By Jock Elliott, KB2GOM
Man on the run thrillers, like The 39 Steps by John Buchan* and Rogue Male by Geoffrey Household hold a special fascination for me. Give me a yarn about someone being pursued by the bad guys, and I am enthralled. (Incidentally, there are a couple of good lists of these thrillers. Here and here).
Sometimes I like to play the mental game of: if I were that guy trying to stay ahead those who wished me evil intent, what radio(s) might I want with me?
The other day I realized I had the perfect combo, a pair of radios that cover a huge swath of spectrum, will fit in a couple of pockets (or one big pocket) and weigh just 14 ounces combined. Further, both will run off ordinary AA batteries, which are widely available.
Candidate number one is the C Crane Skywave SSB, which measures 3 inches by 4.75 inches by 1.1 inches. It receives AM, FM, shortwave (1711-29999 kHz), VHF aviation and NOAA weather radio with alerts. Because it receives single sideband (SSB) on HF frequencies, it can tune in aeronautical, marine and amateur radio stations that transmit in the SSB.
The Skywave SSB comes with a pair of ear buds that fit my ears well and offer pleasing audio. In addition, the SSB comes standard with an auxiliary wire antenna that can be deployed and clipped to the SSB’s whip antenna to boost signal-to-noise. Perhaps most useful for the man on the run, the SSB has excellent “signal seek” functions that can be used on any band. In fact, if you put the radio in SSB mode and activate the signal scan, it will search the ham bands and automatically switch from upper sideband to lower sideband as appropriate.
For the man on the run who can “hole up” for a while, I’ve tried clipping a 50-foot long wire to the SSB’s whip and antenna, and I was amazed at how well it can pull in faint ham signals. It’s the “little radio that could.” About the only thing that I wish I could change on the Skywave SSB is that it mutes between tuning steps when using the tuning knob.
But suppose our man on the run needs to monitor signals above the coverage of the Skywave SSB? Candidate number two is the Icom R6. Measuring just 2.3 inches by 3.4 inches by 1.2 inches, the diminutive R6 covers from 100 kHz to 1309.995 MHz (less cellular and gaps) in AM, FM Narrow and FM wide modes (no SSB). It has 1300 alphanumeric memories, search-and-store capabilities, and rapid scanning of memory channels.
For high stealth, there is a setting that allows the R6 to use the wire that connects headphones or ear buds to the R6 as the antenna instead of the usual antenna. For a non-stealth application, using an aftermarket antenna like the Comet W100RX 25MHz-1300MHz Handheld Scanner Antenna, the R6T does a surprisingly good job of receiving shortwave stations. This antenna has markings on the side so that it can be set to the right length for various frequencies.
As you can see from the photo, the R6 has only a few buttons on its face and two on the side. Every button has multiple functions, and I found trying to program memory channels using the buttons to be a trial. As a result, I can highly recommend the RT Systems cable and programming software for setting up memory channels. In addition, some very useful notes for setting up and using the R6 can be found here: https://forums.radioreference.com/threads/icom-ic-r6-notes.442112/
Finally, I know that there are several tiny ham transceivers that might fill the bill, including the Yaesu VX-6R, although I am not aware of any that can receive single sideband. Besides, if you had the ability to transmit, “they” might be able to direction-find you . . . and we wouldn’t want that, would we?
*For sharp-eyed readers: yes, I know that The 39 Steps is set in a time before radio was widespread, but it is still one of my favorites.
A spy on the run is a failed spy, no longer any use to their spymaster. I would be more interested in knowing what the good ones use to listen to their Numbers Station.
But the novels I find most interesting are the ones where the ordinary guy (he’s not a professional spook) is being pursued, and he doesn’t know why. 39 Steps starts that way and so does at least one of Robert Ludlum’s novels.
Boy, I wish I had the time to go down this rabbit hole. You make this duo sound so interesting. I have deliberately tried to avoid the very alluring (at times) “siren” call of the handheld scanner. Just like the mythological sirens, the allure of the scanner world symbolizes temptation that can lead to an abyss of sorts – you know what I mean.
Nevertheless, nice job of mapping out another road to perdition.
P. S. I did bookmark this page – just in case.
Cheers and 73
I have found that scanner monitoring can be intriguing. Sometimes you have to piece together the story from different transmissions on different frequencies; sometimes there is pathos (unresponsive 14-month-old male, trying to establish airway . . . ) and sometimes there is funny.
I offer these for your consideration:
Funnies on the scanner
Heard just now on the mutual aid channel in my area (near Albany, NY):
“There is no fire . . . apparently the cats were playing with the fire alarm, and somehow they activated it.”
Too good not to share:
From one of the law enforcement channels on my scanner this am, upstate New York:
“Found in the road . . . a lot of money, a 12-pack of Budweiser, a hat, and a pair of boots . . . not sure what happened here.”
This AM on CDERN (Capital District Emergency Radio Network, a county to county communication channel):
Albany County pops up, talking to Rensselaer County.
Albany says they are handling an incident at a Stewarts shop near the Congress St. Bridge. Complainant left car running while going into Stewarts; came out; car was gone; BOLO for blue Scion.
A few minutes later, CDERN pops up again: “Car has been found; original complainant forgot they parked on the other side of the building.”
What an imaginative question (and solution)! I like the fact that both receivers run on ubiquitous AA batteries.
Looking around the shack, I don’t quite have a kit this versatile or light. Unfortunately I bought my Skywave just before they came out with the SSB model, so I’d have to lug along a larger Tecsun PL-660. Marginally better on MW anyway, which is important in the U.S. For a VHF/UHF scanner, I’d have to grab the Uniden BC355N off the desk. Unfortunately this would require an external AA battery tray (got a couple of them in the parts bin), and this whole rig would be fairly clunky. It’d be nice to have two of those CCrane single earbuds as well, to listen to the scanner in one ear and the SW in the other. Overall, given a half-hour, I could be out the door with a functional “man on the run” set-up, working from what’s at hand.
Wouldn’t be nearly as light and streamlined as some of the combos discussed here, but it was fun to add “out the door, with only what you have on hand” to the challenge. I think though, if I had a week to get the goodies ordered and in, the Skywave SSB and R6 win hands-down.
Great information about the performance of both these radios! I really like the information you shared about a good antenna for the Yeasu, as I thought of purchasing one of these.
Thanks for your comments. I can recommend the Yaesu.
Bear in mind that the Comet antenna I mentioned is for receive ONLY.
If you get one, do not use it for transmitting.
an interesting project at hackaday.com
it would make a nice portable SDR
Very interesting concept – what would we need today for the spy.
I’m a big fan of books about the spies in WWII. And always find the methods for radio communications back then interesting. And they didn’t have low-powered, compact transistor radios.
I’d like to toss out a few other radios that I think would fit the bill. For straight shortwave listening with SSB thrown in the Tecsun PL-330 and Tecsun PL-368 would be hard to beat for both size and performance. The big downside is that both only use rechargeable batteries. The man on the run would need some way to keep the batteries topped off.
If you don’t mind using an older, out of production radio, then the Sony ICF-SW100 is very compact and performs very well. It runs on two AA batteries, has a very good Sync function, SSB and can store labels with the memories. But finding one that doesn’t have problems (like the ribbon cable to the flip up screen or bad capacitors) can be difficult.
You mentioned that someone would bring up the Ham Radio HT’s, like the Yaesu VX-6. I have two VX-6 (actually I have the complete VX line that use the same battery – VX-5, VX-6 & VX-7). The VX-6 is a current, in-production model, and easy to obtain at a reasonable price. It covers 0.5 MHz up to 1 GHz with the usual Cell Blocked frequencies. The radio is a real performer on SW – probably the best I have ever seen on ham Radio HT’s. It’ll easy pick up strong stations on the rubber duck antenna and when hooked to a length of wire will receive most of the signals that a regular portable Tecsun will receive. Besides the rechargeable battery, you can run the radio on two AA batteries using an adapter that is the same small size as the regular rechargeable battery. You can even transmit on low power on two AA batteries. Of course, it does not receive SSB. But it does have plenty of memories which can be labeled plus the memories can be organized into 24 Memory Banks and you can label each memory bank.
There was one Ham Radio HT (now out of production) that DID receive SSB. That is the Kenwood TH-F6a. Beautiful compact radio that receives 0.1 MHz to 1.3 GHz (with the usual blocked frequencies). It also includes a built-in ferrite antenna so that it can receive the am broadcast band very well. It performs quite well with a length of wire. It also can use a four AA battery adapter.
While I’m not going on the run, I am getting ready for a trip and am in the process of deciding what radios to take with me. I keep oscillating back on forth on which to take.
I definitely will be taking the Yaesu VX-6. I’ll use it in the car to talk to my portable Allstar node. Plus I can use it to talk to the local repeaters at my destination.
The second radio will most likely be the Tecsun PL-330. It’s compact and can do SSB.
I’m leaning towards also taking the Sony ICF-SW100. It’s small, runs on AA batteries and can do Sync as well as SSB. Or maybe I should take a larger radio – maybe the Sony ICF-2010.
Decisions, Decisions, Decisions!!
As always, Bill, thanks for your thoughtful response and enjoy the trip!
This is was a nice read and it prompted me to think of radios that I might grab in such a case.
My on the run kit would include the Skywave SSB (AM, FM, SW & SSB), Belka DX (SW & SSB) & VX-6E (Multiband & VHF/UHF). All 3 radio fit nicely in your pockets and can be charged with minimal fuss.
73, Sandip EI7IJB
Someday, I’m going to get a look at a Belka DX. I understand they are impressive.
I have a belka dx. Great little radio, always carry it as a backup when travelling. Using the telescopic antenna is difficult in noisy areas though. Fantastic up in the mountains.
What a great imagining! This adds a bit of adventure even for us arm-chair radio geeks. Very enjoyable! Cheers!
Thanks, Robert, for your kind words!