Nick's wizardry sends signals across Europe
From installing Afghanistan’s first mobile phone system to using a ham radio, Nick Peckett just loves communications. Martin Paul met him
THE upstairs man-cave at Nick Peckett’s Woodland home is a jungle of electronics. From this little room the amateur radio operator is in contact with people across the globe, forever upgrading equipment and finding new ways to bounce signals, increase their strength and reach further afield.
Talking to him it is clear his enthusiasm hasn’t waned since he earned his ham radio operator’s licence some 40 years ago, in 1978.
His interest began when he started as a radio and television engineer apprentice in the early 1960s, leading on to a varied career that included setting up Afghanistan’s first mobile telephone system (during the days when the Taliban were in control, being part of the early development of advanced x-ray imagining and installing moving-map radar on Harrier jump-
He explains: “It was ground breaking stuff at the time. It used gyros and radar beacons to find out where it was.”
Mr Peckett was also instrumental in bringing television signals to countless farms and far flung villages in upper Weardale, earning himself quite a reputation among locals.
Now from his radio room in Teesdale he monitors ultra high frequency (UHF), very high frequency (VHF), super high frequency (SHF) and microwave signals.
He explains that UHF has a range of only a few hundred kilometres but through the use of clever software he can track the flight of commercial aeroplanes, bounce the signal off them and connect with people in southern Sweden.
The connection is fleeting – maybe only 30 seconds – but it is enough to record who he is communicating with, where they are and the signal strength.
The software called AirScout, he says with pride, was built by amateurs for amateurs.
Mr Peckett goes on: “Without a plane you could not make contact – you wouldn’t hear a thing.”
He explains that while voice and morse code are still used, much of the communication nowadays is done digitally.
He adds: “Digital has rejuvenated amateur radio, we were in the doldrums. Digital communication has transformed what we can do, although voice is still important.”
His skills extend to morse code and he is able to tap out as many as 30 words a minute.
He says: “By 1979 I had the A licence, and for an A licence you needed Morse code.”
The additional grade allowed him access to crucial short wave frequencies – time has moved on and this is not longer a prerequisite for the A licence.
The 72-year-old admits it would be a lot more difficult to learn morse code now.
As he surfs through channels, there is the odd loud crack which he explains is lightning. Elsewhere there is a hiss.
He explains: “Electro-magnetic smog – it is noise from devices and stuff people have in their houses.”
Then there is the sound of the UK’s early warning radar. For security reasons, and to prevent it from being scrambled, the radar jumps around on different frequencies wreaking havoc on amateur radio operators.
Mr Peckett says: “I have a suppressor but it is a bloody nuisance.”
Early warning radar is not the only problem encroaching on the frequencies dedicated to ham operators – as technology develops the demands on the spectrum become greater.
Mr Peckett explains: “We just lost a bit of the super high frequency, which they flogged off to wifi and 5G.”
Aside from these obstacles, living in Woodland has its own burden. Exposed to strong wind at such a high level, Mr Peckett is always vigilant about his towering radio masts, antennae and microwave dishes. When the wind gets up, he uses a winch to lower the massive towers.
He is extra-cautious because although some of the equipment is commercial, some has been hand-crafted by himself.
A testament to the strength of the wind at Woodland is the number of times he has had to replace the cups of his wind gauge. Tired of replacing them, he now uses an ultrasonic wind sensor on his mini-weatherstation.
Back in the radio room, it is hard not to notice the dentist-type magnifier lamp.
Mr Peckett explains he uses this as he solders together amplifiers. Although small these powerful circuitboards become incredibly hot during use, requiring large heat sinks to keep them working.
It is in the bits of electronic wizardry he produces that his ongoing passion for amateur radio is revealed.
Mr Peckett finishes: “I just enjoy the technical challenge.”