10 years as a licensed ham: from ON1DRS to ON5ZO

This week ten years ago, I took a train to Brussels and went to the BIPT’s ham radio exam. It seems like yesterday…

Not that I wanted to become a ham. Not that I knew the difference between CB and amateur radio. A guy from work, also in his early twenties, had a friend who happened to be a colleague of mine at my previous employer. They both enlisted for the exam and I wanted to show off my knowledge of radio electronics. Or at least I didn’t want them to look smarter than me. That was a leftover from my time at the previous employer. At that time, the colleague and I just graduated from different schools and started working for a German company making T&M equipment for the telecom industry. We both wanted to do our job right and learn tons of new things in the service department. Both fresh out of school and wet behind the ears, it seemed we engaged in some unspoken competition to be the best new service technician. I quit the company for a better offer and less traffic jams and soon after he left too.

Back to the exam. My employer back then, a commercial broadcasting company, counted several hams on the payroll. One of them provided me with a collection of question pools representing the tests of the previous years. The technical questions were not a problem at all. I only needed to study the legal side of things. Which was very boring matter. Especially since I didn’t really plan to actually become an amateur radio operator. On the day of the exam, the three of us met at the building where the test was taken and of course we passed with ease. A couple of days later I was holding my license as ON1DRS. I could do VHF (2m) and up, or wait: I believe I could do 50MHz (6m) too. I had no plans and no equipment.

A few weeks later, my co-worker ON4BAI and I engaged into a conversation. I wanted to buy a 2m FM handheld. I needed to do something with the license and what else is there to do? He told me I should look for an all mode rig, because DX is more fun than local FM talk. He warned me that local FM contacts would soon become boring, effectively killing the interest in the hobby. He pointed me to the website of an organization called ‘UBA’. Courtesy of The Wayback Machine, on the right is what the site looked like in the pioneering Internet days of late 1999 (at least in Belgium)…

That UBA site showed a link to what was called ‘the virtual ham fair’. A page where you could put items on sale. ON4BAI’s advice was to look there for a second hand all mode VHF rig. I spent numerous hours at work browsing that site until there finally was a TR-9130. On a gray Saturday somewhere in October 1999, I made a trip to Antwerp to visit a big guy who sold the rig. Little did I know that day that a few years later, when I became heavily addicted to ham radio, I’d meet the big guy again and get to know him better as DX’er, contester and general nice guy Joe ON4JZ / OP4K. The Belgian amateur radio scene isn’t big.


I took the rig home but I needed some other important things like coax, plugs and… an antenna! Another co-worker (ON4BCB) provided some runs of coax and plugs and I made myself a l/4 antenna. Since there was no way to get the coax inside I spent a couple of evenings outside on the veranda and made contacts on 2m FM in the 15km range. I got to know some local hams inviting me to the local club ON7SA. Although it wasn’t until much later I’d had the courage to go there. The evenings became colder and wetter so I lost the interest and the rig ended up in the closet for a few months. It wasn’t before February 2000 that I picked up ham radio. I bought an 11 element yagi to finally work DX. I put it up on a telescopic pole one Sunday afternoon in March, still outside on the veranda. The weather was better again so the first sun of spring tempted me to try some VHF DX. Working my first real DX, a PA and a G, was a real thrill. I ran inside and proudly told my (X)YL and parents that I had crossed the border. That Sunday afternoon, I got infected with the DX virus that made me want to contact stations farther and farther away… The disease never cured. I convinced my dad to weld a support to put the yagi fixed on top of the house and to drill a hole through the ceiling of my bedroom to run the coax and rotator control cable through. I was working the FM repeaters and trying to contact DL, PA, and G. One night I stumbled into a great opening to the UK. Those guys were handing out very strange signal reports? Not the usual ‘59’, or ‘55’ or whatever. They were giving exchanges like ‘59 123’ or ‘59 056’. Who cares, DX is DX and I called them. They heard me alright but kept on asking for numbers after I gave ‘m my ‘52’ or ‘56’ report. They didn’t seem happy with me calling them this way. I had no clue what it was all about but I felt I was doing something wrong, based on their reactions. So I abandoned. The day after I reported this strange incident to ON4BAI at work and he explained me the principle of amateur radio contesting and the serial number. Yes, that was my first encounter with contesting…

The months following can be summarized as follows: got bored with VHF, got impressed by HF after ON4BAI (him again!) demonstrated 20m SSB, studied morse code, passed the CW test September 2000, got on HF as ON4CLN, became hooked and addicted to HF ham radio and contesting, changed call to ON5ZO in June 2001… The rest is history – and future! Ham radio is always on my mind. It has been since I tasted the joy of working DX and it has only gotten much worse over the years.

BTW, soon after taking the test together, the two other fellows vanished into the unknown. I don’t think they ever did something with the license. Their loss…

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