Youth@HamRadio.Fun: On Becoming a Ham
By Sterling Coffey, N0SSC
ARRL Youth Editor
Meet the new ARRL Youth Editor, Sterling Coffey, N0SSC. This month, Sterling discusses how -- and why -- he became a radio amateur.
Ever since I was five years old, radio communication has intrigued and interested me to the core. It was on my fifth birthday that I received my first set of walkie-talkies: a pair of green camouflage 200-foot range radios with a button and a letter diagram for Morse code. After discovering what they did, my friend and I would talk all the time until he lost interest -- then I would just use one to intercom my parents from various parts of the house.
I was a very “tinkeritive” child. One day I used scissors to cut the antenna covers off the pair, taped a wire clothes hanger to the side of the exposed antenna and got my dad to drive almost two miles before we could no longer communicate. At the age of five, I learned my first lesson of radio electronics: Bigger antennas are better!
My walkie-talkies eventually went by the wayside, as all my electronic toys did around that age. I took one apart without the use of a screwdriver, breaking the screw posts apart with a hammer. Although I got to the inside, it was never going to go back together. The other one suffered an unknown fate.
My interest in radio communication never stopped. The next set of radios I received was a pair of Family Radio Service radios. These were actually my father’s, but I took them for myself. Testing the FRS radios was very confusing, because longer antennas did not make it transmit farther, not to mention angering my father somewhat! Today it is something to laugh about.
After FRS, I “upgraded” to Citizens Band radio. I had a friend in the sixth grade who caught my interest in CB radio. With that, I found I could talk to more people, although the primary users of the service are truckers; they can be profane at times. My grandpa had a Uniden PRO 510XL and an antenna gathering dust in a cabinet of his, and he allowed me to have it. I set the radio up in my dad’s car and on that trip, my father nearly threw the thing out the window, for no sixth grader needs to hear what truckers talk about!
The same friend that got me interested in CB radio was the owner of Now You’re Talking, a Technician’s class license manual, published by the ARRL. It caught my eye and he let me borrow it. Just reading the page after the front cover gave me a realization that lasted to this day: “They actually have a recreational radio service?!”
I began studying at age 13 off and on, and at age 16, I aced the test and got the call sign KD0BZE. I tried to teach my dad about antennas and feed lines and estimated radiated power, and I eventually convinced him to spend about $600 on 15 feet of aluminum pipe, 80 feet of Buryflex coax, an Arrow beam, a roof mount tripod and 4 ground rods ,and an a 75 W IC-V8000. It all went up on my garage roof, with the antenna about 40 feet above the ground. It was great! To this day, I still thank him.
After setting up the radio and antenna, I did a lot of listening. I came across the WA0FYA repeater in Washington, Missouri, and signed on to one of their nightly nets. I got more involved in the club and attended a business meeting. I met a fellow young ham, Nicole Devos, KD0BCX. My activities in Amateur Radio were increasing and I was getting frustrated with my call sign. It was too long and the ZE was hard to say and copy by many (even though I often used phonetics). Through the vanity call sign system, I got it changed to N0SSC; I find it much more intelligible and personalized and it has a catchy sound through Morse code.
During our club’s Field Day operations, Nicole and I got our feet wet in HF, working SSB under the call sign WA0FYA. It was awesome! I found my niche, tuning quickly and pouncing on every station I heard, or calling CQ and making a QSO a second. Nicole -- the logger -- was astonished, yet frightened at my craze and found her fingers to be slower than the speed at which I made contacts. It was a lot of fun for the both of us.
HF was amazing and I was ready to try it myself. I studied the General class question pool for three months and aced that test. I attempted to take the Amateur Extra test simultaneously, but missed passing by one! Despite the failure of the Extra class test, I now had HF privileges and had to persuade my dad to help me finance my new station.
I also had to persuade my parents to get me an HF rig. To me, finding the right HF transceiver was like trying to look for a college. So many benefits, disadvantages, buttons, knobs, DSPs, ATUs, band scopes and more. After voluntarily writing my parents a 10 page report on the various antenna and radio combinations that I wanted, they finally gave in. I had to narrow it down to one antenna and one radio. I finally chose an IC-746 that I saw on an online auction site, as well as a G5RV antenna that I chose based upon its rave reviews -- and unbeatable price.
Setting up all the equipment went quickly. I used a slingshot to shoot fishing line over the highest parts of the post oaks, and tied that to 1/8-inch Dacron rope to hoist the G5RV. The ends of the Dacron tied into eyehooks in the hoist trees, with the antenna at a height of 50 feet or so. We bought a 25 A power supply and some grounding equipment, including an 8 foot ground rod. In one night -- I was somewhat nocturnal during the summer -- I got everything connected and working.
I tried transmitting, and the power to my room failed. I flipped the breaker. I experimented with my grounding system and discovered I made a current loop. I fixed it, and the next week I worked the November ARRL Sweepstakes. I was just one state and three provinces away from making a Clean Sweep.
At this time, I thinking I was ready to upgrade to Amateur Extra. I got the 700 page book and studied for three months again. But the one thing that I could not remember was the math: polar coordinates, complex impedance, capacitive reactance, half-power bandwidth, so on and so forth. I began to write equations in a yellow notepad. When I was finished writing notes, I filled the entire 50 page notepad with everything from class A amplifiers to Zener diodes, and with well-drawn schematics and phase diagrams, too! So being done with all that, I took some practice tests, with scores ranging from 80-100 percent. On February 8, I went to an exam session in Bridgeton, Missouri, hosted by the St Louis and Suburban Radio Club.
I aced the test. Many of the graders and test takers told me that they very impressed with me. I was excited to be able to work on the “special” parts of the Amateur Radio dial, reserved for those with Amateur Extra class licensees.
Over time, I worked many a contest and country. Soon I began looking for a college. I chose the Missouri University of Science and Technology in Rolla, Missouri (formerly University of Missouri at Rolla). Being exposed to Amateur Radio changed my mind from getting a psychology major to majoring in electrical engineering. The university also had an Amateur Radio club -- W0EEE -- and I will admit that one of my deciding factors for where I would go to school was whether there was an Amateur Radio club on campus.
Missouri S&T accepted me into their institution and I am now the vice president of the W0EEE Amateur Radio club. We are working on getting the club back on the air after almost disappearing completely.
That’s about all about I can say about me. I would like to hear about your stories of getting on the air, so please e-mail them to me. I would be happy to also share some stories. And while you’re online, check out W0EEE for more information about my college club.
Sterling Coffey, N0SSC, is a freshman majoring in electrical engineering at the Missouri University of Science and Technology in Rolla. Interested in wireless communications from a young age, he welcomes e-mail from readers.