Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Anatomy of a Special Events Ham Radio Operation

Wow, it has been a busy month! We have beaucoups things going on with the day job, the family spent a week at the beach, and now I'm launching into book promotion on THE ICE DIARIES. The highlight for me will be speaking at the Submarine Force Museum in Groton, CT, on Saturday, August 2, at noon. Of course that will be in the middle of our N9N special event ham radio station operation, too. I put together this little article and submitted it to some of the ham radio websites. It remains to be seen if they will consider it too self-serving to publish, but I'll reproduce it here, just in case. I hope it helps others who are considering doing a special event station.

Wish us luck, and you hams look for us on the bands all weekend, August 2 and 3.

Anatomy of a Special Event Ham Radio Operation

I like amateur radio special event stations. When done correctly, they accomplish several positive things:
· Gets amateur radio some visibility, especially when the event or operation is at a spot where the general public can see what is going on and, just maybe, they can ask some questions about all those strange looking radios (and maybe stranger looking operators!).
· Often, media covering the event will include the amateur radio operation, too.
· It can help call attention to the event or location. The East Podunk Opossum-Eating and Watermelon-Seed-Spitting Festival can get some national (or even international) exposure—at least among us amateur radio types—when some civic-minded hams put it “on the air.”
· It can be a lot of fun for those who participate. Fun, too, for those of us who like to work them and perhaps collect QSLs or certificates from them.

When I am dialing around and hear such an operation, I always give them a call. I really appreciate it when the op takes the time to tell me (and anybody else listening) a little about the significance or background of the historical event, covered bridges, railroad spur, or the particular fish, fowl or indigenous plant that they are saluting that weekend. I especially like the lighthouses and museum naval vessels when I hear them on the air. There is also a great one each year that operates from a historic World War II troop train that winds its way across several states. Many of us enjoyed working W9IMS from the Indianapolis Motor Speedway before the major races there. But it does not have to be anything major. I had a great chat recently with a station operating at a covered bridge festival in Ohio.

So, that got me to thinking. I had just finished writing a book about USS Nautilus and her historic trip beneath the polar ice pack to the North Pole via the long-sought Northwest Passage. We wanted to get it out before the 50th anniversary of the accomplishment, August 3, 1958. What else, I wondered, could be done to honor that historic achievement? We have a whole generation who may or may not know what that risky transit involved and few who fully understand how important it was, why it mattered, and why it was such a big deal back then.

What better event to commemorate than something that Time Books recently dubbed one of mankind’s greatest adventures? And since I’m a regular on the Submarine Veterans Amateur Radio net, I know there is a large number of hams who are also former or current submariners, including several who served aboard Nautilus during her twenty-five-year career. I suspected there would be widespread interest among hams everywhere in contacting a station devoted to the North Pole transit. And if we could get it on the air from some appropriate location and around the anniversary of the event, we could not only call attention to the bravery of the 116 crewmembers of Nautilus, but also give amateur radio some wonderful exposure.


It is our good fortune that Nautilus “pierced the pole” on Sunday night, August 3, 1958. And in 2008, August 3 once again falls on a Sunday. The 50th anniversary was on a weekend! If at all possible, that was the weekend I would shoot for to have the special event station on the air. Also, wouldn’t be cool if we could keep the stations on the air late Sunday night and give some ops a QSO at the precise moment—50 years before—when man first reached the North Pole?


It is also fortunate that Historic Ship Nautilus is still with us, unlike so many other historic ships and buildings. She and USS Constitution (“Old Ironsides” in Boston) are the only two vessels in the country dubbed “Historic Ships.” She is moored adjacent to the Submarine Force Library and Museum, on the Thames River in Groton, Connecticut. I knew the museum would be holding all sorts of events around the anniversary of the polar crossing so there would be a wonderful opportunity to put amateur radio on display before a large group of people.

Problem: I live in Alabama. Nautilus is in Connecticut. Between my day job, book promotion, and starting on the next book, the logistics of getting equipment to the area and setting it up seemed daunting. That did not even take into consideration that someone had to get permission to operate from the Nautilus site and coordinate the setup well in advance. In the back of my mind, I made a contingency plan to try to do the event from the USS Alabama Battleship Park, four hours south of me in Mobile, Alabama. They are amateur-friendly and there is a club that puts the battleship and nearby submarine, USS Drum, on the air for many events.

But there was really no tie to Nautilus or the North Pole in Mobile. The Gulf of Mexico has never frozen over!

Groton was my goal, and as close to Nautilus as I could get without being arrested or keelhauled.

I decided to seek help. In late-December, 2007, I dashed off an email to several of the amateur radio clubs in the Southern Connecticut area. A couple of clubs were nice enough to reply and say they would poll the membership and see if they were interested in getting involved. Meanwhile, I got a nice note from Chuck Motes, K1DFS, who is active in the Navy/Marine Corps Military Affiliate System (MARS). Scott Moore, W1SSN, who had actually operated from Nautilus in the past, had forwarded my plea for help to the clubs to him and to the area MARS director, Bob Veth, K1RJV.

Bottom line: Chuck and his group were willing to help get permission, coordinate with the museum staff, and set up stations we could use that weekend. And Navy MARS hams were excited about honoring Nautilus and manning the stations all weekend. It would give them a chance to test their emergency preparedness and operating skills as well as help them promote MARS to other hams and to the general public.

It appeared the answer to my prayers was coming from MARS!


I have never ramrodded a special event station before, but I wanted to secure a unique callsign if I could. So I did what most people do. I “Googled” “1 X 1 amateur callsign.” Up popped the
W5YI site and it offered all I needed to know to request the call letters I wanted. When Nautilus emerged from beneath the ice pack near Greenland after the successful transit through the North Pole, she tried to let the world know what she had accomplished. She spent some time fighting the notoriously bad propagation in the high latitudes before finally raising a U.S. Navy station in Hawaii. She transmitted to the Pentagon and White House the cryptic but historic message, “Nautilus 90 North,” confirming that she had, indeed, reached 90 degrees north latitude and lived to tell about it.

I wanted the 1 X 1 callsign N9N to reflect that message. I was pleasantly surprised how simple it was to get it. Once I confirmed that no one else had requested it for the time period I wanted it, I sent an email to one of the volunteer examiner groups that administers the 1 X 1 callsigns, explaining when and why I needed it. The approval came back the very next day. Specifically it was Rae, K4SWN, at the W4VEC group who handled my request. Remember, the “V” in “VEC” is for volunteer, and if this is any example, these folks do a great job.
One thing I did not count on, though, was that a group of guys procure N9N each year to use in their state’s QSO party. They are only good for a short period of time. In my case, I have it reserved for a two-week period centered around the August 2 and 3 weekend. I arranged to have the Nautilus special event details listed on under N9N as soon as I got the approval. That meant several hams thought they were working the Nautilus special events station in the QSO Party in March and sent QSL cards to me. I will return them…with the completed N9N/Groton card if we work them, or a blank one if we don’t. If I do this again, I won’t submit the callsign to until a month or so before the actual operation, just to avoid confusion like this.

As of this writing, in mid July, everything seems to be progressing toward a successful event. Chuck and his MARS group report all is on track. We have gotten some pretty good publicity so far and I am re-submitting the details to every amateur radio outlet I can find. Several of the submarine-veteran-related websites have also given us a mention, so I hope all sub vets who are also hams will know about it.

Only minor snag is I have a bunch of other events that have been set up for me during the weekend, including a three-hour presentation and book signing on Saturday at the museum with members of the North Pole Nautilus crew. While I’m looking forward to that, I most want to be on the microphone or key at N9N, telling everybody who will listen about what those brave guys did back in ’58. And how they were able to give America the heroes we so desperately needed in the wake of the launch by Russia of Sputnik.

I will do a post-event wrap-up when I get a chance. Maybe it will give some of you some ideas on putting together your own operation—things to do, things to avoid. But if you read this before August 2 and 3, I hope you will make it a point to look for us on the bands that weekend from N9N. It is the least we can do to pay homage to the heroes who call themselves PANOPOS—Pacific to Atlantic North Pole Sailors—the men who took the world’s first nuclear vessel to the North Pole, the least explored area of the planet, thus changing the course of the Cold War.

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