Ham radio makes its mark on Earth — and space





Gusty winds caused local ham radio operators to cancel their part of an annual exercise over the weekend, one that is celebrated by amateur radio enthusiasts across the United States and Canada.

Dale Urban, a member of Sandhills Amateur Radio Club of Western Kansas, said every year on the fourth weekend of June, ham radio operators participate in a Field Day, sponsored by the American Radio Relay League, the national association for amateur radio in the U.S.

During the exercise, area ham radio enthusiasts get together with their radios, emergency generators and portable antennas and operate for a 24-hour period.

"It becomes kind of a contest to see who can make the most contacts with other stations doing the same thing over the weekend," Urban said. "The idea is to simulate if all other communications were wiped out in a disaster, or that sort of thing, we could at least use (ham radio) to get the word out and communicate until other types of communication get running again."

Amateur radio operators work in several different modes, including Morse code, voice and a variety of digital loads, Urban said.

The local club has 20 to 25 members throughout the area, including Garden City, Tribune, Scott City and Dighton.

Urban got started in ham radio in 1989 because of a general interest in radio and how radios work.

"As a kid, I listened to a lot of AM and FM radio, and I was intrigued by how radios worked, so I would tear them apart. Later on, after several years, I got into amateur radio," he said. "Today, a lot of stuff is computerized. A lot of stuff we do interfaces computers with radios."

Like any hobby, the equipment and cost varies, depending on how involved a person becomes. Urban said some things, like antennas, a person can make themselves, and that certain types of VHF/UHF radios are available today for less than $100.

"You can get started pretty easy. There are a lot of guys out there — we call them Elmers — that will kind of take new guys under their wing and teach them what they know. We've all relied on them Elmers quite a bit," he said.

It's the variety of amateur radio that Urban enjoys. If you get tired of one facet, you can move on to another, he said.

Some enthusiasts like to bounce signals off satellites to send to other operators hundreds or thousands of miles away. Others work with digital television signals and transmit pictures, or operate using a variety of other digital signals.

Urban said even the International Space Station has a ham radio station on board that astronauts sometimes use to communicate with ham operators, or even school children, during certain education events.

"It comes around about every 90 minutes and lasts about 10 minutes, depending on what orbit they have. Some passes are better than others," he said.

Even Morse code, commonly used for trains and ships of the early 1900s, is used quite extensively by ham operators, Urban said.

"There are guys who still like to use it to this day. A lot of them are good enough at it that they can send 30 to 40 words a minute. It's like another language to them, and it's pretty interesting to watch," he said.

Becoming a ham radio operator requires classes and licensing. Urban said there are three levels of licenses: technician, general and extra.

Those interested in learning more about ham radio should go to the national organization's website at www.arrl.org. People also may contact Urban at 272-0311 for more information about the local club.

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