Nice effort for the S.C. QSO Party

A group of us decided to break away from normal club plans and team up for the South Carolina QSO Party this year. We chose to operate from the shack of the Dutch Fork Amateur Radio Group and used their callsign, W4DFG.

We had two K3s (mostly used for SSB), a Kenwood 590 on CW, and a Yaesu 857 for digital modes. Owing to a work commitment, I didn’t arrive at the shack until nearly two hours after the contest started, but I planned to stay in until the end. I quickly setup my K3 and had three major problems right off the bat:

One, the bandpass filter I was handed was causing a very high SWR during anything but the shortest transmissions. I pulled that and we later discovered something inside it had burned out.

Next, the power supply I borrowed (some Radio Shack thing), couldn’t handle long transmissions, such as a RTTY CQ, and as such, my radio kept cutting off. We fixed that issue by swapping in an Astron.

Third, N1MM was freezing up and complaining about my digital setup (specifically, the port). I’d just updated the software the night before and thought I’d tested it thoroughly. Evidently I hadn’t. Anyway, after futzing with that for a couple minutes, I saw my error and I was up to full speed and calling CQ on 20 meter voice.

Sounds like a mess, but this is the typical shakedown after picking up my rig and moving to an unfamiliar location.  Anyway, I had the pleasure of using the shack’s tri-band beam, and that’s always a pleasure. We aimed it west and left it there for the duration of the day and we were able to work just about everything we heard. I didn’t do any search and pounce, and my voice paid for it, especially since I was already nursing a bit of a sore throat/head cold to begin with. I went through a half bag of cough drops and pressed on.

Oh, and I added a neat new piece of kit to my setup: The Yamaha CM500 headset. At a fraction of the price of the Heil Pro Set, the Yamaha seemed to do a fine job. I had multiple unsolicited good reports on the quality of my audio. I didn’t really alter the settings I use for the Heil PR781 (which are the Heil-suggested settings), but I did use less compression and a lot less mic gain, since the Yamaha has an electret mic.

The best part is the easy setup. The K3 has connectors on the rear for headphones and a mic, so the Yamaha plugged in without needing any special adaptors or splitters. The only thing I had to do was switch the K3’s settings to use the rear mic panel and turn on the bias. I was able to run on VOX the whole time and keep my hands free for logging.

So how did the contest go? Fine I’d say! I made 160 QSOs from my station, mostly on SSB, but I did break into some RTTY for a bit. However with the North American QSO Party RTTY contest going, it made for some confusing exchanges. I finally just started sending the NAQP exchange AND the SCQP exchange at the same time. I operated mostly on 20 meters, but dipped into 15 meters for a bit, and did quite a few QSOs on 40 meters later in the day.

The other SSB station, which started on time, managed nearly twice as many QSOs and had a revolving door of operators. We also had a few code operators, who racked up more than 130 CW contacts. Our digital guy probably had the hardest job of the day because there just aren’t many digital participants in this contest, but he did pick up a bonus station on PSK, and another dozen or so contacts, which gave him a nice score.

I noticed quite a few bad attitudes on the air, and I got the full force of one during a run on 20 meters. It went something like this:

After more than 20 minutes of operating on a remarkably clear frequency, 14.263 —

Unknown annoyed guy: “You guys need to move away, you’re interfering with the DX on 261.”

Me: “I’m sorry to hear that friend, I’ve been looking at my panadaptor and I’m clear on both sides.”

Annoyed guy: “OK have it your way, you just keep being an idiot and I’ll keep calling on top of you.”

Me: “No one’s interfering with me. I haven’t heard a thing but the stations calling me.”

Annoyed guy: “Get a better antenna.”

(By now I’m eyeing the K3 and thinking about the giant Yagi I’m using… it doesn’t get much better to be honest.)

I was pretty stunned because I’d cleared the frequency asking if it was in use no less than three times before calling CQ. I wasn’t being interfered with at all. I’m running only 100 watts, and as I mentioned to the a$$hole, the band scope showed a mostly clear portion.

I tuned up to .261 to see what the fuss was about. There was no DX there. No, he was actually at .258 (maybe he moved?), and his sidebands were splattering nearly as far out as .261. Oh, and what was this RARE entity that was worth such angst from my annoyed friend? An American operating from Costa Rica. Wow, that’s right up there with Navassa Island bro.

I had a similar incident later on 40 meters, when a guy jumped in on top of my callers and made a rant about foreigners. Then someone called him an idiot and the frequency erupted in insults. I just moved off that, waited a moment and came back to it once the troll had moved on, presumably to 7.200.

I wasn’t the only person fighting trolls, as I heard our other SSB station run off a few.

But overall, a strong finish on the day. We logged 639 QSOs and should have a top finish in our class!

A couple very random, yet ham-related things

I’ve been slacking on my ham radio duties because I’ve made a commitment to learn Python (or at least learn enough to do something useful with it, more on that later), but radio has still been at the forefront of my various hobbies.

clay_andersonExhibit one: A page from astronaut Clayton Anderson‘s new book, The Ordinary Spaceman.

I had an amazing opportunity last week to meet Clay and hear him talk about his time with NASA. I got in line to get him to sign my book, and I asked him about his use of the amateur radio station onboard the ISS. I wanted him to sign with his personal callsign, and it seems he left out a letter, but he was pretty busy signing books and taking time to talk to everyone. We also chatted about watches in space, and he told me he used one of the newer Omega Speedmasters with the digital/analog display. He also told me he was an ambassador for Giorgio Fedon watches (I’ve never heard of this brand), and was sporting a really cool chronograph from the company.

Exhibit two: My first Python “thing” — An ANSI-based tool for reading solar data from N0NBH.

Screen Shot 2015-09-02 at 10.45.34 AM

I woke up last Saturday with this idea in my head. But some background… I’ve recently put my old dial-up style bulletin board system (BBS) back on telnet, and since it runs on Linux, I can do some interesting things like run Python scripts right from the BBS. I want to create an entire suite of ham radio-related tools for the board, and I thought it would be fun to re-create Paul, N0NBH’s ubiquitous solar-terrestrial data widget as a BBS application.

A couple hours later I had the basics down, but I was struggling to bring in the HF and VHF conditions data in a pleasing way. I came back to the script Monday afternoon with a few new ideas and discovered a few different methods for dealing with Paul’s XML feed. I wanted to color-code the band conditions like the N0NBH web widget, so I learned a few new tricks to accomplish that. I also intend to change the sun graphic according to solar flux conditions, e.g., low SFI results in an “unhappy” sun!

I also created a tool to display the latest SOTA spots, and I’m nearly done with a lookup gadget that will hopefully present callsign data in a pleasing way. I’ve sort of halfway hacked together a DX cluster thing as well.

So I’m going forward learning Python by applying it to technology from 20 years ago. The irony is not lost on me.

FSQ – A new digital mode

I have been asked to give a presentation at our club’s October meeting, so I suggested maybe I could take a look at the new digital mode recently profiled in QST, “Fast Simple QSO” or FSQ. I played around with the software on the 30 meter band Sunday and it’s definitely unique.

FSQ attempts to create a “chatroom” or IRC-like environment. First of all, you don’t tune around to find FSQ. You go to the assigned frequency for your particular band and you “hang out there” waiting for action. You don’t live-type as with RTTY or PSK. You enter text in a box and hit enter. If the software doesn’t detect any signals on the “channel” it will key up your rig and send your message.

There’s some other neat stuff you can do, such as send SSTV images and query other users in interesting ways (For instance, you can query another user for his station information, what other stations are hearing him, an automated signal report, etc.

It’s a really intriguing mode that I have barely scratched the surface on.

SSTV from the International Space Station

The International Space Station was transmitting slow-scan TV this weekend. Had a good pass over my neighborhood this morning and I picked up the image below. It’s actually fairly clean for SSTV over radio, although you can see where I picked up some static crashes where those horizontal lines appeared. It took the station more than 3 minutes to transmit this.

I received this over my Yaesu VX-7 handheld, using the Arrow 3-element Yagi. I simply recorded the audio with my iPhone and decoded it afterwards on my computer with MMSSTV.


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.

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.

Two new ones

I got really lucky tonight. I stopped by the K3UK Sked Page to see if there were any stations on I needed for the Triple Play.

Sure enough, Jim, N7ESU, out of Idaho was on. I need both digital and CW contacts from that state, so I messaged Jim and he graciously agreed to help me get a digital contact. He was already on 80M JT65, so we made the attempt there. Several passes in and it looked like the QSO wasn’t going to happen. He messaged me back on the sked page and indicated he could see me on the waterfall. I couldn’t copy him though.

After about 15 minutes of trying, I messaged him and told him the conditions just weren’t right on my end. I had S9+ noise on 80 meters. I was going to give up, when my computer suddenly decoded N7ESU’s signal out of a seemingly empty waterfall. He sent me a -20 report and I sent him a -27 to complete the QSO.

I was about to call it a night when I noticed KF2T out of Nevada on the sked page. He helped me last year with a digital mode QSO, so I figured he may be able to help me score a CW QSO in short order. We popped over to 40 meters. He was 539 and I suspect I wasn’t much better but we both sent 5NN reports for the exchange.

It’s nice to get both of these in the log. I’m already looking forward to this weekend’s NAQP RTTY contest.

Happy happy joy joy!

It must be 1990s flashback hour on 20 meter slow scan TV tonight. I caught half of a Beavis & Butt-head image, then this gem showed up:

2013-08-10 012902 {20m} {None}

I can’t say I’ve done any SSTV (although I did decode some ARISSat-1 images from audio recorded on my handheld way back when I was a new technician), but the esoteric nature of it certainly fascinates me. I finally decided to tune over to 14.230mhz this evening and fire up the SSTV module in Digital Master. It’s kind of like watching a GIF download via mid-90s dial up Internet, but it’s strangely enjoyable. The above image was by far the clearest one I saw this evening.


A couple interesting ones tonight

Another random evening. Nothing too far out there, but interesting all the same:

  • YV5DSL, Venezuela on 20m RTTY
  • HC2AO, Ecuador on 20m PSK63 (I think this is a new one for me)
  • N0MNO, Minnesota, but it was a ragchew and it was fun trying to type fast enough to keep up with PSK63
  • SV5AZK, Dodecanese, 20m PSK31, a new one for me
  • YT1AA, a big signal out of Serbia on 40m CW. I know he copied my call properly and gave me 5NN. I returned a report and he acknowledged, but there was QSB and he was too fast for me so I wasn’t sure what he said next. I panicked a bit on the paddles and let the QSO die. I hate when I do that… instant lid shame.

Still haven’t worked any phone with the new rig. My lash-up on the Icom mic apparently wasn’t good enough, because it was acting erratic today. It sort of worked when I plugged it in half-way, but I wasn’t able to break a pile-up to get a report. I may work on it again and see if I can figure out what’s come loose inside there.

The accidental contester

I was killing some time before dinner last night tuning around to see what was going on down the bands and happened to switched over to 7.070 to see if anyone was doing 40 meter PSK. I was surprised to find many signals across the band, mostly from midwestern states. They were calling CQ TEST, and CQ 40 METER TEST.

Curious. I wanted to work some of these guys so I looked up the contest calendar to see what was going on. Turns out it was the “Firecracker Sprint” a 40 meter-only PSK31 contest that runs from 8 p.m.-2 a.m. local time. I checked the clock and it was 10 minutes after 8. I didn’t have anything planned for the evening, so I quickly rewrote a set of Field Day macros for the sprint (the exchange was simply signal report and state), and started calling CQ.

I’d worked 20 stations in an hour using the FT-847, keeping the power under 50 watts so I could remain in the low power class, mostly running, with a very narrow CW filter in line.  I’d turn the filter off every now and then and see what other stations were on the band and do a quick search and pounce if there were any unique ones. I broke for dinner around 9 and came back 20 minutes later intending to work until 2 a.m.

I’d worked 62 stations total (two of those were not contest stations, and I had to turn away several dupes) when around 12:45 a.m. we suffered an inexplicable power failure that lasted for more than two hours. The laptop was still running on battery and I had my FT-817 charged, but the SignaLink was configured for the 847. I decided to close the laptop and call it a night.

I uploaded my logs from the sprint this afternoon and at the time of this post, I’m around 5th place. I expect I will drop as more logs are submitted and cross-checked. I managed to work 24 different states and one province. I definitely felt like I held my own and I enjoyed this contest quite a bit. Had I not lost that hour near the end, I think I could have improved my standings significantly. This just makes me look forward to the NAQP RTTY contest later this month.

More fun on 6 meters

The midwest was coming in strong Saturday morning, so I aimed the antenna towards Nebraska and worked a couple quick stations on JT65, including another Oklahoma contact. Despite making several contacts to OK, it continues to be the last hold-out for Worked All States Basic on Logbook of the World.

A couple new countries

I worked PSK31 again this evening and managed to contact some new DXCC entities on 20 meters:

  • EW8CM, Belarus
  • YO9FTN, Romania
  • OK1EP, Czech Republic
  • E74DO, Bosnia-Herzegovina (Not a new one for me, but not a country I see very often either)

I also snagged another Oregon QSO, Bob, K7QXG. We had a decent chat and hopefully we can confirm on Logbook of the World.

14.070 was full of signals tonight and some were very strong and over-driven, causing issues while I was trying to copy some of these weaker stations. I’ve had decent luck with a little FT-847 trick that lets me place my 400 hz CW filter in-line to cut the adjacent noise:

  1. Tune to where the desired signal is; press A>B to copy the frequency to VFO B
  2. Switch VFO A from USB  to CW mode and engage the DSP CW filter
  3. Press the SPLIT key, allowing me to listen to the band through the CW filter and transmit on the upper sideband.

It’s a bit of a dance and if I re-tune I have to repeat the process, but it only takes seconds and the results are worth it. For more detail, check out this tutorial.