After 30 years as a ham radio operator aboard the former U.S. Coast Guard Lightship Columbia, Ed Aho signed off May 11 for the last time.

Well, maybe not the last time, he says with a laugh. “I’ll probably still be going down there.”

But whether he boards the Lightship again, Aho – Also known as W7LY, his call signal – has retired, making thousands upon thousands of contacts all over the world every Saturday until now.

“I use to drive back and forth to work and I’d look out there and see that Lightship,” Aho, 84, recalled. “And think, ‘Gosh, that would be a wonderful place to have amateur radio.’ And here we are, 30 years later.

“All of the contacts I’ve made are special to me. I’ve contacted every country in the world. In Greece, there’s a mountain where there’s nothing but men who are part of a church. And to get up there, you have to get into some kind of an elevator that takes them up. That was very interesting. Another interesting one is I’ve made contact with a space shuttle, W5LFL, the first man in ham radio to go up in space. And I have a card from him. And that wasn’t easy. They were moving at 17,300 miles an hour. Zip! Zip! And I was able to contact with my call signal. That’s all I did. I hollered that and he heard it and he marked it down.”

May 11, the 30th anniversary of the Lightship’s radio, “I made one contact. That was with a state in the south. It was a fast contact. I just told them I’m culminating 30 years as an operator on the Lightship Columbia. And that was it.”

Aho is a born and raised Astorian.

His wife Helen used to work at The Daily Astorian. His children include Mike Aho, owner of the Main Street Market in Warrenton, David Aho, of Astoria, and Julie of Bellevue, Wash.

His daughter Julie will be coming to Astoria next Friday, with his grandchildren. His oldest granddaughter just turned 16 and got her driver’s license. “I reckon she’ll be behind the wheel next week,” he said.

Aho spent his working career with the U.S. Post Office in Astoria as a clerk for more than 30 years.

Before that, he spent three years in the U.S. Coast Guard and two years as a Merchant Marine, which gave him the tools he’d need later for ham radio, he says. He retired from the post office in 1982 and began spending his Saturdays on board the Lightship.

“I was into amateur radio already. And the idea hatched, you know. And here we are,” he said. “I have a box at home that’s filled with stacks and stacks of cards from the contacts I’ve made. Every state in the union plus over 100 countries that we have contacted by radio. It’s pretty neat.”

He explained how the radios work.

“Say a person is on the air and we are dialed in, turning the dial. And we hear this person,” he said. “Say it’s a foreign station, what we refer to as DX, distance. And they’re looking for the Northwest. They’ll put out a call that says this is so-and-so and we’re looking for the west coast. We hear that and when want to make a contact. So we put out a call on his call sign and then we he breaks for reception, he’ll say ‘W7BU’ go ahead.” So we give his call sign and our call sign. That’s by regulation.

“And then we tell them where we are, and they tell us where they are, and we agree to exchange QSL cards – that’s the card that gets sent through our bureau that handles all the cards in Connecticut. They handle all outgoing cards in the United States. They send them by airmail. They go to Portland. Volunteers sort them out and then we get them. I just got a bunch a while back.”

He then collects them.

The radio contacts can also be used to connect people in need.

“I got a call one time from a lady in Hammond. She had to get a message to her husband who was working up on Alaska on a ship in a village where they had no phones. She needed to get ahold of her husband because she had cancer. So I got on the radio and I called a city up there and they took the message and relayed it to an amateur near where the ship was and they got the message to him. A few days later, I found out he got home.”

Other people have used the ham operators to find out if their family members are okay following a natural disaster in other parts of the world.

The radio club’s records tell the story on the Lightship’s history. “Ed approached Larry Gilmore, curator of the Columbia River Maritime Museum in regards to establishing an amateur radio station aboard the Lightship. A phone call from Mr. Gilmore gave him the go-ahead for a test. ... Thus begins the story of W7BU, Sunset Amateur Radio Club hamshack in the radio room of the Lightship Columbia, WLV-604/decommissioned.”

Aho says he is thankful to the Columbia River Maritime Museum, which allowed the Lightship radio to happen.They also funded the cards the amateur radio operators exchange.

He also thanked his former co-radio operators, who have sadly now passed away, for their work in getting the Lightship radio launched.

“You put an (SK) after someone’s call letters when a person passes on,” he said. “You still use their call letters, but it means silent key. No longer a key operator. They’re all silent keys.”

Dick Knotts, who served as president of the Sunset Empire Amateur Radio Club, W7HJR (SK), Gene Brown, W7YCK (SK) and Phil Veek WA7RXW(SK).

According to the radio club’s website, if you are a licensed amateur radio operator and you are interested in operating The Lightship Columbia amateur radio station, contact the club by email at w7bu@sunset-empire-arc.org

— Chelsea Gorrow

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