Airborne swine

My wife came in the shack tonight and found me cackling as I stared at my log. The FT-817 was the only radio on.

“Why are you only using the little one,” she asked, referring to the tiny 817 sitting atop my big rig. The 847 was looking a bit forlorn with it’s LCD screen dark and the mic placed to the side.

“Because I get a certain masochistic thrill in knowing that I’m only using 2.5 watts to work the world.”

Indeed, I found more success tonight on half power than I typically have on 100 watts SSB. I spent the evening working JT65, and finally dipped my feet into PSK31 beyond simply reading the waterfall.

I began the afternoon with what could have been a decent QSO to Britain on 20 meters PSK, but I screwed up and hit the wrong macro “or something” and lost the station. He could have been obliterated by adjacent splatter also; there were a few guys just blowing up all the bandwidth on the waterfall with distorted signals.

At any rate, a few moments later I scored my first PSK31 QSO with W2WC, and got a 599 report, along with compliments on my signal after I mentioned to him I was only running 2.5W. The QSO was far from perfect, and I had to apologize repeatedly for my lid behavior. Fortunately, W2WC was understanding.

I hopped over to JT65 and managed a single QSO, KC0OUZ (Minnesota), before I broke for dinner.  However, this QSO represented something new for me: It was the result of me calling CQ.

When I returned, I switched down to the less-crowded 40 meter JT65 frequency and parked there to call CQ. The strategy worked, as I returned calls from three stations in a row, K4PJO (Tennessee), ND2K (New Jersey), and AE5UV (Texas).

So two firsts for me tonight: A PSK31 QSO, and a successful CQ QSO.

On an unrelated note, my volunteer examiner credential finally arrived from the ARRL. I feel like the circle is complete!

Working the world on 2.5 watts

OK, now I get it! After trying for several days to make a complete QSO with the FT-817, things finally came together on Sunday. Let me roll back to Friday night though…

I finally got around to setting up the SignaLink USB (installing the wire jumpers to configure the interface for my 817 was a snap). Connecting it to the 817 via the 6-pin data cable pretty much makes it a plug and play affair. No need to remove the mic from the rig. Also, the interface was recognized by Windows 7 and configured automatically. Everything just worked right out of the box. I didn’t even need to reconfigure any of my digital mode software, except to specify that the new audio board was the SignaLink. The easy of use and portability of both items makes this an amateur radio “killer app” as far as I’m concerned.

I’m not good enough at CW to even attempt a QSO yet, so I figured it I wanted to make any progress with the 817, I’d need to rely more on low bandwidth digital modes instead of SSB phone. I goofed around with WSPR a bit on Saturday and Sunday, and was amazed at how far away my signals were being heard. I was only running 2.5 watts to conserve battery life. I decided to fire up JT65HF and see if I could actually make some QSOs on 20 meters. My first contact with the 817 was DL1EKZ, a German station approximately 4,300 miles from my home base. We both exchanged -05 reports. Not bad! That’s more than 1,700 miles per watt!

A few moments later I worked KJ2U, out of Utah (Oh wow, I just checked his QRZ page. He’s the father of famed Jeopardy champ Ken Jennings. Is this for real! Big Jeopardy fan here, and I’ve even read Ken’s excellent book Brainiac).

I broke for dinner and came back later. I decided to hook the rig up to my power supply so I could comfortably run the full 5 watts. I sunk into a rather miserable dry spell in which I responded to dozens of CQs but never received a response. I wondered if something was wrong, or maybe folks just don’t want to waste the six minutes on a lowly KK4 QSO.

My luck eventually turned: Europe started coming in strong on the waterfall and I recorded QSOs with UR4MG (Ukraine), W7EWG (Washington State), G8XXJ (My first England contact!), F4BAL and F1MWV (both out of France). Good DX — in fact, just as good as any JT65 QSOs I’ve made on my main rig on much higher power levels.

Other interesting stations on the waterfall last night included an Australian station (Tasmania), a New Zealand station, and a station out of Hawaii that QRZing the frequency and making a lot of QSOs.

I’ve definitely fallen hard for QRP!

So close, and yet so far…

There was lots of good DX on the bands again this afternoon/evening and I arrived home eager to try the limits of QRP again.

After dragging through 10 meters, 20 meters and all the amateur bands in between, I settled on the strongest station I could find, IW9GMF, out of Italy, peaking higher than S9 on the 817’s meter over on 17 meters. I used the Z-817 autotuner for the first time. More on that later.

I got into the pile-up and started slinging my callsign around. I specifically attempted to tail-end many of the QSOs, as this is a method often recommended to QRPers to get noticed. After a while I was rewarded with a response: “The kilo kilo four delta station?”

So confident in my success, I started a new QSO entry in Ham Radio Deluxe. I repeated my call. His response: “Delta sugar … no copy, try again.”

He gave me 4-5 more shots at getting my signal across the pond, but he never copied the last letter of my call. And honestly, I wasn’t even irritated, because after all, he copied SOMETHING. My little five watts SSB signal made it 5,100 miles away and landed on Sicily Island, where IW9GMF heard all but the final letter of my call. That’s huge. That’s more than 1,000 miles per watt!

And about that autotuner. It wasn’t working. I connected everything this afternoon but neglected to set the radio’s serial port speed to its highest rate. So the LDG Z-817 wasn’t even talking to my radio. Doh! I pushed the tune button and it clicked once or twice and appeared to work. But something wasn’t quite right. I was still hearing the radio when it was supposed to be sending a carrier to the tuner. I operated this way for about two hours before I realized that I forgot to set the port speed. I don’t know if this was hindering my signal at all, but I can’t imagine it was helping.

A frustrating moment came later in the evening when I heard a booming station out of Puerto Rico. Now, I looooove Puerto Rico. I shot a destination wedding there a few years ago and it was a magical place, but I’ve had really poor luck when it comes to making QSOs there. For some reason, I always get stuck in a large pile-up when I hear a PR station. Tonight was no different.

KP4BD was booming out of PR with a 59+10 signal. I figured the 817 should be able to hit it, so I called and called and called. No success. Not even a nibble. So I switched on my FT-847 to see if my luck would change with 100 watts. At first it didn’t. Then after half a dozen attempts and a rather aggressive key-up on my mic, the op came back to me with a 59+10 report.

So if I was crashing into PR with 59+10dB on 100 watts, and assuming I’m losing 13dB — or two S-units — when dialed back to 5 watts, in theory I should have been easily heard by the DX station.  At any rate, I still have a lot to figure out with this little rig.