For some, ham radio is more than a hobby

| Wednesday, May 29, 2013, 9:17 p.m.

Jerry Wetzel has relayed messages to scientists and military personnel at the South Pole from his amateur radio station in Butler and provided a vital communications link to people in the path of hurricanes.

He has talked with astronauts aboard the International Space Station who are ham radio operators.

“It's a great hobby. There is so much to it,” said Wetzel, 74, who spent 29 years in the Army and became a ham radio operator in 1956.

Wetzel is one of the more than 23,000 licensed ham radio operators in Pennsylvania who have relayed messages to families of disaster victims, worked as weather watchers for the National Weather Service and taught a younger generation about their hobby.

Ham radio — the noncommercial use of certain radio bands — offered Wetzel and others a global, person-to-person communication system decades before the Internet did. Its usefulness as a communications tool continues even in the day of computers and smartphones.

“The ability of ham radio gear to keep on working even when ‘the grid' goes down is its major advantage during an emergency,” said Tom Spann, a retired associate professor of broadcasting at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. “Ham radio gear just doesn't need the tall antenna towers and infrastructure interconnections ... to operate.”

During Hurricane Katrina in August 2005, amateur radio coordinated the flow of information among relief centers, emergency operations centers and shelters until crews restored normal communication systems. Operators used it to pass information on to search and rescue workers, according to an August 2012 report from the Federal Communications Commission.

Amateur radio also played a vital role in the aftermath of the Feb. 1, 2003, space shuttle Columbia disaster, the FCC said. In east Texas, where the bulk of the 84,000 pieces of debris fell, cellphone coverage and coverage from normal radio systems was spotty to nonexistent. Amateur radio provided spot communications as recovery teams walked the terrain finding and marking pieces of debris.

Ham radio stations can be located in homes, cars, boats or outdoors. Operators communicate with each other using voice, computers and Morse code. Some bounce signals off the moon, although that presents technical challenges. Many use hand-held radios that fit in their pockets.

Robert Benna of Ross considers himself “a youngster” when it comes to ham radio. At 79, he's been doing it for about 20 years.

“We have one guy who is 92 with 50-plus years,” said Benna, president of a ham radio group dubbed the Breezeshooters, who meet on the air Monday nights.

Benna has talked to people in all 50 states and about 200 countries, including Jordan's late King Hussein, who was a ham radio buff.

Pennsylvania ranks fourth, behind California, Texas and Ohio, in the number of electronic repeaters for amateur radio. The state is home to 686 of the devices, which receive weak or low-level amateur radio signals and retransmit them at higher levels so they cover longer distances. They are mostly located on hilltops or tall buildings.

Interest in ham radio grew rapidly during the first half of the 20th century.

In 1921, the American Radio Relay League, the national association for amateur radio, had 6,000 members. By 1950, U.S. hams numbered about 90,000. Current ARRL membership is 158,000.

Like other ham operators, Benna is trying to pass on the hobby to a younger generation, something he found hard to do in his family.

“Kids get interested for awhile and then drop it,” he said. “I have six kids and 13 grandchildren. ... I've got all that junk downstairs, and no one is interested.”

Craig Smith is a Trib Total Media staff writer. Reach him at 412-380-5646 or

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