Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Fun in the Sun From J6

Getting permission to operate from St. Lucia took many months of negotiating and cost me a lot of money. However, once the XYL finally agreed to it the rest was relatively easy. Since this was going to be a holiday trip I didn't plan to spend a lot of time playing radio. The RAC Winter Contest was going to be the held the weekend before Christmas. It's one of my favorite contests and would make the perfect opportunity for a little DX operating adventure. VE8 is a rare multiplier in the contest but J6 is only a 2-point "DX" contact. Signing J6/VE8EV from the sunny West Indies in the dead of winter would be a hoot!

I had almost given up even before I started. Back in the spring I started looking around for a station on the island to operate from. A few inquiries were made but by October I still hadn't confirmed anything. Since all available information said it took several months to get a J6 license I was pretty sure my time had run out. I mentioned the situation to Tree, N6TR, during our SS CW operation and within an hour he came up with a couple of contacts for me. Soon I was corresponding with Lionel, J69KZ. His contact at the St. Lucian National Telecommunications Regulatory Commission led me to believe that if I acted quickly there was a chance I could get a license in time for my visit. With that in mind, I downloaded the application forms and had all the required documents couriered to the island.

The licensing process in St. Lucia is somewhat complicated. The main problem is that the process is much the same no matter whether you are applying for a temporary amateur license or a commercial broadcasting license. All applications have to be personally signed by the Minister of Telecommunications and of course they have to negotiate several layers of bureaucracy both before and after they hit the Minister's desk. Fortunately, the islanders are the friendliest people on earth and there was certainly no lack of will on their part to get me licensed in time for the contest. A special thanks, though, is reserved for Bill Schmidt, K9HZ. His detailed information on how to obtain a J6 license was invaluable especially the 'Amazing Race' directions to navigating the several different St. Lucian government offices that have to be visited to complete the final paperwork.

Concurrent with licensing was the issue of finding a place to operate from. The original plan was to operate from Lionel's QTH however this was complicated by the fact that his rental suite was unexpectedly occupied and his family was also in from Canada for the holidays. He suggested that while he'd squeeze me in somewhere if it became necessary, he also had a well-equipped suitcase portable station containing an IC-7000, tuner and power supply, and a G5RV antenna which perhaps I could operate from the resort? I scoped out the resort and found the perfect spot to string up the G5RV from a 4th floor stairwell window over to a convenient tree in the courtyard and our 2nd floor balcony was exactly half way in between. I thought long and hard about how to ask about putting up the antenna. In the end I decided it sounded better to describe it as 'a wire aerial for my radio' instead of a 'hundred foot long ham radio antenna'. I shouldn't have worrried. The resort specialized in catering to their guests needs and the best line I heard on the whole trip was 'Are you sure you wouldn't like us to have the maintenance workers put up your antenna for you?' Now that's service!

With the license in hand (it's actually a very official looking 10-page document, printed and bound!) and the G5RV hung in the garden it was time to get on the air. I had never used an Icom IC-7000 before but I knew what I wanted to do so after an hour of flipping through the manual I had the mic gain, ALC and compression set up and programmed the voice memories. I didn't bring a keying interface for the computer and Lionel didn't have a key so I was going to give the CW part of the contest a miss. It wasn't long before I changed my mind. I'm not a big CW operator but the RAC contests (Canada Day and RAC Winter) are two of the few where the exchange is simple and the operators don't seem to feel the need to send CW at 40wpm. On a hunch, I dug a bit deeper into the IC-7000 manual and sure enough, the internal memory keyer had a serial number function. Within a few minutes I had the front panel buttons programmed for the basic exchange information and working VE multipliers on CW was the highlight of the whole contest.

I wanted to do a full 24-hour effort but it didn't work out that way. I got a decent six hour sleep that night and moseyed on down to the buffet table whenever it was required. Propagation wasn't bad but it also wasn't as good as I was expecting given the location and the solar flux. Still, I managed to work all the provinces and only missed VY1, VE8 and VY0. I heard Wally VE8DW with a good signal on 20m right around my sunset but 100 watts and the wire wasn't enough to get his attention. I spent most of the afternoon running on 15m but the rates weren't that high. The biggest Canadian signals in the contest all came from VE6RAC operating from the VE6JY superstation. I heard them on four bands and worked them in both modes on three of them.

The dichotomy of the J6/VE8EV callsign wasn't lost on anyone, especially with the snow and cold spreading across North America. I got lots of comments along the lines of 'I wish I was there' and, not surprisingly given the contest, a lot of 'I wish you were at home'. All in all, I had a ton of fun in the contest but once it was over I was anxious to get back to the sun and surf. I left the antenna up for an extra day and ran a couple of skeds but that was it. Two more weeks and I'll be back to the 40 below zero and 24 hour darkness. I need to soak it all up while I have the chance!

Sunset across the harbour at Gros Islet, St. Lucia.

73 and Happy Holidays

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

NA-108 St. Lucia

All is looking good for operation from J68. Still waiting to hear on licensing, I'll either be J68/VE8EV or J68EV. If all else fails I'll be able to use the call of my host on the island, Lionel J69KZ.

I'll be operating mostly during the RAC Canada Winter Contest. The contest starts at 0000z Dec 18 (Friday evening in North America) and runs until 2359z. Everyone can work me during the contest. If you are outside of Canada (like me) send RS(T) and a serial number. Canadian stations sent RS(T) and province or territory.

Look for me on all bands but I'll be mostly working 40m and 20m SSB. If 15m is open to Canada you can bet I'll be up there as much as possible.

73 and Season's Greetings
John - VE8EV

Monday, November 23, 2009

SS PH - Making the Grade!

I've always come away from Sweepstakes with a vague sense of having let everyone down. Knowing that there are several thousand stations all needing that NT multiplier but only a couple of hundred in my log somehow meant I just hadn't measured up to the task at hand. This year, however, was different. Somewhere between the experience gained in the past year of contesting and expeditioning, incremental improvements to the station, and ever-so-slightly better propagation, I walked away satisfied that I'd put in a pretty good effort.

It's surprising how all the little things just keep adding up. Some might just call it experience but there's an old saying along the lines of "First, you need to know what it is you don't know." Knowing when to run, when to search and pounce, and when to grab some rest for later. Keep the rate up! If you're running then RUN! Go as fast as you can without getting a lot of requests for fills. Always come back to something as fast as you can so stations don't start calling out of turn. If you can't run then S&P as fast as you can. Know what multipliers you need and when they're likely to be around so you can assign a mental 'value' to every station you hear. If they don't come back to you after a certain number of calls then move on and try them again on the next pass up (or down) the band. If everyone is answering on the first call then you should be running. Keep track of where stations are and what they sound like so you don't have to wait around for them to ID to find out you've already worked them. If nobody is answering you at all except for the one really loud guy who needs twenty fills to complete the QSO then it's time to go take a nap! Those and hundreds of other little things that all come from study, practice and experience. Subtle little lessons from here and there that make a big difference when they're all in play at the same time!

VE8DW was going to be out of town for SS this year so I was on my own. Fortunately, we got all the hard work at the contest site done before CQWW in October so all I had to do was pull the shack trailer up there and plug it in. Even so, it took several hours of hard work at 25 below zero to get all the snow shovelled, stow all the antennas and get the trailer hitched up to the truck. I thought I had everything in place and ready to go an hour before the contest but only 10 minutes before the bell I realized that I hadn't recorded the exchanges for the voice keyer. I scrambled around for 15 minutes with sound cards, microphones, inputs and outputs before I got it all working and then dived into the contest.

With an ongoing geomagnetic disturbance I was planning for conditions to be lousy, at least on Saturday. Being exactly 28 days after CQ WW, the optimist in me was hoping for a repeat of those conditions where a solar flux in the low 80's gave enough of a boost to the bands to push the signals through the aurora. Even though the flux didn't get quite as high this time, it still made a big difference. Shortly before the start of the contest there was even a 10m opening to the west coast, literally the first contacts I've made on that band in years. After that I wasn't quite sure what to expect at the start of the contest. I decided to start on 15m and managed to average over 60/hr for the first 3 hours. I even managed to do a 105/hr between 2220z and 2320z but when that band died suddenly I had to QSY. 20m was still shaky from the aurora and for the next two hours the rate meter was stuck at 24/hr. I knew once 20m was closed it was going to be a long, difficult night. The K-index was still at 2 and between 0200z and 0700z, while all the stations down south were filling their buckets from a seemingly endless well of contacts (or so I've heard), I struggled on 40m to put a dozen contacts in the log. By 0700z I'd had enough. I set the alarm for 1200z and went to bed.

20m was already open when I got up. I heard lots of DX and a handful of east coast DXers so I grabbed a spot and started calling CQ while I drank my coffee and had some breakfast. Apparently I had set my alarm an hour earlier than everyone else because a few minutes after 1300z the rate jumped up to 75/hr and stayed there for almost 2 hours. After the morning rush was over I spent the next several hours looking for multipliers. I knew I had to find NL, MAR, and as many New England sections as I could early because they just wouldn't be workable later in the day. I did pretty good with New England and worked VY2SS and KP2M. Late in the morning I found VO1HE running stations high up on 15m. It was a bit early for 15m from here but I hung in there and kept calling. At first I thought it would be easy because I couldn't hear anyone else calling but soon realized that there were lots of stations that I just wasn't hearing. After a half hour I decided to move on. I kept coming back to his frequency every five or ten minutes but after a little while he was gone. For all the guys that spent a long time in the pileup unsuccessfully calling me this weekend: I feel your pain!

After missing out on NL, I knew a sweep was unlikely so I decided to just concentrate on rate for the rest of the day. The aurora was still flaring up occasionally but by 1800z I was hitting 15m hard and just stayed there for the rest of the afternoon. Every time I got knocked off my run frequency I'd S&P the band until I found a new spot and started running again. After an hour or so I had a stroke of luck. I had just worked one of the east coast big guns down at the bottom of the band and had left the radio on his frequency while grabbing another cup of coffee. He wasn't getting very many takers and then he disappeared! After a minute of silence I practically dove for the F1 key and a few minutes after that the run started. I knew the aurora must have let up because I got lots of comments that I was loud and no one crowded me off frequency. For the next five hours I kept the average rate steady above 60/hr even during a QSY from 15m down to 20m at an opportune moment when 15m started going out.

Unfortunately, all good things must come to an end. Just like clockwork at around 0100z the 20m propagation followed the grey line off the west coast and out to sea. With KH7XS and a few JA's the only ones left on the band I knew it was time to head back to 40m. Conditions were better than the previous night but only the big stations were audible and almost all of them were already in the log. I did get spotted by a KL7 station which resulted in a little mini-run of eight stations but after that I was back to kilowatt QRP again. In the next half hour I worked two stations and both of those required lots of calling and fills. Even though it was only 0130z I knew that it was over for me. I saw the QSO count was at 749 so I thought I would try to get one more to make it an even 750. After about 5 minutes of searching I found W0CN and after 5 more minutes of calling and fills he was in the log and I was done.

As always, lots of highlights:

  • Working former co-worker and local operator VE8GER for the first time. I was very happy to hear him on the air doing his first SS!

  • The long Sunday afternoon run that seemed like it would never end.

  • Working 16 QRP stations. I love it when a QRP op cracks a big pileup of high powered stations!

  • Hearing the whoops and hollers in the background at multi-op stations when I work them.

The only lowlight was missing the sweep. In addition to NL I also needed ND but I'm sure if I hadn't missed on VO1HE I would have put a bit more effort into finding someone from North Dakota.

That's all from here for this year. I was going to run SO2C (single-op, 2 contest) during the ARRL 160 and the ARRL EME contest but it would have been only one night due to a prior commitment. Now that the geomagnetic forecast is calling for disturbed conditions during the contest weekend (again!) I'm not going to bother. I leave right after that for J6 and hopefully I'll be on from the island during the RAC Winter contest as J68/VE8EV.

73 from the frozen Arctic
John - VE8EV


Call: VE8EV
Operator(s): VE8EV
Station: VE8EV

Class: Single Op HP
QTH: Inuvik, NT
Operating Time (hrs): 22

Band QSOs
40: 23
20: 338
15: 387
Total: 748 Sections = 78 Total Score = 116,688



This year's SS was a personal best for me and I'm finally starting to feel like I know what I'm doing. I was expecting the auroral activity on Saturday to keep me out of the game until Sunday but the high (not zero!) sunspot number compensated somewhat, at least on the higher bands. I managed to get over 200 into the log before before 15m and 20m closed up. I wasn't expecting much on the low bands Saturday night and I sure wasn't disappointed. Between 0200 and 0700 my score increased by only 24 points! Sunday morning the rate waxed and waned with the aurora as I alternated between running and hunting for mults. I knew the sweep was lost after spending a half-hour calling VO1HE without success. Things finally picked up mid-afternoon and I even managed back-to-back runs on 15m and then 20m until it closed up around 0100. 40m was slightly better than the night before but practically everyone I could hear was already in log so I pulled the plug and went home.

I'll post the usual in-depth write-up to http://ve8ev.blogspot.com later on today.

John - VE8EV

Monday, November 9, 2009

SS CW - Like Tornados and Trailer Parks...

I don't know what it is about ARRL Sweepstakes but for some reason it always seems to cause spectacular displays of aurora borealis. With everyone looking for that elusive 'Clean Sweep' of all 80 ARRL and RAC Sections this is the one contest where everyone wants to work a station in the far North but it always seems to be the one contest where we struggle the most with active geomagnetic conditions. This year's CW version of the event was no exception.

My rudimentary CW skills just aren't (yet) up to running with the lengthly SS exchange and after last year's somewhat meager results from my searching and pouncing, this year I invited CQ Contest Hall of Famer N6TR, Tree, to guest-op via a remote internet connection. Although we had planned to work the August NAQP contest as a test-run of the remote control set-up, various scheduling conflicts conspired to reducing us to a few quick connectivity tests in the weeks right before Sweepstakes. Of course there were a few minor glitches in the hour before the contest that raised our pulse rates a bit but in the end we had it all ready to go in time for the opening bell.

The remote control system was genius in it's simplicity. My Kenwood TS-2000 has a built-in software keyer. Send the radio plain text through the serial port and it will happily convert it to morse code and send it over the air. Various other commands sent through the serial port will do everything that can be done directly by pushing buttons or turning knobs on the front panel. By using the remote serial port software included with Ham Radio Deluxe
, Tree's computer in Boring, Oregon had no idea that the serial port it was sending data to was on the back of my computer 1,600 miles away. SM5VXC's simple IPSound software routed the receiver audio and CW sidetone from my radio back to Tree's headphones. Other than the custom version of TRLog contest software that Tree whipped up to handle the logging and radio control, it really was almost as simple as it sounds. The rest of the station, however, was sorely lacking in electronic automation. It was my job to switch antennas, run the amp and the tuner, and (mostly for my own amusement) keep an eye on who we were working and what multipliers we needed.

The contest started with a bang Saturday afternoon. Conditions were great and Tree kept the rate at 80/hr for the first few hours. When darkness came, though, things started to slow down. Not so much because of band conditions, either. Tradition dictates that once it gets dark everyone QSY's to the low bands and spends the night working all their neighbors with low dipole antennas. Not so great for us guys on the edge of the world but we hung in there. My new, residential-area friendly (read: small) vertical antenna did a passable job on 40m given the distances involved. Our QSO total for both days on 40m was 45 contacts, which isn't bad considering that a) the antenna is only a 23ft whip, b) almost all of the contacts were 2000 miles+ and, c) conditions definitely were not the greatest. Our best DX on 40m was KP2M right around local midnight but it was also around then that the rate meter started sticking to the bottom peg so with almost 300 in the log we called it a night.

I knew 20m would be open for East coast sunrise so we were up 'n at 'em at 1130z the next morning. Sweepstakes Sunday is always a big deal from VE8 and I didn't see any reason why we shouldn't be able to put over 1000 in the log between now and the end of the contest. At least I didn't see any reason until I looked at the space weather. The K-index was at 4 and the NOAA auroral activity map showed a big, fat, red, angry-looking auroral oval on top of the world and it was right over our heads, stretching for hundreds of miles in every direction. The very few signals that could be heard were all weak and watery but in the true VE8 spirit Tree forged ahead and started scraping up whatever could be found. We could count all our contacts that morning on our fingers until 20m finally started to open a little bit around 14z and then the rate slowly crawled up into the double-digits.

Tree had done an excellent job collecting multipliers the previous night so despite the dismal conditions on Sunday we were only needing a handful of sections for the sweep. Slowly over the course of the morning the remaining mults trickled in with the last two (RI and UT) calling within a few minutes of each other late in the morning. With a sweep in hand I had even less to do except watch the meters bouncing and commiserate over the chat link with Tree about the painfully lousy conditions.

I had hoped the electric overcast would settle down later in the afternoon but it was unrelenting. The last few hours of Sweepstakes is always painful but by 0145z the rate was down to 2 or 3 per hour and we decided it was over. By sheer force of will Tree had managed to put 200 Q's in the log over the past 15 hours through an Arctic geomagnetic storm that would have had most hams looking for a new hobby (or at least watching TV all afternoon).

This 3-day geomagnetic activity chart for November 7-8-9 is pretty
self-explanatory. The first 27 hours on the chart was Sweepstakes CW.
We live on the northern boundary of the 'AURORAL' area.
Most of Canada
and the USA is in the 'SUBAURORAL' area.

I dream of a someday having a Sweepstakes weekend with double-digit sunspots and K=0 but I've never seen one yet. Maybe one of these years it will happen. Oh, and in case you were wondering, here's the geomagnetic activity forecast for the rest of the month. Sweepstakes Phone is on November 21st ...


Call: VE8EV
Operator(s): VE8EV N6TR
Station: VE8EV
Class: Multi-Op HP
QTH: Inuvik, NT
Operating Time (hrs): 24
Band QSOs
160: 0
80: 0
40: 45
20: 411
15: 21
10: 0
Total: 477 Sections = 80
Total Score = 75,520
Many thanks to John, VE8EV, for letting me operate the SS CW from VE8. It has always been a fantasy of mine to do this. Thanks to the internet and HRD software, and a little software of my own, I was able to operate the contest while sitting in Boring, Oregon. HRD provided a serial link to John's TS2000 and some enhancements to TR Log let me use the keyer in the TS2000 to send CW with. IPSound took care of getting the receiver audio back down to me. The delay from pressing F1 to hearing my CQ start in the sidetone was about 300 milliseconds - not bad at all. Sometimes the internet sound would hiccup which would do strange things to exchanges. I bet my error rate is a bit higher than normal as a result. Conditions at the start of the contest were FANTASTIC. First three hours were 85, 83 and 50. Around that time, things started happening with the aurora and the best hour I ever had afterward was 35. There were times the band had a funny "breathing sound" and most of the signals were all gone. Was very happy to get a clean sweep. Thanks to Eric, VY1EI for calling in for my only NT QSO. Was lots of fun giving some of the big guns their clean sweep!! Even more fun when they no idea who was behind the "key". 73 Tree N6TR

Monday, October 26, 2009

CQ World Wide - The Big One

We had so much fun in CQ WW last year that I've been eagerly anticipating this one for a whole year! With the new antennas permanently installed at the contest site there was no more field-day-style operations. Just tow the shack trailer up to the site, plug in the big TH6DXX yagi and the low band vertical, pop up the little TH3JRS on the trailer mast and away we go!

I was fully expecting this year's event to be a dismal failure. The geomagnetic field was predicted to be active all weekend. At this latitude, active geomagnetic conditions and low solar flux means no contacts on HF. Fortunately, Gabriel (the patron saint of ham radio) was still keeping an eye on us after our antenna raising last weekend and arranged for a flurry of sun spots to make up for the aurora.

Our only goals this year were to break the VE8 M/2 record we set last year and to make over a thousand contacts. Even with eight hours of auroral induced 'off-time' early Sunday morning conditions were otherwise very good and by Sunday afternoon both items were in the bag.

Lots of highlights over the weekend, here's the Top Ten List:

1. Starting the contest with a 100-hour on 20m. Now that's hitting the air running!

2. The excellent conditions on 40m Friday night. I worked all continents in the same hour just after midnight local time.

3. The surprise opening on 15m to Europe at 4am local time Saturday morning.

4. Working SU1KM in Zone 34 on Saturday morning for my LAST zone for the CQ WAZ award.

5. Working not one but TWO other VE8 stations (VE8DAV and VE8NSD) and VY0HL. Zero points for the contest but still cool and unusual!

6. Pushing the rate meter past 200 running stateside and JA stations late Saturday afternoon.

7. Having Wally ask me to work a Brazilian station on 15m that he'd been calling for 10 minutes with no success. He meant for me to use the big yagi and my amplifier but instead I just picked up his headset and made the contact with my first call. I told him the secret was "timing, tone and annunciation" ;)

8. Working several all-time new ones for DXCC. I've got to comb through the logs to find out which ones but I know for sure Tonga and Fiji and I'm pretty sure there's one or two more.

9. Working DP1POL in Antarctica on Sunday afternoon. I came across him CQing by himself and didn't even realize where he was until I put his call in the computer. We both said "Wow!"

10. Hunting multipliers off the cluster on Sunday afternoon I dialled up the QRG of some Caribbean station and the very first thing I heard was "who's the station with Victor?" I quickly threw out my callsign and into the log he went!

VE8DW shows off the broken record after finishing up on Sunday.

That's all until the next one. Thanks for all the Q's and we'll see you in Sweepstakes!

73 de VE8EV


CQ Worldwide DX Contest, SSB

Call: VE8EV
Operator(s): VE8EV VE8DW
Station: VE8EV
Class: M/2 HP
QTH: Inuvik, NT
Operating Time (hrs): 40

Band QSOs Zones Countries
160: 1 1 1
80: 5 4 4
40: 73 17 34
20: 850 33 106
15: 130 16 22
10: 0 0 0
Total: 1059 71 167 Total Score = 624,036

With active geomagnetic conditions predicted for the whole weekend I thought this was going to be a total washout but the unexpected sunspots compensated nicely for the electric overcast. The bands were great for the first 30 hours followed by 8 hours of zero-rate diode propagation when the K-index spiked overnight Saturday. More-or-less normal conditions after that for the rest of the contest.

Our goals were to get over 1000 Q's and break the VE8 record, both of which we accomplished. Full write-up http://ve8ev.blogspot.com/

73 and see you all in Sweepstakes!
John VE8EV Wally VE8DW

Friday, October 23, 2009

Thanks, Gabe!

We finally finished putting up the big yagi last Sunday. In typical fashion, the one weekend job ended up taking two full weekends to complete but we were taking our time and doing things right.

As I mentioned in my previous post, the tower is on the local water supply storage tank at the same location we do our contest operations from. The tank is 60 feet high and the tower is another 40 feet on top of that so a perfect perch for the big TH6DXX.

While I did most of the aerial gymnastics, VE8DW worked the ground end and snapped some great pictures.

Day 1. The old tower had not been used for many years.

Day 2. Tower is down and now mounting a gin pole to stabilize the old 18 foot long fiberglass VHF antenna as it comes off.

Day 3. Top section with rotator back on and assembling the yagi. I put the boom on first then rotated the mast to install the elements.

Day 4. Up she goes! The winds had been gusting all morning but right before we were ready to start the lift the wind stopped and the sun came out. Once we were done I Googled 'patron saint of ham radio' and found out it was Gabriel we needed to thank for the warm sunshine and the respite from the wind at the critical moment.

We'll find out how well it works this weekend during the CQ World Wide SSB Contest!

73 de VE8EV

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Better Safe Than Sorry!

I should have known better. I service high voltage equipment all the time at work and the safety precautions are thoughtfully and carefully layered so no one gets hurt. High voltage insulating gloves, voltage sensing wands, locking/grounding disconnects, rubber floor mats, etc. Exacting procedures tie together all the safety apparatus. You do things EXACTLY correctly because you don't want your children to grow up without a father. So why should things be any different with amateur equipment?

My amp has issues. Nothing major, but it's old and sat in an oceanside warehouse for many, many years before I rescued it. Just little things. Like all of a sudden it wouldn't bandswitch properly on any band except 20 meters. Now that I was putting up an all-band vertical antenna I was pretty sure I was going to want to use the amp on other bands. So, while I was putting up antennas and dabbling in the California QSO Party, I decided to take a look at the bandswitch. Oh yeah, and while I'm at it I need to have a look at the meter. The HV metering also seems to have quit...

This is not a decision to be taken lightly. First of all, the amp is mounted in the equipment rack. I can just squeeze in along the side of the rack and reach behind to unplug the amp and disconnect the coax and control cables. The next trick is getting it out of the rack. This ain't no 30 pound Tokyo Hy-Power solid-state wonder. This is a piece of heavy-duty, mid seventies commercial equipment and it weighs 350 pounds! Fortunately, the procedure is fairly well developed. Slide it out of the rack onto a piece of carpet and from there, with a bit of grunting, you can slide it to where you want it. Now that its all disconnected and clear of the rack you can open it up. Two dozen screws to get the top cover (with electrical interlock) off then several more screws and pieces to come off to be able to slide the bandswitch control out a bit to take a look at it.

So I'm happily disconnecting wires and removing screws in the RF compartment when *WHAM* something bites me AND HARD! I'm sitting there rubbing my hand and starting at the amp with the same sort of disbelief as when the loving family pet up and bites you. What the heck? It's not plugged in. The cord won't even reach the outlet unless it's all the way into the rack. The capacitors couldn't STILL be charged. The HV hasn't been on for hours! But obviously, that's exactly what was going on. Fortunately, I only had one hand in the works or I might not be telling this tale.

I pulled out the schematics and started looking at the power supply diagram. Oh, the HV metering is in series with the bleeder resistors. Starting to make sense now. No bleeders, no HV meter, no discharging the capacitors. Oh, and the interlock on the cover only short circuits the primary (low voltage) side of the HV transformer. I sacrificed a few high value 1/4 watt resistors to discharge the capacitor. This thing has an 8 uF oil-filled capacitor which would easily discharge enough current to blow the end off a screwdriver if you shorted it directly to ground when it was fully charged. After I had blown up a few small resistors then I felt I could safely zap it to ground with a screwdriver. Just as a final precaution, I checked it with a meter. The voltage was rising again! There must be another capacitor in the circuit that was back feeding this one and slowly charging it again. It was rising at almost 50 volts per minute. I discharged it again and quickly clipped a ground wire onto the capacitor to hold the voltage down and bleed off the other cap. Once I was sure everything was finally dead I proceded to change out the open bleeder resistor and all was well. The metering worked properly and when you shut the switch off the HV would go from 4000 to zero in 10 seconds.

So, the moral of the story? DO IT RIGHT AND BE SAFE.

EVERY time you open up an amplifier or other piece of HV electronic equipment ALWAYS ASSUME that the high voltage lines are still ENERGIZED until they are SAFELY and SECURELY grounded.

Oh, and the bandswitching problem? I had band program card plugged in upside down!

Ex Luna Scientia

Well, I didn't quite make my deadline of getting it done before summer was over but now it's a done deal. This weekend, in between all the HF antenna work, I did find the time to point the VHF/UHF antenna array at the moon and make a contact. The ARRL EME Contest was running and from this far north the moon was above the horizon for the entire 48 hour period.

Like many things, I have procrastinated for months now on building a computerized antenna positioning unit. The pointing is plenty accurate for satellite work but leaves much to be desired for EME. Fortunately, it cleared up Saturday night and I could adjust the antennas by sighting the moon along the antenna booms. The ferocious winds made it difficult to keep the antennas aimed and the moon actually clips across the sky faster than you might think!

I spent quite a bit of time tuning between 144.000 and 144.100 listening for CW but didn't hear a peep. After a while I fired up the WSJT software and started looking for JT65 signals. It didn't take me long to find KB8RQ. Gary's station in Ohio has two dozen 13 element yagis with 1.5kW on VHF and Saturday night he was RUNNING stations off the moon! Of course not quite the same rate as an HF contest (it takes five minutes to complete a JT65 QSO) but he had a steady stream of callers with few unanswered CQ's. Once I had everything dialed in I could easily hear his tones in the headphones and he was registering -17dB in the software. I had only tried calling a few times when he came back to my pair of 13 element yagis and 100 watts.

I spent another hour or so after that tuning around but never heard anyone else calling CQ. I copied a few stations calling other (unheard) stations and lots of distinctive '73' tone pairs but didn't make another QSO. Hopefully this is the motivation I need to get the 2m linear amplifier built and finish the computer antenna controller!

MFJ-1025 Noise Cancelling Signal Enhancer

If you're anything like me you're sometimes troubled by noise. At my home QTH I only get two kinds of noise: man-made and natural. S9 noise on all the low bands and sometimes troubling on the upper bands too. I finally decided to try one of the MFJ-1025 "Noise Cancelling Signal Enhancer" box. All the online reviews seemed to generally agree that this was one piece of MFJ gear that did what it was supposed to.

The theory behind it is actually quite simple. Take the signals from two different antennas and adjust the phasing to null or enhance signals from different directions. One thing that needs to be emphasized is that the more closely matched the antennas are the better it will work. I used a 23 foot vertical as the main antenna and an 18 foot vertical whip about 30 feet away as the noise sensing antenna.

Does it work? Well, it doesn't work miracles but it does sometimes work wonders. As long as the noise that is troubling you is from a single direction it WILL be able to reduce it. How much depends on many factors, mostly how well you are receiving the noise on each antenna. One thing I did do right away was to replace the little light bulb used as an RF 'fuse' on the noise antenna input with a relay to ground the input when I transmit. The light bulb would probably be okay if I was only running 100W but a kilowatt into the main vertical popped the little bulb in short order.

It definately takes a bit of practice to get used to operating it but the procedure is pretty straight forward. Adjust the gain controls for each antenna so the noise is at the same level on each antenna and the carefully adjust the phase control for a dip in the noise level. A little tweaking of one level control, adjust the phase control for minimum noise level and you're done. It really helps if you set your radio AGC control to 'fast' during the adjustments.

This little gizmo is aleady on my indispensible list. For more info, Tom W8JI has a nice description of the theory on his web page at http://www.w8ji.com/mfj-1025_1026.htm

Winter Wonderland

The snow is on the ground and the temperatures are below freezing. That traditionally means it’s time to start doing antenna work. I don’t really know why we (actually me) can’t get our (my) act together and do it during the summer. There’s always so much going on when the weather is nice and a never ending litany of excuses. It’s too hot, it’s too cold, it’s raining, there’s too many bugs, there’s better things to do, etc, etc. Once October hits, though, the situation seems to reverse itself. Yeah, it’s 5 below zero outside -BUT- it’s only gonna get COLDER. And DARKER. And WINDIER. And CQ World Wide is only a few weeks away now… Better suck it up and get onto the antenna work before it’s REALLY miserable out there.

So I spent last weekend up on my roof putting up a 23 foot vertical antenna for the low bands and an 18 foot vertical antenna for the noise sensing antenna to use with my MFJ-1025. Before I got started, I modelled several different rooftop antenna and radial configurations in EZNEC. It’s quite amazing what little things make a big difference and what things make very little difference. The end result of the modelling was to put the vertical on a tripod mount at one end of the roof with two 18 foot radial wires down to the eaves and one 33 foot radial wire along the ridge of the roof. This gave a reasonable performance and efficiency on all bands. I modelled it with a few more and different length radials but it didn’t seem to make much difference. I fed the antenna with a chunk of LDF2-50 hardline I had handy and it loads up quite easily with the internal tuner on 40-10 meters. I can load it for 80 and 160 meters with the external tuner but I really don’t expect too much on those bands. Judging by the contacts I’ve made so far the modelling seems to be valid. I haven’t had a chance to play with it too much yet but I have made a few contacts on several different bands and on 17 meters I even got a 10-over-S9 report from a JA station and worked the TX5SPA expedition in the Austral Islands.

The weekend after the vertical went up it was time to start on the big project. Originally scheduled for late June, Wally and I had planned to permanently mount the TH6DXX yagi up at the contest site. The setting for that is a 40-foot guyed tower on top of a 60-foot high water tank. We had hung temporary wires from the water tank last winter during contests but hadn’t exactly figured out how we were going to get the big yagi up to the top of the tower. I’ve done enough tower work to know there was no way I was going to climb it. I don’t like climbing towers to begin with and old, rickety, light duty guyed towers are a non-starter with me. However, one day last spring when we were taking down the wire beam after the ARRL DX contest, I noticed that there was a hinge on the bottom edge of the steel pocket that the base of the tower sat in. Looking more closely, I realized that if the bolts were removed from the bottom plate it would swing open and allow the tower to drop through along the side of the water tank.

So this weekend we went up and bolted a small winch to the edge of the base frame and eventually got the tower lowered down, the old un-used VHF antennas off, and the top section removed. We might have actually pressed ahead and installed the yagi but even though it was only a couple of degrees below zero the wind was howling all weekend. Once all the demolition was completed we decided to call it a wrap for the weekend and enjoy the Canadian Thanksgiving holiday.

Today I got the rotator mounted in the top section and we should be all ready to put the yagi up on Saturday. Wally, VE8DW, has been taking pictures so I'll post the results of our efforts next weekend when we're done.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

VC8B Write-up

I had my doubts about how successful this operation was going to be. I was concerned about the cost of getting all the equipment up to the island and back but mostly it was propagation that had me worried. At 72 degrees North the community of Sachs Harbour on Banks Island is well into the geomagnetic polar cap area and I had no idea what kind of conditions to expect. The forecast was for unsettled conditions (the aurora is always unsettled to some degree or another at that latitude) and coming off of the geomagnetic storm a few days earlier I had visions of calling CQ all weekend with no takers.

As it turned out, I was able to get all my freight onto a cargo plane hauling groceries up to the tiny settlement so I only had to pay shipping on my return flight back to Inuvik. With 200 pounds of radio equipment (not including my work tools) that cut $600 off the total cost of the expedition. I probably could have gotten the gear home for free as well but that would have likely meant leaving it behind and I was not about to do that. I had a warm fuzzy feeling watching my equipment being carefully loaded onto an airplane and then two hours later watching it get gently unloaded straight into the back of my truck.

So far I'm the luckiest guy in the world when it comes to expedition propagation. On my April trip to Ellice Island as VX8X I was blessed with 48 hours of extremely quiet geomagnetic conditions that exactly coincided with the timing of my operation. This time as well I had just missed the biggest geomagnetic storm in months and the aurora afterwards was relatively calm for all four days on Banks Island. To top it off there was a even a weak sunspot group to help things along.

My biggest problems turned out to be totally unanticipated. The first glitch was mosquitos. Banks Island is a very windy place and mosquitos are not usually much of a problem but on the Thursday afternoon when I arrived they were swarming en-masse. Now don't forget, I live in the Arctic so I know all about mosquitos but these ones were something else! Of course I didn't bring any bug dope and the only store in Sachs Harbour was closed Thursday afternoon. Fortunately, I managed to scrounge up a bottle of Off! For Kids. Not exactly the heavy duty, 30% DEET stuff that I'm used to but it did get me through the assembly and raising of the antenna without too many bites. I set up right at the airport in Sachs Harbour and had the convenience of a 30-foot high tilt-over lighting pole to mount the antenna and rotator. A pair of ratchet straps were used to secure the 10 foot long piece of pipe I had scrounged on my last visit to Sachs and surprisingly it didn't slip or twist all weekend, even with winds that gusted to 60 knots.

Once again the little TH3JRS baby yagi did the job almost as well as a full-size tribander but at half the cost and a third the weight. The little blue equipment shack was my home for four days.

Aside from the mosquitos (which disappeared after the antenna was up and weren't seen again until it was time to take the antenna down on Monday morning) my biggest pain in the butt (literally!) was my operating position. I had originally planned to take a folding canvas lawn chair with me but it got cut at the last minute to save weight. That left whatever I could scare up on site which turned out to be a cushion and some foam rubber on top of a big cable reel. At first it seemed more than adequate but after a few hours I was quite sore and no amount of adjusting the number of pieces of foam or layering with cardboard helped the situation. I ended up only being able to operate for four hour stretches with a four hour rest in between. With a comfortable chair I probably could have spent 50% more time on the air. Fortunately, I did manage to borrow a rather comfortable folding cot to put my sleeping bag on so I didn't have to sleep on the cold steel floor!

As I mentioned, band conditions were not too bad at all. There were a few periods where not much was heard but more often the band (I only operated 20 meters) was open to anywhere I chose to point the antenna at. On top of that there was tremendous gray line propagation 'overnight' (the sun never quite set there) with very strong signals into Europe around 0600z and then Asia a few hours after that. Once again I confirmed that a small yagi and an amplifier is an unbeatable combination for this kind of operation. I got many, many reports of 20db-over-S9 and was able to turn the antenna to whichever part of the world would generate the best rates (or to whichever part of the world suited me at the time).

As usual, I tried to make sure to cover all areas of the world as equally as possible. Looking back at the log I actually spent more time on Europe and Asia than I did on North America but ended up with 50% of the stations worked being W/VE. Every evening I was able to work 200-300 stations during North American sunset. The rest of the time I spent alternating between Europe and Asia. Propagation to both areas was good but the Asian stations just didn't seem to be around in large numbers and the European stations were just plain hard to work. Three times over the course of the operation I had to give up on Europe and turn the beam elsewhere. Call, then listen. It sounds so simple. Everyone else in the world doesn't seem to have a problem with that so why is it such an issue with some European stations?

One of those times was around 0600z Saturday night during the IOTA contest. I had sacked out for a few hours in the evening so I could get up for Eu sunrise and then work Asia until morning. I pointed the antenna over the pole and tuned through the band working the few stations that were calling CQ. After receiving several comments about how loud I was I easily found a clear spot and started calling CQ myself. I worked several stations in short succession when 'the packet spot heard round the world' went out. Now I'm not sure exactly what happened but I imagine that 95% of the European stations were happily working away on the lower bands when they saw the 20m spot for VC8B come up. At that moment they ALL clicked on the spot, flipped over to 20m and started calling. And calling. And calling. I was reminded of the old Bugs Bunny cartoon where all the animals are fleeing from the Tazmanian Devil and Bugs is trying to find out what's going on but no one will stop to talk to him. I tried to call a couple of stations back but it was just no use. I laughed out loud and just sat back and listened. After two full minutes of non-stop, 20-over-S9 mayhem I finally shook my head and turned the beam to Asia (which from here is 90 degrees to Europe), found a new frequency and just stayed there for the rest of the contest.

Now, in all fairness to the Europeans I also have to mention what happened Sunday evening. The NA sunset peak was winding down and I had just finished putting the last few hundred North American stations in the log when someone mentioned there was a Russian station trying to get my attention from off the side of the beam. I turned the beam and started running Europeans. Now usually I'll run Eu for about 5 minutes before I have to go split frequency and another 5 minutes before I have to start going by the numbers. This time however was totally different. All the stations were perfectly behaved and no one was calling out of turn. I didn't have to go split, I didn't have to go by numbers, it was just smooth sailing. In an hour I put over a hundred Europeans in the log, by far my best run rate to Europe ever. What was so different this time? Beats me. Maybe the professional ops get up early and the lids like to sleep in. Either way, it was a very pleasant way to wrap up the operation.

I shut down after that and went to bed as I still had some work to complete Monday morning in addition to tearing everything down and packing up. Final QSO tally was somewhere over 2000. Logs should be online tomorrow and I hope to have the cards ready to start sending out by the second week of August.

73 and thanks for all the contacts,
John - VE8EV


Call: VC8B
Operator(s): VE8EV
Class: SO24SSB HP (DXpedition)
QTH: Banks Island, NT

Operating Time (hrs): 15


Band CW Qs CW Mults Ph Qs Ph Mults
80: 0 0 0
40: 0 0
20: 0 0 683 53
15: 0 0
10: 0 0
Total: 0 0 683 53 Total Score = 222,441


Fairly decent propagation on 20m but of course no
other bands available due to the extremely high
latitude and 24hr daylight.

Full write-up at http://ve8ev.blogspot.com

John - VE8EV

Monday, July 20, 2009

VC8B - No News is Good News

Everything is still on track for Banks Island this weekend. I'm watching the geomagnetic conditions closely but you can't do anything about the weather down here, let alone the weather on the sun. Let's hope for quiet conditions and maybe a sunspot or two...

I expect to be QRV for a few hours Thursday night (Friday morning UTC) and then more-or-less continuous operation from Friday evening (Saturday morning UTC) until Sunday night (Monday morning UTC).

John - VE8EV

Friday, July 3, 2009

How I Spent My Summer Vacation

With Canada Day this year falling in the middle of the week right after the Field Day weekend and my kids coming back from school for the summer right after that I decided it would be fun to take a few extra days off and go camping. Camping ham radio style, that is. We had planned to set up for Field Day at the local campground so I just stayed there until the July 1st holiday. Ever since the warm weather arrived I’ve been perfecting the mobile shack and this would be the first outing for the new configuration.

First up was a new HF antenna and mast. After a whole winter of raising and lowering the thirty foot DMX tower with the TH6DXX on it I finally concluded that just wasn’t a practical solution. On the air it was great but it was just too big and heavy to safely and conveniently set up and tear down. It took every bit of muscle from two strong men to get it all into the air and at every step of the operation there was the potential for something to go disastrously wrong. Instead, I decided to go with a MUCH smaller and lighter TH3JRS mounted on a 30ft. two-piece aluminum pole. As I have written before, I think the TH3JRS is a great design, it’s just a shame that MFJ has put their trademark stamp of cheapness on it. I used to have one of the ones built by Hy-Gain before they were bought by MFJ. The original construction was heavier and of superior manufacturing quality. The second-hand one that I had was up for years without any problems before it was taken down and sold when I went QRT in 2000. What the new ones do have going for them, though, is that they are very light. So light that they can be easily installed by one person and that is what I needed for island expeditions and for the mobile shack. A lightweight (and low cost!) TV antenna rotator completes the setup for an easy-up HF yagi installation. I also have a 4-element yagi for 6m fixed-mounted lower down the mast and pointed SE that I’ll have up during the summer E-skip season.

Next order of business was VHF/UHF antennas. I remember the first time I learned that the aurora was more than just pretty lights in the sky. I’d been happily DXing away for a few months with my new license hanging on the wall when the first spell of active geomagnetic conditions occurred. I thought my radio was broken! After hearing nothing on HF for two weeks I decided to give amateur radio satellites a try and found they were the perfect solution for getting out under all conditions. Once I got back into the hobby it didn’t take long to remember my original rationale for the satellite gear. A new lightweight aluminum tower was mounted in place of the original DMX tower and I built all the workings of the az/el mechanics out of aluminum to save weight. The only compromise to the weight situation was the use of a cheap and available ex-TVRO dish actuator for the elevation drive. I built a sturdy but lightweight 10-turn helix antenna for UHF and resurrected the pair of 13-element VHF yagis from my original station. While that may sound like overkill for LEO satellites, I need the extra gain for horizon-to-horizon coverage. Most high elevation satellite passes here don’t have anyone else in the footprint! The entire apparatus folds down for service and transport and is easily tilted with a small hand-winch mounted at ground level.

Antennas all stowed, hitched up and ready to roll.
Not much more was needed to be done to the interior. All the operating positions, bunks and the mini kitchen were all completed last year and worked well over the winter. The only additions were a natural gas heater installed in January (my XYL is STILL ticked off about the $1000 power bill from running the electric heater in December!) and an exhaust fan to keep the interior comfortable when running the amplifiers. I rewired the AC power system in conduit with lots of outlets, fluorescent lighting, dimmable workstation lights for the operating positions and a 120/240V 30A electrical panel. I installed a special plug on the house and one up at our contesting site so there’s no shortage of power. It can also plug directly into the 6kW generator that I borrowed for Field Day.

VE8EV at the controls wearing my Canada Day contest shirt.
The main operating position is centered around a Kenwood TS-2000 and an ex-commercial CMC BH30 1.5kW amplifier. An old airfield lighting control panel handles bandswitching the amplifier, audio and keying I/O between the radio and the computer, antenna relays and anything else that might need a button or a selector switch. A 35A 12V power supply, a trio of 40aH gel-cell batteries and a PowerPole distribution panel handles all the DC power requirements. The second operating position has a Yaesu FL2100B amplifier and space for Wally (VE8DW), or anyone else to set up their equipment for a multi-op situation.

Composite shot of the second operating position, bunks and the 'kitchen'

I wrote separate posts about our Field Day adventures and the RAC Canada Day contest. HF band conditions were generally lousy due to the elevated K-index but outside of the contests I did manage to catch a few band openings including one to Africa where I worked TN5SN (Congo) for a new one and heard TL0A (Central Africa) for a moment with a good signal but he QRT’d before I even got a chance to call him. Between HF activity I worked the satellites and kept an ear out on 6m. I heard a few VE6 and VE7 beacons but CQ calls on 50.125 failed to drum up any activity.

At the campground with all the antennas up except the 6m yagi.
I ended up waiting until it started raining do that part...

The weather was a mixed bag. Cold and raining on Field Day weekend with temperatures just above freezing to hot and sunny at mid-week with a temperature of 21C (72F). Through it all the shack was perfectly cozy and comfortable. The amplifiers kept it warm during Field Day and the exhaust fan kept it cool during the Canada Day contest. In between I only had to run the electric heater for an hour or so on Monday to take the chill off. All in all the camping trip was a nice break from the routine and the perfect way to start the summer.

Look for me this month from Banks Island during (and on either side of) the IOTA contest as VC8B.

73 from the Canadian Arctic
de VE8EV

RAC Contest: B-I-Triple-CQ-L

I knew going into it that conditions were going to be lousy. The geomagnetic forecast was for active conditions at high latitudes so I wasn't expecting much but this is one of my favorite contests so I thought I would give it a shot. VE8DW had other commitments so this was also going to be a solo op. The fact that it was on a weekday made it challenging to find people that weren't at work or sleeping. I was constantly juggling gray line and local times to find the best places to point the beam at.

I was still set up at the campground from Field Day but running on 'shore power' instead of the big generator so I could only run 400W from the little amplifier. With the poor conditions I decided the best strategy would be single band 20M and B-I-Triple-CQ-L or Butt In Chair, Call C Q Lots. I set up the voice keyer, loaded up on coffee and sugar and settled in for a full 24 hour stretch. If figured if I just kept at it I should be able to scrounge up a couple of hundred contacts and make sure all the deserving got the VE8 multiplier.

As it turned out, conditions weren't great but not as bad as I expected. The first hours were spent on NA and generated a surprising number of contacts. By 0230z I already had all the phone multipliers (except VY0) and that alone motivated me to keep filling the log. When the rate dropped into the single digits I swung the beam north and for several hours kept running a slow trickle of central Asia and eastern Europeans. European sunrise brought a couple of hours of big pileups and I even spent about a half hour running split trying to pick up as many stations as I could before they headed off to work for the day. I must have been the only NA station making it across as the log is filled with 59-001 contacts. Once the Eu stations started drying up things were pretty slow for the next few hours. I had the beam out to the Pacific and worked a dribbling of VK's and JA's. I don't think the rate ever went over 20/hr but at least it kept me awake. I was anticipating a big run of JA once their work day ended but it never materialized. At one point I was sitting there in the middle of the night listening to my unanswered CQ's and suddenly had a flash that the next station to call in was going be an HL. Sure enough, 10 minutes later a weak Korean called in, the only one in the log!

At east coast sunrise I swung the beam back to NA and started the long, slow push to the finish. I don't know what the aurora was doing but other than a lone VE1 and a VE3 there was nothing heard. I was still getting the occasional JA and European calling so I just kept at it. I checked the CW part of the band and heard quite a few stations so for the rest of the contest I would tune through every hour and work 10-pointers and mults with my rudimentary CW skills. Conditions finally started picking up a little bit around noon and for the afternoon the rate hung in around 20/hr.

By mid-afternoon I was down to just needing four mults (not including VY0) on CW to have a full set. I had worked VY1RAC and VE9RAC the night before in the first hour and was kicking myself for not moving them to CW when I had the chance. I did get a lucky break when VE8NSD stopped by to say hello. I had also worked him the night before on phone and now I had a second chance to ask him for a CW contact. He said he wasn't set up for CW but he'd see what he could do and get back to me. About 10 minutes later VE8RAC called in for the double 20-pointer and NT mult on CW!

In the late afternoon I was hampered by auroral-QRN coming in from the east and west. I desperately wanted to keep the beam on the east coast but signals were still weak and the noise was up to S-5 in that direction. I tried to find the best spot I could with a tolerable noise level and kept at it. As the aurora would go up and down I'd get little mini-runs of four or five stations then nothing for 10 or 15 minutes. By 5pm I was just about wiped and somewhat relieved that it was over. I turned off the radio and called VE8DW to share my results and coordinate a teardown of the station later in the day. I was looking at the computer screen while I was talking to him and realized that the contest wasn't over for another hour yet! I quickly jumped back into the fray, found a clear frequency and started calling CQ again. After a little while conditions picked up for about half an hour, the noise went away and I finally got a decent run going. I only needed VE9 on CW and surprisingly I had about a half a dozen VE9's call in during the last hour but no amount of begging and pleading would convince any of them to do a CW contact. The highlight of the last half hour was working Bob, VA3QV. He had blogged extensively about his long quest to work a VE8 station and I'd been keeping an ear out for him the entire time. He was thrilled to make the contact and I was pretty happy about it too.

Once it was (really) over I was shocked to see how well I had done. Even with the lousy conditions I managed to make 609 Q's and collect 22 mults. The breakdown was 203 VE (11 RAC) and 406 DX.
Final score was 65,120 which is not at all embarrassing given the conditions.

73 - John

Thursday, July 2, 2009

CQ Field Day!

I've been looking forward to Field Day for a long time. I can't even remember the last time I participated but it was definitely more than 10 years ago. We tried hard last year but weren't able to get the trailer ready in time. This year not only were we ready but we were ready to do it in style! All the work we've done on the mobile shack was about to pay off and after practicing all winter with portable operations I was looking forward to being able to set up in sunshine and mosquitoes instead of snow and darkness.

We had everything prepared. I printed out pamphlets about ham radio to hand out. I made some signs for the operating positions so guest operators would remember our callsign and the exchange. I dug up some extra headphones and splitters so interested visitors could listen in on the action. I coordinated with the family to come out Sunday for a picnic and barbecue afterwards. Even the geomagnetic field was predicted to be quiet so we'd be able to work all the weak ones running low power and dipoles strung in trees. It was going to be the start of a classic Field Day tradition.

As usual, things didn't work out the way we planned. Well, most things anyways. Saturday morning 'dawned' (the sun never goes down this time of year) cold and miserable and rainy with more of the same in the forecast for the whole weekend. Undaunted, we finished battening down the hatches and got ready to leave. The only stop we had to make on the way was at the shop to put some air in the trailer tires. We pulled out of the driveway right on schedule at 11:15 but when we got to the shop I couldn't find my key for the door. I knew I put it in my pocket before we left. Then I discovered the hole in my pocket! Back to the house we went for 10 frantic minutes of searching before I finally found the key in the lining of my jacket.

Things ran pretty smoothly after that. We made it out to the campground by 12:15 (1815z) and by 12:45 we had the generator running and the HF and the satellite antennas up. VE8DW jumped on the air to start making contacts while I put up a vertical and strung some radials. The forecast was for quiet geomagnetic conditions but instead ended up being unsettled all weekend long. We had diode propagation on all bands. Lots of stations were heard but it was difficult to get them to hear us even though we were running power. A short run on 20m RTTY in the early evening was the only bright spot. 40 meters was a total loss. Saturday night I could hear stations from all across the US and Canada but even running a full kW I couldn't even get a QRZ? out of any of them. After an hour I gave up and focused on listening for a 6m opening and working satellites. The satellites were all busy but only produced a steady trickle of contacts. The single channel FM satellites were so slammed it that took all weekend to make the allowed single contact through each one. 6m opened to northern BC and Alberta shortly after midnight but I didn't hear any stations and at about 2am we decided to call it a night and grab a few hours of sleep.

The next day started early at 5am with eastern US sunrise and an International Space Station pass the first things on the agenda. The aurora was even heavier on Sunday morning and 20m was very slow going for the first several hours. The ISS pass was exciting and frustrating at the same time. We only had two passes during the Field Day period, one with a maximum 1.8 degrees elevation and another an hour later with 0.7 degrees. Amazingly, we heard Canadian astronaut VA3CSA calling CQ with no takers during both opportunities but he didn't reply to our calls! After the second pass I jumped on the internet (did I mention we had a wireless internet connection to the mobile shack?) and found out that the ARISS station was using the VHF/UHF repeater mode. I knew it had that capability but I didn't know they also used it for space-to-ground voice contacts. All the official information I found online before Field Day clearly stated that 144.49MHz was the only uplink frequency to use for voice contacts with the ISS. Oh well, live and learn.

Due to the inclement weather, the campground was deserted all weekend and we didn't have a single visitor, none of our invited guests showed up, and even the family barbecue was cancelled. Better luck next year! At least Wally and I had fun.

The final results were 87 contacts on HF (26 RTTY, the rest SSB) and 31 contacts on satellite.

RAC Canada Day

Call: VE8EV
Operator(s): VE8EV
Station: VE8EV
Class: SOSB/20 HP
QTH: Inuvik, NWT
Operating Time (hrs): 24
Band CW Qs Ph Qs CW Mults Ph Mults
20: 20 589 10 12
Total: 20 589 10 12 Total Score = 65,120
203 VE (11 RAC) and 406 DX
Wasn't expecting much given the heavy electronic overcast but managed to scrapeup enough Q's to keep me awake all night.
Full write-up at http://ve8ev.blogspot.com
73, John - VE8EV

ARRL Field Day

Call: VE8EV
Operator(s): VE8EV VE8DW
Station: VE8EV
Class: 2A HP
QTH: Inuvik, NWT
Operating Time (hrs): 23
Band CW Qs Ph Qs Dig Qs
20: 54 26
15: 6
2: 31
Total: 0 91 26 Total Score = 143
plus bonus points: 100% emergency power, public place, W1AW message, satellite

Typical Arctic Field Day conditions: high K-index, cold and rainy
Full write-up at
http://ve8ev.blogspot.comJohn - VE8EV

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

CQ Satellite

I finally got the steerable VHF/UHF array put up on the weekend. It is pretty much a copy of the very successful arrangement I had back in the nineties. A pair of Cushcraft 13B2 yagis for 2m, a homebrew 10-turn helix antenna on 70cm and all mounted on the shack trailer with a 20ft. fold-down tower with rotators for azimuth and elevation. I still have to build and install the mast-mounted VHF preamp and switching arrangement and put in the permanent feedlines (1/2" hardline) but so far everything seems to be working great. I made a bunch of contacts on AO-51, SO-50 and FO-29 and listened to myself calling CQ for a whole pass each of AO-7 and VO-52.

I think AO-7 is going to be my new favorite. Launched in 1974 (!) Amsat-Oscar 7 came back from the dead in 2002 after a 21 year sleep. The altitude is high enough that from my QTH I get coverage (at various times) to all of North America, Europe and Japan. Last night my downlink was audible right to the horizon so hopefully I'll be able to work a good bit of DX on this bird.

Once the preamp and new feedlines are installed the station should be EME-capable and I'm also working on automating the antenna tracking to allow for complete 'hands-off' operation. Tuning the radio, adjusting antenna azimuth and elevation, logging and operating all at the same time is pretty challenging but I'm starting to get the hang of it again.

I'll post more as things get completed but suffice to say that working satellites is BIG fun!


Tuesday, May 26, 2009

VC8B - Banks Island NA-129

The special callsign VC8B was authorized today for the Banks Island expedition. I'll be operating from Sachs Harbour, NT from July 24-27 (UTC) including the RSGB IOTA Contest. Activity will be exclusively SSB, mostly on 20m which, aurora permitting, should be open round the clock. Will watch for openings on 15m and 10m as well.

I'll post any updates here but I'm not anticipating any problems unless there is delay for weather, likely fog, which is common that time of year.

John - VE8EV

Monday, May 25, 2009


With the torrent of VX8X cards finally slowing down to a steady trickle I thought I'd write a bit about QSL cards. When you stop and think about, exchanging cards is kind of a strange addition to a hobby that's mostly about radio and electronics. Now that contacts can be confirmed by ARRL's Logbook of the World and e-QSL I wonder how much longer hams are going to exchange paper through the mail (or bureau)? My guess is ...forever! Here is my perspective on this fascinating aspect of our hobby.

It's Better to Give Than to Receive (or is it?)

I've sometimes had mixed feelings about QSL cards. When I first started out years ago, I diligently QSL'd most contacts direct. I remember the thrill of seeing the envelope in the mailbox coming back from some far off country and adding cards to my collection. Then the bureau cards started coming. Every few months another big bundle of cards would arrive and I would laboriously reply to them all. It didn't take me very long to pare down my own QSL requests to only needed DXCC entities or other rare contacts and after many years I've finally perfected a system so that replying to cards isn't a chore.

Bigger is Better...NOT!

I think that a good question for exam pools around the world would be "What is the size of a standard QSL card?" The answer, of course, is 5-1/2" x 3-1/2" (or 140mm x 90mm). In every bundle of cards I receive there are always a few that are larger than all the rest. These are the ones that get all tattered and dog-eared during handling, don't fit in the card holders, don't fit into small envelopes, make it difficult to flip through the pile looking for a specific card, etc, etc.

Keeping Score

There's lots of info out there on the right way and the wrong way to send a QSL request. I don't really think there's a 'wrong' way to QSL but sometimes I wonder what people at the other end are thinking when they post their request. Here are the things I think about when I'm processing cards:

Plus: SASE (Self Addressed Stamped Envelope)
Minus: SASE with US postage stamps. Hello, US postage only works in the US!

Plus: Reply envelope with peel-and-stick or self sealing flap.
Minus: Reply envelope with no adhesive at all requiring tape to seal. WHY!?

Plus: Reply envelope one size smaller than the original envelope, tucked neatly inside.
Minus: Reply envelope folded in half.

Plus: Reply envelope with my return address already on it.
Minus: Reply envelope with identical To and From addresses. Does anyone really think that if I forget to apply enough postage the post office is going to send the letter overseas just because the return address says so? Doubtful.

Plus: Request with SASE or IRC or greenstamps
Minus: Overseas QSL request with no postage and no reply envelope.

Covering the Costs

QSLing is expensive. Last month I spent close to $1000 on cards and postage (mostly postage) replying to QSL requests. My direct cost to reply to a QSL is $0.14 for the card and $0.98 for postage to USA or $1.65 for overseas. I don't think it's unreasonable to ask for at least 1 or 2 greenstamps or an IRC to cover the costs. The 'Final Courtesy...' thing was invented by US hams back in the days when a stamp cost a penny and a really busy station made two or three hundred contacts a year. Every contact was special and it was no big deal to swap cards afterwards. I'm in the position that everyone wants a VE8 card but I really don't need another W6 or W7 card for 20m SSB. So, I'll spring for the cards (and the time!) but you guys buy the stamps, ok?


OK, so now that I've let it slip that I have Washington state confirmed on just about every mode and every band from DC to daylight, let's talk about what cards really are special. There's a lot of factors that make any one contact more special than others. I think to be really special the contact represented by the QSL card has to be irreplaceable. I guess QSL's from deleted entities would qualify although the actual land is still there, just called by a different name. If you're getting on in years (as many hams are) that rare DXpedition contact could be the last chance you'll get but it might come around again. When I looked through my own collection, I was surprised that the most precious cards have nothing to do with DXCC. Here's the ones that I drag out to show people whenever the subject comes up (mouse over the images to see the backside):

The Space Shuttle

Back in the 80's and 90's NASA flew the Shuttle Amateur Radio Experiment (SAREX) on many shuttle flights. With the exception of Challenger (which was lost before I was licensed) I managed to work all four of the remaining orbiters (Columbia, Atlantis, Endeavor and Discovery) before SAREX was cancelled in 1999 and changed to an ISS based program. The really special part for me is that from this latitude (68 degrees N) only a few high-inclination shuttle flights were even visible from here and then they only scraped across the horizon once a day for few minutes at a time.

Wow, I coulda had a VE8!

Just because I live here doesn't really make VE8 stations that much easier to work. They're still rare as hen's teeth. In all the time I've operated from up here I've only worked a handful and only managed to pry a QSL out of even fewer. My favorite from the VE8 collection is VE8RCS, the now-QRT club station at Canadian Forces Base Alert on the northern tip of Ellesmere Island.

You did WHAT !?

Hams and non-hams alike are always wowed by this one. It was my first (but hopefully not my last!) contact via Earth-Moon-Earth (EME) or moonbounce. Dave, W5UN did most of the work. I was only running 50 watts to a pair of 13-element yagis on 2 meters.

That's all from the Arctic for now. Expect a formal announcement this week for my July expedition to Banks Island, NA-129 and I'll do my very best to get my QSL into your special collection.

73 de VE8EV