Competition keeps North Hills Amateur Radio Club talking

| Wednesday, July 9, 2014, 9:01 p.m.

With a handheld antenna and small radio transmitter, members of the North Hills Amateur Radio Club attempted to contact astronauts more than 200 miles above the Earth's surface.

Club members' transmissions to astronauts stationed at the International Space Station were part of the American Radio Relay League's Field Day, a 24-hour event and competition in which amateur licensed radio operators test their equipment and skills to contact other radio operators.

The club participated in this year's event, on June 28 and 29, on the grounds surrounding Parkwood United Presbyterian Church in Hampton Township, where the group meets.

Members strung wires and antennas into trees to set up three high-frequency stations, which include an antenna and radio, and one digital-mode high-frequency station, in which messages are sent through computer systems that turn keystrokes into audio tones. They all ran on battery power and generators.

During Field Day, the American Radio Relay League provides points to operators and groups for each individual operator they are able to contact. Points also are awarded if operators are able to meet various other goals such as operating on emergency power — generators or batteries — or contacting the International Space Station.

“The biggest thing is practice for emergency preparedness,” McCandless resident Eric Fowler, the club's vice president, said about Field Day. “For others it's just fun.”

While they weren't able to get through the heavy radio traffic to the International Space Station during the first orbital pass, club members were able to hear astronauts confirming transmissions from other radio operators around the country.

“I'm just happy to listen to the thing,” said Jim Statham of Avalon.

Statham moved to Pennsylvania from Forsyth County, Ga., where he was a member of American Radio Emergency Services and transmitted information during severe storms.

“We were the eyes and ears of the weather service,” he said.

Statham joined the North Hills club to get back into the hobby, stretch himself technically and get more involved in community service.

The club's radio operators volunteer at events such as the Pittsburgh Great Race, Susan G. Komen Pittsburgh Race for the Cure, Pittsburgh Vintage Grand Prix and parades to facilitate communication between staff checkpoints.

Radio operators also provide service during emergencies, such as severe storms and natural disasters.

“If a tornado comes to town and wipes out all power and telephone communication, it's the ham radio operators … who set up communication,” said Ed DeHart, of Hampton, the club's president. “Without much work, we can work out of a remote location with batteries and generators.”

The club started in the late 1950s as the Etna Radio Club and moved into the North Hills as membership expanded. Currently, the club has about 60 members.

“I've been doing it for 55 years, and it's still magic,” Robert Morris of Richland Township said.

Morris got into the hobby in 1959, at a time when, he said, “that was the Internet; that was Facebook; the social media.”

A radio transmitter always is running in his home.

“I'm sitting here with an iPhone 5 in my pocket … my daughter lives in Vermont, and we Facetime three times a week, it's great, I love the technology, but … (on a radio) I'm listening to Russians with a wire hanging from a tree.”

Bethany Hofstetter is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 724-772-6364 or

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