Yesterday I passed the Extra Class Amateur Radio exam. When I first got back into this hobby, I had only expected to pass the Technician class test and leave it at that for some months or years. When I passed, the VEs (Volunteer Examiners) vocally suggested I should take my chances with the General-class exam. After all, I only needed to pay them $15 once no matter how many tests I took that day. So, I sat down and muddled my way through. To my surprised, I passed the General class with a margin of one question. The VEs then suggested I take the Extra, but I knew I wouldn't pass that one, not without studying.
Today, there are three classes of Ham Radio licenses -- Technician, General, and Extra. The material is cumulative, in order to take one exam, you must pass each one that precedes it. The questions from all exam classes are multiple-choice, and each derive from a nation-wide question pool. Other countries may have similar processes, and even borrow heavily from one another as many questions only concern physics that know no nationality. While the Tech and General class exams are 30 questions each, the Extra-class exam in 50 questions. No only is the exam longer, the question pool is bigger and the questions much, much more difficult. Techs need only know the two most basic Ohm's Law equations: Resistance (R) = Voltage (E) / Amperage (I), and Watts (P) = Amperage * Voltage. (This leads my personal mnemonic "Ohm's law for Evangelion Fans", R=E/I likes P=I*E, or "Rei likes Pie".) Generals need to know the expansions of the basic Ohm's Law equations such as P=i2*R as well as how to calculate series and parallel resistances and capacitances. Extras need to know much more complex things like Impedance, bandwidth calculations, and Resonance. There has been a suggestion that the huge jump in complexity is due to the fact that the much newer Tech and General question pools were made easier in the last review. The Extra question pool is older, and reflects the much more technical bent of earlier tests.
The Extra Class exam pool is due to be revised on July 1st, 2012. As a consequence, all the books and materials you may find months before that date reflect the older question pool. This means that you either study now before the new pool comes into effect, or you wait until new books can be published to help you study. You either study now and take the test before July, or you may have to wait until late this year just to get started. Last fall, I had checked out the ARRL's study guide for the Extra Class exam, but found it meandering and poorly written. Eventually, I gave up trying to make sense of the incomprehensible mess it presented to me. Switching to a question-centric approach, I had purchased the ARRL's Extra Class Q+A as an eBook early last winter. I slowly slogged through half of it, but I found the explanations terse and laid out in numerical order of the question pool. This was a horrible way to study.
Some months ago, a friend bought Gordon West's General Class study guide. The writing in these books is surprisingly good. The questions have been reorganized so that similar questions are grouped together. The explanation text is much more helpful than the ARRL's Q+A books. After sitting on the idea for a few weeks, I drove up to my local ham store and bought the Extra Class book. I tore through it in a week, surprising even myself. Afterward, I planned to drill using Eham.net's online exam generator. This turned out to be the best way, as the question pool is some 700 questions. Each question pool, including the mammoth Extra, is broken up into topic-related portions called "Elements". You only get a few questions from each element. By using the generator, you get a random sampling from each element put together like a real test. Typically I'd take one or two practice exams each night. If I couldn't remember an equation, or couldn't guess an answer with any confidence, I'd open the book for help.
Throughout this process, I did not give much consideration as to why I was doing this. Each license class gives you additional operative privileges. Mostly, this comes down to how much radio spectrum in which you can play. Techs are granted most of the Ham bands above 30Mhz. This includes the two most popular VHF bands, 6 meters (50-54Mhz) and 2 meters (144-148Mhz), and the 70cm (420-450Mhz) UHF band. General Class gives you access to much of the HF bands. These are great for long-distance communication. Extras are allowed key segments of the HF bands that are the best for long-distance, or "DX", contacts. One might think I'd be excited to dive into these most-privileged portions of the ham radio spectrum, but that isn't really the case.
People who chase long-distance contacts, "DXers", dream of being Extras. Those dreams also include kilowatt transmitters and "antenna farms" sprouting from rooftops and the tippy-top of metal tower from their backyard. While it may be fun to someday have those things, that's simply impossible given my current living situation. I live in a second story apartment in Minneapolis. My antenna -- intended for service on the roof of a car -- is magnet-mounted to the metal railing of my balcony. And while I have a transmitter capable of 100 watts of output, I love my tiny QRP rig with a miniscule output of 5 watts. Any contact I make with this setup astounds me. The new spectrum allotted to Extras is typically reserved for Morse Code enthusiasts. Something I have a passing interest in, but I'm much more sanguine about digital modes such as PSK31.
So why? Why even bother with Extra?
There's several reasons I pursued this. In my day job, I build education material for enterprise software. While it's a challenge in it's own right, it isn't per se a technical challenge. Ham Radio presents this challenge, and the Extra Class exam presented a neat goal and a short and satisfying time-line of several weeks. I wanted to prove to myself that I could pass this test, learning all the necessary electrical and operating theory to back it up. And, for lack of better words, it was in front of me. Passing the Extra means I've arrived at an endpoint, and now I can enjoy the craft without seeing something above me. I can move on to other challenges such as catching better contacts, newer modes, and someday building my own radio from scratch.
But that'll be another day.
P.S.: In case you're wondering, I decided not to change my call sign at this time. My current one is ridiculous, unpronounceable, and I've grown quite fond of it.