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The Weather Outside Was Frightful During First Antarctic VE Session


October 8, 2010 was one of those gorgeous early fall days we in New England get to enjoy from time to time: Sunny, highs in the mid-70s and not a cloud in the sky. Although her department coordinates thousands of VE sessions each year, Maria Somma, AB1FM, was particularly excited about the one that began at 5 PM last Friday: The first VE session from Antarctica. As it happens, the temperature outside Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station was also in the mid-70s – with the addition of a minus sign!

A total of eight candidates took the Technician exam, and all eight are now licensed amateurs. As of Monday, a couple have even created pileups while making their first contacts! The point of contact “way down under” was Ernie Gray, W1MRQ. Ernie also served as an examiner. The other two were in the ARRL VEC office in Newington – Penny Harts, N1NAG, and Steve Ewald, WV1X.

It was the first VE exam on the Antarctic continent, and no doubt the coldest exam session in history.

Ernie told the ARRL that the process began last year, but didn’t get too far until this past winter (summer in the Northern Hemisphere), when “they were in my face asking how we can make this happen.” He continued: “A meeting was held in May and about a third of the 47 winterovers attended….The idea of an exam session came up almost right away.”

“We are all contract workers for Raytheon Polar Services Co of Centennial, Colorado….They have been exposed to ham radio through the permanent ham stations here on the ice and some wanted to be hams for years, just didn’t know how to go about it….The South Pole winter crew has been isolated here since February and I have been giving talks and demonstrations about Amateur Radio and even made some contacts from my shack. We do try to fight isolation from all the things at home and the boredom from being sequestered inside this steel cocoon. I knew at that moment that I had to make this happen, I was going to make this happen.”

Somma provided this report: “On Friday, October 8, 2010 at 5 PM, we gathered in the VEC office to start the video conference exam session. At the South Pole it was already 10 AM Saturday. Everyone there was in their conference room with each candidate’s laptop logged onto the ARRL VEC examination Web site. All three participating ARRL VEs were able to observe and communicate before, during and after the session. Participating VEs filled in all forms related to the session via the Web. Three different interactive online Tech exams were available so Ernie could randomly assign different versions to the candidates and they could all take the exam at the same time. The results were reported to the candidates within a few minutes of electronic submission to the VEC and VE team. All eight had passed!”

Gray reported: “I had a couple in the KC4AAA ham shack and they had a short QSO on 40 SSB this past weekend. I hope to have them all through before we depart for home [starting in November].”

IT support was provided by Andy Shefrin and Hugh Brower, KB1NFI at ARRL HQ and by Marc Stavale at Amundsen-Scott.

Somma was pleased with the way the historic session turned out: “During my 25 year tenure at the ARRL, this has been one of the most rewarding experiences I have ever been involved in. It was very gratifying to help them achieve their goal!”

Gray agreed, commenting: “Nothing I have ever done previously and probably nothing I will ever do again will give me as much satisfaction as what has been accomplished by these eight individuals down here this winter. This is the highpoint of my ham radio experience and I hope I still have a few more good years to go!”

For photos of the session and video of Maria Somma, AB1FM, go to



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