Friday, June 26, 2009


There's been a few letters in QST lately about the proper use of phonetics. The latest QST (the one from the future -- July 2009) has an op-ed piece about phonetics.

The original letter that set this recent discussion off was a couple of months ago. The writer complained that he heard a station signing "London Radio" and thought he'd be talking to England, but was disappointed when the station was merely in the US.

That was probably me.

The writer insisted that everyone should just use the standard phonetics, and never anything else. While well intended, I'm afraid that the ICAO phonetics, while they work very well for aviation communications, don't always cut it.

"Romeo" -- this is just not a great word. It works OK most of the time, but not everyone in the world knows Shakespeare. "Radio" is a word that all hams know. It's the one phonetic that will get through when nothing else will.

"Lima" -- this is just a weak word. Watch your wattmeter when you say it -- it doesn't have that much punch. Using it, I get all kinds of guys who heard everything but the "Lima". They think it is "Charlie" or "Kilo" or "Echo" -- anything but "Lima". "London" works more often than not. About the only place that "Lima" is recognized well is in Central and South America.

"Alpha" -- try saying it twice. It comes out kinda funny. A lot of guys hear "Alpha Delta", but I also get "Delta Alpha" and "Papa Alpha" responses -- particularly from stations in europe who may be more familiar with those prefixes. At that point, the longer "America America" seems to work -- it communicates the letter as well as the country of origin.

In short, I've had this callsign for 25 years now. I've had all sorts of experience with what gets through and what doesn't. The standard ICAO phonetics don't cut it for my callsign. Pardon me if I use something a little unusual -- but it works. And isn't that what ham radio is about -- communicating?

Saturday, June 13, 2009

30th Year as an Extra

I was writing a note in reply to a ham who was upset that a certain DXpedition had posted operating frequencies that were all in the Extra and Advanced-class portions of the bands. He was worried that as a General-class licensee, he wouldn't have the opportunity to work the expedition.

Of course, he had nothing to worry about. These expeditions regularly listen for callers in the General-class portions of the bands. I did point out to him that between now and the time of the expedition, he had plenty of time to upgrade.

Then, it hit me. It has been 29 years since I took the Amateur Extra-Class exam.

Exams these days are pretty easy, compared to conditions years ago. Back in 1980, the FCC still administered the exams. For Extra class, code was 20 wpm, and you had to take a total of three written tests -- one for General, Advanced and then Extra. Plus, the exams were only given at FCC offices at major cities -- so, if you lived far away, you faced quite a road trip.

It was the end of my Freshman year at Georgia Tech. My family had come down to visit my grandparents, and take be back to West Virginia after finals. My brother, then KA8DTD, figured he might be able to schedule an upgrade exam before the week was out. Sure enough, amateur exams were available on Friday. Ben had a Conditional class license, and I was a General, having been tested at a hamfest just a year before. So, he scheduled both of us to take the Extra exam. Friday, June 13, 1980.

Neither of us was terribly worried about the code test, although I hadn't been down to the club station in weeks. I did borrow his Extra-Class Study Guide for that week, and managed to go over it in the midst of studying for and taking final exams.

Friday morning came, and our father dropped us off at the FCC examination building. We filled out paperwork and sat for the code test. I sweated it a little, but passed. Ben passed with no problems.

Then came the Advanced written examination. I figured it would be easy, since I studied for my Extra. Wrongo -- the old Advanced test was the largest of the bunch, with 50 questions, all of them tough. Only my private pilot's written exam was harder. 

We both passed the Advanced written, and so far it had been worth the trip -- we were both guaranteed an upgrade. After the Advanced, I was convinced I was going to flunk the Extra -- but the test turned out to be a lot easier -- only 40 questions, and most of them I studied for.

After sitting through three exams over several hours, I got the news. I had passed! I was an Amateur Extra class. Ben didn't fare so well -- he had missed the Extra by one question. And that was probably because I "borrowed" his study guide all week.

So, this begins my 30th year as an Amateur Extra-Class. Hard to believe it has been so long ago.