K3TA: Calling the World

The signals originate in Maryland. From there, they can reach almost anywhere on the planet

It’s like visiting Buck Roger’s control room. There are knobs and dials everywhere. On one wall hang maps of the earth, zoned into sections labeled with letters and numbers. On another wall, cards emblazoned with cryptic codes record locations where transmissions have been acknowledged—Holland, Italy, Antarctica, Gambia, the Indian Ocean.

At the control panel, the 18-year-old engineer twists the dial governing the tower’s signals. He has heard a CQ, a general request for anyone listening to respond. Aiming his beam in the proper direction, he taps out Morse code on an electronic keyer, and the dots and dashes identifying him as K3TA flash around the world.

K3TA is not a refugee who used to wander the galaxies with Artoo Detoo and See Threepio. And the scene described above isn’t a passage from an old science fiction novel. What is going on is an everyday occurrence in the life of Michael St. Clair, a priest in the Potomac Ward, Washington D.C. Stake, who is a ham radio operator. K3TA is a code that identifies the station he operates.

The station is located not on some exotic starship but in his bedroom. And the 100-foot tower is in the backyard. But from that bedroom transmitting and receiving station, Mike has spoken with people from more than 200 countries.

“I’ve talked to just about every country a person would normally think of,” Mike says, “except China. They haven’t allowed amateur radio there for a long time. But I read in a radio magazine that they might start it up again.”

If they do, Mike may be able to check off another name on his list of places he has talked to. The American Radio Relay League (ARRL), the organization of ham radio operators in the United States, publishes a list of 330 contactable “countries,” and Mike hopes to some day reach all of them. The list includes a lot of locations not normally classified as nations. “For example, Hawaii counts as a separate country as far as radio is concerned,” Mike explains. The list also includes remote locations which are either unexplored or undeveloped. “To make contact with a place like that, you usually have to wait for an expedition from outside to travel through.”

Just the same, Mike’s activity has brought him recognition for having confirmed contact with so many people in so many places. He has earned the league’s WAS (“Worked All States”) award and has qualified for the DXCC (“Distance Century Club”) award. WAS is a recognition given to amateur operators who have talked to someone in each of the states in the U.S. DXCC is awarded to those who have confirmed contact with operators in at least 100 foreign countries.

To receive the DXCC, Mike has to receive a card from each of the places contacted, then make application to the league. “The cards take a long time to come in, because they go through a central bureau. Sometimes they don’t arrive until a year after you talk to someone.” So, although Mike has talked to people all over the globe, he’s still waiting for two more cards before he can technically earn the DXCC. It’s just a matter of time before the cards finally arrive.

Like enthusiasts of any sport or hobby, amateur radio operators love to have contests to sharpen their skills. And Mike has done well in contests, too. The contests involve contacting as many stations as possible during a certain amount of time. “During the longer contests, I might contact as many as 5,000 operators,” Mike says. “The real reason for contests is to improve your skill as an operator, and it does take a lot of skill.” Contests range from 4 hours on one day to 96 hours spread over two weekends, though most contests are for either 48 straight hours or for 36 hours during a 48-hour period. “It gets tiring, but I keep going. That’s part of the excitement.”

There are domestic contests (within the U.S.) and international contests. “I’ve never won a world contest before,” Mike says, “but I’ve placed in the top 50.” Mike has made special arrangements not to compete on Sundays and is also lobbying to have Sunday contests eliminated. “I think it is good for my radio friends who are not members of the Church to know that I consider my standards more important than winning a worldwide contest,” Mike says.

Mike’s interest in amateur radio (the term ham is a nickname for the same thing) began while he was young. “We set up an electric train in the basement when I was about five, and I started figuring out how it ran. I’ve been working with wires ever since.”

His uncle is a ham in Columbia, South Carolina, and he has given Mike a lot of support. They talk to each other once a week. Another uncle in Ephraim, Utah, is also on the air and contacts Michael from time to time.

“Lots of operators are willing to help, to give advice,” Mike says. “And there are classes and books available. Just meeting a lot of friends builds your technical background, if you go to club meetings. I’ve learned a lot from talking to people on the air, too.

“My uncle gave me a home-built transmitter, which I used along with a receiver I built from a kit. You can get a novice (beginner’s) license from the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), and with less than $100 worth of equipment, be operating a Morse code station.”

Mike got his novice license in August 1975, received his general license eight months later, his advanced license “a couple of months after that,” and now holds the highest license, the extra class license. There is one other license, the technician license, but it is used mostly for business communication, and higher licenses have the same privileges, so Mike bypassed it.

A novice licensee is allowed to broadcast only in Morse code. If he attains a higher license, however, he is allowed to broadcast his voice. “I started out memorizing Morse code,” Mike says. “Then I had a record with a very slow code speed, and I practiced off the air. Once I got on the air, I didn’t have any interest in receiving from a record. The main thing that pushed me to learn code was foreign stations sending it faster than I could receive, so I kept on pushing.”

There is usually not a language barrier, since most operators speak English, Mike explains. “But it’s nice to know a few basic words from their language, too. I’ve learned a lot about other countries, and I’ve had a chance to practice my Spanish.”

Mike has learned a lot about many things because of his involvement with amateur radio. He learned about family love as his parents, brothers, and sister helped with construction of the tower: “It’s a sacrifice for my parents to let me have it, and we’ll probably take it down while I’m on my mission. But everybody sure pitched in to help me build it.”

Mike paid for the tower himself, mostly from money he earned on his paper route. That taught him how to budget and how to work for what he wants. He also had to obtain building permits and file applications with the county in order to have permission to erect the tower. “I had to decide where the guy lines should go, how big of a tower to put up, draw the designs, and make the calculations all on my own. Now I know how the permit system works in case I ever want to build a home or remodel.”

At least with the tower in the backyard, it’s easy to tell friends how to find the house.

Mike’s experience in electronics paid off when he obtained a job as an engineer at a local FM radio station. It has also allowed him to help at Church dances because he can record high-fidelity dance music. He is wiring speakers to the cry room and the nursery at his meeting house as a service project.

But his greatest joy in working with radio has been the opportunity it has provided for him to help people contact each other. “I have handled relaying messages back into the U.S. for a lot of people. Washington, D.C., is a popular area for ham radio messages because a lot of people from the State Department and other government bureaus overseas want to keep in touch with their families. They may be in Africa or they may be scientists in Antarctica, like the one who told me it was -90° F. the day he called. I have a friend whose family is living in South America, and he comes over every Wednesday night and we use the radio to talk to them.”

Though he has never been involved in sending emergency messages with the radio, Mike is also aware that often ham stations are used when other forms of communication are blocked. “I will be glad to help if I ever can,” he says.

His radio has also provided an opportunity to talk to people about the Church. “I lead into it some way, and they’re usually pretty curious,” Mike says. “I had a conversation with a strong Catholic from California once, and it was over the air so anybody could listen in. When I contact anyone from Utah, I always ask them if they’re members of the Church. I belong to a local radio club, and I’ve made a lot of friends there, too. One of them seems very interested in the Church, and I think he might make it all the way to becoming a member.”

In addition to his love for radio, Mike is involved with photography, swimming, working with the full-time missionaries, home teaching with his father, kicking the soccer ball around with his brothers, helping his brother Greg with his aquarium, and fulfilling his quorum responsibilities as second assistant to the president.

He plans to attend BYU starting this fall and study electrical engineering and math. He hopes that some of his brothers (Jeff, 12; Kent, 9; Greg, 16; and newborn Scott, 3 months) or his sister (Mary, 4) will also get interested in ham radio so that he can share his experience with them (although they do all talk with their uncles on the air already). “I hope to keep in touch with the family via amateur radio while I’m away at BYU,” he says.

Mike’s greatest goal right now, however, is to go on a mission. It doesn’t matter exactly where he gets sent, he says. Chances are he’s already spoken to somebody who lives there.

[photos] Photos by Richard M. Romney