Tuesday, July 27, 2010

T Minus 3...2....1

What a great summer it has been, despite the nearly complete lack of E-Skip in July. June was one of the best months ever for E-Skip including several 2 Meter openings. As Murphy would have it, I missed nearly all of them due to work and family commitments. But I did manage to work three new states, and a few new grids. I'm at 97 grids worked now on 2, all via the indoor antennas. 

I'm hoping that the August Perseids meteor shower will be a good one this year, allowing me to move over the magic 100 grid mark. Or we'll see a nice tropo opening here as the summer draws to a close. It's been well over 100 degrees here for the past two weeks, but despite the presence of a lingering high pressure system, conditions have been only slightly better than average. I think if you're going to endure "heat advisories" warnings on NOAA Weather Radio, then you should at least have some tropo to go with it! 

Some other highlights of the Summer of 2010 so far: 

  • The ARRL June Contest saw this station working VUCC in a single weekend of limited operating time, on 100 watts, all using the indoor 3 element beam! That's one I won't soon forget. 
  • Worked Joe Taylor, K1ST, one of my radio heroes using his new WSJT 8 software on ISCAT mode via 6 Meters. What a thrill! Can't thank Joe enough for his invention which has made most of this possible. 
  • Added a 30 watt 1296 DEMI transverter, which should help me on that band. 
  • In the process of upgrading antennas for 2 Meters, 902, and 1296--should be ready for the September contest. 
  • A new "serious rover" Austin, K4AMK moved to Helena, AL only a few miles from my home. He's in the process of building a very serious contest capable rover, and should really change the game here. He's also interested in Optical DX, so we're working on some transceivers to make a VUCC attempt in that region soon too. 

VUCC In a Weekend, On Indoor Antennas!

This past weekend's ARRL VHF Contest began with a healthy dose of Murphy. At
the request of my good friend, Marcus Thomas, KF4YHP, I had planned on doing a
multi-multi operation using his 75 foot portable tower, 7 element M2 6 Meter
beam, and 17B2 Boomer, along with my compliment of rover antennas for the
other bands thru 1.2 Ghz.

Only days before the contest, Marcus injured his hand while working on a tower
for another ham in the area. The injury was severe enough to not only stop our
work on the feedlines for our effort, but to keep Marcus out of work and off
the air for the duration.

With only three days to prepare for the effort, I debated my options for the
contest Rebuild the rover rack and try to visit some nearby grids as a rover?
Throw up some portable mast in the driveway, and attempt a 6 band effort from
home? Forget the whole thing and go fishing with the XYL?

Murphy continued his domination at this point, as a major project at work
resulted in a lot of late nights and early mornings, with no time for hobby.
Thursday night saw me in a state of despair....no antennas in the attic
connected...no antennas on the rover rack...radio's and feedlines lying in the
shack floor. AHHHH!!!!

To complicate matters, our nephew had decided to pay us a visit over the
weekend. I quickly pressed him into service after I got home on Friday, and
together we managed to reinstall the hardline and antennas in my attic to get
me on 6M thru 1.2 Ghz.

Alabama experienced near record temperatures of well over 95 degrees, and
inside the attic, it must have been well into the 100's. Work progress was
slow, and breaks were frequent. As midnight neared, I began checking each line
for SWR...problems arose immediately. High readings on several bands, with no
apparent cause.

At 4AM, I finally called it a night, with only 6, 2, and 432 working
correctly. I resigned myself to a very limited effort on those bands.

As the contest began, 6 Meters roared to life, and filled my receiver up past
50.250! Even more amazing was that it lasted for hours on end. While I enjoyed
the runs on 6 Meters, my main goal was to work new grids on 2 Meters towards
the VUCC effort.

Mid-afternoon saw 6 Meter contacts grow very short, with my station working
into nearby South Carolina, Georgia, and Tennessee via E-skip. I quickly tuned
to 2 Meters and began listening in earnest for E-Skip there. None was heard,
however, and back to 6 I went.

Murphy stuck his final blow when I attempted to work nearby powerhouse, Jimmy
Long, W4ZRZ on 432. I recently purchased Icom IC-471 failed to operate
properly. Jimmy could hear me, but I couldn't detect his signal at all. We
switched to FM and worked using my 50 watt Icom FM rig! Drat!

Late in the day on Saturday, I finally gave up on the affair, and decided to
spend some quality time with the wife and my nephew. We went fishing at a
nearby lake until nearly 3AM..and had a blast. I got a ton of Bream, and tried
to enjoy my family.

Sunday morning saw exhaustion and heat taking their toll, and I slept right
thru my 6AM wake up call. Finally staggered into the shack around 9AM...to
find 2 Meters dead, and 6 again wide open. Having no other options, I
concentrated on working 6 Meter contacts, determined to have some fun and just
enjoy renewing friendships.

By 11AM, I noticed that I had already worked 78 grids, despite very limited
operating time. A thought crossed my mind; "I wonder if I could work 100 grids
before the contest ends"? As a few more new ones were logged, the possibility
of earning VUCC in a single weekend using only 100 watts and the indoor
antenna seemed a real possibility.

The push was on....and by 1PM, I passed the century mark. VUCC in a weekend,
using nothing but a stock Icom 746 Pro and an indoor antenna. Wow! No wonder
they call it the Magic Band! By contest end, I had worked 126 grids, four
countries, 33 states, and had a ton of fun!

Thanks to all the wonderful operators who struggled to pull out my weak
signal, and even more to those who stopped for a brief moment to encourage me.
Great contest, and despite not working any new ones on Two, one that I won't
soon forget.


Les Rayburn, N1LF
VUCC 6 Meters #1,712
Grid Bandit #222

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

T Minus Nine & Counting

June 2, 2010 brought a sustained Sporadic E-Skip opening to the Southeastern United States. Six Meters opened early in the morning to the Caribbean, and then to Mexico. Several times during the morning, the band grew "short" here with nearby grids like EM48 being worked on 6 Meters via E-Skip. 

For those new to VHF, E-Skip paths typically cover 600-1100 miles, with longer paths being worked via "double hop" propagation. When these events become intense on 6 Meters, the distance to stations being worked grows shorter, with contacts of less than 300 miles becoming possible. As this happens, the Maximum Usable Frequency (MUF) climbs higher. 

Many hard core DX'ers will track the MUF using a variety of indicators. One of those is when you start to see 6 Meters "go short". Other good things to check are listening for E-Skip on local FM channels that are "empty". 

During this opening, my local channels were being overwhelmed with stations from Houston, Dallas, and Kansas City. These E-skip openings happened first on 88.5, then 101.1, finally reaching above 107.5. 

A quick check of the NOAA Weather Radio frequencies at 162Mhz revealed only the "usual suspects"...so I knew the MUF was somewhere between 108 and 162. I sent several CQ's on 144.200, hoping for rare 2 Meter E-Skip, but nothing was heard. 

As the afternoon, progressed, this cycle repeated itself. E Skip on 6 Meters would build to a frenzy, and Mexican TV stations would fill  the screen of my old B&W set in my shack. First TV channel 2, then 3, then 4....The FM dial would fill up too, but nothing on 2 Meters. Drat! 

 I started catching up on some e-mails in our home office, and an hour passed.  I drifted back into the shack, to see a crystal clear picture on Channel 5 from Mexico. Wow. The bands must be jumping. I spun to the NOAA Weather Radio channels and heard strong signals on the two vacant channels in my area! The MUF must be above 162 MHz! 

Quickly, I spun the dial to 144.200 and heard KA0JGH calling CQ from Nebraska with no takers. I called him, and he came right back with a 59+ signal report. Wow! A new grid and a new state. I moved up and down the band listening for other calls. 

Managed to work W0NRW from EN11 for another new grid, and then AE0G in EN10. Then disaster struck...my wife tapped me on the shoulder, pointed towards her watch, and reminded me that we had a date for dinner with another couple. But....but....

Common sense prevailed. A contest weekend is coming, with the CQ WW to follow soon after that. I'd spent almost the whole day in the shack on 6 Meters, and DXing TV stations. Trying to get out of this dinner would be a suicide mission. I switched off the rig, and went to freshen up before dinner. 

As we drove, David Benton, WA4JGG called my cell phone to tell me that 2 Meters was open. My wife listened on our Bluetooth speaker, and said, "Honey, why didn't you say so? We could have canceled". After 28 years of marriage, I know better than to take bait like that. I just smiled, and said, "I'm sure the band will be open again soon". 

I hated to miss most of that opening, but EN10 and EN11 put me at 91 grids on 2 Meters with the indoor antennas. And I live to fight another day. Hoping that I'll pick up at least one or two more this weekend....

Great opening, and lots of fun. Thanks to my new friends in Nebraska, and the world's best XYL. She's even worth passing up a 2 Meter E-Skip opening for...how many men can say that? 


VUCC #1,712 On Indoor Antennas

The US Postal Service delivered a welcome surprise in today's mail. A beautiful certificate from the ARRL for 6 Meter VUCC # 1,712. I don't think I've been that excited to open something since Christmas morning 1966, when Santa brought  me Major Matt Mason, his Space Station, and Moon Crawler!
I made my first VHF+ contact in December of 2008 on 2 Meter SSB, using a four element Yagi that was mounted in that attic in my deed restricted home. After another afternoon of struggling to work a net on 80 Meters using the disguised antennas in my backyard, I thought maybe I could finally try weak signal VHF stuff. The antenna was already mounted on a small rotor, and I used it for ARES work on distant repeaters. A quick flip turned it "Horizontal" and that was that.
That brief contact started a passion for a whole new area of amateur radio, after being licensed for decades. I'd always been into "weak signals" but spent most of my time on 160 Meter CW, and doing cutting edge homebrew stuff on the 1750 Meter "Lowfer" band.
My only VHF experience had been serious TV DXing, but it was nothing like this!
Despite the handicap of indoor antennas, I was lucky to find a group of VHF Men who took me under their wings, and encouraged my interest. Jimmy Long, W4ZRZ has done more than anyone could ask of an Elmer or a friend. Patient, generous, and encouraging. He's also not beyond giving you a quick kick in the pants if your efforts are slacking. Thank you Jimmy!
Jack, WA5UUD answered an unending series of stupid questions, and made an effort to alert me to every band opening on 6 &2 since. I wouldn't be able to work out beyond 50 miles without the help Jack has provided.
Marshall Williams, K5QE has really encouraged my efforts on all fronts, and helped me optimize my rover station this year. Still a thrill for me to even hear the Mighty K5QE on these indoor sticks! Thank you Marshall.
David Hines, N3ZBK handled my QSL chores when work started to overwhelm me, allowing me to complete the first band in my quest. He's also become my new EME guru, trying to get me started on a new adventure.
Bill, AF4OD, the SE Rover King-has donated microwave gear for my efforts, took me to his secret "sweet spots", and encouraged me to get out of the house and try my hand at roving. Neil, N4ION donated gear to get me started on 222---and now it's my favorite band! Thanks Neil for introducing me to the "Forgotten Band". Sean at the ARRL who encouraged me to become addicted to VHF Contesting (Like any good narcotics dealer, the first one is always free!)
JD, N0IRS and the "Grid Bandits" who took me under their wing. How cool is it to be Grid Bandit #222! Bill Olson, K1DY who has tried patiently to explain antennas to the village idiot. Thanks, Bill for all you've done too. Ben, K4QF who taught me the three rules of VHF, "Be On. Be Horizontal. Be Loud." Or has he likes to add, "In your case, two out three ain't bad".
Judge Van Deacon & The gang at the Ocoee Amateur Radio Club from my hometown of Cleveland, TN who stopped their contest efforts to help repair my rover in the rain last year. You guys rock! Marcus, KF4YHP, who helped engineer the rover antenna system, and kept my spirits up when I got down on the handicap of indoor antennas.
Gene, W3ZZ has challenged me and chided me too on occasion...thanks for your patience and inspiration Gene. The gang on "Ping Jockey" for giving me the thrill of working the "Rox" which became my secret weapon. And all the VHF Men on these lists who have endured my endless stories, mindless questions, and often ill informed opinions. I've learned so much from you all!
Lastly, I have to thank two really special people. Rex, W5RCI, who told me only days before he fell ill that my 222 signal was so loud, he might consider passing the mantle of "Mr. 222" on to me. What a thrill it was to work him on CW on 432 and 1.2 Ghz. It's not often one gets a chance to play baseball with a Hank Aaron, or Babe Ruth, but I can truly say that I worked the legend. Rex is still missed every morning here on .200.
And my XYL, Abby Rayburn, who has endured being a ham's wife for 28 years. She's also been my faithful rover partner, designed and built a custom PVC rack for my rover, and generally encouraged me to follow this silly dream. I love you, Miss Abby...
I'm proudest of all that I confirmed 121 grids for the award, and 112 of those were made using only the indoor antenna. My initial goal is complete...but the journey has just become. I still want VUCC on 2, 222, 432, 902, 1.2 GHz, and maybe even higher.
Listen, I know I'm rambling on---but I can't help it. I'm excited, and thrilled---and just damn proud to be one of you, the Lords of Light, a VHF Man. I've said it before, but it bears repeating:
I wasted almost 40 years on HF. All the fun truly is in the "World Above 50 Mhz". My sincere thanks to all who have helped along the way, and strained their ears to copy this weak, indoor signal. I'm forever in your debt.
Les Rayburn, N1LF
VUCC 6M # 1,712
Grid Bandit #222

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

LoTW, VUCC & The lack of Leadership

A recent thread on the VHF E-Mail Reflector about when (if ever) the American Radio Relay League plans to implement VUCC credits using their electronic QSL software called "Logbook of the World". 

LoTW, for short, has been around for almost a decade now, but still doesn't accept contacts made above 50mhz towards credit for the VHF UHF Century Club (VUCC) Award. So, even if you have 200 grids confirmed on 2 Meters using the software, you can't print out that list and have it accepted by the ARRL towards credit for the award. 

Many in the VHF community feel slighted by the delays and excuses coming from Newington. Making matters worse is the growth of alternative electronic QSL programs such as "E-QSL" which is accepted by CQ Magazine for their awards program, and more recently, the QRZ.com electronic awards program. 

The LoTW software uses a high level of security, including the use of special encryption keys, and others steps to protect the data to the highest standards. So high in fact, that they exceed the level of security used for my on-line banking account, my brokerage account, and even my daughter's FASA college grant account! 

These security steps have made the software difficult to install and use, a real pain to transfer to a new computer, and generally slow to be adopted by hams. In contrast, the E-QSL program is fast, easy, and wildly popular. I expect the QRZ.com program to take off too. 

The problem lies when trying to keep up with all of it. Now each QSL has to be confirmed a minimum of three ways to keep everyone happy. That means uploading your logs, and sending out cards. Since the ARRL won't accept E-QSL's or QRZ.com cards, you have to still do them manually via US Mail. 

VUCC cost me $270 in postage, return postage, envelopes, etc. A hefty price just to confirm 100 contacts. In contrast, you could easily qualify for DXCC, especially if you're active on RTTY or the digital modes, for no investment at all. Most hams active on the digital modes tend to be early adopters of LoTW, and logs are often uploaded within hours of the end of a major RTTY or PSK DX contest. 

The rise of alternative programs is completely understandable. The league missed it's opportunity to lead in the area of electronic-QSL's and have failed again and again to update the software, add programs like VUCC, and improve the interface. 

The real shame is that in doing so, they reduce their own "market share" with a new generation of hams. Currently, DXCC Honor Roll, VUCC, and other ARRL Awards are the most highly prized, but that doesn't mean it will always be that way. They could quickly become antiques as other award programs grow and are adopted by the next generation. 

What's that old saying, "Lead, follow, or get the hell out of the way"? When it comes to VHF+ matters, the league continues to allow it's priorities to be set by those who experience is grounded in the HF world. You see in their contesting rules, the lack of support for VUCC on LoTW, and even in their monthly magazine, QST, which often includes editorial slants painting VHF Men as second rate operators compared to their HF brothers. 

It's time to wake up, Newington...adopting VUCC as part of LoTW should be "JOB ONE" until completed. I hope others will join me in making their feelings known to their Section Managers, and elected officials. 


VHF Contesting Webinar

For those who missed it, Gene Zimmerman's web seminar (webinar) on the topic of "VHF Contesting" is now available on the Potomac Valley Radio Club web site: 

Zimmerman is best know as the author of "The World Above 50 MHz" column in QST each month He's served in that post since 2002. Gene is also a top-notch contest operator in both the HF world, and VHF+ efforts, being one of the principals of the highly successful K8GP "Grid Pirates" Multi-Multi group. 

The webinar had over 60 attendees, including two from Europe, and lasted approximately an hour and half. It's a perfect general introduction to VHF Contesting (just in time for the June ARRL Test, and July CQ WW Test in July). But it also featured some lively discussion about the design of a truly serious VHF station that will be of interest to both DX'ers and contest operators. 

For those trying to be successful on VHF in deed restricted settings, I really think it's vital to "work smarter, not harder". You won't be able to succeed with the typical formula of big antennas and big amps--so you've got to make up those db's in other ways. The best way is to be a better operator--work on your station and your skills. Webinars like this go a long way towards that education. 

Thanks to Gene, W3ZZ and the PVRC for the efforts involved. Check it out. 

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

VUCC Within Reach

The winter of my discontent has turned in the Spring of renewed hope for me. It began on March 6th, when I had my cards checked for 6 Meter VUCC at the Birmingham Hamfest. I have just over 127 grids confirmed on the "Magic Band". While I haven't received the certificate yet, the league office confirms it's on the way. 

Late March and April brought some great tropo openings into the Southwest.
A chaotic work schedule has resulted in a string of 20 hour + days, and sleeping through most of the tropo opening here in the Southeast. On March 12th, I was determined to change my fortunes, and set several alarm clocks for 6AM Central time, after going to be bed at 2AM.
Still managed to sleep through them, but woke at 7AM. Rushed to the shack, glanced at the APRS map, and began spinning the dials. Heard several loud station in Texas in a group on .230, and called them during their first break.
What followed was a three hour long spree of tropo DX, bagging 10 new grids, bringing my total to 87 grids worked on 2 Meters with the indoor antenna. Many stations were loud, literally speaker quality and then some.
When K5RUS asked me to run the bands, I really started to regret moving my 222-1296 gear to the rover set-up. I literally had nothing up that I could get on the higher bands. Drats! I decided just to focus on 2 Meters, and not worry about what I might be missing on 222 and up.
The highlight had to be when a weak station called me...I struggled to make out his callsign---and then clearly heard XE20R in DL98. Raf was actually calling me! WOW!
We worked, and I nearly had to pinch myself. DX on 2 Meters with a 6 element antenna inside the attic. And it wasn't even via Sporadic E's.
Thanks to all the patient stations who pulled me out of the noise that day. You can't image what a 10 grid day means to someone who is used to logging perhaps one new grid every month or two. It's was like Christmas at Easter Time.
13 Grids and counting for VUCC on 2 Meters! 

Late April and early May have brought some nice E-Skip openings on 6 Meters...and two new countries on that band. Last night, I even managed to work AA6DD in California via double-hop E's. He was loud, even on the 3 element indoor beam. 

Granted, I've worked the West Coast many times, but never this early in the season--and never with signals that good. I'm hoping that we'll soon be blessed with a decent 2 Meter E-Skip opening. One good day could put me over the top and complete my quest to earn VUCC using indoor antennas on another band. 

Les Rayburn, N1LF
Grid Bandit #222

Thursday, March 11, 2010

The Winter of my Discontent

The period of time between September of 2009 and March of 2010 should be called "The Winter of My Discontent" as it applies to VHF activities. A surge in new business at work left me with little time to pursue my hobby, or make progress towards my goals of VUCC on all bands up through 1296.

In fact, my puny efforts in both the September and January VHF contests are the best proof. In both cases, I failed to even submit a log. A real let down from my efforts in the recent past.

But I'm determined to shake off the funk, do some spring cleaning and get moving again on the high bands. So here's my recent progress in a nutshell:

  • Had cards checked for VUCC on 6 Meters at the Birmingham HamFest on March 6th. Happy to say that I now have 121 grids verified, and am waiting on the certificate and lapel pin for the first rung on my ladder. Yeah! 
  • At the same HamFest, I purchased a TE Systems 350 watt brick amplifier for 2 Meters. Hope to put it to good use on both Meteor Scatter and possibly even "backyard-portable" EME efforts! (stay tuned for more on that effort) 
  • I'm having a couple of Loop Fed Array (LFA) Yagi's constructed by a good friend who's become my antenna guru. If you haven't read about these, jump on over to: http://www.g0ksc.co.uk/component/content/article/25-the-project/107-lfa-arrived.html and have a look. Recent articles in DUBUS magazine have highlighted this new design. They feature low noise pickup perfect for urban areas like mine, and great SWR performance across the band. Hope they'll improve my ability to hear the weak ones. The picture above is a 5 element 6 Meter version. 
  • Added a new 222 MHz FM mobile rig (25 watts out) and a B2 Engineering J-Pole in the attic to help pick up some FM contacts during future contests. May also swap this rig into the truck with a mag mount. That way I can monitor 222 FM and SSB at the same time. 
So I apologize for being off the air--and away from the blog. I certainly haven't given up the fight, and hope to complete 2 Meter VUCC this year. Also planning a bigger effort in the Spring Sprints. 6 Meters has been open a  bit lately (early, huh?) so here's hoping we all have a great summer ahead of us, VHF Men!

Keep the faith and listen for the weak ones!


Les Rayburn, N1LF

Monday, January 4, 2010

Grid #76-Thanks to WQ0P

One of my VHF Mentors, Ben Lowe, K4QF gave me some great advice about VHF; "There are only three rules. Be on. Be Loud. Be Horizontal".

Or in the case of someone operating from a deed restricted neighborhood, I turned to another wise man, Meatloaf, who said, "Don't be sad. Cause two out of three ain't bad". Saturday rewarded my patience with a a new grid and a new state for me on 2 Meters, when Greg Cerny, WQ0P in Belvue, KS was able to pull my signal out of the noise using the WSJT software.

On one of our exchanges, the software recorded a signal pulse duration of over 2.5 seconds, which qualifies as a "blue whizzer" to be sure. Greg must have a great station, as he was copyable almost every sequence and often well above the noise.

He wished me Happy New Year during his 73 sequence transmission, and I returned the favor. QSO's like that on MS are really fun. My quest for VUCC on 2 Meters continues, with new grids coming at an average rate of about 1 new one every 2-3 weeks.

Santa also brought me a present of a TE Systems 160 Watt 6 Meter brick amplifier. That should really help my signal on the Magic Band...my Icom 746 Pro puts out 100 watts into a dummy load, but despite that I can' t seem to get more than 50-60 watts out of it when feeding my 3 element Yagi due to interactions in the attic. I'm hoping I can get up to 100 watts or so with the amp, giving me another 3db. I don't dare try to run much higher power than that indoors, as things will play havoc with electronics in my home.

Prepping for January VHF SS, hope to work some new grids on 432 and up during that one.

Thanks again Greg for Grid #76 on 2 Meters and the new state!