Since Field Day is one of the world’s first True Prepping events, we figured a special edition of Urban would be interesting, even to non-ham radio types.
Of course, there will be enough “secret sauce tossed in” to make sure Old-Timers (I was first licensed in 1963, lol) learn a few tricks along the way.
What’s Field Day?
The grandperson of ham radio organizations is the American Radio Relay League. Because in times of emergency, ham radio operators “relay” messages all over the world.
A couple of times a year, hams pretend the absolute worst has happened: They take generators, solar panels, and climb mountains and such, to prove (repeatedly) that when a message MUST get through, ham radio beats all comers.
Ham radio hasn’t required Morse code proficiency for at least 20-years. Elaine is code-free KG4YHV and was licensed at the Tropical Hamboree in 2002 at a one-day class. Fort Lauderdale, if I remember.
My buddy of 67+ years, the Major and I attended Morse code classes at the old Seattle Radio store on the north end of Second Avenue in Seattle. The late John Dupre was our instructor.
To become a ham today, just click over to HERE and toss in your Zip code. You’ll find a local ham club. Elaine and I belong to the Palestine/Anderson County club here in East Texas. Enough of the sales pitch.
Except to say, that if (more likely when) an actual emergency arises in your community, there is NOTHING that will give you more peace of mind than being plugged in to the news and official information grid. Ham clubs around the country work with local fire and law enforcement Emergency Operation Centers (EOCs) and are an incredible back-up service when needed. SkyWarn, too, helping NOAA.
Why Field Day?
That’s when hams “go to the field.” It doesn’t take much money to have (literally) worldwide communications at your fingertips for about $100 if you know what you’re doing. Take these two pieces, 50-feet of wire, motorcycle battery, and some skill, and you are in touch!
Of course, the cheapest communications are Morse code. And several organizations are devoted to maintaining the art of Brass Pounding. One group is FISTS while the other is the Straight Key Century Club (SKCC). All optional, but when the chips are down, signal conditions between marginal and impossible, there are only a couple of dead-reliable ways to get a message through.
Two are digital modes (FT-8 and FS-1045-1051 ALE). ALE is not exactly simple: It was initially designed as a nuclear survivable message store & forward protocol for the military. FT-8 is a reliable digital mode, but that means a computer. Morse code and a set of ears with a “digitally trained brain” on the other hand, relies on the space between your ears to “go digital.”
Elaine and I – being in our 70’s – realize that in a terrible medical event, we could be nearly paralyzed and still “get a message out.”
Most people (*and most hams) have never heard the story of the late Alabama Senator Jeramiah Denton. He’s a genuine American hero admired for his Code skills. Wiki him and you’ll find out why:
“Denton was widely known for enduring almost eight years of grueling conditions as an American prisoner of war (POW) in North Vietnam after the A-6 Intruder he was piloting was shot down in 1965. He was the first of all American POWs held captive and released by Hanoi to step off an American plane during Operation Homecoming in February 1973. As one of the earliest and highest-ranking officers to be taken prisoner in North Vietnam, Denton was forced by his captors to participate in a 1966 televised propaganda interview which was broadcast in the United States. While answering questions and feigning trouble with the blinding television lights, Denton blinked his eyes in Morse code, spelling the word “T-O-R-T-U-R-E”—and confirming for the first time to U.S. Naval Intelligence that American POWs were being tortured.“
Which, to our way of thinking was smart as hell.
Sorry, Ham Radio, as my late friend Don Stoner used to say, really is “The King of Hobbies.” Not to belabor history, but without people like Don, there would be no Starlink and a lot of other satcoms we take for granted today.
Give a ham a computer and technology will explode as you watch… In fact that scratchy noise when you hear NOAA Weather alerts is the digital leftovers of the concept I worked with Don on when I was news director of KMPS back in 1983…but I digress.
How to Approach Field Day
Wire in the tree or a full-out assault on the spectrum? Everywhere in-between?
Since ham radio is an infinitely expandable hobby, it helps to narrow your focus when setting up for Field Day. Questions like how much time do I want to spend? How many radio operators? What modes (voice, code, digital?).
From there you think like a real estate agent (location, location, location). If you’ve decided on line of sight VHF and UHF operations, or satellites, a location atop a mountain is hard to beat. My son (KF7OCD, also an extra class license holder) found Mount Washington (in the state of) a neat place to do “snow camping” ham radio exploits.
Sure, the top of Mount Wilson (think 92 miles from Mount Palomar) is interesting, too. But there is so much radio infrastructure on the “best” VHF/UHF sites that compromises must be made.
HF (3-30 MHz) operations don’t need line of sight – and are therefore “go anywhere” decisions. But even these can be improved upon.
HF is Magic
Back in my high schools days, the old Evergreen State Net had a hidden transmitter hunt. Another fellow and I (by age 16 with a broadcast engineering ticket) decided to pull a fast-one. We set up the hidden transmitter in a car parked a few feet from the railroad tracks that run along Puget Sound. Ran a jumper cable from the bumper to a spike on the outside of the rails.
Well, wouldn’t you know? Every time anyone got near the railroad tracks, we had an amazing signal. One group of transmitter hunters began walking up the tracks from Golden Gardens city park in Seattle towards Edmonds. They would have an 7 or 8 mile hike to find us.
Even a Field Day location along railroad tracks doesn’t guarantee spectacular results: Another consideration is noise. In the “art of HF radio ops” the best tool for location-scouting is a good shortwave radio. Listen for quiet across the bands.
You Want Trees, Too!
Great locations for Field Day should have an assortment of trees. The taller the better.
My buddy the Major is up at Blewett Pass in Washington State this weekend with a retired 3-letter agency pal and another electronics whiz scouting out their location for next weekend.
Getting an antenna into the trees is an artform. Since we are in Texas tall pine country, I’ve used an air compressor-filled pneumatic gun lately. 1-ounce lead sinker on the end and some 40-pound test line. 100- feet is easy.
There are assorted other approaches. Some of most popular are variants of slingshots and such. But the one Dr. Bob Heil outlines here (https://youtu.be/xHuzVcfwE28) is really the cat’s meow.
Recognize the name Bob Heil? Designed the Wall of Sound for the Grateful Dead and did a system for The Who… yeah, like Stoner used to say: King of Hobbies. Quick! Joe Walsh, Walter Cronkite, and Gen. Curtis LeMay had what in common?
Back to work – we haven’t even started pulling gear out yet!
Well, for an antenna, a multi-band dipole sounds easy. Once we get the paracord up 80+ feet. To ensure it “plays well” we will need a manual (big unit) or solid state antenna tuner (lower right) and an SWR meter (to look at standing waves on the antenna – which is wasted power).
Which gives us a ready to run antenna. Which then means we need the radio itself.
Say, how about a classic old TenTec Jupiter, because it works CW so well?
We don’t need peripherals, but if digital was in “the plan” then something like a Tigertronics data interface between the radio and the computer.
And of course, the computer.
Whew! Almost Ready!
Time to check it all out.
Computer in RF is important: Want to make sure if you’re using a computer for logging the contacts that it will work around the radio gear nicely.
Computers can generate noise – how much battery time on that laptop? Have you put some ferrite anti-noise beads on the power cables?
If you’re running all this on a generator, got gas? Spare sparkplug? Second generator? How far you want to take this can be anywhere from casual to interesting to over-prepared to extreme. All depends how bad you want to get a message through.
Food, Beverage, & More…
Since I can flip a breaker and my whole office (and ham gear) go 100% solar and battery bank, all Ure needs to do is pick an antenna and a radio:
But I’m not ready, yet.
There’s a lawn to mow and a trip to the adult beverage store yet to come.
I will post some frequencies early next Saturday if you have an op who can handle Morse on your team.
Don’t forget the chili!
Write when you get through,