Time to put the microphone away

Big pile-up on 40 meters for EP6T.

I’ve only been an amateur radio guy since 2011, and only started HF operation in early 2012, so I don’t have a lot of perspective on the hobby. However, I can break up my time on HF into three distinct epochs.

2012: Hitting HF and responding to every CQ I heard, many of these contacts were DX stations on 20 meters. DX was all I really cared about. Almost 100% single sideband operation.

2013: Still on HF, but losing interest in SSB and to a lesser extent, DX. Spent more time on digital modes and working on WAS. Began operating in CW.

2014: Mostly all digital/CW, focused on completing the WAS Triple Play. Barely any DX, only occasional SSB, mostly stateside and locally.

So now, 2015. I’m trying to get back into DX so I can officially get the DXCC wallpaper. Digital modes don’t thrill me any more; my CW is awful right now. For some reason I’m in the mood for SSB. But sometime between 2012 and now, DXing on SSB has taken a turn. I haven’t been able to make a single SSB QSO outside of the US as of late. Sure, it could be my antenna or another issue, but CW seems to still work just fine.

It’s the pile-ups. Basically, I don’t have the patience for them anymore. If I can’t get my QSO completed in 30 minutes, then I move on to something else. If it were just a matter of waiting for my turn, or rugged tenacity, it would be one thing, but honestly, the SSB DX/pile-up experience is just so unpleasant now. Jammers, rude behavior, people who don’t understand split, people who repeatedly toss their call out over and over and over (these guys drive me insane, especially when they start turning around the pile-up with their voice keyer on repeat), whistlers, yodelers, screamers, people who start sending CW over callers, and the list goes on.

This is nothing new, but it just seems so much worse than I remember it.

Jeff, KE9V, explains it much more eloquently than I can. I’ve been listening with amusement at some of the piles for EP6T the last few nights, and I don’t want any part of it. I don’t want to sound like I’m hemming and hawing because I’m bitter over not getting Iran in the log. I’m not — in fact, I can’t even hear EP6T. I’m just saying, that it’s not fun for ME anymore. Fortunately, the hobby offers other avenues for making contacts, hence I’ll be brushing up on my CW and pulling out the digital interface again.

Learning how to be a ham again

I logged my first QSO of the new year tonight, and it was a CW contact.

I missed all the action with the North America QSO Party (SSB) this weekend, although I did have the radio on for an hour or so and listened to the exchanges. I managed to clear some time Sunday evening around twilight in hopes of catching some grayline propagation.

I started on 17 meters USB and discovered the band was open. My first target was a station in Guadeloupe, FG4NN. While he was +10dB over S9 here, he wasn’t hearing me. To be fair, he had a lot of JAs calling him and was grabbing them over weak stateside stations like me. I don’t blame ‘em.

While waiting in the pile-up, I heard N0UN boom in at 40 over, one-shot the QSO and get out. I’m a fan of N0UN’s blog, so it was cool hearing him live.

Anyway, life’s too short to sit in an endless pile-up on sideband, so I dialed up 20 meters, didn’t hear anything fun there, and made my way to 40 meters. There was a lot of SSB action, but mostly ragchew, so I decided to check the CW portion of the band and see if I could make any sort of QSO before heading to dinner.

Tuning around, I heard a CQ call and paused. It was FG/F5HRY, a French station, apparently operating out of Guadeloupe (the Caribbean again?). At first, the code sounded like gibberish to me. I realized just how long I’d been away from the rig. Fortunately, he was keeping the exchanges as short as possible: 5NN TU. I can understand that just fine. I like that.

I placed the rig in test mode and tested out my key for a minute or two. Yep, I can still send my call and 5NN. Once he ran out of takers, I fired off my call and (of course) botched the “S,” sending an “I” instead. I’m used to making this mistake, so I tried to keep cool. He came back with KK4DID, so I resent my call. He came back with a partial and “?” for the suffix. Excellent. I fired my call off again, didn’t muff it up, and he repeated it back with a report. Then I realized my hand was shaking I was so nervous. I barely managed to key out “RR 5NN TU” and that was that. My first QSO of 2015 was in the log.

I have a couple informal goals for the year:

  • First and foremost, I need to get interested in the hobby again, even if I can just set aside and hour or two several times a week to operate. SPAR Winter Field Day is coming up this weekend, and while I won’t be operating solo, I sure hope to make a few Qs with my club.
  • Secondly, I want to officially complete DXCC. I have more than 100 unique countries in the log, but I’d say only about 60 of them are confirmed via Logbook of the World. It’s time to get this one sorted out.
  • Finally, I want to activate a Summits on the Air peak. I’ve wanted to do this since before I was licensed. I have the gear to do it; I just need to make the time.

If you can operate as W1AW, do it!

While the W1AW/4 operation is still fast and furious on it’s fourth day here in South Carolina, I was finally struck with the enormity of the undertaking this morning, and why it’s just exciting to be a part of this endeavor. My role in the operation has been very small, but I’ve dedicated what little time I’ve had to the effort. I don’t want to come off as one of these overly-optimistic millennials (I’m too old to be of that ilk), but damn this has been quite an amazing experience!

I’ve been so fortunate in this hobby to meet the right people and perhaps be in the right place at the right time. That good fortune paid off when I was asked if I wanted to do some W1AW operating. I realize that not every amateur radio hobbyist — particularly someone who has been licensed for the short length of time as I have been — gets invited to participate in these operations. But my advice to any ham is this: If you get asked to help with or operate as W1AW, you should do it, no exceptions. Just commit to do it. Here’s why:

  • It’s an historic event celebrating 100 years of the ARRL, and to a lesser extent, the whole hobby of ham radio itself. How often do we get a chance to participate in something this significant?
  • It’s a way to give back to the hobby. Particularly if you happen to be a “rare” state. It’s a way to help those new hams get their Worked All States or even the Triple Play.
  • It’s a way to improve yourself in the hobby. If you accept the challenge, you will improve your skills, in operating, dealing with people, logging, contesting, propagation, everything!
  • It’s a way to test yourself. How many times have you heard a busy DX station and thought to yourself, “I could do that.” Or maybe you thought “how terrifying must that be to have that many stations calling.” Well, this is your chance to see if you can handle it! When it’s busy, it’s a real test of concentration, endurance and skill.
  • It’s fun, and it’s addictive. Set a goal of QSOs/per hour, or total QSOs and try to beat your own high score.
  • You get exposure to some famous hams and some locals that are at the top end of the game. How thrilling was is to work RTTY guru AA5AU? Or to learn that one of the guys on the W1AW/4 team was an EME (moonbounce) guru and lives just 50 miles away!
  • You are representing your state to the world. You are in the spotlight!
  • Your “little pistol” station becomes the rare DX. If you enjoy radiosport, or fast-paced exchanges, there is nothing better than this.
  • Realize that what you are doing is amazing. With a rig I assembled myself, and a length of wire in some trees behind my house, I’ve worked more than 400 stations not only across the US, but as far away as New Zealand and Japan in just a matter of days. That’s some ham radio voodoo my friends.

With that, I’m about to fire up the rig and get to work again.

Managing a pile-up as W1AW/4

I operated as W1AW/4 again on RTTY last night, this time on the 40 meter band, which is generally a great band for me during RTTY contests. Last night was no exception, as I managed to create an utterly evil pile-up that apparently spanned nearly 6 kHz at its widest.

I’ll let this tweet from my pal KN4QD do the talking. The “hot” areas near the center of the waterfall show the pile-up:

I started my shift at 8 p.m. and I actually had the rig ready to go this time, but with one hiccup: Since I dual-boot Windows 7 on my iMac, I use my Mac Bluetooth keyboard, which maps some of the [F]unction keys to various control such as volume, screen brightness etc. I needed to hit ALT-F10 to force the N1MM logging program to remain in “run mode” while I tuned around looking for stations. But hitting the F10 function key accessed volume controls… sigh.

With only minutes until it was time for me to start, I didn’t have time to work out the issue. Fortunately, it didn’t cause any problems, but I did have to make sure I was in run mode before responding to callers, and this probably slowed me down a tick.

I spotted myself on the cluster at dxheat.com, and within two CQs I had a wall of stations to deal with. Many, many more than I had on 20 meters the previous night. I tried to work my way through the pile-up, but I had the best success sniping off stations at the edge of the pile. The center was jammed and so loud that I couldn’t get a decode.

When I can fire off QSOs in rapid succession, RTTY is a beautiful thing. When I have to tune around for a minute or more trying to find a decode, it’s headache-inducing.

I finished my shift with more than 100 QSOs in the log, but there were so many stations still trying to contact me that I decided to work another hour. I eventually put 208 QSOs in the log and shut down the operation with many more still calling.

I’m definitely picking up some good RTTY experience. In doing some research this morning I discovered several things:

  • I should be running with the K3’s dual passband filter off. This is probably making it more difficult to tune in stations. Some folks suggest the 500 Hz or even 200 Hz filter should be employed.
  • I need to be running the 2Tone decoder. Apparently it does a lot better than MMTTY.
  • I would really like to start using call stacking. I had many opportunities to use stacking last night, but I didn’t have my macros setup properly to handle it. Some have suggested that with W1AW operations, that stacking adds too much complexity, but many of the guys I worked last night are veteran RTTY contesters and would expect stacking.
  • I should start with my RF gain rolled back a bit to cut the weaker stations, which would allow me to work the big signals first and get them out of the way. When you have a big, persistent Italian signal bearing down on you, you definitely want to work him and get him out of the way.

The K3 and P3 have always been great to work with, but I am getting concerned with the P3, as it seems to completely lose all but the biggest signals at times. This is unsettling if you are trying to tune specific stations in the pile-up.

I can reboot it and that sometimes fixes the issue. However the problem seems to be with either the coaxial cable that connects it to the output from the radio, or with one of the BNC jacks on the rig or the P3 itself. When I lose reception, sometimes wiggling the cable will fix the problem. Hopefully it’s just a bad cable; there have been reports of this over on the Elecraft boards.

CQ Centennial QSO Party

I decided to try something new on Friday night and called “CQ Centennial QSO Party” on 40m phone to see if I could generate any response. And indeed it did.

I had a heck of a time finding an open section of the band, but I finally settled on 7.249 mhz, asked if the frequency was in use a few times, then proceeded to call CQ. I had nearly instant success, with W4RCJ coming back to me almost immediately.

I next worked WM9I, W4PUD, KK4COZ, KD8VMD and KK4ZDK in fairly rapid succession. I was logging using a general contest template on N1MM, and settling into a nice rhythm when hateful sounds splattered my frequency. Checking the panadapter, I noticed very strong signals exactly 1 kc down the band. I tuned over and found a local guy and a Georgia station, both booming, engaged in ragchew about dogs, food and antennas. No callsigns were being used of course.

Because they were only 1 KC down, their signal was overlapping into half of mine. There went my nice Centennial QSO Party run. Here are a couple guys who don’t believe in listening before transmitting.

When it comes to single side-band, I’m going to admit something sad and/or shameful. I don’t really like talking on the radio. Until Friday, I’d never called CQ on voice and actually had anyone respond back to me. I’m not going to count the time I called CQ at 5 watts to test the SWR of my 6-meter moxon and the guy living just outside of my neighborhood came back to me.

So yeah… After achieving Worked All States, the Triple Play, and logging more than 100 DX entities, I’ve never had QSOs originating from my own CQ calls on voice modes, until Friday.

Going Mobile

I saw a very nice install of a dual-bander in a Ford Focus posted at Reddit, and it’s inspired me once again to consider placing a mobile rig in my Focus hatchback.

The gentlemen who installed the radio used the MT-7 seat bolt mount to position the control head inside the cramped interior. I’ve often considered using this very same mount for an HF or dual-band mobile solution, as the Focus has virtually no flat surfaces or extra space for any sort of rig. It’s good to know this solution will work in the Focus. Now to figure out the hard stuff: Where to run a power line through the firewall, how to route the cables for the control head to the radio itself (and where to locate it), antenna options, etc.

I really don’t need a mobile rig for the small amount of repeater/simplex VHF/UHF I do, but it would be nice to have in there for working events and talking to some bros around town.

A couple interesting stations in the log

I managed to work W1AW/0 and /5 both on 40 meter CW Saturday night (that makes two bands for each now), but it was a contact with Panama, HO100CANAL, that really made my day. That’s not a call sign I’d like to have to send in CW very often though. It was a new country for me too.

All three QSOs were straightforward splits and easy grabs.

I saw some Macedonian stations on the cluster last night and heard Z35T booming on 20M with very few takers. I tried working him several times but either he didn’t hear me, or chose not to respond, because he merely continued calling CQ.

A short distance down the band I located Z33Z, equally strong, but with QSB, and he picked me up on the first shot. Unfortunately I muffed my own callsign and ended up sending something like KK4DIN, so after he sent me a signal report, I tried to get my call corrected. It took a few tries but we got it sorted out.

After the QSO I checked my log only to realize I’d worked Macedonia ages ago. So much for new DX — although it was nice to get that country on code. At present I have 107 DX entities in the log, with 64 confirmed on Logbook of the World. Perhaps one weekend I will figure out which countries I need to send QSL cards to in order to complete DXCC.

First JA in the log

Well that only took two years.

I was attempting to help a station in India score a digital QSO with South Carolina tonight and he suggested we hit 15 meter JT65. I tuned over and there were three Japanese stations on frequency calling CQ. I selected the one with the strongest signal, JA1KXQ, and gave him a call. He came back to me on the first shot. My signal report was a respectable -15;  his signal was booming in around -7.

On his final, he sent “5W 3ELY” which caused my brain to explode. A -7 signal running just 5 watts from Japan, nearly 7,000 miles away? Just amazing. The other JAs had signals more like what I would have expected, -18 or so.

Sadly, I never managed to make the contact with my friend in India. Maybe we’ll give it a shot tomorrow.

Three down, one state left

Despite my rambling post of only a few hours ago, things are looking hopeful. I managed to get three big ones in the log this evening.

My efforts in e-mailing hams paid off for Delaware and Wyoming, and the K3UK board finally yielded a North Dakota digital QSO to land me a true Worked All States – Digital endorsement. I’m still waiting for a few confirmations on LOTW, but with tonight’s acquisitions, I’m left still hunting for Nebraska.

As I mentioned in my previous diatribe, I had to eat some humble pie and start e-mailing some guys in these rare states and ask for help. I located Karl, N8NA, in Delaware via the ARRL’s website because he was the W1AW portable operator for Delaware a few months back. Gee, it sure would have been great if I’d just caught Delaware while that was going on. I must have been reading the new Harley Quinn comics … or something.

Anyway, I e-mailed him and he wrote back within an hour and agreed to meet up with me around 10 p.m. We exchanged cell phone numbers and when 10 p.m. hit, we arranged the QSO and frequency via text message. The irony of this fact is not lost on me. We made the contact on 80 meters, then moved to 30 meters because he needed SC on that band. I was happy to oblige, although conditions were rotten. I could still make out his call, so it went into the log.

Around that same time, Alan, KO7X, out of Wyoming, e-mailed me and said he was game for a QSO. I immediately replied and he responded with a QRG. We completed the QSO on 20 meters with some QSB, but decent reports both ways.

I then noticed Griz, KD4POJ, out of North Dakota, on the Sked Page. He was setting up his rig for RTTY and sent me a frequency on 20 meters to attempt the contact. He was a genuine 599 with a booming signal and we had a conversational but short QSO.

I closed the evening with a quickie QSO with Mark, K4ED, out of Virginia, just to get that state in the log again for insurance, since all my VA contacts thus far have not confirmed for unknown reasons.

The weirdest moment of the night? When my wife walked in while I was in QSO with KO7X to inform me that my keying was dimming the lights in the house. Now that’s some powerful code!

Chipping away…

One of the most helpless feelings in radio is knowing that stations are out there, on the air, that you’d like to contact, but you aren’t in front of a radio. That’s the sinking feeling I get when I’m at work, 20 minutes away from home, and I check the Sked Page and see rare states like North Dakota or Wyoming handing out signal reports.

That’s precisely what happened today. Wyoming hung in there for several hours but I just missed him as it was nearly 7 p.m. when I finally arrived home. I messaged both he and the gentleman from North Dakota and we’ve hopefully setup a scheduled contact for later this week.

Anyway, I managed to clear two more stations tonight: Arkansas on CW, and South Dakota on SSB.

W5JAY was managing a “pile-up” of DX stations who wanted him on the JT modes. I waited a time with patience and he got around to me and we had a textbook CW QSO on 17 meters.

While I was waiting, W0VD wanted to attempt a code QSO with me on 15M and 80M. It was a rough contact in both cases owing to QSB and strange propagation. We completed the 15M contact and while I could hear his 1000 watts of power on 80M, he couldn’t hear my meager 100.

I worked IK2WZM once again, this time on RTTY, then broke for dinner.

Coming back into the shack, I noticed K0JV was still on and he graciously agreed to give 20 meters a shot with me. I’ve tried QSOs with him several times over the past few days with no luck. Conditions weren’t much better tonight, but he copied me and we exchanged 33 signal reports. His signal seemed to come up to 35, while mine apparently went down. At any rate, it was enough to get in his log and we’ve already QSLed. That was a contact two years in the making!

I noticed W8LMG (West Virginia) and KG3BOZ (Maryland) on 40 meters and both were booming. I mentioned it on the K3UK board and they invited me into the QSO. We all logged each other and I called it a night.

With any luck I will be able to pick up Wyoming on CW and North Dakota on digital this week. That leaves some easy grabs on CW and one phone contact to complete the triple play. Delaware! Nebraska! Where are y’all hiding?

A productive weekend

A weekend of camping out on the K3UK Sked Page paid off with a handful of needed contacts, including a few unusual ones: Alaska on phone and Australia on CW, both on 10 meters. I found myself rapidly transitioning from band to band, mode to mode in an effort to answer QSO requests, and to pursue my own.

Sunday saw me working phone, RTTY, JT9 and CW all within a span of about an hour, from 10 meters to 40 meters. Here’s what I have left to track down to score the Triple Play:

Digital:

  • North Dakota

Phone:

  • Nebraska
  • South Dakota

CW: 

  • Arkansas
  • Delaware
  • Louisiana
  • Nebraska
  • Wyoming

I’ve been working with K0JV in South Dakota for the past 3-4 days trying to complete a QSO. We’ve come very close; I was able to hear him just fine one evening, but he couldn’t get a solid lock on me. The propagation just hasn’t been there, even during grayline hours.

Nebraska has me a little worried. It was one of the last states I needed for Worked All States (Basic) around this time last year. I don’t know why, but I just never hear Nebraska. It’s the only state I need two QSOs from to complete the challenge.

LOTW angst

As much as I enjoy advocating the Logbook of the World, I’m not going to deny it has some serious issues. Getting logs into the system has been a real pain the last few days, and I couldn’t even get logged in to check my totals for most of Sunday. I can see why so many new users get turned off by it.