The Amateur Amateur: Storm Spotting--the Hard Way
By Gary Hoffman, KB0H
We introduce a
new column that deals with the perils, pitfalls and, of course, the
pleasures involved with being a newly licensed Amateur Radio
June 14, 2001
When my wife and I first obtained our Amateur Radio licenses we had no
idea where the hobby would take us. We did not know, for example,
that we would become part of the St Louis County RACES/SKYWARN
program. I don't know which of us suggested that we
attend our first weather spotter class. It was probably me. I'd
lived in hurricane-prone Florida and earthquake-ridden California,
but the weather in Missouri is just downright weird
lived here for 30 years, now, and there is always some new and
strange meteorological phenomenon happening.
classes were interesting. We learned how storms formed and how they
behaved. We learned how to distinguish between truly threatening
clouds and merely nasty-looking clouds. We learned how and when to
make a report. We were assigned official "weather spotter
numbers" and received impressive certificates (suitable for
framing). I even went so far as to put a SKYWARN decal on the bumper
of my car. (Nancy was less ostentatious. She merely put a SKYWARN
mouse pad in her office.)
Certificates and decals were nice, but we decided to take our weather
spotting duties seriously. We participated in the yearly tornado drills. We
installed a home weather station that measured the temperature,
rainfall, and had one of those neat whirly-gig thingies that measured
the wind speed. But most importantly, we listened to the weather
forecasts. What a thunderstorm would do was unpredictable, but the
fact that there would be
a thunderstorm was usually known well
in advance. The National Weather Service and St Louis County Police
radio frequencies often requested that weather spotters be on the
alert. Severe weather was rarely a surprise.
There were about
a thousand weather spotters in St Louis County, many of them ham
radio operators. The St Louis Repeaters organization made some of its
repeaters available for weather nets, so when severe weather
threatened, the main repeater quickly became very busy. If I had a
transceiver handy, I also would monitor the weather net. I usually
had nothing to report, but, hey, I was ready!
Well, at least I
was forewarned. I lived in the northern part of the county and severe
weather usually approached from the southwest. I could usually judge
from the incoming reports how severe a storm was and roughly where it
was going. If a storm did happen to head my way, I would peer
intently at the sky, looking for wall clouds or rotation. (One
spotter just west of me always
saw wall clouds and rotation,
but even with my vivid imagination I could never see the same things
that he saw.)
There were a few
occasions when the weather was bad enough for me to make a legitimate
report. I could not reach the repeater from my front porch, so I
would have to run inside and connect my hand-held transceiver to the
antenna mounted on my roof. I would then have to wait for an opening,
since a number of spotters reported every drop of rain, and one
faithfully came on the air every ten minutes to report that the sun
was shining at his location. The only person more frustrated than me
was the net controller, who started insisting that he only wanted to
hear reports involving witches and flying monkeys. At that point my
information, usually involving high winds and pea-sized hail, dropped
below the threshold of importance and I would break off my attempts
to contact the net.
Then it came. It
was the proverbial dark and stormy night. I was at my usual post on
my front porch, gazing southwest into the darkness. It wasn't that
dark, since frequent lightning made the cloud formations easy to see.
(I didn't hear it, but I'm sure the spotter just west of me must have
reported a wall cloud and rotation.) I listened to reports of strong
gusts, heavy rain, and hail coming into the county from the west.
Spotter after spotter reported the same thing as the storm entered
the county. It was evident from the reporting locations that the
storm was headed right for us. I could tell almost to the minute when
it would arrive. I warned my wife and returned to the front porch.
The lightning was
spectacular. And loud. And near
. One particularly close strike
briefly turned the world upside down. I couldn't tell if I'd actually
jumped a couple of inches or if the porch had fallen out from
underneath me. The boom left the windows and my teeth rattling. The
electricity went off for about ten seconds, but I didn't know that
right away. All I could see for several minutes was an afterimage of
the lightning bolt which had been seared onto the back of my
Then the hail
started to fall. It was the biggest hail I had ever seen. I snatched
up one of the chunks of ice and ran inside. I tossed it to my wife,
who was struggling to calm our dog. He was absolutely terrified of
thunderstorms. I plugged my radio into the rooftop antenna and keyed
up as soon as there was a hint of an opening. "KB0H, spotter
123, Florissant. We have one-inch hail." As soon as I heard an
acknowledgement, I reattached the radio's portable antenna and headed
back for the porch. "I've never seen hail this large!" I
yelled back into the house.
And then two-inch hail started to fall.
I couldn't believe it. I'd never seen anything like it. I gathered up a few
samples, rushed back inside, and shoved them into my wife's face.
"Have you ever seen anything like this!?" I asked, amazed.
Ignoring me, she patted the quivering dog, saying, "There,
there. It'll be okay."
I connected my
radio to the rooftop antenna again. I don't even know if I waited for
an opening before transmitting, "KB0H! Spotter 123! Florissant!
Jim, the net
controller, replied in a clear and commanding voice, "Take
And then the sky fell on us.
The noise of
those huge hail stones crashing onto the roof was indescribable. It
wasn't anything like the sound of ordinary pea-sized hail. It was
overwhelming. It sounded like something huge and malevolent and
unstoppable was trying to get at us. It sounded angry
. And it
was going to get in!
The three of us
huddled in the hallway. The dog was shaking so violently that he was
rapidly approaching HF frequencies. His terror had infected my wife.
Being the man of the house, I gave them my most reassuring "I'll
protect you" smile and tried very hard to control my bodily
hail only lasted about a minute (although subjective time, it was
several lifetimes). I didn't try to make any more reports, which was
fortunate since, unbeknownst to me, my antenna had been blasted to
pieces. So had our weather station, but we wouldn't know the extent
of the damage until the next day. We simply pet our dog and tried to
reassure him that the hail and thunder was over, and reflected on the
irony that we had named him Thor.
Editor's note: ARRL member Gary Hoffman, KB0H, lives in Florissant,
Missouri. He says his family has been involved with radios since the
early days of wireless. "My grandfather used to build radios
from scratch and sell them," he said. "Later, he and my
father ran a very successful radio-television sales and service shop
in Savannah, Georgia." Hoffman says that he got into ham radio
by being a scanner enthusiast, and his column has appeared in a local
scanner club publication. He and his wife became licensed in 1995.
"Not long after we began to wonder, 'What now?' Having no better
ideas, we decided to upgrade. We got our General licenses in 1997.
After that the hobby started to move and shape our lives, instead of
the other way around. We became Volunteer Examiners. We joined a
RACES group." Hoffman says his column's name--"The Amateur
Amateur"--suggests the explorations of a rank amateur, not those
of an experienced or knowledgeable ham. "The one thing the
column accomplished was that it forced me to experiment, to try new
things," he said. "Even when something blows up in my face,
I can say, 'Well, it will make a great column!'" Hoffman now
holds an Extra ticket. His wife, Nancy, is N0NJ. Hoffman has a
ham-related Web page.
Readers may contact the author via
© 2001 American Radio Relay League