Israel on PSK31

tiberia-city_landscape_copyMy enthusiasm for PSK31 comes and goes. Right now I’m really enjoying it again, and I’ve been racking up QSOs with it for the last few nights. Until Field Day last month, it had been more than a year since I’d had a PSK QSO. I’d become hooked on JT9 for its low-power long-distance capability, but sometimes I’m not in the mood to wait for minutes to elapse to complete the exchange.

One of my turn-offs concerning the mode is the potential for rag-chew. I recall some of the first PSK contacts I made last year involved a lot more chat about the weather, gardening and health conditions that I was in the mood for.  Nowadays, I don’t mind the rag-chew as much, as long as I can think of something to talk about. When the well runs dry, I just hit the “73” macro and I’m out.

Excluding the poor band conditions Saturday, there’s been some decent DX on the waterfall the last few nights. I’ve worked into South America a few times (Argentina, Uruguay), a mobile British station in Hawaii, a handful of Canadians, the Ukraine, Italy, and some Caribbean stations.

I saw Moldova with a strong signal last night, but he never returned my call. I was about to shut down after midnight this morning when I saw a new call trickle down, 4Z1IG, Alen, out of Israel. I tossed my call out and he responded on the first shot, albeit with a slightly mangled version of my call sign. We exchanged names, locations and reports, and he requested my call again. I sent my call 3-4 more times, although I still wasn’t certain he picked it up thanks to a strong Slovakian station who tried to tail-end our QSO.

I was relieved when Alen came back to me for the final 73 with my correct call sign. Israel was a new DXCC entity for me, bringing my total of unique countries worked to 80.

The Worked All States (Basic) effort is nearing the end. I have Alaska confirmed on Logbook of the World and I’m waiting on confirmations from Michigan (I know right?), Oklahoma and Oregon.

Field Day 2013, or, How I survived for 24 hours on Coke Zero and donuts

Carl operating on the Flex. Show-off!

Carl operating on the Flex. Show-off!

Well, Field Day has come and gone again. After spending weeks/months anticipating and preparing for it, it’s a downer now that it’s over,  Our club, W4CAE, operated 5A this year from a retreat center in Sesquicentennial State Park. Unofficial tally is somewhere in the neighborhood of 900 QSOs last I heard.

I operated digital modes exclusively, focusing on RTTY and PSK31. I managed to get 96 QSOs in the log, plus another 4-5 SSB QSOs just to break 100. I don’t know if that’s good or bad to be honest. Last year, operating with 2.5-5 watts on a single band for under 8 hours, I only managed 23. I knew I would get more than 23 this year, but I hoped for more than 100. As usual, the CW guys cranked out hundreds more than anyone else.

I realize there are several things I could have done better: One, get mechanical filters on the rig to deal with strong adjacent signals on both PSK and RTTY; two, improve my antenna; three, get some sort of filtering in place to deal with QRM from radios at the FD site; and four, lock myself in a room so the general public isn’t watching me like a fish in a bowl.

The day started off with issues. I arrived on site a bit later than I should have, rolling up around 10 a.m. I figured this would be plenty of time to get my station setup and help with anything else. On arrival, I was advised the building was locked. There were already a handful of guests and our club president was holding court with them, talking about the finer points of wire antenna construction. A small troop of Boy Scouts also appeared, as they were going to be working on their radio merit badges with a few club members.

FD organizer Todd started placing some lines in the surrounding trees to hoist the antennas. To accomplish this, he was using a pneumatic air cannon — always a crowd pleaser. That didn’t sit well with a park ranger, who feared we were going to defile the pine trees. After we received a stern talking-to, some of the members convinced the ranger we would respect the environment, and we were soon back to launching lines.

My station, compact, but it got the job done.

My station, compact, but it got the job done.

It took me all of 15 minutes to get my rig and computer up and running. I was feeling confident as the 2 p.m. start time approached. I’d tested my computer with N1MM extensively. My antenna, a borrowed G5RV, was loading nicely, signals were sounding good and there were about a million traces on the PSK waterfall waiting to be captured.

I was ready to make some QSOs when the wheels fell off. My computer kept hanging. More specifically, N1MM was freezing over and over again. We finally determined using N1MM in networked mode was causing the hangups — a disaster, because being able to run networked was crucial to the Field Day plan.

The solution was to borrow another club member’s laptop. I installed and reconfigured all the programs again, N1MM, the update, the data files for our club, FLdigi, MMTTY, etc. It was 4 p.m., two full hours after the start time, before I logged a QSO.

I should also mention that we had two journalists visit the site, a reporter from a local TV station, and a reporter/videographer from a local Patch.com affiliate, so I dropped what I was doing to walk them around and introduce them to some folks. Either the press releases I wrote were effective, or it was a slow news day.

The TV journalist seemed hellbent on working the tired “zombie apocalypse” trope into her package, so I played along, recalling my favorite scenes from Romero’s Night of the Living Dead and offered a visual dealing with “hams huddling in a boarded-up basement, running a rig off a car battery while shooting signals over to Russia.” This made her happy, although I declined to be interviewed on-camera, deferring that honor to Richard, who gave her an earful.

It’s hard to describe how chaotic the environment itself was. One guy’s SSB output was ear-splitting. Every time I keyed my rig, the high-pitched whines of PSK would erupt through his speakers. The chatter of people walking around was equally deafening. I don’t mind talking to observers, but please, give me space. I’m trying to make sense of a screenful of gibberish – I don’t feel like explaining the esoteric points of phase shift keying to a new technician. I’m trying to score points.

At one point I had an entire family, mom, dad and three squirming kids, encircling me. Another time I had a young ham and his crotchety old-ham dad observing and the old ham demanded I show him my “brag tape.” I tried to explain I was using contest macros and I didn’t have a “brag tape.” Random discussions from new technicians on their Chinese handhelds and “bouncing signals off clouds” … “I’ve only been a ham for two days” … kids getting their greasy grub hooks on my 5D Mark II camera and smearing some sort of remnants of macaroni and cheese on the control dial. Uggghhhhhhh.

Richard, being grilled by a WLTX reporter.

Richard, being grilled by a WLTX reporter.

Last year I was restricted to working 15 meters in our 11A setup, so I felt liberated that I could switch bands this year. Digital work seems to come and go in waves: I’d call CQ 90% of the time, and would eventually run out of PSK stations to work on frequency. So I’d switch to RTTY. When RTTY ran dry, I’d go to another frequency and resume PSK, repeating the cycle between 15/20/40 meters.

By 1 a.m., I felt like I’d worked about everything I was going to work. I recall issuing CQ FD more than 50 times without any response on any band/mode.  1:15 rolled around and it was time for the crucial 100-point satellite QSO attempt with SO-50. Even that went to hell, as we never even heard the satellite. I can’t recall a single time I’ve tried to work SO-50 that I haven’t heard it.

I broke down my station and headed home just a few miles up the road. I regret that I didn’t stay on for five more hours, as I think I could have contributed something, although I was too bleary to even try CW and we had two guys on SSB covering things nicely. I didn’t get any sleep, and by 7 a.m. I returned to the site to help take down antennas.

What worked

  • N1MM’s digital interface. I never want to mess with HRD again for a contest. This is simply the best/fastest way to work and log digital modes.
  • The FT-847. About 8+ hours of key-down operating at 20-60 watts and it never stopped kicking along. I fully expected to burn this radio up on FD and already had its replacement, the Elecraft K3, in the shopping cart on their web site. But the 847 survived.
  • 15 meters. The band was open after dinner and I was able to get some interesting contacts. PSK was much nicer on 15 meters, as the frequency wasn’t jammed with signals and I was able to carve out a nice pocket for myself.
  • Coke Zero and packaged donuts. I managed to stay jacked up on sugar and caffeine for the entire event.
  • RTTY. This is the mode to use for digital contests. First of all, it’s faster than PSK. Second, RTTY users approach the mode with the style of brevity used with CW contacts. No bull, no wasted time, no pointless text. Just calls and exchanges, the way it should be.
  • The Field Day Dashboard. Real-time tracking of states/provinces worked and QSO counts using data pulled from the N1MM log. It was exciting logging a new state and turning around to see the state “light up” on the big screen.
  • Public relations. We had a huge turnout, with at least 70+ visitors. For a moment around dinner time I turned around to see the room packed and all I could muster was “who the hell are all these people and where did they come from.” I don’t think my press releases contributed to that, but they certainly lured two media organizations. We also had several served agencies there (thanks to N4TAL), and an ARRL representative from the Roanoke Division stopped by — I did e-mail him and tell him about our operation.

I took a break from operating and looked up to see dozens of guests enjoying dinner. Where did they come from?

I took a break from operating and looked up to see dozens of guests enjoying dinner. Where did they come from?

What didn’t work

  • My computer. Thanks to inexplicable issues my machine crapped out right before starting time. That resulted in me logging my first QSO nearly two hours later than everyone else.
  • SO-50. I envisioned a heroic satellite QSO to rack up that 100-point bonus, but the bird was silent on the one shot we had at it.
  • Rallying local elected officials. As far as I know, none of the elected officials I invited came to the site. I had a phone call from the mayor of a nearby town who mentioned he’d try to stop by, but unless he came and didn’t speak to anyone, I think we missed a 100-point opportunity.
  • Me. I intended to do a lot more photography and shoot/edit a video. With the computer snafu and the scramble to straighten it out, and my determination to get more QSOs, the video effort fell apart. I did shoot some photos, but not nearly the number I typically would.
  • The site. I think we all agreed to try FD at a different location next year. The retreat center was a good location to spread out, setup, and host a lot of people, but there were some issues with actual operating that caused concerns. Mainly, the noise level inside the building was unbearable. I’m talking about acoustic noise specifically, not electrical. Outside, our building was surrounded by power lines, and those didn’t help. I don’t recall a problem with electrical noise, but they certainly posed a challenge with antenna placement.

Burning the midnight oil on SSB.

Burning the midnight oil on SSB.

All in all, it was a successful Field Day. I really enjoyed the competitive aspect of it, and wish we held events like this more than once a year. Onward to the NAQP RTTY contest in late July!

Alaska finally in the log

The past week or so has been one of the most exciting on-air since I began the hobby back in 2011 and tonight brought a nice mid-week surprise with that final QSO to complete my Worked All States award (unofficially). Alaska is finally in the log after a JT9 QSO with Les, KL7J.

My Alaskan connection, KL7J.

My Alaskan connection, KL7J.

For all the difficulty I’ve had spotting and working an Alaska station, tonight’s QSO was about as routine as it gets. I copied him at -2 db and his report back to me was -5. That’s pretty loud, and his signal was the strongest on the waterfall.

Now the problem is getting official confirmations on Logbook of the World for four states: Michigan, Montana, Oregon and Oklahoma. I’ve worked all of these states, in some cases multiple times, but they’ve either elected to not use LOTW or their logs never got uploaded or confirmed with mine. If I have to send old fashioned QSL cards I will, but I’d much rather claim the WAS victory on LOTW just on principle.

Two other nice surprises tonight:

I worked K6III out of northern California twice on CW. He’s an SKCC member, as I am, and he tracked me down on the Sked Page for QSOs on 20 meters and 30 meters (a band my antenna does not like). He was a strong 579 on 20 meters, and a watery, fading 53 on 30 meters, likely owning to the poor capabilities of my dipole. I even put the Winkeyer to use tonight to automate the exchanges.

I also had another nice digital QSO for a new DXCC entity. I worked Wales on 20 meter JT65.

I hope this good fortune will spill over to Saturday. I’m hoping for good band conditions, high antennas, and I’m crossing my fingers that the FT-847 isn’t going to have a meltdown in that summer heat.

More super-weak signal fun + Field Day

Capture

Working VE1SKY on 6-meter JT65.

Just when you think you’ve hit a wall something quirky happens, opening a door to another aspect of the hobby. Everything is fun again.

I was fooling around on the Sked Page last night and a bunch of the guys on there were on 6 meters trying to conduct some JT65 QSOs. I’ve never heard anything on 6 meters, save for a local net that was barely audible one evening last year.

Anyway, I had the rig on 50.276 and the waterfall was clear. RF amp was on and the band seemed utterly dead quiet. I was fooling around in a web browser, when JT-Alert sprang to life. VE1SKY out of Nova Scotia was calling CQ low in the band. I responded, only to watch my SWR meter go nuts because I hadn’t retuned for 6 meters. I auto-tuned, replied again and nearly fell out of my chair when he came back to me with an -18 signal report. He was -23, and we both had to send our exchanges several times before we closed with 73.

I checked PSKreporter.info afterwards and noticed I’d been heard in the southeast as well. There have been a fair number of openings on 6 lately and I’d like to play with this band more often, but I really need a better antenna.

Other QSOs of note last night included the usual suspects on JT9, Ukraine and Russia, and another contact with Hawaii, WH6EBS — this time it was an “open water QSO,” i.e., no Sked Page support. What made that contact most interesting is the signal report I received: -10 running under 20 watts.

Field Day Goodies

Hawaii in the log

A screenshot of my signal as it appeared in Hawaii. Courtesy of KH6SAT.

A screenshot of my signal as it appeared in Hawaii. Courtesy of KH6SAT.

I worked a variety of modes this weekend, none of which involved a microphone. More importantly, I’m only one state away from having worked all 50.

I went down the rabbit hole of the “K3UK Sked Page” this weekend. I can’t believe it took me this long to discover this resource. I guess I’ve been living under a rock or something. I heard of it a while back but never actually looked at it until the other day.

Right off the bat I was able to grab a JT65 QSO with KF2T out of Nevada, a frequent user of the Sked. That left me with AK and HI to track down. In the meantime, I fielded some CW requests, but because of varying band conditions I was only successful with one of them, 4A1TD a station out of Mexico.

I was lurking on the sked Sunday evening and updated my status to indicate I was looking for AK and HI. KH6SAT, a Hawaiian station I’ve seen on JT65 before, sent me a private message and asked me what mode I wanted to contact him on. We agreed on 20 meter JT65 and he selected an unused portion of the band. He was -18 and my report was -24, so I was barely making it, even cranking up the power to 30 watts or so.

KH6SAT’s final transmission was a friendly “Aloha” and then he was in the log. Immediate confirmation on LOTW followed, so now Alaska is truly going to be the last frontier for my Worked All States endeavor.

Looking towards Field Day this weekend, I’ve been flexing my rig a bit on RTTY. Friday night I worked Guatemala, Slovenia and Russia on 20 meters. N1MM is ready to go on all modes!

Trying some JT9

Since the JT65 frequencies seem to be getting more crowded, I figured I’d give Joe Taylor’s bleeding-edge new JT9 mode a shot tonight. It’s made for HF and promises even more sensitivity to weak signals, making it possible to cast your signal longer distances on even less power.

Another good thing about JT9 is that the signal is very narrow, meaning many more QSOs can be jammed into the band.

The QSO process is very similar to JT65: One minute transmit/receive intervals with only the most basic of information exchanged — callsign, grid square and signal report.

The program currently used to accomplish this is WSJT-X, by K1JT. It can be downloaded from here. The interface is similar to JT65 HF, and perhaps more streamlined, with a better bandscope to boot. Once I installed the program I tuned over to the 20-meter JT9 frequency, 14.078 and surveyed the landscape.

I answered a CQ call from a station in North Carolina, made sure everything was working properly with my rig, and decided to just go ahead and call CQ and start “running” on the frequency.

Nine CQ calls resulted in nine instant QSOs, with stations calling me from as far away as Moscow and the UK, to the U.S. midwest and west coast. I sustained the run for an hour before I had apparently worked everyone on frequency that could hear me.

I saw K1JT himself in a QSO, but didn’t get to work him tonight.

I imported the WSJT-X logfile into Ham Radio Deluxe and ran into an issue with the JT9 mode field. HRD didn’t care for it. That was easy to fix. I entered the HRD mode configuration and added JT9 as an available mode.

When I went to upload the new QSOs to Logbook of the World, HRD gave me another error. I suspected LOTW’s certificate wasn’t aware of JT9 as a digital mode yet. I found some help online and a tutorial on how to fix it. In a nutshell, you must login to LOTW, check your account settings and download the latest configuration file. Once I applied the new configuration, HRD was happy and my new JT9 QSOs were on their way to the ARRL.

Now if we could only get a weak signal digital mode that worked as fast as RTTY… hmmm.

Hanging out with my buddy Joe

jt65-joe_taylor

Great night on 20 meters for some JT65 action.

Indeed, I began my evening with a QSO with the guy who invented the mode, Mr. Joe Taylor himself, K1JT. You can see from the screengrab above, on his next over he sent “20W DPL 73 GL” — I believe his signal was one of the strongest I worked last night, at -3db.

The meeting, although brief was awe-inspiring, because I use JT65 so much. I imagine it would kind of be like getting a text on an iPhone from Apple’s Jony Ive.

I should have Washington state well-covered on LOTW after tonight. Made JT contacts with W7VP, K7PWL and KD7H. I also snagged another contact in the state of Maine — W2ZEN (great call BTW!) — and hopefully he’ll connect with me on LOTW.

I turned the radio back on around 11 p.m. and tried to answer some JT65 QSOs on 20 meters, but no one would come back to me. A few moments later, whoever was CQing on that portion of the waterfall dropped out, leaving me with a nice open gap to start calling CQ in.

I had a nice run going with mostly Russian and eastern European stations calling. I logged four in a row, along with two of the Washington stations. Signal reports weren’t bad either, with the worst report coming from a Russian station, placing me at -21. Still, we completed the QSO.

Checking in on PSK Reporter, I noticed my signal was getting out to New Zealand, Hawaii and Alaska. Stations from those areas appeared briefly, but disappeared as fast. As midnight approached, the band started dying.

Overall, not a bad night with nine stations logged.

FT-847 finally setup for digital modes

signalink

I finally got around to building the digital mode interface cable for the data port on the FT-847, and modified the SignaLink according to the manufacturer’s instructions. The end result seems to work great, as I racked up a slew of JT65 QSOs tonight.

First thing I had to do was modify the jumpers inside the SignaLink to work with the 847. The process required a 2.7K 1/4-watt resistor and a .1uF capacitor (schematic). A trip to Radio Shack this afternoon took care of that. They didn’t have the 2.7K resistor but I tried some 2.2Ks and no smoke escaped, so I reckon 2.2K is close enough for government work.

Building the cable wasn’t too bad either. I had a Yaesu modular cable that came with the SignaLink when I purchased it, so I just snipped one of the RJ connectors off, separated out the three wires I needed to solder up to the stereo plug, and I was good to go.

The data port works quite well, as I don’t have to unplug my mic to use the rig on a data mode. The extra power definitely helped tonight, as I was able to grab two states needed for WAS: West Virginia and Oregon. The Oregon station in particular proved challenging, and my signal report was in the -20s.

Other good DX tonight included Greenland, Netherlands, Spain, Chile and Greece.

My recent bout of kit-building has definitely been helpful, as I’d never wielded a soldering iron or fooled around with electrical components until I built the Breadboard transceiver. Back when I first bought the SignaLink, I had no idea how to build a cable, and the thought of installing a resistor terrified me. Building a kit of any kind seemed like an impossible mission. Now it’s become an addiction.

Using filters on JT65

I installed a 500hz CW filter in the FT-817 last week, and I was curious to see what difference it might make on digital modes, such as JT65.

Well, no surprises here. It worked as expected. Here’s the waterfall on a normal, light evening on 20-meter JT65. It’s somewhat crowded, with the usual array of people splattering and running too much power. I’ve seen much worse.

JT65

 

And here’s a look with the filter engaged:

JT65

 

It’s a drastic difference. I was surprised at how sensitive JT65 is, because even with the filter engaged, it can still decode stations slightly outside the passband. The rest of the stations simply disappear.

The filter, (purchased from W4RT), came in handy tonight as I was trying to hone in on a weak Hawaii station while some of the usual suspects were splattering about. Sadly, my 5 watts couldn’t quite reach him. I also heard and attempted to work an AK and a station out of Oregon (partial QSO, he never acknowledged my signal report). I need all three states for Worked All States (Basic), but luck wasn’t with me tonight.

I was happy to see I was spotted in Alaska, Hawaii and New Zealand on PSK Reporter, so my signal was getting heard somewhere.

FT-817 power levels and a possible fix…

When I run digital modes with my FT-817, I keep an eye on the output power with a little cheap wattmeter from MFJ. I’ve consistently noticed when I first start operating that I’m pushing exactly 5 watts out of the rig at high power. That’s good, because this is a 5 watt radio…

But after about 10 minutes of operation, I consistently see that power level drop to half. Increasing the audio input into the rig from the Signalink will bring the power close to 5 watts out again, but at the cost of overdriving the ALC, which is going to screw up my digital mode work. Since this has always happened consistently after operating for several minutes, I figured it had something to do with the radio warming up and creating some sort of instability.

I’ve sort of accepted this as a quirk of the 817 on “key-down” modes, but I’m getting aggravated with it, because I want my watts back. It’s getting harder and harder to make QSOs with these gators running 45+ watts on the JT65 frequencies. I need all the power I can squeeze out of this radio.

After last night’s disappointing run, in which I completed exactly ZERO digital contacts in attempts on multiple bands, I decided it was time to do some research. I came across this thread, that suggests the problem can be fixed with a menu setting.

The issue apparently stems from the 817 aggressively applying “Overcurrent Protection” when the radio reaches operating temperature. The poster goes on to detail a procedure to adjust the protection in such a way as to allow the radio to deliver optimum power while still protecting its innards from overheating. Of course, tinkering with hidden service menus can screw up a rig (Service menu docs are available here), so I’ll need to investigate this procedure further before I proceed.

Of course, there is debate on whether the 817 should even use the full 5 watts for 100% duty modes like PSK and JT… I have good success with 2.5 watts sometimes, but knowing I could increase the power a bit for difficult contacts would be helpful.