Monday, December 7, 2009

The band is dead? There's an App for that!






VHF Men who have had a chance to read a few issue of DUBUS magazine may have
noted that Meteor Scatter operators in Europe put a lot more emphasis on
manipulating the WSJT software to achieve successful contacts than we do in
North America. That's a very general statement, as there are certainly some
very skilled WSJT operators in the US and Canada as well...but for most it
seems to be a casual experience. They're quite content to sit back and let the
software do most of the work and rarely attempt to manipulate it to their
advantage.

Others use the software infrequently, perhaps only during major showers, and
don't take the time to unlock it's full potential.

Recently, Harry Johnson, WB3BEL wrote a very compelling response to a
discussion about this topic on the WSJT reflector. For anyone interested in
the mode, it should be required reading. Following some of the techniques that
he outlines will make you a better WSJT operator, and you'll put more contacts
in the logs. With his permission, I'll share an edited version of those
remarks now:

I agree that while the physics and geometry tend to debunk the notion of
"one-way" rocks. The term will endure to describe the frustration due to one
party decoding more pings the other. I will say I am by no means an expert,
but I have a few observations that may benefit others.

It would be true that if the mode were full duplex and both stations had
similar effective ERP and G/T you would both receive reciprocal reflections
off of the same physical meteor trail. But, that really isn't how we run on
MS. We run simplex mode. So it is probable that if the meteor pings are short
and/or few, one station receives more than the other.

However, if this does not appear random over a long time period you may want
to investigate why.. If you more frequently receive fewer pings than your
partner or you often take longer to move to the next message than they do, and
you have similarly equipped station it's worth investigating.

I'd say that most of the major reasons have a common basis; poorer signal to
noise ratio. It may be you have high local noise, it may be that you have less
skill using WSJT controls or decoding using your eyes and ears. Or it may be a
defect in signal quality.

If its local noise you will have a struggle. An antenna with lower sidelobes
may help. Finding a quieter freq may help. Finding the source and neutralizing
it is your best option but may be difficult or an ongoing battle. Sometimes
pointing off direct bearing by both parties can help especially on short
paths.

If you have a big frequency error either TX or RX the decoder will be less
sensitive. The solution may be to start a sked with Tol = 400 and progress to
lower Tol (200, 100...etc) after receiving the first bursts and adjusting VFO
if early in sked or RIT if later. What you are trying to do here is get the DF
low and then tighten the Tol. You don't want to change your freq if the other
station has also made a correction. This is a bit of mind game. For example,
if I have only run a few sequences and RX a fragment of other stations TX1,
and see a big DF say +250. I can fairly safely assume that they have not seen
me with a big -DF and counter corrected. I will move my VFO +250. and then
lower Tol to 200. But if its later in the QSO and say I RX the other station
TX2. I might just move the RIT assuming they may also have made a change on
their side. So being a better operator may improve success here.

WSJT is NOT as sensitive in decoding SH tones as your brain using eye and ear.
If you set WSJT to be super sensitive to SH tones (choosing low clip value)
you WILL get false decodes and result in some busted contacts. Tiny noise
spikes will sometimes decode as SH tone. But listening for specific tone using
headphones and looking for a trace line at the right vertical position on the
SpecJT in combination with the WSJT decoder for SH is many more dB sensitive
and less prone to false decode. If in doubt, you can click on the region on
the specjt trace to encourage multiple decode using different start time for
the captured data. Or you can wait for a second confirming ping. I find that
WAY FEWER THAN HALF of decodable SH messages automatically decode in WSJT.
Know how to adjust the RX level close to 0 dB, and understand how some noise
blankers/AGC reduce sensitivity to short fast rise time pings.

I don't fully understand it, but if I am listening using headphones and
discern a definite meteor ping especially TX1 or TX2 with data, I will
relentlessly click on it or slightly before and after it in time until I
squeeze some useful characters out of it. It's like...I know you are hiding in
there...and I am going to beat on you until you give up a few letters. These
reluctant to decode pings come from signals with lots of impairment. They may
be for example (not exhaustive):
1. Very weak (1 or 2 dB),
2. Very strong /without a sharp rise time
3. Have a big DF.. or a lot of time varying doppler..
4. TX/RX station has a lot of hum, distortion, sound card jitter on signal...

So also it depends on how hard the operator on the other end is trying. If you
walk away from the screen to get a coke, watch TV you will get fewer decodes
than a skilled op trying to choke every character string out of the
ether...Some guys want to see the full message in a decode. Other guys will
mentally glue call fragments together ala old SSB days. I think that is all
fine. If you get carried away and look for single isolated characters you may
be over the line. You can click a blank screen enough times and force any
letter to decode standalone.

So while the best remedy is higher power, bigger antenna, better QTH and rarer
DX call, you might still be able to better your odds of logging a station by
perseverance and skill with your tools.

Good luck with the meteors.

-Harry WB3BEL

[Despite his modesty, Harry is an excellent operator, and very successful at
digging out stations with significantly less ERP than his own. He's done a
great service to the VHF Community by presenting some techniques that can help
everyone make more contacts using the WSJT software]

Marshall Williams, K5QE, another top notch VHF Man, also offered his observations on how operators can improve their decodes, and make more QSO's using the software:

Have you noticed what I observed just by luck??  I often will click 10-20 times across a ping, looking for every scrap of information that might be in there.  It is amazing how often you will find one or sometimes both calls in the ping, even though a single click on the middle of the ping nets garbage.

If you have not done this, I suggest that you try it often and see what your results are.....Of course, it can be a schedule that you are not part of...just something to receive.....

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

On The Cover of Rolling Stone (or QST at least)

The results were published today for the June 2009 VHF QSO Party in QST Magazine. My paltry efforts in the Unlimited Rover category resulted in a 3rd Place finish in that category and a listing of my name and callsign in the hallowed pages of QST.

Now, the league has lost some of it's luster since I was first licensed decades ago, but I'd be lying if I said that I didn't still get excited to see my name in the magazine, work W1AW on the air, or get a contest certificate in the mail. The years have made be wiser, and perhaps a bit more of a cynic, but there is enough romance left in these old bones to still get a warm feeling for these things.

In truth, my score of 24,000 was nothing to write home to mom about. And if the "Unlimited" category of Rover didn't exist, I wouldn't have placed in the Top 20 for Rovers. But for someone who operates with indoor antennas 90% of the time, and is always playing second fiddle to other stations, it was a nice morale boost.

Even this minimal showing would not have been possible without a lot of help from my VHF Elmers. First among them would have to be Jimmy Long, W4ZRZ. Jimmy not only loaned me equipment for my rover effort, but also provided a lot of training, set up support, and encouragement along the way. He always seems to be there with a pat on the back or a kick in the backside (whichever is needed) at just the right time to keep me motivated.

He's also one of the best VHF operators that you'll ever meet, and a heck of a contester. I've learned so much from him, and couldn't begin to repay him.

Bill Capps, AF4OD loaned me his 5Ghz and 10Ghz equipment for the contest when he saw that work would prevent him from making a major effort. He also has provided some valuable intel about good operating locations, and roving in general. Thanks Bill!

And lastly Jack, WA5UUD has indulged my endless questions about all things VHF---and is the first to call me on the one to alert me to openings. He also hung with me during my journey into EM61 where VHF operators are rare, and warned me of an approaching storm. Jack is one in a million, and I'm proud to call him friend. Thanks for staying with me Jack!

There are many more VHF Men who've helped out too---Marshall, K5QR comes to mind, and Bill Olson, and well, pretty much everyone on the VHF Reflectors, and e-mail lists. 

If I haven't said "Thank you" or told you that I'm grateful before, please let me do so now. It's quite a special fraternity that I've been allowed to join here. "VHF Man" is one of the best things that an amateur can be.

73,

N1LF

Grid #73 & The Jig To Come



Tropical Storm Ida and a cold front have put an end to the tropo for now, so what's a grid chaser with indoor antennas to do? Turn your eyes to the skies!

The Leonids Meteor shower will peak on November 17th, but even now the daily rates are starting to rise. Last night I had some limited operating time, but jumped on Ping Jockey to try a few contacts. My first attempt was with Terry Bess, K8JX in EN64, and we managed to pull off the 770 mile contact in a little over 15 minutes using WSJT software. This is Grid #73 on 2 Meters for me, and was a nice contact indeed.

Dan, VE2DSB monitored our QSO and decoded a couple of pings from me, and even managed to decode several from Terry off the back of the beam. After completing with Terry, Dan and I attempted a QSO for what must be the 30th time or so. Alas, no joy in Mudville. Dan and I were still not able to complete our QSO despite a half hour long attempt.

The ironic thing is that Dan was actually my first ever contact using the WSJT mode, but the QSO did not count because he walked me through it using the Ping Jockey Internet reflector. On that initial attempt, we completed in about 20 minutes, with Dan providing guidance and tips on operating the mode via the Internet logger. At the time, I think we both thought that we'd simply "do it again" for credit without the aid of the reflector later on.

Hours after the first contact (with three completed QSO's under my belt) we tried again without success. It's now turned into a running joke between the two of us. At 1,200 + miles it's no piece of cake for a meteor scatter contact, but both of us have completed longer ones.

Still the effort and the goal give us a glimpse into what the early VHF Men had to endure. Endless schedules in an attempt to complete a QSO, and seemingly endless disappointment. Dan and I are resolved to try around the 17th of this month during the shower peak to see if we can finally bag that elusive QSO.

I've got a bottle of bubbly chilling in the shack fridge to mark the event, when it finally happens, and have promised to dance a jig too. My wife is looking forward to that---you see, I can't dance, and all attempts to do so have become the stuff of legends in our family.

For those out there struggling with less than perfect antenna situations, hang in there, and remember that getting there isn't half the fun, it's all of it.

73,

N1LF

Scaring Up a Good Time-Halloween Tropo


Forgive my excitement---because I'm sure that this week's tropo openings in the Southeast and Midwest are not exactly the stuff of legends to most VHF men. But to a newcomer like me, it seems like the opening of a lifetime. Despite having only limited time to spend at the radio, I got all treats and no tricks!
 
On Wednesday night, I managed to work five new grids and dozens of stations that had previously only been worked via WSJT meteor scatter. The band was literally filled with signals, as I tuned across the band hearing QSO's in progress from 144.170 all the way up to 144.220. It was hard for me to believe!
 
I'm sure that this has something to do with the veil between ourselves and the spirit world being thinnest at this time of year, and all that. But be in voodoo, hoodoo, or just that Old Black Magic, I'll certainly take some of this witchcraft!
 
I worked stations from Iowa, Missouri, Tennessee, Kentucky, Florida, South Carolina, Alabama, Georgia, Mississippi, Kansas, Illinois, Indiana, and Arkansas, all in one magical evening!
 
You may say that these conditions were caused by atmospheric conditions, related to a pressure boundary, and all that scientific mumbo-jumbo, but you guys can't kid me. This was black magic! How else can you explain someone over 900 miles away telling a station with a 6 element indoor beam that his signal was "So loud, literally booming in!" Or reports from three states away of "S-9 +, you're the loudest signal on the band!"
 
Nah, I was married on Halloween, 27 years ago---so I know a thing or two about this darkest of holidays. You can try to feed someone else your lies about this tropo stuff. You guys should just come clean and admit that you've made a deal with the devil.
 
Regardless, as they say in Texas Hold 'Em...I'm all in! Now at 70 grids worked on 2 Meters with my indoor antennas, I'll gladly make a bargain with Lucifer for the next 30 grids!
 
Happy Halloween, indeed!
 

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

1st Ever Tropo Contact!



A couple of weeks ago brought another first for this VHF Man. A frontal boundary set up in the Southeast allowing for some medium range tropospheric propagation on 2 Meters, 222, and 432. Now based on what the experienced operators say, it was a "run of the mill" tropo opening, really nothing to write home about, but for this newcomer it was a blast!

I came late to the party, first hearing about the opening via an e-mail from one of the TV DXing e-mails lists. In years past, I was an avid DX'er of TV signals, and even though I'm not active in that part of the hobby these days, I still read the mail and plan to return to it someday.

I got the e-mail alerting me to an opening in Tennessee and North Alabama at about 7PM. I rushed out to the shack to see the APRS Map lit up in bright red all across my area. I turned on the rig and tuned to 144.200. Scanning around a bit, I heard nothing. I quickly checked the NOAA weather radio frequencies, and sure enough, some strange sounding material and city names indicated a strong opening towards the Mid-West.

Retuning to 144.200, I started using the voice keyer to call CQ. These went unanswered. On a whim, I filled on a 50 watt FM rig and tuned it to 146.520 Mhz (Simplex) and gave a quick CQ there too. To my surprise, I was immediately answered by Bobby Livingston, N5YLE in Little Rock, Arkansas! He was almost full quieting!

My FM rig has a three element beam, mounted vertically in the attic, and is fed with 1/2" hardline. While it's a solid performer on the local repeaters, it's no world beater. I was amazed!

Bobby turned out to be in EM34, which was a new one for me! Grid #64 went into the log book just that easily. Returning to SSB, I called several more times without answer. Suddenly, more and more stations began to appear. Most of them in EM55, EM65, etc. out to about a distance of 200-250 miles. Many of them were new calls in the log, but no new grids. The surprising thing is that even with my compromised antennas, many of them sounded strong like locals. Just working eight or nine stations on 2 Meter Sideband in a given evening was a thrill for me!

Sadly, the opening died off around 9PM, with no additional grids worked. But it was a taste of what tropo has to offer, and helped to build my hopes of making VUCC on 2 Meters from my indoor confines.

Thanks Bobby! My 1st ever tropo contact may have been on FM simplex, but it sill counts! The card is in the mail.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Grid #62 via WSJT Meteor Scatter!


WB3BEL PUTS GRID 62 IN THE LOG

Thanks to the skill and patience of Harry Johnson, WB3BEL, Grid #62 on 2 Meters went into the logbook this morning. We worked just after sunrise on 144.130 using WSJT Meteor Scatter software.

Just moments before Harry had worked another station in Alabama in EM64 in just a few minutes. I advised Harry that it might take longer due to my indoor antennas. We started the QSO, and within just a couple of sequences, I received a loud "ping" on the radio and a brief bit of audio. This decoded into 26 N1LF 2626 WB3BEL

For those not familiar with WSJT software messages, that means WB3BEL has received both call signs and is indicating that my signal strength is 26. Since I had now received both calls, I quickly shifted to sending my reply, which is simply R26.

Using the software, many proforma messages such as R26, RRR, and 73 can be sent using "short message tones" which really improve the performance in a weak signal environment. We had both agreed to use short message format prior to our attempted QSO.

Long minutes passed, and several more meteor pings brought me the same message over and over. This wasn't making sense. Harry has an impressive antenna array and should be hearing me fine. The issue is usually the receive side on my end. Literally, if I can hear them, I can work them.

I kept waiting for the "RRR" message from Harry that would indicate that he had copied my signal report and both calls...making the QSO valid. But instead, I just keep getting 26 N1LF 2626 WB3BEL. Something was wrong...but my XYL was making conversation, and we'd had less than four hours of sleep. My brain wasn't in "troubleshooting mode". As over an hour passed on, I finally spotted my error! I had forgotten to "check" the short message format box.

Harry's software had been hearing my replies but was unable to properly decode them! I switch to short message format and send "R26" again. Within two sequences, I got Harry's reply, "RRR". I responded with "73" and when he had copied that, I explained my error on the chat page.

So, special thanks to Harry for hanging in there! SASE from the village idiot is in the mail to you today, Harry. Thank you for Grid #62 and another step closer to my goal.

I've been seeing new callsigns on Pingjockey lately, and hope that more VHF Men will give WSJT a try. It's great to be able to work folks nearly around the clock, and is a great mode. With the Leonids meteor shower coming up in November, you're getting your feet wet at the perfect time. They should be plenty of good DX in the new couple of months. Give it a try!




Home Owners Association Antenna Issues



HOA Puts A "Stop" To Rover Antenna Too
Honestly, I'm trying hard to stay positive about living in a deed restricted neighborhood, and the impact that has on amateur radio activity. But I'm at my wits end.

Friday's mail brought a "warning notice" from my homeowners association informing me that I was in violation of the CC&R agreement which prohibits any outdoor antenna with the exception of small satellite dish antennas. According to the letter, the HOA had received a complaint from one of my neighbors who could see the "tip tops" of several large antennas in my backyard.

Since I have no outdoor antennas, I was more than a little puzzled. A quick stroll into the backyard revealed the problem. My PVC "rover rack" of large VHF/UHF Yagis was sitting on my patio table so that I could mow the lawn. Even with the privacy fence, the tops of it could likely be seen by one of my neighbors. I knew just which one is must be.

The Back Story: Just a few days prior to receiving the letter, my wife and I had been in the backyard spray painting some props for our Halloween decorations. We had placed a painters drop cloth on our patio and were doing a few touch ups during the early afternoon. We also used a Skill saw to cut a few PVC pipes for use in the props. A noisy and messy operation best done outside.

One of our neighbors was having several of her friends, and their children over for what Yuppies refer to as "play dates". Despite the emphasis on children, these are little more than excuses for the wives to dress up, act snotty, and gossip about their friends. During that afternoon, I had noticed several "hard looks" in our direction meant to convey her disappointment that we were doing labor in our backyard during her social event.  

My wife and I rarely even visit the backyard, and our college age kids have even given up using the hot tub, so I'm sure that she didn't expect anyone to be outside making noise during the afternoon. It should be noted that our temporary project is perfectly acceptable use of our property according to our neighborhood rules, leaving her little to complain about to the HOA. I suppose that when she spotted the antennas, she simply jumped on it as an excuse to make a fuss.

In any event, the experience has convinced me that any attempt to "hide" a tilt over mast would be futile. I'll simply have to learn to live with the reduced performance of attic mounted antennas, and place the rover rack into storage off-site.

There is little else that I can do until the economy improves and the demands for existing homes perks up. Maybe in a year or two, we'll consider selling the home, and moving to another neighborhood. Meanwhile, the quest for indoor VUCC on 2 Meters continues....

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

September Contest a Bust

Friday afternoon found one of our biggest client's with an emergency requiring me to spend most of the weekend in an editing suite. Instead of a full blown, six band Rover effort, we had to settle for some quick QSO's from the parking lot.


Our "normal" mobile setup is a Yaesu FT-857D feeding a 1/4 magnetic mount whip for 6 Meters, and a M2 Loop for 2 Meters. It's perfect for working some e-skip and locals on 2 Meters, but not what you'd want for a contest effort.

Despite that handicap, we managed about 40 QSO's, including several on FM during the Alabama ARES Simplex Exercise. (At least that part of the contest was a success!) We also worked a few QSO's on 222 MHz, using my HT.

We had planned to mount the PVC "Rover Rack" with nice sized Yagi's and rigs for all bands...but it just never happened. This is the first time since I've started on VHF almost two years ago that I didn't beat last year's score for a given contest. Disappointing, but at least the client was happy!

We'll be on for the Sprints and back in force for January. Until then, look for us most mornings on 144.200 and on WSJT modes too.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

222 MHz VHF's Best Kept Secret

The 222 MHz band is VHF's best kept secret. I can't hope to explain the physics, but like many VHF Men, I can swear that similar equipment and antennas on 222 will have the same or slightly better range than you'll get on 2 Meters.

How is that possible? Beats me...but I suspect it has something to do with a much lower noise floor on 222. Unfortunately, the 222 band is not available in Japan, nor in many other parts of the world. This limits the amount of commercial "plug & play" gear for the band.

But new rules in ARRL Contests may help to encourage more participation on the band. The new "Limited Rover" category requires that entrants use the bottom four bands available for any contest. This means that all VHF/UHF contests will now require 222. Anyone hoping to win this category will certainly want to add 222 Mhz.

A good way to "break into" 222 MHz, especially during contests is to try FM first. There are a number of new and used 222 FM rigs out there, like the Kenwood Units pictured in the vintage ad above. Also, Jetstream is producing a new 222 MHz rig, the JT220M, which is very resonably priced. Check it out at:

http://www.randl.com/shop/index.shtml

In addition, several HT's offer the 222 MHz band such as the Kenwood TH-F6A (a great radio with full five watts output on 2M, 432, and 222!), the new Yaesu APRS HT, and others. Most simplex activity during contests is on 223.500mhz. Best results will be obtained by working stations on SSB on 2 Meters or 432 (if you're in the UHF contest) and then "moving them" to 223.5 FM. Buy or build a gain antenna such as a "Cheap Yagi" and make sure that it's turned horizontal. Even with 5 watts, you'll be able to work out a good distance.

The next step up is to purchase a used 222 multi-mode rig or better yet, a good transverter to work with your 10 Meter rig. I have a Down East Microwave Transverter married to a Yaesu FT-817ND IF rig. The transverter puts out 30 watts, which I use to drive a Mirage 125 watt amp. This works great, and isn't terribly expensive. Getting more power than this on 222 requires another large expense, and someday I may add it, but right now I'm having fun working folks on this modest station.

Meteor scatter on 222 is possible (I have two contacts to date) but more difficult than on 2 Meters. E-Skip makes it to 222, but it's rare, not more than once every two or three years. EME activity on 222 is growing, with lots of stations to work. The main mode of enhanced propagation is tropo, but as I said, signals are often much louder on 222 than on 2 Meters.

During the June Contest, I worked Marshall, K5QE in Texas on 2 Meters with signals ranging about 57 on my end, and 53-55 on his end. When we switched to 222, he came back to my call immediately saying, "Man, you're the loudest signal I've heard on 222 tonight!" Signals were 59 to 59+ in both directions. As a rover, it's great to get reports like that.

222 MHz is my favorite band, and I really miss it's biggest supporter in the Southeast, "Mr. 222" Rex, W5RCI from Marks, MS. Sadly Rex is a silent key now, but the Southeast still has several voices on 222, all of them eager to work you on the "Secret Band".

Join us in Room 222 soon!

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Grid #60 on the 2 Meter VUCC Chase!




Thanks to Robert Howard, K0RDF for my 60th grid on 2 Meters! We worked this morning using WSJT Meteor Scatter at a distance of about 568 miles. The contact was quick and fairly easy, lasting about ten minutes from start to finish.

140659 21.4 340 6 26 -96 K0RDJ N1LF K0RDB N1LF K0RDF N1LF K0RDF

"Ping Jockeys" will quickly recognize the gibberish above, as the "readout" from the WSJT software decoded after a strong ping from a meteor trail. Copy is solid at "26" while my received frequency is off by just 96 hertz. A quick adjustment of my RIT control, and then I narrowed my TOL (basically like a "bandpass" filter in the software) to limit my received bandwidth to only 100hz. This allows me to be right on frequency with Bob, and limit bandpass to only 100hz.

That way any pings that follow, even if they're weaker, I should be able to dig Bob out of the noise better. In actual practice, most pings are good and loud. But it's best to practice for worse case, as distants contacts around 1,200 miles or so take every bit of processing power that the software has.

There is an art to decoding weak pings, and good operators can recover callsigns and signal reports that are well below the noise level. I'm working on becoming a better MS operator.

WSJT remains the "secret weapon" for my ERP challenged station. About 70% of my grid total was accomplished using FSK441 or JT65b. Hoping to finish the tilt over ladder mast soon, and try my hand at EME too!

Thanks again Bob!

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

The Southeastern View on VHF

Just had to share the recent comments from Jim Worsham, W4KXY about the view on VHF Operating in the Southeastern part of the country. These comments were made on the VHF Contesting E-mail List:

We guys in the Southeast enjoy reading all of these discussions
about the validity of the various modes, skeds, etc. Down here our
philosophy about VHF contesting is we will work anyone anywhere using any
mode, band, etc. that we and they have. We can't afford to be snobs about
it.

Jim is often active from W4NH, the Fourlanders Contest Team, which is one of the best VHF contesting stations in the area. He's also our rep to the VUCA, and does a lot for the entire VHF Community.

Friday, August 14, 2009

Grids 54-59 on 2 Meters

This past week has been a very productive one on the bands. Despite a generally lackluster Perseids meteor shower, I still managed to work five new grids on 2 Meters, bringing my total to 59 grids worked since January of 2008.

The Perseids netted several netted several new contacts on 6 Meters as well, and a very memorable contact with K0RI in Colorado Springs, CO at a distance of 1,071 miles. What made it memorable is that the entire contact took less than 2 minutes using the WSJT sotware!

Also managed to work Danny, N5OMG in New Orleans on 2 Meters without any help from the falling rocks at all. We used the JT65b mode of the WSJT software and just the usual middle of the evening backscatter to complete the 300 mile QSO during what most would describe as "dead band" conditions. Thanks again to Joe Taylor, K1ST, without whom I'd never have a legitimate shot at earning VUCC on 2 Meters.

It's becoming clear that time at the dials is the most important factor in reaching my goal. But that's always been the case on these bands. One of my mentors advised me to follow the Three B Rule:

1. Be On. (When the band is open, the rox are falling, the moon is near the horizon, whatever)
2. Be Loud. (More power, Scotty! More iron in the air helps too)
3. Be horizontal.

I plan to concentrate on putting in a tilt over mast at my station, and beefing up the 2 Meter antenna to at least 12 elements. I'll also be able to better use the SSB Electronics mast mounted pre-amp. It's great in some directions now, but the attic has too many noise sources. In some directions, turning on the pre-amp only makes things worse. Getting the antenna outside should really help with that too.

Thanks to all who listened hard for the weak one. Each grid is like gold to me, and I'm more grateful than you could know. See you on the bands!

N1LF/R For August UHF Contest





I learned some hard lessons during my first Rover outing in the June 2009 VHF Contest. As faithful readers will recall, I used a 40 foot tall aluminum mast mounted on my trailer hitch for that effort. This provided great height, but also resulted in about two hours of work for each stop on my route. Way too many contacts were missed due to this handicap.

I reasoned that the "run and gun" approach would be better, and after looking at dozens of rover setups from around the country, decided to build a PVC "rack" that would sit on my pickup truck bed and allow me to operate quickly once reaching a new high spot in my route.

The design for the PVC rack was my XYL's, Abby Rayburn, who has the workshop that would be the envy of any man. She's a "handy gal" in the extreme, and cut the rack to her own exacting specifications. It was cemented with heavy duty PVC glue, and beefed up with wooden dowels inside for added strength in critical areas.

After it dried, we mounted several long Yagi's for 2M, 222, 432, 902, 1.2ghz, and 2.3ghz to the rack. In addition, I'm using a trailer hitch mounted painters pole that holds dual 2M KA4UB loops, and a single loop for 432.

The ability to run these loops during driving periods adds more than a few contacts to the logbook.

Inside the vehicle, I took an old garage organizer shelf that was lying around, and cut the legs between two of the shelves down to about 8" apart. Then I mounted all the various radios, transverters, and power amps to the two-tier shelf using heavy duty wire ties. On the back, I installed a Rigrunner power panel with Anderson PowerPoles, and labeled everything with a Dymo label maker.

Also adapted an old stereo RCA switching panel to allow me to quickly switch the PTT keying circuit from the FT-817ND (IF Rig) to either of the three transverters. Another antenna switch routed RF signals from the IF rig to the transverter. Switching from one band to the next took only one knob turn and a click. Sweet!

Another antenna switch allows me to feed the 28mhz signals from the transverters to either the Yaesu IF rig or a RF Space SDR-IQ receiver. The SDR-IQ allows me to use the PC to look at a band scope display...making it much easier to find signals on the UHF and SHF bands. Didn't use it much during the contest, but it worked great.

Installed a large 12VDC deep cycle marine battery in the bed of the truck to power everything, and "Glow Fuses" on all leads.

Now to operate portable or rover, I can literally "pick up" the radios, and place the entire shelf unit in the back seat. Place PVC rack of antennas on the bed Secure antennas with motorcycle straps, connect feedlines and batteries, and be on the air! QRV on all bands 6-2.3ghz.

Power for the PC (laptop) comes from an I-Go 12VDC power adapater which didn't put out any RF hash at all. All logging for the contest was done using RoverLog for the first time. Found it to be very useful, but I still like the VHF Log from N3FJP better.

So, how did it play? My wife was really ill on Saturday, resulting in missing the first 30 hours of so of the event, except for some FM contacts from the hospital parking lot. On Sunday, I took it out to EM63 (Locust Ridge), EM62, and EM61. Picked up lots of new grids on all bands. Several stations said I was really loud on 222 and 902, which was great to hear.

The highlight of the event was having Danny, N5OMG in New Orleans call me on 432! We also worked on 222. I'd been trying to work Danny from the home station for over a year without success! We finally did complete on 2 Meters yesterday using JT65b mode (WSJT) from my home station. Thanks Danny!

Some have asked me if operating rover during the contests has improved my grid chasing. Hmmm...that's a hard question to answer. It's added grids to the totals to be sure, but the maximum benefit has come on the bands 432 and up.

The issue seems to be that "contesting" gets in the way of grid chasing. I have a nasty side when it comes to competition. You know, one of those obnoxious guys who take the church basketball league WAY TOO seriously. It's a problem, I'm not proud of it, and I'm working on it. But it also applies to ham radio. During a contest, I get fixated on my score---not how many grids I'm working.

I keep promising to spend one full contest day on Locust Ridge in EM63. It's only six miles from my house. Has great 360 degree views with almost no trees, and it's about 1,100 feet ASL. All stations worked from there count towards VUCC since it's within 100 klicks of my house, but moving to other grids helps the score...and I always end up chasing the score more than the grids.

In terms of "bang per buck", WSJT is the secret weapon for those in HOA situations. I've worked seven new grids on 2 Meters in the past week. My operating time is limited, otherwise my totals would improve faster there too.

Next step is a tilt over mast for the house, and working on optimizing my 2 Meter set up for Meteor Scater and limited EME. I think I can add at least 10 grids on EME with a 10 element beam, 200 watts, and the SSB pre-amp. Time to get to work!

I'll be operating N1LF/R during the September event again---so look for me. I'm on APRS as N1LF-1.






Monday, August 10, 2009

Grid 54 on 2 Meters

As the Perseids Meteor shower peak on August 12th nears, action really picks up on 2 Meters. This morning added grid #54 for 2 Meters using the indoor antennas, thanks to WSJT!

Worked W8NJR, Terry for my 1st ever 2 Meter Ohio QSO and grid EN70 in the books. EZ contact taking only about 10 minutes to complete. I actually copied both calls on the 1st sequence.

If you're not on the WSJT modes, you're really missing out. I also put two new 6 Meter grids in the book this morning, filling in "close in" grids in EM42 and EM46 using JT65b modes. This was with virtually no backscatter enhancement on the band at...(dead band conditions)

Thanks Terry for Ohio and EN70. And thanks to Joe Taylor, my freaking hero!!!!

Sunday, August 9, 2009

K0XXX EM46 Who says the bands are dead?

It's 2:00PM in the middle of the afternoon. No sign of tropo, backscatter, and the 2 Meter band is dead as a doornail, right? WRONG! Using the amazing WSJT software, Mark Hambrice, K0XXX in EM46 managed to work my indoor signal using the JT65b mode!

At 307 miles, this is a routine SSB contact for many 2 Meter operators, but not for my station. Mark is running only 7 elements and 150 watts, so neither station on the path was a big gun. But it does prove what this amazing sofware can do, even under dead band conditions.

I never heard any of the tones being transmitted from Mark, so the entire QSO was "below the noise floor", but easy copy using the JT65b mode which is designed for Moonbounce (EME) work, but also works great for tropo and backscatter.

Thanks to Mark for Grid #53 with the indoor antennas. Over 1/2 way to VUCC on 2 Meters now. WSJT really is the secret weapon. Thanks Joe!

1000 QSO's on VHF

A milestone of sorts was reached today. Worked K5DNL, Ken in EM15 (Oklahoma) on Meteor Scatter on 6 Meters. This 600 mile QSO was my 1,000th on weak signal VHF since starting about a year and a half ago.

Thanks to all who've listened so hard for my weak signals from the indoor antennas. Can't wait to reach 2,000 and more.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Smart Glow Fuses




Many VHF Men, especially rovers, have learned the wisdom of fusing their power leads running to those pricey transverters, pre-amps, and VHF/UHF rigs. For rovers, this usually means fusing both the positive and negative leads as close to the radio as possible.

But as any rover can tell you, troubleshooting equipment in the dark on some lonely hilltop can be an exercise in frustration. Especially in the heat of a contest. During the CQ VHF contest while operating at night in North Florida, I had a fuse blow on my Yaesu FT-857D. Since I had not brought along the "rover rack" it was literally the only radio available, leaving me dead in the water until the problem could be fixed.

But luckily, I used "Smart Glow Fuses" which light up when they're blown. I also used the specially made clear fuse holders which are made just for these fuses. "Tracing the problem" was as simple as lifing the back seat and looking at the custom power distribution center. I replaced the 20 amp fuse that was glowing with another from my bag of spares and was back on the air in less than 30 seconds.

Smart Glow Fuses are sold at most automotive parts stores, and can also be found at Ace Hardware, Wal-Mart, and other retailers. They're available in a variety of sizes from 1 amp all the way up to 40 amps. They're a bit more expensive than standard blade-type fuses, but worth every penny if you're on that dark, lonely hilltop.

They also work great in the Anderson PowerPole distribution panels sold by West Mountain Radio, MFJ, and other companies. And they're perfect for fixed stations too, not just rovers.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

N1LF/R For CQ July Contest



Google Map of N1LF/R Proposed Route


An unexpected request form a client to come to Tampa, Florida for training this week has radically altered my plans for the contest.

N1LF/R will be active in the CQ VHF July Contest on 2 Meters (200 Watts into 10 Elements) and 6 Meters (100 Watts into a KU4AB Loop):

Saturday: 1800 UTC- I'll be looking for a high spot just North of Tampa in the "Land of Lakes, FL" area. Should be here all day.
Sunday: 0900 UTC- We start the trek back home, which will take me through EL88, EL89, EL80, EM70, EM71, EM61, EM62, and EM63.

We may alter the route to work a few more grids if possible. While in motion, I'll switch to the KU4AB stacked loops on 2 Meters, but will be able to stop and use the Yagi at times.

Best bet is to look for us on APRS. My SSID is N1LF-1. We would also appreciate those who check us on APRS or work us on the air spotting us to the various reflectors during the event. You can follow our progress at:
Just type in "N1LF-1" and hit "find". We'll have the APRS running most of the time. If the packet is old, that means that we've stopped and turned it off to minimize interference to our weak signal stuff. But we will be on the air! Have fun everyone and listen for the weak ones

Great Ideas for Indoor/HOA Antennas

A visitor to the Blog sent me a link to a PDF file called How To Play Radio With Hidden Antennae" by Eric Silverthorn, NM5M. You can view it on the North Texas Microwave Society web site (which is a goldmine of information on VHF topics!)

The PDF file appears to be a club program with lots of verbal discussion about the possibilities for overcoming deed restrictions, HOA's, and even XYL's who may not like the look of antennas. It contains dozens of photographs of installation ranging from indoor, attic mounted VHF/UHF stacks (like my own) to window mounts, "hidden or disguised" antennas, rover operations, etc.

Unfortunately, there is very little supporting text, so we don't get a feel for how successful these arrangements were, but there's certainly plenty of "food for thought" contained in the file.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

VUCC On Indoor Antennas!

Yesterday's mail arrived with the first batch of cards from the ARRL June 2009 VHF Contest. Within them were enough confirmations to put me at 110 confirmed grids on 6 Meters, using (mainly) indoor antennas! So the good news is that it can be done, at least on the Magic Band.

Current grid totals are a little over 200 grids worked, nine countries, and all but two states. (I still need Oregon and Alaska) but not bad for a three element beam in the attic and 100 watts.
A handful (less than 10) of my confirmed grids came from mobile contacts, but each of those grids was also later worked from inside the house. My first Six Meter contest was with K5HCT (Here Comes Texas!) in May of 2008...so it took a little over a year to gather enough confirmations for the award.

On Two Meters, the picture isn't nearly so pretty...only 47 grids worked so far from inside the house. The majority of those coming via meteor scatter using WSJT. No e-skip contacts yet this season, but that could still change.

In hindsight, I should have opted for the rover option sooner. But I really have enjoyed the challenge of earning VUCC using indoor antennas. At this point, I'm switching to more of a compromise approach using rover operations during contests to build the grid counts, and also constructed a "tilt over mast" that will be hidden below my privacy fence during the day, and deployed at night for operation on 6, 2, and 432. This should really help with MS work, and maybe bring EME into the realm of possibility at least on 2 Meters.

I'm "stealing" my design from this web site. It's a wonderful execution of the idea...and I can't wait for the welding to be finished so that I can begin installation.


http://wiki.radioreference.com/index.php/Tilt-Over_Mast

Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Microwaving with W4ZRZ


Last night my son and I journeyed back to nearby "Locust Ridge" which is 5.1 miles from my home in EM63og. The site is at 900+ feet in elevation and completely clear cut to make room for a housing development. When the economy went South, many of the homes were never built, leaving a 1/2 mile stretch of paved road with flat lots of either side.

Unlike most high spots in Alabama, the trees have been removed, leaving clear views in 360 degrees. I operated rover here during the June 2009 VHF Contest and was really impressed with the signals on all bands.

We returned last night to complete our microwave contacts with Jimmy Long, W4ZRZ on all microwave bands. We had tested from this site just prior to the contest, and worked Jimmy on all bands up to 3.5ghz, but did not attempt 5.7 & 10ghz at that time.

Our "spot" is marked with both sticks and small flags, and we use the GPS to insure that we return to this exact site, hoping to complete VUCC for several microwave bands here in the future.

With ease, we worked both CW and USB contacts with Jimmy Long, W4ZRZ last night using equipment borrowed from Bill Capps, AF4OD. The 1.5 foot dish uses Down East Microwave transverters for the two bands, and shares a common Yeasu FT-817ND for an IF rig.

Output power on 5.7 is 15 watts, while 10ghz is limited to less than 2 watts. Despite the handicap, the 10ghz is often much louder due to the dish size realtive to frequency. Jimmy Long, W4ZRZ is going to add a 10 watt amp in the near future, before venturing into Arkansas, Mississippi, and Kentucky in an attempt to provide VUCC contacts to AG4V.

Hopefully, he can mount another such mission before summer's end to try to add the four grids that I need in the microwave bands for VUCC as well.

The sunset was beautiful and my son actually seemed to enjoy Dad's radio nonsense for a change. Weather was perfect too...and Jimmy was loud as always. With the completion of these contacts, I've now completed with him on all bands 6M thru 10ghz. We even did a demonstration of these contacts for Field Day on Saturday in nearby Shelby County, though those wouldn't have counted for the VUCC effort.

Jimmy does so much to encourage newcomers to VHF/UHF operations, and I'm very grateful for his friendship. See you on the Ghz range too!

The Moon is a harsh mistress...




I can confirm that the 1960's Sci-Fi novel is correct. The Moon is, indeed, a harsh mistress. My first attempt at EME using the attic mounted six element 2 Meter Yagi was a complete failure. No signals were detected from W5UN's massive array. Nor did he detect any signals from my attic.

We were using WSJT JT65b near my local moonset, which in theory, should have provided another 5-6db of ground gain. Unlike meteor scatter, EME is truly a "weak signal" mode, with signals being several db below the noise floor on average. My system simply isn't optmized enough for this type of operation yet, even with the big guns.

It has inspired me to at least consider some sort of "tilt up" mast for the back yard that could be dropped below my privacy fence when not in use. Hopefully this wouldn't run afould of the neighbors or my home owners association..and if it was, I could always remove it and retreat back to the attic.

The tilt over mast would allow the option of installing much larger Yagi's (10-12 elements on 2 Meters) and improve both terrestrial, EME, and meteor scatter operations from the home QTH. I'm really enjoying portable/rover operation, but with my limited operating time, it won't be a good option for day to day work. If I'm to earn VUCC on 2 Meters, it will still have to come in large part from operation at home...and that means dealing with the deed restrictions and working around them.

Up to 47 grids on 2 Meters now from the indoor antenna...which is good progress, but also painfully slow. New grids have become red letter events now. Perhaps a tilt over mast will make EME operation possible, at least with the big gun stations, and that could add another 10-12 grids to my totals. Enhanced Meteor Scatter performance could add several new grids as well, especially with some major showers coming up at the end of July.

Thanks to Dave, W5UN for his generous attempt. It certainly won't be the last time that we try to pull it off. Just have to improve the station first.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Indoor EME?




After reading the title, you may be having a hard time controlling your laughter. I know that the idea of working Moonbounce (also called EME) using an indoor antenna sounds a little crazy. But I've got proof of at least one instance when it was done successfully. And here's the kicker, the ham with the indoor antenna was only using 25 watts!

It took place on 14th of January in 2008. The contact was between Angus Young, MOIKB and super-station, KB8RQ. At the time, Angus was running a homebrew 7 Element Yagi, with 25 watts of power to the attic mounted antenna! The mode was JT44, from the WSJT suite.

You can read the full newspaper story at:
http://www.scarborougheveningnews.co.uk/news/Why-Angus-is-over-the.3686368.jp



An amazing feat, though most of the work was done by the monster array at KB8RQ in Ohio, and certainly not by Angus's meager radiator. But in any event, it serves as "proof of concept" that such contacts are possible.




I've arranged to attempt to repeat the feat tomorrow night with Dave, W5UN, whose MBA (Mightly Big Antenna) has graced the cover of QST and many other radio magazines. Like KB8RQ, Dave will be doing all the work...but fingers crossed.

Since my antenna lacks any elevation control, I'm limited to working EME attempts only at Moon Rise and Moon Set. This is similar to a lot of other stations who've worked 2 Meter EME using single long Yagi's.

The problem is that my Yagi isn't long (6 Elements) and it's indoors. Being short means that it will "see" a lot of the sky and my sky noise level will be higher, since the reflector (moon) will occupy only a tiny space of the beamwidth.

In my favor is that I'm running 200 watts, and feeding the antenna with 1/2" hardline. I also have a mast mounted SSB Electronics pre-amp...but I think the contact remains a long shot. If successful, it would open up the possibility of working several other "big gun" EME stations and adding to my grid total which now stands at 47 on 2 Meters. Still a long way from VUCC.

Let's hope that The Man In The Moon smiles on us tomorrow! Fingers crossed & thanks to Dave, W5UN for the attempt.

Friday, June 19, 2009

VHF Men & History


One thing that I really encourage anyone interested in weak-signal VHF work to do is to try to learn a bit about the history of amateur efforts on these bands. Over the past couple of years, I've amassed quite a collection of books, magazines, and other materials.

Take for example, this copy of The Radio Amateur's VHF Manual. This league publication dates from 1972, and I also have two earlier editions from the 1960's. From those pages, you'll learn a lot about the pioneers of these bands, many of who are still active today. And for those of us who have "simple set-ups", a lot of the information that was "state of the art" at the time has since become affordable and commonplace. In other words, you'll see a lot of your own station's gear in these pages.

One of the best publications is Beyond Line of Sight. A History of VHF Propagation from the Pages of QST, edited by Emil PoCock. Published by the ARRL, you can find used copies on Amazon.com, or Ebay. It contains a wealth of information about tropo scatter, Spordadic E, Meteor Scatter, etc. It also reads like a "whos who" of VHF Men.

Frankly, I wished the ARRL would resume publishing the book, it's that good...and could be easily updated with some of the recent material, including the study that Gene Zimmerman is currently publishing on Spordic E in his QST column.

I think it's important to have a sense of what others have accomplished before you inherited the bands that they pioneered. It also inspires a person to investigate new ways of pushing the envelope such as WSJT digital modes, or EME. Start on your vintage VHF library today.


All Who Wander Are Not Lost. They're Roving!


I wonder how many people out there are just like me? For years, you've looked at the photos in QST or CQ VHF of those "nuts" out there running around with their cars, trucks, and vans covered with antennas, hauling out microwave dishes to the summit of some distant mountain, or parked on some snow covered peak with a flat tire? You've sat and looked at those photos, and thought, "Man, those guys must be crazy!"

Well, take it from me. If you're ever had those thoughts while looking at the photos. You were right!
What's missing from those photos are the smell of bug spray, body odor, and road grime mixed with coffee, soda, and bad road food. Those photos can't convey the sore muscles, the slurred speech, or the blurry vision. They can't begin to reveal the frustration of answering a million questions from curious on-lookers, or showing your drivers license to the third policeman in two days.

But they also can't provide you with the sense of accomplishment as you give a friend a grid square that he's being trying to get a QSL card out of for years. They can't provide the thrilling sensation of working K5QE on 2 Meters and 222 after nearly two years of trying. Photographs can't provide the feeling of your heart skipping a beat when Marshall comes back to you on 222, saying "Man, you're loud!".

Nope, roving is just something that no amount of research, planning, or conversations with seasoned veterans can really prepare you for. Like most of the best things in life, it's something that you really have to experience for yourself. Having done so once, I can't wait to go out again.

================ PROLOGUE =========================================
My preparation for this rove was problematic at best. To start with, I traded for a new Dodge Ram 1500 just two weeks before the contest. This involved removing the radios from my old truck, and having to do an entirely new installation in the new vehicle. We also had a long planned family camping trip/vacation from Sunday to Friday June 12.

This lead to a bad scramble of borrowing equipment (Thanks to Bill Caps, AF4OD and Jimmy Long, W4ZRZ for loaning me microwave gear, connectors, and a lot of advice!) Then we had to engineer mounting, packing, etc. I decided on a combination of "run and gun" and "stop and shoot".

A pair of KU4AB stacked loops were added to the truck, along with a simple 1/4 mag mount for six meters. This took care of the "run and gun" part. These were married to my Yaesu FT-857D which is permanently installed in the truck, and provided for over 90% of my QSOs. I even made a number of contacts on the loops on 432, though I don't recommend it. Many times on 2 Meters, the loops received comments like, "I can't believe how loud you are for a rover". The trick was getting them up high and clear. I used a fiberglass "painters" pole, which I painted black and mounted with stainless steel hose clamps to the frame of my Tarheel trailer hitch mount HF Antenna.

This allowed me to extend the top loop to over 12 feet, and near the 15 foot legal limit. Unfortunately, during the afternoon on Sunday, while on a dirt road on Beck's Mountain in EM61, a low hanging limb broke the mast. I had another painters pole as a backup, but the repair took me off the air for over an hour.

When parked, I removed the Tarheel from the trailer hitch, and used an aluminum push up mast where attached to the trailer hitch. Thanks to Marcus Thomas, KF4YHP for the mast, and ideas! This allowed me to get all the other yagi's up high and in the clear. Unfortunately, I had to rely on "used" LMR400 that turned out to cause major problems on 2 Meters, 432, and 1.2ghz.

The other issue is that this set up averaged over an hour each time, and proved very costly to my efforts. Next time, we're going with a PVC frame to support the antennas, and "run and gun" all the way. Still it made for an impressive sight.

My wife Abby Rayburn, who is very handy and has a workshop that would be the envy of any man, solved a lot of other engineering issues prior to the contest, including fabricating the brackets and standoffs for the tall mast. She also did the driving on Saturday! Thanks my love!


==================HIGHLIGHTS & LOW POINTS==============================

My two meter beam had issues on Saturday, so Sunday I switched to a backpacker style 4 element beam from Arrow Antennas. This little antenna worked wonders! On the opposite end of the scale, the 222 system performed like a champ putting out loud signals with only 125 watts from the Mirage, and the DEMI transverter can hear a pin drop!

Thrills included working K5QE, and giving out EM61 to some local friends who've had a hard time getting cards from that grid. Six Meters was open just about all day on Saturday, which disappointed me. When six is open, it's hard to find folks on 2 Meters or higher. My main goal was new grids on the higher bands, and 6 Meter openings make that difficult. I'm sure September will be best for that effort.

Working my first QSO's on 3,5, & 10Ghz was also great fun. I'm adding a transverter for 902 for the next contest, and ditching the FM rig. Now maybe I can work someone besides Jimmy and Craig!

Breaking off the mast for the loops was a low spot...and we had a lot of severe weather in Alabama, including hundreds of lightning strokes per hour, so Sunday afternoon operating time was curtailed as I waited out the downpours. Jimmy Long, W4ZRZ suffered some lightning damage as well. At one point while in Pike County (EM61) we had over three inches of rainfall in less than an hour! I got off the dirt roads of Beck's Mountain just in time thanks to a "heads up" from Jack, WA5UUD who was watching my back.

Lots of room for improvement over my first effort, but it was a joy to work stations with ease that I usually have to strain to hear from my indoor location. See you all again in July and September.


Friday, June 5, 2009

What the Hell Was I Thinking?






The race isn't always to the swift, nor the battle to the strong. But as my father used to say, "That's how the smart money bets". For over a year now I've tried to console myself with lots of stories about how the turtle beat the hare, and all that jazz. But with 2 Meter grid square count at 42, 222 at 7, 432 at 11, and 1.2ghz at 3, it's hard to remain optimistic.

So, in the spirit of "Bringing the Mountain to the Man"....I decided to try "rover" operation in the upcoming summer contest. At first my plans were modest, 4 band "Limited Rover" out to do it. Nothing too crazy. A push up painters pole on an umbrella stand. Simple, right?

Then I thought about adding a few more bands....just a pipe dream really.

But then I made my fatal error. I mentioned this pipe dream to Jimmy Long, W4ZRZ and Bill Capps, AF4OD. Bill is Alabama's best known rover, and has given me several grids through his efforts in the past. Jimmy is the "Big Gun" in EM63, winner of several VHF/UHF contests, and a mentor to my meager efforts.

Before I could blink, this duo started offering to loan me equipment and "walk me through the process". A visit to Jimmy's home left my new Dodge Ram 1500 pickup loaded to the gills with transverters, dishes, tripods, marine batteries, and more.

A couple of weeks go by and then my old friend, Marcus Thomas, KF4YHP decides to lend me a hand too. He brings over a wonderful US Army Surplus push up mast, and improvises a way to attach it to my trailer hitch. Suddenly, I have an 18 foot tilt up mast...and a lot of antennas in the air. Marcus also chips in making up the cables. Everything is 1/2" superflex hardline and Belden 9914.

Now the backseat is filled with radios, brick amps, and transverter...and my simple rove is attracting scores of neighbors curious about the idiot in their midst. Maybe indoor antennas was the way to go after all....

In any event, I'm getting ready for the "smoke test" with Jimmy Long, W4ZRZ tonight some 35 miles away. Hopefully it's all cabled correctly and it all works.

See you in the contest...hoping it pays off with a lot of new grids worked!

Thanks to Bill, Jimmy, and Marcus...I THINK!!!!!

Thursday, June 4, 2009

K5N on Indoor Antennas




Friday was a big day for this VHF Man. It started with the news that my good friend Jack, WA5UUD had successfully worked K5N. The chase was on for the rarest grid east of the Mississippi.

Then I spent most of the afternoon at the home of Jimmy Long, W4ZRZ. He was in the midst of repairing his recent antenna damage, getting ready for the June contest. Despite his demanding workload, he took time off the towers to teach me the basics of microwave operating. Bill Capps, AF4OD has decided to forego the microwave effort for the June contests, and agreed to loan me his microwave rover set-up for my first ever attempt at roving. The gear consists of mainly DEMI transverters, along with Toshiba power amps, all mounted on plywood bases.

It includes 2.3ghz, 3.4, 5.7, and 10ghz. The gear is "jointly" owned by Jimmy Long, W4ZRZ and Bill, with each contributing parts to the cause. We set the gear up "portable" in Jimmy's garage, and he helped me calibrate the transverters with a frequency generator. He then walked me through setting up each unit, the basics of finding the beam headings for the desired station, and walking me through aiming the antennas.

One by one, we worked quick QSO's on SSB and CW on 5.7ghz, 10ghz, and then 3.4 and 2.3. It was quite a thrill to make those QSO's, even if they were from a distance of 100 feet or so. With Jimmy and Bill's generosity, I should be QRV on all bands with the exception of 902mhz. I may even lug along the 902mhz FM rig just to round things out. This was followed by hours of conversation about roving, including a ton of tips from Jimmy. Then a tour of his impressive shack. You haven't lived till you've seen a water cooled 1.2ghz amplifier! And it's hard not to be jealous of a rack full of Luna-Link amps, each with their own power supply! Wow!

I returned home in time for a great dinner with the XYL, and then a race home to make my midnight schedule with K5N on JT6M. It took most of the half hour to complete the QSO. But it was a great thrill to see "N1LF K5N EM58" decode on the computer. In my haste, I had forgotten their proposed exchange, and wasn't expecting to decode their grid square. But I struggled through it, sending both my grid and signal report just to be sure.

When I received their "RRR" several minutes later, I happily replied with "73 TNX K5N". Like many, I'm very grateful for the hard work that went into that effort. How does that commercial go? "...working K5N on indoor antennas?" Priceless. All in all, a great day to be a VHF Man.

Monday, May 25, 2009

6 Meter Opening to Mid-West




Nice opening tonight on 6 Meters into the Mid-West. While Minnesota was a regular here last year, most of the stations on tonight were new to me. Picked up new grids in EN11, EN43, EN23, DN96, EN16, and EN08.

Grid square total up to an even 150 grids worked in just a little over one year on 6 Meters.

Best contact of the night goes to KD0GWB, John Wicklund of Horace, ND in EN16. John is just ten years old and licensed in March. Fine Business operator, sounding like an old pro on 6 Meters. When I told him that I'd send him a card, he said that he didn't have any printed yet but would "make one" for me! Wow! That's the amateur spirit!

Welcome to the Magic Band, John...and also to a magical hobby. Everyone look for John on the band, and make him feel welcome.

Great night, lots of fun to hear the band open again.

73,

DE N1LF, Les

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Improving the Signal to Noise Ratio (AKA Before & After)



At the suggestion of Jordan Arndt, VE6ZT I spent most of last evening removing my 222, 432, and 1.2ghz Yagis from my indoor, attic mounted "stack". The cluttered stack is pictured above. After completing that task, I relocated the 3 Element 6 Meter beam to the top of the mast which places it at about 22 feet above "true ground".

More importantly, it moved it a good 11 feet or so from the AC wiring and other cables that run along the attic floor.

The 2 Meter 7 Element Yagi remained it's it's location on the stack, about five feet above the wiring, and 16 feet above "true ground".

Prior to relocating the antennas, I did basic noise floor plots for both antennas using the WSJT software. Tuned to 50.125mhz and 144.200mhz, I adjusted the software for a 0 db noise level at an azimuth reading of 00. I then moved the antennas through each 10 degrees of azimuth and plotted the noise level for each one.

As you can see from the "before" numbers on both bands, noise floor levels would rise to as high as 11db on 6 Meters in some directions, and 7db on 2 Meters. Noise floor levels this high made it impossible to do any "weak signal" work in these directions. 6 Meter Meteor Scatter was very difficult, though e-skip work was certainly possible. Last season saw 149 grids worked on the Magic Band.

With the antennas removed and the 6 Meter beam relocated, I repeated the noise floor mapping without adjusting any settings. The readings were taken approximately 2 hours apart. In an indoor environment, the clock can be a major factor in regards to noise. As neighbors switch off appliances, TV's and other devices, the noise floor can change significantly in some directions.

But even allowing for that, these readings were taken at approximately 9:30PM local time, and as you can see from the plots, the results were impressive on both bands. Six showed the most improvement, as much as 20db better in some directions.

2 Meters did not benefit as much, but improvements of over 4db were noted there as well. For an installation like mine, that's a huge improvement!

I allowed WSJT to run overnight on 50.260 with the beam pointed out West. When I checked this morning just prior to 10am, I had captured three complete QSO's from Texas stations. That's a big improvement over any other unattended recording that I've tried in the past.

Bill Olson, K1DY also suggested adding additional ferritte cores to the feedlines of the 6 Meter antenna, which I did while it was on the ground. Jordan has suggested that using a balanced "T" match feed might help to reduce noise pickup as well. I'll likely try replacing the 6 Meter beam with an M2 CM3 when the budget will allow. For now, the additional ferritte chokes should keep feedline radiation and noise pickup to a minimum.

The plan now is to play with the antennas at length and see what the improvement translates to in terms of real world improvements. One thing I immediately noticed is that my lowest noise floor on 2 Meters is now at 40 degrees azimuth. It was almost due North, so most of my SSB and CW grids have been worked in that direction. The lower noise at 40 degrees opens up the Carolinas and there VHF population to me. Very excited about that.

The other antennas will be added to the rover package, and I'll pursue most of my other band work strictly during major contests. As Jordan pointed out, I wasn't gaining grids on those bands at home anyway, and having the antennas up there only served to degrade performance on the "work horse" bands of 6 & 2 Meters.

I can't thank Jordan & Bill enough for all the advice. Everyone on the VHF Reflectors has been helpful too.

Here are the "before and after" noise floor plots:

SIX METER NOISE PLOT FOR WSJT 50.125 (Before & After)

36 0db -13db
35 1db -13db
34 1db -13db
33 1db -14db
32 2db -12db
31 2.5db -9db
30 4db -8db
29 5db -8db
28 6db -4db
27 8db -2db
26 10db 0db
25 10db 1db
24 11db 2db
23 11db 4db
22 10db 4db
21 10db 4db
20 8db 4db
19 7db 3db
18 7db 2db
17 8db 0db
16 9db -2db
15 8db -4db
14 8db -4db
13 8db -4db
12 8db -5db
11 8db -7db
10 8db -7db
9 10db -8db
8 11db -7db
7 11db -7db
6 11db -8db
5 11db -8db
4 11db -9db
3 10d -10db
2 8db -11db
1 3db -12db
0 3db -12db

2 Meter Relative Noise Floor Readings.
Icom IC-746 Pro. Pre-Amp off. S Meter set to "5" to avoid AGC "OFF" AGC Setting. WSJT calibrated to read "O" db at heading 00. Freq=144.200mhz

"After" readings are after the removal of 222, 432, and 1.2ghz antennas on May 13, 2009. 6 Meter 3 element beam moved to top of stack, approx. 22 feet above true ground.


AZIMUTH READING

00 0db -2db
01 2db -2db
02 4db -3db
03 4db -6db
04 5db -6db
05 5db -1db
06 4db 0db
07 4db 0db
08 4db 0db
09 3db -2db
10 3db -3db
11 3.5db -4db
12 4db -4db
13 6db -4db
14 6db -1db
15 6db 0db
16 5db 0db
17 4db 0db
18 3db 0db
19 3db 0db
20 4db 0db
21 6db 2db
22 6db 3db
23 7db 3db
24 6db 3db
25 5db 3db
26 4db 2db
27 2db 1db
28 2db 1db
29 2db 1db
30 2db 0db
31 1db -1db
32 0db -2db
33 0db -2db
34 0db -2db
35 0db -2db
36 0db -2db

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

T-Match Vs. Gamma Feed




A noted VHF man suggested today that I might try swapping my MFJ 3 element beam for 6 Meters with it's Gamma match for another with a balanced or "T" match feed system.

His logic is that the gamma match does not isolate the feedline from the antenna and that noise may be traveling along my hardline to the antenna. While I've added ferrite chokes at the feed point, this might be a valid way to reduce noise pickup a bit more.

The pattern of the antenna might also benefit which would help decrease noise pick up off the back side of the beam. I'm considering the M2 6M3 pictured above as a replacement.

He also suggested that removing the antennas for 222, 432, and 1.2ghz from the stack and increasing the spacing between the 2 Meter and 6 Meter antennas might yield improvement. Since I've worked very few new ones from these antennas anyway, that may have a lot of merit too. These antennas could be committed to rover/portable operation.

That would give me fewer bands from the home station, but might improve performance and reduce noise on the two most popular bands.

Much to consider. Comments, anyone?

Flagg Mountain, Dipoles, and Frustration


Weeks have passed now without a single new grid being worked on VHF or higher. This is due to a number of factors:

  • Limited Operating Time. Perhaps the biggest reason of all. Just haven't had time to be at the radio. Responsibilities at work, home, and serving as Section Emergency Coordinator for ARES take their toll. Missed a nice tropo opening on 2 Meters for instance.
  • Finances. IRS tax bill and other expenses related to the sale of my business meant selling my Icom 910-H. I'm making due with an Icom 746 Pro and Yaesu FT-857D. It's also limited my ability to try new things to improve the station.
  • Truck Lease. I'm blessed with a company truck but the lease is running out on May 25th. We're purchasing a new truck, which means rebuilding a portable VHF station in the next few weeks prior to the June contests.
  • Location, Location, Location. The noise floor in my HOA neighborhood continues to rise as more homes are built. 6 Meters on the attic antenna is almost unusable for anything other than e-skip. WJST modes from that antenna are usually impossible due to the noise floor.
But I'm not quitting now. Time to change my strategy and see if I can improve the grid totals that way.

One option I'm seriously considering is operating from a portable location during the June Contest. As long as it's within a 100km radius of my home QTH, I could still count any new grids worked towards VUCC. One location that we scouted last week is in Coosa County, AL called Flagg Mountain. It's at 1,140 feet and it's the highest Southern peak in the state.

I'm hoping that it would give me more access to much needed grids in Florida and into Georgia. Other options included Cheaha Mountain in East Central Alabama, which is the state's highest peak. The issue here in the South is getting above the tree line for a clear view. Almost impossible to acheive 360 degree views here. But I'm checking out several sites in the next two weeks.

Another option I'm experimenting with tonight is "temporary" antennas on push up masts. I plan to deploy a 6 Meter Hamstick Dipole along with an Arrow Antenna 4 Element beam tonight to test how it works. I'll set this up in my drive way after dark with a short run of coax back to the station. I can compare the noise plots with ones I've already done on 6 and 2 with the indoor antennas.

To give you an idea, my noise floor will vary as much as 11db in some directions on 6 Meters, and as much as 8db on 2 Meters. This limits my operating directions for weak signal work.

I'm hoping that moving the antennas away from my own home will reduce the noise, and getting them clear of the roofing materials will boost signal levels a bit. If it works, I'll try it again with a 7 element 2 Meter beam and a PAR Moxon antenna for 6 Meters. This "temporary antenna" set up may become a mainstay of my operation on the low bands.

222 and 432 grid chasing may be relegated to portable hilltop operations.

I hate to admit defeat, but my patience for indoor operations is lagging. Portable operation seems to be the best bet. The Flagg Mountain Tower, pictured above, is privately owned by a group that is restoring the tower and some cabins at the site. Access to the summitt is possible, but it requires a million dollar liability insurance policy and a lot of pre-planning.

We'll just have to see if that's in the cards for June or not. VUCC on VHF from indoor antennas is certainly possible. I've worked 149 grids on 6 Meters is less than a year. 91 Confirmed.

Two Meter has yielded 40 Grids worked, with 20+ confirmed. 222 and 432 in the teens. A great e-skip opening on 2 Meters could double those totals in an afternoon, but that doesn't happen very often.

The noise floor limits my "secret weapon" of Meteor Scatter via WSJT to a just a few directions. Limited participation hurts even more. Time to change the game.

Another option that I'm kicking around is EME. Currently running 200watts on two meters into a 7 element beam. 1/2 hardline and an SSB Electronics pre-amp. In theory, it's good enough to work several of the big gun eme stations. But it remains to be seen what the actual effect of the roofting materials are, even in favored directions.

Plus I know almost nothing about EME, so the learning curve is steep for an operator with limited time to devote to the effort. Anyone know a good EME mentor or one of the Big Gun stations who might be up for the challenge of working EME on Indoor Antennas?

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

VUCC Chase Still on!

Progress on VUCC has been slow due to work commitments and taking on the role of SEC for Alabama. I'm up to 89 Confirmed grids (out of 141 worked) on 6 Meters now. E-Skip season is starting up, and we've had some nice tropo openings too in April.

Unfortunately, I missed them all! But I'm adding the mag mount 1/4 to the mobile rig for six meter work, and hope to pick up some new grids early this season. With any luck, VUCC for the Magic Band will be complete before the end of June.

A large tax bill meant selling off my Icom IC-910H, so now I'm off 432mhz and 1.2ghz for the time being. Using an Icom IC-746 Pro has my primary 6 and 2 meter rig now.

This may push me towards a decision to operate "rover" mode during the June contests. An elevated position near my home would allow me to pick up some new grids on 2 Meters, and 432 as well (I have 432 at 25 watts from the mobile rig). It's starting to make sense as a game plan to continue the quest.

No lack of passion, just lack of time and money!

See you on the bands!

73,

DE N1LF