Many thanks to Michael (N7CCD) for sharing the following guest post:
Flying With Ham Gear
by Michael (N7CCD)
I often get asked “how hard is it to fly with ….”, or “what does TSA say about …” as my job has me flying a fair amount throughout the year. In fact, I’m writing this now while waiting to board my flight for a week in Georgia and Alabama, after having just gone through TSA.
In a recent QRPer post by Thomas, I posted a comment about my frequent travel with ham gear and Thomas gave me a gentle “hint hint” nudge to write up my experiences on the matter. I thought this trip would be a good time to share my experiences in traveling with ham gear in my check-on baggage, as well as my carry-on baggage and my process for each. I’m always interested in learning from other’s experiences, so if you have some ideas for the good of the community, please share them in the comments below!
Before starting this article, and out of curiosity, I checked my past calendar and figured out that I passed through TSA screening about 26 times in 2022. I would say that, since starting my current role four years ago, I have at a minimum hit that number each year.
To address the main question I get about ham gear (antennas, radios, batteries, etc.) and TSA, surprisingly TSA has very little interest in any of it.
In all of my trips through the x-ray machine, TSA has never once pulled my bag out to further investigate what was inside. They have asked about my thermal camera, but never my ham gear. Full disclosure, I am TSA Pre-Check which does exclude me from having to remove laptops, iPads, etc. However, on a recent non-business trip with my wife and kids to visit family in Mexico, I wasn’t pre-check and they still didn’t care about any of my radio gear.
Since I’m limited on the amount of stuff I can physically carry on the plane, and my work gear requires me to check a bag anyway, I have divided my radio gear between what I want with me on the plane, and what I’ll just pick up when I collect my bag at baggage claim.
I have settled on a hard sided suitcase after having to replace some of my work arc flash PPE (personal protective equipment) when baggage handlers cracked my arc flash face shield. After upgrading to a hard sided suitcase, I started adding more ham equipment I would otherwise worry about getting damaged. In the image below you can see what, at this point, I’ve included in my checked bag.
From top left to bottom right: Raspberry Pi kit (more photos on that below), CWMorse paddle in a dollar store container with cable, Buddipole PowerMini, charging cradle for HT, SignalStuff mag mount for HT in rental car, hand mic for HT for use in rental car, throw line and weight, AlexLoop w/ Amazon Basics tripod, US Road Atlas
The idea behind the Pi and AlexLoop antenna is I can work HF digital no matter where I am. This is more fun than watching TV in a hotel, but also gives me digital capabilities to send emails or texts over HF if I am stranded without service of any kind. The mag mount and HT hand mic allow me to use my HT in my rental car as a mobile radio. The same SignalStuff antenna on my HT can be transferred to the mag mount easily once I step into the car.
The throw line kit is straight from Thomas’s recommendations. I used to carry the larger arborist bag, but Santa came this year with a more compact solution. The antenna for this throw line I take in my carry on.
The Atlas is a recent addition. When my old territory was the Pacific NW and I drove everywhere, I would just keep maps in my trunk. Now that I cover the entire country, I added this Atlas in the event I am stranded or lost without cell service, or my phone decides to give up the ghost. We rely so heavily on smartphones these days…
Below is a close up of my raspberry pi kit in a Maxpedition EDC pouch. I use Jason – KM4ACK’s Build a Pi script. Inside is the pi, power cord, pen, spare USB GPS dongle for time keeping and data cord.
For my carry on backpack, I’ve loved taking the ICOM IC-705 with me on my travels since getting one a couple of years ago. It is the perfect jack of all trades (and in my opinion, master of all as well) radio with its all band, all mode capabilities, GPS, digital sound card, UHF/VHF, etc. I’ve slowly outfitted it with protection using the Peovi cage and Side KX protector. When I added those, I had to increase my carry pouch to a larger Maxpedition, but the increase in size is well worth it in added peace of mind for protection, and it didn’t change my backpack setup.
The main pouch houses the radio itself. There is enough room on top of the radio to put in the factory power cord (for 10W), a 10 foot piece of coax and the hand mic. This all fits nicely and the pouch zipper closes easily around all of these items.
The front pouch houses a 3Ah Bioenno battery. TSA allows you to carry on a lot more battery power than this (up to two – 160WH batteries), but 3Ah is all I need for this radio. I also keep a SignalStuff Signalstick antenna with 90 degree BNC adapter if I want to do UHF/VHF. The homemade tiger tail (white wire next to the battery in the image) made from a scrap piece of 14AWG house wiring clipped to the ground screw brings the SWR down nicely.
Lastly, I always keep an N6ARA TinyPaddle in the front pouch with a small appropriate cord to connect it to the rig.
This 705 pouch sits nicely in the main pouch of may carry on backpack. Also in the backpack (besides my normal work items…book, iPad, etc.), is my HT. For that HT, lately I’ve been taking a Yaesu FT-4x just because it’s so darn small. I also won’t cry if I lose it…
The last ham related item I take in my carry on is the KM4ACK EFHW that my son and I built together as a fun project. It’s been my primary POTA antenna on these work trips. I used to put this in my checked bag, but I like the idea of having HF available to me in a pinch if I ever wanted, since I already have my 705 with me. It’s so small, it easily slides in the main pouch of my bag.
I did end up adding a layer of [this] heat shrink around the transformer to protect the magnet wire. I’ve had to do a couple of field repairs to this antenna while traveling (using my trusty Leatherman). This backpack loaded out fits nicely under the seat in front of me while on the plane (where I am now sitting as I write this).
And that’s it. That’s how I’ve been traveling across the country for the past few years. I try to fit a little time in during my travels to hit a POTA and activate a park. It gets me out of the hotel while getting to enjoy the local scenery, and play in the hobby we all enjoy. It doesn’t always happen, but my goal is to activate as many different states I can while work is sending me new places. Below is my current list of activated states. Hopefully by the time you read this, I’ll have added Alabama to the list.
About a year ago I seriously started working on my CW proficiency. A large chunk of these activations were SSB only, but with my brother’s (N7BHP) and Thomas’s encouragement, I’ve been getting some CW activations in now as well. I appreciate all of the patience shown during these CW activations as I continue to get my feet under me.
As I mentioned earlier in this post, if you have tips/tricks or just found something helpful while traveling with your ham gear, please share!