Author Archives: N1BUG

Remembering The EME Years

This is one of a series of “Notes” I published on Facebook. Since Facebook has discontinued the Notes feature, I am publishing that series here on my blog.

As I watch the moon sinking low in the southwestern sky, shimmering through the trees I am reminded of an evening long ago. It was May 29, 1988 and I was running a two meter EME (Earth-Moon-Earth, or “moonbounce”) schedule with W7IUV in Arizona. The moon was in about the same position it is now, my single CushCraft 4218XL yagi looking at it through the trees, and I was pumping about 1000 watts of CW into the antenna, alternating two minute periods transmitting, two minutes listening. Perhaps I should emphasize listening. During receive periods I was tuning up and down through a narrow range of frequencies, about one kilohertz total, hoping to find some hint of a very weak CW signal at the noise floor. Eventually I did find it, and from time to time could even copy it. Back and forth we went, exchanging callsigns, signal reports and acknowledgement of information received according to a special format. I completed the contact with Larry that evening for my eleventh station worked via the moon. My first EME contact had come six months earlier when I worked superstation W5UN on December 26, 1987. That was the beginning of the most exciting phase of amateur radio I ever experienced.

I had started on 2 meters in the summer of 1986, after picking up a used all mode radio at a hamfest. I made a lot of contacts on the terrestrial propagation modes: troposcatter, sporadic E, aurora, meteors. But I was reading everything I could get my hands on about VHF DXing, and I knew EME was king. While the terrestrial modes allowed contacts to a distance of 1400 miles on occasion if one was lucky, the whole world was within reach by bouncing signals off the lunar surface. EME was all CW in those days and it required quite a bit of power. I could have probably worked W5UN with 100 watts or so, but I knew if I was going to work more than one or two of the very big stations it was going to take more. I set about collecting parts to build a kilowatt amplifier.

By the fall of 1987 the new amplifier wasn’t quite ready yet but I had upgraded the antenna a couple of times, now having the 29 foot long CushCraft on a 40 foot tower. I could not elevate the antenna above the horizon, but I listened at moonrise during the ARRL EME Competition in October and November of 1987. I heard several stations including YU3WV. Wow! I was hearing Europe on two meters! I couldn’t wait to make my first EME QSOs!

I am not sure how I survived the first contact with W5UN, because I don’t think I breathed during that schedule! Dave had the largest EME antenna in the world at the time, a truly massive structure comprised of 32 long yagis stacked four high and eight wide. That first contact was followed the next day by working N5BLZ with his array of 12 long yagis. A few days later I worked K1WHS which was interesting because we were just 150 miles apart. Pointed at the rising moon I could hear Dave’s tropo signal quite strongly off the back of my antenna. He was hearing me direct as well. But from time to time, shifted some 350 Hertz higher by the relative motion of the moon to our antennas (doppler shift), the EME signal rose just above the noise floor. It was bizarre. Not only was the lunar echo shifted in frequency, but it wad delayed by almost two and a half seconds. That is how long it takes a radio signal to traverse the half million mile round trip to the moon and back. Dave was literally QRMing himself! Instinctively we both began to send two or three letters and then pause for the echo to return. This was to prevent the tropo signal from overwhelming the weaker moon echo and give the other guy a better chance to copy the wanted signal. After all, we were trying to complete a QSO by way of the moon, not tropo! It was easy to tell one signal from the other by the frequency.

Left: “The Ugly Kilowatt” pair of 4CX250Bs’s, with all-mode 2 meter rig sitting on top; Right: Amplifier with three 4CX250B tubes that never did work quite right. In the middle, Kenwood TS-820S with Microwave Modules transverter which I was using on EME at this point in time.

A month later I worked my first two Europeans on 2 meters, SM7BAE and UA1ZCL. I had worked Europe on two meters! EME became the thing to do. Several others followed, and by the spring of 1988 I installed a receive preamp at the top of the tower, just below the antenna itself. This would allow me to hear the very weak EME signals a little better, and it paid off. I soon worked the smallest station to date: four yagi station KI3W. All told, I worked 16 different stations off the moon with my single yagi. I was hooked.

By October, when the EME Competition came around again, I had completed construction of a real EME antenna: 16 four-element quads which I assembled from strips of wood and wire from the local hardware store and lumber yard. There was no stopping me now! This antenna had 19 dB gain, or about 5 dB more than the CushCraft yagi. It made a huge difference. EME contacts were now much more numerous and I could elevate the thing so I was no longer limited to short windows at moon rise and set. For the first time I could hear my own lunar echoes come back. That in itself was a thrill!

The 16 quad array

The first amplifier, a pair of 4CX250B tubes, gave way to a legal limit-capable 4CX1000A. The KLM Multi-2700 transceiver got replaced by a Microwave Modules transverter in conjunction with my Kenwood TS-820S HF rig. The antenna was upgraded to 24 of the little quads, producing about 20.5 dB gain. As operator skill and confidence grew and the station slowly improved, running pre-arranged schedules gave way to what we called random operating. In other words, calling CQ and working whoever you could get. Or tuning the band looking for other stations calling CQ. By the end of 1994, 520 different stations had made their way into my two meter EME log. After a period of inactivity due to changes in living arrangements, I returned to EME in 2000. My final two meter EME QSOs were made in 2006 just before leaving the band. By then, digital modes had largely supplanted CW and EME via digital wasn’t much of a thrill. My two meter EME “initial” count, or number of different stations worked, had risen to 610. I also had a brief stint on 70cm (432MHz) EME, first with a single 22 element yagi, later an array of eight 21 element yagis. I worked 33 different stations via the moon on that band but never liked it as much as two meters. I made one and only one EME contact on 6 meters.

A later version of the station. Left to right: HF amplifier with four 811A tubes; “Ugly Kilowatt V2” 2 meter amplifier using a 4CX1000A; Kenwood TS-820S and transverter; Color Computer II running MoonTrak. Mounted on the wall above the Kenwood, azimuth and elevation controller for the EME antenna

EME also led me to take up computer programming. I wrote three programs for tracking the moon. First a very simple azimuth-elevation calculator for the Radio Shack PC-3 Pocket Computer; next, MoonTrak real-time azimuth and elevation tracker with polarization calculation for the Color Computer II; finally Z-Track for the IBM PC. For a time I sold copies of the latter to fund my EME addiction. My EME software was the first to incorporate calculations of “spatial” polarization offsets between stations and take into account the implications for EME scheduling. Later I collaborated on a rewrite of the EME scheduling database software used by the Two Meter EME Net.

Z-Track software. Note the year, 1996. This software was running under the MS-DOS operating system!

There is no way to describe what EME meant to me. The sheer thrill and excitement of it cannot be conveyed. It was the ultimate challenge, the ultimate DX, the ultimate accomplishment. Nothing I have done in ham radio before or after EME can compare. Not a day goes by that I don’t miss it. Ultimately it was the collapse of CW on EME that led to me leaving VHF for a decade, returning just this summer. If I wasn’t so constricted by budget I would no doubt build a large antenna array and return to two meter EME for the few CW QSOs which can still be had occasionally.

DX: Breaking the Pile

This is one of a series of “Notes” I published on Facebook. Since Facebook has discontinued the Notes feature, I am publishing that series here on my blog.

There is tremendous competition for contacts with rare DX and especially DXpeditions to places that are only on the air once in ten or twenty years. With tens of thousands of eager DXers trying to get through and limited time, the pileups can be enormous. Not everyone who wants the contact is going to make it. Is there any hope for the DXer with 100 watts and a wire or vertical? Yes! The rarest places on Earth can be worked with 100 watts and a wire, but when one has a small station and the competition is intense, lack of signal strength must be compensated by skill and knowledge. Either that or a lot of luck. Success with a small station takes time, skill, and patience but it can be done! Even QRP stations (five watts or less) routinely get into the logs of the rarest DX. Let’s talk about how this works and what you can do to improve your chances.

Virtually all DXpeditions (and sometimes other DX) operate split frequency, meaning they are transmitting on one frequency, but not listening there. They are listening for callers on another frequency or range of frequencies. This is absolutely vital, as otherwise the frenzied callers would obliterate the DX signal and no one would be able to hear it. The DX operator will periodically indicate where he is listening. “Up” on SSB typically means five kHz (or more) above his transmit frequency. On CW, “up” usually means one kHz unless specified otherwise. The rules of thumb are similar if the operator says “down” (or “dn” on CW) but, of course, you should transmit below his frequency rather than above it. Sometimes the operator will specify a range of frequencies on which he is listening, such as “up five to ten”. Other times he may specify an actual range. For example, “two hundred two ten” if the DX is transmitting on 14.190 would mean he is listening from 14.200 to 14.210. The equivalent on CW is QSX, though it is not often used. A DX station transmitting on 1.812 MHz in the 160 meter band might send “QSX 30” meaning he is listening on 1.830. This is not the same as “up 30” which would mean 1.842. It is vital to figure out where the DX operator is listening for calls and transmit in the right place.

If the DX is listening on one specific frequency, such as up one on CW or up five on SSB, the choice of where to call is fairly simple. You might try slipping off to the side just a bit, such as up 0.8 or up 1.2 on CW; up 4.5 or up 5.5 on SSB. This can make your signal stand out from the crowd a little. If at all possible, it helps to listen to not only the DX but also the stations he is responding to. Are all the ones he is working on exactly the same frequency, or is he looking around a little? This is where having a second receiver really shines! Many “DX class” transceivers have a second receiver, or subreceiver, for this purpose. Lacking that, you can toggle back and forth between VFO A (on the DX frequency) and VFO B (on his listening frequency) to establish what exactly he is doing. Be very careful, however. Doing it this way makes it easy to accidentally transmit on the DX station’s frequency, causing QRM to others struggling to hear him. If you are using two receivers, or a radio with a subreceiver, headphones should be set up so you hear the DX in one ear and the pile up in the other. This will make it much easier to keep track of what is going on.

If the DX is tuning a range of frequencies for calls, your chances of success in a large pileup are much better – especially if you have the proper techniques and equipment for the task. First let’s look at what to do if you are able to monitor both the DX and the pile up at the same time. Try to locate the stations he responds to in the range of frequencies he is tuning. This is a skill that takes some time to learn, but it is well worth the effort. Is there a pattern to his tuning? Does he work several stations on the same frequency before moving, or does he move after every QSO? Is he tuning randomly, or only in one direction? How far does he usually move between QSOs? If he is tuning in only one direction, what does he do when he reaches the edge of the pile or the end of his specified range? Does he reverse direction and start working his way through the opposite way, or does he jump to the opposite end and always tune in the same direction? Does he occasionally seem to jump to the outermost edge of the pile, or just beyond it, and pick up a weaker station? Yes, some operators do just that, and knowing this can really improve the odds of you making the contact! Establishing the pattern of the DX operator can be a tremendous help. Often you can anticipate where he will listen next and position yourself accordingly. Of course you won’t be the only one doing this, and if you are a small station you may get covered up by the big stations who have this technique perfected. In that case you want to try to find a “hole” in the pile that is near, but not exactly on the mass of callers who have properly anticipated. This is not an exact science! It is something you get a feel for with practice!

If you lack the ability to simultaneously monitor two frequencies, then knowing where to call in a widely spread pileup becomes an order of magnitude more challenging. You may be able to establish a pattern by jumping back and forth between VFOs, but this will definitely take a lot of practice to learn. In some cases a panadaptor may provide clues as to where he is taking callers, but don’t count too much on it. Many less courteous operators, and those who are not hearing the DX well will call out of turn and confuse the issue. It is always a good idea to monitor DX spots using one of the many software applications out there for this purpose. Some of those who work the DX will immediately send out a spot, and some of those will indicate where they were transmitting at the time of their QSO. This information is often very disjointed and incomplete, but nevertheless it can provide useful clues. You may find that you have been calling up five, but the DX just worked someone up twenty. In that case, you’re probably better off to move, at least for a while. Don’t depend on a web site for DX spots. The web based services are just too slow. You want a dedicated application which is constantly downloading new DX spots in real time. If none of this is possible, the best you can do is pick a frequency within the proper range and keep calling there, hoping the DX operator eventually catches you. This works, but it often takes considerably more time than the more advanced techniques.

Timing is important! If the DX operator is very skilled and is picking a call out of the pile in just a couple of seconds, there is very little point in sending your call sign multiple times every time he asks for calls. This will only slow things down and may lead to him doubling with you. Call once, then listen! If he is taking more time to pick out a call sign, there may be some advantage to giving yours two or three times (rarely more). Again, this is something you get a feel for with time and experience. If he sometimes gets a call immediately and sometimes it takes a while, the best bet is probably to send your call once, pause to see if he is answering anyone, and if not, give your call again. This is very useful but sometimes tricky, as you can get out of sync and miss the DX responding to people, or even end up repeatedly calling while he is transmitting. Sometimes you just have to stop calling and listen for a bit to get back on track. On CW, if you can operate full break-in (QSK) this is less of a problem since you can hear the DX transmit even when you are still calling!

Try to adjust your sending speed for conditions and the apparent preference of the DX operator. On CW, try to match the speed of the DX operator or just a bit slower if possible, unless conditions are such that fluttery signals are causing dits to go missing. Then it may be best to slow it down a little. On SSB, try to determine whether the DX operator can get a call sign correctly when it is spoken very quickly. If so, try that. It saves time and maximizes the DX QSO rate. If not, slow down and give it at a speed that seems to be working for him. Again, this is where being able to monitor both sides helps.

It is important to understand the nature of the game. The DX is trying to work as many stations as possible in a given amount of time. Brevity is important. One aspect of this is that contacts are only going to consist of call sign and a signal report, usually 59 on SSB, 599 on CW or digital modes. Another is in the way the operator responds when he gets a partial calls sign. Some may say “Who was the station with uniform golf in the call?” but this is inefficient. Many of the most experienced operators will just say “uniform golf” on SSB or send “UG” on CW. This is an invitation for you to send your complete call sign again so he can get the rest of it. Of course, you should only send your call sign again if it actually contains those letters (or something very similar). As an example of the latter, if a DX station on CW responds “BAG” I will usually go ahead and send my call “N1BUG” again since the difference between A and U on CW is just one dit – often mistaken in a pileup. On some particularly challenging bands, most notably 160 meters, it is often customary to modify these rules and send your call sign more than once at a time. Experience and observation will be your best guide. If the DX has asked for a fill on your callsign several times and is obviously struggling to get it, giving your call a few times can be an advantage. This is a judgement call.

Often a QSO ends with the DX operator simply saying “Thank you” or, on CW, sending “TU”. This means he is ready for the next caller, so send your call sign immediately. Other operators will identify with their call and/or specify where they are listening after every contact. For example “Thank you, Delta X-ray One Romeo Alpha Romeo, up five to ten” or “TU DX1RAR up”. It is important to listen and establish the operator’s style. If you were to start transmitting very quickly after you you hear “TU”, but he is actually sending “TU DX1RAR up” you will be doubling with him. I routinely hear stations doing just that. Listen. Figure out the pattern and how the QSO flow is working. It will pay off!

Knowing propagation characteristics can be a big advantage. It is much easier to work the rare DX when propagation favors your part of the world than when it favors some other densely populated area. Once again, experience is the most valuable thing you can have. There are situations where certain parts of the world are difficult for the DX to work due to propagation and large centers of ham activity being closer. This is why DXpedition operators often concentrate on specific areas at certain times. Be patient and wait until he is ready for you, then call. This may be frustrating when you are hearing the DX very well, but you will learn to appreciate it when you are the one in the disadvantaged spot and the rare DX listens specifically for your area! You will quickly learn what the DX wants. On phone, “Europe” or “North America” is obvious. “JA” is obvious if you recognize that as the primary call sign prefix for Japan. On CW these will be abbreviated of course: “EU”, “NA”, “JA”, etc.

Knowing the plan can help, too. Most DXpeditions publish preferred frequencies in advance of their trip. Even if they don’t, careful observation (and use of spotting software) will reveal what frequencies they favor on each band and mode. Let’s say you know propagation is good right now on 17 meters and they like 18.130 for SSB on that band, usually listening up five. The only trouble is, they aren’t on 17 meter SSB right now. That doesn’t stop you from listening there! I have worked more than one new one because I was “parked” on a frequency waiting – and became the first caller when the DXpedition appeared there. Obviously there is both luck and technique involved here, but it can work!

How well do you know your favorite band? Sometimes there are special circumstances, and knowledge of them can serve you well. On 160 meters, North America can transmit anywhere between 1.800 and 2.000. In many parts of the world the allocation starts at 1.810. In Japan they only have 1.810 to 1.825. Why is this important? Many DXpeditions will publish different listening frequencies on 160 meters for each region of the world. If a DXpedition in the Pacific is transmitting on 1.826 and listening both down and up (a common practice on this band), as a North American station you will likely do better calling up (eg. 1.827.5) than down (eg. 1.824.5) since you will not be competing with the Japanese callers who probably have the propagation and signal strength advantage.

Once again let me emphasize the importance of listening and patience. I once worked a new and very rare one because I had been listening for a while. The DXpedition was operating on 20 meter SSB, transmitting around 14.190 and listening 200 to 215 or so. As I was listening (and calling), I heard the DXpedition operator say “From time to time I will listen for small stations on two fifty five”. At the time I had a very poor antenna on 20 meters, and thought I had little chance of working this one, located on the far side of the world and, of necessity, using very small antennas themselves. A long time went by as he went on working stations in the 200 to 215 range. Those stations who had been calling on 255 eventually gave up, including me. I didn’t go away, however. I returned to calling in the big pile down below. Suddenly the operator said “Small stations, special frequency”. I frantically dialed my transmit VFO back to 255 and gave my call sign one time. He answered me! Bingo! I worked a new one because I had been listening and knew what this rather cryptic “Small stations, special frequency” announcement was all about. I only heard one other station call on 255, and he worked the DX also. Chances are most of the others who had been around long enough to hear his earlier explanation about the special freqeuncy had given up and gone away. Others didn’t know the special frequency. This probably explains why the operator did it this way — to reward those whose skill and patience gave them the edge. The point is, you just never know. It pays to listen carefully and above all, be patient and persistent.

Sure, having a big station helps. I work DX much more quickly now that I have 1500 watts and something of an antenna farm. But I did it quite successfully for many years with lower power and simple wire antennas. If I had to pick one single station improvement which made the biggest difference, it would neither be the amplifier nor the antennas. I would say it was getting a transceiver that has a subreceiver. That changed the nature of the game for me. Regardless of the station configuration, operator knowledge and skill are critical factors. Improving one’s skills often pays bigger dividends than buying an amplifier or putting up a huge antenna. None of us are born with DXing skills! The best way to learn is to jump in and start practice the techniques. See you in the pileups!

Two Months and Eleven States: My Experience With ‘Small Station’ DXing on Two Meters

This is one of a series of “Notes” I published on Facebook. Since Facebook has discontinued the Notes feature, I am publishing that series here on my blog.

Not long ago I wrote a primer on VHF and UHF DXing. In it I outlined what one could expect using a 50 to 100 watt station and 8 element or larger yagi on the two meter band. Since then I have been operating with 25 watts to a seven element yagi with interesting results. This isn’t even an optimized seven element antenna; it is on a very short boom for this number of elements, about six feet long. Performance is about on par with most four or five element yagis. I would like to share my experience.

I operated the June VHF Contest with the little yagi at a height of 27 feet, just below my six meter yagi. I had a very high noise level and the yagi exhibited minimal directivity. I would later discover this was caused by proximity to the much larger six meter yagi. I was able to work five states: Maine, New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Vermont, and Connecticut. The longest distance worked was 345 miles. Tropo was typical of “every day” conditions, nothing special. The weather was somewhat windy across New England, which prevents significant tropospheric propagation enhancement over average daily levels.

Not long after that contest, I moved the yagi to the top of my main tower at 105 feet above ground. It is still near a large antenna, in this case being just five feet above my TH-11DX five band HF beam. Nevertheless, reception was much less affected by local noise and the little two meter yagi exhibited better directivity, indicating it was not as disturbed by its neighboring antenna. In the CQ VHF contest I was able to work most of the New England states again, with the longest distance again being 345 miles. That is about the limit for this size antenna and 25 watts without some serious tropospheric propagation enhancement or other propagation mechanisms. The notable difference is that now I was hearing stations out to 450 miles, which did not happen with the antenna in its former location.

In July I caught two sporadic E openings, working Kentucky, Tennessee, South Carolina, and Georgia with best distance being 1200 miles. No one can say for certain, but given the distances and nature of sporadic E it is quite likely I could have worked all of the stations with the antenna at much lower height.

Taking advantage of the Perseids meteor shower, special operating techniques and the FSK441 fast digital mode designed specifically for VHF meteor scatter I was able two work two more states: Virginia and Wisconsin, with best distance 1013 miles. This is not an easy game with a station of this small size, but I proved it can be done if one has patience and persistence. One of the hardest things is getting stations to try to work you. Most are afraid they won’t be able to hear such a low power signal, and random operating (eg. calling CQ vs. having a pre-arranged schedule with a particular station) is not going to work at this power level. My antenna was probably too high for optimum results on meteor scatter. I might have done better with stations in the 700 to 1100 mile range had it been lower, where it could offer a bit more relatively high angle radiation.

In two months of mostly casual operation, being aware and mindful of VHF propagation I was able to work 11 states on two meters. Given a couple of years, a bit of luck with propagation and some effort, another 11 or 12 states are definitely within reach. If sporadic E were to be very cooperative or there were to be a massive aurora which spawned auroral E, another three or four states are possible. I believe my experience demonstrates that VHF DX is not beyond the reach of modest stations. My results were probably better than those of a newcomer to the game, since a previous 20 year period of working two meters has made me a savvy operator, very aware of propagation mechanisms and how to spot opportunities. Propagation awareness is critical for success on VHF.

There was no aurora during this period, but contacts to at least 900 miles on that mode are definitely possible with a station of this size. However, CW is a requirement for aurora.

It should be noted that graduating to the 100-150 watt class, easily within reach of most with a modern transceiver or solid state “brick” amplifier, will greatly enhance results. I would recommend this to anyone wanting to be serious about VHF “DXing”, though obviously it makes sense to start out with whatever power one has and upgrade once the desire for better results sets in. A larger antenna is always better, but even a very short yagi can provide interesting results. If erecting a long yagi is not practical, consider two or four short yagis properly stacked and phased. It’s not as difficult as it may sound, and you will find experienced VHF operators happy to assist.

2 Meter SSB/CW Operating Primer

This is one of a series of “Notes” I published on Facebook. Since Facebook has discontinued the Notes feature, I am publishing that series here on my blog.

I have recently written about what can be done on the two meter amateur band using modes other than FM. In a recent VHF contest my 25 watt station using a very small yagi mounted in a poor location at 27 feet above ground was able to make contacts to a distance of 350 miles. One should not expect ragchew quality with such a station at that distance, but short exchanges are possible. Reliable ragchew or conversational range with a small station on SSB will be 100 to 200 miles depending on numerous factors. The small station can expect occasional contacts to 1000 miles or more if the operator is alert and understands VHF propagation. As station power and antenna gain/height increase, so does typical working range. Far greater range may be had with a small station operating portable from a mountaintop.

A few of us hope to promote greater local activity in this interesting facet of amateur radio. I thought it would be useful to talk a little more about operating on the low end of the two meter band using SSB, CW, and digital modes. It is very different from FM and repeaters.

This is not like the HF bands which enjoy high activity and constant or frequent propagation. Beyond the normal working range of 100 to 500 miles depending on station capability, propagation is very infrequent and sporadic. The band can go from closed to open and vice versa in seconds. Propagation footprints can be very small with one station making DX contacts 1200 miles out while his neighbor ten miles down the road hears nothing but the locals. Furthermore, highly directional antennas are the norm. This makes it easy to miss signals coming from any direction other than where your antenna is currently aimed. Except in a VHF contest or when the band is known to be open for long distance communication, tuning around looking for signals is generally pointless. So how do we find someone to talk to? How do we prevent our extended local conversations from thwarting our neighbor’s attempts to make calls or long distance contacts if the band suddenly opens up? These are important considerations. The answer lies in understanding proper use of a calling frequency.

The established SSB and CW calling frequency on two meters is 144.200 MHz. This is where virtually every station who wants to call CQ (except in major band openings or contests) will go to do so. This is where you want to call CQ and also where you want to monitor for activity. Why do we call it a calling frequency? Because it should be used for making calls, but not for conversations or extended operating. If we all use the calling frequency considerately in the manner it was intended, we can maximize fun and enjoyment for everyone. If you establish contact with another station and want to exchange more than a signal report and a couple of brief remarks, proper etiquette is to move off the calling frequency with the station you are in contact with. This leaves the calling frequency open for others to make calls and for your neighbors to monitor for unusual band activity including DX opportunities. FM should not be used here, as it has the potential to seriously interfere with SSB and CW operations that you cannot hear on an FM radio.

How long of an exchange is considered acceptable on the calling frequency before moving off? How far off the calling frequency should you move for an extended QSO? These are good questions! I like to QSY off the calling frequency if I am in contact with another station for more than a minute or two. As an experienced two meter operator and DXer, I suggest this as a reasonable rule of thumb. As for how far to move off frequency, that is a little more complicated. Bear in mind that your signal can be extremely strong with your “local” neighbors – those within 50 miles or so of you, perhaps more with hilltop locations or high power. Not every receiver can handle such strong signals without some overloading. Meanwhile, signals from outside the local area that your neighbors may be trying to hear are likely to be very weak. With those considerations in mind, to minimize the potential for interfering with neighbors I suggest moving at least 20 kilohertz away from 144.200. More may be even better.

There are exceptions. Occasionally (OK, rarely) the band may suddenly open and permit even small and moderately equipped stations to make contacts to many hundreds of miles. Under these conditions the rules of etiquette change to permit everyone a reasonable chance of making DX contacts. When the band is really open, there may be many stations CQing and making brief contacts, taking advantage of the DX opportunity while it exists. Chances are operators at the other end of the propagation will be tuning around the band to find stations to work, but they probably won’t tune a huge portion of the band. In cases where the band is obviously open and activity is high, it is still considered impolite to hog 144.200 for extended periods. “Running” a few QSOs there is OK. Beyond that, try moving off a few kilohertz and calling CQ; perhaps up or down five if this is an opening where most are running SSB, up or down two if it is mostly CW (such as would be the case with aurora propagation). If it is really crowded, move off to the first clear frequency you find above or below the calling frequency.

Generally speaking, digital modes are not used on 144.200. There are special calling frequencies for certain types of digital mode operating. For example, 144.140 is used for calling using the FSK441 mode for meteor scatter communication. There are highly specialized operating techniques and special etiquette for this, which is beyond the intended scope of this beginner article.

Let’s get back to everyday operating for a moment. From our area, most signals on an everyday basis are going to be either local (try pointing antennas toward the Bangor area, but look around with the antenna too, so those in outlying areas have a chance to hear you) or from the southwest direction. There is a “VHF alley” (sometimes called “kilowatt alley”) of activity down the coast… southern Maine, southern New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Connecticut, Rhode Island, eastern New York, New Jersey, and so on. This is where most of the non-local signals come from except during long range band openings. Southwest is a good direction to “park” your antenna for listening. Occasionally you may get someone from the west or the east (Canadian Maritime provinces), or even north. Put out a CQ in those other directions from time to time. You may make someone’s day, as they are in areas often overlooked!

Activity tends to concentrate in the evenings. Try 1900 to 2100 local time. Not only is this a convenient time for many people, but tropo conditions often peak up a little around that time, permitting better signals from moderate distances. Sometimes there is a good peak in conditions around dawn and shortly thereafter. The problem with that is lack of activity. There is a group well to our southwest that gets on 144.205 in the mornings. Some of those stations are occasionally joined or worked by stations in our area. I believe some of them also monitor the appropriate ON4KST chat page in the mornings. Speaking of which, the chat can be a good place to find people a few hundred miles away who may be interested in trying to make contact with you on two meters! Give it a try. People there won’t bite, but I can’t promise they won’t growl about poor propagation!

Lastly, a final word on calling frequency etiquette. If you find others ragchewing on the calling frequency, please consider asking Lastly, a final word on calling frequency etiquette. If you find others ragchewing on the calling frequency, please consider asking very politely and tactfully if they could move off. Many do not realize or forget that tying up the frequency with extended conversations can rob other stations of the opportunity for rare and exciting contacts or just the chance to put out a CQ call. Some may feel that talking for long periods of time there is a good way to attract attention. It may be! But, it also gets in the way of others enjoying the band. Please, let’s all consider each other’s enjoyment of this very different and exciting facet of our great hobby. See you on the low end of two meters! (Note as of July 8, 2016: I am not really active as of yet; I need to finish antenna projects before I concentrate on operating and trying to encourage more activity. Give me a few weeks.)

The ‘Other’ VHF/UHF in the Maine Highlands

This is one of a series of “Notes” I published on Facebook. Since Facebook has discontinued the Notes feature, I am publishing that series here on my blog.

Most new hams these days start out on VHF FM and repeaters. Radios are inexpensive and simple to operate. Antennas are small and readily available or easy to build if one is so inclined. Many may never experience any other aspect of ham radio. Those who have entered the fraternity partly or wholly for the hobby aspects of it may get on the HF bands where contacts around the world are an everyday occurrence. Few will ever realize or experience the potential of VHF and UHF using non-FM modes. This ‘other’ VHF/UHF may be one of the best kept secrets in ham radio today.

In Maine, VHF or UHF FM will allow one to communicate up to 50 miles or so between base stations, maybe more if one or both stations are located on hilltops. Operating through repeaters this range is doubled. A few repeaters, especially those located on higher summits, may allow communication between stations up to 150 miles apart. Occasionally, when atmospheric conditions are favorable, the range may be extended. There are linked repeater networks and repeaters linked via the internet which allow long range communication but such contacts are not generally useful for awards or contests and for many, simply don’t provide the same thrill as a radio-to-radio contact without any active devices (repeater, internet, satellite) assisting. There is something inherently fascinating, something often uniquely rewarding, in using natural phenomena to get one’s radio signal to a far-off place.

When we start using modes other than FM – such as SSB, CW and a host of digital modes that work through SSB transceivers – we enter a whole new world on VHF and UHF. This is a world known as VHF “weak signal” communication, but the term can be misleading. Sure, sometimes signals are weak but they can also be extraordinarily strong. Although I am not familiar with the etymology of the term, it may refer to the fact that the non-FM modulation modes can make weaker signals usable where FM would fail. So just what can we do with VHF and UHF once we look beyond FM? Once we get into the VHF range we start to find other methods of signal propagation over relatively long distances; ones that are not useful on the HF bands. The troposphere (the lower region of Earth’s atmosphere which is largely responsible for our weather) has a significant influence, and certain less common ionospheric phenomena come into play. VHF and UHF weak signal communication is almost always done using directional or beam antennas, the yagi being the most popular. Unlike FM and repeaters, horizontal polarization is used. Vertical polarization may have been chosen for FM work to simplify hand held and mobile antenna setups, or because it is easier to achieve omni-directional patterns. Horizontal polarization has certain advantages, among them less susceptibility to many types of man made noise; hence it is a good choice where we may be wanting to copy signals that are not strong. Horizontally polarized beam antennas are also easier to mount without the (usually vertical) support mast degrading performance of the antenna. What is possible on VHF and UHF “weak signal” is influenced by regional weather, terrain and other factors. As a result, this article focuses on what to expect if you live in the Maine Highlands region. This is based on more than 20 years experience. For purposes of this article, the assumption is made that your station is located in a moderate valley, as most of us are. If you happen to live on a hill, you will see better results.

Let’s look at the 6 meter band first. A typical 50 to 100 watt transceiver and a small beam antenna (say, three to five elements on a six to 15 foot boom) will allow contacts to well over 100 miles most of the time. Occasionally this range will be extended by conditions in the troposphere which result in greater signal bending beyond the normal radio horizon. During late Spring through mid summer, the E layer of the ionosphere often becomes ionized enough to reflect 6 meter signals back to Earth. This results in signals propagating over distances to 1400 miles on a single hop, often with excellent signal strength. The band may become full of signals and large numbers of contacts are possible. Less frequent but not uncommon is multi-hop Es propagation. There are usually several good openings from our area to Europe and to the west coast every year during this period. There is a secondary Es season in December-January but more than one hop is relatively uncommon. Aurora can easily reflect 6 meter signals. This is like playing billiards – the signal reflects off the aurora. Typically antennas will be pointed somewhat east of north to work stations to our east, due north to work stations north or south of us, and somewhat west of north to work stations to our west. Contacts out to 1000 miles are common, but greater distances to 1300 miles are occasionally possible. Signals propagated by this method have marked distortion. Single sideband voice may sound very raspy or like a loud whisper. CW signals usually exhibit a buzz or hiss sound rather than a clear tone. Sustained aurora may lead to patches of Es forming and a conversion to auroral Es propagation, wherein the distortion goes away. Meteor scatter, using specialized operating techniques, allows contacts to distances of 1300 miles almost every day of the year. Meteor scatter is of no use for rag chewing but callsigns and signal reports can easily be exchanged. During the peak of intense sunspot cycles, propagation over great distances (even worldwide) is possible using the ionospheric F2 layer, as on the HF bands. There was very little 6 meter F2 propagation during solar cycle 24 due to its relatively weak maximum.

What about the 2 meter band? Using 50 to 100 watts and a multi-element yagi (8 or more elements on a boom ranging from 10 to over 30 feet in length), contacts to 200 miles are possible most of the time. Being in a particularly deep valley will reduce range. Tropospheric enhancement is more common than at lower frequencies, and will at times allow contacts to 300 or even 400 miles. While far less common than at 6 meters, Es propagation does occur on the 2 meter band, usually in June, July or early August. Es contacts to 1300 miles can be made, often with extremely strong signals. In one such opening I worked a station in North Carolina who was running a two watt portable SSB transceiver with its built in telescoping whip antenna. He was blasting in just like a local station! Double hop Es has been reported on a few occasions but is rare. I had one contact at a distance of 1700 miles on double hop Es during my years on 2 meters. Aurora also works well at 2 meters, allowing contacts to 1000 miles and occasionally more. Distortion is even more pronounced at this frequency, usually rendering SSB unintelligible. CW is definitely the preferred mode for 2 meter aurora contacts. Using specialized techniques, meteor scatter works well but is not as easy as it is at 6 meters.

At 135cm, tropospheric propagation is slightly better than at 2 meters. Aurora still works reasonably well. Meteor scatter is possible but quite a bit more challenging. Es is extraordinarily rare but does occur on the order of once every ten years or so! What a thrill it would be to catch an opening like that! I never did.

At 70cm, tropo works quite well. Aurora is somewhat less common than at lower frequencies but can work well during the more intense events. Es does not occur at all, and while meteor scatter is possible it represents a rather extreme challenge.

The bands above 70m are barely used at all in Maine except for a very small number of avid VHF/UHF and microwave contesters. There is so little activity that getting on these bands rarely is worthwhile unless one is an avid contester, has some specific goal in mind, or wishes to explore the fascinating world of microwave propagation.

With high power and larger antennas, other propagation modes come into play. EME, or Earth-Moon-Earth, allows communication with any point on Earth by bouncing signals off the lunar surface. I worked all 50 states and more than 80 countries on 2 meter EME back in the 1980s and 90s when this was all done on CW. One fascinating aspect of EME is that it takes approximately two and a half seconds for a signal to traverse the half million mile round trip to the moon and back. You can actually make a short transmission and then hear your own signal come back from the moon! Tropospheric scatter often allows communication to 1000 miles or more on 6 and 2 meters for stations with a kilowatt of power and high gain antennas (7 element yagi or more on 6 meters, array of four or more long yagis on 2 meters). When I had 1500 watts and a 96 element stacked quad antenna array on 2 meters, I could often work stations up to 1000 miles distant using this brute force propagation mechanism. There is something satisfying about working a station 1000 miles away on a band “everyone knows is dead”. High power and large antennas also extend the range of propagation modes previously discussed. On 6 meter Es I have worked as far as Bahrain, Brazil, Hawaii, and Japan. I have more than 120 countries on 6 meters, all but one or two of them by way of Es propagation. It can be done.

There are several popular VHF/UHF contests. Contesting on these bands is very different from contesting on HF where there are many loud signals all the time. On VHF and UHF you may tune up and down the band(s) for an hour without hearing a signal. When you do find one, you may want to “run the bands” with that station, making arrangements to go from band to band to band, working the station on as many bands as you can. It is both fun and challenging. My first experience with VHF contesting came shortly after I purchased my first 2 meter all mode rig at a hamfest in the 1980s. I had not yet put up a horizontal antenna. I had 90 watts to a quarter wave ground plane I had been using for local FM work. Despite the incorrect polarization making my 90 watts sound more like one watt, I was able to eke out contacts with stations 15o miles away. This opened my eyes to the world of weak signal work and made me want more. It wasn’t long before I made station improvements!

In fact, any operating on VHF/UHF weak signal is different than HF. It’s usually not as easy as turning on a radio and making dozens of contacts. It takes time and patience. Knowledge of VHF/UHF propagation helps tremendously, as you will know when and where to look. On the other hand, the rewards can be great. It is fun to make contacts most hams would believe impossible. There is often a good deal more thrill and satisfaction in making a contact using a rare propagation mode that one must wait for, as opposed to being able to turn on a radio and do it virtually any time.

Cover photo: Temporary VHF/UHF antennas at N1BUG, shortly after a move in 1999. Bottom to top: 13 element horizontal yagi for 2 meters (partially visible); 5 element vertical yagi for 2 meters; 11 element horizontal yagi for 135cm (222 MHz); 22 element horizontal yagi for 70cm (432 MHz) with receive preamp covered by a sandwich bag! The 432 MHz yagi, with approximately 600 watts of power and the preamp shown was enough to work a few dozen stations and all continents on EME, using CW! These antennas were on an azimuth/elevation mount so they could be pointed anywhere in the sky, not just toward the horizon.

An eight-yagi 432 MHz EME array at N1BUG. This array used open wire phasing lines instead of coax to keep losses to a minimum.

DX 2016: Personal Thoughts on an Exceptional Year

This is one of a series of “Notes” I published on Facebook. Since Facebook has discontinued the Notes feature, I am publishing that series here on my blog.

This is not a how-to ‘note’. These are my thoughts on the significance of major DXpedtions happening this year and what DXing means to me.

In the world of amateur radio DXing, 2016 is shaping up to be a year that will long be remembered by many of us. On any given year there might typically be one to three major DXpeditions, mostly to places that are uninhabited, remote, costly to reach, and thus activated only on rare occasions. This year there are four expeditions activating five of the rarest DXCC entities on Earth! Palmyra Atoll (K5P, January) ranked 16th most wanted out of 340 current DXCC entities; South Sandwich Islands (VP8STI, January), third; South Georgia Island (VP8SGI, January/February), eighth. These are all very rare places to be sure, having last been activated in 2005, 2002, and 2002 respectively. These three operations alone would have made for a banner year but there is more to come! Soon VK0EK will be activating Heard Island, the fifth most wanted entity. In April, FT4JA will activate Juan de Nova Island, sixth most wanted. These are all major events in the world of DX. All of these expeditions are large multi-operator, multi-station efforts, putting tens of thousands of QSOs in the log and giving a new one to many thousands of DXers around the world.

It may be argued, however, that of the lot Vk0EK could be the biggest event. In terms of statistics on number of people needing it, Heard Island ranks second of the major DXpeditions this year. But, last activated in 1997, it has been off the air longer than any other DXCC entity on Earth. To put this into perspective, consider this: A DXer who started in the year 2000 and managed to work all the major DXpeditions since could have 339 worked, with the upcoming VK0EK giving them the last entity on the current list of 340. That is huge! Every other DXCC entity has been activated at some point since the year 2000, with the sole exception of Heard Island for which we have to go back another three years to find the last time. VK0EK has stated an aim to make 150,000 QSOs, more than any of this year’s other mega-DXpeditions. It will be the most costly of the 2016 DXpeditions and could be the most costly DXpedition of all time. I cannot confirm the latter since I have been unable to find a final cost figure for the 2006 3Y0X operation from Peter I Island, at the time said to set a new record. Arguably, of all places on Earth Heard Island may be the most remote, the most difficult in terms of climate and getting there. Located in the “furious fifties” (referring to latitude) of the great Southern Ocean some ten days sail from South Africa and Western Australia, it is certainly not a place easily or quickly reached.

I was immediately attracted to DXing after getting my amateur radio license in 1981. I was 17, still full of youthful wonder and optimism. Growing up I had always dreamed of visiting far off places. Remote, seldom seen locations inspired my imagination more than any other. So I suppose it was only natural that making radio contact with distant and often exotic places would appeal to me. I was green in those days, though. I didn’t yet know about “mega DXpeditions” or DXCC entities that were on the air once every ten or twenty years. I was thinking of working 100 countries to get my DXCC award and even getting 100 on the most challenging MF/HF band, 160 meters. The idea of DXCC Honor Roll or Number One Honor Roll never entered my young head. [To qualify for Honor Roll, one must have confirmed contacts with enough entities to be within 10 of having all current entities on the list; with 340 current entities on the list, that means 331 or more. Number One Honor Roll means having worked them all – every single DXCC entity on the current list.]

A few years into my ham radio adventure I was distracted by moonbounce, or Earth-Moon-Earth (EME) operation on the VHF and UHF bands. A devout CW (Morse code) operator, I was especially keen on doing anything that was considered difficult or was well outside mainstream ham radio. EME was that and more, offering any operator who wanted it the ultimate weak signal challenge. It was man and his machine against the odds, overcoming challenges, fraught with difficulty, unpredictable and for some, irresistible. EME also challenged me in another way. I had to put my mechanical aptitude to use figuring out how to build large antenna arrays steerable in two planes, and do this on a budget so limited most people would probably have given up. I dreamed of attaining DXCC on the two meter band, but reached only 82 countries before digital modes displaced CW in EME.

Returning to HF a seasoned and more knowledgeable ham in 2004, I set my sights on working 300 countries on 160 meters. That would be as challenging as getting 100 on two meter EME! Not long thereafter I was struck by the desire to achieve DXCC Honor Roll and thus started to operate more on the HF bands, 80 through 10 meters. It isn’t easy. Once you get upward of 300 you’re going to have to wait for DXpeditions for the rest. Many of these will be very rare places and you may be waiting decades. Forget about “push button QSOs”. You’re going to have to work at getting some of them. Competition for those rare contacts is intense! For DXers, these factors add to the fun and sense of accomplishment.

DXpeditions provide recreation for tens of thousands who make much wanted contacts with them and thoroughly enjoy the chase. Moreover, they help to fill one of amateur radio’s long held primary roles: that of enhancing international good will. Often a multi-national team effort must come together in cooperation and fellowship to make these trips happen. Even where that may not be the case, amateur radio DXers are a worldwide fraternity spanning the globe, reaching across all political and ethnic boundaries. All share the common goal of making contact with these DXpeditions. In some cases, scientific expeditions and amateur radio DXpeditons are combined, as is the case with the upcoming Heard Island trip. DXpeditions to populated places with little or no indigenous ham radio licensees can help draw attention to the plight of third world nations and even provide humanitarian aid.

So here I am in 2016. K5P was my #327 overall, #285 on 160 meters; VP8STI #328 and #286 respectively; VP8SGI #329 and #287. I have since worked Ethiopia and Lesotho for new ones on 160 meters, bringing my total on that most challenging band to 289. If I work the upcoming VK0EK and FT4JA that will bring me to the magic number for Honor Roll: 331. Wow! It’s like seeing light at the end of a long tunnel. Yet there is a certain duality about it. Reaching a long sought goal is exciting and gratifying, but it also in some ways represents the end of a journey that in and of itself brought immeasurable joy. I am hoping to get Heard and Juan de Nova on 160 meters as well, though that is by no means a given. What a year! It had been quite some time since my last new one, overall or on 160. I certainly couldn’t have envisioned getting so many in such a short period of time at this level. Excited doesn’t begin to describe the feeling!

When one reaches this level, it is almost inevitable that thoughts of Number One Honor Roll creep in. It seems so close – only nine more – and yet so far. Is it possible? Seven of the remaining nine will probably come up for DXpedition within the next ten or fifteen years. They are not easy to reach or obtain permission to operate from but some enterprising team will no doubt find a way. I hope to be around to work them. North Korea (DPRK) and Turkmenistan are the most worrisome. Rarely someone manages to get permission to operate from DPRK, but it isn’t easy and there is never any guarantee of a “next time”. That is ranked #1 most wanted on the list. Turkmenistan currently doesn’t allow amateur radio licensing, so we can only hope for a change there. It ranks 24th most wanted and is quickly climbing toward the top. It’s safe to say I will be keeping my nose and an ear to the ground for information or rumors on these two.

For me, major DXpeditions aren’t just about the challenge of getting through the pileup or climbing another rung on the DXCC ladder. They are an opportunity to follow a team on a great adventure, to somehow connect with it. If life had turned out differently, that might be me out there going to those rarest places on Earth. I have the passion, the drive, the desire. At risk of seeming immodest, I believe I have the operating skill. I laugh in the face of any danger involved. I had an opportunity once. In 2005 I was invited to be part of a DXpedition to St. Paul Island. Admittedly this isn’t a wild Southern Ocean location or one of the world’s most difficult. But is is an uninhabited island, rare and sought after. Not being able to go ranks as one of the biggest disappointments of my life and still haunts me.

I don’t just get on the air and work major DXpeditions. I enthusiastically follow them. I make it a point to know who is going where, when, how they are getting there, what equipment they are taking. I want to know something about the place, its history, its wildlife, its amateur radio activation history. When the precise location of a DXpedition camp setup is known, you can bet I will have a good virtual look at the place with Google Earth. I haunt DXpedition web sites and DX information sites for any breaking news just prior to or during a trip. To the extent reasonably feasible, I collect DXpedition videos. It isn’t just about the contact. It’s the experience, the intrigue, the wonder. It’s the consolation prize for not being able to be there.

2016 is undeniably a banner year for those who, for whatever reason, desire to work major DXpeditions in rare places. It is the sort of year that comes around very rarely. On the air and in DX forums the excitement is palpable. For many it is the year a dream comes true; the year a threshold is reached, be it Honor Roll, Number One Honor Roll or some personal benchmark. For others it is the year for that one contact that speaks to something within, something which no other can quite touch. For me it is both. As VK0EK draws nearer, the excitement is so intense I feel as though I need a tether to keep me anchored to the Earth. That is not a feeling I am accustomed to. It stands in stark contrast to the more typical reality of life. This one is a “must do” on my list. Will it be another 19 years before the next opportunity to work Heard Island? Will there even be a next opportunity? With places this rare and difficult to put on the air, one never knows for sure.

Confirming Ham Radio Contacts: The Art of QSLing

This is one of a series of “Notes” I published on Facebook. Since Facebook has discontinued the Notes feature, I am publishing that series here on my blog.

QSLing, or exchanging of QSL cards goes back to the earliest days of ham radio. It is often said “a QSL is the final courtesy of a QSO”, which hints at the importance that has always been placed on this aspect of ham radio as a hobby. Traditionally a QSL is a postcard which confirms that radio communication was carried out between two stations. QSL cards have the callsign of the station issuing the card, information about the station location and owner, and possibly other information printed on the card. The callsign of the station contacted, along with date, time, band, mode and signal report is handwritten or otherwise filled into areas of the card reserved for this before being sent out. The front and back of my N1BUG QSL card can be seen in the cover photo. Why do hams exchange QSL cards? Some do it because they like to get and collect QSLs to commemorate memorable QSOs (contacts, conversations). Some QSL cards are truly works of art. Others feature breathtaking photos of exotic places. Others collect QSL cards for contact verification when applying for operating achievement awards such as Worked All States (WAS), Worked All Zones (WAZ), or DX Century Club (DXCC). These awards are not issued on the honor system. One must show some evidence that they did in fact establish radio contact with the locations they are claiming. QSL cards are the traditional means of verification.

How does this work? Suppose I make radio contact with a station in Iceland, and that for whatever reason I want a QSL card from that station to confirm or commemorate the contact. I will fill in his callsign and the contact details – date, time, band, mode, signal report and perhaps a personal comment on one of my station QSL cards. I will check a box on my card which says “Please QSL” to indicate I want a card in return. I will then mail my card to the other operator along with some means of paying for the cost of return postage. Why do we send return postage? Suppose the ham in Iceland makes several hundred or even several thousand contacts in a year and many of the stations contacted want his QSL card. If the Icelandic ham had to pay for postage to send each of those cards it could easily cost the equivalent of hundreds or even thousands of dollars. This could easily put the cost of ham radio out of the reach of many or force them to not respond to QSL requests! Chances are he doesn’t need my card for anything (he probably has a huge collection already), but I do need his. So, as a courtesy I will cover the cost of postage for the return card. When the other operator gets my card he will fill in the QSO details on one of his QSL cards (probably checking the “Thanks for QSL” box), then mail it to me. I may display it in my shack or file it away for later use in applying for awards, depending on my goals and interests.

When sending cards within the U.S. it is customary to send a self addressed, stamped envelope (SASE) to cover return postage costs and to save the other operator the time of writing my address on an envelope. Remember, most active stations get many such requests and most people don’t have unlimited time for this hobby. When sending QSLs to other countries there are a few options on how to pay for return postage. In the past the International Reply Coupon (IRC) was a popular choice. An IRC could be sent with the QSL and in most countries that IRC could be exchanged for the correct amount of postage to return one piece of first class mail to the country of origin. The IRC has diminished greatly in popularity (some would say it has become all but unusable), because the USPS no longer sells them and because many countries no longer accept them. The most popular method today is to send US one dollar bills to pay for return postage. In ham radio QSL parlance we call them green stamps. They can be exchanged for local currency in most countries, but do your homework before sending them! In a few countries, one can get into a lot of trouble for the mere possession of US currency! I do not know where to find a comprehensive list of such places, but keep reading for tips how to know what to send or not send. Be aware that $1 is not enough to cover the cost of returning a card from most countries, just as it now costs over $1 to buy a stamp to mail something out of the US. $2 may still be enough in some countries but many require $3 and I believe some are now $4. Obviously this gets expensive – at current rates, $1.20 for the stamp to mail something out, $3 to cover the cost of getting a reply. Another method that is gaining in popularity is to send stamps from the DX operator’s own country along with your QSL. There is at least one service (William Plum DX Supplies) making such stamps available to hams.

Recognizing the high cost of exchanging QSLs, many countries participate in a network of QSL bureaus. Here is how this works. If I contact many DX stations whose QSLs I want, I can fill out all of the QSLs, sort them by country of destination, and along with a modest fee send them to the American Radio Relay League (ARRL) Outgoing QSL Bureau. The bureau will then combine my outgoing cards with those of many other US hams and send them in batches to QSL bureaus in other countries for distribution to hams in each country. Incoming QSLs through the system are handled by a number of regional bureaus across the country. In order to receive incoming QSLs through the bureau system, I periodically send money to the W1 QSL Bureau. They receive thousands of QSLs destined for US hams in the first call area (W1), which comprises the six New England states. They get these cards from bureaus around the world. The incoming QSLs are sorted by destination station, and when they have accumulated a reasonable number that are going to my station or a certain amount of time has passed since their last mailing to me, they mail them to me (using some of the postage credit on my account). Exchanging QSLs through the bureau system is much cheaper than going direct, but it takes more time. The amount of time required to get a QSL card this way can be months or even years. Bear in mind not all countries have a QSL bureau, and not all hams in any given country use the bureau if it has one. Many hams use the bureau to obtain QSLs they would like to have, but are in no hurry for. Note that the ARRL bureau is for sending cards to other countries and cannot be used for sending cards to other US stations.

Some hams, particularly those in rare or semi-rare countries, have a QSL manager. This is a person who handles the chore of responding to QSL requests f0r the ham, who may not have enough time to do it. In some cases, hams have QSL managers because delivery of mail in their country is not entirely reliable. The QSL manager may or may not live in the same country as the ham using his services. Sometimes you get lucky and the ham you just worked in that rare country has a QSL manager in the US! This is great, as it costs you less and you usually get your wanted QSL card in less time.

So how you do you know where to send your QSL for that DX station you just worked? You need to look it up. I usually start with QRZ.com. If the DX station has a listing there, it will likely tell you how to QSL that station, be it direct, via bureau or via a manager. Often it will tell you what methods are accepted for return postage and what not to send. Not all stations are listed on QRZ.com. For those you need to look further. There are DX newsletters to which you can subscribe which often give QSL information for rare stations and DXpeditions. Some of them have back issues available online. Sites such as DXNews.com and DXcoffee.com can be valuable resources for finding QSL information. A good source for DXpedition QSL info is ng3k.com, particulary his ADXO (Announced DX Operations) pages. In short, the avid DXer with an interest in QSL cards needs to have a variety of resources from which to gather information.

When sending cards to other countries, there are a few things to keep in mind. Mail isn’t as safe in many places as it is in the US. Putting callsigns on the envelope suggests that it may contain a QSL and some US $1 bills – which may then get stolen! The best advice is don’t put callsigns on the envelope, just names and addresses (that of the station you are sending it to and your return address, of course). Try to hide what is inside so it can’t be clearly seen if the envelope is held up to a bright light. You may want to use security envelopes or wrap a couple sheets of paper around your QSL and funds for return postage before placing it in the envelope. Whatever you do, write clearly and legibly when filling out your QSL card and addressing the envelope. Remember this may be going to, or through, places where English is not the primary language and even to places that use a totally different alphabet! Don’t expect them to decipher a scribbled address. Sending a self addressed envelope for the return QSL may save the other operator some time in replying, but US sized envelopes are not acceptable in all countries. William Plum DX Supplies sells envelopes specifically for this purpose.

With postage costs escalating and in view of the fact many only want QSL cards for contact verification in applying for awards (as opposed to collecting the cards themselves), modern technology has provided an alternative: electronic QSLing. There are two major services in operation today: eQSL and ARRL’s Logbook of The World (LoTW). Each has its advantages and disadvantages, which should be considered in selecting which service(s) to use.

LoTW confirmations are currently good for ARRL awards (WAS, DXCC, VUCC) and the CQ WPX award – but not for others. There is no cost to sign up and participate in LoTW but there is a nominal fee of 12 cents per QSL for any you decide to use for awards applications. The LoTW sign up process has drawn heavy criticism on grounds that it is too difficult. Paperwork is often challenging for me but I didn’t find anything difficult about the LoTW sign up process, and the documentation leads you through it step by step. The registration process is designed to avoid fraud so that some integrity may remain in the awards system. It is not an “instant gratification” process. It takes about a week since it does involve a postcard through the US mail for one part of it. You only have to go through this process once. Once you are signed up, using LoTW is usually very easy. Most hams today log all of the contacts they make using one of several different logging programs that are available. Major logging programs automate the process of uploading contacts to LoTW. With the one I use (DXKeeper) it is as easy as a click or two. There is no printable “QSL card” with a LoTW contact verification. It is strictly an electronic acknowledgement that the contact is confirmed.

The other major online QSL system, eQSL, has a somewhat easier registration process. Confirmations through eQSL count for CQ awards and perhaps others, but cannot be used to apply for ARRL awards. eQSL allows each station to design their own electronic QSL “card”, and receiving stations can print out and keep a copy for each contact confirmed through the system. Most major logging programs automate the process of uploading contacts to eQSL.

It is important to choose which service(s) best meet your objectives. My main awards focus is DXCC and I like contesting. I use LoTW because confirmations there can be used for the DXCC awards and because uploading all of my QSOs there greatly reduces the number of QSL card requests I get through the mail. Otherwise I would be overwhelmed due to the number of contacts I make while contesting. By the way, award application fees are often less for electronic applications than for paper ones which require more processing on the part of the organization issuing the award. I send for paper QSL cards when I work stations needed for DXCC who do not use LoTW. I also like to get paper QSLs for major DXpeditions even if they use LoTW (most do), because often those QSLs are something extra special with pictures of the rare and exotic places and once in a lifetime adventures. Some are multi-sided fold-out cards or even small booklets with pictures and story of a great DX adventure.

QSL cards from rare locations and DXpeditions. Top left: a bi-fold QSL card from a base in Antarctica. Top right: front of a QSL from 3Y0X Peter I Island DXpedition. Second row: middle of fold-out 3Y0X QSL. Third row: Bi-fold card from BS7H Scarborough Reef DXpedition. Bottom: middle of a 32 page QSL card “booklet” telling the story of the VP6DX Ducie Island Dxpedition.

One other method deserves mention. A system called Online QSL Request System (OQRS) is becoming quite popular, especially for DXpeditions. A DXpedition is by definition a temporary ham radio operation from some rare and often remote place. The person or people who went on a DXpedition does not need your QSL card, but very likely you need theirs. Many of them now post their logs online and offer OQRS through various systems. The way this works is you go to their onling log site, enter your callsign and it will show you all contacts you made with that DXpedition. It will then offer you a chance to “order” QSLs for some or all of those contacts. You may have to fill in the details such as date and time for each QSO. Usually there is a nominal fee involved. It may seem high but bear in mind this is one way of helping to pay for a trip that was done for your benefit and likely cost in the hundreds of thousands of dollars! The advantage for you is that you usually get your card(s) much quicker than any other method. Many DXpeditions now use Club Log for their online log and OQRS. Any station can upload logs to Clug Log. If you participate, this makes OQRS even easier. Since Club Log has both the DXpedition log and your log, it already knows all details of the matching QSOs! All you have to do is select the ones you want QSLs for and complete the transaction by making payment. For those like me who hate paperwork, this is the ultimate in simplicity and convenience on getting those rare DXpdition QSLs. I used Club Log OQRS for my recent contacts with K5P (Palmyra), VP8STI (South Sandwich), and VP8SGI (South Georgia).

You have a number of choices when having QSL cards printed for your station. Many printing services offer generic card designs customized with your callsign, name, and location. Others will design a card from your photo or artwork, or you can do all the design work yourself and just have them print a batch of cards. I designed my QSL card myself and submitted it to UX5UO Print. For less than $100 I got 1,000 full color double sided cards featuring photos from a hiking trip to Mount Katahdin. Cards can be ordered from many printers in smaller quantity, and generic designs are cheaper than color photo cards. Of course you can design and print your own if you want. QSL cards don’t have to be fancy. In fact, some are very basic but still do the job of confirming QSOs. Because the people you contact will be wanting your card for a variety of purposes, I suggest you put the following on your card as a minimum: your callsign, name, and mailing address; state and country (if not obvious from the address), county, CQ zone, ITU zone, and grid square. Additional information may apply in some cases. If you live on an island which counts for Islands on the Air (IOTA), for example, you might want to put its IOTA number on your card.

Examples of basic QSL cards. Top: Single color, two sided card (reverse not shown). Bottom left: Single color single sided card. Bottom right: two color single sided card.

Ham Radio Contesting: Not Just About Winning

This is one of a series of “Notes” I published on Facebook. Since Facebook has discontinued the Notes feature, I am publishing that series here on my blog.

Some hams complain about contests clogging up the bands, others love them. These days it seems there is a contest of some sort just about every weekend: some big, some small; some very fast paced and competitive, others more relaxed and friendly. Generally speaking, the object of a contest is to work (contact) as many stations as possible in a given amount of time. Most who participate in contests have little to no chance of winning the contest and they know it. In most contests, the big stations with the most experienced operators are always going to win. With present day proliferation of superstations, that doesn’t leave the average ham much of a chance to win, per se. So why would one participate in a contest if winning isn’t possible? There are many reasons! Let’s explore that. Even if you don’t win the contest and get a nice plaque for your wall, that’s not to say you don’t “win” something of value to you!

Whether you’re out to compete or not, contesting should be fun. There are many ways to have fun in a contest without pushing yourself to get a high score. Some like contests as a means of improving operator skill. Contests are about short, snappy exchanges, usually with a good amount of QRM (interference) just to make things more interesting. The more you do it, the better you will become at copying through QRM or just digging out and understanding weaker signals. Your operator skills will be enhanced in other ways as you learn to be quick and brief while maintaining accuracy. These skills carry over into many other aspects of ham radio, including public service. For the CW (Morse code) contester, improving sending and receiving speed is another major benefit.

Contests are a great way to find stations in states, countries or other subdivisions needed for operating achievement awards. Contests concentrate many stations on the bands during a short time period and often bring out DX (long distance contacts) in semi-rare countries that aren’t on very often. Perhaps you’re interested in making contacts with a part of the world that is difficult for you, or places you have a particular interest in. Maybe you just want to test your station to find out what you can work, or test yourself! You may be pleasantly surprised. You may learn things about propagation that you didn’t know.

Some “contesters” just want to test and evaluate themselves. It can be fun to set a personal goal, such as working all 50 states or some number of countries in a contest. Or perhaps you just want to compete against yourself and see if you can do better in a particular contest than last time. The beauty of this is that you can set a goal that is attainable and yet challenging enough to keep you motivated! In one recent contest I set a goal of working a certain number of countries. When that goal was completed less than a third of the way through the contest much to my surprise, I changed my emphasis for the remainder. I spent some time looking for Asia, since I am always interested in working that part of the world. I looked for and worked old friends. I practiced my skill at tuning the band and moving as quickly as possible from one QSO (contact) to the next. Since I wasn’t competing against others, I could spend as much or as little time operating as I wanted, consistent with trying to meet my self assigned goal. I took more break time than operating time.

Whatever your interest, be prepared. Know the rules of the contest you will be participating in. For example, what information is to be exchanged for a valid contact? A signal report is usually part of the exchange and is almost always 59 on phone or 599 on CW or RTTY. Most contests require exchange of state, CQ or ITU zone, grid square, or some other information in addition to signal report. Can you work stations anywhere, just DX, or just your own country? When does the contest start and end? What bands and modes are allowed? Can you work a station just one time, or can you work the same station on each band? If you will be competing you will also want to know about other rules, such as required off time, scoring, how to submit a log, entry classes, and so on. There are many resources for contest listings. To see what is happening this week, I use This Week’s Contests at contesting.com for a listing and a short summary of the most basic rules for each contest. If I want to see what contests are coming up weeks or months from now, WA7BNM Content Calendar is a great resource.

Whatever your reason for contesting, knowledge of propagation can help. If you are out to win the contest, you need to know how to take advantage of propagation to get the most contacts and the most multipliers. A multiplier is usually a state, country, zone or other subdivision that can really boost your score. If you are looking for contacts in a particular area, knowing propagation can help with that too. I often use contests to look for eastern Asia, the most challenging part of the world to work from my home in Maine. Not only have I learned when the various bands will most likely be open to Asia (which varies with solar activity and season), but I know there is a characteristic flutter or warble to signals coming over the poles, whether short or long path. I can easily identify signals from that region even without hearing a callsign, and can select them quickly while tuning. While it is true that signals from other areas (notably South America in the late afternoon/evening and sometimes Europe/Africa) can have similar effects, a trained ear will soon recognize the difference on any given day, allowing quick and easy selection of signals from deep Asia. But don’t worry! If you don’t already know a lot about propagation, active participation in contests will help you learn.

Remember, in a contest time is a precious commodity. If you aren’t competing yourself, many of those you work probably are, either in the contest itself or to meet some personal goal. Try to keep it brief and snappy. This is often one of the biggest challenges for new contesters who may be unsure of themselves and/or more accustomed to other types of operating. Many newcomers feel they are being impolite if they don’t include greetings and friendly phrases as part of an exchange. Actually, it is polite to keep it as brief as possible since many of the stations you work are competing and time is precious to them. Before delving into this further, you should know there are two basic paradigms of contest operating: one is search and pounce, the other is known as running. In search and pounce, you tune the band to find a station you want to work, then pounce (call the station). Running is when you call CQ and let stations come to you. Both are fun, but running can be far more challenging. Most contesters start with search and pounce until they gain confidence.

Let’s look at a typical contest QSO between WW0TST (who is running) and N1BUG (doing search and pounce) in a phone (voice) contest where the exchange is signal report and state. The shortest and most desirable form under good copy conditions goes like so:

“Whiskey Whiskey Zero Tango Sierra Tango, Contest”
“November One Bravo Uniform Golf”
“November One Bravo Uniform Golf, Five Nine Colorado”
“Five Nine Maine”
“Thanks, Whiskey Whiskey Zero Tango Sierra Tango”

There are no extraneous words. This is the most efficient contact flow possible. Many operators will preface “Five Nine Maine” with “Thanks” or “Thank you” but the most experienced contest operators usually don’t. This may need to be modified under certain circumstances. For example, if WW0TST didn’t copy my full call at the beginning, he might just say the portion of it he got, which is a request for me to repeat it. The flow then becomes this:

“Whiskey Whiskey Zero Tango Sierra Tango, Contest”
“November One Bravo Uniform Golf”
“Uniform Golf”
“November One Bravo Uniform Golf”
“November One Bravo Uniform Golf, Five Nine Colorado”
“Five Nine Maine”
“Thanks, Whiskey Whiskey Zero Tango Sierra Tango”

Sometimes an operator might simply say “Again” which means repeat whatever you last said. There are many possible variations and you will get the hang of it with practice! What you don’t want to do is include a lot of extra verbiage such as “WW0TST, this is November One Bravo Uniform Golf” or “good morning, you are five nine here in Maine”. The exception might be in a small, relaxed contest where the point of the event itself is to have fun as opposed to the more typical rabid competition, or when working an operator who shows an obvious preference for such relaxed exchanges. Although there is no hard and fast rule, you will often find the most experienced, dyed-in-the-wool contesters toward the bottom of the band, less experienced part-time contesters higher up. Sometimes you may get and wish to send something extra when working an operator you know personally or from other ham radio activities. But in general, short is good. Don’t worry if you find yourself adding more to the exchanges at first. Contesting is very different from normal QSOs and it does take some getting used to. Just keep reminding yourself to be brief and try to mimic the way the experienced operators do it.

On CW, the most efficient form is:

“WW0TST TEST”
“N1BUG”
“N1BUG 5NN CO”
“5NN ME”
“TU WW0TST”

Again, repeats may be needed. If, after my initial call, WW0TST didn’t get all of it, he might send “1B”; I would then send my full call once again. A more generic form is “?” meaning repeat whatever you last sent. This can also be “AGN”. On CW, many search and pounce operators will preface the exchange with the callsign of the running station, for example “WW0TST 5NN ME”. I can see the logic of this, to avoid possible confusion when QRM is high. There might be some uncertainty as to whether I am working WW0TST or his very close neighbor on the band. Sending his callsign alleviates any doubt. However it comes at the cost of additional time. I generally don’t do it. Notice there is no “BK” (over, or I’m done, now you go ahead) at the end of a transmission. Believe it or not, it just isn’t necessary! Even the least experienced novice contesters don’t need to hear this to recognize it’s their turn.

Of course there are many variations. Things don’t always go by the book and sometimes multiple repeats may be required for the callsign and/or exchange. This is one way contests help to improve skills. The more you do it, the better you will become at responding quickly and accurately to varying situations. It is good mental exercise. The best way to learn is to get on the air and contest! Sometimes, repeating a piece of information more than once in a single transmission can be useful. If I’m calling a station and he has asked for a repeat on my call more than twice I will usually give it twice in one go. This is always a judgement call and practice will be your best teacher once again.

Conventional wisdom (and it is wise) says never send the exchange until the other station has your callsign correct. For example if he had it as N1BUZ I would simply repeat my callsign again, and not send 5NN ME until he has it right. Failure to follow this rule may result in a what we call a “busted” QSO where he never gets it right and logs the wrong call. Trying to correct your callsign and send the exchange in one go is risky. Personally, I will sometimes break this rule of thumb and give a call correction along with the exchange, for example “N1BUG BUG 5NN ME”. It is a judgement call, but understand the risk before you make it. I do this only when signals are strong, never in what seem to be difficult conditions. I never take this risk if I need the contact for a new country!

One other thing you will hear in CW contesting is “NR” after you have sent your exchange. This means the operator needs that part of your exchange after the signal report again, be it a serial number, state, zone, or what have you. In a contest where state is the exchange he might use “ST” instead of “NR”; where ARRL section is part of the exchange it might be “SEC”. There are a few others specific to particular contests, but most will be self explanatory if you are familiar with the contest rules and exchange. If asked to repeat a specific thing it is best to repeat only that piece and not the whole exchange. On phone, the full word will be used instead of abbreviations” “Number”, “State”, “Section”, etc.

You may notice the 5NN replacing 599 in the CW example. It is common to abbreviate, or “cut” numbers to save time. This is true in DXing as well as contesting, but to a lesser degree. Usually only 9 is cut in DXing. In contesting other numbers may be cut. The number 9 is almost always cut to N. Often the number 0 (zero) to T; the number 1 to A; and occasionally the number 5 to E. You only do this for the exchange, never when a number is part of a callsign! In a recent CW contest where the exchange was signal report and power I often got “ENN ATT” which means “599 100”. Why? Because in Morse code, ENN ATT take much less time to send than does 599 100. It may look strange now, but you’ll get used to it!

In RTTY contesting the flow tends to be a little different, for reasons I won’t fully delve into here. Suffice to say it has to do with error rates and the operator having to rely on the RTTY decoder which can’t make a confidence assessment as the human brain does in other modes. This makes a certain amount of redundancy desirable in all but very strong signal conditions. A typical RTTY contest exchange would be:

“WW0TST TEST”
“N1BUG N1BUG N1BUG”
“N1BUG 599 CO CO N1BUG”.
“WW0TST 599 ME ME N1BUG”
“N1BUG TU WW0TST”

Different skill sets are needed for running vs. search and pounce. If you’re not feeling highly confident in search and pounce you can always listen for a minute before calling a station. You will already know his callsign and probably the exchange he will give you. All you have to do then is recognize your callsign when he responds. You can also take your time logging the QSO before moving on to the next station.

Running is very different and more challenging. You will have to copy the callsigns of stations calling, and often there may be more than one calling at the same time. Often you won’t know the exchange in advance and will need to copy that too. Unless you have super powers, you will find that logging operations slow you down and create awkward pauses while learning to run. You’re not alone. If you tune the bands you will find other contesters who are learning to run having the same difficulty. It gets easier the more you do it! Eventually you will learn to perform logging operations while receiving and sending. Then you’ll be able to run stations as quickly as if you weren’t logging at all. Good contest logging software can help.

You may wish to consider a few additional factors when getting into contesting. If using VOX (voice operated transmit) on phone or semi-QSK (semi break-in) on CW, make sure your end-of-transmission delay is short. If it takes your transceiver (and any accessories) too long to switch from transmit to receive you will undoubtedly miss part of the other station’s transmissions. Experienced contesters are very quick on the turn-around! Your station layout should be comfortable and ergonomic, having all controls within easy reach. Consider the advantages of contesting software such as N3FJP or my favorite, N1MM Logger. Good contest software not only logs your QSOs, but can send CW, RTTY, and voice recordings automatically and error free. These packages will also score a contest for you, flag dupes (duplicates; stations you’ve already worked and cannot work again for contest credit), tell you where to find multipliers (assuming this is allowed in your entry category if competing) and many other things. I love getting a good run going with N1MM Logger where I can crank up the CW speed and go for it! It does wonders for my overall prowess as a radio operator and it’s fun! You may also want to consider whether your transmitter can handle the rigors of contesting. Virtually any modern transceiver should be fine, but if you have an amplifier you should give this some thought. Some amplifiers may overheat with prolonged contesting, and many are not be rated for full power on high duty cycle modes like RTTY.

Contesting can be a lot of fun even if you only make a few contacts. Set some goals and give it a try! Start simple. Maybe a goal of ten contacts is enough for your first attempt. Or you might try for the WAC (Worked All Continents) award. That one is easy because you only need six (North America, South America, Europe, Africa, Asia, Oceania). But be forewarned: for many people, contesting is addictive. If you are a very competitive person or you get a thrill from realizing you are performing at a new peak level, watch out: for you, the danger of contest addiction may be great.

My First Foray into RTTY Contesting

This is one of a series of “Notes” I published on Facebook. Since Facebook has discontinued the Notes feature, I am publishing that series here on my blog.

If you ask anyone who knows me, they will probably tell you I’m not into digital modes. It’s not that I am anti-digital. I have tried several of the newer modes, but found them uninteresting. I left EME after having put nearly all my eggs in that basket for 18 years because the digital mode that replaced CW made it anything but fun or interesting to me personally. But, I recently began to experiment with RTTY for purposes of working DXpeditions on another mode. To my surprise, I’m finding it moderately fun. I would say RTTY is the only “mainstream” digital mode in DX and contesting. Perhaps that is because it was the original digital mode, aside from Morse code of course. The mode itself has been around and in use by amateurs for a very long time, originally using teletype machines – noisy, clacking mechanical behemoths that allowed the sending station to enter text on a typewriter style keyboard, and printed the text on paper at the receiving station. RTTY is short for Radio Teletype”. Today, RTTY is easily achieved using a computer and sound card. Nearly every major DXpedition operates RTTY in addition to SSB and CW. A few do a limited amount of PSK, but most don’t. Hence if you want to work the rare DX on digital, you’re probably going to want to be on RTTY. There are quite a few RTTY contests, including a few major ones.

On Friday afternoon, just prior to the start of the CQ WW WPX RTTY Contest (a big one!) I got the notion into my head that this might be a good opportunity to work a few more countries on the mode and get a little more experience with it. I assumed, this being a digital mode, that I would just be making a few contacts, picking and choosing those stations that would be a “new one” on RTTY or on a particular band. It was a perfectly good theory, but I should have known better!

I didn’t really know the format for exchanges in RTTY contesting. I knew the required exchange for this contest was signal report (always 599 in a contest) and serial number starting with 001 if it is your first QSO in the contest. What I didn’t know was whether to include callsigns in every transmission or omit them after the other station has correctly copied that information. I didn’t know whether the serial number should be repeated more than once. In some respects this is very different from CW or SSB contesting. In those modes, the operator is the decoder. You hear the information, you decide what was said and can easily assess your confidence in having heard it correctly or not based on signal strength, interference, and so on. With RTTY the software and/or hardware is doing the decoding. Even if you are monitoring the receive audio (annoying, since it is a high pitched warbling sound) you may not know for sure whether a burst of noise or signal flutter may have caused a number to decode incorrectly. It can be totally wrong! A common one I see time and time again under marginal conditions is “599” decoding as “TOO”. That’s not even close! Because of these uncertainties, I decided to wait until the start of the contest to program macros – short sequences to automate the sending of contest exchanges. I would see what others were doing first, then set up mine accordingly.

Hastily tuning around in the first few minutes of the contest and just listening (watching?) I was able to come up with some guidelines. As with contesting in other modes there are many variations, but I discovered the most common QSO format looks something like this, where DX1TST is the station calling CQ and the bold italic lines are sent by the answering station:

CQ DX1TST DX1TST
CQ DX1TST DX1TST
N1BUG N1BUG N1BUG
N1BUG 599 123 123 N1BUG

N1BUG 599 123 123 N1BUG
DX1TST 599 001 001 N1BUG
N1BUG TU DX1TST

These exchanges contain much which would be considered extraneous in a CW or SSB contest, but they help to assure confidence in the decoded information and to be sure the correct station is being copied since they all sound exactly alike. I set up my macros accordingly and proceeded to look for stations I wanted to work.

Tuning in a RTTY signal takes a bit of practice and must be done quite precisely since the two tones are only 170 Hz apart and the software expects them to be almost exactly in a certain place. The software I am using (WinWarbler) includes a tuning indicator which attempts to reproduce the RTTY scope pattern of days gone by. It is a pair of rotating ellipses at right angles to each other (like a plus sign) with one ellipse representing each of the two tones. The tones are called mark and space just in case you’re wondering. When a station is properly tuned one ellipse should be vertical, the other horizontal. Any tilt indicates mistuning, and if you are off by more than a small amount, one or both ellipses will shrink in length or completely disappear as that tone falls outside the receiver or decoder filter. By default, my tuning indicator rotated clockwise for a counterclockwise rotation of the tuning knob and vice versa. Oh boy! This hadn’t been more than a minor annoyance in DXing, since I had plenty of time to tune the station properly. But in contesting it slowed me down as I had to keep reminding myself which way to turn the knob. Probably this would have improved in time, but WinWarbler has an option to reverse the tuning indicator direction of rotation. Having it rotate the same way as the tuning knob helps tremendously! If I need the indicator to rotate clockwise, I turn the knob clockwise. My mind can handle that.

At first I was very slow. I was reminded of my first steps in CW and SSB contesting years ago. As a rookie, you’re going to be somewhat tentative for a while. I had to stop and think about what key to hit or macro to click every time. Even though I was looking at a band map that contained spots and choosing the stations I wanted to work, I was tuning to them manually. I found myself using the mouse exclusively to position the cursor in the proper fields for entering log information, click on macros, and press the ‘Log’ button at the end of a QSO. This RTTY contesting was turning out to be a lot of work! At some point I realized that pressing <Ctrl>+<L> on the keyboard to log a QSO would save me some mouse work and was quite a bit more efficient. That might have been obvious under normal circumstances, but I was still rather nervous and uncertain about this whole RTTY contesting thing. Some time later I realized that WinWarbler has a contest mode which, when selected, positions the cursor where needed most of the time, unless you somehow get out of sync, such as having an unusual situation in the flow of a QSO. Also, it automatically increments the sent serial number for each QSO. Hotkeys were a much better way of sending macros, the only trick being to remember which key sends what without looking at the list every time. Yes, I got it wrong a few times and got all flustered trying to recover. Mistakes are part of learning something new. Things were beginning to speed up and this was a lot less like work if I let the software help. Eventually it dawned on me that I didn’t have to manually tune to the stations I saw spotted. All I had to do was click the station’s callsign in the band map and presto, my rig was tuned to the spotted frequency, the station’s callsign entered in the appropriate box for logging, etc. Wow!

With those revelations and a few hours of intermittent operating behind me, it happened: contest fever took over and I started clicking on every callsign in the band map instead of being choosy. Oh, great. I was slipping into a contest mindset without realizing it. I found that I could go from QSO to QSO very quickly now, with little or no thought. The only trouble was I knew the spotted stations on the band map were but a few of the stations available. If I wanted to work the others I was going to have to learn how to “tune the band”, finding stations myself. Even with the tuning indicator and knob now rotating in the same direction, it took a while to get comfortable with this process. Trust me. On a crowded band it is necessary to use narrow filters in the receiver to keep QRM down. But, narrow filters means that sometimes only one of the two tones is within the filter, and you probably don’t know which one. Hence you don’t know which way to tune. It is entirely possible to have the mark tone from one station in the filter, but not his space tone or vice versa. Yet you see two tones because you have one tone from an adjacent station in the filter. Honestly, I can’t say that I liked this operating strategy much on RTTY, but perhaps if I do it enough it will become less challenging. Overall, my skills were improving by leaps and bounds and I was finding plenty of stations to work.

On Sunday, propagation to Europe on the higher bands (20,15, and 10 meters) was very good with many signals being 30 or more dB over S9, some pegging the meter. Under these conditions I found that stations I called were responding with “N1BUG 599 1234” instead of the longer, more cautious message. I hastily set up a new macro to respond in kind “TU 599 321”. Under those conditions I suppose one can expect perfect decoding (called print in RTTY) almost every time, so the shorter exchange makes sense. At the other extreme, fluttery signals coming over the north pole from deep Asia can be quite difficult to get good print even when the signal strength is excellent. The software does have several different decoding algorithms to choose from, including one or two for fluttered signals. They help, but error rates are still high and more repeats are often required.

I never did feel comfortable enough to try “running” – that is, being the CQing station and letting people come to me. All my operating was search and pounce (find a CQing station and work them).

On Sunday afternoon it occurred to me that I had worked over 70 DXCC entities in this contest. Knowing that, I had an irresistible urge to see if I could work RTTY DXCC (100 entities) in a single weekend. Suddenly I was back to my original modus operandi for the most part – seeking stations that would give me a “new one” in DXCC terms. I ended up with 89. This is not just bad, it is downright ugly! Oh, not because I failed to reach 100 this time. It is ugly because I got close enough that next time RTTY DXCC in a weekend is likely to be my goal from the outset. Next time!? Oh boy. Another monster has escaped captivity. Sadly, no one has yet found a cure for this DX and contesting affliction, so I’m stuck with it.

I had fun messing with people who know me and my usual avoidance of digital modes. I got several “N1BUG?! 599 …” responses, which, while ambiguous, tended to come only from those I am acquainted with. “N1BUG ON DIGI!!!” was seen a couple of times, and “N1BUG ON DIGI, WOW!!!!!” once. There was no ambiguity of meaning there.

I made 333 QSOs in the contest. That’s not bad for a first attempt with quite limited operating time doing all search and pounce. There was a moment of panic five minutes from the end when it looked like I might end up with 332. An even number? No, no, no, no, no! I may have been trying something new and unexpected, but I was still me after all! I never said I was without idiosyncrasies. Fortunately I was able to find and work one more before it ended. Whew!

I am much more comfortable with the software and RTTY operating now. This will no doubt serve me well in day to day pursuit of DXpedition QSOs. Whatever your interest in ham radio, even if it is mostly public service, there is nothing like contesting to improve operator skill. Those of us who are prone to being highly competitive probably get the most out of it, but even casual contest operation does more than one might think.

Amateur Radio Public Image

This is one of a series of “Notes” I published on Facebook. Since Facebook has discontinued the Notes feature, I am publishing that series here on my blog.

Thirty-something years ago when I got into ham radio I recall my parents discussing my new hobby with people they knew and visitors to my dad’s shop. My antennas weren’t exactly inconspicuous even in those early days so the subject had a way of coming up. It was a long time ago but I would estimate about half had heard of ham/amateur radio. Most of those believed it was a radio hobby of some sort that provided opportunity to communicate around the world. A smaller percentage seemed to be aware of its public service and emergency communications aspects.

Has that changed? Three years ago I ran across a lot of curious people while I was out hunting power line noise. The vast majority had either not heard of ham/amateur radio or thought it was the same as CB radio. Of the ones who were aware of ham radio as something other than another name for CB, most were under the impression it was only used in emergencies or for public service. More than a few were shocked when I mentioned other facets of it. Since that time I have been making a point of bringing up the subject with people I meet. It’s true I don’t meet a lot of people. But the trend in what people know or don’t know about ham radio seems to span the community as far as I have been able to discern. The contrast between then and now stands out.

I find it somewhat curious that fewer people seem aware of ham radio today despite a much larger number of hams in the community, greater visibility, and more publicity in local media. Perhaps it just doesn’t make an impression in today’s world of cell phones and internet. Perhaps people are too busy to notice. Maybe it is just information overload. We are bombarded by so much these days. I know I tend to ignore a lot of it.  I’m not surprised that among those who are aware of us, public service is the image they have. This makes sense to me since over the last twenty years, much of the increased public exposure and publicity has been in that vein.

Public service is, of course, a vital part of ham radio. It is not my intent to dismiss or devalue that in any way. But I have seen ham radio be so much more. I have seen ham radio as a hobby change and enrich lives. I have seen what it can do to enhance international goodwill and bring people together. It has been suggested that I place too much value on ham radio and too much emphasis on it being a hobby. Well, yes… I am very passionate about ham radio as a hobby. If that is a crime I proudly plead guilty! I could write a book on what ham radio has done for me, about the positive influence it has had on my life. Maybe someday I will write that book. Point is, I’m not the only one. Beyond any doubt whatsoever I am certain others could enjoy and benefit from it as I and many have. But first they have to be exposed to it and develop an interest.

Some say ham radio as a hobby is dying out because it just isn’t as relevant or interesting as it once was. Surely there is an element of truth to that. With the proliferation of cell phones and the internet, radio has taken a back seat as a means of communication. Yet around the world we still see a percentage (albeit smaller) of people getting involved in the personal, recreational, and educational aspects of ham radio. But before they can do that, people need to be aware of it. They need to be aware of the many aspects of it. Are we simply not doing enough to promote the broader sense of ham radio? If we’re not doing enough to promote it, how do we change that? Seriously. Please comment!

Since I started the publicity campaign for a recently completed amateur radio licensing class back in February I have been giving this a great deal of thought. Were I not so “constrained” by personal circumstance I would be seeking opportunities to demonstrate ham radio in public places, at local community events. While I have the passion and am more than willing to make the time, this remains beyond my personal reach without assistance.

What else can we do? Would informational displays in libraries or other public places be of any use? Would it be possible to do presentations in local schools? What other ideas do you have? I hope this note will stimulate discussion. Furthermore I hope to get from this discussion some direction, ideas and hopefully find a practical way for me to become involved with educating the public about the broad spectrum of interests which comprise amateur radio. If anyone in the local area would like to partner with me to promote our hobby, please contact me.