Coax dead, HF down…

I was looking forward to chasing down the 13 Colonies again this year. I managed a sweep in 2015 and never sent off the QSL card, so I hoped to remedy that this year. It was late by the time I made it into the shack, I turned on the rig and tuned around. There were no signals to be found anyway. The panadapter showed no activity. The bands were utterly silent. Even for this low point in the solar cycle, that seemed unusual.

I unscrewed the coax from the back of the radio and jiggled it around a bit. That seemed to help and suddenly the bands were loud and I could hear some faint signals. So the coax jumper has gone bad. I’ll replace it. A few moments later, I had the same problem: very low noise and no activity on the bands.

At this point I figured maybe the antenna port on the back of the K3 was bad. I switched to the second port and had the same poor result. Time to hook up another radio. I connected the FT-817 and nothing, zip, zilch. Again, unscrewing the connector and jiggling it a bit seemed to help. At this point I realized I was simply shorting the coax and the cable itself was functioning as a rudimentary antenna. There must be a problem either in my dipole or the 150-foot run of coax leading to it.

At it was nearly 10 p.m. by now, there was very little I could do, so I turned everything off.

Saturday morning. I took the 817 outside, unplugged the external feed line from the window jumper and connected it to the 817. No signals. In inspecting the outdoor coax, I found several patches where the outer jacket of the RG8X had been chipped (chewed?) away and the braided shield was exposed and damaged. This could have certainly allowed water in. As I removed the coax, I came to a corner where it was really beat up and nearly severed in half. Even if the water didn’t get in there, the damage in this particular spot was enough to wreck the whole system.

I lowered the dipole, disconnected the RG8X and tossed it in the trash.

So now I had a long holiday weekend and no antenna… but wait, I DO own a Buddistick. That will have to do.

Saturday afternoon I deployed it on a mast in my front yard and ran a 50-foot run of coax back to the shack. I was able to tune it using the FT-817, to a fairly lower SWR in the voice portion of 40 meters.

Ugh, the noise! I had no luck on SSB so I switched to CW and despite a high SWR in the CW portion of 40, the K3’s tuner provided a match. (I should have gone out and re-tuned, but good lord it was hot outside Saturday…) I turned my power back a bit and let ‘er rip. I managed to get every 13 Colonies station I could hear in the log and also grabbed some on 20 meters later for good measure.

I worked a few more Sunday, including one of the bonus stations, WM3PEN on CW. In total I only managed 7 of the 13, three of those were SSB and the other four were CW. Pretty pathetic, but I did what I could with the vertical. I didn’t manage to get my own state, South Carolina, or our neighbor Georgia.

I did snag:

  • Maryland
  • Delaware
  • New York (CW, two bands)
  • New Jersey (two modes)
  • Pennsylvania

Talk about coming up short.

Anyway, this is a good time for me to change my setup at home a bit. I’ve wanted a different antenna for some time now, even though the OCF dipole was doing a great job and it probably is the best antenna for my situation. My wife has told me I can “put anything on the roof” that I want, so I’m considering a hex beam, HOA be damned. That will be several months down the road though.

Looks like only temporary antennas for the time being.

Hands-on with the new Elecraft KX2

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This lucky guy scored a KX2 in Dayton.

I had a chance to play around with the Elecraft KX2 on Saturday. While I wasn’t able to do a thorough test, I was certainly able to form some impressions of this little radio.

I know some of the guys in the Dutch Fork Amateur Radio Group (our clubs have been collaborating more in recent months), and one of them, knowing I have a K3, invited me to an unveiling of the KX2. After meeting with a group of members for lunch Saturday we made our way over to the DFARG club shack in Little Mountain and all gathered round while one of their members conducted a show-and-tell of Elecraft’s newest offering.

According to the member who owns the radio, he was second in line to purchase it at Dayton the previous week, and attributed his luck obtaining the radio by having a vendor pass that allowed him to get into Hara Arena earlier than most attendees.

The first impression, not surprisingly, concerns the size. We’ve seen the images and read the specs, but it certainly does seems smaller in person. Even with the “handles” this particular owner had already installed on the sides, it’s still a small rig. Saw an FT-817 in half longways and you’ll approximate the size and thickness of the radio. It’s also very light, maybe slightly heavier than my Tytera DMR handheld.

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One of the DFARG members holds the KX2 as we all swoon at the small size.

We placed it next to a KX3 and indeed the KX3 feels quite a bit larger in comparison to the KX2. Interestingly, both radios share the same screen size and display cues, which is also the same display as the full-size K3. The advantages of the display are obvious, particularly when compared to an FT-817, which has a display about the size of a 42mm Apple Watch.

The information layout is the same as its older siblings, and anyone familiar with operating Elecraft gear will be able to pick up the KX2 and get on the air quickly. I still had to poke around a bit to find some of the more esoteric functions, but options such as power output, filter width, mode/band, were right where you’d expect them to be.

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The KX3, top, and the KX2 side-by-side. Apologies for the glare!

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The KX2 is dwarfed by the full-sized K3, but note the screen sizes are exactly the same.

I only managed to test the rig in single side band mode because we didn’t have a code key handy. In the confusion I didn’t try tuning around to listen to CW, but I have no doubt CW operation is a pleasure because SSB was excellent.

Edit: I have since played with this rig again and did manage to listen to some CW. It sounds EXCELLENT through the built-in speaker and the CW decoder is no doubt the same firmware used in the K3/KX3, so it functions quite well also. It’s quiet with the 500 hz filter in line, and receiving code is nice and punchy.

Members commented on how good the tiny bottom-mounted speaker sounded and it sounded good to my ear as well, even though I did hear some crackle and buzz. Another member mentioned it was an improvement over the KX3’s sound. I’d probably still want a good set of cans if I were using it, but for casual operating, particularly in a quiet room, it would be fine without.

The receiver seems sufficiently hot. We tuned around on 20 meters on the club’s tri-band beam and there seemed to be a lack of stations Saturday, but we did roll up on KX5AR conducting an NPOTA activation and scored a QSO on the first shot, having no issues conversing with the operator on our 10 watts of power. I managed to record the QSO in the below video.

The small size makes this a neat little radio for digital modes and it would tuck away nicely under a monitor on a desk or alongside a tablet or laptop for portable use. If I wanted to dramatically scale down my shack, I’d still select the KX3 and an amp, just for 6 meters and the additional control surface.

That does bring me to the one thing I didn’t really like about the rig, and that was the cheap-feeling VFO dial and secondary knobs. This isn’t an issue limited to the KX2, as even the K3 has some cheap knobs (the VFO B knob comes to mind…). Of course, this does save weight, but the rotation of the main VFO didn’t “feel” like that of a $700-1000 radio, if I’m being honest. Even the FT-817 has a smoother action. But again, considering functionality over aesthetics, I can live with the “plastic fantastic” knobs knowing the receiver is good.

Much has been made of this being a “handheld” rig, and I’d say that’s true. We didn’t test the internal microphone. The design is the typical Elecraft style: That of a utilitarian black box, and as such, it’s not particularly ergonomic. It’s larger than most modern handhelds, but yes, it can easily be used in this fashion if that’s what you’re into!

There isn’t really much else I can say. It’s an Elecraft, and a worthy offspring of the venerable K3. It just works very well and portable ops will love it. It functions just as you’d expect an Elecraft rig to, and maybe that’s the highest praise it can be given.

Speaking of portability, one of DFARG’s operators has figured out an easy way to mount a KX2 or a KX3 on a car dash. We’re calling this the “W1TEF solution” and it uses a $28 clamshell style GPS holder from ChargerCity. See the photos of this in action below.

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I’m not sure the KX2 is going to replace my FT-817 at this point, as I don’t do enough portable operation to make it worth the while. But there’s no doubt Elecraft has made an intriguing little radio at an attractive price-point.

 

 

My mobile antenna is cursed

Well, the mobile antenna is currently not attached to my car. It’s not really my fault. It never is.

When I first installed the thing we had a hail storm that same evening and I had to take it back down while my car was at the body shop for the next week getting a hundred dings ironed out.

I managed to keep the antenna on a few more months, and then my electric-blue Focus was rear-ended in rush hour traffic.  The mobile antenna survived the crash, but it had to come down while the body shop replaced the rear hatch and bumper.

That brings me to the present. I took my car to a new local Ford dealer for routine maintenance Saturday (which happens to be just across the road from my local Scottish Rite Center, of which I am a member). The employees were nice, the waiting room was modern and spacious, and the service was fast.

I was about to climb into the car to drive off when I noticed my Diamond 2m/440 5/8ths-wave mast was gone. What remained of the mount was dangling off the skinny coax, although the bit that clamps onto the lip was still holding fast. They’d run the car through the automated wash and the brushes evidently just ripped the antenna off.

I located the gentleman who checked my car in. I explained what had happened, so he and a mechanic walked back to the car wash and returned a few moments later with the antenna, slightly bent and no doubt the threads on the mount are likely warped. The dealership told me to simply bring a print-out of a price list for the damaged items, or a receipt, and they would compensate me for the mishap. At least there’s that.

In other news, I am on DMR now, and loving it!

I’ve been using a Tytera handheld with the “stubby” antenna and it’s been getting out very well. It also helps that we have a large tower in my part of town. I can keep my handheld on the “Columbia East” zone and access everything I need, from the PRN, the local TG, the two “chat” groups, and the national TAC groups. A lot of the magic is in the programming file, or “code plug” that one of the local guys here developed.

While the DMR scene here isn’t bursting with activity yet, I can generally raise some folks I know if I toss my call out. We practically had a “net” going Friday afternoon when I was driving home and tossed my call out and a half dozen people responded. It will be interesting to see where this goes!

 

DMR is getting big around here

roger_mull-1024x776I remember seeing some of the first DMR handhelds appear around here about 2 years ago, and I wasn’t really impressed. The audio quality sounded great, but to me it was another infrastructure-heavy type of system that fell somewhere between a repeater on steroids, D-Star and a VOIP system like Echolink.

Apparently here in Columbia, a proof of concept of the system was installed in late 2013 at Little Mountain, and it’s really taken off locally. The large statewide SCHEART network obtained some funding, and the DMR network is now in its second (possibly third?) phase here in the state, with new machines and talk groups being added frequently. I recently participated in a statewide emergency exercise  as a member of Auxcomm, and I noticed DMR radios were in heavy use at the state EOC. Also, every time I get around a group of hams, the subject of DMR comes up. So I thought maybe it was time to learn more.

In an effort to demystify the mode a bit, I asked a local emcomm expert to present a program on DMR at our April club meeting. We had record attendance at the meeting, with many operators I’ve never met coming out of the woodwork to attend. There were no shortage of questions either. For the better part of an hour, we inspected actual DMR hardware (two repeaters, numerous handhelds), viewed real-time DMR traffic on the web, learned about the networked talk groups, time division systems, and a local “bridge” that connects DMR with D-Star and other proprietary systems.

At at the end of the day, the presentation helped me understand the mode and I actually wanted to give it a shot. I don’t currently own a DMR radio, but I suppose I’m in the market — in particular, the Tytera handhelds seems very popular here, and one can be had for a reasonable $140 or less on Amazon. Programming is obviously important, and the folks at SCHEART release new “code plugs” frequently as the network expands.

First steps:

  • Before purchasing a DMR rig, register your callsign at DMR-MARC. This is the “master listing” of DMR users to prevent ID/callsign conflicts. You can’t really use your radio until you have an ID.
  • Get a radio. The Tytera 380 is popular here, and cheap. Offerings from Connect Systems and of course, Motorola are also popular, with the latter being many more times expensive.
  • Get some code plugs. NCPRN.net and SCHEART.us have the most recent files. These are programming files that contain info about the repeaters on the system.
  • Use the radio: Select the proper zone for your area and choose a talk group. It’s helpful to understand the architecture of the network, and know exactly what’s happening in the background too. For example, if you key up on the entire “PRN” network, you are simultaneously bringing more than 40 repeaters across the eastern US online. You probably don’t want to use PRN for ragchew, so you should move your QSO to a more localized “chat” frequency.

Download the presentation

First NPOTA activation; creeping towards DXCC

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Very possibly the dorkiest photo of me ever taken, but it does prove I was there…

Last Thursday I checked off my first activation for National Parks on the Air, operating from AA-10, the Revolutionary War Park in Camden, S.C.

Since I don’t have a mobile unit, I caught a ride with my good friend Ronnie, W4RWL, and he graciously allowed me to use his Kenwood 480. I started CQing on 20 meters and snagged a dozen or so stations out west, but band conditions weren’t great. Once 20m dried up, we moved to 40m and called again. The bands didn’t seem to be much better there, but I ended the effort with 52 QSOs in the log.

I probably would have kept going had we not been interrupted by a pair of guys who parked alongside of us, and seeing the large screwdriver antenna on Ronnie’s truck, wanted to see what we were doing. Turns out they were hams from the upstate and were familiar with NPOTA. By the time we finished talking with them, I’d lost the frequency. Eyeball QRM I reckon?

By the time I made it back home a half hour later, I already had an e-mail waiting for me from a ham in Florida, who mentioned that I couldn’t pick him up, and questioned whether we had the attenuator switched on.

Now, I’ve been known to make stupid radio mistakes before (like the time I had the K3 in test mode and CQed on RTTY for a half hour on field day and wondered why no one was responding…), but we definitely weren’t running with an ATT on, and in fact, we had the pre-amp in-line. Hehe, I was tempted to ask him if he was sure his rig wasn’t in low power mode, or if his antenna was tuned properly, but I politely apologized and told him I’d be hitting AA-10 again soon and would send him an e-mail.

He soon responded, saying he worked N4TAL at AA-10 a few weeks back and never received an LoTW confirmation. I had to laugh: N4TAL is my friend Ronnie’s XYL and she literally JUST set up her Logbook account.

I immediately uploaded my logs from AA-10 (Yes guys, I DID properly set the park location, and no, I don’t need any help setting that up…), and instantly confirmed nearly half the QSOs. People are really into NPOTA!

DXCC creep

5j0pI’ve worked well over a 100 DX entities at this point, in fact, I remember when I hit 100 — a CW contact with an operator in the Balearic Islands — but I’m trying to get DXCC using only Logbook of the World confirmations. I sat at 87 confirmed for a really long time. That number slowly crept to 90 as confirmations from very old contacts appeared and my K1N contacts also finally confirmed.

I decided to jump in the fray for an hour or so during the SSB DX contest a few weekends ago and I tacked on a few new ones, including Jamaica (how have I never worked this before?), and Cape Verde. So I’m up to 91 92 confirmations now (Cape Verde just QSLed, w00t!) and keeping a close eye on the cluster for the rare ones (who may also be LoTW users). In fact, I had a nice grab last week on 17 meter CW, 5J0P, from San Andres and Providencia.

 

Look what I found…

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I was at the Charleston Hamfest Saturday and found an old friend: My first ham radio, the FT-847, with my old desk mic and auto-tuner, was for sale at one of the tables there.

I sold this setup back last year. One of guys there, knowing I once owned an FT-847 pointed it out. I took a look at it and thought, “hey this is a good-looking 847” … then I looked closer and started seeing some familiar marks along the top. Then I spotted the LDG YT-847 tuner on the right, and the MD-100 mic. Yep, this was my old station.

I noticed the price they were asking was a good bit higher than I sold it for. Of course, at the end of the day, I saw the seller boxing it back up and carting it off without a sale.

Small world!

What a difference a year makes, Winter Field Day is better than ever

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290 QSOs, 40 states, plus Canada and Puerto Rico contacted, several DX entities. Winter Field Day’s 2016 effort was the best ever for our club, and most of us only operated for about five hours.

After last year’s Winter Field Day disaster, I figured our club wouldn’t even bother participating in 2016. We had a miserable performance, logging less than 60 QSOs, operating from permanent stations at a local EOC. After the event ended, we couldn’t even submit our score because the folks at SPAR had apparently disappeared, or just didn’t care.

I wrote a particularly scathing rant here on the blog about it. Other operators across the country were equally annoyed, and they decided to do something about it. The Winter Field Day Association was formed by an eager group, and they immediately began getting word out for the 2016 event using forums and social media.

The effort worked. We operated four stations on battery/generated power from a horse farm in Kershaw County. I worked from our trailer station, where we cleared more than 100 QSOs in several hours. I can only recall one instance in which we had to explain what Winter Field Day was all about. Nearly every caller knew the proper exchange, which has been simplified since the association took over the event. It was like operating during a lighter version of Summer Field Day.

As for our club’s attendance, we counted some 23+ club members and interested amateurs. Keep in mind, we held our event almost an hour away from the city of Columbia proper, so folks had to travel a considerable distance just to get to the site. The nice turnout may have also had something to do with the beautiful clear weather and high 60s temperatures.

The folks at WFDA should be proud of themselves for keeping Winter Field Day alive. I’ll be interested to see how many logs get submitted this year.

Photos from our club’s event can be found on our website.

First NPOTA station in the log

The National Parks on the Air initiative has been a non-starter for me for the past few weeks. Several of our club members have been activating two of the local NPOTA units and having a blast. I do intend to activate them myself at some point, but not having an HF mobile unit, I’m going to need to partner up with some other folks, and we just haven’t organized the effort yet.

I’ve been coming home from work the past few weeks and attempting to work some NPOTA stations as a chaser. I’m guessing a lot of these guys are operating QRP, or with some sort of compromised antenna, as I haven’t been successful in even hearing the activators — at least not well enough to manage a QSO.

I was at the radio this afternoon and noticed Sean, KX9X/1 on the cluster, operating from WR16 in Connecticut (Farmington National Wild and Scenic River National Wild and Scenic River). I tuned over and he had a very readable 55-56 signal. Naturally, there was a pile-up. After a few attempts I managed to get heard. I made the QSO just in the nick of time too, because KX9X QSYed not long after.

As I logged the contact, I realized there was something familiar about Sean’s callsign. Of course: KX9X is Sean Kutzko, who I’ve heard on the ham radio podcast, 100 Watts and a Wire. Sean is also the ARRL Media and Public Relations Manager, which I should have remembered, being that I’m the PIO for our club!

I tried to work a few more NPOTA stations on the cluster, but again, I couldn’t hear them. I really need a beam antenna! Nonetheless, it was nice to finally get on the NPOTA scoreboard.

Extended duties = less time on radio

The first full week of the new year is already off to an interesting start. Monday, I conducted the first 2016 meeting of the Columbia Amateur Radio Club as the newly-elected president, and to be honest, I had a blast.

We dispensed with old and new business efficiently and got right into the program, which was a timely presentation on National Parks on the Air which segued into a quick update on the South Carolina QSO Party (we’re shooting for a “Carolinas Weekend” in February), and I closed the presentations with details on our Winter Field Day effort.

I started transitioning into my new role as the club’s president back in November, literally the day after I was elected. Since then, I’ve met with the club’s emergency trailer committee (we’ve since deployed the trailer several times to workout kinks and hope to use it in full capacity for Winter Field Day). I’ve met individually with our VP, and trained the incoming treasurer, and managed to get him on the bank account before the new year started. By comparison, when I was treasurer, it was more than a year before I was able to even sign a check.

I’ve tried to be as transparent as possible with our board. I’ve been using Evernote to share out agendas and other club paperwork, I’ve been looping in the entire board on e-mail discussions, asking for opinions and feedback, passing around forms to get an idea what kinds of topics our membership would like, and I’ve assigned work to our directors. I brought in a new net manager, and he’s taken it upon himself to experiment with the tired net script and bring some new life into the proceedings.

We’ve already had a contentious board meeting that had its share of disagreement and anger, but I think we’re better for it. There are likely to be more disagreements, as we have some strong personalities on our board. That’s a good thing.

One thing I wanted to focus on this year included a commitment to helping bring more of our members to HF. I think we’re going to make that happen as we bring the club’s trailer into the field for some operating days. I also want to focus on making the monthly presentations great again, and bringing some real value to our workshops and education sessions.

I also have to be mindful of our club’s public service commitments, which are numerous. To that end, we’ve created a special committee to exclusively handle event planning. Next on the list will be an examination of how we select events to work. There is at least one event we support that is neither charitable, or connected to any sort of awareness campaign. I don’t personally believe in asking our members to support events unless they have a public component, else our volunteers are little more than free laborers.

So, in short our club is busy. And that makes ME busy by virtue of the new responsibilities I’ve assumed. That leaves me less time for radio on my own, but maybe I can help some new guys learn the ropes.

I do hope to work some NPOTA stations and my SOTA buddy (and club VP), Steve, is already making plans for us to activate a nearby national park. I can’t wait!