The Amateur Amateur: Storm Spotting--the Hard Way

By Gary Hoffman, KB0H
Contributing Editor
June 14, 2001

We introduce a new column that deals with the perils, pitfalls and, of course, the pleasures involved with being a newly licensed Amateur Radio operator.

Gary Hoffman 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. I've lived here for 30 years, now, and there is always some new and strange meteorological phenomenon happening.

The SKYWARN 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.)

SKYWARN logo 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 eyeballs.

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! Two-inch hail!"

Jim, the net controller, replied in a clear and commanding voice, "Take shelter! Now!"

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 functions.

Thankfully, the 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 email.

© 2001 American Radio Relay League


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