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Cruising the air waves for fun and service

Cowboy Action Shooting
Don Warkentien (left) and Lon Martin (right) help Bill Gery test a portable tower to be used at the annual amateur radio Field Day, held in June at Shawnee Mission Park.

TGIF doesn't mean drinks and dancing for everyone.

For the nearly 40 amateur radio fans, or "hams," who gathered at Overland Park Christian Church on a recent evening, Friday means an opportunity to learn how many contacts were made from Honduras and South America. Friday means a chance to applaud the fact that 28 new ham operators passed their beginner's test the previous weekend. Friday means pumping up team spirit and accepting a challenge from the rival Wyandotte County hams.

Well, yes, after the meeting these hams make an odyssey for pizza and beer—but really, that's not what Friday nights are about. Not if you belong to the Johnson County Radio Amateurs Club.

Just what is ham radio?
Amateur radio, also called "ham" radio, involves the use of designated radio frequency spectra for private recreation, non-commercial exchange of messages, wireless experimentation, and emergency communication.

The term "amateur" refers to non-professional radio operators—people interested in radio technique only with a personal aim and without any financial interest. Amateur radio does not include commercial broadcasting, police and fire communications, or professional two-way radio services like pilots or taxi drivers might use.

Bill Gery puts an even finer spin on the word.

"Amateur is a French word that means 'for the love of,'" said Gery, 60, of Shawnee, president of the Johnson County Radio Amateurs Club (JCRAC). "We all do this for the love of it."

For Gery, the ham passion began when he was in the third grade and his dad gave him a weather station kit and a shortwave radio kit for Christmas. And the passion never waned. Gery now works for the National Weather Service, in a job that sometimes places him on the air. But for his endless hours of ham radio work he gets not a penny.

Amateur radio operation is coordinated by the International Telecommunication Union, which is part of the United Nations, and licensed by national governments. In the United States, licenses come through the Federal Communications Commission.

Amateurs use a variety of voice, text, image, and data communication modes and have access to frequency allocations throughout the radio frequency spectrum. That enables them to communicate across a city, a region, a country, a continent, or the whole world, and even into space. Hams often make contact with the International Space Station and various space shuttles, as many astronauts and cosmonauts are licensed amateur radio operators.

"When the space station is overhead, using special equipment I keep in my truck I can see the station on a map and then make voice contact," Gery said.

It's not chit-chat, though.

"It's just real quick contact so they can move on and talk to school students or others they're scheduled to talk with," he said.

An old space suit with a radio attached was tossed out of the International Space Station into the atmosphere so hams worldwide could track it.

That's all modern stuff. The origins of amateur radio can be traced to the late 19th century, although amateur radio, as practiced today, did not begin until the early 20th century. The birth of amateur radio was associated with amateur experimenters and hobbyists who, throughout history, have made significant contributions to science, engineering, industry, and social services.

An estimated two million people throughout the world are regularly involved with amateur radio. Gery estimates that Greater Kansas City has 2,000 active hams, with 1,000 of those operating out of Johnson County.

How it works
Amateur radio operators use many modes of transmission. The two most common modes for voice transmission are frequency modulation (FM) and single sideband (SSB). FM offers high-quality audio signals, while SSB is better at long-distance communication when band width is restricted.

Radiotelegraphy using Morse code (also known as "CW," from "continuous wave") dates to the earliest days of radio. It is the wireless extension of land line telegraphy developed by Samuel Morse, and was the predominant real-time long-distance communication method of the 19th century.

Many amateur radio operators still use the CW mode, especially on the shortwave bands and for experimental work such as earth-moon-earth communication. Morse communication, using international message encoding, enables communication between hams who speak different languages.

Repeaters, or automated relay stations, are used to increase signal range. Repeaters are usually located on top of a mountain, hill, or tall building; they allow operators to communicate over hundreds of square miles using a low-power hand-held transceiver. Repeaters can also be linked together by use of other amateur radio bands, land lines, or the Internet.

Amateur radio satellites can be accessed for communication. Hams also use the moon, the aurora borealis, and the ionized trails of meteors as reflectors of radio waves.

It's just plain fun
The term "ham" is old. Originally it was a pejorative, an insult hurled at amateurs by professionals. But today's amateurs embrace the term.

The biggest reason most hams stick with their passion is that it's fun. Hams form a community wherever they are, so if they move to a new city or state or country, they can easily find people who share their avocation. It's a ticket to instant friendship.

Amateur radio operators use their stations to make contact with other individual hams and to participate in round-table discussion groups like chat rooms, known as "rag-chew sessions."

Some join in regularly scheduled on-air meetings with other amateur radio operators. These are called "nets" (as in "networks"), and they are moderated by a station referred to as "Net Control." Nets can allow operators to learn procedures for emergencies, be an informal round table, or be topical, covering specific interests shared by a group.

JCRAC operates a "Wheatshocker Net" every Wednesday and Thursday at 8:00 p.m. on the 145.290 and 443.725 repeaters. These are open nets, and all licensed amateurs are invited to join in.

Other nets are limited to certain topics; a net might be a group of people devoted to Harleys, or Miatas, or cooking barbecue.

It's about public safety, too

A ham's vehicle
A ham's personal vehicle is often heavily outfitted with sophisticated equipment.
Most major medical centers and emergency communication centers have ham radio setups and—when staffed by local hams—are ready to respond in emergencies on a scale as grand as the Joplin tornado or Hurricane Katrina.
Computer monitor
A computer system tracks the places Bill Gery reaches from his ham station at home. Recent contacts were in Croatia, the Czech Republic, Brazil, and Spain.

That emergency equipment is purchased and installed through a federal grant. In the metro, all 35 hospitals have at least two ham radios, one in high frequency to reach both coasts. If the New Madrid Fault churned up an earthquake, much of the infrastructure of the Midwest could be torn up, and those local emergency operations would then ramp into full throttle.

JCRAC members would be the voices. Their ability to communicate even if cellular service or land lines are down makes them indispensable. For example, hams at the Shawnee Mission Medical Center and Saint Luke's on the Plaza might coordinate where to move patients or where life-flight helicopters are needed.

In Johnson County, the Emergency Communications Center in Olathe is ham-equipped.

Many members of JCRAC are involved in other public service associated programs such as ARES (Amateur Radio Emergency Services), ARRL (the American Radio Relay League), ECS (the Emergency Communication Service, which is directly tied to homeland security and civil defense), and SATERN (the Salvation Army Team Emergency Radio Network). Through these organizations, hams assist agencies and local schools and hospitals during crises.

During a "set exercise" each October, local hams run through an emergency drill with numerous local groups. The exercise ensures that the community is prepared, and also helps individual hams maintain their accreditation.

Hams look after each other, too. Don Warkentien, 67, of Overland Park, recalled that hams noticed a fellow ham slurring his words while conducting a net. Concerned that he was having a medical crisis, they arranged for emergency assistance—and indeed, he had suffered a stroke.

"You're not anonymous when you're a ham," Warkentien said.

Who are these hams?
Warkentien started working with amateur radio in the late 1960s in Illinois. "I got interested even before I was a teen, through a ham operator down the street," Warkentien said. "It was my dream for many years to become a ham."

What Warkentien likes most is helping new people who want to get into amateur radio.

Lon Martin, 63, of Shawnee, started working with amateur radio in 1963, when he was a 14-year-old in California.

"A neighbor had a big old wooden console radio with shortwave bands," Martin recalled. "My dad got me a kit, and I put one together. I started receiving signals from all over the world. But that wasn't good enough. I wanted to transmit. So I took a class and got my novice license."

Their stories share a familiar trajectory: a child or teen catches the bug and gets active in ham radio, but puts it aside when the demands of family and career intervene.

"I even remember selling my ham radios at times, to feed my family," Martin said.

Then, later—often in retirement—the ham again has the time and financial resources to re-immerse in ham.

Mentoring, educating, testing
People who are newcomers to amateur radio get lots of mentoring from longtime hams, who are referred to as "Elmers." JCRAC has a host of Elmers, who teach novices based on their own particular expertise.

Warkentien, Martin, and Gery are proud of their role as Elmers.

Martin specializes in mobile installations, presenting clinics about the topic throughout the Midwest and beyond. Warkentien specializes in building antennas, Morse code, and helping hams correctly tune their equipment. Gery has strong leadership ability—organizing activities, delegating, and leading meetings. He especially likes to mentor new hams in digital modes and the automatic packet reporting system, or APRS.

New hams can be of any age, by the way.

"We had a girl who was just 7 when she passed her test," Gery recalled. "She and her dad got their licenses together. In fact, at one time our club had both the oldest and youngest ham operators in Kansas!"

Prospective amateur operators are tested for their understanding of key concepts in electronics and the host government's radio regulations. To prepare them, JCRAC sponsors several classes for club members and non-members.

First, there's the Technician class, which prepares new hams to obtain an entry-level license. Two Saturday classes and passing of an exam earn the Technician certification and a call sign.

The club hosts an On-Air Clinic for people who've earned their Technician license but might have "mic fright" when they first communicate. Members with knowledge of each kind of radio are on hand to help the new hams learn to use their own equipment easily and effectively.

The General class, over three Saturdays, prepares hams to operate at high frequency. This class focuses on the properties of waves through the atmosphere, equipment safety, and ham radio rules and regulations.

An Extra class involves even more theory and a more advanced license.

JCRAC members aren't always learning and teaching. They're big on playing, as well, and they schedule a lot of fun into each year.

Field Day is perhaps the biggest shindig. Field Day occurred this year near the observation tower at Shawnee Mission Park the last weekend in June, with participation at the Maker's Faire at Kansas City's Union Station the same day.

Field Day is the same day of the year throughout North America and Canada. Its focus is that hams operate for 24 hours straight from a station they aren't accustomed to. It's a wonderful way to practice for emergencies, but it's also a social high point. The public is invited.

During Field Day, ham clubs can earn points for various challenging feats such as operating with non-fossil energy, contacting a satellite. Media representatives and officials from public agencies attend. There's even a "Get on the Air" station that people can try.

"We have a lot of fun planning Field Day," Gery said. "Especially the food we'll be serving for dinner!"

October Auction. JCRAC has to maintain its two repeaters, and that costs money. The club also supports the Costa Rica DX Exhibition, a youth-oriented ham group. To fund those projects, the club has a yearly auction that also includes training on such things as building ham sets.

The event takes place at the Marshal Ensor Park and Museum in Olathe, a seasonal museum devoted to the life of Ensor, a teacher, craftsman, and amateur radio operator. Ensor taught industrial arts in Olathe from 1915 to 1965, except for World War II. The museum occupies the Ensor family farm buildings and eight acres of the former farm. The 1890 farm home is filled with Ensor family furnishings and the radio equipment he operated under license W9BSP. Ensor's sister, Loretta, also earned a ham license and became W9UA. Loretta was trustee for the first high school radio station in Kansas, where Olathe students could learn to become amateur radio operators. When Loretta died in 1991, she left the Ensor farm to become a museum and park. One of JCRAC's service projects has been to build a permanent fire ring at Ensor Farm for camp fires.

Ham Fest. This swap meet, or flea market, draws all sorts of vendors of amateur radio equipment and paraphernalia. It also includes a ham conference, educational sessions, and testing at the various certification levels.

"There's table upon table of both good stuff and junk!" Gery said with a laugh.

Political nature

Bill Gery
Bill Gery's Shawnee home is the setting for his complex, orderly ham operation that includes maps, computers, and a raft of communication equipment.
Because ham radio has the potential to foster communication in times when nothing else works, it can have political overtones. Radio transmission permits are closely controlled by governments because clandestine uses of radio can be made, and because radio waves propagate beyond national boundaries. Radio is clearly an international matter.

Some countries only allow internal ham radio operators to operate club stations, prohibiting individual transmissions. Others restrict all operation, even by foreigners, to club stations.

In Gery's view, one of the chief political benefits of ham radio is that it brings human beings into contact with each other, one on one, so they can form relationships—which often transcend nationalities.

"An example is that during the Cold War, ham radio operators in the United States built friendships with hams in Russia, and that was barrier-breaking," said Gery.

Gery has communicated with residents of Haiti and Japan during times when those countries had support needs.

"In a time of disaster, countries use every means possible," Gery said. "The goal is using our expertise to figure out the best way of communicating the emergency needs."

Gery notes that local hams support the Salvation Army when it is deployed.

"They will put one of us with each of their mobile kitchens, called canteens," he said, "so we can call for needed supplies."

Johnson County Radio Amateurs Club
Second and fourth Fridays of each month, 7:30 p.m.
Overland Park Christian Church, 75th and Conser
Dues $24/year, $40/two years, grandchildren under 18 free
PO Box 93, Shawnee Mission, KS 66201

The Johnson County Radio Amateurs Club is one of the most active clubs in the Kansas City area, which also hosts clubs in Wyandotte, Platte, and Clay counties as well as Raytown, Blue Springs, and Independence. Kansas City has several clubs, including the Heart of America Radio Club, Kansas City Preparedness Amateur Radio Club, and Kansas City Area Blind Association Radio Club. And Johnson County has a second club, the Santa Fe Trail Amateur Radio Club.

You do not have to be a ham to join the club, although you must have a valid amateur radio license to use either of the club's two repeaters.

Each member receives a copy of the "Feedback" club newsletter.

Santa Fe Trail Amateur Radio Club
PO Box 3144, Olathe, KS 66063

Regular Meetings
First Saturdays at 7:45 a.m.
East Room of Perkins
I-35 and 135th Street, Olathe

Every Saturday at 7:00 a.m.
East Room of Perkins
I-35 and 135th Street, Olathe

Ham Fun Nights
Third Fridays at 7:00 p.m.
490 New Century Parkway
New Century Airport, Olathe