The Amateur Amateur: Remembering that First Radio

By Gary Ross Hoffman, KB0H
June 2016

Yaesu FT-530 boxes

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.

I unpacked 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.



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 batteries.

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.

Yaesu FT-530

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 accesories

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 transceiver.

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...

E-mail Gary Ross Hoffman

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