Scott Schaefer has friends in high places. As a Virginia amateur ham radio operator, he explores the night sky for friendly contacts.
Last Saturday the 34-year-old Schaefer, teaming with 15 other Northern Virginia hams, competed against a nationwide network of fellow amateur radio operators in a radio emergency field day, an operation designed to test the emergency communication capabilities of amateur radio operators.
The national contest, which is sponsored annually by the American Radio Relay League in Newington, Conn., allows hams to mobilize during a 24-hour emergency simulation. Points are awarded for each contact; the further the contact the higher the value. No duplicate contacts are allowed. Each operator, who must be federally licensed and is usually loquacious, is responsible for logging the number of contacts made.
Besides honing operators' communication skills for use in a nationwide emergency, the contest lets operators compete against felllow hams. "Bragging rights" is how Schaefer characterized it. "It's for anyone. Some guys just can't put on the football helmet anymore and others have a hard time making their way around the golf course."
The name of the airwaves game is who can carry the strongest signal. Depending on the sophistication of the equipment and knowledge of short wave radio, this may or may not be easy. Schaefer's philosophy of "just trying to groove yourself into a hole on a frequency band " seems to work for him, although the fact that he is a sales manager at an electric equipment company doesn't hurt either. Schaefer estimated that he and his friends used somewhere in the neighborhood of $4,000 in radio equipment during the contest.
"If you're stronger than everyone else, you're able to propagate more radio waves through the air and have a better chance for more contacts," Schaefer explains.
Of course having extensive knowledge of radio transmission, as Schaefer does, doesn't hurt either.
Working several hours before the contest began, Schaefer's band, known throughout the airwaves as WR4S, had taken over a clear stretch of pasture in Lake Fairfax Park (courtesy of the Northern Virginia Park Authority) and turned it into what looked liked a small, covert spy operation.
Using ingenuity, the group launched several antennae, one reaching 100 feet, by securing them to a fishing line that stretched between two trees. One of the men had "shot" the fishing line into the two trees using an elaborate bow-and-arrow method and the antenna hung down from the high-strung line, thus creating a dipole antenna.
That this system worked so well permitted the men to abort their contingency plan -- a helium balloon in which they anticipated putting an antenna 350 feet into the sky.
After all the apparatus was assembled and ready, the call went out. "C.Q. Field Day! C.Q. Field Day! This is WR4S -- Whiskey -- Radio -- 4 -- Sierra." Within 10 minutes, contacts from Ontario to New York to South Carolina had been made and before the contest was finished, members of WR4S had reached more than 3,000 other amateur radio operators, some as far away as New Zealand. Last year the team made 2,000 contacts and were tops in Northern Virginia.
For most, like the men of WR4S, the emergency field day contest is taken quite seriously. But as a hobby, ham radio operation has other benefits: For Tom Shelby of Vienna, it beats phone calls. His son Scott lived on Ascension Island, a small island in the South Atlantic halfway between Brazil and Angola, and Shelby often used his system to talk with Scott. The only problem now is that his son lives in Guam, which is a lot harder to reach.