Ham radio operators are having a Field Day

Ham radio operators are having a Field Day

Michele Ellson

A video tour of the USS Hornet Amateur Radio Club's "radio shack." Contributed video.

Keith Farley has wanted to be a ham radio operator since he was 11 years old.

“I was fascinated by it,” Farley remembers. But he wasn't able to master the Morse code that was required to win a license, he said.

Retirement – and the elimination of the Morse code requirement – offered Farley a second opportunity to earn his ham radio license. And Farley – now known over the airwaves by his call sign, Whiskey Six Papa Oscar Charlie – has been “briskly active” ever since.

On Saturday, the 56-member ham radio club he heads – the USS Hornet Amateur Radio Club – will join other clubs across the country by hosting an event on the Hornet’s flight deck. Participants will see the club’s hams contacting people around the world on computer-based high-frequency radios, verbally or using Morse code, and even have an opportunity to test out their own on-air skills.

The local event is being held as part of the American Radio Relay League’s national Field Day event, which brings together an estimated 35,000 ham radio operators across the country. The Amateur Radio Club of Alameda is also hosting a Field Day event, from 10 a.m. to noon Saturday in the parking lot of the Harbor Bay Landing Shopping Center, 885 Island Drive.

“It’s kind of exciting, especially for the kids,” Farley said. Tours of the club’s on-board radio room will also be available.

The club was formed in 2008 by a trio of older veterans, said Farley, a 20-year Navy man who retired from service on the HM-15 at Alameda Point in 1995. The Hornet was a natural fit for a location, he said; many other retired ships that have been converted into museums have similar clubs aboard.

“Probably older vets, when they retire they get into ham radio, and they still want to be around the Navy so to speak. That was the case with me,” Farley said. “The smells and the feel of the ship are something that gets in your blood.”

While much of what ham radio operators do is recreational - making friends or "contesting" to see who can contact the most people - they are also a vital communication resource in a crisis or disaster, Farley said, broadcasting information on traffic, health and welfare at times when modern means like cell phones and the Internet are maxed out or fail.

Farley said ham radio operators provided communications support after a deadly tornado cut a swath across Oklahoma, earlier this year, and after the Boston Marathon bombings, when police shut down the area’s cell phone network.

“Everybody’s on cell phones and Internet and voice over Internet. They get to see that the old communications do work, and will work in the event that all this other stuff doesn’t work,” he said.

That said, some ham radio operators have embraced the digital revolution, Farley included. While traditionalists still use “that have great big giant tubes glow in the dark,” modern, computer-controlled rigs offer their operators more control over what they’re hearing and clearer sound.

Equipment can be expensive – some pieces on the Ham Radio Outlet’s website run into the thousands of dollars. But Farley said newcomers can get into the hobby by purchasing a used rig for a few hundred dollars.

That, and an FCC license – available to anyone over the age of 12 who can demonstrate knowledge of the laws around ham radio use and also, that they know how to use the equipment – is all that’s needed to get on-air.

"You can get into the hobby and on the air for a minimal amount of money," Farley said.

The Hornet club’s event takes place from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday on the Hornet, which is at 707 West Hornet Avenue, and Field Day transmissions begin at 11 a.m. Admission is $16 for adults and $7 for youths 16 and under, though discounted tickets are available through Groupon.

More information on the event and the club are available on the club’s website or by e-mailing Farley at keith@w6poc.us.