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