Getting on the Air

Getting on the Air

by N6SX – work in progress

Sometimes it may seem difficult, confusing, or intimidating to get on the air. Worrying about the procedures, etiquette, or not wanting to feel embarrassed by saying things incorrectly or at the wrong time. There is no need to fear! Everyone has been a beginner … right? If you take your time and listen for a while, you will hear a pattern in the patter. You will hear what people expect to hear from you, and even if you don’t quite get it right, you will see that most people are quite patient and helpful. They will answer questions and make suggestions to help you in the future. Although you can just fire-up your radio and jump in with both feet, my suggestion is to have a few cheat sheets next to you. Depending on what you are doing, CW, phone, digital, you may or may not need the few things I have posted here, but you can get an idea of what you might need to help you out.

  • Q-Codes / Prosigns – First, here is a link to a table of Q-Codes borrowed from Wikipedia. You may not be doing CW, but you will hear some of the more popular Q-Codes sprinkled about in conversations and various things you may be reading. Prosigns are simply shortcuts/abbreviations/acronyms for the CW-minded individual. Unlike Twitter where there is a character limit, people using morse code try to find ways to shorten words or regularly used phrases since those dits and dahs start to add up!

  • Signal Report – The next thing you may want to have handy is a simple chart of Readability-Signal Strength-Tone (RST) values … yes, it may not seem too difficult to remember, but for beginners, it may be nice to have a little chart to make reference to. This will help you decipher those numbers being relayed to you and what others will be expecting to hear from you.

  • Grid – You know who you are … or at least you know your call sign, but do you know where you are? You might respond with, “I am here in Berkeley, California,” but you might be communicating with someone who is not familiar with cities in the United States. Instead, you can reply with, “my grid is CM87.” This sequence of letters and numbers are part of the Maidenhead Locator System. Essentially, the world is broken down into 324 fields (10° latitude by 20° longitude) which are broken down further into 1° latitude by 2° longitude sections. This is approximately 70 x 100 miles depending on where you are in the world. You can be more precise by adding another pair of letters and even more precise by adding another pair of numbers following the additional letters. A simple way to find your grid is use Google Maps to find your longitude and latitude. Once you determine your coordinates, feed them into a QTH Locator or grid locator then voila, you have your grid. Just jot it down on a post-it as a reminder and you can even add your grid to your QSL card.

  • Power Level and Antenna – Besides your call sign, RST, and location, it is customary to exchange power level and antenna. Why, you might ask. Well, this helps you and others determine the conditions between you and them. You don’t have to go into painstaking detail about your equipment since many people will not be familiar with them so all you need to mention is that it is 10W and you have a dipole antenna. If you keep track of this information and add to it atmospheric reports, it may help you determine what days and times may be good for making contacts in the future.

  • Band Plans – Next, you have to determine where in the spectrum you can participate. This depends on what kind of activity you would like to do, CW, phone, digital, what license you have, and your equipment. Since you know what license you have and what equipment you can use, I will just break the bands down a bit … actually, I’ll come back to this later. I was going to break bands down in a variety of ways and it was just taking waaaay too long 😛 So for now, I will simply point to the nice convenient poster made by ARRL and a webpage full of band-plan tables on their site.

  • Morse Code – One last cheat sheet you may want to have nearby is for morse code. Although it is no longer a requirement for a license, you will still hear morse code sprinkled around. For instance, the morse code you may occasionally hear on a repeater might be the station announcing its call sign.

With those few little cheat sheets in hand, we can confidently pretend to know what we are doing. As you have undoubted heard a zillion times before, the easiest way to start is to simply listen. Just like learning a new language, learning from a book is never the same as learning from first-hand experience. If you listen carefully, you will notice a pattern to the banter especially on a net where everyone checks-in following a well-defined protocol. You should also take note that each mode of communication has their own set of expected protocols. They are all very similar but what may be necessary in one mode may not be necessary in another. For instance, in CW, you may transmit a CQ where it is not always necessary on phone.

As a final cheat sheet, the following are samples of what you might hear in the various modes and a few reminders:
Borrowed from The ARRL Operating Manual for Radio Amateurs:

Reminders (All Modes)

  • No matter the mode and according to FCC regulations, you need to make sure to sign your call every 10 minutes and at the conclusion of the contact. (The exception is handling international third-party traffic; you must sign both calls in this instance.)

  • Even during a test transmission, you need to identify yourself. A example would be to say “W1AW testing” or send “W1AW VVV”, where “V” is usually used as a Morse code test signal.

  • On phone communications, you can end your transmission with “Over” or “Go Ahead” to let the other station know they can reply. Similarly, an “AR” (end of message), “R” (roger), “K” (go ahead) or “KN” (go ahead to the station you are communicating with) on CW would inform the other station the same thing.

  • When you conclude your contact and are intending to go off the air, you should append a “CL” (closing) on CW or “clear” on phone to let people know you are going off the air.


    Since CW uses morse code, every little dit and dah starts to add up. So hams use shortcuts and abbreviations such as UR for “your” or PSE for “please” during a CW QSO.

    • If you hear someone calling CQ, it means, “I wish to contact any amateur station.”

    • The typical CQ would sound like this:
      CQ CQ CQ DE KB3VVE KB3VVE KB3VVE repeated once or twice and followed by K. DE means “I am” or “from” and the letter K is a prosign inviting any station to go ahead.

    • If you hear a CQ, wait until the ham finishes transmitting (by ending with the letter K), then call:
      KB3VVE DE W6LEN W6LEN AR. (AR is equivalent to over).

    • In answer to your call, the called station will begin the reply by sending:
      W6LEN DE KB3VVE R. That R (roger) means that the ham has received your call correctly.

    • Suppose KB3VVE heard someone calling her, but didn’t quite catch the call because of interference (QRM) or static (QRN). Then she might come back with:
      QRZ? DE KB3VVE K (Who is calling me?).

    • A typical first transmission might sound like this:

      This translates to “W6LEN” this is “KB3VVE.” Roger. Thanks for the call. Your RST is excellent. My location is Pennsylvania and my name is Emily. How do you copy? “W6LEN” this is “KB3VV”, your turn.

      During a CW contact, when you want the other station to take a turn, the recommended signal is KN (go ahead, only), meaning that you want only the contacted station to come back to you. If you don’t mind someone else breaking in to join the contact, just K (go ahead) is sufficient.

    • Ending a QSO. Briefly express your thanks for the contact:
      TNX QSO or TNX CHAT — and then sign off:
      73 KB3VVE DE W6LEN SK. If you are leaving the air, add CL (closing) to the end, right after your call sign.

Phone Operations

  • Before jumping on, check to see if the frequency is being used.
    Ask “Is the frequency in use? This is N1OJS.

  • In DX, you need to use phonetics when calling in a DX pileup and initially in most HF contacts. The reason is that many HF / DX contacts are far away so your signal may not be very strong, and if you want to pick-up another QSL contact, they have to be able to be correctly get your call sign. However, phonetics are not usually used when calling into an FM repeater.
    CQ CQ Calling CQ. This is N1OJS, November-One-Oscar-Juliet-Sierra, November-One-Oscar-Juliet-Sierra, calling CQ and standing by

  • Calling a specific station
    N1OJS, this is W2GD, Whiskey-Two-Golf-Delta, Over.

  • The words “Over” or “Go Ahead” may be used at the end of a transmission to show you are ready for a reply from the other station. If you are leaving the air, add a “clear” right after your call sign.

VHF/UHF, FM, Repeaters

    Without the use of repeaters, the range of your mobile radio will probably fall between 5-15 miles, and your handheld would only reach a few miles

    To keep from damaging repeaters and to help conserve power on battery-operated repeaters, there are timers that are usually set to three minutes but will reset if you stop transmitting.


    • Since there is a momentary delay before the repeaters are set to receive and forward your transmission, you should always wait a moment after keying-up before speaking otherwise the start of your transmission may be cut off.

    • You may want to keep a log of the repeaters you like to use with their frequencies and other settings such as CTCSS/PL and offsets.

  • Some repeater jargon
    Here is a common 2M repeater pair, 146.34 and 146.94 MHz
    In the shorthand language for FM it would be called 34/94 or simply 94.

    In this pair, 34 is the input frequency and 94 is the output frequency
    The offset on most 2M frequencies is 600 kHz

    Almost every radio since 1980 made for 2M is preprogrammed for this offset
    Almost enough to say, “meet me on the 94 repeater.’

  • Unlike CW, there is no need for a CQ since people are already listening.
    Key your transmitter and say something like
    This is KN4AQ, listening.
    The repeater will stay on for a few seconds, called hang time, followed (optionally) by a courtesy tone. If you don’t hear a tone when you think you should, make sure your settings are correct for the repeater. The tone also allows others who may need to break-in a chance to report something.

  • When the current person is done transmitting, who transmits next? Unfortunately, the answer tends to be everyone which creates a mess. If you are on a moderated net, there tends to be an operator who will go down the list of hams who have checked in. Otherwise, another method is to specify who is to transmit next. “… Over to you, Rick. KN4AQ.

  • The FCC rules say you must ID once every 10 minutes. Most repeater owners are big on clear identification when you use their repeaters, but you don’t have to overdo it. Give your call sign when you first get on (this isn’t required by the rules, but it’s common practice), then about every 10 minutes, and again when you sign off. You don’t have to give anyone else’s call sign at any time, although sometimes it’s a nice acknowledgment of the person you’re talking to, like a handshake.

  • How to break in Listen for a break and give your call sign, and say what you want. When you’ve listened and decided it’s okay to break in, transmit quickly when one station stops, before the beep, and say something like this:
    KN4AQ, can I make a short call?” or “KN4AQ, can I add my 2 cents?” or “KN4AQ, question

  • What about saying “break?” Some hams will tell you that’s the way to break in. The problem is that we don’t all agree on exactly what “break” means. In some areas, “break” means “I just want to join in or make a call.” “Break-break” means “I have very important traffic,” and “break-break-break” means “I have a dire emergency.” Other areas don’t use “break” at all. If your area uses some version of “break,” go with the flow. But plain English works everywhere.

    Maybe somebody just says “break” or drops in their call, when what they really mean is “HELP!” So let them talk. Say “go ahead,” and give your call sign.

    The exception is when someone actually announces an emergency. Say something like “Go ahead, emergency.” Then CLEAR THE DECKS! The station that declared the emergency then has the frequency, and unless they ask for your help, don’t give it. Unless… always an unless… they obviously don’t know how to handle the situation… and you do.

  • Switch to simplex if you are using a repeater and your contact is close enough, consider switching to simplex. This will help reduce traffic on the repeater and make your conversation less public. Here is an example:
    W1AW: “NK7U this is W1AW, are you on the repeater this morning?”
    NK7U: “W1AW this is NK7U. Yes, and you’re strong on the input. Let’s move to 146.55 simplex.”
    W1AW: “OK, I’ll meet you on 146.55. W1AW clear.”
    NK7U: “NK7U clear”

Digital Modes

    Digital QSOs usually follow the same general structure as many other modes. Below is an example CQ exchange:

        CQ CQ CQ DE W1AW W1AW W1AW
        CQ CQ CQ DE W1AW W1AW W1AW K

    Typical response:

    If you are using a mode such as PACTOR or WINMOR, your software or modem will have a specific “disconnect” message or command such as BYE or D which initiates the contact termination sequence.

    … will be adding more repeater and digital info soon ….