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People sit around a table.
Photo Credit: Ernie Gray
Eight South Pole winter-over personnel take an exam to join the ranks of the Amateur Radio Service. It required "bending" a few rules normally applied to the process to make the test happen in the middle of the Antarctic winter.

Dialed in

Winter-over Polies join community of ham radio enthusiasts

Since Americans began coming to Antarctica, the Amateur Radio Service External U.S. government site has enjoyed a long and distinguished history of service in the U.S. Antarctic Program (USAP) External U.S. government site.

In the early days, when the U.S. Navy mainly supported the National Science Foundation (NSF) External U.S. government site mission in Antarctica, amateurs provided their services and technical expertise free of charge for the operation of telephone patches and message traffic for personnel back to their homes. 

Although 21st century technology has diminished the need and requirement of ham radio — with satellite communications, the Internet and e-mail — the popularity, goals and achievements of the Amateur Radio Service has not diminished.

Man speaks into radio.
Photo Credit: U.S. Navy/Antarctic Photo LIbrary
Ham radio use in Antarctica dates back to the 1950s.

I know all amateurs who travel to Antarctica look forward to sitting at a desk and operating from a remote and exciting place, talking to friends and family back home, and keeping up on events far away. Everyone wants to be that person at the pointed end of a worldwide amateur operator “pile-up,” when many stations are calling at once.

The excitement of hearing people from the outside world never gets old, and the interest in obtaining a license and joining in the fun led eight Polies to that end this winter.

We had the interest at the South Pole Station External U.S. government site last winter but lacked the resources to hold classes and a subsequent licensing session, although we did have the required three licensed hams on station to act as volunteer examiners and to hold the examination session.

This winter we had the resources, and many of the same people who held an interest last year returned. But this winter we had only one licensed ham as a volunteer examiner.

Turnout was good in May for an orientation meeting held by myself (call sign W1MRQ) the sole licensee on station, to explain this great hobby, to gauge the interest to hold follow-on classes, and to obtain the Technician Class of amateur radio license.

But there was one problem to start. The study guide we had suddenly became obsolete when the administrating body of the Volunteer Licensing Committee changed the question pool. The question pool is 394 multiple-choice questions that the Technician Class examination questions are drawn from. Bottom line: We had no study guide for the students.

Between myself and a longtime ham radio friend, Larry Blouin (call sign K1CA), back in New Hampshire, we reached a solution. Larry purchased a new study guide, sliced off the binding with a razor blade, and scanned the entire tutorial, which he e-mailed to the Ice. Classes began in early June.

Building at night.
Photo Credit: Keith Vanderlinde/Antarctic Photo Library
South Pole Station during winter. An aurora shimmers above.

At the same time, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) External U.S. government site and the American Radio Relay League (ARRL) External Non-U.S. government site were contacted in regards to holding an examination session at Pole. This would require disregarding, breaking or bending rules and regulations regarding the Volunteer Examination Program, as applied to the Amateur Radio Service. (Remember that there aren’t any planes into or out of South Pole for eight months, and satellite connectivity is limited.)

I wrote an e-mail to the FCC in Washington D.C., outlining the issues involved and offering solutions. The request eventually wound up on the desk of Special Council to the FCC, Ms. Laura Smith Esq. Several months later, the FCC and the ARRL were in agreement on how to handle our special situation and approved our examination session.

The ARRL created an interactive, online examination for us to take live and which would be overseen by two other volunteer examiners in the ARRL offices in Newington, Conn., via a video teleconference that later turned out to be a simple webcam. I served as the third requisite examiner.

After a successful test of the webcam on Oct. 7, the field was set for the actual exam session on Saturday, Oct. 9, 2010. All eight candidates had their laptops set up in the station’s large conference room, and at 10 a.m. the webcam came to life from Connecticut.

Calling Antarctica

Amateur radio stations are currently supported at all three U.S. bases in Antarctica under the amateur call signs of KC4AAA at the Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station, as KC4USV at McMurdo Station External U.S. government site, and as KC4AAC at Palmer Station External U.S. government site.

With Maria Somma (AB1FM), the ARRL’s Volunteer Examination Coordinator, her assistant Amanda and the other two required volunteer examiners, Penny Harts (N1NAG) and Steve Ewald (WV1X), watching from afar, the test began.

One by one the Polies finished, with greenhouse technician Joe Romagnano completing the 35-question exam first in two minutes flat, followed by the others one at a time. The results were sent immediately upon completion to ARRL headquarters electronically for the two examiners waiting to score the test.

Then they e-mailed the test results back down to me so I could also grade them. Although the room knew the results as the webcam audio was open to the room chatter from up north, the results were “officially” announced shortly after 11 a.m.

All eight candidates passed their FCC Technician Class Amateur Radio exam easily and were awarded the following call signs:

Ella Derbyshire – KL3DY

Joe Romagnano – KD1UUW

Boyd Brown – KF7MDR

Francis Sheil – KD0MUM

Shaun Meehan – KD0MUN

Shelby Handlin – KD0MUO

Ricardo Lopez – KD0MUP

Virgil Porterfield – KD0MUQ      

Congratulations to all the new hams at South Pole.  

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Curator: Peter Rejcek, Antarctic Support Contract | NSF Official: Winifred Reuning, Division of Polar Programs