Amateur radio activities (GM3MEX) and Sputnik - Tony Cunnane's Autobiography

A Yorkshire Aviator's Autobiography
Tony Cunnane
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Amateur radio activities (GM3MEX) and Sputnik

One day flying overhead Luqa on a photographic mission over the Island at about 3,000 feet, I photographed (on my own camera as well as the on-board camera) through the open window at the starboard look-out position, these three all-white Valiants bombers parked on a remote dispersal. If you knew RAF Luqa in the late-1950s, you may think that the Valiants are parked very close to what used to be called the Special Storage Area - a euphemism for underground nuclear bomb silos - but I couldn't possible confirm that. (There is anecdote that may, or may not be, related to this image on this page.)
I came across another 'high flyer' shortly before I left Malta - in the amateur radio shack at RAF Luqa. I had started taking an interest in 'ham' radio when I was on the Shackleton conversion course at RAF Kinloss. There I'd qualified for an official licence from the Radio Society of Great Britain without needing to take a formal examination by virtue of my qualification as an air signaller. The personal call sign issued to me for use within Scotland was GM3MEX - but I didn't get more than a few weeks to use it before my posting to Malta.

I was usually alone in the RAF Luqa club room because at that time I was one of only two licensed amateurs on the Island: the other was an RAF chap at RAF Ta'Qali but he was not on the air very often. I used the Club's official callsign which was ZB1LQ; ZB1 was the prefix for Malta and LQ the suffix for Luqa. I only ever used Morse code on the amateur bands because I enjoyed that method of communication and because the simple carrier wave signals travelled much further than voice transmissions.

I had to sign RAF standing instructions which forbade two-way communication with any amateurs in the Soviet Union and I was also under remit to report any Soviet attempts to communicate with me. Even then, at the height of the Cold War, that seemed an over-reaction by the RAF security people who feared that such communications might be a security risk. Most Soviet amateurs were permitted to operate only from established clubs where all activities were easily 'supervised' by the authorities. Soviet amateur radio callsigns were easily recognisable because they consisted of the letter U, followed by another letter which indicated which region of the USSR the station was in, then a number and three more letters. Soviet club callsigns always had the letter K as the first of the three final letters. Thus UA1KAA was the very well-known callsign used by one of the official clubs in the Moscow area. Whether the operators really were genuine amateurs seems most unlikely.

I always started each of my sessions by listening around the various amateur bands to see which were 'open' to which countries. Unless I immediately heard the call sign of someone I already knew, or a transmission from a rare country, I would start each session in the shack by putting out a 'general call' on the highest frequency band that was 'open'. That call, in the form of 'CQ DX DE ZB1LQ', ('Calling all long-range stations this is ZB1LQ in Malta') repeated every few seconds, was an invitation to any amateurs who wished to communicate with Malta to break in with their call sign. The DX part of the message indicated that I wished to contact long-range stations, which by convention meant stations more than about 1,000 kms away from the transmitting station's country. I rarely had to transmit the CQ call more than once before I was inundated with replies and I could pick and choose which ones to answer.

Long range amateur radio communication in the 1950s was an art, some described it as a 'black art', that would astonish today's youngsters who have world-wide voice, webcam, or text access at the click of a mouse or the twitch of a thumb. When there was a queue of stations waiting to communicate with me, I sometimes exchanged just callsign and a signal strength report with the distant station. That was sufficient for the distant station to claim, for record purposes, that they had achieved two-way communications with Malta. Perhaps, for the benefit of modern youngsters, I should further explain that achieving two-way radio contact on the short waves with a distant station was more important, and more satisfying, than any subsequent informal chat between operators.

Distant stations almost always included 'PSE QSL' in their final transmission to me; this was a request for me to send them my official postcard, known as a QSL card (the Morse code signal QSL meant 'please acknowledge receipt of my message'). There was a vast world-wide mail system which enabled amateurs anywhere in the world to send QSL cards in batches to their own country's clearing office for onward postal transmission to the appropriate countries. As long as every licensed amateur had registered their official address with their own authorities, QSL cards almost always reached their intended recipient. It was a highly efficient system which we simply took for granted - and it cost users nothing. In Malta I had to send my QSL cards to, and receive incoming ones from, the Radio Society of Great Britain (RSGB) in UK. I suppose it wasn't worthwhile anyone in Malta setting up a clearing system just for two British amateurs.

When I logged in on one particular day in 1959, there was an unusual amount of activity from club stations throughout the Soviet Union; in fact they were virtually monopolising all available amateur band frequencies. (I can't remember the exact date because I was operating a club station and my written logs belonged to RAF Luqa.) The Soviet operators were sending out the same message repeatedly on several different frequencies within the 21 megaHertz amateur band I was using. It was obviously an automatic machine sending the message, not the hand of a live operator - it was very easy for experienced amateurs to distinguish between a machine and the hand of a human operator. The message was "QSX SPUTNIK 20005 KCS QSA IMI", which meant: "Please listen out for Sputnik on frequency 20,005 kilocycles per second and report its signal strength to me." I had no idea then what SPUTNIK meant so I simply took it to indicate the name of a Soviet radio station. Out of curiosity, and disobeying the standing instructions, I retuned my receiver to that frequency, which was well outside the authorised amateur band, and immediately heard clearly, for several minutes, a curious, plaintive, bleating signal that I now know was the world's first artificial satellite passing overhead.

I went straightaway to a nearby office and dutifully telephoned the RAF Signals Officer to report this mysterious activity in case it was of military significance. After the briefest of pauses he told me, "It's probably just the Soviets testing their transmitters. Ignore them. Anyway - what are you doing on that frequency, sergeant? It's well outside the amateur band. Stick to what you're authorised to do" - and with that he hung up on me. I went back to the club room and listened again, but the signals had ceased and the frequency was quiet. I didn't know it then, but Sputnik had passed below the radio horizon. The next day the whole world was talking about Sputnik and the rest is history.

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