A Declaration of Love to Amateur Radio
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Right at the beginning of this post, I would like to give the impatient reader a highly condensed summary why one wants to become a radio amateur:
With an amateur radio license one can build radios oneself, irradiate the moon with radio waves, communicate via satellites, chat with astronauts, flying pilots, engineers on oil tankers, researchers at Antarctica, compete with others, have a reason to go into nature, make friends worldwide, acquire and expand language skills, understand the world better, and find many ideas for various projects.
But first a few words about how I got into this hobby.
It has been over four years since I took my amateur radio license exam. In the spring of 2019, I came across an article on the internet that was amateur radio related. I had always been interested in the topic of electronics, but didn't really feel that I had a firm grasp on it. After some research, I then realized that I could learn quite a bit in this subject area by studying for the amateur radio exam. A direct interest in the radio itself was not yet present at this time. The exam fees as well as the purchase of the study material turned out to be very affordable, so I decided to aim for a Class E exam in July 2019. Although I am actually a late riser, I scheduled about 2 hours every morning, even before the family got up, to study for the exam. While studying, the newly acquired Baofeng UV-5R was always on the table as motivation, so I could listen to the local relay traffic in between. Gradually, the interest in practical radio operation grew in me. On 12.7.2019 I passed my exam for the class E license. Still on site, an employee of the Bundesnetzagentur (similar to the FCC) told me that I should definitely continue learning directly and take the exam for Class A in a timely manner. Listening to this advice, I immediately registered for the next exam in September of the same year and continued to study in the same style as before.
As a reward for passing the exam, I purchased a used Alinco DX-70 (shortwave radio), with which I then had my first radio contact on shortwave on 7/19/2019. At that time being still very microphone shy, I plunged into the world of digimodes, first of all mainly FT8. My very first QSO (radio contact) on 10m would be a connection to Portugal with Antonio, CS7ANU in FT8.
Then, after I had successfully passed the Class A exam in Nuremberg on 9/5/2019, I could finally play radio on the much more interesting bands. It took until October until I dared to make my first SSB contact (40m, GB0PPY).
Since the spring of 2019, practically not a day has gone by that I have not engaged in some form of amateur radio. Why this is so, I would like to try to explain following.
The amateur radio hobby is ideal for everyone who likes soldering, tinkering, developing and inventing. Starting with the construction of antenna cables over transceiver kits the projects go up to own developments. One always encounters problems (which one would not have without the hobby), which then have to be solved: Laziness makes one develop an automatic antenna switch, an interface between a transceiver, and a power amplifier is needed, or building simple wire antennas for the shortwave station. Especially with the last one you learn a lot of basics of high frequency technology, which help you to advance in the hobby.
This then leads to further rabbit holes like e.g. the housing construction and thus inevitably to 3D printing. With this one can manufacture plastic parts for antennas. The ramifications into further rabbit holes seem to be endless.
Beside the hardware tinkering the inclined IT-person can also enjoy himself in the area of programming. I've already done a few amateur radio-related software projects, including simple command-line-based logging software, a microcontroller-based remote power meter, and many smaller scripts, such as for transmitting messages to a radio pager.
Many radio amateurs are dedicated to the open source idea, so you can find a lot of free software e.g. for station operation, which you can use yourself as well as actively participating in existing projects.
I have to admit that geography never really interested me before. The reason was probably the lack of necessity. But if one night, when one should already have been asleep, one manages to establish a radio contact to a station in Aruba, for example, one can't help but look up on the map where the communication partner is located. Most of the time, however, I go further and inform myself on Wikipedia about the respective country and its people.
It is also interesting to communicate directly with the respective communication partners and to learn from them first hand about their country, their place of residence and their life.
It will happen again and again that a seemingly ordinary radio contact becomes an experience that you will remember for a long time. Sometimes due to the environment or activity of the communication partner, because he/she is e.g. sitting as a co-pilot in an airliner, is a machinist on an oil tanker or was once a cosmonaut. Also very rare contacts to members of a research station at the South Pole or to an astronaut are possible, but unfortunately I did not have the chance so far.
But even conversations with "ordinary" people can be extraordinary, depending on their life situation and history, and sometimes lead to friendships.
I am always fascinated by the fact that it is possible to communicate with people all over the world without having to rely on man-made infrastructure (Internet, repeaters, etc.). This is especially true when your own station is powered by solar energy.
Almost seamlessly following on from the previous topics of "Interesting Contacts" and "Geography" is the exchange of QSL cards. With the help of this wonderful tradition, radio amateurs confirm a radio contact to each other by sending a QSL card. This resembles a postcard and usually consists of a colorfully printed, individually designed front and a somewhat standardized back, which shows the data of the communication, sometimes also a personal greeting and a signature. These cards are sent either by mail or free of charge through the association. Throughout the world, clubs organized in their respective countries regularly collect the QSL cards of their members and send them to clubs in other countries, where they are then given back to their members.
Collecting such cards helps to remember special contacts, but also serve as proof for achieving awards (more on that later).
Space and Satellites
Of course I had always been interested in space and satellites, but I never had a direct connection to it. But the fact that the amateur radio license enables one to talk to other people via various satellites or even the ISS is not only a great privilege, but also has a fascination of its own.
It is actually possible, with an inexpensive handheld radio, 5W transmit power and a Yagi antenna pointed at an Earth-orbiting satellite in hand, to talk via that satellite to another person doing exactly the same at the same time but in a different location. This is also possible via the ISS and if you are very lucky, this other person can also be an astronaut on the ISS.
Meanwhile, there is also a geostationary satellite that can be reached from Europe, Africa and parts of Asia as well as South America. This intergalactic amateur radio relay allows radio experiments and communication in digital modes, voice and video telephony around the clock, all year round.
Away from satellite communication, the radio amateur learns a lot about the ionosphere, which surrounds our planet. This is enormously important in the shortwave range for the propagation of radio waves. Depending on solar activity, frequency band, time of year and time of day, no or sometimes very special radio communications are possible.
Another facet of amateur radio is Earth-Moon-Earth communication. Here, radio amateurs do not use man-made satellites to bounce their signal back to earth, but the moon. This is irradiated with high power and targeted antennas in such a way that part of the radio waves reach the earth again and can thus be heard and answered by another radio amateur.
POTA, SOTA and other outdoor activities
There are countless programs that encourage radio amateurs to get out into nature. For example, the Parks On The Air (POTA) program defines national parks around the world to activate and hunt. Radio amateurs who set up their station there are the activators. They are interested in combining outdoor activity and amateur radio and receive points as well as awards for their activation. Other stations (the hunters) try to hunt the activators, that is to perform successful communication with them. Their motivation is to collect worked parks, support the activators and many also try to get awards.
For those who don't necessarily care about personal contact or other aspects listed here, there is a wide selection of radio awards. These are earned, for example, by proving radio contacts with at least 100 countries or with all 50 US states. Depending on where you are on the planet, one can be significantly harder to achieve than the other.
The previously mentioned countries are actually so-called entities, since a country in the world of amateur radio can sometimes consist of two or more such entities. For example, many often unknown islands that politically belong to a much better known country are own entities. Some of these entities are not or only sparsely populated or have no active amateur radio community. In order to make these coveted entities accessible to others, adventurous radio amateurs travel to the most remote places in the world as part of DX-peditions, set up camp there and do radio operations for a certain time. Thus, this hobby can also be an interesting additional component for an adventurer or globetrotter.
Radio contests are held on many weekends throughout the year. Depending on the contest, the goal is to make as many contacts as possible in a certain period of time, to get as far as possible with as little power as possible, or to work out certain parts of the world.
What is a thorn in the side for many, is for others a popular sport or a good way to make contacts with new countries/entities.
The amateur radio community is a very special one. As in many communities, there are one or two special people with whom not everyone is compatible, but they all share the same technical affinity, wide-ranging interest, practical disposition and hobby-related joy of communication.
Unfortunately, the amateur radio community can be described as over-aged, so that even those in their mid-40s are among the young. This deters many interested people, especially when it comes to club activity, which can indeed be classified as problematic. Fortunately, radio amateurs are organizing themselves more and more virtually instead of just location-based, and they quickly find like-minded people this way.
When I meet a stranger and he tells me his callsign, a certain basic trust is immediately established.
There is certainly more that can be said about amateur radio. I myself have by no means explored all that the hobby has to offer and I hope that never will be the case. In summary, I can say that it is the perfect hobby for me, as it fascinates, motivates and gives me a lot of pleasure every day.