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:

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.