Friday, September 12, 2008

September VHF Contest

Due to Hurricane Ike, and my duties as SEC for Alabama, my time for the contest this weekend will be limited. I may be on HF for much of the time, but I do plan to participate from the home station. Regular readers of this blog will notice that I haven't posted anything in the last month or so. We were in Denver, CO and St. Paul, MN shooting a documentary about the two political conventions. Hard to believe but I haven't made a single VHF contact in weeks!

Not much new at the station, though I do have some limited 900mhz capabilities this time around. Added a modified 30 watt FM rig and loop yagi for this band. I'll be on FM simplex during the contest hoping to hand out some points.

By January, I hope to have a DEMI 900mhz transverter for all modes. I've also added a 30 watt 222mhz DEMI transverter, which will give me 125 watts into 12 elements on my favorite band. Look for me on 222.100mhz.

Otherwise unchanged, which is a shame. I've got shiny new pre-amps, and even that 300 watt Beko amp for 432 waiting to be installed...but no time. Ah, well...winter is coming and that should give me some down time to work on the station.

Listen hard for my weak signal from EM63.

Also, while we enjoy the contest, please keep the folks on the Texas coast in your thoughts. If you can help out on HF, or VHF, please do so.

73 de N1LF

Thursday, August 14, 2008

VHF/UHF Links

Searching for information on an aspect of weak signal VHF/UHF activity can be a frustrating experience, even for experienced researchers. More so than in any other area of ham radio, the weak signal VHF community tends to be very specialized.

One guy may be the leading expert on low noise pre-amp design, another may be into Yagi optimization. Looking for information on how to build a 1st class Rover operation? Good luck with that.

Fortunately, Ron Williams, WZ1V has done all the heavy lifting for us. He has complied the most complete set of VHF/UHF "Links" that I've found to date. You can (and should) spend a day or more exploring the many sites that Ron has discovered. The best part is that he actively updates the list, which prevents wasting time on broken or outdated sites.

You can follow this link to Ron's VHF UHF Master Link Site.

Thanks Ron...you've made it easy on this newbie.

73 DE N1LF

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

It's a marathon, not a sprint

I've posted the phrase, "It's a marathon, not a sprint" on a Post-It-Note, and placed it near my Grid maps for each band. As I work new grids, I mark them with a highlighter, which I suspect is a bit of a ritual for VHF Men.

Experience is quickly teaching me that the "hype" of big V/U events such as contests, meteor shower peaks, and others rarely translate into a large boost in the grid rankings. This week's Perseids peak proved no exception.

It was indeed thrilling to hear 15-20 second long meteor bursts on 2 Meters. My operating time was very limited due to huge commitments at work, but even with that I managed 14 QSO's on 2M MS. The problem was that those only translated into 3 new grids.

Maybe we should call it "USS". That could be short for the "Usual Suspects Syndrome". The VHF community is plagued by this condition, and it affects all bands and modes. A contest weekend approaches and hope springs eternal that you'll work some new ones. But reality sits in when you realize that you'll actually be working the "usual suspects".

Ditto for WSJT and big meteor events. The band is wide open, huge pings fill the air--but the same 15-20 guys who operate the mode almost daily seem to be the only ones who notice.

144.200 saw some long burns during the Perseids peak. I heard an XYL somewhere out there in the Western states happily ragchewing with a friend on Tuesday morning. Repeated calls never seemed to attract her attention. And after three or four burns without catching an ID or location, her voice never returned.

It's like being a fisherman, and talking about the "One that got away".

Since starting activity in late March, my progress to date is:

6 Meters-148 Grids Worked
2 Meters-37 Grids Worked
222-8 Grids Worked
432-11 Grids Worked
1.2ghz-3 Grids worked

On two meters, WSJT continues to be a G0d-Send, producing the bulk of my new grids. More activity from a wider range of stations would help the grid count, but the operators just aren't there.

(Trust me, it's as easy as PSK-31 on HF! If you haven't tried WSJT do it today) You need a multi-mode rig, a soundcard interface, and some patience. It sounds daunting, but it's easy if you just get on the air and try it out.

Six Meters continues to delight and surprise almost daily. And I actually look forward to this year's E-Skip season ending, because I can concentrate on Meteor Scatter on the Magic Band in earnest.

222mhz is my favorite band--as it's quieter than you can imagine, and signals are often stronger than over the same path on 2 Meters. Again, we just need more activity.

432 has also been a surprise, though I continue to hear stations that I cannot work. Hope to get the Beko 300 watt amp working here soon, and want to try EME again.

1.2ghz seems ripe for JT6M mode, but almost no one who uses the band seems to be active on JT6M. Maybe the EME crowd, but they're not as interested in terrestrial contacts.

Still, VUCC on 2 Meters and up seems a long way off. Those 37 grids didn't come easy, and finding about 63 looks nearly impossible to accomplish. But, it's a marathon, not a sprint.

Haven't yet experienced a wide spread 2 Meter E-Skip event, nor a big tropo event, which are actually supposed to be fairly common here in the South. Either would promise adding quickly to the grid total.

My hat is off to the operators who have accomplished VUCC, especially on 2 Meters. Quite an accomplishment. Given the handicap of indoor antennas, this race may take several seasons to run.

73 DE N1LF

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Improve your APRS Map Experience


The APRS Mapping web site has to be one of the most useful tools available to VHF DX'ers. Since it relies on real time 2 Meter APRS data it can help to determine both tropo and e-skip openings. You can visit it at:
My only complaint with the service is that it does not automatically update or refresh itself, the way that other tools such as the 144mhz Propagation Logger or the VHF QSO Real Time Maps do. For users of the Firefox web browser that isn't a problem. You can simply add an extension called "Reload Every" and set the interval that you want the page to refresh itself. I have mine set for about 10 minutes, and that seems to work well.
I haven't checked, but I'm sure that you can find a similar tool for Internet Explorer. Hope this helps others.

Monday, July 28, 2008

There Was A Star Danced, And Under That I Was Born....


The words of the Bard are fitting considering all the fun I've been having working meteor scatter on 2 Meters. 8 QSO's and more importantly to me, eight new grids. I've also had a couple of terrestrial contacts and new grids using the JT6M mode of the WSJT software.

For those who might think that I'm strictly computer guy, I also picked up a new grid over the weekend using that oldest of digital modes, good old CW. But the digital modes offer a significant advantage over even CW, with JT6M and other modes that are part of the WSJT suit able to detect signals several db below the noise level. Given my compromised antennas, this allows me the chance to work a lot of stations that would otherwise be impossible to log.

One of those stations that I've been trying to work most of the month without success is Dan, VE2DSB. A few nights ago he turned me onto a great tool that helps to visualize the current meteor showers, and the direction of those rox.

After doing a little reading in the out of print book, "Beyond Line of Sight", you can begin to grasp the geometry involved. But using the Virgo Sky View tool makes it much easier to visualize.

See for yourself at:

Virgo Sky View

There are also some great links available to help you understand how the direction of travel, speed of the meteor, and other factors affect your chances for a successful meteor scatter contact. Hope these are of help to other newcomers, as we approach the August 12th peak of the Perseids meteor shower.

The International Meteor Organization: Theory of Meteor Reflection

James Richardson, The American Meteor Society: Some Notes and Equations for Forward Scatter


While Sky View can help you to understand which directions of the azimuth have the greatest chance for success on any given day, don't forget that random meteors are constantly striking the earth's atmosphere. These meteors are not part of any shower, and thus don't fall from a given direction (or radiant as they say). The random nature of these events means that successful contacts are possible between almost any two stations within about 1,200km of each other, if they're patient enough.

Thanks to DL1DBC Sabine Cremer for creating this JAVA based web tool, and to my friend Dan, VE2DSB for sharing it with me.

73 DE N1LF

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Love on the Rox


The most important factor for becoming a successful meteor scatter operator is summed up in one word, "patience". Contacts on 2 Meters typically run 15-20 minutes, and can take considerably longer. During major showers, such as the upcoming August 12th Perseids event, QSO's can be completed much more quickly, but during the average session, boredom can become a factor!

To increase my chances at success, and waste less precious operating time to unsuccessful attempts, I'm trying to educate myself on meteor burst communications. Thankfully, Uncle Sam provided me with a lot of it years ago when I worked at the "Special Communications" C-School at the US Naval Submarine Base in Groton, CT.

At the time, we were using a state of the art "burst" communications system for submarines that relied upon exact synchronization of clocks, high power, and highly accurate receivers and transmitters. The system used meteor burst as it's propagation mode, and as such, we were required to learn quite a bit about how that mode worked.

I've refreshed some of that knowledge and learned much more by reading a great book called, "Beyond the Line of Sight", which is a compilation of articles from QST on the various V/U propagation modes. It has some great articles on Meteor Scatter. Though it addresses mostly CW and voice modes which were more commonly used at the time, almost 100% of the information applies directly to WSJT modes like FSK441 as well.

It's out of print, but you can pick up copies on Amazon.com. I highly recommend that all VHF Men obtain a copy.

Another great resource is an e-mail list devoted to meteor observations called, www.meteorobs.org. While most of the discussions center around visual observations of shooting stars, there are also discussions about radio observation. In fact, several amateur radio operators also operate "observatories" to chart, and record the number of radio meteors observed at their location daily. This information is shared with professional groups and is very helpful to the scientific community.

You'll not only learn a lot about which angles and times of day will offer the best chance of success between two stations, but you'll also be more aware of minor showers. These are often not visually spectacular, but on the radio front can be pretty darn special.

Hope these resources can help others getting into MS mode! Hope to hear you on the rox soon!

Staying Motivated

VUCC on 2 Meters is considered by many to be one of the more difficult operating awards in amateur radio to achieve. Just six months into my personal campaign, I can believe it.

To date, I've worked a total of 29 grids on 2 Meters, most via local troposcatter. A few have come via two brief Sporadic E Openings, and a handful via meteor scatter using the WSJT software. But progress is often slow.

During my quest to work my first 100 grids on six meters, if a day went by without working a new one, I considered that a flop. On 2 Meters, that period of time is more like a week, sometimes longer. To date, I've worked 149 grids and five countries on 6 Meters, but on 2 Meters I've worked only two (Canada via WSJT Meteor Scatter)

The recent CQ-VHF contest was a major disappointment. Conditions here were generally poor on both bands, and I had high hopes that this event would draw out more nearby stations. Instead, I worked the "gang" that is usually on here most mornings, and added only 2 grids to my totals on 2 Meters. Not the outing that I expected at all...

By Sunday afternoon, I found myself staring at a ARRL Grid Chart...a handful of them colored in with a yellow highlighter. 29 grids? How on earth am I going to manage to work another 71 grids?

On the WSJT front, despite having over 600 registered users of the software, most days on Pingjockey.com seem to bring out only the "regulars", and I've worked most of them already. To say the least, I was singing the blues...

Then a conversation with a VHF Man in Florida lifted my spirits. Located between the Atlantic Ocean and the Gulf of Mexico, stations in Florida find themselves surrounded by "water" grids with no stations to work. For even some of the Big Gun stations there with Kw amps and large arrays, VUCC remains just out of reach, he explained. His personal quest had taken from 1998 until 2005 to complete VUCC on 2.

As he explained, "It's a marathon, Les...not a sprint".

That helped to put things back into focus. He also pointed out that since I'd only been on since December, I'd yet to even experience my first real tropo opening, or an e-skip opening that lasted more than a few minutes. I hadn't been active during the peaks of the Perseids showers in August, or most of the other storms. In short, the best was yet to come.

29 grids isn't a ton, but considering the limitations of both the operator (work full time, 2 kids, etc.) and the station (indoor antennas, low power), my progress was pretty good. VUCC wasn't out of reach, it just might take a few years.

Like weight loss, staying motivated to achieve the goal is a big part of the battle.

73 DE N1LF

On the Shoulders of Legends...


After weeks of trying, I finally managed to work Rex Turner, W5RCI in nearby EM44. For weeks I've been listening to Rex chat with some of his buddies in the early morning hours, but have failed to attract his attention with my small signals.

I deliberately avoided working any other stations in EM44, wanting Rex to be my first for that grid. Why you ask? History, I suppose. I've always been a fan of studying the past, and that extended into my interest in VHF. For years before getting involved, I read CQ-VHF, The World Above 50mhz, and related materials, knowing that someday I'd want to be involved in weak signal work.

Over time, certain callsigns appear over and over in those pages, and Rex's call was very well known even to a newcomer like me. Rex has been one of the dominant weak signal operators in the Southern part of the United States for almost half a century. He helped to pioneer most of the advances that we take for granted today. Long haul tropo, meteor scatter, EME, and perhaps most importantly, the 222mhz band.

Rex has long had one of the best 222 signals on the band, and has championed it's use for decades. He's nearly everyone's "Mississippi" on 222.

One of the best books written about the weak signal world is an out of print book called, "Beyond Line of Sight". It's a compilation of articles from the pages of QST that cover most of the propagation modes used on V/U. Just scanning that book, I must have noticed Rex's callsign two dozen times.

Just days before the July CQ-VHF contest, I finally worked Rex on 2 Meters, he reported my signal right at the noise level 5/5...but I couldn't have cared less. It was just a thrill to work him and know that his QSL card would soon grace my collection.

Days later during the contest itself, Rex got on for a few hours on Sunday afternoon to hand out some contacts. His signal was loud and powerful on 2 Meter SSB---and he reported my own signal 5/9. We quickly QSY'ed to 432.1mhz to attempt a 70cm contact. While I could copy him with ease on SSB, he couldn't pull me out of the noise. So I switched to CW using an old J-5 straight key.

Immediately Rex came back to me reporting my signal 599...we chatted at about 20wpm for the next few minutes. He told me that he hoped to work me on 222 soon. (My 736R is in the shop right now)...and I replied that I couldn't wait for that.

After the contact, I was reminded of those Visa commercials:

IC-910H-$1,700 dollars
Directive Systems Yagi-$125 dollars
SSB Electronics Pre-amp $380 dollars
Working a legend on 432 with a straight key $Priceless

One of the best things about being a VHF Man is that most of the people who pioneered these bands are still with us, and many of them are still active on the air. Unlike HF, where the immortals are long gone, on the high bands, we can still sit at the feet of the masters, learn from them, and work them on the air.

Thanks, Rex. It was an honor.

73 DE N1LF

Monday, July 7, 2008

Stars Fell on Alabama...


Of course this phrase refers to the classic 1934 jazz tune, and earlier than that, a book by Carl Carmer, describing the spectacular Leonid meteor shower of 1833. But in my case, it is a fitting description for the July 4th weekend this year.

My operating time was very limited. I awoke at 6AM, and rushed out to the shack, attempting to hear some of the stations checking into the East Tennessee 432mhz net. Scatter was poor, with no enhancement noted. So instead, I called up the boys on PingJockey, and decided to give WSJT another try.

Within three hours of sitting down at my desk, using this amazing software, I'd managed to work four new grids, and thanks to VA3WLD, my 2nd country on 2 Meters!

Learned a lot in the experience...including that my recently acquired ARR 144mhz GaSFet pre-amp was DOA. That's a shame, because it's clear that I'm near deaf on 2 Meters using the Icom pre-amps.

Today, I'm shipping all three ARR pre-amps back for service, just to verify that they're working correctly before I install them. One of the hazards of used equipment.

Everything I can read on the net tells me that my Icom mast mounted pre-amps are on the noisy side with noise figures of over 1db...but even if I can improve that with the ARR's it may not translate into real world success. Why? Super low noise pre-amps at best suited for EME work, where antennas are pointed at "cold" sky...for both meteor scatter and tropo work, most of the action is at the horizon.
Pointed down there, the noise floor comes up sharply, and 1db may already be below the noise. Having antennas in the attic can't be helping either.

One station that I worked on Saturday reported hearing me well on nearly every sequence, while I could only copy his station during audible "pings" (bigger rocks and louder signals)

So still a lot of work to do here. I'm installing slightly larger antennas for both 2M and 222 soon. Improvements should be on the order of 1.5-2db. Not huge, but every db counts, right? That will max out the room for hardware, though.

Another "trick" that someone on the WSJT group suggested is to "tilt" the 2M beam up towards the sky more. Perhaps as much as 15 degrees. I may try this too...pointing up would allow better pre-amps to help out for sure.

Still all in all...quite a thrill, and a huge aid to the VUCC hunt! Now I want to see if my puny station can manage WSJT on 222, or even 432.

If you haven't tried MS yet...download WSJT and give it a try!

Hopefully a lot more stars will be falling on Alabama soon!

73 DE N1LF


Wednesday, July 2, 2008

Congratulations on VUCC. Please sign the divorce papers.


Often after a disaster, the victims will look back and comment how it was such an ordinary day at first. Yesterday was such a day. It began with a simple phone call at work.

"Honey can you be home a bit early from work today. We've got company and I'm making this wonderful Chilean sea bass". My XYL of 26 years, Abby is both an understanding ham's wife, and a fantastic cook. Her skills in the kitchen inspired our son to become a chef, and their mutual passion is a source of much pride in our home.

"Oh...and on the way, can you pick up a new coffee maker, ours is acting up again". Ah! I saw a chance to impress her. In the dim corners of my mind, I knew that she'd be eying one of those commercial style Bunn coffee makers for weeks. A quick trip to the store on the way home, and coffee in 3 minutes would be within her reach.

On the way to the store, I switched on the Yaesu FT-857D in the truck. It's not much of a V/U set up. A 1/4 whip on six, and a small KU4AB loop for 2 Meters on the back. To my surprise, the Magic Band had awakened from it's two week nap, and a few Maryland stations were worked on the drive home. Nothing new, just the regular grids including CT, NY, and MD.

I switched over to 2 Meters...dead as usual, but there was THAT noise. You know the one, right? That strange brewing sound...and the hair on the back of my neck stood up. Hmmm...

The coffee maker was purchased, and by the time I'd made it to our home, six meters was really hopping. More importantly, the grids I was working were moving closer to Alabama. Still nothing on 2, except for more of that sound...

I rushed in and greeted my niece and nephew, visiting from TN. My wife was thrilled with the new coffee pot, and I could smell the sea bass broiling in the oven. Fresh spinach and baby corn ears were simmering on the stove. I explained that six was open, and I had a feeling about 2 meters as well...My wife smiled and said, "Go ahead and see who you can work".

I rushed to the radio room and switched on both the Icom 756Pro III and the IC-910H. Six was open, but not booming. I tried to work a few CQ'ers on .125 but the QRM was getting extreme. Too many stations from multiple directions...so I announced that would QSY to .145.

Thus began the "Sea Bass Fiasco".

A quick CQ on .145 suddenly put me into the midst of a pileup! Stations were calling me like crazy. One after another...and I struggled to get up to speed. At first it was more of the familiar FN19's, and 20's. More Maryland stations, but then things began to shift. I was getting calls from PA, and then WV...and then VA! I turned up the volume on the IC-910H, trying to keep an ear on 2 Meters while working the pileup.

Then I was literally flooded with calls from VA, TN, GA, and KY. These stations were literally right on top of me. Some less than 300 miles away! Even with my limited experience, I knew this was no ordinary opening. I kept thinking, 2 Meters must be open.

I checked the APRS map...still nothing. The 144 logger...nothing except others noting the short skip on six and asking for noise on 2. More stations worked me, one after another. All within 500 miles...How could 2 Meters not be open???

The pileup was thrilling. I struggled to work stations, and had to resort to saying things like, "Ending in November", or "The Whiskey 2 Station only". To their credit, all the operators I heard would stand by and wait for their turn. I wanted to work them all, because I knew how rare this kind of short skip was.

One station in SC mentioned that he needed only Alabama for WAS on Six Meters. He had worked the state two years ago, but no amount of begging or SASE's had resulted in a card. Would I please QSL?

Yes, OM, I QSL 100%...He thanked me over and over for helping to make his dream of WAS on Six come true. He didn't know that being asked was a like a dream come true for me.

NC, SC, more GA stations...and then a flood of Tennessee stations filled the log. In the midst of it, I forgot to check my computer monitors to see what was going on on 2 Meters. I had my hands full with the pileup...

Then a polite tap on my shoulder. My wife smiled and said, "Dinner's ready". AHHH!!!!

I quickly came up with a plan. I turned down the volume on the 6 Meter rig, and turned up the volume on the IC-910H. If Two Meters opened, I'd be able to hear it in the dining room.

Dinner was spectacular. The Chilean sea bass had been marinated, pan seared, and then broiled briefly in the oven to finish. Fresh spinach leaves mixed with baby ears of corn danced in a ginger sauce. Hand whipped mash potatoes, and a creamy dish of fried corn chowder rounded out the meal.

Just as the first bite of fish and spinach melted in my mouth, I hear a loud voice on 2 Meters in the next room. I sprang from the chair and bolted into the room. 2 Meters was open! The APRS map showed a huge red star burst pattern right over the Southeast. And the 144 logger showed stations working all around me.

A quick CQ was answered but the station returning my call was just too weak. The operator called me again...I could make out my own callsign, but not his---KA--something. He switched to CW, "This guy is pro thank god!". I reached for the pencil and the bottom dropped out in the middle of my own callsign. No!! Damn it!!

I began twisting the beams and listening hard on 2 Meters....after about ten minutes, my wife brought the sea bass still steaming on the plate into the shack. More static and weak calls....had I missed the opening on two or had it simply skipped around EM63?

A few minutes later my cell phone rang...my wife answered it and brought it to me immediately. "It's Jimmy Long [W4ZRZ]...he says that there's someone on 432 who wants to work you".

Jimmy had been moving folks up to 432 from 2 meters---it had been his powerful signal that I heard on the speaker, not a E-Opening. Todd, N4QWZ in EM66 [TN] was coming in great tonight on 432...did I want to try to work him with my single Yagi? Sure!

I quickly QSY'ed to 432.1, and worked Todd on the first call. I think we were both surprised at how easy it was. I listened to Jimmy work several weak stations, most of them below my noise floor. Jimmy has a terrific new array of 15 element Yagi's, eight of them in all with a power divider from his mountaintop home. He's even louder on 432 now than 2 Meters!

Six and two died down after that...with little more heard until I switched them off and returned to our company.

My wife smiled and made small talk the rest of the evening...never once complaining. A bit later after I'd finished my evening exercise, I went to ask her about our dogs, and while she responded kindly...I got THAT look. You know the one.

In a flash, I realized exactly what I had done. AHHH!!! How could I be so stupid? She made this incredible dinner and I had deserted her and our guests and then never even apologized for it.

Even though it was nearly 1AM by then, I made a point to talk with her for almost another hour. Apologizing over and over for my mistake.

This morning the alarm went off at 6AM, and I got up to head towards the shack. My plan was to try to work some new grids on 2M via WSJT. As I approached the radios...I remembered that discretion is often the better part of valor...and decided not to switch the radios on at all.

Instead, I showered, then gathered up some laundry, stacked a few dishes in the dishwasher, and prepared our dogs for their vet appointment (which I volunteered to take them to). I even made sure that some fresh coffee was brewing in that new Bunn.

When I left, I apologized once more, and Abby smiled and said, "I understand...when the band is open, it's open. You have to work them when you can".

Isn't she great? But just to play it safe, if today brings the band opening of the century, you may not hear the N1LF callsign there. I've got some making up to do. And hey, let's face it. They'll always be another band opening, but there's just one Abby.

73 DE N1LF


Tuesday, July 1, 2008

I Wanna Rockkkkkkk!!!!!!!


It's official. I've become a rock-hound. This morning, I made my first two official Meteor Scatter QSO's using the digital sound card mode WSJT!

For those forced to operate with less than optimum antennas or power, this mode is a god-send. Also if you're planning a expedition to a rare grid, WSJT should certainly be in your bag of tricks. It allows propagation in a range of 500-1400 miles virtually round the clock, and it's possible to work a ton of stations using small antennas and low power.

This morning, I was able to work W9NHE in EN53 (WI) and WA5UFH in EL19 (TX) within the span of about an hour. Both operators are experienced meteor scatter operators and were very patient with me as I struggled to master the software and exchanges. In both cases, "pings" or meteors entering the atmosphere were few and far between, so contacts took a while, but I've worked much harder on SSB and CW to work someone two grids square distant from my location!

I used my standard VHF/UHF rig (An Icom IC-910H) along with a soundcard interface like you'd use for PSK-31 or other modes. In my case, I'm using a SignaLink USB interface made by Tigertronics. I got it from DX Engineering, which is one of the best companies that I've ever dealt with.

This interface is a great one, because it has a built in sound card, leaving your computer's free for other tasks. Set up is simple and requires only the single USB cable. They sell inexpensive cables to connect the radio to the interface too.

If you're new to the mode like me, let me give you a few pointers. The "Calling Frequency" for the mode is 144.140khz. Most activity takes place in the morning hours starting around 6AM Central time. There is also activity in the evenings just after dark, and few die-hards who are available just about 24/7.

You can call "CQ" on the calling frequency but most contacts are scheduled or arranged on the fly using an special internet chat server called "PingJockey". You can simply post a message that you'd like to try a contact and one of the more experienced operators will guide you from there. You agree on a frequency, and a message format (short or long), etc. Usually the station that is the furthest West will transmit first in exact 30 second time periods.

It sounds a lot harder than it is...but much like PSK-31 and other digital modes, once you get started it seems to come easy.

I highly recommend that you download the software for the mode, which is free of charge here at:

http://physics.princeton.edu/pulsar/K1JT/

You should also download and read the short manual, which helps you understand how to operate the mode at:

http://physics.princeton.edu/pulsar/K1JT/WSJT_User_600.pdf

And lastly, you should download and view a great PowerPoint presentation on the mode created by K0SM.

http://mail.rochester.edu/~af006m/K0SM-RVHFG.PPT

There is a lot of information out there on the web, but frankly it can all make this mode seem mysterious and complicated, it's neither. Just give it a try!

Some have questioned the validity of contacts that involve the PingJockey chat server, but I think this isn't a valid concern. Using the chat server allows you to make a schedule. Same has having a schedule to try and work someone on SSB or CW. You know you're you're trying to work (callsign), where to point your antenna (grid square), and what frequency.

But at the end of the day, you still have to work them! Is it possible to cheat using the chat room? Sure...but it's easier to cheat using a telephone or private e-mail. In the case of the chat room, the postings are all on record and could be used to question the validity of a contact.

If you watch the postings, you'll notice a lot of busted QSO's, where folks just give up because the rocks aren't cooperating at that time. In my case, I actually made two previous "learning" QSO's just prior to the June Contest, but neither one counted as a valid QSO, because we exchanged other data on the chat server. These were still very helpful in getting me comfortable with the mode. But not good for VUCC credit.

For me it's simple math. 2 new grid squares, in 2 new states in about an hour on 2 meters! This mode may become my not-so-secret weapon! Thanks to Ted and Tip for my first QSO's on WSJT.

From now on, I plan to order my DX "On the Rocks!"

73 DE N1LF








Friday, June 27, 2008

Fixed Antennas for Contests?

Recently the VHF Contesting E-Mail List has had some interesting discussions about "compact beams" for indoor attic installations. While I think the Directive Systems "Rover" beams are a great solution, some other interesting ideas have also been kicked around.

Even if you're not interested in "contesting", this list is still a great place to learn a lot about VHF in general. Here's the information:

To subscribe or unsubscribe via the World Wide Web, visit
http://lists.contesting.com/mailman/listinfo/vhfcontesting
or, via email, send a message with subject or body 'help' to
vhfcontesting-request@contesting.com

Today, there was a post from James Duffey, KK6MC which offered a number of suggestions that might be useful for those contemplating operation with indoor antennas. With his permission, I'm going to reprint that post below.

One of the ideas that he mentions is to install longer, fixed antennas pointed towards population centers to supplement shorter antennas on rotors. This really intrigues me! My attic had only two locations that were suitable for the installation of rotors and antennas. The largest of these contains my "stack", and I've just about maxed out the length of antennas that can fit that space.
I went so far as to have an architect help me decide where I could safely move structural supports to give me more space. But the attic contains other voids which could offer very long booms a home, only they couldn't rotate. Hmmm.... That really has the wheels turning.

As compared to amplifiers and hardline, antenna gain is the cheapest way to get a bigger signal. Especially on 2 Meters and 432, I could really benefit from longer antennas. The trick now is to figure out which directions and available, and which would do me the most good.

My goal wouldn't be higher contest scores, but more grids.

Here are Jame's suggestions, which I think all have a lot of merit.

A Moxon rectangle as a simple to build with proven performance 6M
beam. It can be built simply from materials obtained at your local
hardware or building supply store:

< http://www.n2mh.net/moxon.htm >

If you have room to swing the Cushcraft A270-10s you will have room
for this.

For 144 MHz, 222MHz, and 432 MHz, the WA5VJB Cheap Yagis are easy to
build, have good patterns and gain for their length.

< http://www.wa5vjb.com/yagi-pdf/cheapyagi.pdf >

To see how you can put two of these on a single beam, look here:

< http://www.wa5vjb.com/references/Cheap%20Antennas-LEOs.pdf >

There are various sizes so that you can pick the one you that will fit
in your attic.

These beams can all be stacked. You can go lower in stacking distance
than is usually suggested. If you don't have much space, two feet is
OK on 2M above the 6M beam and a foot above that for 432. The pattern
will start to deteriorate, but the SWR and gain will not change much.
You will have to accept compromises.

You don't need to stack the beams so that they are all parallel. You
can put the boom of the 2M and 432 MHz beams parallel to the elements
of the 6M beam for instance. This is less than optimum in terms of
passing stations from one band to another, but it can get you a bit
more space.

You also don't need to swing the beams a full 360 either. You can make
the Moxon so that it is reversible; see Cebik's page for details on
this. You can also build beams for the higher bands this way, put the
beams back to back with a common reflector and then switch the feeders
from one driven element to another to change the direction.

Depending on the shape of your attic, You may also consider multiple
antennas pointing in different directions. For contests, it may be
usseful to have long boom antennas pointing towards population
centers, even if they can't be rotated.

Some thoughts, I hope that you find them useful. Go ahead and try
things, it is better to get on the air with a sib optimal antenna than
waiting until you get the "best" solution. With an antenna up and
installed, you can operate and see where your problem areas are, then
pay attention to improving those. - Duffey
--
KK6MC
James Duffey
Cedar Crest NM

Thursday, June 26, 2008

Situational Awareness


Soldiers and law enforcement types refer to "situational awareness" as being keenly aware of the environment that you're operating in. Alert to possible opportunities to gain a tactical advantage.

If you're operating with indoor antennas, it becomes even more vital. Fortunately, there are lots of ways to get this vital "intel".

The best way is also the easiest...use your ears. Park your radios on the weak signal calling frequencies when you're working in the shack. 50.125mhz for six meters, 144.200mhz for 2 Meters, 222.100 for the 222 band, 432.100 for 70cm, and 1296.100 for 1.2ghz. All in USB mode. Obviously, you're listening for CQ's...but also other subtle "cues".

For example "Sporadic E" has a bubbling sound that is very different from other types of noise. You'll usually hear this on six meters and 2 meters just prior to an opening. Sometimes you may hear it, and the opening will never come, but often it will.

You may also want to program in the National Weather Service NOAA Weather Radio frequencies. They're in FM mode, and spread out over seven channels:

162.400
MHz
162.425
MHz
162.450
MHz
162.475
MHz
162.500
MHz
162.525
MHz
162.550
MHz

I made a simple chart that noted each of the four major beam headings, North, South, East & West, and listed which stations I could usually receive under "normal" conditions. Depending on the direction, I average about five channels out of seven. Those with outdoor and larger beams will likely get stations on all seven frequencies.

During enhanced conditions, tropo, and rarely even Sporadic E events, you'll suddenly have new stations dominating the frequency or two stations competing for the FM Capture Effect! This is a sure sign that 2 Meter is open! Get on 144.200 and make some noise!

Here in Central Alabama, it's easy to tell when the band is open to the West. NOAA stations in Mississippi use a female "text to speech" computer voice, while Alabama is an all male voice state. If I hear a female voice, then I know the band is open! Just remember these are in FM mode, not USB.

Another great source of information is the Internet. I can't recommend installing a high speed Internet connection in the shack enough. Cable modems, DSL, or satellite can provide high speed connections to the web. For VHF Men, there is nothing like it. Here are some of the sites that I often keep opening while operating:

  • DX Sherlock VHF-UHF Real Time QSO Maps: This pulls data from the DX Spotting networks and displays them as points on a map of North America. There is a lag in the information of several minutes, but it can give you a great idea of where the band is open to. Very useful for 6 Meters and 2 Meters...less so on the higher bands.
  • 144 Mhz Propagation Logger: Kind of a combination DX Spotting tool and "chat room" for weak signal 2 Meter operators.
  • VHF (APRS) Propagation Map: The technology here is very cool. This map uses the 2 Meter APRS network to detect signals that are being propagated past the normal range of digipeaters (LOS) and plots them in shades of yellow, orange, and red. Areas of red usually indicate tropo or Sporadic E openings. There are "false positives" from time to time, but in general it's a great tool. I only wish that the page would update itself every few minutes, instead you have to remember to "refresh" it if you want real time information.
  • Bill Hepburn's Tropospheric Ducting Forecast: Basically a "weather forecast" for tropo propagation. Like your weatherman, Bill's map are not always accurate forecast, but they are reliable enough to make them daily viewing for most VHF DX'ers.
  • Sidewinders On Two (SWOT) Radar Map: Sidewinders on Two is the oldest organization for 2 Meter DX'ers and membership is highly recommended. Their web site also contains instructions and a real time map of NWS radar. Unlike your local TV station, the NWS maps don't filter out "ground clutter" or "false returns". This ground clutter often amounts to tropo or strong backscatter openings on VHF
There's lots more to learn on the web about VHF DXing, but these sites cover most of the real time information sources used by DX'ers. There are others...such as "PingJockey" for WSJT mode, and I highly recommend them for that mode. There are EME (Moonbounce) chat rooms and six meter specialty sites as well, but these are the most used tools.

Remember though, nothing beats "chair time" and your ears!

73 DE N1LF

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

More on KU4AB Loops



Sorry I forgot to post the photo of the KU4AB.com 6 Meter loop which is also mounted in my attic. See the photo on the left.

It's mounted on the other side of the house, well away from the "stack". It's fed with Andrews 1/2" hardline which runs about 25 feet down into my shack in the garage.

To make installation of all my antennas easier, I cut a hole in the ceiling drywall, about 2 feet long by 1 foot wide. I then attached some very pretty maple shelving boards in the form of a "box" to route cables from the attic down to below desk level at my station. This makes running even hardline a snap! And it looks great, matches the maple workstations in the garage, and passes the "XYL Test".

The KU4AB loop is connected to my Icom 746 Pro, while the 3 element beam works into the Icom 756 Pro III. The advantage of the loop is that I often hear stations off the back of the beam that I would otherwise miss. I've also worked over 35 grids and many, many states on the loop alone.

I also have a KU4AB 2 Meter loop mounted on my pickup truck. I run a Yaesu FT-857D in the truck, and use it to work weak signal 2M stuff. Again, not a world beater, but very solid, stainless steel construction. Plus the price is nice, and delivery was super fast.

If you're like me, I usually read the product reviews of any amateur equipment at www.eham.net. Take things there with a grain of salt, cause some guys post negative reviews to try to screw up ratings, and some don't really know how to operate the equipment that they buy...but with enough reviews you get a sense of how good the product really is. KU4AB antennas receive good ratings, and I can see why.

I've seen some indoor installations where they stacked or "phased" KU4AB loops to give a bit of gain. Haven't tried it yet, but I may do so on the mobile.

Originally, I didn't think I'd have room for the 3 element Yagi on six meters, and planned to use the loop as my primary antenna. While it won't beat the beam, I have no doubt I could have worked 90% of the DX to date with it. Maybe the really weak double-hop stuff from the West Coast wouldn't have made the trip, but most everything else would have. VUCC would certainly be in range using just this antenna and 100 watts.

See you on the Magic Band!

73 DE N1LF




The Big Iron Photo Gallery






Above you'll see several photos of my attic mounted antenna installation. Some look at this and see very short "rover" style Yagis, with large beamwidth and modest gain. Instead, I see "Big Iron" where every available inch of space available as been converted into gain for my signal.

It's not even comparable to the average rover station, but it's an optimized design given the circumstances. As a former engineer, I can appreciate the elegance of that. All designs are compromises. The secret is in making the ones that hurt you the least.

You'll see photos of the VHF Shack (Icom IC-910H). Not pictured is the Yaesu FT-736R that I use for 222. (Though I've ordered a Down East Microwave Transverter to replace it). You'll also see the Andrews 1/2" hardline mounted to the attic floor, pictures of the KU4AB 6 Meter loop (I use this as a "spotter" omni-directional antenna on my Icom 746 Pro. It's also fed with 1/2" hardline)

Also pictured is my original 2M/440 short beam, returned to vertical polarization, and some other innovative antennas from my "attic farm".

Hope this gives folks a better idea of my installation and maybe inspires some work in the lofts of your homes!

73 DE N1LF



You want to do what?


Ah, what would life be like without the skeptics? Think of all the fun you'd miss out on if you never go to say, "I told you so". Or at least I hope that's how this all turns out.

When I told many VHF guru's of my desire to earn VUCC with nothing but indoor antennas for a location only 400 feet above sea level, the reactions ranged from laughs, and my favorite of all advice, "Move."

Fortunately, there were some who offered encouragement. To their credit, even some of the skeptics said, "It won't work, but if you want to try I'll help you". Then there were the true believers...like Bill Olson, K1DY.

After carefully measuring the space available in my large, open attic, I posted to the VHF E-mail reflector asking about antennas with tight turning radius that might fit my needs. Bill works closely with "Directive Systems" of Maine.

Directive Systems make an innovative line of antennas, specifically designed for VHF rovers, who must keep their booms short if they're to remain "street legal" on the highways. The trick is maximum gain in the shortest possible boom length. Bill suggested modifying these antennas for true "center mount" ignoring the center of gravity and other mechanical considerations that would affect an outdoor mounting.

So far, it's turned out to be the best and most important decision that I've made. Pictured above you can see the entire "Stack" which consists of the following:

  • MFJ 6 Meter Yagi. 3 Elements mounted on the bottom.
  • Directive Systems DS-144RS 6 Elements on 2 Meters. Modified "Rover" antenna.
  • Directive Systems DSFO222-10RS. 10 Elements on 222.
  • Directive Systems DSFO432-15RS. 15 Elements on 432.
  • Directive Systems 2325LY Loop Yagi. 25 Elements on 1.2ghz.
Next up, I added the Icom mast mounted pre-amps to the rotor stack for 2 Meters and 432mhz. A Mirage mast mounted pre-amp was added for 222. I've since found out that the noise figure on the Icom pre-amps is about 1.0db. Not too good, even for a broadband pre-amp. So with Jim Long's help, I'm upgrading these to the Advanced Receiver Research pre-amps.

Specifically, I'm adding the 160 watt RF Sensed, mast mounted GaASFET pre-amps. You can find a lot more information about these amps on this link to their web site, AAR GaAsFET.

The noise figures on these are much lower, around .55db. I did a quick test by installing them in-line near the radio...and they clearly improved the signal to noise ratio on 2 Meters. If you want to use them with some of the satellite rigs like my Icom IC-910H they can even install RF chokes to allow you continue sending 12 vdc up the coax. I opted to "hard key" them from the PTT line instead.
From a design standpoint, a lot of folks might question the considerable expense of this installation. The feedline runs are short, so I could have used Belden 9913, for example. It considerably less expensive, and the losses are not much greater than with the 1/2" hardline. My thought was that the entire installation is already a compromise. In a lot of cases, I'll be working stations who are at or even below the noise floor. If anything, every fraction of a db is more critical for an indoor installation, not less.

The installation has been "completed" to this point for about a month. I finished just in time for Sporadic "E" season on 6 Meters and the June ARRL VHF Contest. Results are pretty good so far. 109 grids worked on 6, along with four countries. 13 grids on 2 Meters, including four of them worked via E-skip. (My most distant contact on 2 Meter SSB has been in DM79 in Colorado), five grids on 432, and five grids on 222.

A lot of even modest stations could beat those numbers in a weekend...so patience is part of the plan. We're headed into the dog-days of summer here in Alabama, which should mean some good Tropo openings. Thus far, it's been mostly backscatter and E-skip. I've yet to be part of a really good tropo opening.

One lesson I learned already. Use CW!! If your code skills aren't up to speed, or don't even exist...you can still take advantage of this mode. Using a soundcard interface like you'd use for PSK-31, you can use software like the amazing, "CW Skimmer" to help you copy callsigns and grid square exchanges.

My code speed is good up to about 15-20wpm...but during a recent e-skip opening on 2 meters, there were five or six stations all sending CW at the same time on 144.200. No way I could copy all those signals by ear at the same time, but CW Skimmer had no problem with it.

Likewise, there are several software programs like CWType that allow you to send flawless Morse Code using only your computer keyboard. The bottom line is that if you need those grids, CW may be the only way to get them.

Another "secret weapon" that I'm just now trying is the amazing WSJT Meteor Scatter and EME modes. This amazing software allows you to work 6 Meter and 2 Meter meteor scatter contacts almost 24 hours a day. And as it turns out, a smaller 2 Meter Yagi might actually be better for this mode than those big boomer, because the wider beamwidth allows you to "see" more of the sky and catch more meteor pings! Score one for the small pistols.

I'll let you know what kind of results i get with WSJT as I gain more experience with it. I think it's the only real option for 2 Meter VUCC that I have. Perhaps even 222!

Just the other day, I received an e-mail from another "true believer", Dan O'Connel, WA7TDZ. Don operated with quads for 6 Meters and 2 Meters in his attic for years, along with a 432 "Quagi" mounted between them! My his estimation he has worked close to 100 grids on 2 Meters, and over 300 grids and 38 countries on 6 Meters! All with indoor, attic mounted homebrew antennas!

So, maybe I'm not crazy after all. Maybe it can be done. I'm still not aware of anyone who claims to have earned VUCC entirely on indoor antennas on any band other than 6 Meters, but that doesn't mean that they aren't out there.

Until receiving Don's e-mail, the "best" grid square totals I'd heard of for 2 Meters with indoor antennas was only 14! Don thinks he worked close to 100, without the benefit of WSJT.

73 DE N1LF









Only 99 grids to go...


Big Iron. For serious VHF men, this brings to mine multiple antennas, phased arrays, and power dividers. Monster sized Yagi's perched high on towers, mounted on mountaintop locations.

Or in my case, a tongue in cheek reference to both the Marty Robbin's song and my very limited VHF/UHF "stack". I won't bore you with the details, but my wife's back surgery and recovery dictated a move into a single level house, and here in the South if you want that in a decent neighborhood, you're also talking about deed restrictions and Nazi-like homeowners associations.

Here in EM63, near Birmingham, Alabama that means "No outdoor antennas, period". No flagpoles, no TV "Log" antennas, nothing bigger than a small satellite dish. Yes, I could go to court. Yes, I could move, yes, I could do a lot of things. Thanks...but I've heard it all before. The fact is that for most of us ham radio isn't the most important thing in our life, and other considerations often come first.

My wife loves the house. She wants to live here, and I want her and my neighbors to be happy. If that means that I never make the DXCC Honor Roll, so be it. For the first year after we moved here, I made due with a couple of J-Poles in the attic, and a horizontal loop around the inside of my privacy fence for HF. It's an NVIS (cloud burner) antenna for sure, but it works great for ARES stuff---and I managed to work 90 countries without a lot of effort. Then, I was to fall victim to "The Bug".

It started harmlessly enough. I had mounted a small 2M/440 vertical beam in the attic to get into some distant repeaters. It was attached to a small TV rotor and some RG-213 coax. One Saturday afternoon while working in the attic, I switched it to horizontal polarization and went down into the "garage-shack". I tuned the radio to 144.200 and USB. Nothing but static on that December afternoon.

I remember thinking, "There's nobody on weak signal stuff around here". Ten minutes passed while I soldered a jumper cable for my soundcard interface. Then I heard a very loud, CQ. It was Jim, K4AAF in Birmingham. I responded to his calls, we exchanged "grid squares" and I told him he was my first ever weak signal contact after being a ham for nearly 40 years. We talked for over half an hour about VHF/UHF....and at some point, I started to feel light headed.

I was seriously ill, but didn't know it yet. The following weeks were spent looking at pre-amps, and Yagis...re-reading every issue of
CQ VHF and The World Above 50mhz. Hmmm...the January ARRL contest was just around the corner. I wonder if I could work a few guys on that little beam. What the heck? The Icom 746 Pro had a 100 watts on 2 Meters, and it wasn't totally deaf, right?

Years ago, I had been a very serious TV DX'er. I had low noise pre-amps, hardline, an Icom R7000 with NTSC adapater, and even a phase box for e-skip. This VHF stuff wasn't totally new to me....I'd just never tried the ham radio side of things. How hard could it be, right? Besides, I'm not serious about this. I mean, I live in a deed restricted neighborhood. I'll just play with it a little. It'll be fun. Harmless.

That's how the sickness works. Within a few months, I had gone completely crazy. I wanted to earn VUCC on all the "low bands". 6 Meters. 2 Meters, 222, 432, and maybe even 1.2ghz. Purchases had been made. An Icom IC-910H, several pre-amps, a Yaesu FT-736R with 222 module, some brick amplifiers, and oh, yes...lots and lots of 1/2" Andrews hardline. Houston, I think we have a problem.

Thus begins the quest for VUCC using only indoor antennas. Like most travels, it's about the journey as much as the destination. Along the way, I'll try to share my experiences and inspire others to take up the challenge. I'm very much indebted to folks like Jack Bruce-WA5UUD, Jim Long-W4ZRZ, and Bill Olson-K1DY for their help and encouragement.

If you haven't tried weak signal work on the VHF/UHF bands, all I can say, is "Come on Up, the Weather's Great!"

73 DE N1LF