As a boy, there were two things that entranced Bob Romanko — airplanes and radio.
“To be able to look up and see an airplane go across the sky, and to hear voices come out of the radio, I just thought that was magical,” Romanko said.
He did earn his pilot’s license, but he also received a ham radio operator license — and his radio skills were put to the test Saturday as amateur radio enthusiasts locally and across the world participated in an annual radio field day.
“It’s like the thing a lot of us did in elementary school, with races — you’re trying to show how high and how far you can jump,” said John Porter, a member of the local club.
Ham radio works independent of internet or cellphone infrastructures, and can be set up easily and quickly.
At this weekend’s local event, held in Earlysville, Romanko’s team is operating from a generator-powered network of several antennae strung around several trees, and looped around each other with slingshots and potato cannons.
They bounce signals off the Earth’s atmosphere and troll the airwaves, trying to find a clear signal from another location and make contact with another operator. The skill can be useful in an emergency, when phone and wire lines are down, and operators can relay messages from impassable locations to first responders.
The field day is also a contest where a location’s team tries to make the most number of contacts with other locations. Shortly after the event’s start, at 2 p.m. Eastern time, several local operators had made a total of 51 contacts. Within the span of 24 hours, they hope to beat last year’s tally of more than 1,500 contacts.
“It’s exciting to think about all the people around the world working on this,” Romanko said Saturday afternoon, gesturing to several tents set up behind the Earlysville Volunteer Fire Department station.
Inside, a dozen people hunkered around several sets of equipment. Some are equipped to send Morse code. Some have microphones so that operators can send and receive verbal call signs. Still others are purely digital.
“Everyone talks on radio every day — everyone has a cellphone,” Romanko said. “We’re just practicing a specialized form of that that’s fun but that might also come in handy some day.”
Since 1933, amateur radio operators — often called hams — have set up equipment in temporary locations for 24 hours to demonstrate the skill and expertise of their communications network. More than 35,000 people at thousands of locations participated in 2018’s exercise, working under all sorts of conditions.
They are licensed to broadcast from a wide range of frequencies, separate from those used to transmit police, fire and aircraft messages.
Many often begin as children, and then pass the interest on to their own children.
“I began as a kid, and then have been an amateur, off and on, for most of my life,” said Ken Longnecker, who recently moved to the area.
His son, Charlie, received his first credential when he was 10, three years ago. He recently organized a miniature field day at the Covenant School for his classmates, teaching them how to transmit messages, and hopes to become involved in the local amateur radio club.
“It’s just a lot of fun,” Charlie said.