Santa Cruz County ARES Teaches Antenna Building via Zoom

Santa Cruz County ARES Teaches Antenna Building via Zoom

Allison Hershey (KM6RMN) (932 words)

Santa Cruz County ARES has enjoyed a fast-growing, enthusiastic chapter over the last few years, thanks to the dedication of a few gifted souls under the leadership of EC Bob Fike (KO6XX). However, the membership influx wasn’t from the traditional pool of electronics aficionados. They came in from the emergency preparedness community and were new to amateur radio, often with technician’s licenses and not much else in the way of experience. With their basic HTs, they did fine when they took part in VHF and UHF channel nets on local repeaters, but struggled with single sideband relays in the forested hills and steep canyons of Santa Cruz County. And in the event of an emergency, even “good enough” coverage at the higher frequencies was not a sure thing. Repeaters could not be depended on in the event of a disaster.

Bob had been thinking about this problem for quite some time. Members needed to upgrade to better equipment, antennas, and more operational bandwidth. So, while newer members were encouraged to study and upgrade their licenses, Bob and his core of Elmers talked about the next steps in acquiring gear. He kept his eye out for someone in particular who could promote antenna construction. In this fire-flood-earthquake prone area, the need to be able to move in, set up, and get operational in a short period of time was crucial. Without good antennas, this group wouldn’t be going anywhere. 

He found that person in Neil Stoddard (KN6JOI), who soon gained the title AEC Antenna Specialist. Neil himself was a fairly new amateur radio operator, but, with an engineering background he had already gained his general license and had a good understanding of equipment and theory. He agreed that learning to build antennas was important in developing a better understanding of radio propagation, and would be less expensive and more adaptable to the needs of the group than purchasing antennas off the shelf. 

Neil’s original plan was to lead a series of workshops where members would tackle projects with the assistance of Elmers. Unfortunately, by the time Neil became AEC, pandemic measures made it difficult to hold these workshops.  The plan was put on hold pending the end of quarantine. 

But then came the CZU Complex Fire and the destruction of one of WB6ECE’s towers, a crucial link to areas north and west of Scotts Valley. Bureaucratic roadblocks continued to delay its replacement. Weekly net coverage suffered. The problem of upgrading each radio operator to better antennas was now an urgent matter.

Neil noted that SLV ARES had been successfully holding technician license classes via Zoom, and there was a new crop of general license Zoom-students due to take their tests soon.  Why not try a Zoom approach to building a few simple antennas? It seemed feasible, but also daunting, and would require much more effort than a Saturday workshop. 

Neil got to work and figured out a plan. He decided to start with a simple antenna attachment to teach basic soldering skills, proceed to an easy but useful ground plane antenna, go on to a roll up J-pole from a kit, and if there was momentum, a dual plane antenna or something similar.

He sent out a survey to the local ARES groups and had 26 respondents. Out of these, a handful opted for the basic soldering class. This was to be the vehicle for getting beginners up to speed and for Neil to work out how to run things through Zoom. In it, students would practice soldering with the aid of instructional videos, then have a one-on-one session building a tiger tail, or counterpoiseantenna to extend their HT range. It was a simple ¼ wavelength wire that attached to an HT antenna jack. 

Neil sent each student a kit that included antenna components, a tools & materials list, step by step instructions with photos and sketches, and web links for deeper research. Several inexpensive soldering kits were suggested, as well as cheap webcams to be mounted in a way he would be able to view the work.  

This first project, Neil had to teach each student by individual session because of various scheduling difficulties. Neil himself was learning how to teach via Zoom, so this was considered the easier way to go. Once each person got materials and went through the study material, they contacted Neil for their Zoom session. When in session, the student followed the instructions with Neil’s verbal help, then held their pieces up to the camera for inspection. The newly purchased cameras were positioned for a good vantage point, so there was no problem being able to see the work. Four people completed their project and received a certificate of achievement. They were happy with their new tiger tails and felt the project was worth it.

So far, the hardest part of teaching by Zoom had been scheduling and making sure each student had the correct materials to work with.  Once the sessions started, supervising, and inspecting via camera worked out fine.

Neil recently sent out the instructions for the next project, a Dual Band 2m/70 cm Vertical Ground Plane (or Marconi) Antenna. This time the students are expected to buy their own materials. Workshops will be scheduled in groups.  Actual dates have not been set yet, and the logistics of supervising groups by camera are still being worked out. While these workshops are being arranged under trying circumstances, once completed, participants will not only have a useful piece of equipment for home and field, they also will have acquired tools, skills, and a certificate of achievement.