The Amateur Amateur: We’re Having a Bad Transmitter Day
By Gary Hoffman, KB0H
March 28, 2010
I am one of several people who acts as the net controller for the weekly St Louis County ARES® phone net. The last time I had run the net had been a disaster. I had blithely read a chunk of the net script unaware that I was sending out a carrier but with no modulation. Everyone -- and I mean everyone -- let me know as soon as I stopped transmitting.
That unfortunate event had taken place weeks ago. I hadn't exactly solved the problem -- it had just sort of gone away. I was pretty sure that the culprit was a bad microphone. It was a nice (and expensive) desktop model that had, regrettably, taken a dive off of the desk and hit the concrete floor a while back. Usually it worked fine, but sometimes...
Anyway, I had a replacement microphone. And after the faux pas with the ARES® net, I decided the damaged one must go, expensive or not. So with a twinge of regret, I tossed it into the trash bin.
Weeks later, it was once again my turn to be the net controller. I sat down at my station, and with great confidence pressed my microphone key at exactly 7:30 PM local time (I may mess things up, but I'm very punctual about it). I read the beginning of the net script, unkeyed the microphone, and...
"KB0H, are you there? You're sending out a carrier but you're not modulating."
No! It couldn't be. Not again! Especially not after I'd thrown away my original microphone!
I scuttled over to my secondary transceiver. I'd used it only minutes earlier, so I knew that it, at least, was working. I grabbed the microphone, checked the dial...
My backup transceiver's display was showing gibberish.
"All stations standby while I try to contact KB0H," the backup net controller was saying.
I poked buttons and spun dials on my backup transceiver. What had happened? It was a fairly simple radio with a minimum of options. It had been my most reliable rig. And now, when I needed it the most, it had gone into Weird Mode.
"KB0H, are you there?"
Okay, I've trained and trained for emergency situations. I do well in simulations, but if adrenaline is flooding my system, my brain just ceases to function. I knew that I had to get at least one of my radios working again, but I just couldn't think. Which one? How?
I tried a kinetic reset on my main transceiver (okay, I hit it). I keyed up and put out my call sign.
"Read you fine, KB0H," said the backup net controller.
Relief surged through my body. I sat down and restarted the net script. The transceiver, possibly fearing more "resets," behaved and gave me no more trouble.
As the net progressed and the adrenaline washed out of my system, I was able to start multi-tasking again. I poked at my secondary transceiver, trying to figure out what was wrong with it.
Abruptly, it started working. To this day, I do not know what happened to it.
All right, now all of my equipment was working. But the glitch or gremlin or stray neutrino that had affected my systems had apparently gone out over the air and landed in the transceiver of Burl Rongey, W0BWR. He checked into the net, released his microphone key...
...and kept right on transmitting.
There were a few uncomfortable moments during which everyone listening could hear Burl and his wife Cece, W0CMR, chatting. Fortunately Burl was quick to realize what was happening and corrected the problem. Maybe he did a kinetic reset, too.
Our ARES® group had planned to do an exercise right after the net using a string of linked UHF repeaters. One of the repeaters was down, however, so we cancelled the exercise. During the net, I asked Cece if she would get on the local UHF repeater and announce the cancellation. She switched to the UHF frequency and...
The glitch had jumped from Burl's transceiver into hers! She couldn't connect to the UHF repeater.
Let me tell you, it was a really bad transmitter day.
It's not hard to guess what happened once I closed the net. Everyone jumped on the air and started asking questions and theorizing about the various transmitter problems. One thing ham radio operators are never short of is theories.
But I have to admit that the folks on the air that evening had some pretty good ideas. Bob, NV0H, in particular had an uncanny sense of what might have happened to my main transmitter.
"What type of radio do you have?" he asked.
"Yaesu FT-847," I replied.
"Bet that's it," Bob said. "Probably a loose modular plug."
Since it's an intermittent problem -- really obnoxious problems are always intermittent -- I don't know for sure whether or not Bob was right. I suspect that he was. If the problem recurs, the microphone modular plug will certainly be the first thing that I check.
I must say, though, that with four transmitters all developing problems that evening, I am still tempted to blame a sudden burst of neutrinos.
Or one very nasty gremlin.
Editor's note: ARRL member Gary Hoffman, KB0H, lives in Florissant, Missouri. He's been a ham since 1995. Hoffman says his column's name -- "The Amateur Amateur" -- suggests the explorations of a rank amateur, not those of an experienced or knowledgeable ham. His wife, Nancy, is N0NJ. Hoffman has a ham-related Web page. Readers are invited to contact the author via e-mail.