The Learning Game
By Tony Boddy ZL3DQ, VK2ADQ, VK6DQ
So many years ago, thirty five years in fact.
Yet the perception of my time on air seems short. It seems only yesterday when I first came on air, My first rig was a little home brew phasing rig with a 6AG7 in the final, the other bits were solid state. The valve VFO was an external job, had to be because it was microphonic. Even touching the bench during operation was a definite no-no. It was a great little rig, nearly indestructible even in the hands of this newbie. I cheated with the receiver, it was a Tandy DX-160 that I used for short wave listening during the years preceding my on air debut on the 4th of July 1981.
My test gear was a BC-221 Frequency Meter, an elcheapo multimeter and a borrowed grid dip oscillator. That gear plus the DX-160 enabled me to learn so much about tuned circuits and general radio practice. I lived radio, built so many experimental circuits, power supplies and my first antenna matching unit under the watchful eyes of my mentor Phil Howell, ZL3RH. Actually I double cheated, there was an occasion or two that I did an on air test or two. Five watts from my old 6AG7 was not going to do much harm anywhere but it was surprising how far five watts would go. I even used the BC-221 as a CW transmitter by keying the antenna so I could send Morse to a mate several blocks away. That would have been down at Micro Watt level but a 65foot long wire makes a good radiator on 80 m.
When I started my clandestine tune-ups with the warnings of “Dip the plate or you will blow the final” ringing in my ears every time I went on air I can tell you I was pretty cautious. I found that maximum radiated power as indicated by my homebrew field strength meter and minimum plate current on the transmitter corresponded with what was written in the books. Yeah, I learned how to tune a final and into an antenna. Learned a lot about antennas too. My favourite for many years was an 80M Windom with a single wire feed-line and my home-brew link tuner. It had a vertically polarized signal component as well as horizontal that gave me a good strong ground wave for local contacts and a fair go at stations further away. “There is someone tuning up on the frequency” was music to my ears but I was so frustrated not to be able to talk to them. They were at the opposite end of New Zealand to me but there I was, loud and clear. Strictly illegal to go on air without identification. I do not recommend it nor would I do it today. I play it by the book.
Finally sat the test, in those days there was only two opportunities a year to sit the Ham Exam, March and September. Not only that, one had to wait six months for the results to come through. Passed! Yay! Good news, now came the Morse. There was no way I was going on air with a Technician call, for me it had to be a full call or nothing. I did that too, it was a long hard fight to get the 12 wpm a minute pass. Another long wait for my call and it came on the unforgettable date of July the 4th 1981.
In the meantime, even though my little home-brew 6AG7 rig was OK I developed a lust for more power and I really wanted a rig that was frequency agile. I scrimped and saved till I had enough to buy a used Yaesu FT200. What a great rig that was. So much easier that the home-brew rig to use, the FT200 became my work horse.
I made many contacts in that first year and can say that I thought I was doing pretty well. My fist was pretty good according to the hams I worked on CW and I became a dab hand at dipping the plate every time I tuned up in fact it became second nature to me. What a gun operator!
Then one day I thought my world had come to an end. Heard a ham calling CQ on 80m from the top end of ZL1. Went back to him OK and he said to me “Yer not very strong”. What did he mean not very strong? I’ve got an FT-200 and I’m a gun operator. How dare he say I’m not very strong! “No worries mate I’ve just checked my gear and everything is spot on. You should be getting a good signal”. “Yer still not very strong”. “OK standby, I’ll check the rig out and turn the wick up a bit”. “Yer still not very strong, can’t ‘ear yer”. What does he mean, can’t hear me? I had already checked, turned the wick up a bit and he can’t hear me. I cast an eye over the rig and saw an ominous glow from inside through the slots in the top panel. It’s hot! I’ve blown the finals. Check again. Go back to him. 100w on the power meter. Dip the plate. Dip the plate. Turn up the mic gain. 135watts. “That’s as far as I can go, how’s copy now?” He comes back to me, by this time I am standing up watching my beloved FT-200 on its last legs galloping into a meltdown, “Still can’t ‘ear yer”. It’s the end of the world for me, my rig has died, no output. What have I done?
Then out of the blue a different voice pinning the S meter, just about blowing me out of the room “So right son, yer 60 over nine here. Bill yer silly ole fool, put yer hearing aids in”.
Just goes to prove that all is not as it first seems and it’s all just a learning game.