The Amateur Amateur: Remembering that First Radio
By Gary Ross Hoffman, KB0H
Our first Amateur Radio transceivers: His and Hers
Do you remember your first Amateur Radio transceiver? Well, if you just got
your license, probably so, but for some of us it's been a while.
My wife Nancy and I took our exams at the end of 1994 and received our
licenses in January 1995 (electronic filing wasn't the standard back then). Not
knowing exactly what we wanted to do in the hobby, I bought a pair of hand held
dual-band transceiver. I had researched what was available and the
Yaesu FT-530 seemed to have all of the latest features
(repeater splits, tones, really cutting edge stuff back then). That seemed
flexible enough so that we could use the radios for a variety of different
pursuits. Mainly, though, they were fairly cheap.
the radios, figured out how to assemble the parts, and charged the batteries. I
dialed in a simplex frequency, handed one of them to Nancy, and then, looking
at each other across the living room, we made our first Amateur Radio contacts.
"KB0QGE to KB0QGD."
"KB0QGD to KB0QGE."
After that we were at a loss what to say, so we turned off the radios and
contemplated what to do next. Having no better ideas, we just recharged the
I can't give you a precise chronology of what happened or when, but I do
recall various memorable events. (Ha! I
keep records of everything! It's just that I can never find them.)
In all likelihood, I probably did more fiddling with the radios than
actually using them. I know that very early on I bought larger, higher capacity
batteries, along with a pair of fast chargers. That was the beginning of The
Great Learning Event, something that every active Amateur Radio operator winds
up experiencing sooner or later. In my case Lesson #1 was: Don't fast-charge your
batteries, what you are really doing is fast-cooking them. Lesson #1A was:
Don't deal with a certain mail-order battery retailer.
The Great Learning Event continued with me trying a lot of wacky things to
revive failing batteries. And I will admit that I went through a lot of them. I
learned that (1) I'm not a chemist and really don't know how batteries work (2)
it's really hard to sort out good advice from bad advice, and
(3) don't try any Frankensteinian
operations on your batteries. When they die, give them a decent send-off and
buy new ones
Some lessons I actually did learn by using the radio. Range always
seemed to be an issue, even with a "more powerful" battery, so I tried
replacing the original antennas with "high gain" ones. That did work, at least
to a limited extent. What really increased the range of my
transmissions, however, was sending from atop the
Space Needle in Seattle. And even that paled in comparison with sitting atop
Grandfather Mountain in North Carolina, and reaching Tennessee and Kentucky...
simplex. The lesson: Height matters. A lot.
The venerable Yaesu FT-530 dual-band hand held transceiver
Unfortunately, while we have a lot of hills and valleys in St. Louis, we do
not have any mountains. We don't have the Space Needle either, but we do have
the Gateway Arch. I honestly don't know they'll allow you to take a radio with
you if you go up inside it, but if you're outside, its stainless steel skin
makes an excellent RF reflector.
Speaking of which, one of my "clever moments" (maybe my only one) came when
I was in my back yard trying unsuccessfully to reach Nancy by radio. I had my
venerable FT-530 and Nancy was in her car, some unknown distance away, using
her mobile radio. I knew that she was potentially reachable, as I'd tried
contacting her about a dozen times and once received a scratchy, broken
response. Frustrated, I looked around, trying to figure out how get up higher
or grow taller or something. At that moment I heard a commercial airliner
passing nearby (we're not that far St. Louis Lambert International Airport).
There was a little "ding" and a light bulb lit up inside my head. I carefully
tilted my hand held radio so that its antenna was perpendicular with my line of
sight to the airplane, and tried transmitting again.
Nancy's voice came back at me quite clearly. Oh, it was choppy, sort of like
speaking through the whirling blades of a fan, but it was completely
understandable. I don't even remember what we said. It was a short
conversation, to be sure, but for a brief moment I felt like a caveman who had
just discovered how to make fire.
Nancy had her own interesting moments with her FT-530. We used to take them
to work and occasionally chat with each during the day. Both of us found it
difficult to get any work done, however, listening to the repeater chatter all
day, so eventually we turned off the radios and just let them sit on our
respective desks. While "off", my radio displayed the battery power, but
Nancy's was set to display the current time.
One day, at exactly 9:11 AM, someone came into Nancy's office, stared at her
radio, and said, "Oh! You're one of those 9-1-1 people!" It was an amusing,
though erroneous assumption, but in an odd way almost correct. Nancy was the
"on-call first aid person" for the area of the building where she worked.
Among other things that we tried, Nancy and I would sometimes carry the hand
held radios with us when we went to a shopping mall. (This was before FRS
radios and cell phones were in widespread use.) The radios were of limited
value, though, as Nancy carried hers in her handbag and I had mine on my hip,
and neither of us could easily hear the other calling. And besides, my radio
was heavy enough so that I had to constantly pull up my pants.
Dog walking was another opportunity to play with the radios. In particular,
I used to take our Labrador retriever to romp around
in a wooded area about a mile from our house. Nancy would listen on a mobile
radio I had set up in our study, and I'd carry my trusty FT-530 with me. We had
such sparkling conversations as, "Well, I lost Thor... again." The lessons
learned during those expeditions were (1) vegetation will really gobble up UHF
radio transmissions, and (2) always keep a rambunctious Labrador
retriever on a leash.
Yaesu FT-530 and accessories
I've told you about my clever moment. One of my (many) less-than-clever
moments was when I decided to modify my hand-held radio to operate out of band.
Back before the World Wide Web, we computer geeks used to exchange information
via FTP (File Transfer Protocol) and "user groups". Amateur Radio, being a
technical pursuit, was well represented. At some point I stumbled across a list
of modifications that could be made to Yaesu
transceivers. One of the mods was to open up the transmitter of a FT-530 to
allow it to transmit out of band.
I'm not sure why I wanted to do that. It may have been because I also held a
GMRS radio license, but didn't have a radio for that service. In any case, I
followed the instructions (basically, just cut through a conductor on the
circuit board), thus, at least hypothetically, making it a multi-service
Did it work? Well, to be honest, I chickened out. I tuned the radio to a
non-ham frequency, put my finger on the PTT button, and started sweating. This
is illegal, a voice in my head intoned. You're going to jail. You'll lose your
job. You'll lose your house. You'll lose your Amateur Radio license!!!
I opened up the FT-530 and tried to undo the modification I'd made. What I
managed to do instead was to melt the circuit board, watching in horror as the
tiny components flowed away and dropped off its edge.
Not my finest moment.
In what may have been the gutsiest thing I've ever tried, I packaged up the
radio, included a note saying, "Doesn't work", and mailed it off to
Yaesu. They contacted me, told me how much it would cost to
repair it, and much to my relief, didn't ask me any questions. I paid the bill,
and a few weeks later my resurrected FT-530 was returned to me.
Lesson learned. After that episode I vowed to leave the insides of radios
alone, and confine my tinkering to computer innards instead.
Anyway, the two Yaesu FT-530 radios lasted a long
time, outliving numerous batteries and at least one disastrous surgical
procedure. Gone, but not forgotten.
Oh. Wait. We still have them.
Maybe I'll recharge the battery on mine. Surely there are a few more lessons
to be learned...