Ham it up

I have been meaning to get my ham operators license for some time now. I never really knew what was involved in the process so I always let it slip out of my mind after a very short time. I knew that there was a “test” of some sort involved. And that you had to pay to take the test. Not wanting to pay for a test I might fail and not knowing where to turn to pass, I gave up. Until about 3 weeks ago. Then I heard about a ham class that was being offered locally. I actually heard about it through two channels: my church has been pushing to get people to have ham licenses for emergency preparedness, as has Beaverton CERT (Community Emergency Response Team). So when I heard about it this time, I signed up. The flier for the class had a link to Ham Elmer where you could download a PDF that told you the basics about getting a license.

After reading this booklet and absorbing the info like a sponge, I felt pretty confident. I started to read about ham stuff in my spare time. I learned about HF/VHF/UHF propagation and about RF safety. I found some practice tests online and started to take them. I found that I could ace the Technician test nearly every time. So I think to myself, this was pretty easy, maybe I should shoot for General. See, by now, I realized that there are three levels of licenses, each with increased privileges. I already had my sights set on Amateur Extra, but was not sure how long it would take me to get there. A few years, perhaps.

The first time I took the online General level test, I only failed by one question. It was a 35 question test, like the Technician test, only the questions were a little harder. That really got my hopes up. So I studied up some more on the questions I missed so I could understand what they were talking about. At this time, I recognized a lot of the words and phrases, but was still dredging the depths of my brain to pull of any shred of knowledge about radios and electronics I learned in college. As I read about radio wave propagation, FCC part 97, and the ham culture in general, I began to get slightly better scores. I think on the fourth try, I finally started passing the General tests regularly. I still had a week until the ham course. I was notified that they would be testing all levels and that if you pass one level, they automatically offer you the next level. Hmmmm….

I took aim. I jumped. I landed flat on my face with a score of 50% on my first Amateur Extra practice exam. Eeek. There were so many terms and principles that I knew I should remember, but didn’t that I almost gave up there. One week. I started reading and taking practice exams in every free minute of my time. I stayed up late and woke up early with ham radio on my brain. Circuits, and complex impedance, and Q, oh my! I dove in whole hog and pulled up all the debris out of the depths of my brain and put the wreckage back together. I was getting closer. I could feel it. Things were starting to make a little more sense. I was getting a better idea how the circuits fit together and how transmission lines behave at various lengths. What patterns antennas radiate radio waves in. I think I may have done a little happy dance when I passed the practice exam for the first time. After that, it was all downhill. I started passing regularly, albeit with somewhat low scores. The QRZ website kept telling me, “You passed! It was a good score, but not great. Keep studying.” So I go back to review what I missed and try to make sense of all the questions. Finally, I start to get more, “You passed! Great score. You are ready!” One day until the exam. I am so stoked that I have a hard time sleeping.

I skipped the class because it was very long (3 hours Friday night and then 4 hours Saturday morning.) I showed up in time for the exam. I made sure that I was at the start of the line because there were likely more than 80 folks there to get tested. The VEs (Volunteer Examiners) said that this was the largest group to be tested that they had ever seen. I would believe it. It took them a while to get the line moving, but after all my forms were checked in triplicate, I was handed my test. They announced that they would allow programmable calculators as long as there were no programs on them. Understandable, but my HP-48G from college had all the stuff on it that I spent years putting on, so there was no way I was going to delete that stuff. Good thing I had a backup plan. I brought the simple simon calculator that Lauren uses to calculate fees for piano lessons. It only does basic arithmetic stuff. Add, subtract, divide, multiply, square root, and percent. Woohoo. Well, it was better than nothing. I put my HP under my chair and put simon on my table. I opened the Technician test and flew through it. I raised my hand and they took my test away to be graded.

After what seemed like an eternity (which was really more like 15 minutes), they called out my number and they came to me with the results. It just so happened that the runner who brought my results already knew of my grand aspirations to take all three tests, so he merely told me I passed and said he would be back with the next test. By this time, there was already another guy at my table taking his test. Sometime before I finished my General test, he finished his Technician test and began the long wait. Another guy also joined us with his Technician test. I finished up and sent my test in to be graded and started to look around. I could see that most of the people who were taking the test passed since the CSCEs (Certificate of Successful Completion of Examination) were getting passed out like candy. Some people were requesting to take the General exam while others were happy to pass Technician and take off. I finally figured out why it took so long to grade the exams. There were six graders, lined up in threes across from each other along a table. The graders on the end each pull from the stack at the end of the table and start grading. To grade the exam, they merely select the correct template and overlay it on the exam, looking to make sure that each hole in the template has a mark on the exam below. Any holes without a mark below get marked and counted as wrong. Then the grader passes it on to the next grader. Like I said before, everything is done in triplicate. This is good because occasionally, somebody makes a mistake and the odds are fairly low that all three will make the same mistake.

My general test came back with a passing score and the runner congratulated me and brought me the Amateur Extra exam. By this time, my heart was beating pretty hard, so I tried to calm down so I could take the test on an even keel. Hands stop shaking. There were several of the questions that I did not know for sure, but by the end of the test, I was pretty sure that I had answered enough of them correct to pass. I only had to get 37 out of the 50 questions correct to pass, and I was confident that I had that. After all, when in college, a 75% was a failing score in my book. Getting a C on a test was devastating. Getting a B was still not good, but sometimes that was as good as I could do. But an A was the only acceptable grade. I raised my hand and sent the test off with the runner. I turned and tried to determine how many tests were on top of mine in the pile to be graded. This might be a while. By this time, the fellow next to me was nearly done with his General exam and the other guy passed his Technician and decided to try the General.

This time, I really did have to wait an eternity to get my test result. But before I did, I had some idea that they were starting my test as I heard, “Who wants to grade an element four?” Element four is the official name for the Amateur Extra exam. Not too long after that, the first grader got my attention by calling out my number and giving me a two thumbs up sign to let me know that I had passed. Woo hoo! I was shocked, relieved, and satisfied. I knew that the two weeks of studying had paid off. The head VE came over and congratulated me personally for taking such a big step. Lots of people congratulated me. Yes, it was a big deal. Element four was no joke. It was a difficult test, but I don’t think it was nearly as difficult for me at age 31 as it would be for me at age 62. Many of the people in the room were older than I am. Some had a very hard time on the Technician test. I can imagine that it only gets harder with age. Especially taking all three. They gave me my CSCE and I went home.

I went home for the long wait. Is my license there yet? Daily, nay, hourly checking on the FCC’s ULS website did not seem to move my license along any faster. The VEs said it would likely be until the following Friday (six whole days!!!) before it would show up on the ULS. And true to their word, my Amateur Extra license was granted on 5 Jun 2009. My originally issued callsign is AE7AV, which is a ‘coveted’ 2×2 callsign, but not exactly what I had in mind. Alpha Echo 7 Alpha Victor or di-dah dit dah-dah-di-di-dit di-dah di-di-di-dah just didn’t fit me quite right. I found that my great-grandpa George Comstock’s callsign, W7CJ, was already taken by my first-cousin-once-removed Terry Comstock of Hillsboro, OR. Hmmm. So I can’t take that one. After much perusing on the VanityHQ website, I found a few that I liked. So shortly after getting my license, I applied for a vanity callsign, which I still have a 3-week wait before I get it. The callsign I am hoping for is NV2M or November Victor Two Mike, or dah-dit di-di-di-dah di-di-dah-dah-dah dah-dah. Now that is something I can live with. I still like NR3V, which is like Vern spelled backwards, but due to issuing regulations, is not available until next year.

Now it is time to get on the air. But I have no radio. Most beginning radios are a couple hundred bucks. Mid-range radios are just under a thousand and high-end are several to many thousands. Eek. Where will I come up with money for this new hobby? Why can’t I have a hobby like Lauren, which makes money?

Comments are closed.