written by sabrina forse tatsch | photos by sabrina forse tatsch & david wolfe
Pick up your phone at this very instant and you can be connected to most anyone within seconds. Whether you’re seeking a romantic relationship, selling a car, sharing a photo, dialing a number or texting emojis, technology has made it easier than ever to communicate.
Bob & Carol Heiser
However, it’s one of the oldest forms of technology that remains active even when all other forms of instant communication fail. “The internet has opened up more possibilities for us, but if the internet is down, we are not out of business,” explained Bob Heiser. Heiser, call sign W7IKT, is a licensed amateur radio operator and member of the San Angelo Amateur Radio Club. It’s a hobby that Bob has enjoyed with his wife of fifty-eight years.
“Bob and I had a sixer in the car, and we used it to chat with people as we drove down the road. Then we’d meet up with them for coffee. We’d call it an Eyeball to Eyeball meet. You would hear people on the radio and get an idea in your mind of what they looked like and then it was amazing to see how right or wrong you were when you met them,” said Carol Heiser, call sign N5CBQ.
The sixer she refers to was a Heathkit radio that operated on a six meter am transceiver. This was similar to a CB radio often used by truckers but allowed the Heisers to socialize and make friends long before internet chatrooms and dating apps.
David Behrend, President of the San Angelo Amateur Radio
Whether driving down a country back road or sitting in the back yard, an amateur radio operator can make a connection. “You don’t have to rely on a good wi-fi connection. The only thing you’re really dependent on is the atmosphere. The signal skips through the atmosphere so that’s why sometimes you may just hear static, other times you may hear someone and they can’t hear you and other times it’s a crystal-clear conversation between two or more people,” said David Behrend, President of the San Angelo Amateur Radio Club.
Behrend, call sign KB5FNK, has been a licensed amateur radio operator for thirty years. His interest was piqued when he learned how essential amateur, or ham, radio operators could be during emergencies. “I was volunteering with the American Red Cross for flood relief in Oklahoma. When we were compiling initial damage surveys, the American Red Cross service center was contacted by the Emergency Management Coordinator of an area that had been missed.
Bob Heiser & David Behrend chat with other ham operators
I went along with two other volunteers, one of which was a ham radio operator to the damage site. We met up with the Emergency Management Coordinator who also happened to be a ham. This allowed us to break up into two teams, each with a ham, to go out and assess damage,” said Behrend.
Today, Behrend and other ham radio operators who have also taken SKYWARN training provide vital information to the National Weather Service during severe weather. “There are some that like to be out in the weather and provide what’s called ground truth. Doppler technology is advanced, but you still can’t see everything. If you get too close, you see ground clutter.
“Call signs are assigned by the zone or state that you are in when you receive your license. Each call sign is unique and is distinctive.” -David Behrend KB5FNK
For example, just south of San Angelo, the doppler often shows what looks like a line of thunderstorms but it’s just windmills. It’s important to have people, especially in rural areas that can provide information like an actual sighting of a funnel cloud.”
Behrend and the Heisers often deploy to the National Weather Service building and connect with ham radio operators in the field to relay messages to meteorologists.
Not just anyone can set up a radio signal and communicate. SKYWARN training is needed for amateur radio operators to assist with storm spotting. To communicate via a radio signal, one must be licensed as an amateur radio operator. To do so, you must pass a written test to become certified and apply for a license with the Federal Communications Commission. You are then assigned a call sign that must be used when identifying yourself on the radio. “Call signs are assigned by the zone or state that you are in when you receive your license. Each call sign is unique and is distinctive,” said Behrend.
Ham radio operators can communicate based on their level of licensing. There are three classes. The Technician is an entry-level license that allows you to operate on frequencies above 30 megahertz, communicating within North America. A General class allows someone to operate on higher frequencies and world-wide. An Extra license allows someone to operate on all bands and all modes.
Behrend operates with a General class license and one of his most memorable contacts occurred when the Berlin wall was coming down. “I was listening to an East German station and with the wall coming down they were going to lose their licenses as East Germans and were frantically trying to make contacts to file paperwork or figure out what to do next so they could stay on the air.”
“I was in Tapei in 1959 and Navy communications went down during a typhoon, and it was ham radio station operators that helped us get back on air.” –Del Pfanger, WØDRO
While it’s no longer required, learning Morse Code was once essential to pass the test and receive an amateur radio license. Del Pfanger, call sign WØDRO, is an experienced coder who first went on the air as a Navy radio operator. “I was in Tapei in 1959 and Navy communications went down during a typhoon and it was ham radio station operators that helped us get back on air.” In 1962, he volunteered as the first Navy-Marine Corps Military Auxiliary Radio System (MARS) Area Coordinator for the State of Kansas. Pfanger retired from the Navy with 23 years of service and is continuing to hone his skills.
Amateur may be in their title, but these San Angelo radio operators are tech savvy. “We have embraced the internet. We use EchoLink and Internet Relay Linking Project that both use voice over internet protocol to talk to amateurs world-wide. Another newer technology we have is digital mode radio. This takes the voice, digitizes it and sends it over the air, similar to smart phones. These conversations are instantly clearer, cleaner and have the potential to travel further distances than traditional analog radio,” said David Wolfe, call sign KA5VTG.
Del Pfanger and Carol Heiser take a moment to chat during a club meeting
They aren’t just making connections, they’re creating them. “Radio is a varied hobby. There is the social aspect but there’s also a building aspect. We have some members who are into satellite radio and others that bounce signals off the moon. Some enjoy making long distance contacts or competing in contests,” said Bob Heiser.
The most popular event in amateur radio is Field Day which is held every June. More than 35,000 amateur radio operators set up and operate from remote operations. “You make quick connections. You get one and then you’re onto the next. You spin the dial and change frequencies a lot. It’s fun to do but it’s chaotic because it’s a big mashup of people talking to each other,” said Behrend. “With the classification that we have, we can’t use commercial power. We will typically use a generator or solar power for field day.”
San Angelo Amateur Radio Club Sign on Building
“You don’t have to be a part of a club to be an amateur radio operator but it’s a lot more fun.” -Bob Heiser, W7IKT
The San Angelo Amateur Radio Club operates under the call sign W5QX. It’s building, which offers members radio equipment and a fifty-foot tower, is located near the San Angelo Regional Airport. The Club also operates two repeaters which are automatic radio relay stations installed on top of buildings or towers to allow for better communication. “You don’t have to be a part of a club to be an amateur radio operator but it’s a lot more fun,” said Bob Heiser. “If I have a big antenna to put up, I know who to call. If I want to be part of a field day, it’s a lot more fun with a group.” †