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Riding the Waves

This story ran in the July/August 2009 issue of The Iowan and won the bronze award for Culture Feature from the International Regional Magazine Association (IRMA).

Riding the Waves

In the 21st century, ham radio remains 
both popular pastime and public service.

Story by Terri Queck-Matzie, photography by Paul Gates


The first warning came in at 4:41 p.m. Quintin Erdman and Ben McMillan sat in a car observing a wall cloud. They recognized what might be coming. 

“KØDMX, K4ISU. We have a rotating wall cloud approximately one mile south of Ackley.”

From his station at the National Weather Service in Johnston, Jim Snapp listened intently as updates came in over the next few minutes. Erdman, known on the Amateur Radio Skywarn Network as K4ISU, and McMillan, KCØQMR, watched the dark billows take on a familiar shape.

“KØDMX, K4ISU. We are three miles east of Ackley and have a funnel halfway to the ground,” reported Erdman at 4:47. “Wait! Tornado! Tornado on the ground!”

A quarter-mile-wide tornado now emerged straight south of Austinville. It was growing in size  and heading northeast.

“Tornado is passing south of Aplington. Current location is two miles southeast of town,”  came Erdman’s 4:57 call.

“The tornado has missed Aplington?” Snapp, using his network identification KØDMX, requested clarification.

“KØDMX, tornado appears to be a mile wide!” 

Eyes and Voices on the Ground

Sunday, May 25, 2008. An EF-5 tornado has hit the community of Parkersburg. Ground storm spotters and ham radio operators Erdman and McMillan drive into town, the first vehicle to arrive from the west on Highway 218. 

“K4ISU,” called Erdman at 5:01. “We have pretty much impassable roads up here. We have massive damage. Houses completely obliterated.” 

“KCØQMR,” said McMillan, identifying himself. “OK, sir, I need you to do something for public safety. There are huge gas leaks. You need to have emergency management send everyone they have in terms of firefighters, OK? We are talking massive destruction, large gas leaks, flattened houses. 

I am very serious. They need to get here and shut down this area.”

As part of a trained network that gathers “ground truth,” amateur radio operators routinely provide vital information to meteorologists to assess weather conditions and help determine when a warning should be issued. “They are invaluable to what we do here,” says Jeff Johnson, Warning Coordination Meteorologist at the National Weather Service in Johnston. 

Hams train as storm spotters and man a station at the National Weather Service during any major weather event, where they maintain communication with the spotters in the field. “They’re some of our best trained spotters because they come back for training year after year,” says Johnson. “We have 50 or so severe weather events a year, and at least half of those are reported by ham spotters.” 

Searching the skies for impending storms is a popular pursuit for ham radio enthusiasts. “It’s one of the most important things we do,” says veteran ham Larry Joe Vandewater, NØBKB, of rural Greenfield. 

Ham radio operators have always contributed to public safety — by spotting for storms, by offering the technical ability to communicate when other forms of communication are rendered useless, and by enhancing the public sector’s technology.

“Ham radio operators are still relevant today for two reasons,” explains Mike Waldron, AEØMW, of Des Moines. “They’re developing the stuff everyone else is going to be using in 15 years, and they are basic enough they can still function when no one else can.”

Mostly, Waldron likes developing the new stuff. “I’ve always liked to build things,” he explains. Waldron is currently working on a new digital communication system that will operate separately from existing infrastructure.

With the new technology, D-Star, a radio operator can be traced according to his call sign on any handheld unit — rather than the old way of sending the signal to a specific radio. This call sign routing and D-Star’s language translation capabilities offer great implications for emergency personnel. 

Many Hams, Many Reasons

The love of technology, the desire to help others, the camaraderie — the motives for involvement in ham radio are as varied as the characters on the airwaves.

“I used to stare at the lighted radio tubes as a child,” recalls Dr. George Noble, KK7FM, a Des Moines pediatric surgeon. “I was absolutely fascinated by them.” And so the life of a ham radio operator began.

Doctors, farmers, teachers, insurance agents: Ham radio people are an eclectic bunch with one thing in common — they all have a little bit of “ham.” There is debate over where the ham moniker comes from, but most veteran hams will acknowledge it was first attached to amateur radio operators as a reference to their outgoing personalities. 

“There’s something different in it for everyone,” says Bob Evans, KØIQR, of Des Moines, a fixture on the central Iowa ham radio scene. Weathered and wizened, Evans has been licensed since 1957 but was “doing some before the war,” when the ham radio world was “a different philosophy than today,” with people building their equipment from any parts they could cobble together.

“There are those who are in it for the public service and those that are in it for the technology. They’re the ones developing the new stuff,” says Evans. “And some, just to gab.” 

Evans built his first radio from scratch using spare tubes and wires. He cut his teeth in the Military Affiliate Radio System (MARS), where he learned military procedure on the radio and the Teletype. 

He was there during the first days of the Iowa (Fiber Optics) Communication Network. “It was a chore to keep it running at first,” he recalls with a chuckle. But then, challenges are what attract Evans, who prefers to tackle such projects rather than “sit and yak.”  

If You Build It, They Will Come

“Yakking” during his commute from Urbandale to Ames every day works just fine for Mike McQuiston, WAØMM. That’s not to say he is a ham radio lightweight. Like Evans, he enjoys building radios as much as using them, diligently shopping for vintage components.

Shelves on the walls of his basement radio room are lined with a visual homage to the history of the ham radio scene: early railroad telegraph keys, his first blue plastic crystal radio, early transmitters, WWII bomber gear, mid-century microphones, even a radio built into a breath mint tin. “I was just on that one last week,” McQuiston says with a chuckle, fully aware of the reaction he’ll get from the revelation.

He got his first ham radio license at the age of 13. When he took the test he had no receiver or transmitter. He earned the money for his initial equipment by riding the streets of his west-side Des Moines neighborhood on his two-speed red Schwinn Tiger, delivering newspapers. 

“I was lucky to have parents that let me do just about anything (within reason),” says McQuiston. “They even let me drill holes in the side of the house to bring the coax for an antenna in.”

When computers began to make their way into homes, he started one of the first electronic bulletin boards (the predecessors to email) on a server in his own home. 

He helped develop most of the major data transmission networks now in use in Iowa, such as the Iowa Communications Network and the E911 database, along with other hams in the area. To promote projects and the technical aspects of ham radio, he and others formed the Central Iowa Technical Society in the 1980s. 

For me, this early fascination turned into a fairly successful career,” says McQuiston, now an information technology program manager for Iowa State University.

He speaks with authority and ease about bouncing data packets off meteor trails, encrypting messages, and how there can be no long skips without sunspots because sunspots energize the ionosphere. He somehow makes it all sound simple.

“These days I sort of have one foot in the high-tech digital world and one in low-tech code,” says McQuiston, who prefers the simplicity of his older radios. “I used to do contests and that sort of thing, but now I just talk. Mostly at random.” McQuiston recounts a conversation he had on his way home from work with a ham in Coco Beach, Florida. “Just one radio to another.”  

The Sky’s the Limit

Norma Newton’s start in ham radio did not come from a fascination with the technology. It came from one of those life-altering acts of God.

“In our younger years we [she and husband, Roland] were into CB radios,” recalls Norma. “Then my brother-in-law gave Roland some ham equipment and he started puttering with it.”

Still, the radio craze didn’t affect Norma until one fateful day in the spring of 2001. With severe weather on the horizon, Roland insisted she keep the handheld radio with her as she tended her horses on their farm near Kelley.

When she saw a tornado approaching, she barely had time to get into the house basement. But as she ran, she was able to place a radio call to the National Weather Service, where ham radio operators were on duty monitoring spotters. They tracked her call (as a true amateur at the time, she forgot to give them her location) and were able to warn others in the storm’s path.

It was then and there that Norma realized the power of the radio. With Roland’s urging, she tested for her license and now actively participates in search-and-rescue missions (often on horseback), storm spotting, and emergency communications. “For me it’s a means to an end,” explains Norma, aka KCØLIN. “It’s being able to participate in helping when people need it most that I like best.”

Roland, KCØIEA, is also active as a ham operator. “We train like we’re going to use it,” he explains of the emergency instruction, “and we use it like we’re trained.” He says it is that training that makes actions in an emergency situation seem natural and automatic. “You get into the habit of communicating in a disciplined fashion.”

An Elmer on the Edge

From weather spotting to chatting with friends to delving into new technology, Larry Joe Vandewater, NØBKB, enjoys every aspect of the genre. In ham circles he is what is known as a “spark” — a person who gets into a new area and leads others there.

Vandewater does like the high-tech toys. His red Ford pickup is equipped with a mobile transmitter for monitoring local frequencies, a commercial radio with a business band radio that he uses to communicate with the National Weather Service and law enforcement, and a dual-band transmitter linked to a laptop computer.

On the screen is a map showing the location of various ham operators, identified by icons that move about as they do. A click on the ham’s call sign pulls up personal information. Another pop-up screen allows typed messages. “It’s like a text message, only we’ve been doing it for 15 years,” explains Vandewater. Another program downloads weather-warning maps from the National Weather Service. 

He’s not so into the high-frequency communication that would take him all over the world. He’s more interested in talking to his close circle of friends, which seems to include a tourist sailboat owner in the Gulf of Mexico and a young man much closer to home who’s just starting to make his way in the ham world.

I got into it because my dad did,” says 15-year-old Nathan Maynes, KDØFSO, of Greenfield, a recently licensed ham radio operator. But it wasn’t his dad who became his “Elmer,” the nickname for an experienced ham who befriends a young, up-and-coming one. It was two local hams, Keith Carpenter, WDØFIA, and Vandewater, who loaned him equipment and helped him prepare for testing. 

Maynes is hoping to test for his general license soon and perhaps get a new radio. Ham radio licenses come in three levels. A Technical License allows basic operation, with mostly local conversation. It takes about eight hours of study with materials provided by current ham operators.

A General License will allow a broader circle of communication, including high frequencies that can travel around the world. An Extra License allows for equipment repair and high-tech operation. Morse code is no longer required as part of the testing as it once was — a sign of the technical times.

“I just like to talk to people,” says Maynes. 

Young, old, rich, poor, male, female, traditionalist, techie. There are many voices in the world of ham radio, and many reasons to join in the conversation. For Mike McQuiston, it still comes down to magic. “The idea that you can magnetize airwaves and connect to someone on the other side of the world never ceases to amaze me.”


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