The Amateur Amateur: And Then the Battery Died

By Gary Ross Hoffman, KB0H
March 2020

radio programming cables
But which cable is the right one?

I have too many radios. It must be a curse of the hobby. But as I specialize in emergency communications, I try to keep all of them programmed with the frequencies that I'll need and ready to use.

The emcomm group to which I belong is St. Louis Metro ARES. We have agreements with some local repeater owners, but who is to say that those machines will still be operating when disaster strikes? Or, that we won't need wider coverage? To that end, we created a list of all of the local area repeaters, added the Missouri ARES Interoperability Plan frequencies, and topped it off with our own five simplex frequencies.

Yeah. It's a big list. Nevertheless, we recommend that our ARES members plug those frequencies into their dual-band transceivers

Admittedly, that takes some doing. If it can be avoided, you shouldn't attempt to enter a few hundred frequencies manually. Fortunately, most transceivers these days can be connected to and programmed from a computer. And we, being the nice guys we are, make a comma-separated-variable list of the frequencies available on our website. Hypothetically, at least, one can import this list into whatever radio programming software you are using. You may have to play around some with the imported data, but by and large it works.

I happen to prefer using RT Systems software and cables to program my radios. It can be done cheaper, but I find the RTS stuff saves me a lot of aggravation.

I programmed every radio I might use during a disaster. Or, so I thought. It turned out that I'd missed one. There was a Yaesu FT-8800 in my deceased wife's Toyota Corolla. As I rarely drive the car, the fact that it had a radio in it slipped my mind.

Even with RT Systems software as the common denominator, each of my transceivers had its own quirks when it came to programming it. It had been years since I'd done so with the FT-8800, but I remembered that it had been a difficult endeavor. In particular, there was something about the data cable that had driven me crazy. I keep notes on virtually everything radio-related that I do, but I could find nothing about programming the FT-8800 in any of them.

I did, however, notice a cable with a 8 pin DIN on one end and a DB-9 plug on the other lying next to one of my go-bags. I strongly suspected that was the cable I needed. There didn't seem to be anything else around that looked even remotely promising.

As the FT-8800 was mounted in the trunk of the Corolla, I used my laptop computer to do the programming. I already had an FT-8900 file with all of the correct frequencies in it, and it took only three tries to convert it to FT-8800 format. (Nothing ever works for me on the first try.) But, before I dragged the laptop up from my basement shack, I wanted to make sure that I had the right cable.

It was cold in the garage, and when I opened the garage door, I found that it was even colder outside. And windy. I opened the trunk and peered inside.

At least I had mounted the body of the FT-8800 so that the back of it was visible. And yes, it looked like the data jack was for a DIN, though it was unclear how many pins it took. I plugged in the mystery cable.

Ha-hah! No, I tried to plug in the mystery cable. It didn't fit. It looked like it should fit, but short of an assist from a hammer, it wouldn't. How could this be the wrong cable?

Back down to the basement.

I looked high and low, and it was an embarrassingly long time before I remembered that one of the file cabinets down there had a folder containing everything related to radio programming in it. Including the software CD-ROMs.

And the adapter cables.

Checking the folder, the FT-8900 cable, clearly labeled, was in there. So was another one, labeled “FT-8900, older connector”. Hmmmm, nothing for a FT-8800, but “older connector” caught my attention. I took it up to the garage.

It fit!

FT-8800 control head
FT-8800 control head. Press the following buttons...

Elated, I brought my laptop up, set it in the trunk, and started it.

Booting Windows on any machine seems to take a long time, but my ancient laptop took even longer. Sitting in the cold trunk, and running on its internal battery instead of comfy household power, it took an eternity.

In the meantime I stood there freezing. One of my neighbors drove by, stopped, rolled down his window, laughed, and asked if I was putting a new sound system in my car. He knows I'm a ham, has seen me on my roof many times, and knows that I have endless problems with my Amateur Radio projects. He was just glad it wasn't him standing there in the cold waiting for the laptop to come to life.

The laptop eventually stopped clicking and clacking and gave me access. I brought up the RTS software, loaded the FT-8800 file, and followed the program's instructions, both on the computer and the transceiver.

Let me pause and note that this was a three-location project: The basement, the trunk, and the car's interior, where the transceiver's control head was. I had to make many trips between the three.

The software flashed up the message: “Make sure data cable is securely connected”.

Well, it was. Most definitely. And no, I didn't use a hammer, it actually fit.

I tried again.

Same message.

I wiggled the cable. Tried a different USB port. Unplugged and replugged everything.

Same message.

Maybe the cable was just for a FT-8900.

I went inside and logged into a different computer (mainly so I could sit down and warm up), and checked the RTS website to see if they indicated the model number of the FT-8800 programming cable. They did, and it was not the one I had plugged in. So “FT-8900 older connector” meant I had the right connector, but the cable was still for the wrong radio.

Where was the correct cable?

Back down to the basement. Digging through the file cabinet again, there was nothing labeled FT-8800. But there was an unlabeled RTS cable, model USB 29B.

Which is what the RTS website said was the correct cable.

I took it upstairs. I ran the program again and tried to connect.

Same error message.

I was ready to scream at this point. I had the right cable, I was sure of it!

FT-8800 transceiver main body
Main body of the FT-8800, with DIN data/programming port

But, looking down, I realized that, although I had brought the right cable upstairs with me, I'd forgotten to plug it in.

The frustration and cold were getting to me. I would have stopped right then and taken a long break. I knew, however, that I would continue to obsess about the whole project, so I continued.

I disconnected the wrong cable and connected the right one.

I ran the program again and...

...got a different error message. It said that the file was not right for that radio.

Groan!

I took the laptop back downstairs, reloaded the original FT-8900 file, and ran the conversion again. One bank came up correctly, but the other was wrong. Almost immediately I realized that I'd called up the wrong file when working on the second bank. I really was getting slap-happy. I tried again, more carefully this time, and both banks were good.

I went back upstairs. Started the computer again. Ran the program again.

Same error message about the file being wrong for that radio.

I took deep breaths. Closed my eyes. Waited for heart rate to slow down. Said Ommmmmm twenty times.

I disconnected and reconnected everything. I shutdown and restarted the computer. And I think this is what did the trick, I cycled power on the transceiver itself.

This time, it worked. The program successfully uploaded the new frequencies into the transceiver's memory.

Shivering and coughing, I packed everything away. Physically, I was spent, but mentally I was elated. I decided to go out for lunch.

And that's when I found out that the car's battery had died.

Some days you just can't win.

(Email = [email protected])



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