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.

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