The 2nd Annual Skeeter Hunt


A few weeks after the Flight of the Bumblebees, and I was ready for the Second Annual Skeeter Hunt coordinated by Larry, W2LJ.  I had registered as operating from Virginia, but the evening before the event I looked over the list of participants and realized that there were already plenty of stations operating from VA. Likewise, West Virginia and Maryland had some coverage, but Delaware had no skeeters.  I remember that in getting my WAS-50 on LOTW, I had a hard time with Delaware. It’s a small state, there are a limited number of hams, and it seemed that not many used LOTW. So, I figured I’d give Delaware some coverage. Like the FOBB, I opted for a coastal location, this time Fenwick Island State Park.

The other motivation to drive to Delaware was that I had to cross through a lot of Maryland, allowing me to participate in the Maryland-DC QSO Party using the car radio. I didn’t have the log computer along, so I jotted my log on a pad as I went along and only operated voice. I had some nice strings where I worked the same stations from multiple Maryland counties.

I had scoped out Fenwick Island State Park on Google Earth, so I had some idea where I was going. After paying the somewhat punitive-feeling out of state price to park (eight bucks! Oh well, I’m here now…), I followed the beach goers seaward, hauling a  radio bag and a wrist-rocket tennis ball launcher. After reconnoitering the beach, I found that the “stand of trees” that I had seen on Google satellite view was a bunch of bushes about three feet tall. I hiked back to the car, got a telescoping mast, and tied it to a log that had been piled into the sand in front of a dune. As in the FOBB, I set up a 20m “untangleable dipole” and got to work.

I immediately worked a bunch of stations S&P, but had less success calling. As the afternoon went along, I heard more and more WAE stations in the QRP area. While I have a sharp audio filter on the 817, the front end is wide open. I had held off on working the WAE stations, but was pleased to hear F5NBU responding not with a WAE exchange, but “599 5W”.  I realize now that my strategy should have been to work more of the WAE stations (and that I should get an RF filter for the 817). Also, although I like the dipole, I might have been better served by lofting the 40m EFHW with tuner. In any event, I had a great time and as a side benefit, had the opportunity to explain ham radio to a bunch of curious beach goers. One guy asked me,

“Did you need to get special permission to put that [the antenna] up?”.  I replied, “No. It’s just like a very tall beach umbrella, without the umbrella part.”

Aside from the usual radio operating skills, two others came into play: 1) working the radio while explaining what I was doing to curious beachgoers; and 2) managing not to get sand in everything.

The bottom line: I worked 18 other skeeters, plus 3 non-skeeters in thirteen states plus Ontario.  My two DX contacts were France and Poland. While I had a number of homebrew components in the station (the antenna, the audio filter, etc.), the main rig was commercial, so I took the “3x” multiplier for field operation.

FOBB 2013

sidepluslighthouse_smWhile on vacation on the beach in Montauk, New York, I took part in this year’s Flight of the Bumblebees, a QRP event in which portable stations receive a bumblebee number in advance of the event, and work home stations and each other during a four hour period.  I wasn’t sure that I’d have time to play radio this weekend, as this was a family outing, but by the Sunday of the event, the family had enough sun and sand, and I was able to drive to Camp Hero to set up my station.

This is about the best location that I could ask for: the very tip of Long Island: surrounded on three sides by salt water, no neighbors or noisy interference (except occasional low-flying planes and helicopters), and a flat plane in all directions. Camp Hero is a former US Air Force Base, but is now a New York State Park. It is a little less traveled than the rest of Montauk as there is a small cover fee to enter the park, and there is no beach. The park is surrounded by cliffs with warnings that the edges may be undermined and that people should keep back from them.

birdWhen I got to the parking lot on the Atlantic side of the park, I took it as a good sign that a giant (now inactive) radar dish was keeping watch over my site. I struck on foot to the NE along a path that parallels the cliffs. It was tempting to set up on what must have been a missile placement, but I kept going, past various bushes until I came to an area that had a conveniently placed wood fence. In the distance, the Montauk lighthouse alternately faded and resolidified in the mist.

I managed to carry in everything in one trip: a push up mast, antenna, radios, chair, operating table, batteries, water, etc. Earlier this year, when W7SUA moved to Arizona, I had purchased a push-up mast from him, and that mast was used to support the center of the “untangleable folded dipole” that I had made earlier this year for the W5O operation at the QRPTTF event.  I attached the mast about six feed down because the top gets pretty thin and I wasn’t keen to guy the pole. In fact, I got away with duct taping the pole to the fence at two points and called it a day. I tied down the two ends of the folded dipole to form an inverted V. The antenna had given me about 1:1 swr when flat topped at QRPTTF, and it did likewise in this configuration — which is good, since I didn’t bring a tuner.

I set up the FT817nd using a 2Ah battery as a support and a 7Ah battery as a back-stop. As usual, the palm paddle key mounted magnetically on the 817. Since the 817 is wide as a barn, with no roof filter, I ran the speaker output through my recently built switched capacitor audio filter based on the New England QRP Club’s NESCAF design. I cranked the filter over to “narrow” and peaked it on my side tone. After that, the filter made all the difference in the world in pulling out close-in signals. Thankfully, there were no other major contests that weekend except the NJQP, which was inside the skip zone, so front-end overload was not an issue.

equippileI slathered myself in sun block, downed a liter of water and settled in about half an hour before the event. I had a test QSO with with Mark, K4NC, who said that he was also getting ready to try QRP in the FOBB. I wished him luck and was glad to work him again a few hours later during the contest proper.

In four hours, I logged 69 contacts, although three were duplicates. It may be that those stations didn’t copy all my info on the first pass or that like me they were logging by hand in a notebook, so I happily worked them a second time.  Of the 66 stations worked, 40 were fellow bumblebees. I noted that a couple stations were on the event listing as bumblebees, but gave their power in the exchange, so I assume that they were folks that had planned to get into the field, but had to work as a home station on the day of the event, likely due to weather.  Contacts included 27 US States, including all three continental west coast states. In Canada, I had two contacts to Ontario, and my best DX was with France grâce à F6BZG.  Most of the non-bumblebee stations sent 5W, and the lowest power in my log was 2W K4MU and 3W AA7EQ.

20 meters yielded a fairly steady rate, and having carried in 9Ah worth of battery, I was not adverse to calling CQ all afternoon. I had a couple lulls, but was happy enough with 20 meters that I didn’t feel compelled to dig into my bag for the 15 meter end-fed that I had also brought along. Twenty seemed to be in good shape all afternoon.

I worked W7CNL‘s 4W station from Idaho just under the wire at the conclusion of the contest – this was a 339/339 exchange, and we were both struggling as the clock counted down.  Thanks, W7CNL for hanging in there!  FOBB was a FB event.

QRP TTF 2013

For the 50th anniversary of the Vienna Wireless Society, the club operated under a special event call sign: W5O. As usual, there was a good turn out of club members for both the picnic and on-air activities. We put a couple rockmites, FT817s, and a KX3 on the air, and accumulated 62 contacts in our log in total running predominantly CW, but some phone as well. We had multiple contacts with other operators also participating in the QRP TTF, but also the Florida QSO Party, and one SOTA station. In the next couple weeks, we should send out our QSL cards to confirm the contacts.

untangleable1In the days before the event, I put together  an “untangleable folded dipole” antenna made from 300 ohm twinlead, plus a matching box comprised of two toroids and two capacitors. The antenna was based on a design found on the blog of KI6SN, and I summarized the construction details for my effort on a Google-plus post.

After spudgunning two trees, we hoisted the folded dipole to a flat 40-foot deployment. The feed line is about 25 feet, so a short BNC-terminated coax extension was used. The antenna worked great and allowed us to work a Swiss station, and to score reverse beacon hits throughout Europe on 20m.  I swept the antenna with a MFJ analyzer at the end of the event, and noted that SWR was below 1.2 for the entire CW portion of the band, and less than 2 from below 20m to above the voice portion of the band. So, quite impressed with the folded dipole design. As advertised, it packed up easily and without tangling.


Significant Other: Firmware

It occurs to me that I’ll likely be writing about the Significant Other project for a while, so it now gets its own category on the blog. I’ll go back and fix the tagging on older posts to be consistent.

The main board and relay board prototypes are in a final enough state that I can begin to work on firmware. Rather than start from scratch, particularly as I don’t have a lot of experience with this type of project, I decided to look at similar projects with open source code for both ideas and potentially as a scaffold for this project’s firmware.

I have come across the K3NG cw keyer, which is as full-featured a keyer as you could ever want, and which is written in such a modular and generalizable way that it can be made to fit on a variety of chips, depending on their resources and which features are included in the build. The package also includes a serial interface, command-line mode, and debugging features that should make the development process as painless as it can be.

I hadn’t seen this project while I was planning the main board, but the hardware layout envisioned in the K3NG keyer was very similar to what I had come up with, so it took minimal work to get it running on my main board.

The K3NG code lives in a sourceforge repository, and one of my first concerns was how to manage the code base. Considering that the S.O. is a specific design (and perhaps one that only I will ever care about), it seemed reasonable to take the most recent version and start a separate repository — I guess this could be considered a fork. To keep things organized, I’ve deposited that code, some test programs for individual subsystems, and the schematic on GoogleCode.  As with other projects, I’ll update the repository whenever I’m working on any of these files.

I spent a few days reading and pondering the K3NG keyer code to get the gestalt. It is very well organized, and every feature can be enabled/disabled through compiler directives.  It may be poor programming practice, but I decided to thin out the code to make it easier to work with. I realize that having features commented out so that they are never compiled has the same effect in terms of final size of the compiled code that will be programmed onto the chip, but I felt that I needed to remove sections that are not part of the intended application for the S.O., particularly since I’ll be adding other features.

Consequently, with some reluctance, I performed some surgery, removing fun stuff like code practice, CW receive decoding, and the extensive winkey emulation functions. In developing this device, the code will become less general. For example,  instead of an expandable number of buttons, the S.O. front panel will have four. All feature selection will take place through these buttons and the LCD display, rather than via the paddles. This is consistent with the design goal of not being able to leave behind anything when heading into the field to operate — if you forget the paddles, you should still be able to have QSOs. To that end, the front panel buttons have been modified so it is possible to press two of them at a time — in a pinch, the front panel buttons themselves will be able to serve as a straight key or iambic paddles.

For all I took out, the core keyer functions still take a good deal of space. I’ll have to see what the trade offs are in implementing a menu-driven interface and then in adding the clock, frequency counter, and antenna tuner functionality. Fitting it all in will take some doing — I hope it is possible. I’m sure that during development,  I’ll have to turn off some features to test others if I want to make use of the serial interface and debugging features.

Significant Other Update: Logic Board

For a few months, I’ve been playing working on a design for a QRP accessory as a way of becoming familiar with both the arduino platform and homebrewing technique. The basic idea was to put everything except a transceiver in one box, so I couldn’t leave anything behind when operating in the field. I wrote up a design overview when I started, and it is more or less up to date. The schematic isn’t necessarily finalized, but I’ve also posted the most recent version.

The first item I built was a relay board, with latching relays to route the signal through a bank of capacitors and inductors arranged in an L-network, configurable on the fly for low or high-Z. The prototype built on vector board  has nice blinky lights to help me visualize how the relays are switching. I’ve also built a power module and RF module (which senses SWR and reads frequency) on copper clad board.

Over the  New Year’s holiday break, I laid out the logic board, which contains the microprocessor (an ATmega368), a real time clock, LCD display, a piezo buzzer, some buttons, and connectors for paddle input and keyer output. The logic board also sports a USB interface to make my life simpler — I don’t think that will show up in the “final” version, which I envision being laid out as two PCBs: one for control, one for relays.  In the prototype, the two boards are joined by a ten-conductor ribbon cable (with RF connections through shielded cable, not added yet).

The two blank areas on the logic board are where the power module and RF module will be pasted in this prototype. For now, I’m leaving them off and concentrating on the programming aspect of the project. I’ve got some ideas about the global operation of the device and its menu structure, but before I really start any detailed coding, I’d like to look through a few similar projects. An obvious place to start is the full-featured CW keyer described by K3NG at  I can’t imagine putting all those features into this project, but I think I’ll learn a lot from reading through the code.

Significant Other Power Supply

Initially, I hadn’t given the power supply for the Significant Other project too much thought: I was more focused on the microcontroller, relays, and so on. After going for maximum efficiency with these components, though, it began to annoy me that it would be very wasteful to use an LM7805 regulator to bring lead acid battery voltage (13.8V) down to something that all the chips and relays could use (5V). The LM7805 tosses out the difference in heat, and while at the low currents that I need that doesn’t amount to much power — certainly, not enough to require heat sinks — it goes against the grain of QRP. If you have to haul a battery up a mountain, you’d like it to last as long as it can.

So, I started looking at more efficient (and lighter) means of powering the unit. The design I selected allows for two options. First, two AA batteries will fit inside the unit. Building them into the case assures that I can’t forget them. One of the goals of the SO project is to avoid unpleasant surprises while setting up the station in some remote location.  Since the unit draws so little current, I’d hope that a pair of AA batteries would last quite a while in field use.

Since radios are made to work from 13.8V sources, this is the other acceptable power input. The unit will be built with dual powerpole connectors, so that even if the battery has a single powerpole, it can be plugged into the unit, which effectively replicates the plug, so the radio can also be plugged into the unit. Even if the radio is greedy and pulls power from the battery causing the voltage to sag, the power regulator should cope with anything down to about 7.5V. If the lead acid battery gets that low, it’s probably toast anyhow.

Getting 5V from a 3V source requires a switching power supply, which could be a problem for a radio project since the switching happens at frequencies in the hundreds of kilohertz range. The LT1302-5 chip that I used in this project does not oscillate at a specific frequency, but is variable, and has the potential to produce RFI over a broad range of frequencies.

I followed the datasheet for the 1302 and built a “typical” supply using available parts. Layout is fairly critical, and I did my best to port their suggested PC board layout to manhattan construction. I didn’t have a 20k resistor, so I went with a 22k. I didn’t have any particularly low ESR electrolytics, so I used ones regular ones, etc. It seemed to work anyhow.

For testing purposes, I ran the power supply with a small load next to my FT-187nd, which was connected to a dummy load with cable that was unshielded for several centimeters. Within the ham bands, the only places I heard hash were on 160m and 80m, and even there, it only seemed to be around a couple frequencies. I had originally built the supply with a 10uH commercial inductor wound on a solid core. To limit EMI, I tried replacing this with an equivalent value hand-wound toroid (45 turns of 28Ga on a T50-2). This brought the noise level way down, and I couldn’t hear it when the antenna run was a couple cm away from the toroid. I suppose I could put the power supply in its own metal compartment, but it’s probably enough to just keep the RF path away from it in the layout.

Getting the right combination of bypass and charge-holding capacitors and discharge resistors is a bit empiric, and I’m not sure I did an optimal job, but I got out the voltage that I wanted. When connected to the oscilloscope, I noticed a periodic ~50mV spike that I thought could be a problem down the line for the microprocessor, so I borrowed a low pass filter from a similar project, the power supply in the Norcal 2030. I again had to substitute a bit — I think the filter inductors came out of an old TV. With that filter in place, the voltage is completely smooth as far as I can measure.

The two power supplies are connected by wire “OR”ing them together. The LT1302 senses 5V distal to a Schottky diode, but putting a diode after the higher power supply means that the voltage prior to its diode must be about 5.3 volts. To get that value, I used an LM317 and selected specific resistor values for its feedback network. The LM317 needs a small load to stabilize, so for the prototype, I threw in an indicator LED that lets me know when the high voltage supply is in use.

When the high power supply is active, it pulls up the LT1302 shutdown pin, which turns off the up-conversion. Without all that switching action, the voltage on the toroid side of the diode should be that of the AA batteries. This means that with the higher power supply active, the diode in the lower power supply is reverse biased and no current flows through it. This should mean that the unit can hot-switch between onboard and external power.

The prototype was a little smooshed because I had originally intended to only build the LT1302 circuit on that piece of copper clad board, and then I added the filter, and finally the 13.8V supply.

The real test of this supply will be whether it makes the other components happy.

June mW Sprint

The view west towards mount roseI was sent on fairly short notice to attend a meeting at Lake Tahoe, which is just south of Reno along the California/Nevada border. I had one free evening before the conference, and it just happened to fall on the date of an NAQCC Sprint. I gave serious thought to throwing a wire out the hotel window, but the surrounding mountains called to me. This was not the usual monthly sprint, but the milliwatt version, so I figured that I needed all the help I could get and wanted to take advantage of the elevation.

After some quality time with Google Maps, it looked like Mount Rose was the highest accessible peak in the area. There is a parking lot near the trails that lead to the top of the mountain, but I didn’t think a business suit and dress shoes would fair very well on the gravely slopes. Across the road from the park lot is a campground with picnic tables and tall trees: the ingredients for comfortable field operations. In principle, there is a trail that runs up from the campground to Mount Slide, which, like Mount Rose is a SOTA peak. Again, if I had the right clothing and gear I might have attempted it, but it just wasn’t going to happen this trip. I settled for the 9000+ foot elevation of the campsite.

The view North, down the slopeI tossed a water bottle with a string into a tree, fired up the FT817nd on internal batteries and tuned up with the Hendricks SLT tuner. Before the Sprint, I worked WW0SS in Minnesota on 2.5W. Everything went faster than I had planned, so I laid down on the picnic bench and basked for a while.

I started searching around just a bit before the sprint to get a sense of band conditions. When the sprint started, I alternated between searching and calling. A number of local signals masked the sprint stations for a while, particularly with the poor selectivity of the ft817 (without a filter). I heard quite a few, some of whom were operating at 5W, while others were true milliwatt (less than 1W) stations.

I kept the rig at 0.5W for the entire event, and although I had two small lead acid batteries in the radio bag, I never had to use them. The 817 was running on fumes by the end of the sprint, but I was glad to see that it could make it through two hours of minimal power operation that had included a lot of calling.

All in all, I had six qsos on 20 and 40m. I reported 5 on the NAQCC sprint page because I wasn’t sure the last qso was complete, but I heard afterwards by email from the other station and confirmed that he had, in fact, correctly copied by call at the end of the contest. I think we gave each others 339 for that contact, and I recall that we needed a lot of repeats due to a mixture of summer weather background sounds, QSB and neighboring signals.

I didn’t come close to winning the sprint or even my category, but I enjoyed the scenery and the chance to sign myself as AI4SV/7.

Scoping Out Lambs Knoll Summit

a topographic map showing APRS pings from Lambs KnollThere are a limited number of SOTA peaks within a short drive of Washington, DC, and most of them, particularly the ones with zero activations,  are on private property. After spending a little time with the SOTA database, I found one promising peak less than an hour’s drive away: Lambs Knoll,  W3/WE-007. The most attractive feature is that it is located on the Appalachian Trail, and as a plus, it is line of sight to the VWS repeater.

A Google Map view shows that the trail winds back and forth, with a road running up the middle of it towards a facility on the peak. Even in the aerial photo, it is clear that there are two large log periodic antennas on that site, which turns out to be an FAA facility. By some accounts, this facility started as a Cold War continuity of government site (designated Corkscrew), but presumably, it no longer performs that function.

I drove to Fox’s Gap, along Reno Monument Road. Just off the side of the road, there is a dirt parking lot. The monument to General Reno and some historic markers are also there. The road leading to the FAA site is marked “road may close without notice”, but the metal gate somewhat up the road does not look like it has moved in recent times. The Appalachian Trail crosses Reno Monument Road and runs through the parking lot and into the woods.

The white-blaze trail winds through the woods and eventually rises towards a clearing, where large high tension lines run down the hill. The trail then continues for some distance and forks, with a blue trail running level, and the white trail continuing upward. The path becomes increasingly steep and rocky. On the day that I went, I ran into a good number of hikers on this part of the trail. At one point, the trail crosses the road to the FAA facility and then continues upward. From here, the ascent is not so steep, though, and the trail wraps around the facility.

An aerial shot fo two log periodic antennas within the compound
Log Periodic Antennas from Google Maps

At the point that I thought I’d have line of sight to Tyson’s Corner, Virginia, I was successful in hitting the 70cm VWS repeater with my handheld at 5W using my Comet antenna. From that same position (the red dot on the above topopgraphic map), I was able to get acknowledgement to APRS squirts from three digipeaters.

After climbing back down, I drove the access road up to the facility. It is a nicely paved road and winds up the hill. At the point where the power lines cross the road, a fence runs along each side of the road, blocking access to the cleared strip of land under the lines. There are gates in the fences, but they are closed. The Appalachian Trail crosses the road higher up, with some minor signage to indicate the intersection.

At the top of the hill, the road splits with the main facility to the right and an emergency vehicle entrance straight ahead. I did not approach the main entrance, but it looks to be  a remotely-controlled electronic fence, probably with a card reader and some cameras. From the front of the facility, I could not see the log periodic or other recognizable antennas.

To reduce the climb time, one could probably drive up the road, drop operators off, and park the car back near the Reno Monument. Park the car along the side of the road is not a good option. The weakness of this plan is that whomever drove the car either has to wait in the parking lot for a “pick us up” call, or has to hike the whole trail — but it would allow the operators to get into position more quickly and have a longer operating day.

There is no indicate of hours of operation along the trail — it is not a park that closes at night, but it is probably best to tackle it in the day time. There may be some sort of camping along the blue trail, although I’d just drive out for the day.

Sugarloaf & QRPTTF

French Bread Loaf, Copyright © 2004 David MonniauxThe weekend was the QRP TTF event, and this year’s rules favored stations that did double duty as SOTA (summits on the air) stations. The Vienna Wireless Society made its annual pilgrimage to Glyndon Park in Vienna, Virginia, and I was sorely tempted to hang out there and partake in the barbecuage. However, the SOTA bug still had its fangs in me, so I headed to Sugarloaf Mountain in Maryland, or in SOTA terms peak W3/CR-003.

Sugarloaf Mountain is in private hands, but the land owners have opened it up for public use. The lone peak rises prominently above the surrounding farmland. Access is not bad at all — there is a road that runs up the mountain, with three parking lots providing views to the West, East, and South (towards the Potomac River). I had downloaded a trail map from the Sugarloaf website and decided to approach the summit from the Western Overlook.

The path up is well maintained, and consists predominantly of stone stairs. There’s a handrail at the steepest parts. Little kids were running up and down the stairs, impatient for the adults. I took a few breathers on the way up, but it wasn’t too bad a climb, even with equipment.

When I got up there, I found a slanting rock at the very top and made it my base. Being on the edge of the Washington Metro area (and perhaps the Southern edge of the Baltimore region), there were lots of visitors, some who watched with amusement as I tossed soda bottles with strings into the trees, and others who asked me questions about the hobby.

I set up the 20m station first, a TenTec 1320, which I had built from a kit three years ago, plus a longwire antenna and the Hendricks SLT+ tuner. The usual. Later in the day, I put up a longer wire antenna and brought out the 40m Rockmite.

Once at the top, I checked into the club via the 2m repeater, but found that the 440 was quieter. I had brought along a homemade yagi that I had used on the FM sats last year; I’m not sure it helped that much. Ian, N0IMB spotted me on the SOTA site, and that led to a short flurry of contacts on 20m.

Shortly after the first contact, there was a brief hail storm with tiny pebbly hail. I covered everything in the plastic that I had brought along, but luckily the storm did not convert to rain, and weather remained cool but clear for the rest of the day.

I set up my VX-8GR hand held on the summit, and used it to post my current frequency and coordinates via APRS. I heard confirmation tones from at least three digipeaters, but I’m not sure if anyone actually used this information to find me on HF.

My first contact, W7CNL was nice enough to spot me on 20m, and later N4EX did the same on 40. I was pleased to work three members of the Vienna Wireless Society, including Kevin WB0POH, who was operating the club station K4HTA at Glyndon Park. He later told me that he was trying out Tom N4ZPT’s new KX3. The signal was paperthin and went in and out, but we managed to complete the call. Later, I had a clear QSO with Jake, N4UY who was using an attic antenna and putting out 2W on a GM20 transceiver.  Finally, I worked Ray Albers, K2HYD from his home in North Carolina on the Rockmite.

My longest distance contact was G4ELZ Jeff from the UK. The rest of the 20m contacts were west coast US, TX/OK, or Florida. The total for the day was 22 worked on 20m QRP, and four more on 40m QRPp.  Looking over the log, I worked the following states: NJ, OH, NC, PA, NY, AL, OK, TX, FL, MI, MD, VA, OR and ID. Florida was disproportionately represented in the log because I worked a few FQP stations. I also worked a number of QRPTTF stations, plus one summit-to-summit contact with AA5CK on W5/QA-008 in Oklahoma.

I was glad to get the rockmite out for some exercise. I’ve now worked about 30 station with it, corresponding to six states. It was a rough ride with the rockmite due to lack of selectivity, and I appreciate the work of the other stations in pullings its signal out.

I stopped working on 40m when the clouds grew dark, and on my way through the parking lot back to the car, the storm broke. I avoided getting drenched by about ten minutes.

Signal Mountain Activated

some rocks
The peak of signal mountain. Photo taken from our operating position, looking north.

Our visit to Signal Mountain, Virginia was successful, and summit W4/SH-049 has been activated for the first time (and perhaps the only time for the forseeable future).  We made a total of 19 QSOs, which we thought was reasonable for our first  SOTA activiation (and not really knowing what we were doing).

On the morning of April 14, 2012, I met up with Ian N0IMB and we drove out to the site. A Google Map query for “Signal Mountain, Virginia” puts an arrow right on the summit, and there is a road all the way to the top. That road is silky smooth, but the residential road that leads to it is a couple miles of gravel and dust.  We drove in and parked about just after the sharp bend in the road. According to the terrain feature on Google Maps, this put us a couple hundred feet from the summit.

I unpacked Dolly, who in this case was not a cloned sheep, but an old furniture dolly that I have used since college every time I change dwellings. Most of the equipment went into a milk crate that was bungeed to Dolly. Given the road access, we didn’t pack particularly lightly — folding camp chairs, some folding TV tables to work on, and a couple bags of equipment and snacks. As peaks go, this was a pleasure cruise.

I led Dolly up the slope, pulling on her leash, and Ian lugged the rest of the equipment. The road continues past the peak to a fenced government facility, but we stopped at the peak and headed eastward up a gentle slope into the woods. When we got to the actual stony peak, Ian found a nice place to erect the buddipole tripod, and I set up the radios.

The buddy pole went up quickly, and we played with the counterpoise until we arrived at a 1:1 SWR on 20m (Ian made me take a picture of the MFJ tuner as evidence!). We tuned around on 20m and quickly came to the realization that our stated operating frequency was just wishful thinking. The band was humming from one end to the other with QSO Party activity. We tried working a few of the NM QSOP stations, but although they were thundering in, they could not hear the 5W the Yaesu 817d was putting out. CW was a bit better, but the stock filtering on the 817d was relatively wide.

We decided that before we really set up shop, it would make more sense to put the antenna on 17m and see if we couldn’t get out better without all the background chatter. The buddipole retuned quickly, and we were soon on the air. Our first contact was Mike KE5AKL from NM, which is quite fitting since he was the first station that I had worked as a chaser, the day before.

After that, we worked a succession of stations, some with callsigns that I recognized. The TenTec 1320 sitting next to me in my bag had, for instance, been modified according to instructions that I had found on the website of our third contact, Scott W5ESE. Two contacts, Bob WB4KLJ and John AF4PD, were from our local club, the Vienna Wireless Society, and must have been working us direct from 25 miles to the east.   Jonathan AK4NL was also a very close contact, being located on Bull Run Mountain. Our stateside contacts on 17m included VA, CO, ID, NM, TX and OR.

We were very glad to make contacts with England (G4OBK), Scotland (MM0USU), and Germany (DJ5AV).  We are particularly grateful to Phil G4OBK, who stayed on frequency after working us, followed us up frequency when we had QRM, and warned off a station who was about to transmit on top of us. The other station likely could not hear our puny signal, but could copy the solid transmission coming from across the pond.

Around three in the afternoon, we switched to 40m. It was a little more involved to move the buddipole to 40m, but we finally got a reasonable match.  Predictably, on daytime 40m, we worked primarily the US east coast: PA, VA, MA, NJ, and NY.

We had intended to work until about 6 pm, but stopped early, because we were informed that the access road was being closed up at 4 pm. In talking with some guys from the facility, who turned out to be communications professionals, we learned that the facility houses some sensitive radio equipment. Although our signals did not cause any sort of interference, we agreed that we would recommend that others not work this summit, even at QRP levels.

We learned a number of lessons from our first activation, and here are the ones I can remember:

  • It is okay, indeed encouraged, to self-spot. We had so-so cellular connectivity, but in the future, getting the word out will include spotting on sotawatch, qrpspots, and via twitter.
  • Less equipment is better. We did not use the G5RV or the TenTec 1320; while there is some value in being prepared and having redundant equipment, if I had to carry the extra gear up a more challenging slope, I would not have been a happy camper.
  • The WARC bands are your friends. Ian and I both like 17 meters. If I had to pick one band, that would be it.
  • We had originally not planned to work 40m in the middle of the day, but the east coast US hams were grateful to hear us, so I’d factor that in next time, and try to split operation between local and more DX stations.
  • Our pre-posted operating frequencies went right out the window. Also, we had too many of them. It probably isn’t practical to work more than a couple bands on a given activation.
  • 5W on voice is difficult, but still worth it – when we did connect wth other stations, most of the time we received fairly good reports, and on our end, the other stations were loud.
  • For CW, I’d prefer a radio with better filtering (or maybe a modded 817).