Two all-time new ones!

I was looking back on my Logbook of the World account the other night and lamenting the fact that I’ve been stuck at 93 confirmed DXCC entities for at least a few years now. As I’ve posted here before, I’ve contacted more than 100 countries, but I really want to complete the award using LOTW confirms only.

So I thought it was time for some targeted DXing. Scour the clusters, find the obscure countries, determine if they are on LOTW, and if so, try to work them. As I am still down an antenna here, I met up with friends Saturday morning over at the Little Mountain shack to use the tri-bander.

GP0STH, Guernsey Island

Right off the bat we snagged GP0STH, Guernsey Island, on 20m phone. There were a few other interesting prospects on the dial. Vatican City was booming but working a pile 5-10 up. The operator isn’t an LOTW user, but we gave it a shot anyway to no success.

A code operator from Ghana was also operating a split pile-up but an inability to get heard, plus massive QSB made that attempt a failure as well.

Fortunately,  a DXpedition in Niger had a great pair of ears. 5U5R was operating split on 15-meter CW. I jumped in and he got me after about 5 minutes of trying. I felt like it may have been an ESP QSO, so I was encouraged when I checked his online log this morning and found a confirmation for my callsign!

So that’s a few new ones in the book and hopefully they will result in LOTW confirmations. If so, I’m five away from the wallpaper!

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The long dry spell is over

scqso-dfarg-11

The beam at Dutch Fork works wonders with 5 watts!

Wow. I just realized I haven’t posted in early July. That’s quite a dry spell, and so much has changed since then:

  • I am no longer president of the Columbia Amateur Radio Club, as my year term expired, and I didn’t opt for a second.
  • I am no longer employed with the school I’d worked at for the past six years.
  • I haven’t done any meaningful ham radio in ages.

Well, one thing hasn’t changed, and that is that I STILL don’t have an antenna up here at home. When the system failed back last July, I kept putting off the installation of a new antenna and coax owing to the brutal southern heat. As we transitioned into fall and winter, there were other priorities. My rig has gone unused for quite a while.

It’s hard to say what happened. My interests tend to swing wildly. Being president of the radio club was something akin to “seeing how the sausage was made” and I found myself planning meetings, developing agendas, building programs, and a dozen other things that basically shifted my radio interest from operating to administration.

Then there were other hobbies: Astrophotography, my vintage bulletin board system, learning Python, horology, picking up the guitar again, scriptwriting, and hell, metal detecting. While I wasn’t on the radio, I took beautiful images of the night sky, my BBS grew exponentially, I started coding an adventure game in Python, I collaborated on two feature-length screenplays, expanded my watch collection and met some interesting relic hunters. It’s been a busy year!

I’m still involved in public information with the club, and I am still grinding out the monthly newsletter, but I have enjoyed being just another “bum on the bus” at recent gatherings.

But I’m ready to get back to the radio. Saturday I met with “The Steves” — KI4VGA and W4SJD, at the local Waffle House for breakfast, after which, we headed over to the Dutch Fork Amateur Radio Group’s shack in Little Mountain.

I kept it simple: Yaesu FT-817. However, I was able to plug into the 20m beam located some 70-80 feet up a tower. Even 5 watts does wonders on a beam like that. I never even considered needing more power as I operated PSK31. I was simply testing my station when I sent a CQ out and someone immediately responded off the backside of the beam. We aimed towards the EU and I called CQ, working England, several Italian stations, and a Canadian.

Just for fun we clicked over to SSB and I one-shotted the first station I heard, a gentleman who was operating for the Vermont QSO Party. All three of us worked him in succession at 5 watts SSB. Further up the dial, I located a Minnesota QSO Party station and we repeated the process.

We also logged some QSOs with Switzerland. The only thing we never managed was breaking a pile-up into Portugal. Even so, it was a great little outing and not bad at all for an hour and a half. Once I arrived home I logged the QSOs and I already have some confirmations on LOTW.

I hope to get rolling at home again soon. I’m currently investigating the possibility of putting a small Mosley beam on the roof. I even have the wife’s permission!

Small steps.

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.

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.

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.

Really enjoying the brevity of CW

I’ve been hanging around the Sked Page enough lately to see some regulars from time to time, and I’ve even made a few e-mail pals in helping a few folks get their SC QSOs. I typically hang around the Logbook of the World section unless I’m checking into the NATA net.

When I first started using the Sked Page, I mainly tried to stick to digital mode QSOs, specifically, I would hang around the JT frequencies because that seemed to be the mode of choice: QSOs take place without much human interaction (macros), and lower levels of power and compromised antenna situations still yield decent results.

But lately, I’ve tried to avoid the JT modes in favor of CW. First of all, the contacts are a hell of a lot more direct and take less time. It’s far easier to say “meet me at 7.043 CW” then actually go and pound out a quick QSO at that exact frequency. “UR 5NN IN SC DE KK4DSD 73” and it’s done.

Occasionally, I even get in a nice “rubber-stamp” QSO, as I did a few nights ago when K9AAN assisted me in grabbing Kentucky on 40 meters.

I’ve found CW to be extremely reliable too. Only weird late-night efforts on the daylight bands (such as 12 meters), have been problematic. I rarely need to run at the full 100 watts

The JT modes are straightforward enough, but the direction is always something like “I’m at 14.078.5, calling odd, -500” … then by the time I tune over, lower my rig power, adjust my drive and receive audio, sync my clock, wait 1-2 minutes for an even/odd cycle, check the location of the specified offset, navigate/filter around the lids running too much power/ALC splatter, etc. then not even hear the guy I’m trying to communicate with for whatever reason, I can’t help but feel like a CW contact would have been “one and done.”

Of course, if your goal is to complete a digital mode QSO (And yes, I still need North Dakota…) then JT modes are still a nice way to accomplish it, particularly if the less-used and technically superior JT9 mode is used (less bandwidth, more sensitivity, same method as JT65, minus the “ice cream truck of the apocalypse” tones).

Be careful what you ask for…

I ventured over to the SKCC board on the Sked Page last night. I forgot so many guys hang out there, and all of them are CW ops. I joined SKCC last year and haven’t really done a lot with it, outside a few random contacts and a sprint.

To make a long story short, there were several states I needed, so I posted a public message to one of them, and stated the specific frequency I was monitoring on 40 meters.

I first grabbed N5OBC out of Oklahoma with considerable difficulty, as his signal was very light. I was about to shut down the rig when another station, W1UL, called me using considerable power. I made out his call and noticed he was hanging out on the SKCC board. I completed that QSO. Then another station called me! It took me a few tries, but I got N4OW’s call nailed down and in the log. After issuing my final SK, yet ANOTHER station called me; KB1UOH was running /QRP and I had to send bits of his call with some ??s before I could eventually make it out. His signal was clear enough, but my brain wasn’t cooperating. I got him in the log though, just before waves of QSB made conditions difficult.

About that time my pal Gary, N5PHT out of Texas, started pinging me with private messages on the Sked Page wanting to try a 30m QSO. That was a good enough excuse to get off 40 meters, as my mini “pile-up” had left me somewhat unhinged. I ended up completing the QSO with Gary and breathed a sigh of relief then headed to dinner.

All in all, an exciting evening, made nicer by the fact that all the guys were patient and gentlemanly — plus, I got some crucial practice and added a few new ones to the log, bringing me only 14 QSOs away from my WAS Triple Play goal.

A couple nibbles, but I never landed the big fish

The 20 meter band has been amazing the last few days!

Examples:

  • Saturday night/early Sunday, I finally heard a New Zealand station; also heard a station out of Hungary calling CQDX and reeling in multiple Australian stations.
  • Sunday night, I clearly heard 7O6T, the Yemen DXpedition, working split. He was LOUD on 14.145, where gray-line propagation was working its magic. I tuned up to his listening frequency, 14.242, went to split mode and threw out my call dozens of times. No response after 45 minutes.
  • Heard 6O0CW, out of Somalia, working split, big pile-up. Didn’t atttempt a call because he was barely audible above the background noise, but I copied him 53-54 perhaps.
  • I added a new country to my log, Armenia, with a brief QSO with EK6TA. I’ve been waiting to work an Armenian station, as I’ve come to appreciate that country’s spirit through the tireless studies of several exceptional Armenian students where I work and occasionally teach.
  • Worked another European Russian station, R7DX. Great callsign!
  • Added another Bulgarian country to the log, LZ2KV.
  • Heard a station near Tel Aviv, Israel, 4Z4UR. I didn’t have enough juice to work him.
  • And a disappointing attempt: SV8/DL8MCA, Greece, Skiathos Island. What a nice signal! I wasn’t heard, many stations calling as they say. I thought for sure the radio waves would bend my way for that one.
  • I heard a few nice stations tonight also: Lithuania and Denmark

I’m thinking about cancelling my KX3 order now that the FT-817 appears to be back in stock here in the states. I really need a portable radio before the summer slips away, preferably for Field Day. And I could buy two 817s for the price of the KX3 … But I’m trying to be patient! It’s so tempting though, to know I could place an order tomorrow and in several days have a new portable rig to take with me on my Florida trip next week.

I may take the edge off the wait by putting a 2M mobile rig in my car.While working sweep on one of the rides at the Tour de Midlands over the weekend, I had a moment where I was trying to relay crucial information back to the control station and my signal dropped out several times. I was only running my 5-watt handheld into a mag-mount antenna … there is just so much that can go wrong with that setup: exhausted batteries, not enough power to get over the hills out where we were, awkward setup in my car, small display, etc.

But as my Ford Focus doesn’t have a single flat surface on which to mount anything, I’ll need to get creative in my installation.

Montserrat * 2 / working split (FT-847) = success!

Parrots on the dipole? These Monserrat boys know how to have a good time! (image from their QRZ page)

I managed to contact two members of the “Buddies in the Caribbean” mini-DXpedition group tonight on two separate bands, operating from the island paradise of Montserrat: Larry, VP2MLR on 17 meters; and Chris, VP2MYZ down on 20 meters.

Both gentlemen were working the pile-ups split, meaning they were transmitting on one frequency and listening to the pile-up on the other.

Now my rig does split just fine, but I always get nervous when working split because I fear I’ll be transmitting from the wrong VFO and get yelled at by an OM who sounds gruff, tired and hungry. I’d attempted split ops before on some rare DX stations, but had negative success.

The 847 doesn’t let me listen to both sides of the split; it’s my understanding more modern rigs allow you to listen to both frequencies. The basic procedure is to put the transmit VFO on the pile-up frequency and monitor the operator on the receive frequency. When he calls QRZ or CQ, jump in like it’s any other QSO. If you are heard, you’ll get called. In some respects, it’s more peaceful than a normal pile-up because I can’t hear all the big guns blowing me away.

Tonight I was in luck because I got through to VP2MLR on my first try. The band basically shut down not long after, and I was barely copying his signal to begin with, even with DSP, the pre-amp and a notch filter on. I don’t know how he heard me but he did!

I didn’t have as much luck with the other gentleman, as he had a rowdier crowd trying to contact him. I called about a dozen times, left and scanned 80 meters, 40 meters and finally back to 20 meters some minutes later. His signal was actually better when I returned — the interference from adjacent channels had subsided considerably — so I tossed my call out there a few times. He eventually responded with “November 4 Delta Sierra Delta” … I figured there probably weren’t any other “4DSD” stations on frequency, so I uttered my call in full again. Contact! 59 signal reports were exchanged and I found myself longing for a tall, rum-based alcoholic beverage (with a slice of pineapple and a tiny umbrella), some tacos and a good cigar.

Looking over my log tonight I realized I’d be halfway towards completing a mixed mode DXCC award, assuming I’d sent out QSL cards and received the returns. I do need to start using the ARRL QSL bureau, but I just like Logbook of the World so much better. Sure, when I got into this hobby, I really wanted to plaster my walls with colorful QSL cards, but with the cost of QSLing and postage, I’m fine with just using an electronic exchange like LoTW. I wish everyone used it, although I know some people are put off by the sign-up procedures and the extra effort required to sign and upload the logs.

Stations I attempted but didn’t successfully work tonight included a nice loud Saudi Arabian station, and an event station, W1MGY, honoring the 100 year anniversary sinking of the Titanic (The Titanic’s radio callsign was MGY. One of my best friends, a Titanic scholar, mentioned that to me tonight on the drive home).

Otherwise, a nice evening of DX!

Nice propagation tonight; crazy QSL cards

I heard a lot of great stations tonight and worked a few on sideband as well:

  • 9A201CTL out of Croatia had a big signal on 20 meters early this evening
  • TI2CC out of Costa Rica was easily worked on 40 meters
  • WA3T, Bill, from Pennsylvania, and I had a really nice QSO (although I had to break it off a bit early because I was running late for my normal club net on 2 meters — Sorry Bill!)

I went into the shack around 11 p.m. to try and “catch some Russian DX” on 20 meters and I found a “European Russia” station, RA6YDX, almost immediately. Never managed to log a QSO though (which is a shame because I think he’s on LoTW).

A bit further down the dial I stumbled upon a gentleman from Finland, OH9RJ, with a nice clear signal. Again, I couldn’t seem to get acknowledged in the pile.

I thought I’d have better luck with 9K2UU, a station in Kuwait. He was moving quickly through QSOs and I thought I’d have a shot since he was aiming a massive beam at North America and coming in a genuine 59+. I was excited to grab my first middle eastern QSO, and I called out my sign until I was nearly hoarse. No luck. Huge pile-up with big guns…

In other news, I’ve sent off my materials to the ARRL and I hope to be an accredited VE within the next few weeks. Our club is doing a VE session this weekend, and I suppose if I’d been quicker, I could have had my paperwork done and participated in the testing. At any rate, I’ll be hanging with the club a bit on Saturday anyway since we are providing comm for another cycling event.

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Some surprises, but mostly dead air

I’m starting to sound like a broken record on these updates: No time for radio, nothing out there, bad bands, etc. Well, some of that is true and some of that is my own lame technique and poor pile-up busting skills.

Anyway, I made some decent contacts on Friday, as I had the day off. On 40 meters I spoke with CO6LE out of Cuba, and failing to hear any action ANYWHERE else (the bands were awfully noisy, as a storm had just swept through the Carolinas), I decided to investigate 15 meters a bit. Now, my dipole isn’t resonant on 15, so I’d avoided it, but the LDG had no problem achieving less than 2:1 SWR on the band after I dialed my power back to about 75 watts or so. Great, because the band was alive.

I had a quick QSO with Luis, XE1GZU out of Mexico, then tuned around a bit and worked Rafael, XE1RK out of Mexico City.  Rafael had a big signal and apparently I did too, because he recorded a portion of my audio and played it back for me over the air. I have to admit, I sounded pretty good: Mellow, but punchy without being tinny.

It’s always nice getting compliments on audio and signal quality considering my minimal setup, especially on a band my antenna wasn’t really made for, with the power dialed back a bit.

Remaining on that band and lower power level, I managed a brief contact with OM2VL, a station from the Slovak Republic, before I turned off the rig for the morning.

Late Friday evening I heard a Siberian station coming in easily 57 and his signal exhibited that cool-sounding polar flutter, presumably from going over the globe. He was a loquacious ragchewer, so I didn’t get many calls out to him.

I only managed to log two stations on Saturday. Around mid-afternoon I received an alert from DX Sherlock concerning a possible TEP opening on 6 meters, so I turned on the rig and tuned up to the national calling frequency and CQed for several minutes. Negative contact.

I dropped over to 20 meters and spoke with 8R1AK, out of Guyana, and also had a brief QSO with PP5JA out of Brazil on 10 meters.

In other news Saturday, I listened out for Jerry, KD0BIK, who was activating Genessee Mountain in Colorado for Summits on the Air (SOTA). No signal heard at my QTH, but I’ll be looking forward to hearing about the adventure in an upcoming episode of his excellent podcast, The Practical Amateur Radio Podcast.

And on the topic of SOTA, I’ve made some baby steps to getting my own mountain-topping kit together. I picked up a great military backpack yesterday from U.S. Patriot, which should hold everything I need to get on the air anywhere.

I’d had my eye on the Yaesu FT-817 for a while, but as more videos and information on the Elecraft KX3 emerges, I see so many more advantages to that rig over the FT-817, and the price point isn’t much higher (Can you even get an 817? They are out of stock everywhere.)

I also looking into getting a small, cheap laptop for my kit. I feel so dirty even considering a Windows machine over my beloved Apples, but the fact remains, most of the major ham software is Windows-based (Ham Radio Deluxe, JT65HF, etc). I could install Windows on my iMac i5, but I’d rather have a portable machine for field day, travel, etc. Might as well just get a cheap one and be done with it.