September 8, 2019: 20 years a ham

Here’s the 10 year mark:

10 years as a licensed ham: from ON1DRS to ON5ZO

Here’s the 15 year mark:

Fifteen years a ham


On the morning of September 8th, 1999 I took the train to Brussels to pass the computerized test to obtain my ham radio license. A memorable day and the rest is history. Little did I know that this hobby would dominate my life for the next twenty years, and hopefully another few decades.

I did not know what ham radio was, I had never seen or witnessed it. A co-worker my age that got hired at the same time as me, went to get his license. I worked at a major T&M equipment manufacturer back then and some of the senior techs were hams. I did not want that other new guy to look smarter than me, so I went along to get my license. Back then there were only two test sessions per year so I had to wait a long time. In the mean time I changed jobs but still went along to get my permit. After all, my new employer had two active hams on the pay roll: ON4BCB and ON4BAI. They convinced me to pursue the license.

I passed the test ‘cum laude’ still with no practical goals. In fact I didn’t even know what ham radio was all about. Although I had a degree in electronics (graduated June 1998), specialized in RF (RX, TX, video, audio…). Shocker: the teacher who taught me all about this turned out to be a ham (living 500m from where I grew up nonetheless!), a sleeping member of my local club. I had to find out a few years later when getting involved in the local radio club life. I never understood why he didn’t promote the hobby to a bunch of twenty year old guys who voluntarily chose telecommunication electronics as a major and not something like industrial automation or IT. Can you get a more dedicated audience?

And so I became ON1DRS, licensed for 50 MHz and up only. With the ham permit in my wallet, I still didn’t have a clue. And no plans. It was my co-worker ON4BAI who talked me into getting a VHF all-mode rig. I bought a second hand TR-9130 from ON4JZ a/k/a OP4K. Little did I know that Joe’s and my path would cross the coming two decades. That purchase turned out to be a key factor. I could work ‘DX’ with an 11 element yagi, instead of talking to local guys in FM which would soon have become boring. Getting that ‘big’ yagi on the roof of my parent’s place took some persuading. But it was another important milestone to spark my interest.

November 6th, 1999 is the date of my very first QSO on VHF FM with ON1DPZ. I remember being very nervous and my hand was shaking as I held the microphone. For some reason it took a few months to get me on the air again. I think the lack of a decent permanent antenna was the reason. And it took some time to convince my dad to put something intrusive like that on top of the house.

On May 5th, 2000 I worked my first non-Belgian station: 2E1HKB in FM over a repeater. Talking English felt more like DX. A few days later I started working Holland, France, Germany and England direct in SSB. I turned on the rig more often looking for 2m openings. DX was the game! But I was limited to VHF: I could not get on HF and I only had a 2m all-mode rig.

In Spring 2000 it was again protagonist ON4BAI who provided a vital eye-opener. He brought along his mobile HF rig with homebrew 20m antenna mounted on his Mercedes’ trunk. He spun the VFO dial and I heard exotic callsigns with unknown prefixes. That was magic! You like that? Then you need to learn Morse code and pass the CW test to get on HF!

ON4BAI and ON4BCB helped me pick a second hand rig. I bought a pristine TS-850, anticipating my HF ticket. I installed it at home with an attic wire (yes dad, more holes in the ceiling) and started SWLing. I had to succeed because otherwise I would have to wait another six months and my hand was itching to push the PTT and reply those foreign stations. I practiced CW at 12 WPM for three months and late September I passed the CW test. A few days later the mailman brought me ON4CLN and off I went for DX in SSB, mostly on 20m.

In the morning of November 7th 2000 I logged EA3AHH on 20m SSB as my first HF contact.

Cut long story short: I started visiting the local club on a weekly basis. There was a guy who talked me into contesting and CW. Soon it was all I did: CW contesting. To have a more catchy callsign I changed my call from ON4CLN to ON5ZO. From home, with a 20m inverted V dipole for 20m and the rig’s ATU, I started working everything I could. Almost exclusively in CW. That’s how you learn the trade.

Next milestone: Fall 2001. Cycle 23 at its peak and ON4BAI made me a 3 element monoband yagi for 10m. I could push it up to 9m high. The birth of our crown prince’s daughter was an incentive to let us use a special prefix. As OQ5ZO I had success on 10m and worked dozens of Americans at high rates. Another milestone: high rate CW provided a natural high and pursuing that drug has been my quest in ham radio ever since.

Another special prefix operation: OS5ZO in Spring 2002.

In 2002 the XYL and I bought our own house. The shack was ready before anything else and I ran a contest (EU Sprint Spring 2003). We didn’t even move in yet! I used a fishing pole to hold up a temporary wire. The result was poor but at least I was QRV from my own house in my own dedicated shack!

Fall 2004: yet another major hurdle taken. After a year with fishing poles and aluminum tubing with various wire antennas, I finally installed a real telescopic tower with a big gun yagi (KLM KT34XA) and a good WARC antenna. That really made a big difference. The tower was high enough to hold wires for 40/80/160. My first DX on Top Band came rolling in. BTW one of the crew helping with the tower installation was… ON4BAI. My first contest with tower and yagi was CQ WW CW 2004.

During 2005 I made over 18000 single mode CW QSO running 100W as OO5ZO.

Many OO’s on the air but none as crazy as me… I even got a special plaque from UBA’s President ON4UN.

Spring 2006: new licensing system. We can now apply for a vanity call next to our primary call. I tried many until I settled for OQ5M which seemed a good choice in CW.

A also upgraded from barefoot to QRO. A tower and a kW – gone were the days of crappy wires and 100W. I was now ready to set personal records in the major contests year after year. Various Belgian records and numerous Top Ten scores.

The following decade I made thousands of QSO each year. Almost all in CW. I upgraded the antennas for more fun. I rebuilt the shack for SO2R and had another challenge to master this. As good as it goes with not too many antennas. Year after year I made more and more contacts in the major contests. Highlight was CQ WW CW 2014 where cycle 24 blew its last breath to push me over the claimed 5000 Q mark. I am proud of that. Not easy from Belgium with only a small tribander and wires! To my knowledge no Single Op has ever done that from Belgium.

With the decline of the sunspot cycle my motivation for hardcore contesting grew smaller. Along came new professional opportunities and two major renovations in the house. And I have two kids as well as a wife that needs some TLC. After all, no married OM can go all out in our hobby without an XYL to back him up. Thanks for the support honey, and for keeping up with all the wires and cables and nocturnal noise from the shack.

I have no idea what the future will bring. But for now I see myself still having fun on the HF bands. Let’s hope for a strong cycle 25.


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