I Got my Extra!

I passed my extra class amateur radio license exam on Saturday night! I took the exam remotely. It took almost a year of study. I feel so happy.

Ham radio requires a license, like driving. Our signals can travel around the world or into outer space. When I started at age twelve in 1989, we had five license classes: novice, technician, general, advanced, and extra. We now have three: technician, general, and extra. Each class gives you more frequencies you can use, and other privileges. The exams get progressively harder. Most people could get their technician class license. The general requires more knowledge, but it opens up the world of HF, the high frequency signals which travel around the world. Both of those require taking a 35-question multiple choice exam. The extra exam has 50 questions. You need to get 74% to pass.

I remember when I touched and heard a ham radio for the first time. It happened at the Franklin Institute Science Museum, which had a radio room at the time. I pleaded with my parents to get me a ham radio on the way back home. They explained that I needed to pass a test. That didn’t phase me, since I took tests all the time. I got some four track tapes for the blind called Tune IN the World, and listened to them constantly.

A few years later I got my novice. I remember the VEs, the volunteer examiners, came to my house. They gave me the test, including tactile block diagrams, and I also had to pass a 5 WPM Morse Code test. Somehow I did.

A few years later I wanted to upgrade to technician and general. I went to a radio camp run by Handiham in Malibu, California. I had a wonderful time relaxing with ham radio friends in the sun. I failed.

The next year they had another radio camp in Bemidji, Minnesota. I remember flying into Minneapolis. I had to take a terrifying plane flight in sub zero temperatures, and landed in an airport the size of a kitchen. I passed.

Sadly I got out of the hobby when I went off to college, but I didn’t let my license expire. I got back into ham radio in 2019 as part of my healing journey. I needed my hobby back. I brushed up on my technician and general theory, and got back on air.

I knew that I wanted my extra. I made a few starts. Finally last May I started in earnest. I went back to my old friend, Gordon West. He does an entertaining audio presentation. I used his tapes during childhood, and bought his CDs when getting back into the hobby so I wouldn’t sound like an idiot when I got back on air. I also purchased the No Nonsense Study Guide from Dan Romanchik, KB6NU, after working him on 40 meters. It really helped, especially when it came time to cram and take practice exams. I also used ChatGPT. I chose ChatGPT because I started studying in May of 2023. Better alternatives may exist now.

Learning from an AI really did feel like living in the future. I saw its potential and its limitations. I struggled for years to understand exactly what happens when I hit transmit on my radio, and how that results in sending out an electromagnetic wave. I got it in one night with an AI. It still makes mistakes. For example it told me that a half wave antenna for 60 meters measures 56 feet. My primitive human brain didn’t immediately know the exact number, but I knew that it got it wrong. A half wave antenna for 40 meters measures 66 ft. A quick calculation revealed the right answer of around 87.5 ft. It got a lot of stuff right though.

I finished Gordo’s audio course a little over a month ago. I started taking practice exams. I tried a few tools, and settled on the Exam Review tool from the ARRL. It lets you suppress questions with images, an exemption which blind people can request. I began using the No Nonsense Study Guides a lot at this point. My score started improving. Once I started scoring 90% I decided that the time had come to bite the bullet and take the test.

I belong to the Phil-Mont Mobile Radio Club. They administer testing sessions, but I didn’t feel like going out to Willow Grove. I decided to try a remote exam. They became popular during the pandemic. I heard good things about the Greater Las Angeles Amateur Radio Group, so decided to try them.

I emailed the AD4VE testing team, and asked if they could accommodate a blind applicant. I got a quick reply from Dave that they could, and he suggested using my iPhone for video and a desktop computer to share the screen to take the exam. He couldn’t attend live, but assured me that I would have a strong team

I made the appointment for the next night. I felt nervous but confident. I hadn’t taken a test in a long time. I thought about how far we’ve come. When I got my novice in 1989, we didn’t have practice exams. You had to study, then hope for the best.

I woke up on Saturday feeling OK. I didn’t have any signs of a migraine. I took a practice exam, and got 74%, the minimum passing score. That made me more nervous, but I reminded myself that I needed to get my brain going. I tried one later in the afternoon and got 90%, more like what I had hoped for. I had taken all the practice exams I could take. I had dinner and prepared myself.

I had Zoom ready on my iPhone and on my Mac. I had my photo ID, which they require for verification. I had a bottle of water. I joined on time. They greeted me.

“Someone named Art is already in there. He says he knows you.”

I didn’t know which Art he meant, as I’ve contacted a few, but should have.

“Well! You didn’t want to go to Willow Grove, but you ended up with me anyway!” I recognized the enthusiastic voice of Art, N8BLK. He belongs to both Phil-mont and Holmesburg, two local radio clubs. I felt even more at ease. The three volunteer examiners introduced themselves.

“We are going to need more light.” The sudden words froze me. I turned on the light switch, but the bulb must have burned out, and of course I didn’t notice. I started to panic, but kept it under control. I brought over a 15 Watt red salt lamp, but that didn’t really do it. I thought about apologizing and rescheduling in embarrassment, but they persevered

One of the volunteer examiners said, “Art, if you can verify that that is Austin, then we are OK with that.”

“Oh, that’s definitely Austin!” he proclaimed. He saved me. World’s greatest hobby!.

I battled with Zoom on my phone. I had VoiceOver focus issues sharing a web URL, so switched to the Mac for the exam. I shared the screen. Art asked me why I had an Emacs window open. I said that I would use it for its calculator. He laughed. They asked me to hold the phone up to the screen of the Mac. I had the monitor hooked up to my Linux machine. I apologized again for the weird situation, and started crawling under my desk to unplug the cable. I heard them calling me back. They decided not to worry about it. They did ask me to slow down my speech so they could understand it. Finally we had video on the iPhone, the shared screen with Safari on my Mac, and slower speech. Suddenly I found myself taking the exam.

I filled out the form without any issues. Each question had four radio buttons for choices. At one point I began to get thirsty. I felt scared to make any moves after everything that had happen, so asked if I could drink some water.

“You can drink all you want!” replied Art happily. I made my way through the questions and felt good about my answers.

“Of course, you can always go back and edit any of your choices.” he said, but I didn’t want to change a thing. I took a big breath and hit the Submit Exam button.

The page loaded, but before I could begin reading it, Art said, “Well, now you can annoy everyone on Holmesburg and Phil-Mont by calling yourself KA3TTT/AE!!!” He referred to the rule that if you have upgraded your license and received your Certificate of Successful Completion (CSCE), you can append /AG or /AE to your call for General or Extra until you get your license.

“I passed?” I asked. I still couldn’t quite believe it.

“You passed!” they all confirmed. I scrolled down and saw my score. I got 45 questions correct, for a score of 90%!

“Those were five that you don’t need to know.” said one of the examiners. “Now comes the fun part.” I had to fill out the form to submit to the FCC. Everything worked fine until I got to the electronic signature. VoiceOver only read the signature area as an image. Unfortunately screen reader users often have issues with electronic signatures. We tried on the Mac using the Magic Track pad, but then Art suggested trying it on my iPhone. I battled again with Zoom to share the web URL, and after several attempts I made a line in the field. The submit button undimmed. They excitedly yelled for me to hurry and submit it before we had another focus issue. I quickly hit the button. It asked me to confirm my submission. “Hurry! Hurry!” they yelled again. This had become the final test. I hit the submit button. It went through.! We cheered.

I felt so happy. They thanked me for not giving up on them. I said that I wanted to thank them for the same reason. They assured me that they would have found a way to make it work no matter what. They had more good news.

“Everyone in tonight’s session passed.”

I asked how many.

“Only seven.” That amazed me. Remote testing has really opened things up, and GLARC does great work. After more congratulations they moved me to the exit room. I heard them congratulating a new ham. They then congratulated me. Someone suggested that I become a volunteer examiner, since extras can do that. I hadn’t considered it.

“You can’t see to verify if someone is cheating, but there is plenty to do.” I asked if they knew of any blind VEs.

Art responded, “KS3X.”

“Of course.” Enoch lives in Philadelphia and checks into the net which I run.

“And there was Carl Owens, W0CPR, formerly WB0CPR, but he passed.”

“Carl passed away?”

“Yeah. He moved to Michigan to live with his brother, and passed about two years ago.”

The celebration stopped for a moment. I knew Carl during middle school and high school. He gave me stern guidance, but also loved to laugh. He made sure my license didn’t expire. One time I gave him a broken laptop, the first Keynote talking laptop for the blind. I don’t know what I had done to it, but I believe it involved battery acid. I complained about the broken machine.

“Of course you broke it. You’re a kid.” he stated. That hurt, and I held it against him for many years, until my younger sisters trashed the family computer with spyware. They infected it with a nasty virus which altered the BIOS. The machine barely ran. They cursed at it and called it slow, and told Mom that they needed a new computer instead of this broken one.

“Of course you broke it. You’re a kid.” As the words left my mouth I heard Carl’s voice echoing through time, like in a movie. I instantly forgave him. I never got to tell him as an adult. He would often end our conversations by saying, “Keep a smile.” I found his obituary.

I left the session with a strange mixture of emotions. I felt happy I passed, though still couldn’t believe it. I felt annoyed about the lighting issue. I felt sad about Carl. I felt relieved that I wouldn’t need to study anymore for the exam. Getting an extra class license feels like the Return of the King – the grand third installment of a trilogy which explains everything.

I had to work a station. Luckily we had a contest going on. I quickly found Bud, AA3B, in the extra portion of 80 meters. He spoke at Holmesburg, and I worked him many times. This time I answered sending KA3TTT/AE. I had made my first contact as an extra.

I want to thank everyone for making this possible. Gordon and Dan made excellent study guides. ChatGPT helped me understand concepts, and showed me the potential of AI in education. Everyone at GLARG went above and beyond to accommodate me. See you on the extra bands!