Setting Up Shop

So far, the most difficult part of setting up an amateur radio station in Madagascar has been not being in Madagascar. Since I cover cancer programs through subsaharan Africa (and sometimes other places), I knew I’d be in for significant amounts of travel, but in the last two months, I feel like I’ve spent more time in the air than on the ground. Unfortunately, I haven’t had much time to arrange licensing or to set up portable stations while on the road, but as I get more familiar with some of the locations, particularly CEPT signatories like South Africa, I’m hoping to combine travel and operating. A longer term goal, though, is to make Madagascar my base of operations.

My major shipment from the US finally arrived in mid-November, after three months in transit, but I didn’t have a chance to dive into boxes until the third week of the month, just before the Thanksgiving holiday. As usual, not everything got sent to the right place: I ended up with some vintage Collins gear that I would much rather have sitting high and dry in a storage warehouse in the US versus transiting the Atlantic in crate and now sitting in tropical Madagascar. Conversely, my old tektronix analogue oscilloscope is in that warehouse, rather than with me. I suppose that just gives me leave to order a Rigol digital scope some time in the next year. Most of the other items that I had meant to ship did arrive, although it took me a while to locate them in boxes inside boxes.

The many boxes of radios, components, antenna bits, etc., piled up in the dining room had to be cleared to make way for the Thanksgiving dinner that we hosted for some other expat families and kids from the American School. The logical place to put the boxes was the garage, which I have had my eye on for a while as a potential workshop. The entrance to the garage is too low to accommodate our car, particularly with the car’s roof rack in place, so I think I am safe in laying claim to the garage, which provides a sizable workspace, has fluorescent lighting, and even has a couple power outlets.

This is after clean-up; initially, the wood was jumbled in a big pile and the blue tool box was hidden underneath in a corner.
This is after clean-up; initially, the wood was jumbled in a big pile and the blue tool box was hidden underneath in a corner.

The only drawback to the garage is that it is located at the lower end of our driveway.  Gutters draining the driveway and the adjoining garden all run towards the garage. There is a drain grate right in front of the garage, so in principle, all the water runs into the drain. In practice, however, the first half meter beyond the garage door is wet after a rain. Not just wet, but sort of muddy, with fine red silt.  I can imagine that this will only get worse as we get further into the rainy season. Some small amount of water also comes in through the ventilation holes at the side and rear, but these holes slope down and outward, and are not really a problem.

When I opened up the garage after getting back to Madagascar, the first thing I saw was piles of wood — the crates left over from the shipping process. I had asked my wife to hang onto the wood because I figured it would be useful for something. It looks like that use will be as flooring, to keep materials high and dry despite the rain. The crates consist about 1.2m x 2.4m x about 1 cm thick panels framed with two-by-fours. The sides that formed the bottom also have about 10 cm risers. I have laid these out of the floor along the sides of the room and that was good enough to keep the boxes off the floor while I figured out what to do next.

The plywood is not really thick enough to be a floor. When I walk on areas that are not directly supported, it sags and creaks ominously. However, I have many more 1.2m x 2.4m and 1.2m square panels, so I think I can fix that by doubling it up. My currently plan is to frame out the whole floor, and nail the whole thing together with double-thickness plywood. I’ll nail on the upper layer in a different direction that the lower layer, which should make it stronger and will also allow me to avoid cracks. It would be nice to have something to put over the plywood — indoor/outdoor carpet? Linoleum? I’ll have to see what is available locally, but for now, I’ll just be sure to wear shoes in there.

IMG_20141127_130806This project is going to require at least one tool that I don’t have — a circular saw to cut up the plywood. There is no difficulty in finding brand name commercial grade circular saws in Madagascar: Maketa, Bosch, and others. I had my eye on a Bosch GKS 190, but the price tag at Mr. Bricolage was high: 793,500 Ariary (at about 2600 Ariary/USD, that’s $305). However, I just found one in South Africa for 1822 Rand (at 10.9 ZAR/USD, about $167). Now…let’s hope I can get this saw back from Cape Town to Mada. I guess I’ll have to check the bag since it has a saw blade in it. Hope the saw does not disappear as the bag transits OR Tambo International Airport in Jberg. I never have felt like I needed to cling wrap a bag before, but I think I’ll make an exception for JNB given its reputation for baggage pilfering. [Note added in proof: I did cling-wrap the suitcase and can report that the saw made it safely back to Madagascar. 60 rand well spent, I think.]

So, the garage floor is project number one, but project number zero will have to be making some saw horses so I have something to saw on top of. That sounds like circular [saw] logic, but it does make sense to me. Some, some of the two-by-fours from the crates will become a pair of saw horses. If I have wood left, I suppose it may go into shelving of some form. I have an Ikea table (shown in the picture, above) that I have used as a soldering station, but I may also opt to add some bench space. If so, I probably won’t use the low grade paneling, but would go for something sturdier and more finished from one of the local brico stores.

Now, as for the station itself, it will be located in the house proper. I’ve had roughly the same station layout in Vienna VA, Brussels, and Fairfax VA. The radios are laid out on a two Ikea desks and a short storage unit, all of which are made from pine, are of the same height, and look well together. I’ve disassembled and reassembled them so many times, I can almost do it in my sleep, which proved useful this time, as the moving folks helped me by consolidating all the bits and pieces of pine furniture into one big pile. Desks, storage unit, shelving, chairs, etc., one nice big pile of pine and hardware. That was fun.

The windows in the room are hinged, and I had planned to remove one entire window and substitute a wood sheet that would be hung on the same hinges. However, in tapping on the wall, I noticed that there is a panel that leads to what used to be an air duct right under the window. I’ve now revised my plan to put a painted wood panel outside that duct with a stainless steel feedthrough plate. Conveniently, the house’s electrical ground is right next to that duct, so I can ground the plate with a very short run of ribbon cable. Incoming antennas will feed through the plate, with patch cords running interiorly up to an inside panel. Inside the shack, another wood panel will support three antenna switches, which will allow me to switch the hex-beam to one of several radios in the shack. When I’m not operating (and weather is not threatening), I’d like to route it to an SDR receiver for CW skimming.

The long term plan for mounting the hexbeam on a telescoping mast anchored in the back yard.
The long term plan for mounting the hexbeam on a telescoping mast anchored in the back yard.

Another switch will select between a few different antennas, none of which are in place yet. Antennas that are a possibility in the future: a G5RV, an 80m dipole, the 80m backyard vertical that I had up in Fairfax, and possibly a dedicated 6m antenna. These feeds would go to the antenna #2 input on rigs that have that feature. Finally, I’d like to feed through 2m and 70cm Lindenblad antennas directly to the TS2000 for satellite work. I have to make those antennas first, though. The TS2000 has independent antenna inputs for those two bands.

I’m not sure which antenna will go up first. The easiest would probably be the G5RV. My only concern about dipoles is that I would need to shoot a line through a supporting tree from my neighbor’s back yard – and I don’t know my neighbor yet. Thanks to high walls around everyone’s property, it’s not easy to meet your neighbors. Knocking on the door and asking to shoot something from their backyard seems like a tall order for our first conversation.

The hex beam is still packed up. I don’t have the telescoping mast from spider beam because it took them so long to ship it that I wasn’t able to carry it back as luggage after my most recent visit to the US. For now, I am considering mounting the antenna temporarily on a support that extends from the house’s chimney. With one guy ring near the top, I think it would have good stability until I manage to get the telescoping mast to Madagascar. For now, I’ll omit the rotor and just aim it generally in the direction of Europe. If I get tired of Europe, I can manually rotate it around towards Asia at some point.

Unless I can find someone else who wants to lug the meter-and-a-half antenna to Madagascar, I probably won’t have a chance to carry it back here until June. When it is time to install the telescoping mast, I anticipate installing a supporting four-by-four beam in concrete behind the house. That beam will support shelves for the rotor and a thrust bearing. The antenna will also be supported by two tiers of guy ropes. At least that’s the plan.

Two additional bands: 6m and 15m

The Madagascar equivalent of the FCC or OFCOM -- this is where radio licenses are issued. The office is about a km from my house.
The Madagascar equivalent of the FCC or OFCOM — this is where radio licenses are issued. The office is about a km from my house.

I am still operating when I can from my porch, using the FT817 and wire antennas; it is a modest operation, but I’ve managed over 200 contacts. By my reckoning, I’ve worked 45 DXCC entities, almost all on 10 and 20 meters. My prime times for operation are in the early morning before I go to work  and in the evening around dinner time. In the morning, 20m is usually open to North America, whereas the evening favors Europe on 10m. I’ve had only a few contacts to the East including Japan and New Zealand, so I have yet to find the optimal times and band to work those areas. Continue reading “Two additional bands: 6m and 15m”

5R8SV: First week of operation

QRP Station
QRP Station

I’m putting small updates on and when I get a bunch, I’ll transfer them to the blog and add some pictures. I’ve set up the QRP station on the back porch, an FT-817 plus a memory keyer that is saving me a lot of work. I am running off SLA batteries, a workhorse 9Ah and two 2Ah batteries for when I’m recharging the 9Ah or when I’m more portable. The matching box end of the LNR 40/20/10 end-fed antenna is in a palm tree about 20 feet up, just next the the porch, and the other end is about 40 feet up, suspended from a tree branch with a water bottle counterweight.

Continue reading “5R8SV: First week of operation”

Preparations for Madagascar

I’m sitting at Dulles Airport in Virginia, USA after a mad couple of weeks packing up the house and preparing for the move to Madagascar. In a bit more than a day, I should be on the ground in Madagascar, where I’ll be living for the next two or three years. This seems like a good time to provide a bit of an update.

Screen Shot 2014-08-23 at 4.10.57 PMFirst, I would like to acknowledge the help that I’ve had from a number of hams who have either previously worked from Madagascar, or who live there. My first contact was with Ken AD6KA (former 5R8GQ), who is listed on the ARRL country information page for Madagascar. Ken operated from Madagascar about fifteen years ago, but did not have current contacts with the regulatory authorities there. He did, however, point me in the direction of Phil Whitchurch, G3SWH. Phil is based in the UK, but has operated from Madagascar several times. Phil is also currently QSL Manager for a number of hams operating from Madagascar. Phil in turn introduced me to Albert, 5R8GZ.

Albert was instrumental in obtaining the equivalent of a license and call sign from OMERT (Office Malagasy d’Etudes et de Régulation des Télecommunications). I provided him a number of documents by mail (scans of my passport, visa, US license, etc.), and he did the footwork on the other end. I was very happy to hear that the “SV” callsign was available, since it appeared in both my Belgian (ON9CSV) and US (AI4SV) callsigns, and I had gotten very used to hearing it. The license is specific to equipment named in the request, in this case my Yaesu FT817ND and Elecraft K3. The license is issued for a renewable five year term, with a yearly fee of 90,000 Ariary (about $35 USD). These two units should provide me with flexibility in terms of both portable and fixed operation and frequency coverage from 160m through 70cm.

Most of the station equipment will not arrive for a few months. Even then, I expect that I will only be able to bring equipment online gradually as I unpack it and set it up after work and on weekends. For the immediate future, I am limited to low power operation with the FT817ND, because that is was I was able to fit into my luggage. I realize that this is suboptimal from the perspective of DXers, particularly those with more limited stations, but I was up against logistic constraints.

Museum für Kommunikation

Museum für Kommunikation, Frankfurt, DeutschlandI’m currently on a business trip in Namibia, but on the way here, I had a six hour layover in Frankfurt, which is just enough time to hop the train downtown (S8 or S9 to Hauptewache, about 4.50€, which seemed a bit pricey). From there, it’s a fifteen minute walk through an historic area and then across the Main River to the museum district. Just past the world cultural museum, a few tempting antennae loom over the Museum für Kommunikation.

Those antennas are right above the ham radio station located in the museum, Funkstation DL0DPM. Unfortunately, my plane landed just about the time the station was closing for the day and I wasn’t able to visit the ham station, but I’ll put in on the itinerary for the next time I find myself in Frankfurt.

The permanent collection of the museum is on the lower level, while the upper floors are dedicated to rotating exhibits. Those exhibits were very family-friendly and were labelled in both German and English. Most concerned some aspect of media, although one explored number sequences. My main interest, though was in the permanent collection, which focuses on the PTT service (post telephone and telegraph, not push-to-talk).

One side of the collection is dedicated to the postal system and includes a number of postal wagons and cars, stamps, mailboxes, and so on. Another area focuses on the phone system and includes working demonstrations from several eras, with phones connected to switching racks. When you dial another phone, you can see the mechanical relays in the central exchange spinning and clicking to route the call.

My main interest, of course, was the radio equipment. Their collection does not focus on amateur radio equipment, but on commercial and consumer equipment. They have quite a collection of very early radios, including some developed for telegraphy. Most were commercial units from the 20s onward, including a good collection of war time radios including those in the Volksempfänger series. The radio collection includes some beautifully styled cabinets, both in wood and later materials like bakelite.

A screw mirrorNext to the radio equipment is an exhibit of television equipment, which I found at least as interesting as the radio equipment. In particular, they had an impressive collection of very early mechanical television gear. One item that attracted my attention was a helix composed of many thin, long mirror pieces, arranged like a stair case, with the mirrored surface facing outward. It was mounted on a motor and some other control gearing. This device was descriptively labeled “Spiegelschrauben” (mirror screw). It took me a while to get through museum’s description of the device, as descriptions in this part of the museum were written only in German. The bottom line is that this device provided the raster scan for an early television receiver by the company TeKaDa (from die Süddeutsche Telefon- Apparate-, Kabel- und Drahtwerke A.G — which through a series of corporate mergers and acquisitions eventually was acquired by AT&T, now Lucent Technologies). At the time, work was also progressing on cathode ray tubes, but it was difficult to manufacture tubes with a large surface area and to produce as bright an image on a CRT. Peter Yanczer’s website has a good description.  The museum has a number of other early television devices including parts from a Nipkow disc system and Vladimir Zworkin’s iconoscope.

A significant part of the display is given over to telegraphy, both cable and radio. A full high-power spark gap station set into a luxurious wooden desk with porcelain insulators, bright copper coils and brass fittings was a real work of art. However, I did note that the key was not far from some very high voltage junctions (for that matter, the contacts on the key itself probably had a few hundred volts running through them. Operator, beware). Of course, there were obligatory displays on Marconi and the Titanic. A lot of the exhibit was given over to commercial telegraphy, both for railway and general communication. Aside from keys, thumpers, and ticker tape units, there were  a number of inventions that would either take telegraph key or keyboard input and transmit a message along a wire. These were not quite teletypes; the message would display letter by letter, usually with a mechanical pointer.

swr van
On the way to the museum, I passed an “SWR” van.

Extending from the telegraph exhibit were collections on radio and landline teletype as well as facsimile machines. One corner is also devoted to the enigma machines of World War II, which includes mention of the work done at Bletchley Park. I had expected to find some Feld Hellscreiber equipment, but I did not see one in the museum’s collection.

The museum is well worth the 3€ price of admission, and if I’m in town again earlier in the day, I’d like to stop in on the amateur station.

As for Namibia, this conference came up quickly. I did make an attempt to contact some hams in Namibia and their IARU affiliate, but was unsuccessful. I’m sure I’ll be back here at some point and with more lead time, so hopefully I’ll get on the air on the next trip.


Field Day 2014

jack_cw_tentThis may be my last region two field day for a while, as plans are rapidly coming together for the move to Madagascar in August. I’m not writing off the possibility of field day next year as I know that I’ll be stateside in June for the American Society of Clinical Oncology meeting in early June, and there are some other meetings during the month that could reasonably keep me here. Also, I might throw in a bit of leave time since I’ll probably be wiped out after field day and want a day or two to cool off before heading back to Antananarivo.  In any event, this was a good chance to shake down some of the equipment that I will be bringing with me, particularly the hexbeam antenna from K4KIO.

As usual, field day planning started far in advance of the event. This year’s field day czar, Regis KF4PIY introduced a few innovations into this year’s FD, the most visible of which was tighter clustering of the stations. In the past, we spread over a large field near the entrance to Burke Lake Park, with some of the stations “down the hill” and some up. Having been “down the hill”, I can attest to the perception that it is better to be “up the hill” both from an antenna perspective and in terms of being nearer to the food and bulk of the social gathering. The obvious concern was that tighter clustering would lead to more interference. However, after a few antenna pow-wows, the band captains were happy the proposed layout and our RF gurus were reasonably confident that it would all work.

Equipment stacked up and awaiting transport.
Equipment stacked up and awaiting transport.

As for the last three years, I was band captain for the non-40m CW station. Most of the equipment that went to field day had gone the previous year. The main rig was the Elecraft K3 with 200 and 450 Hz filters, my main CW rig at home. I brought along the microphone just in case, and that turned out to have been fortuitous, as we had plenty of opportunity to jump on bands that other stations were not working, scoring the only voice contacts for six and ten meters. I gathered the equipment over the course of a few days and queued it up in the front hall. The day before field day, it all got loaded into the car and carted out to Burke Lake Park. I had considered staying out at the park that night and did pitch a tent, but so many others overnighted at the park that I decided a good night’s rest in my own bed would be the smarter decision.

Essentially all of the antennas were pitched on the afternoon before field day including the hex beam. Leon NT8B had purchased an AB577 mast system at one of the winter hamfests in the area and we decided to combine it and the hex beam. Despite being the first deployment of both pieces of equipment, it went smoothly. The AB577 is an intimidating piece of gear; it is repurposed military gear and looks it. It is painted some official shade of matte olive drab and the five foot sections come in a rack that looks like a portable rocket launcher.

Jacob KK4WJA cranks up the AB577
Jacob KK4WJA cranks up the AB577

The rack itself becomes the bottom portion of the antenna and sections are fed into it and cranked up into position, with a joining clamp added between each section. The diameter of these sections is about five or six inches, but the sections themselves are much lighter than they appear; they can be easily lifted by one person. An adapter piece goes on the top, and its outer diameter is about two and quarter inches.

We decided to set up the mast at 45 feet, which required three layers of guying, with guys in three directions at each level. Cables, stakes, and clamps to tighten the lines are all part of the AB577 kit. The lines are all attached at the start, but do not play a significant role until the mast is up fifteen or twenty feet.

When we got the first couple sections of the mast in place, it was time to add the antenna. The hexbeam comes in an unexpectedly small box, about five feet long corresponding to the length of the longest spreader section. Each spreader consists of three telescoping fiberglass segments. Loops to retain the wire elements are already in place on these segments.

In addition to the long box that contains the spreaders and central support column, a smaller box also showed up at my door. This box contained the base plate which anchors all of the spreaders and the central column and when installed sits on top of the supporting mast. I had ordered elements for all possible bands, so 6, 10, 12, 15, 17, and 20 meters. The wires for these bands were also in the box, as were support strings, ferrite rings, heat shrink and instructions. The ferrite rings must be ordered according to the intended feed line, in my case RG213. The rings go over the coax near the feed point and are held in place with the shrink wrap. These ferrites function as a choke and keep RF off the feed line.  Since 12 and 17 meters are not included in field day, I left them out of the set up this time.

Items in the accessory box: wire elements, strings, and the central hub.

Spreader segments and the central column.
Spreader segments and the central column.

Many hands made quick work of putting the hex beam together. Once we had read the instructions, it took less than fifteen minutes from crate to full assembly. It really is a dead simple antenna to put together because all of the attachment points are already set and the wires are cut to exactly the right length. For someone who never had a store-bought antenna before, this seemed almost like cheating, but I reminded myself that the next time I’d be doing this, I would be far away from the club and likely wouldn’t have as many helping hands.

Bob connects a support string to the central hub while Thor stabilizes the antenna.
Bob connects a support string to the central hub while Thor stabilizes the antenna.

John holds the antenna during rigging of the band-specific wires.
John holds the antenna during rigging of the band-specific wires.

We did run into one snag: the outer diameter of the support mast was about an inch wider than the than the flange on the antenna base plate. The sun was already low on the horizon at this point, but we were eager to find a solution that evening. I made a quick trip to Home Depot and picked up a two foot piece of one-inch black pipe, which is actually about 1 and quarter inches outer diameter. I also grabbed a bunch of U-clamps. Putting the whole thing together additionally involved a bunch of duct tape and two tent stakes that were hammered into shape as adapters.

Members working on finding a mounting solution for the hex beam.
Members working on finding a mounting solution for the hex beam.

By the time the sun set, we were convinced that our adapter was rigid. We set the hex beam down on the grass for the evening rather than attempt to attach it to the mast and raise it in suboptimal lighting.

The next morning, we were able to hand the antenna up to members on a ladder. They tightened the hex bolts on the hex beam’s flange, and the antenna stayed level. Additional sections of the AB577 were then added, and the antenna climbed skyward in five foot increments. Around twenty feet up, the guy lines began to have more and more importance. We had minders on each of the guy lines as well as spotters to assure that the tower was staying vertical in all planes. When the antenna was finally in position, the clamps on the end of each guy line were tightened.


Finally, the antenna reached 45 feet up, plus a bit for the extension.  A quick check at 5W verified that the antenna was working, with responses up and down the east coast.   An 80m dipole (the same one used in the Indiana QSO Party last year) was also erected to cover that band.

After the antennas were in place, the rest of the station was set up, based on the Elecraft K3 transceiver, N1MM running on a laptop, and trusty Bencher paddles.


The station remained in continuous operation from the start until the end of Field Day 2014, concentrating on 20m during the day and 80m in the evening and early morning. However, since we did not have a dedicated VHF station this year, on the morning of day two, we quickly ran the band on both voice and CW, chalking up about 10 local contacts. We also ran 10  meters when it was open. We started on voice and had a good run, but conditions were fading by the time we got to CW, so ironically, we made more contacts on voice than CW. We also had a chance to work on 15 meters for a while on day one, when the other CW station was doing good business on 40m. Although 15m and 40m are harmonically related, simultaneous operation did not result in interference.

Band mode qsos
3.5 cw 278
3.5 ssb 240
7 cw 718
7 ssb 676
14 cw 542
14 ssb 467
21 cw 151
21 ssb 19
28 cw 19
28 ssb 50
50 cw 3
50 ssb 7


A major difference from last year is that all four stations remained on the air around the clock; this is strongly reflected in our score for this year, which broke 10,000.

John K3US concentrates on code in the wee hours of the morning.
John K3US concentrates on code in the wee hours of the morning.

French IF Competition: 2012-2013

ifcomp2013_logoFirst, some general comments. Since the French mini-comp was not held last year, the four games submitted represent two years of production, 2012-2013.  Although my French is not as good as it might be having lived a couple years in the francophone part of Belgium, I enjoyed playing through the games. The limited domain for word choice and grammatical constraints of the parser worked to my advantage.

There were two themes for this mini-comp, Africa and Female Protagonists. Authors could implement either one in whatever way they thought fit. Three went for Female Protagonist, and one for both themes (well, a female Zebra counts, right?).

Also, somehow, in downloading the games for the competition, I also grabbed “Ma princesse adorée”, by Hugo “Mule Hollandaise” Labrande, which doesn’t fit either of these categories. I think it might have been incorrectly linked to an article that pointed to the contest, or perhaps I just clicked on the wrong spot; in any event, I enjoyed playing it as well, and include a review at the end of this entry.

I will make a few general and non-spoilery observations about these works. First, it is notable that two of the games did not adopt the standard person and tense: Trac is set in the present tense, but third person. In playing that game, I noted that there was still a me/you axis between the parser (“I’m not familiar with that verb”) and the player (“Do you want to play again?”). Noir d’encre employs first person and past tense, which must have involved some significant effort in modifying the parser responses. The only quibble I have with that arrangement is that –and I don’t think it’s a spoiler for this horror genre story– some of the outcomes involve the presumed death of the main character. Who, then, is recounting the story?

Second, all of these games seem to be serious works in the sense that they were not just dashed off and sent into the competition. All of them seem to have been thoroughly proofed (although there could, I suppose, be huge errors in the French, to which I might be oblivious) and beta-tested for playability.

Third, aside from Source de Zig, which is a lighter work, I am struck by the amount of text in these text adventures. In Life on Mars, a lot of writing went into creating the emails that provide a solid backstory. In the other works, it seems to me that the amount of detail in descriptions and in responses to player actions is more complete than the more telegraphic style found in many English language works.

Finally, if I’m reading the headers correctly, Life on Mars and La Source de Zig are written in I6, which may be a reflection of the suitability of I7 for developing code in languages other than English.

From here out, there be spoilers…

Continue reading “French IF Competition: 2012-2013”

AI4SV/6 portable VHF

pano_sfbay 2
The view from Christmas Tree Point at Twin Peaks, just southwest of downtown San Francisco.

This weekend, I attended the GI Cancer Symposium in San Francisco. I had back-to-back meetings from Thursday through Saturday morning, and didn’t see the light of day for half a week. Due to the trip, I missed operating the NAQP SSB with the folks at VWS, but I did get in some VHF operating on Saturday afternoon.

When I was planning the trip, I had more or less written off operating, but then I noticed that this weekend was not only NAQP SSB, but the January ARRL VHF contest.  I have only participated in one VHF contest in the past (the June VHF contest), so I wasn’t sure about the level of participation in this contest or how well I would do working portable and QRP, but given great weather and ideal local topology for VHF, I decided the night before I left to pack the FT-817 and some antennas.

The arrow antenna, ready for packing.
The arrow antenna, ready for packing.

On previous trips, I had worked HF from Buena Vista Park, and I knew that there is a bench with a good view of the arc from the Golden Gate Bridge to Oakland. However, the bench is a little off the path, there are trees here and there in the line of sight, and couldn’t think of a good way to mount the antenna. I wanted to travel light, so I wasn’t really keen to pack a tripod.  After fiddling with Google Maps for a while, I decided that the observation point at Twin Peaks would be better. Twin Peaks are the second highest point in SF. The highest is point is not far away, Mount Davidson, which supports the Sutro Tower.  I didn’t opt for Mount Davidson because I wasn’t sure how accessible it would be and also didn’t think it would be a great idea to operate VHF/UHF right under a giant television tower. From StreetView, I had scoped out the observation point (“Christmas Tree Point”) on Twin Peaks and saw a spot with a low metal railing next to a stone wall. It looked possible to fix the antenna to the fence on a stand-off and put the radio on the stone wall.

I packed a 1×2 piece of wood, a couple screws and a bit of PVC that I had previously used to wind coils. The PVC fit over the wood and became my azimuth rotor. The cut-out in the PVC was about the right size for the central axis of my arrow antenna. When I got to the site, I found that the StreetView was accurate and I dumped the gear at the junction of the wall and fence while it was clear of tourists. Every few minutes, a tour bus would arrive, mostly with foreign tourists, who watched with curiosity as I set up.  I stopped a few times to pose for photos with them.  I taped the wood to the fence with Gorilla tape, making spacers as needed from cardboard.  I screwed some wood screws into the wood a couple inches below the top to prevent the PVC from sliding down. After assembling the arrow antenna, I put it into PVC slot and taped it into position. The radio, battery, mike and log book rested comfortably on the stone wall to the side of the fence, and I started operation on 2m.

Configured for 70cm and pointed at the Golden Gate Bridge.

I was able to pan the antenna more than 180 degrees, starting with the Pacific Ocean to the West of the Golden Gate Bridge, swinging North and then East, panning through downtown San Francisco, Berkeley, Oakland, and then South.  I did not hit the Southwest because the top of Twin Peaks was behind me, as well as an antenna installation, mostly microwave. If I were to do this again, I might bring a tripod and climb to the top of Twin Peaks to have 360 degree coverage.

I was surprised that when I tuned around in the weak signal portion of the band (144.050-144.100 CW, 144.2-144.275 USB), that I did not hear stations working a frequency. Even odder, I heard no CW at all. All my contacts on 2m were made right on the SSB calling frequency, 144.2 Mhz. In the June contest, back in Virginia, I had heard a number of station calling on various frequencies, both CW and SSB. I thought it a reasonable chance that some one in San Francisco might be operating FM, so I rotate the antenna for vertical polarization. Again, sweeping from horizon to horizon, listening and calling on standard simplex frequencies (other than the national calling frequency, which is verboten), I didn’t hear any activity.

I tried the same thing on 70cm and contacted about the same number of stations as on two meters. Again, my only contacts were SSB at the calling frequency, 432.1 Mhz. I had to check the contest rules to reassure myself that CW was permitted, and it was — just no one doing it. I am not sure why I had so few contacts on 2m and 70cm despite having what I thought was an excellent location. I can’t say from experience if the January contest is less popular than the June one, or if perhaps there are regional differences in the popularity of the contest, with East-coasters that much more active on these bands.

In the June contest, I had parked my car on a tall parking garage and my antennas were my trunk-mounted 2m/70cm vertical and my mini-Tarheel tuned for 6m. Although these antennas were suboptimal given their limited efficiency and vertical polarization, I had some power behind them: 100W on 2m and 6m, and I believe 50W on 70cm. I had much less power this past week, running 5W, but I assumed that the two mountain-top yagis, would put out comparable EIRP to the mobile rig, albeit in a directional pattern. I assumed that the beam antennas would also be great for scanning the horizon for both strong and weaker signals.

Key: Red is 2 meter, Blue is 70 cm, and Purple is 6 meter.
Key: Red is 2 meter, Blue is 70 cm, and Purple is 6 meter.

I noticed that all of the SSB stations SSB sounded strong. This would make more sense if I had been operating FM, but I expected to hear a range of SSB signal strengths from scratchy to booming. I realize that my QRP signal might not have sounded similarly strong to them, but I can’t account for not hearing some stations that were softer, unless my background noise level was higher than I appreciated. I suppose that being on a hill surrounded by other antennas might have had some negative effect on reception, but I don’t think this is the case. I would really doubt that this could affect CW so much that I wouldn’t have heard even one signal. I noted that many of the stations that I did work indicated that they had what I’d consider to be elaborate VHF set ups: large permanent, rotatable antennas, high power, and so on, so I am wondering if these stations are just used to working only strong signal stations.

After a while, I disassembled the arrow antenna and wandered a bit further up the hill towards a pine tree. The night before leaving for SFO, I had made a 6m dipole using the usual formula. I didn’t have time to test it, but just coiled it up and chucked it in my luggage. I threw a couple ropes about 15 feet up in to the tree (about the length of my coax) and suspended the antenna horizontally, roughly east-west so it could be broadside to downtown San Francisco. The computer bag that had contained everything became my seat. Again, I hit a number of stations on 50.125, the CW calling frequency, but only heard a couple more up around 50.135 and 50.140. I was determined to bag at least one CW contact, which I did, KJ6M. I’m not sure if he was in the contest or just scanning by the CW portion of the band, but I’m glad he was listening.

I got excited at one point that I had broken out of local area when one station on 6m indicated a QTH of Nevada. I thought maybe 6 meters was opening up and tried to figure out, with my limited recall of Western US geography, what sort of propagation would land a 6m signal in Nevada. The more I thought about it, the less it made sense, particularly since the station had a W6 call. When I got back to the hotel that evening, it made more sense: Novato, California. Not as far as I had hoped. Nonetheless, I had two contacts at a range typical range: a 6m contact at 143 miles and, more surprisingly, a 2m contact of 137 miles.

6mantennaSince I got out of my conference around noon and had to go back to the hotel to change, grab a quick bite and collect the radio equipment, I splurged for a cab ride up the mountain because I was concerned about the amount of daylight I’d have for operating. It felt like I was cheating, but this wasn’t a SOTA activation, my time table, and the fact that I have limited familiarity with getting around in San Francisco. As the cab dropped me near the summit, he asked how I’d get down, and I indicated that I’d figure something out. I was sorely tempted to just blend in with a tour bus crown and head back down the mountain, but after plugging away for a few hours, I still had enough light to walk down the mountain (much easier in that direction) and take a bus to Castro, where I was able to hop on one of the Market Street trams, which I rode just about to the front door of my hotel. The $2.00 return trip made me feel better about taking a cab on the outbound leg.

Without the 6m opening, I made a lot fewer contacts in this contest than I had in June. So, plans for future VHF contests? Yes, probably, depending how busy I am in June. Working the contest from Skyline drive and combining a gain antenna with the higher power output from the car’s transceiver sounds like a winning combination.

Visit to ARRL

IMG_20131226_151413On Boxing Day, I was getting a little stir-crazy at my in-laws house in Mount Vernon New York, where we are spending most of Christmas Break.  After a few frenzied days of presents, trips into New York City, and late night game-playing sessions, everyone was in the mood to crash, read books, and maybe watch some TV.

I was in the mood to play radio, hadn’t brought along any radio equipment. However, it occurred to me that I knew of at least one station within a short drive: the mothership, the radio station of the American Radio Relay League itself, W1AW.  I did a quick check on google maps showed it less than 90 minutes away.

I gave ARRL a quick call to make sure that some staff would be there and then pointed the car at Connecticut. I drove though light flurries on the way up — the sort that did not even require windshield wipers, but also the sort that would shut down the government for a week if they were to occur in the DC area, where I usually live.  The trip to Newington, CT was uneventful, and as I drove down Main Street, I stopped checking street address numbers when I started to see antenna towers through the tree branches.  These are  monstrously tall towers like you might find in the middle of the plains states or West Virginia, but more the sort you’d expect in the suburbs. What is remarkable is that each of the towers is chocked full of antennas, some of them really not very high above the lawn.

The W1AW station itself faces Main Street, and the picture was taken almost from the road. Behind the station, there is a parking lot, and behind that is the ARRL administrative office.  I parked and headed into the office building, the front portion of which is a large reception area. One side is a display area for ARRL publications, tee-shirts, etc., but there is also a front desk. I signed into the log book at the front desk and was told that if I wanted, I could join a tour and/or operate W1AW.

The day after Christmas, many of the staff took the day off, so it was quiet at HQ, but a volunteer, Jim, took me around to see the place.  We started in some offices related to member activities including the outgoing QSL bureau, VEC, and EMCOMM support. We peeked in at various offices related to creating the ARRL publications like QST and QEX: the editorium, the graphics department, and the labs in which product review testing takes place. The product testing room is essentially fully shielded and has a solid wall of test gear. Across from it, there is a more conventional lab with work benches, soldering irons, and typical test gear piled high. Walking through the halls, there were several display cases with all sorts of antique radio and electronic gear, documents related to technical and political milestones in radio, and some of the original Wouff Hong artifacts.

After touring the admin building, we walked across the parking lot and spent some time in W1AW itself.  In the foyer area, there is a rotary spark gap generator (not connected to an antenna), and the Old Man’s desk, with vintage gear.  There are three modern operating rooms, each with two positions.  In the first room, boom-mounted Heil mikes are attached to top-end contesting rigs — $15k+ radios with more knobs, buttons and glowy bits that I knew what to do with.  The middle room was also set up for voice operation and perhaps digital, and the room nearest the front of the building had more middle range rigs and was set up for CW.  There is also a computer console in the center of the station that controls the automated transmissions. Behind it, there is a wall of rack-mounted equipment including the patch bays that allow RF to be routed from any operation position to any antenna.

Screen Shot 2013-12-28 at 9.02.53 PM 1When I got back that evening, I took a moment to renew my license.  I just took a look at QRZ, and it appears that the renewal has already been processed by the FCC.  Looks like I won’t have to think about this again until 2024.


A tale of two contests: 160m and 10m

I worked both ends of HF this weekend — the first time I’ve worked 160m with my own call sign. On Saturday night, I spend about four hours on a borrowed dipole to crank out about 50 contacts in the ARRL 160m contest. I was psyched for the contest because myK3 was able to tune my 40m attic dipole for 160m, but on Friday evening I got no (zero!) acknowledgment when I  tried to reply to juicy-sounding CQs. I must have been putting out only a few milliwatts. I gave some thought to temporarily modifying my vertical as an inverted L, but with rain and snow, that wasn’t appealing. So, I ended up operating from a friend’s station with a multiband dipole that worked on 160m. Probably not an optimal antenna, but better than the attic. The background buzz was about an S9, so I’m sure I wasn’t hearing everything there was to hear.

On Sunday from about 1 to 5 pm local, I worked the 10m RTTY contest. The was some solar activity and K reached about 4, and contacts became water around 2 pm, when I took a couple hour break. When I came back, I signals jumped back up for a bit before disappearing into the night. I was using my attic 10/17 fan dipole, and for whatever reason, I seemed to have a direct line into Colorado. I also worked Brazil (PP1CZ) and two stations in Chile (CT8/DK9WI and CE3PG) That last call sign was familiar to me: Dino Besomi is the president of the Amateur Radio Club of Chile, and helped me connect with the club when I visited Chile last month.

Between the 10m contest and the 160m contest, I covered most of the contiguous United States:

160m contacts
160m contacts

10 contacts
10 contacts