If a tree falls on your antenna and no one notices, does it affect your ability to make QSOs?

Whelp, once again, a tree has fallen on the long leg of my dipole, and like the previous time, it didn’t have much of an effect on shack operations.

I jumped in the ARRL DX contest this weekend, mainly in an effort to snipe off some LOTW-capable stations to beef up my DXCC totals. Conditions on 20 meters Friday night were nauseating, with stations stacked on top of each other and voice keyers blazing at unintelligible speeds.

Maybe I’m turning into the stereotypical old guy, but some of these guys are talking (or using the voice keyer) at a speed that is just too fast for me. Add to that the regional accent, narrow filtering to knock out adjacent stations, compression, the hollow sound of single sideband, and whatever other setting the DX station is using to process their outgoing audio, and you’re left with a signal that is very hard to discern.

Stations moving at a slightly lower speed were infinitely more copyable (and enjoyable) to work. But I digress.

I had no issues completing QSOs from 10 meters to 80 meters Friday night and early Saturday. I happened to take a walk in the backyard Saturday afternoon and figured it would be a good time to check my dipole, since it seemed like the long leg of it was lower than it should have been. Walking back some 90 feet into the woods, I discovered a large tree had fallen and landed on the wire near the end of the dipole. It was basically on the ground. Since the tree was too large to move, I untied the dipole’s support and fed it under the tree so I could hang it back up. I discovered the weight of the tree had stretched the wire out by several feet.

Now, they didn’t pay me to say this, but Buckmaster makes a hell of a good antenna. This is the second time a tree has landed on my dipole and it hasn’t broken yet.

I don’t know how long the antenna had been in that condition, but strangely enough, I don’t think anything was affected by it. I have worked CW, RTTY and SSB within the last few months and I haven’t had any issues completing a QSO, whether locally or afar. At any rate, I’m glad to have it back in the clear.

I think I only logged 40+ QSOs in the ARRL DX contest with some very casual operating. I didn’t get any seat time on Sunday but I did manage to get out and walk in some welcome sunshine and 72-degree temperatures. Bring on the spring!

Time for #WATwitter 2014

I’ve been away from radio for so long that the concept of logging QSOs seems foreign. Ugh. How did I get to this point? Combination of things I imagine: Lack of time, other hobbies, lack of interest, that feeling that I’ve done everything I really set out to accomplish in the hobby (not true, there is a lot left to do).

In the past few months I have read 200+ comic books and got sucked into the new World of Warcraft expansion. I’ve taken lots of photos, been fooling with a new DSLR. Whatever. Point is, I haven’t had an HF QSO in a long time.

The long holiday weekend coming up should present a few nice opportunities to get back into the hobby. I always enjoy the “Worked All Twitter” effort scheduled around the Thanksgiving weekend. It’s really the only reason I use Twitter. You can read more about it over at Bionic Nerd’s blog, but the idea is to self-spot on Twitter or check for spots using the #WATwitter hashtag and attempt to make contact with those stations. It’s not a contest, just a fun clash of new and old social media.

Provided I can yank myself out of Azeroth, put down the Spider-Man books, and remember how to work my radio, I’ll hopefully log a few stations.

Not a lot happening in my shack

Wow, October flew by and now we’re into November. Consequently, the number of updates on the blog for the past month represents the exact number of times I’ve turned on my HF rig. No time spend on the air = No updates. About the only thing I’ve done is checked into the local net a few times, and did some 70 cm simplex with a friend. Nothing particularly advanced or interesting.

That’s not to say I haven’t been busy at least thinking about radio. Back in October I gave a presentation on software-defined radio at a very well-attended meeting of the Columbia Amateur Radio Club. I demoed the RTL-SDR dongle with SDR# software, and I brought my SoftRock Ensemble II RX for show and tell. I would have loved to provide a live demo, but we haven’t managed to run a feedline into our meeting facility yet. I did show a few videos I recorded of the SoftRock in use for SWLing, CW and SSB operation, and demonstrated how to monitor a 2-meter net with the RTL-SDR.

Overall, I think folks enjoyed the talk and several guys were inspired to purchase the RTL dongle for further experimentation.

In other news, I’ve been elected treasurer of our club for the third year, despite my best efforts to nominate others for the position, hehe.

There have been some interesting bits around the web lately, which I’m sure many readers have already seen:

  • A great article on Wilco’s “Yankee Hotel Foxtrot” album and its connection to shortwave over at The SWLing Post. It’s safe to say this album is one of the factors that interested me in ham radio, in particular, numbers stations. (Check out the album on Spotify) The SWLing post has been writing about music and shortwave this week, with previous articles about The Clash’s Joe Strummer, and Peter Gabriel.  Excellent web site.
  • KB6NU, who should be no stranger to any ham owing to his “No-Nonsense” study guides and excellent blog, has been working on an excellent series of articles titled the “CW Geek’s Guide to Having Fun with Morse Code.” Oh man, these are good: Learning the Code | Choosing a Key | Abbreviations | Q-Signals | Prosigns | CW Clubs. I’ve learned quite a bit from reading them and it’s safe to say his articles are better than the ARRL’s recent CW beginner book (Overpriced and underwhelming in scope. All the information it contained could have been found with a few Google searches and had scant information on actual operating).
  • I was sad to learn of the recent passing of Julian, G4ILO. I always enjoyed his blog and his expertise will certainly be missed in the community.
  • The Manfred Moon Memorial Mission (4M) wrapped up yesterday. The window to listen in on this probe was very small and I was obviously undergeared for the task (a high-gain directional antenna with azimuth and elevation adjustments was recommended), but apparently 29 amateur ops did report in. The probe transmitted messages on 145.980 MHz JT65B with 1 watt of RF power. Fascinating stuff!
  • Somehow I won the South Carolina section for the single-op, mixed mode, low power category of the 2013 IARU HF World Championship. I couldn’t remember participating, so when a certificate arrived in the mail a few weeks ago I figured someone made a mistake at the ARRL. Thanks to the magic of this blog, I went back and discovered I’d made 50 QSOs during that contest. That doesn’t sound like a lot of QSOs, but I suppose it was enough for the wallpaper. Even stranger, I completed those QSOs using the old FT-847, as I hadn’t ordered my K3 at that point.

I must make an effort to get back on the radio, particularly if the Worked All Twitter effort is back on for the Thanksgiving weekend. But first, I need to check to see if my dipole is still in the air after high winds last week wreaked havok on my neighborhood. At least half the dipole is still up, but the longer section that runs into the woods behind my home may have become a victim of falling limbs (this has happened before!).

Three years a ham

The VE session we hold in August is always kind of special to me, as it always marks my ham radio cake day. The team got together Saturday morning for breakfast at a painfully early 7 a.m., and we proceeded to our testing location to get things started by 9 a.m. We saw a handful of upgrades to Extra, a few new Generals and a smattering of new Techs. We had one individual completely bomb the Tech (an XYL, who was brought to tears with news she hadn’t passed), and a young man who couldn’t have been more than 10 or 11 missed passing the Tech exam by one question. His test was the final one I graded for the day, but since he was so close, enough of us agreed to stay and let him re-test. He passed with a nearly perfect score on the next go-round.

I typically take this session as a time to pause and reflect on what I’ve accomplished in the hobby. There isn’t that much to reflect on this year, but three things do stand out: Achieving the Worked All States Triple Play, operating as W1AW/4, and the recent VHF contest.

These are three very different experiences, but yet they represent the best of the best when it comes to this hobby. The Triple Play is a testament to tenacity, operating skill, patience and perseverance. Operating as W1AW/4 required every skill I have learned to this point. It tested my endurance, speed and ability to keep calm in a hectic situation. Also, it was an historic experience, and I probably won’t host pile-ups like that again for the rest of my life. The VHF contest was notable because it was something neither I nor my companions had done before, and we were successful. We owe that to the planning and determination of KN4QD. Above all, it was just fun and I had a good time hanging out on top of the mountain drinking Coke Zeros and gazing at antennas.

For sale

I’m determined to scale back a bit, so I’m looking to sell my Yaesu FT-847, desk mic and autotuner (plus a few extras). I just haven’t had a need for this one since installing the Elecraft. Contact me for details: kk4dsd@arrl.net.

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.

I survived the W1AW/4 experience (Day 1)

Taking the edge off with a cold 807.

Taking the edge off with a cold 807.

I was recently asked by a friend if I might be interested in operating as W1AW/4 for South Carolina’s second go-round for the ARRL Centennial. I agreed, figuring this was a small, historical honor and it was at least something different to do. So, I signed up for a few two-hour slots to work RTTY.

Tonight, as W1AW/4 kicked off at 8 p.m., I had everything ready to go, or so I thought. Right off the bat I wasn’t hearing any RTTY signals from my computer, yet my rig was keying and transmitting a squealing tone. After verifying that all my software was talking to the proper interface, I took a jab of desperation at the data mode button on the rig, and noticed my radio was set to FSK instead of AFSK.

OK, so I placed the rig in test mode and verified ALC and so forth and so on. Then started calling CQ. Nothing. No responses. No spots. I should be getting slammed with stations. Remember I said I put the rig in test mode? Well damned if I didn’t forget to take it out of test mode. Hah! I’d been calling CQ and sending no RF into the air.

Two CQs later and the pile-up began. I got spotted several times on the cluster, and with every spot a new wave of stations called. For the next two hours I answered station after station, running in split mode. In short, I was busy, and there was never a dull moment. Huh, so THIS is what it’s like to “be the DX station.”

I logged 114 QSOs during my time slot. Which is nearly as many as I logged during the entirety of Field Day. I don’t think I had any remarkable long distance stations, but I did snag Hawaii, Russia, Italy, Chile, Norway, Guadeloupe, Canada, Venezuela, Portugal, Sweden and a few more.

Hopefully I’ve worked out all my software/hardware gremlins so I can hit the ground running on 40 meters Wednesday night.

Saying goodbye to an old friend

Lab

The following post will not be happy, and will only barely relate to ham radio. If you have ever owned a dog, you may not want to read this post.

The illustration up top there is a stylish drawing of Sweet Pea, our 13-1/2-year-old lab-mutt. Sadly, we had to say goodbye to her on Friday.

Two years ago, the vets discovered a large tumor in her abdomen. We didn’t think she had much time left then, but her will was strong. It was like nothing was wrong with her. A few weeks ago, we noticed her breathing had become very labored and she wasn’t as active as usual. She didn’t want to get up and eat, and it seemed like her arthritis was troubling her more than usual. A lot of that was just her age, but the most recent diagnosis showed congestive heart failure. The vet prescribed a host of medications and we hoped for the best.

In the past weeks she virtually stopped eating. She was never an overweight dog, but by now she was shockingly thin. My wife tried several different brands of dog food, and eventually resorted to cooking her chicken breasts, which she seemed to enjoy. Thursday night, Sweet Pea wouldn’t even eat those. By Friday morning we knew it was time to say goodbye.

Funny thing about the situation was that Sweet Pea got excited when we hooked up the leash to her collar. She always enjoyed riding in the car. Yet she was so weak, my wife had to pick her up to place her in the back seat. I’m trying not to be haunted by the final look she had on her face as I watched her through the car window. She seemed very happy. I couldn’t help but think we were making the wrong choice — a feeling that I feel certain every dog lover has had when faced with this choice.

So ham radio… If you have ever received one of my QSL cards, you have one of the greatest artistic tributes to Sweet Pea. I am so happy that I commissioned Jeff, K1NSS, last year to create my QSL card artwork. I chose him especially for his ability to draw dogs with great humanity and reverence and he didn’t disappoint. The sketch up top was a bonus drawing he included.

Sweet Pea will not only live on in our memory, but in Jeff’s art, and emblazoned on the QSL cards I have sent out and will continue to send. We should all be so lucky!

A transition, a sprint, and a plan

Windows 7 running on my 21-inch iMac. Lots of real-estate on the screen for all of N1MM's windows.

Windows 7 running on my 21-inch iMac. Lots of real-estate on the screen for all of N1MM’s windows.

Things are looking a little different in the ham shack these days, as I’ve fully completed the transition over to using my iMac as a shack computer.

I’ve been using a Lenovo laptop for the last few years as the main shack computer, and not that it wasn’t up to the task, but the larger, 21-inch iMac screen is vastly superior to the laptop. Consequently, I’m running a fresh install of Windows 7, dual-booting the machine with Apple’s Bootcamp, and it’s working quite well. Windows 7 runs extremely fast on here, maybe faster than OS X on the other partition, but to be fair, this is a clean install on Win7, with very few programs, just the basics to get the rig up and running.

N1MM is much nicer with the larger screen size, particularly for digital contesting when I have FLDigi or MMTTY, plus the digital interface window up. I had no issues installing the SignaLink, my USB-to-serial interface, or the Winkeyer USB. I just plugged them in and they all worked right out of the box. You can’t ask for any more than that.

I’ve also decided to “pull off the band-aid” and use the DXLab suite for logging. I’ve long been a fan of Ham Radio Deluxe (the free version), but the slowness of entering QSOs in the log has made it practically unusable on my laptop. Also, it has started entering the wrong dates for QSOs. I don’t know if I’m completely sold on DXLabs yet, but it’s very powerful stuff, and I just need some seat-time to understand it. It’s not as “pretty” as HRD, but being pretty doesn’t help me if it takes a minute or longer to save a QSO.

This afternoon I managed to get my certificates for LOTW installed and sent up some Qs from DXLabs. Everything seems to be FB so far. Installed WSJT-X last night also and tested the system at 10 watts via a quick QSO with a Bulgarian station.

The laptop is off the desk, and ready for travel, and I’m enjoying more desk space, and a larger screen that’s easier on the eyes.

The Firecracker Sprint

I put the new operating position to good use Saturday night, as I participated in the PODXS 070 Club’s 40m Firecracker Sprint. I stumbled across this contest by accident last year and had so much fun, that I cleared my schedule for Saturday night and took another run at it, hoping I’d be at an advantage with the K3 and a year of experience.

I think participation was perhaps, a little down this year, as my QSO count was virtually the same as last year. I cleared 60 stations, 59 of which were contest participants. I only grabbed two DX stations, Canada and Mexico. The K3 and N1MM performed well and the 40m segment of PSK31 was remarkably well-behaved, with only a few stations over-driving their audio.

I ran 50 watts the entire time and pieced together a few nice runs. I relied on FLDigi’s signal browser to keep an eye across the band, and by midnight I’d worked every station I could copy. In the end I finished with 28 states worked, Mexico, and two Canadian provinces. I worked as far west as Washington and as far north as Vermont.

I’m currently sitting in 6th place, but scores are still being uploaded. I would be happy with a top 10 finish.

Upcoming VHF contest

If plans hold up, I will be operating during the CQ WW VHF Contest with my pal KN4QD. We’re looking to put a portable operation together on some high terrain. I’m leaving most everything up to the veteran contester, and I’m along to help setup, document with photos, and perhaps operate some SSB.

We’re going to borrow a mast and an amp, and we’ll bring along my 6m moxon and a 5-element 2m beam. If nothing else it will be an adventure. It’s stuff like this that really gets me excited about ham radio.

A weekend immersed in radio

cpo_11

Code practice oscillator designed by Bill, W4FSV, of Breadboard Radio.

I didn’t do a lot of operating or DXing, but ham radio was infused in just about every aspect of my weekend, from finishing the SoftRock to the local 2-meter net.

  • Saturday, I used a UHF repeater for the first time ever. Well, it was the first time I talked to anyone on one at least. I’ve always had them programmed into my radios, but they are very rarely used in this area. And that’s a shame.
  • Built a code practice oscillator as part of a workshop our club was supporting. I didn’t really need one, and I’ve had my fill of kit-building for a while, but the oscillator was fun and relaxing to construct. It was designed by Bill, W4FSV, of Breadboard Radio. I’m lacquering the base for it now, and it should be a nice companion to my straight key, which is finished in a similar stain/lacquer. More than likely, I will donate it to the club for outreach purposes, such as the upcoming Mini Maker Faire.
  • Had my very first QSOs on the 2-meter simplex calling frequency of 146.520. This is another one that I always program into my radios, but never hear anyone using it. I was driving to Orangeburg County Saturday after the workshop, and I heard a motorist on I-26 calling for stations. Had a nice QSO too, lasting some 20+ miles. Being able to burn 50 watts on the mobile is really nice.
  • Further refined my SoftRock and did some SDR software comparisons. I’m enjoying SDR# the most, with HDSDR in a close second. I also discovered the SoftRock does not like being powered from my Astron switching power supply. I’m running from a 12V SLA battery now, and it’s working fine. The benefit of the battery is that I don’t have that ground loop spike in the center of my waterfall. Also, the enclosure for the SoftRock arrived.