time, but it still required a great deal of planning,” Radtke said.

But the club still needed a permanent antenna to operate, and that was not to be at Matthews Center.

University space planners suggested, in June 2008, that the club think about using several rooms in the Community Services Building, where they would be able to put up an antenna.

About this time, a “perfect storm” of good luck burst upon W7ASU. The family of Richard S. Juvet Jr. (WB7CDK/SK), who had been the club’s faculty adviser in the 1970s and ‘80s, donated a tower and antenna and other equipment after Juvet’s death.

“We had to go out and get it,” Radtke said. “Trees had grown up around the antenna, and we had to wrestle it out.”

Now, with a shack set up, and a tower in place right beside the Community Services Building – directly outside the club’s third-floor space, in fact – W7ASU is ready to roll.

The club still hopes to keep its room in Matthews Center to set up equipment to remotely control the station in the Community Services Building, Radtke said. “This way, students will be able to use amateur radio on campus, even though the actual transceiver and antenna are a little over a mile away. We think the added convenience will help the club grow.”

Early newspaper clippings show the Amateur Radio Society’s callsign to be W6KSE. That, according to Radtke, was a personal callsign that was temporarily used as the club was getting started. “The callsign W7TJV was then assigned to the club, and probably used for close to 60 years. In 1997, the callsign was converted to the vanity call W7ASU.”

So what is the attraction of sitting in front of a radio, trying to talk to someone, somewhere?

Part of the appeal is building the gear and talking about it with other “techies.” Part is the “randomness,” said club members. You never know who you will reach, or what the circumstances will be. And sometimes hams can get in on a little history in the making.

“During the eruption of Mt. St. Helens, I was talking to a guy who was watching it,” Lindsay said.

Lindsay noted that “a lot of working scientists and engineers are into radio, and they enjoy the technical challenges, such as fishing signals out of noise and bouncing the signals off the moon or meteorites.

“And, since amateur radio doesn’t need an infrastructure, just a tower, radio can be used for emergency communications if the power fails.”

Until recently, amateur radio operators had to learn Morse code and pass a test to get their licenses. Lindsay, for example, received his license at the age of 13 in the UK, and still can do dits and dahs at a rapid pace.

“My hobby was radio and electronics, and I was pulling radios apart from earliest childhood,” he said.

A session at the radio usually begins with “CQ CQ CQ…CQ CQ CQ…CQ CQ CQ…this is whiskey seven alpha sierra uniform, whiskey seven alpha sierra uniform calling CQ and listening,” repeated several times.

“This might look long-winded, but the idea is that the longer one is transmitting, the better the chance that someone scanning the band will find the signal,” Radtke explained. “After calling CQ – a term that evolved from the phrase 'seek you' – one listens for a response for a few moments. If no one responds, the call is repeated.”

“Sometimes people will include additional information (e.g., what band they are calling on, where they are located) when calling CQ. We, for example, might say we are at Arizona State University so people know it is a school calling.”

The biggest thrill, Radtke added, is to find a rare DX station – an amateur radio station in a different country that is not often heard, possibly because there are few amateur radio stations there, such as Antarctica, or possibly because it is far away.

Another part of the fun of amateur radio is collecting QSL cards, which are post cards exchanged by amateurs who have talked on the radio. W7ASU has boxes of these cards, dating back to the club’s revival in 1997 (the earliest cards were lost during one of the moves).

QSL cards also are collected as part of the certificate programs available to amateurs, such as cards confirming contacts with 100 or more DX countries, all the states in the United States, or all provinces in Canada.

In addition to collecting QSL cards, hams also collect stories, and memories. A few current and former members of W7ASU share their favorites.

James McDonald Jr. (KC7EFP), who helped revive the club in 1997 and was involved until he moved to Washington, D.C., in July, recalls a most memorable moment involving space.

He tells his story:

“I believe it was during my junior year at Carl Hayden High School. It was lunchtime, and as I often had, I was spending it hanging out in the amateur radio clubroom. The CHHS Amateur Radio Club, KC7KFF, had a decent station at the time. The station included a VHF/UHF space station. This station was used to communicate with amateur radio satellites orbiting the Earth.

“It was approaching the end of the lunch hour, and I decided to glance over at the monitor that we used to track satellites passing overhead. I noticed that the Mir space station had recently risen over the horizon and would be overhead for another five or 10 minutes. The Mir space station had an amateur radio station on board, and occasionally you could hear cosmonauts/astronauts on the air. So, I tuned our radio to Mir's station frequency, and I heard Shannon Lucid, an American astronaut, speaking with someone. I could not hear who she was speaking with, but from what I could gather, it was someone in New Mexico.

“I listened for a few minutes as the bell rang, signifying the end of the lunch hour. Then, I heard her say 73, ('best regards' in radio-speak), to the person she was talking to. At that moment, I decided to pick up the mic and give her a call, "R0MIR, this is KC7EFP."  (R0MIR was the callsign for the Mir space station). A few seconds later, I heard her call me back! I was amazed – I never thought I would be able to make a contact with an astronaut aboard Mir; I knew it was quite rare.

“We only spoke briefly with each other; Mir was setting over the northeast horizon. I told her my name and that I was calling from Carl Hayden High School in Phoenix, Ariz., and gave her a report on how well I was hearing her signal. She said hello, and began to tell me about her stay on Mir as her signal faded and suddenly vanished as Mir set. Proud of my accomplishment, I looked around for the others that had been in the room, but everyone else had headed to class, as I had to quickly do myself. No one else heard my contact with Shannon Lucid, but I was still glad to have done it. Later, as is sometimes customary in ham radio, I sent her and R0MIR a QSL card (a ham radio postcard) to recognize our contact.

“One of my teachers, and our club sponsor, Dr. Allan Cameron, was thrilled to hear about my contact with Mir. He, and I too, always enjoy sharing the story with others. Many years passed, and the Mir station has since been retired and was intentionally destroyed in 2001 during de-orbit. However, a few years ago, I received in the mail something very unexpected.

“I received a QSL from the R0MIR station manager in reply to the one I had sent. On the card, it shows my callsign and the time and date of my contact with Shannon Lucid. Although I was unable to share the initial experience of contacting Mir with anybody, I eventually was able to have a physical keepsake of our contact.

Radtke said amateur radio can sometimes be a last resort for information.

“We (at W7ASU) were working a contest when a ham answered our CQ call and asked if we could do him a favor,” he recalled.

“I don't remember where he said he was, but I recall it being somewhere remote where he didn't have access to much technology. He did not have Internet access (keep in mind this was some years ago and Internet access wasn't as prevalent as it is now) and I don't think he even had access to a telephone or postal mail. Ham radio was his only mode of communication to the outside world.

“Apparently, he had a brother whom he had lost contact with years ago – I got the impression that it could have been close to 10 years since he had been in contact with his brother. He heard me say on the radio that we were in Phoenix, which was the last place he knew his brother lived. So he gave me his brother's name and the city he thought he had lived in and asked me if I would try and locate his brother and relay a message.

“At the time, there were a bunch of club members present around the station so we were able to continue with our event while a few of us immediately started researching the gentleman's request.

“In about half an hour we had managed to locate the brother, call him via telephone, and relay the message. Of course since the ham had no reliable form of communication, his brother couldn't contact him back directly. So, having completed the task, I got back on the radio and called the ham back -- that hadn't been part of the arrangement, but I figured there was a small chance he was still listening and I could ease his mind of the issue.

“Amazingly, he was still on frequency and able to hear me, so I let him know his brother was alive and well.  Needless to say, the ham was extremely grateful for our effort.

“While this wasn't exactly handling emergency traffic, I guess this stuck with me because it was an unusual but interesting good deed and it exemplifies one of amateur radio's goals: promoting international (or domestic) goodwill.”

Jim Stack (formerly KA2VRN), a W7ASU member, recalled chatting with a “ham” in Ireland.

“I had a great talk with a man in Ireland when I was at the Arizona Science Center and used their public HAM system with a volunteer operator. It was amazing to be able to talk with someone on the other side of the world just like saying ‘hi’ to a neighbor,” he said.

“We talked about how beautiful and sunny it was here in Arizona, and he said it had been rainy for a week at his home. I told him how my home and vehicle run on solar energy (I have a Plug-in) and he said his power bill was high and he didn't know what was used to make the power. It made me see how lucky we are to live in Arizona.

“Even if the telephone or Internet were down we can talk to people all over the world. This shows how the HAM system can be a lifeline for people all over the world.”

Since W7ASU is still settling into its shack, plans are still tentative for meetings and events during the coming year. Anyone interested in the club, or amateur radio, should contact Radtke at radtken@aztecfreenet.org, or go to the club’s Web site: http://www.asu.edu/clubs/amateur_radio_society/.

So that’s it from W7ASU. See you down the log. 73. (Or, if you’re speaking to someone special, 88.)

Judith Smith, jps@asu.edu
Media Relations