It works!

Winter Field Day was a mellow affair yesterday, with only four club members coming out to operate. Once again we met at Thom’s farm near Camden. This is such an ideal place to operate. There are many trees, and plenty of wide open space. You can operate indoors out of the cold or go as deep into the woods as you dare.

Last year a lot of club members came out and it was a party atmosphere. I don’t know whether the weather scared everyone off (It was about 50 degrees during the day, not bad actually) or whether folks were just too busy, but this year it was just four of us. That meant we had our choice of bands/modes to operate on. I opted for 40 meter SSB. The other guys were 20M SSB, 20M digital and 15 meter SSB. I found a tree with a clear limb about 30 feet up and tossed my line over to pull up the dipole. I connected the 817 and tuned up and it sounded great.

I managed to snag every field day station I discovered on the band, using only QRP power levels. One station told me I was S9+20. The Heil Traveler headset seemed to be working quite well also. States logged included Maryland, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Florida, and Delaware. One of the guys was working from a GOTA station with the Kershaw County Amateur Radio Club and I was his first-ever HF contact. That brought a grin to my face as I remembered making my very first HF contacts at this very same event last year.

Five QSOs in and the battery on the 817 expired. I later discovered the cold had drained it, because it fired right up with a full battery indicator later. I wandered back up to the farm house, where we had our club trailer stationed. One of the guys was giving up after making no contacts on 15. Another had logged a single QSO on 20 and was heading home. Thom was scoring a few points with PSK.

With my 817 down, I moved into the club trailer and fooled around the the FT-450 rig. I logged a couple local guys and a station out of Ohio before shutting down and heading home myself.

Overall, a low turnout for W4CAE, but I accomplished more on QRP than I thought I would. The home-brew antenna was also a nice surprise. To use a Star Wars analogy, I feel like I’ve constructed my own lightsaber!

A messy affair: First home-brew antenna

It's not pretty, and I don't even know if it works yet...

It’s not pretty, and I don’t even know if it works yet…

I’ve wanted to build a ladder-line dipole for a while now. Last summer during field day, my partner Steve constructed a brilliant one for operating on 15 meters and he gave me a spool of 450Ω ladder line to play with. I was browsing on DX Engineering the other day and saw a hardware kit for building dipoles. I remembered Steve’s ladder line, and decided to order the kit in hopes of cobbling together a nice antenna for SPAR Winter Field Day coming up this Saturday.

The kit arrived Monday, along with an LDG 4:1 voltage balun for connecting the ladder line to the antenna tuner. I noticed two problems: My roll of ladder line was too wide for the dipole “T” which was apparently designed for something much narrower. Not really a big deal, but annoying.

Problem two manifested itself later when I started assembling the centerpiece and realized the included nuts were the wrong gauge and they only supplied three of them, instead of the 8 listed on the parts sheet. Rather than send the kit back to DX Engineering, I just bought the parts I needed from a local home improvement store.

I sought narrower ladder line locally, and arrived at this stuff, sold at Radio Shack of all places: 300Ω TV twin lead. Not really ladder line, but it’s low-loss balanced line and many hams seem to like it, evidenced by the numerous reviews on eHam for it. I bought a 100-foot roll, and enough 18-gauge spooled wire to make a dipole for 40 meters and on up.

Once I arrived home I set out to strip back the covering and foam insulation to get at the twin wires. I found the process much more difficult than I expected. Fortunately I have a technique now: Split the strip down the middle 2-3 inches with a very sharp knife and spread the wires apart. Carefully cut some of the plastic around the wire, but don’t cut too deeply or else you’ll cut the copper wire itself. Just score it. You can then give the scored portion a twist and the plastic will break. Pull upwards and the foam and outer plastic will slip off the copper wire. I don’t know if that’s the right way to do it, but it worked for me.

Anyway, I assembled this thing and I’m looking forward to seeing if it works at all on field day this weekend. If it fails, I still have the vertical…

Getting back to normal after Field Day

I’ve already shared my lessons learned at Field Day and the PSK31 macros I used to work digital modes on 15 meters, but I haven’t really commented on how the day went.

Long story short, it went about as perfectly as I could have hoped.

For the last several months, my goal has been to do “something” at Field Day besides help setup and log. That was my secondary reason for wanting a portable rig like the FT-817 (the first being SOTA) … I wanted to be able to operate my own station at Field Day.

It wasn’t until earlier this month at the CARC meeting that I was approached by Steve, who wanted to learn more about digital modes and was interested in seeing the 817 in action. We agreed to man the 15 meter digital modes station. My experience with digital at that point was mostly JT65 and about two PSK31 contacts. So for several weeks, I practiced PSK31 and tried to learn as much as I could about that mode and the 15 meter band.

Steve volunteered to build a ladder-line dipole and bring the battery, chairs, table and our pop-up tent. I arrived with my laptop, the radio, tuner, Buddipole (just in case), coax, wattmeter and other odds and ends in my rucksack.

I think our efforts paid off. Using the club call W4CAE, and operating from a farm in Kershaw County, Steve and I scored 23 QSOs on PSK31 on 15 meters on Saturday from 2 p.m. until the band shut down that evening. We didn’t return Sunday morning because we both had family commitments. Assuming all those contacts check out, we could be looking at contributing 40+ points to the club’s effort of Field Day (digital contacts count for two points each).

Now, I don’t know how “good” 23 contacts is. I do know, that we were VERY lucky to get that many. When the contest started at 2 p.m. Saturday, I sat down and started calling CQ, surrounded by on-lookers and club members who were wondering what a newbie ham with a 5 watt radio and a laptop was capable of.  The crowds died off of boredom over the next three hours. In the 90-degree heat, we ran our CQ macro hundreds of times and only had a partial QSO (a Canadian station if I recall). I pounced on a few stations and we took a break with only four contacts in the log.

While we waited for the laptop to charge back up a bit, Steve and I walked around the camp and discovered that others weren’t having much luck either. A young ham boasted he’d made two contacts.  I told him we had exactly twice as many, and I wasn’t trying to brag. I walked into a trailer where a veteran ham was working 20M PSK. He had a single contact in the log.

Meanwhile, the CW guys were killing it with more than 100 QSOs. Desperate for more action, I returned to our canopy and nabbed two more contacts. The band was just so random all day! I’d lock onto a powerful signal, then it would trickle away to noise.

We broke for dinner, where I inhaled about three pulled-pork sandwiches and a stack of brownies. While the guys were decompressing, I went back to our station alone and drew the canopy down low around me. I was hiding, but 15 meters wasn’t.

Somehow in 45 minutes time the band really took shape. There were QSOs up and down 21.070. Most of my CQs were met with responses. I actually had a RUN going at one point. I was jacked up on about 80 oz. of Coke Zero and sweet tea by this point, I was tired, dehydrated, hot and needed a shower. I don’t know if it was the pulled pork, the brownies or the caffeine, but I started yelling insane utterances at my laptop and the radio. I wish I could remember them, but I seem to recall telling one signal to “get in my waterfall!” People were gathered around and talking about movies and flying and other random BS. I had tunnel vision. The QSOs kept coming. I kept calling out the locations of stations as I received their exchanges: “We’ve got Argentina! Washington State! Kansas! Canada again!”

I recall scanning the waterfall and realizing I’d worked every station on there. It seemed like a good place to stop, as the laptop was dying again and both Steve and I were ready to pack it in. Next thing I knew I was exchanging high-fives and handshakes with folks. Steve said he’d never had this much success at Field Day, and that meant a hell of a lot to me.

I drove home knowing that I’d done as much as I could have done given our equipment, power level and experience. I haven’t heard a tally of the final projected score, but I do know Steve and I exceeded the number of QSOs recorded by the 75M, 15M, and 6M phone operators, and possibly some others. The code guys are the real champs, which gives me yet another reason to continue my code practice. We ran 11 stations total, (11A), making our club one of the larger operations out there on Field Day, so I look forward to seeing how we performed.

Tonight I got back to chasing DX at 100 watts with the FT-847. After working QRP for a month straight, it almost seems too easy. Three calls resulted in contacts with three countries on 20 meters tonight, including a new country for me, Lebanon. I even managed to catch part of the Ham Nation 20 meter net with Bob Heil, and over on 75 meters, heard Ham Nation’s Cheryl, in a casual QSO.

My PSK31 macros for Field Day

I spent a few days researching PSK macros for Field Day and the main theme that surfaced again and again was that macros should be brief, efficient, and include some redundancy. I managed to narrow our process down to basically five buttons, assuming we would call CQ more often than pouncing. Here’s what I used in Ham Radio Deluxe’s Digital Master 780 program:

CTRL-1 | CQ Field Day

cq fd cq fd W4CAE W4CAE W4CAE cq fd k
<erase><stop>

CTRL-2 | Answer (For search and pounce contacts)

<his:callsign> de W4CAE W4CAE k
<erase><stop>

CTRL-3 | Send report

<his:callsign> <his:sent_rpt> 11A SC 11A SC 11A SC <his:callsign> k
<erase> <stop>

CTL-4 | 73 and write to log

<his:callsign> QSL 73 sk<add-log>
<erase><stop>

CTRL-5 | Again? Again?

AGN? AGN?
<erase><stop>

So basically I’d call CQ. If a station responded I’d click their callsign to get it in the log and hit CTRL-3 to issue the signal report. Once I get their report I click and select their sent exchange, which places it into the log, then finish with the “73” macro, which saves the log entry and starts a new one.

If I pounced on a CQ, I’d simply run the “answer” macro, and follow through to 73. The “again” macro was useful if we had a garbled response and needed information resent.

These may not be pretty, but they don’t need to be. We kept it simple and had no problems. Our QSOs were conducted very quickly and we didn’t keep anyone waiting.

(Notes: W4CAE is our club call, 11A SC was our exchange. Yep, we had 11 stations! The <his:sent_rpt> tag produces a 599 signal report, which is the default behavior in DM780. I don’t think an RST is even required with the Field Day exchange.)

Lessons learned on Field Day 2012

The 15 meter digital station, one cog in our 11A operation. That’s me standing under the tent looking confused. Photo courtesy of Ed, KK4CTP.

With my first summer Field Day in the history books, here are a few observations I made at our club’s 11A event, where I worked 15 meter digital modes. These are in no particular order:

  • Good CW operators are godlike. One of our members racked up more than 100 QSOs in the first hour or so.
  • Bring extra shirts. Half an hour after I arrived on-site, I was drenched in sweat from the 90+ degree heat.
  • Deep cycle marine batteries are awesome for powering gear.
  • The power inverter I used to charge my laptop caused some serious RF interference. S2 background levels jumped to S8+ when that sucker was running.
  • A mechanical filter of some sort would have been very useful with the FT-817 to get rid of strong adjacent signals.
  • It pays to know your software and logging programs. A fellow club member managed to get Digital Master into split mode (He was receiving on one portion of the waterfall and transmitting on another) and reported he’d only made a single QSO as a result. A quick Google search on my phone produced the remedy: Click the yellow lock icon on the waterfall toolbar to exit split mode!
  • Bring first aid supplies. I sliced a chunk out of my index finger while taking down an antenna mast and was bleeding all over the place. That was the about the only thing that went wrong the entire day.
  • Real men operate outdoors! What’s with everyone hiding out in trailers and campers with HDTV, full air conditioning and all the comforts of their home shack? Well, they are smarter than me; that’s what they are. Still, I enjoyed our little pop-up tent station. We were out in the open under a shady tree and as a result, we had lots of visitors coming by to check out our operation. Many folks were interested in digital modes and had never tried them, so we showed off the SignaLink, the software, the radio, and how QSOs are made and logged.
  • Coke Zero is my drink of choice! I drank nearly 90 oz. of the stuff while operating. Probably not the best way to stay hydrated though!
  • Ladder line antennas will have a screwy SWR when connected to an analyzer.
  • It doesn’t make any sense to make a single-band ladder line dipole. Go long or go home!
  • SWR meters work better when they are connected between the rig and the autotuner, rather than between the autotuner and the antenna. (Or, how a $30 MFJ wattmeter had five experienced hams armed with an antenna analyzer completely stumped — yes, this was my fault all along.)
  • The food at Field Day is damned good! Peanut butter brownies are deadly!
  • 15 meters can be a cruel mistress.
  • No folks, we don’t all have to be use N1MM to log. You can use anything you want as long as it spits out an ADIF. It’s amazing how many people don’t understand that.
  • Ham Radio Deluxe’s logbook in conjunction with Digital Master works just fine for me.
  • Taking the time to set up my logbook database and contest macros for PSK31 several nights before was priceless.
  • If the band isn’t hopping, turn everything off and go visit with some other hams for a bit.
  • If you are logging on a computer, bring a USB stick to periodically back up your log onto. When I operate at home I sync my logs with Dropbox before I sign off.
  • My laptop, LDG tuner, SignaLink and FT-817 withstood hours of heavy-duty operating in 90-degree temperatures just fine.
  • A classic Victorinox Swiss Army knife remains my go-to tool of choice after 20 years.
  • Remember to have fun and don’t take the “contest” aspect of it too seriously. I was annoyed we’d only made four PSK QSOs after three hours of operating. Then I heard reports from some of the other guys: They’d only made one or two QSOs and 10 and 6 meter phone/digital was dead. Four QSOs didn’t sound so bad then. After dinner I racked up more than 20 when the band conditions improved. What a difference a few hours made!

I was told that you learn “four times as much” on Field Day as you do from books or operating at home. I must agree!