The History Of Amateur Radio

This portion of my website was prepared with the help of Bill Continelli, W2XOY. Bill has prepared several articles in a series he calls "The Wayback Machine", in the hope to expand the knowledge of fellow hams, about Amateur Radio's unique and unchallenged history.

THE WAYBACK MACHINE #35   by Bill Continelli, W2XOY

Over eight years ago, I started the "Wayback" columns. At first, they were designed to be fillers in the Schenectady Museum Amateur Radio Association's newsletter, but soon, they took on a life of their own, thanks to the Internet, and "This Week in Amateur Radio" where the columns were translated into 10 minute "broadcasts", sent out over 100 repeaters nationwide. After writing Wayback #34 in early 2003, I prepared the research for #35 then, for some unexplained reason, took a prolonged break. I knew I would come back, I just wasn't sure when. Two separate incidents brought me back. The first was the subtle (and not so subtle) pressure from two of my most faithful newsletter editors, who have run each and every "Wayback". (Thank you Marian and Ken). The second was the present day activity in southwest Washington State, where the possibility exists of a repeat of events that occurred in 1980.

On March 27, 1980, smoke and ash began pouring from Mount St. Helens, a supposedly dormant volcano in southern Washington. Scientists were unsure if this was just a prelude to a major eruption, but they weren't going to take any chances. Monitoring stations, equipped with scientific instruments, were set up around the mountain. The Washington State Department of Emergency Services sprang into action. RACES was activated, and hundreds of amateur radio operators, through HF and VHF RACES and ARES nets, began helping the geologists and scientists. Hams acted as scientific observers, as well as communications operators from numerous remote locations, transmitting information on the volcanic tremors, as well as the amount of smoke and ash venting from the mountain. A few days after the March 27 activity, the mountain once again became somewhat dormant, and the amateur operations were scaled back.

Then suddenly, without warning, at 8:32 am on Sunday, May 18, 1980, Mount St. Helens literally blew up. The top 1300 feet of the mountain was blown apart by an explosion inside the mountain which had the force of a 10 megaton atomic bomb. Volcanic ash was thrown 60,000 feet into the air. The top part of the mountain came down the side of the volcano, crushing and destroying everything in its path for miles.

Over 10 miles away, Jerry Martin, W6TQF, was at his observation post, "Coldwater 2". He was the first to see the explosion, and he transmitted the first warnings, which activated the state DES. Ominously, contact with W6TQF was lost just a few minutes after his warning. More ominously, no one had heard from Reid Blackburn, KA7AMF, who was much closer to the volcano. He had been killed by the hot volcanic ash that buried his location. As for W6TQF, his observation post was destroyed by the explosion, ash and mudflows.

Meanwhile, a massive cloud of volcanic ash from the eruption began drifting towards populated areas, raining ash and lightning in an ever increasing path. Amateur radio nets on 147.06, 3.987, and 3.940 MHz relayed wind direction and ash-fall information to towns in the cloud's path. Amateur Radio became the key communications link during the next few days, as the first cloud eventually drifted to the East Coast.

But it wasn't over.

Exactly one week later, at 2:49 AM, on Sunday, May 25, 1980, Mount St. Helens erupted again. This time the ash drifted northwest, towards the ocean beaches. Hundreds of Memorial Day vacationers evacuated to escape the ash fallout. Amateur Radio operators kept the Washington State DES headquarters informed of the mountain's actions. Hams also kept County emergency services offices informed about the path of the second ash cloud. Local officials used the amateur radio data to plan evacuations, or other necessary activities.

But it still wasn't over.

On Thursday, June 12, 1980, at 9:11 PM, Mount St. Helens erupted for a third time. This time, the ash drifted southwest over Portland, Oregon, closing the airport. Again, Amateur Radio operators provided information regarding the eruption and the path of the ash cloud.

In the end, over 300 hams were active, passing reports, mountain observations, and data to emergency service offices around the state. Almost 3000 messages were passed via Amateur Radio. And let us never forget that two Amateur Radio operators, Jerry Martin, W6TQF, and Reid Blackburn, KA7AMF, made the ultimate sacrifice in providing public service to their fellow man.

In our next installment, we will go back 20 years, and look at the events of 1984. I hope you can join me.

(Information for this article was obtained from the July and August, 1980, issues of QST).

Copyright 1996, 2001, 2005 by William Continelli, W2XOY

All rights reserved.