Is It Time for Skills Testing Beyond Technician?

In August With the Handihams we focused on operating skills and suggested it was time to test for basic proficiency with handheld radios.

The thinking was that a club or group of public service-minded amateurs would benefit by some kind of voluntary certification process that helped to assure that its members could run their radios, making everyone more efficient communicators —especially at public service events or during emergencies.

Of course it is one thing to test for proficiency on a simple VHF/UHF handheld radio and quite another to go beyond that basic radio to the much wider world of high-frequency transceivers.

Times Change

Back in the mid-1960s, when many of us —including me —became interested in radio as kids, the entry point to an amateur radio license was often through shortwave listening. VHF in the prerepeater days was still something of an eclectic oddity that attracted mostly experimenters among the amateur radio ranks.

Most of us were interested in HF communication, and virtually everyone began with an HF license: The Novice class ticket.

Shortwave listeners developed a sense of how HF propagation works, and if they went on to earn their Novice licenses they got on the air and learned even more about propagation and building strategies toward making HF contacts. Back in those days, the timed nature of the Novice ticket —it was non-renewable, expiring after one year —forced the new ham to work steadily toward earning the General class license or be forced off the air.

Passing the General exam meant some serious fun on the air, making many HF contacts and learning by doing. The only operating skills test at the time was a Morse code examination, and virtually all other skills in HF operation were acquired through experience. The beginner license, Novice, was an HF license for all practical purposes. Its holders began to gain experience in HF operation as soon as they got on the air.

A Contemporary View

So what is different today? I glad you asked, because the answer explains why HF operating proficiency is not to be taken for granted and why HF operation has to be learned in a much different way than many of us in the baby boomer demographic had experienced.

Today beginner license, the Technician, does afford many HF privileges. Most newly-minted Technicians head straight for the VHF/UHF FM transceivers and never look back. They will have their first experience on the air through a VHF or UHF repeater system, and that is where they will continue to make most of their contacts.

A few may become interested in operating single sideband phone on 10-meters, or even more rarely, operating CW on one of the other HF bands available to Technicians. Igrant you that you can learn a lot about propagation running CW with up to 200 watts on the 80-meter band. But the typical new ham will not know Morse code and will not be able to gain that experience.

Operating single sideband on 10 meters is also a learning experience, but one that is often not discovered by many new hams while they hold their Technician licenses.

New Generals: On a Magical Mystery Tour?

I think we can agree this means the new General class licensee might be entering a truly mysterious new world when the new HF rig is first switched on! It does not mean that this is better or worse than the old system of starting out with an HF license like the Novice —it is just different, and those of us who have learned HF operating through years of on-the-air experience need to be aware that new General licensees may need a helping hand as they learn the basics.

Could this mean some kind of basic certification in HF operating skills? HF operation is so multifaceted that it is difficult to condense it to a single short list of basic skills as we might do with operating an FM handheld radio. After all, HF operation requires some serious infrastructure, and that includes antennas. This is the number one, most misunderstood aspect of HF operation that I observe when working with new Generals. I always get a sinking feeling when I talk to someone who has just ordered a new HF rig before thinking through their antenna plans.

A Plan for HF Skills Assessment

So, where do we even begin? Maybe a simple interview with new Generals would be helpful. Just because they have passed a written exam does not mean that they have an understanding of the practical realities of getting set up for HF.

When the VE session is over, here are a few questions Iput to the new Generals, and Ibet you have some you could add to the list:

Q: Do you operate (or listen) on the HF bands?

The answer will help you assess the experience level of the new General. There will be quite a difference between someone who has only operated through FM repeaters and someone who has been active on the Tech portions of the HF bands and who has done some serious listening across the bands. You are also going to learn if the new General already has an HF radio!

Q: What kind of HF operation interests you?

DX on 20 meters? 75-meter nets? The answer will inform you as to how best to help the new General meet his or her goals. Antenna selection is an obvious topic, but a reminder that CW is an effective operating strategy for 20-meter DX and a discussion of code learning resources could be included. This question is open-ended enough to lead in several directions!

Q: Do you need help with an antenna assessment?

You might be surprised by how many operators who are not familiar with HF have only the fuzziest notion of what it will take to get an antenna system installed. This part of the discussion will allow you to find out something more about the proposed installation, and you can be prepared to suggest alternatives:

•A vertical antenna where a dipole might not fit

•A wire antenna when the budget will not allow a tower and beam

•A foray into the area of antenna safety when power lines run past or across the property, and so on.

•If you run across impossible situations like apartment living or hidebound covenants, you can suggest mobile operating or Internet remote base operation.

Q: Are you a member of a radio club or have you considered joining one?

Getting active in a radio club can be pivotal in HF learning. Club programs and events like ARRL Field Day provide excellent opportunities. Even the coffee break between the business meeting and the program can be a good time to ask other club members about grounding or equipment —almost anything related to setting up a station. Contact information is exchanged and help can be an email or phone call away.

Some clubs have club stations. This is a good selling point for your club when you talk to new Generals!

This is also a good time to invite new Generals to get on the air, especially if your club or regional groups sponsor informal HF nets. This offers a chance to practice getting on the HF bands in a non-judgmental, more laid-back environment while talking with friends.

So, What's the Bottom Line?

Should there be an HF skills test? We will have to think about that. When we offer Handiham Radio Camp in 2013, we may have our hands full with the Operating Skills test for HT competency that we outlined in the August 2012 World Radio Online. Still, there will be several HF stations set up for use by campers, so every user should be checked out on the basics.

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