Best Field Day at home ever

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This isn’t me, but I share the sentiment.

I seem to be one of the few hams that really doesn’t care for Field Day. It starts too late in the day, the scores don’t really mean anything, and it’s generally been a mess every year I’ve participated.

Here in the south, Field Day typically falls on a brutally hot day of the year, which always leads to an afternoon storm. It’s damp, muggy, and miserable. Still, I get the point, and there are aspects of it that are fun — the food and friends mostly.

I mentioned in my last post that I’d fallen out of love with the hobby a bit. I’ve only recently taken some steps to get back on-board after nearly a year of being off the air at home. While ambitious plans were in place at both of the clubs I visit, I decided I wasn’t going to even visit the FD sites. That did change, as I wanted to see some of my old buddies.

The folks at Dutch Fork had a relatively quiet, competitive effort going and word has it they cleared more than 1,000 QSOs. That’s great. They also have the benefit of running from a nicely appointed shack/EOC with real antennas.

The club I was formerly president of, The Columbia Amateur Radio Club, planned a gathering at an exceptionally beautiful lakeside retreat. The difference there is you’d never know a ham event was taking place, as all the operators were huddled in their own campers/trailers. I did speak with one of my favorite gents of the hobby, Bill, W4FSV, who was old-schooling it in a picnic shelter with a KX3, low dipole and his CW paddles.

I arrived home from my Field Day tour and my wife and I had a leisurely meal, followed by a craft beer run. It was after 9 p.m. when I finally turned on the rig and began operating.

The bands sounded decent, with SSB featuring the usual chaotic mess. I tuned over to the RTTY portion of 20 meters and started there, then clicked over to 40 meters.

Hey guys, pro tip: don’t use PSK macros for RTTY in a “contest” situation. I don’t need all the “best 73 and good DX, god bless, logging this QSO at 01:38:00 GMT / dit-dit” crap. Just provide the class and section, preferably 2-3 times, and regurgitate my callsign so I know you have it properly. I half expected to get “WX here raining, 73 degrees” on some of these exchanges. Also, why bother sending a paragraph of text to tell a station he’s a dupe? Log it (or don’t) and move on.

Yeah I know… “it’s not a contest.” That’s why the curmudgeon in me ended up going to CW and staying there for a long time. Lean, fast QSOs and no BS, as always. I wasn’t sitting in a pile feverishly screaming my callsign into the mic — I was working stations. And while I never achieved a fast rate, it was steady, and I worked everything I heard.

I ended the night after about three hours of operating with 102 QSOs. I planned to try for more the next morning, but I overslept and it was nearly noon when I got back on the air. 10 meters was jumping and I managed the most SSB of the event on this band. Ultimately I reverted back to RTTY/CW and finished with 125 QSOs in the log.

That’s not a lot of QSOs, but when I think back to my first “serious” overnight FD a few years back, I struggled to even get a hundred. In fact, I think this may have been the most QSOs I’ve ever logged on Field Day. No doubt, working from the peace and quiet of my home station probably helped.

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What a difference a year makes, Winter Field Day is better than ever

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290 QSOs, 40 states, plus Canada and Puerto Rico contacted, several DX entities. Winter Field Day’s 2016 effort was the best ever for our club, and most of us only operated for about five hours.

After last year’s Winter Field Day disaster, I figured our club wouldn’t even bother participating in 2016. We had a miserable performance, logging less than 60 QSOs, operating from permanent stations at a local EOC. After the event ended, we couldn’t even submit our score because the folks at SPAR had apparently disappeared, or just didn’t care.

I wrote a particularly scathing rant here on the blog about it. Other operators across the country were equally annoyed, and they decided to do something about it. The Winter Field Day Association was formed by an eager group, and they immediately began getting word out for the 2016 event using forums and social media.

The effort worked. We operated four stations on battery/generated power from a horse farm in Kershaw County. I worked from our trailer station, where we cleared more than 100 QSOs in several hours. I can only recall one instance in which we had to explain what Winter Field Day was all about. Nearly every caller knew the proper exchange, which has been simplified since the association took over the event. It was like operating during a lighter version of Summer Field Day.

As for our club’s attendance, we counted some 23+ club members and interested amateurs. Keep in mind, we held our event almost an hour away from the city of Columbia proper, so folks had to travel a considerable distance just to get to the site. The nice turnout may have also had something to do with the beautiful clear weather and high 60s temperatures.

The folks at WFDA should be proud of themselves for keeping Winter Field Day alive. I’ll be interested to see how many logs get submitted this year.

Photos from our club’s event can be found on our website.

Winter Field Day is back

I received word from Tom, WD8MBE, last night that Winter Field Day is back on and under “new management,” so to speak.

I was grousing here earlier this year about how I wished WFD had more participation. I’ll tell anyone who will listen, that WFD is the event that initiated me into the world of HF — so it’s an event that I certainly have strong feelings about, and I want to see it grow. Sadly, the event’s organizers, the Society for Preservation of Amateur Radio, have seemingly vanished. No one was able to submit logs for the contest this year, as the e-mail address we were sending them to was gone.

I don’t know what happened to SPAR, but as with so many hobbies, “life happens” and people have to re-shuffle their priorities.  With some of the life changes I’ve experienced this year alone, I can certainly sympathize.

The good news is, a group of dedicated hams are picking up where SPAR left off, and hopefully WFD will fire off without missing a beat this year.

The new Winter Field Day Association’s website lists all the rules for the contest. The exchange has been somewhat simplified — a welcome change in my opinion. More importantly, the leadership seems energized (there’s also a Facebook group), and I believe this is shaping up to be an excellent event.

As a side note, I am now president-elect of the Columbia Amateur Radio Club, and I’m pleased to say that our club’s first non-service on-air outing under my leadership will likely be Winter Field Day.

Mid-range Field Day Finish

Screen Shot 2014-11-10 at 1.12.54 PMThe ARRL posted the digital edition of QST, which contains Field Day results. W4CAE finished around the upper-middle of our 5F division, which places us in the bell curve performance-wise. I’ve written here before that I didn’t like how the day played out for me, owing to local interference of (mostly) RF and (occasionally) the social kind. We never had a 6 meter opening, the digital modes were slow to get running, and we were missing one of our beast-mode CW guys. The interference is an issue we need to get sorted out… we are literally beating ourselves. We need filters.

I’m not going to rehash the frustration of the day, but all things considered, it looks like we did OK, and if nothing else, we overwhelmingly bested the rival gang across town (although to be fair, they operated with less guys).

My Field Day 2014 plans

PrintARRL Field Day 2014 is already upon us, and once again, I’ll be captaining a mostly digital modes station for our club. Details about the day are posted at our club site and we will be using our club call, W4CAE.

We enjoyed Winter Field Day this year at the Calhoun County Auxiliary Emergency Operations Center, so we opted to base the summer operation there also. Since it is a functioning EOC, we will operate as 5F class. We will have two delta loops, a six-meter beam, and three OCF dipoles in the air. We’ll also enjoy the use of the SCHEART trailer for the “Get on the Air” station. We’ll have at least three operating positions inside the EOC for SSB stations. I will operate from the Calhoun County field operations trailer on a delta loop, and the 6-meter station will also hang out in there if we get an opening. One of our CW gurus will pitch a tent and go old-school. Madman!

We intend to log with N1MM. No “dashboard” to keep track of our state-by-state QSO count this year unfortunately.

My duties for the day will be extensive:

  • Arrive on-site before 10 a.m. for a club board meeting. (Antennas will be deployed Friday afternoon)
  • Ensure all logging machines have N1MM deployed, updated with the latest data files, properly configured, and ready to log.
  • Setup my own station (K3+P3).
  • Be on the lookout for visiting media. We had a couple stations and an internet news service stop by last year.
  • Gather quotes and photos. I’ll be shooting my normal images for the website, but will also be writing a story about Field Day for a local paper. I was first inclined to tell the editor of that paper that it wasn’t MY job to cover my own event — after all, I’d already composed a detailed press release — but some coverage is better than no coverage; so I’ll do what I can.
  • 1 p.m. meeting to go over use of N1MM, the exchange, and on-air procedures
  • 2 p.m. Field Day begins! I’m crossing my fingers for no computer glitch-ups this year.
  • There are perhaps two viable passes for SO-50, so I may break out the Arrow antenna and try to score a QSO for a sanguine 100 point satellite contact.

Last year I made 100 contacts. My “hard” goal this year is to double that; my “soft” goal is to triple it. My last performance in the NAQP RTTY contest proved that with experience and a better radio, I could dramatically improve QSO counts. Provided band conditions are good, and 15 and 10 meters open, I feel like I can branch into some very good numbers. Of course, I’m assuming that I won’t be QRMed all day by adjacent operators. I plan to stick with RTTY as long as possible on all bands, both running and pouncing before fooling with PSK, which has proved to be difficult to contest with in crowded band conditions.

If the well runs dry, I’d like to switch to CW. I won’t be bringing a microphone!

Winter Field Day woes

Hanging on for dear life?

Hanging on for dear life? Nope, just getting ready for SPAR Winter Field Day.

Rather than go into the whole narrative of SPAR Winter Field Day, I’ll provide a link to a brief write-up and a gallery of photos I did for our club website.

I usually enjoy Winter Field Day and this year was no exception. I took my K3 down to the Calhoun County EOC and was fortunate to operate out of a trailer on generator power for about 6 hours. Operating conditions were excellent at the EOC, probably owing to the 40-meter delta loop that Bill, W4SFV, quickly made for me just before the event began. We suspended it about 30 feet up and configured it diagonally to the ground.

The “woe” comes in when I look back over the minuscule number of contacts I logged. I decided to operate digital with the intention of working PSK31 and RTTY — mainly the latter. Problem is, the RTTY portions of all bands were jammed with folks in the BARTG contest, so I didn’t want to get in their way. The PSK portion of 20 meters was just jammed up with normal traffic and guys stepping all over each other.

I saw a grand total of about 3 guys calling CQ Winter Field Day on PSK, and I believe we all worked each other. I received so few responses to my CQ FD call I just started issuing a general CQ and finally started generating contacts. Problem is I caught a lot of ragchewers and I had to explain to each one about Winter Field Day and specifically ask them about their local temperature for the exchange. Had I attempted this strategy earlier in the day, I could have logged significantly more QSOs. Oh well. Lesson learned. I believe I had 17 PSK QSOs in the log.

Despite my lackluster performance, the club actually turned in an excellent performance for the day. Voice was the best mode, with more than 110 Qs logged on 20 meter SSB and nearly 50 on 40 meter SSB. I believe W4SFV also grabbed a few on CW. I can’t thank the guys at the Calhoun EOC enough, W4FSV and Dave, W4DMC, both went above and beyond the call of duty to make sure we were comfortable and had everything we needed to get up and running. Lunch was pretty darned good too, and the constant stream of coffee on tap kept us warm on a windy day with temperatures in the upper 40s.

Field Day results!

I just received word from our VP that our club had a decent finish in this year’s Field Day:

We ranked 309/2,548 overall and 23/74 in our category (5A), in an effort that has been the best so far for the club.

With the winter approaching and temperatures dipping into the 20s (when just a day before we were enjoying 70-degree afternoons), I know I’ll be anxiously awaiting the next Field Day, if for nothing else, some warm weather. And a chance to put the K3 on the air…

Full Field Day results are here.

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!

More super-weak signal fun + Field Day

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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