Dave Richards AA7EE

July 24, 2009

My First SKCC QSO and 5 Watts to VK Land on 40M

One of the first things I did after completing assembly of my new KK1 straight key (my first straight key in about 15 years) was to apply for membership in the Straight Key Century Club.  There are a number of organizations designed to encourage the use of morse code amongst radio amateurs of which SKCC is one.  As the code is no longer used commercially in the developed world, and we as amateurs are the last large organized group of people to be using it, I think it’s very important that we not only preserve, but also encourage the growth of morse code usage. It is the original digital mode.

There are quite a few folk who claim that morse code is obsolete.  To back up their point of view, they cite facts such as the existence of more recent digital modes, many of which have an even greater SNR (signal to noise ratio) advantage over voice modes than CW does. Add to that the fact that morse code is no longer used commercially* (at least in the developed world) and the argument seems compelling on the surface.

I’m not about to attempt to construct an argument against the newer digital modes.   They each have their advantages and particular uses.  If you need to bounce a signal off the moon (and radio amateurs just get that strong urge to do that sometimes,) then JT65, with it’s ability to copy very weak signals, would be a fine choice.  If you want to ragchew, with it’s slow bit rate, JT65 would be a bad choice (unless you want to ragchew via the moon and have LOTS of time on your hands and the patience of Job).  You’d be much better off with Olivia or PSK-31.  I’ve been playing with WSPR recently and am quite taken with it’s ability with weak signals; I have decoded signals as weak as 30dB below the noise level with it! Truly astounding.

Thing is, just as the more modern digital modes have their specific uses, so does morse code transmitted by CW, which is pretty much the only way we radio amateurs transmit code (unless you’re talking about a repeater identification on FM). What if you’re hiking and camping and want to make contact with a minimum of equipment? Your low power signal won’t go as far if you’re using a voice mode, and all the extra gear necessary to generate and decode digital modes like PSK-31 and Olivia takes extra space. What could be simpler than a small light CW transceiver and a small morse key? It’s this combination of simplicity and effectiveness that makes CW so appealing to me (and to many others.)

I don’t want to seem like an obsessive survivalist type, but the fact that a very simple CW transceiver running on battery power can get a message out to the other side of the globe under the right propagation conditions is reason enough for me to want to keep morse code, and the CW mode of transmission, alive and thriving. Talking about the right propagation conditions, we are experiencing a deep solar minimum right now and even so, my 5 watt signal to a vertical dipole was copied by VK4TJ 11,500 km away on 40 meters last night! That’s a thing of beauty to me, and thank you John for listening for my signal.

Anyway, after signing up for, and receiving my SKCC number, I started listening and calling CQ on the SKCC elmer frequency of 7114 KHz.  No replies, but it was still a little early, and there were no signals on the band.  I came back a few hours later and called CQ a few more times.  Around 11:40pm local time, I heard a loud and very brief dit. It’s the kind of thing I sometimes do if I accidentally touch the key.  I knew that meant there was someone with a strong signal on frequency.  At that point, I can’t remember whether I then called CQ and he came back to me, or whether he called CQ and I replied, but either way, Paul N6EV became my first CW QSO as an SKCC member.  Paul (SKCC #3358) is an SKCC elmer who monitors 7114 on a regular basis and enjoys sending slow CW to help folk like me get some practice in on-air QSO’s. We QSO’ed for a few minutes short of an hour before QSB took us out.

It was my longest CW QSO ever, and the length of it gave me a chance to really get more comfortable. John, VK4TJ,  was also on frequency and commented on the SKCC sked page that he could copy both of us, even when we couldn’t copy each other. Paul and I were only about 560Km apart, wheras John was about 11,500 Km from both of us;  such is the interesting nature of radio propagation.

I stayed up for a couple more hours, heard some scuffling outside, and stepped out onto my first floor balcony to see a group of 5 raccoons staring at me from just a few feet away.

It was a magical night.

5 watts to this Buddipole got me a 559 QSO with N6EV in Southern California on 40 meters.  VK4TJ copied both sides of the QSO.  5 watts and a Buddipole on 40 meters to VK land.  Very exciting!

5 watts to this Buddipole got me a 559 report from N6EV in Southern California on 40 meters. VK4TJ copied both sides of the QSO. 5 watts and a Buddipole on 40 meters and I was copied in VK land. Very exciting! By the way - in this picture, the Buddipole is resonant on 20 meters. When on 30m and 40m it also has a loading coil.

*Ships still use lamps to communicate via morse code when maintaining radio silence.


July 22, 2009

The KK1 Straight Key From American Morse Equipment

Filed under: Amateur Radio,Ham Radio — AA7EE @ 3:15 pm
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A couple of days ago, this turned up in the mail:

Almost as exciting as getting Lego for my birthday as a kid - a package containing the KK1 Straight Key kit from Doug at American Morse Equipment.

Almost as exciting as getting Lego for my birthday as a kid - a package containing the KK1 Straight Key kit from Doug at American Morse Equipment.

Now, you have to understand how exciting this was for me. I’m trying to find an analogy here.  Mmm….the first time I made out with a girl? Well, I’m not THAT much of a nerd, but close.  For a start, I haven’t owned a straight key in about 15 years, and the ones I owned in the past weren’t of very high quality.  My last key was a cheap practice key, and I only had a few on-air QSO’s with it. So…….this was going to be my first decent straight key.  Secondly, seeing this key in the flesh is a bit like seeing your favorite celebrity in person. You’ve seen them in magazines and on TV, and you can’t quite believe that they are really in front of you.  Well, I haven’t seen the KK1 on TV, but I’ve seen it plenty in magazines and online and have been considering it for a while now.  I was thinking that for the main station key, perhaps I need something a little larger and heavier, but my ham budget is limited.  Doug Hauff, the chief bottle washer at American Morse Equipment told me that it didn’t need to be held down while operating, so I thought that perhaps this little key was going to be substantial enough to be the main key while using my FT-817 at home, as well as while on portable operations.

Ordering is a breeze.  You click the appropriate button on Doug’s website, pay by Paypal, Paypal send you an acknowledgement of your payment, and that’s it. A couple of days later the above package turned up in my mailbox.

Here’s what I got when I opened the packet:

IMG_7280On opening the outer plastic pack, here’s a look at what’s inside:

IMG_7286I like the fact that instead of including an assembly manual, Doug points you to his website, which has a downloadable pdf file with complete assembly instructions. This is really the way to go.

Before doing anything, I spent a good 15 minutes looking the parts over, and in particular, marveling at how well machined the aluminum base, operating lever and other parts were.  It’s a pleasure to look at well made parts like this, so I did.  I had a good look at everything before proceeding.

I emptied the parts into the lid of a Quaker Oats box.  The lid has a small lip that prevents small washers, screws, springs etc from escaping. Lots of things you could use here.  An egg carton would work also:


I eat a lot of oatmeal, so it’s nice to find a use for the lid before I toss it.  I’m thinking I should get back into building crystal sets so that I can use the cylindrical card oatmeal containers for winding coils on.

Although some owners spend quite a bit of time polishing and buffing the aluminum base and brass parts of the key, as well as performing other customizations, such as fixing a knob to the paddle, the only thing you do need to do before assembly is to deburr the clevis (it’s the two vertical “posts” sticking up out of the aluminum base).  I used a fine file; you can also use fine sandpaper or a small pocket knife.  Only a light touch is required here, so go easy on it; it doesn’t take much.

I won’t say much about the assembly. The instructions are detailed and straightforward to follow. Anything in the instructions that doesn’t make immediate sense to you will most likely become apparent after looking at the pieces and the photos in the instructions. I only had one slight uncertainty during the assembly process, and that was the following instruction:

“Locate the 4-40 x 1/2 ground end machine screw. There are two ½ inch screws, the smaller is the 4-40; you can easily see the ground end.”

The other 1/2 inch screw, according to the parts list, is a 6-32 x 1/2.  Well, the problem I had was that both my 1/2 inch screws looked exactly the same.  The pitch was the same and the ends both looked the same.  Although the ends of both my screws were ground a little,  but as this screw is going to be used as the electrical contact for the key, I think that perhaps the end was supposed to be ground smoother than it actually was. Anyway, the thread on the screw fit the thread in the hole easily, so I went ahead with the assembly, deciding that if I had problems further down the road, I would contact Doug for a replacement part.

I had one extra part – an extra #0/1 washer.  No problem.  I’d rather have one part too many than one too few.

The assembly didn’t take long, at the end of which, I had this:

The finished KK1 Straight Key

The finished KK1 Straight Key

Yours could look even more beautiful if you want to polish the main parts.  It looks perfectly nice to me the way it is, so for the time being, it stays the way it is. Maybe one day I’ll find myself with a little time on my hands and a can of brass polish to hand.

One more thing before it could be used – a cord and plug.  I found an audio connecting cable that had come from Radio Shack and hadn’t been used in a long time.  It had a molded 1/8″ jack on each end.  I cut it in half, and used one half to make a cord for this key, along with heat-shrink tubing.

Here’s the finished item:

The KK1 Straight Key from American Morse Equipment - A solid little key.

The KK1 Straight Key from American Morse Equipment - A solid little key.

I have never used a straight key that was this small before, and was pleasantly surprised.  For the size (approx 1.5″ x 3″ x 1.375″ tall), it is quite heavy, and it definitely stayed put on my wooden desk top while I was keying it.  It’s not very apparent from these pictures, but the key comes with 4 clear rubber “bumpers” that you stick to the bottom of the base, and these do a splendid job of keeping the key in place while you’re pumping brass.  I also tried it on a tile countertop with no problems, so if you have any concerns about the possibility of a small key scooting all over the place while you’re trying to key your transmitter, I don’t think that’s going to happen with the KK1.

I did at first find it a little unusual using a straight key with a paddle instead of a knob.  Some have attached their own knobs; I will most likely keep my key the way it is.  I seem to be getting used to it.  Having not used a straight key in 15 years, I was disappointed to find that I need to work on my sending in order to develop a more natural rhythm. At first, I wondered if a larger key with a knob would help.  It may, but I think that lack of practice is the bigger factor here.

This key was fun to assemble and will be a pleasure to own.  For $36 plus shipping you have a straight key that can be used as the main key in your station as well as an excellent key for portable ops too. It’s well made and looks great.  I can’t keep my eyes off it. Kudos to Doug Hauff W6AME, and his company American Morse Equipment.

Now please excuse me while I go make a cup of tea and come back to the computer to apply for my FISTS and SKCC memberships!

This news just in: I just heard from Doug that he has turned the 6-32 x 1/2 inch screw into a 4-40 and eliminated the end grind, so I did have the correct part. He just hadn’t made the change in the documentation.  You can grind this screw yourself with a piece of sandpaper if you wish; my key is working fine using the screw as supplied.

More news just in: I’ve been using this key for almost a week now and have gotten fully used to using it.  I’m pleasantly surprised at how such a modestly sized key not only feels solid and stable on my desk, but also feels natural for sending code.  Any shortcomings in my sending are due to operator error, and not to the key. I wholeheartedly recommend this key.  Great value for money!

July 9, 2009

The Awesomeness That Is The Signalink USB Sound Card Interface

Filed under: Amateur Radio,Ham Radio — AA7EE @ 6:34 pm
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Anyone that has been following my Twitter will already know that I’ve just become active on WSPR.  As of now, there are just 3 people following my Twitter – my brother Simon, who as far as I know, isn’t interested in amateur radio at all (and probably didn’t realize that my Twitter is strictly amateur radio related when he signed on to follow me, so is probably wondering why I’m such a geek who speaks only in jargonese),  some company called “Memory Suppliers” (why are they following me?), and my friend Antoinette.  Antoinette is my biggest hope here, as she actually bought the Radio Amateur’s License Manual at HRO a few weeks ago and has declared an interest in getting a license, so I’ll keep my fingers crossed that she pursues it.

A couple of weeks ago, I found a blog by Jason, NT7S.  Jason is a Buddipole employee and an electronics and radio nut with a strong passion for electronics and radio.  (What is it about these politically correct phrases that look as if they just popped out of a boring resume?  I’d much rather be described as a radio nut than as someone with a “strong passion for radio.”  It’s the anti-corporate side of me coming out.  I don’t know Jason personally, but I think he’d understand.)  One of his blog entries discussed a mode that was new to me – WSPR,  and my interest was piqued.  Check out Jason’s blog when you have time.  It is written from the perspective of someone who has a strong technical background, but he has a personable manner that makes you feel as if you’re on the same journey as him.

Back to WSPR. If you’re a radio amateur (and I’m hoping that before long I can persuade a few hams to sign up for this blog),  and you have any kind of interest in the propagation of radio waves, WSPR may well be of interest to you.  Have you ever worked on an antenna and wondered how it’s getting out, but felt that you’ve asked your ham friends for signal reports one too many times? Perhaps you just want to see how your signal gets out but don’t feel like getting into a long-ish QSO just to see if your signal is being received in South Dakota. I’ve had some really memorable contacts, including the one with XE2IZN in Oaxaca, Mexico who was living in a remote, fertile valley with the indians.  They didn’t have easy contact with the world outside their community, so to hear his voice from his battery-powered 10 watt signal, to talk with him, then to listen as his signal faded into the noise was magical.

Let’s face it though, not all QSO’s are this memorable.  Sometimes you make connections with people, and other times you just don’t feel like swapping details of rigs, linears, QTH’s, and fascinating information about whether it’s raining or cloudy at each end with some guy called Bert whom you might never talk to again. Many apologies to anyone called Bert; it’s a fine name, but you get my point.

This is where WSPR comes in.  Your computer makes semi-automatic beacon-like transmissions.  They are heard by other stations, and your computer hears their transmissions also.  The transmissions include data on location, transmitter power and received signal strength, amongst other things, and all this data is automatically uploaded to a website where you can look at it.  There’s even a map of the world showing which stations are hearing which other stations.  Brilliant!

WSPR was written by Joe Taylor, K1JT, who also wrote the various protocols of WSJT, digital modes that allow for two-way QSO’s at very low signal levels.  They can be used for weak signal work on the VHF/UHF and HF bands, including EME (earth-moon-earth) and meteor scatter contacts. WSPR is also a weak signal mode.  My copy of the program regularly decodes signals down to 27dB below noise level; I hear that it can produce decodes down to 30dB. If you listen to a signal that weak on the speaker of your radio, you won’t hear anything – it’s amazing that the program can produce intelligent information from what to you just sounds like band noise!

I downloaded WSPR, plugged the line level audio output from the data port of my radio directly into an input on my sound card (not a great idea), set the radio to the frequency recommended by the program (the most popular frequency is a dial frequency of 10.1387 USB in the 30 meter band) and began receiving transmissions from WSPR stations almost immediately.  Some of the stronger signals you can hear – they sound like pure sine wave tones, though they do vary in pitch by up to 6Hz.

But it wasn’t enough to be receiving signals from 0.5,  1,  2 and 5 watt stations around the world; I wanted to be one of those stations too. If I were an impetuous lad, I could have jammed the output of my computer’s soundcard into the mic input of my FT-817 in a bid to get on the WSPR airwaves.  It might have worked, but it might also have fried something. If you want to connect your radio to a computer sound card in order to set it up for digital modes, it’s recommended that you isolate both the audio outputs and inputs of your transceiver.  What you need is an interface that will accomplish this, as well as keying the PTT line (the thing that tells your radio when to transmit and when to receive.) There are many simple circuits online that will do this – a google search will find them.  There’s even a neat one for the FT-817 by KK7UQ that can be built into an Altoids tin.  (Good grief, has anything NOT been built into an Altoids tin?)

I don’t have a good stock of parts at home, so a decision to build an interface would most likely have resulted in my buying the parts from multiple sources.  That, and the fact that I wanted this thing soon led me to the Signalink USB manufactured by Tigertronics. They make an interface for around $70 that interfaces your radio to your computer soundcard. However, for just $99, they make an interface with it’s own sound card, AND it comes with all the necessary cables. DEAL!

The advantage of having the interface with it’s own internal sound card is that you can leave the Signalink USB, computer and your radio to happily transmit and upload away, and if you want to listen to something else on your computer on the computer’s sound card, you can, and it won’t interfere with the radio transmission.  So if you want to make WSPR transmissions and check out the video of Michael Jackson’s ghost at Neverland Ranch at the same time, you can.  (No, I’m not going to provide a link for that, but it does exist.)

The Signalink USB interface is like manna from heaven.  It is pure awesomeness in a little case measuring about 4″ x 3.25″ x 1.5″ (the 4″ includes the height of the knobs.) Fit and finish are very nice and it works well.  It comes with a cable to connect to your radio (you specify which cable you need), and a USB cable to connect the interface to your computer.  That’s it.  There is no power cord – it gets it’s power from the USB cable.

Because there are so many different radios with different wiring configurations, you have to set a few internal jumpers so that the data cable will work with your particular radio.  It is recommended that you set the circuit board on a book or similiar non-conductive raised surface, so that you can perform this procedure with the front panel still attached and not damage anything. Slightly to the right of center, you can see the IC socket that is used for the jumpers:

Looking down on the Signalink USB circuit board from above, with a copy of "Walking In Britain" as a protective base.

Looking down on the Signalink USB circuit board from above, with a copy of "Walking In Britain" as a protective base.

The first 2 jumpers have been installed.  See how sitting the circuit board on a book or other raised protective surface will prevent damage to the circuit board and front panel assembly when you press down on the socket to insert the jumpers:

The board with 2 of the jumpers inserted.

The board with 2 of the jumpers inserted.Here's the board after the insertion of 2 of the jumpers:

All jumpers have been installed, and the board and front panel assembly are slid back into the case:

The board fits neatly into the rails on the inside of the case.

The board fits neatly into the rails on the inside of the case.

And here’s the Signalink USB sitting on top of my FT-817 and Z11 Tuner, for size comparison:

The Signalink USB sitting on top of the FT-817 and LDG Z11 for size comparison.

The Signalink USB sitting on top of the FT-817 and LDG Z11 for size comparison.

I have a tendency to strap things together with velcro. These are cow ankle straps that I bought from a supply company based in Wisconsin (lots of cows there!)

I have a tendency to strap things together with velcro. These are cow ankle straps that I bought from a supply company based in Wisconsin (lots of cows there!)

I started this just so that I could participate in WSPR, but I now also have a station that can handle PSK-31, Olivia, Throb, Hell, Thor, DominoEX (hey, hang on, I swear there’s a good band name in there somewhere) and pretty much any sound card based digital mode I can throw at it.  All for $99 – and I got to chat with Alex at Tigertronics too, who will be happy to extoll the virutes of Grants Pass, Oregon, and how it compares to Southern California, if you can tear her away from helping the other Tigertronics’ customers. She’s very helpful.

If I haven’t already made this clear, the Signalink USB is a well made piece of kit that will make you feel happy you own it. It’s also small, so if you own a laptop, you just might consider working digital modes on trips away from home too.

On the first night of operation, my little 0.5 watt signal was copied as far away as Hawaii and Japan, as well as in many places all over the US.  WSPR is an interesting mode. Thanks Jason.

July 8, 2009

My First CW QSO In Years

Filed under: Amateur Radio,Ham Radio — AA7EE @ 2:24 pm
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It’s shameful that I have been an extra class licensee for something like 20 years and can barely hold a coherent on-air conversation on CW. Well, to me it is.  I’m absolutely not passing judgement on any other amateurs.  I understand that some aren’t fond of CW and that, of course, is fine.  Trouble is, I’ve always really liked the idea of CW.  I stare at pictures of homebrew QRP CW rigs online and in magazines as if I were a teenage boy looking at my first images of scantily-clad women. I THINK of myself as a CW operator, even though I’m not.

So I did something about it this morning.  I heard W7GET calling CQ on 7034 and answered him.  When I heard his CQ I had this feeling that were he to come back to me, I’d have trouble keeping up with his sending, and I was right.  It’s not that I can’t copy at the speed he was sending (which I’m guessing was about 12-14wpm), it’s that I need to work on my concentration.  You see, when I answered his CQ, part of me was hoping he wouldn’t hear my little 5 watt signal so that I would be relieved of the responsibility of having to work him.  Thing is – he came back to me,  and suddenly I found that I wasn’t able to send or receive.  What was THAT all about?

Garret lives in Plains, Montana, and was very understanding of the fact that my CW skills need a lot of work.

I’m still coming down from the high of having actually had a QSO on CW.  I just heard KC6T call CQ on 7035 but I think I’ll give him a break and not answer his call.  I need to find a few amateurs for a few slow QSO’s in order to build my on-air confidence first.

Anyone up for some slow easy QSO’ing at around 8-10wpm?

Thanks Garret – you’ve given a would-be CW operator a real kick and a determination to keep trying!

July 6, 2009


Filed under: Amateur Radio,Ham Radio — AA7EE @ 7:16 am
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Something recently clicked, and things between me and the iambic paddle started looking up.

Something recently clicked, and things between the iambic paddle and I started looking up.

This is my Bencher iambic paddle. I’ve had it for about 7 years now, but have yet to use it for an actual CW contact with anyone.  Come to think of it, my last CW contact was in 2001.  I had a total of 2 QSO’s on CW that year. I’ve probably had no more than 10 CW QSO’s TOTAL since being licensed back in the late 1970’s.

What the heck have I been thinking?  Maybe you don’t think this is weird. Back in the day when the code was a requirement for gaining access to the HF bands, I’m sure that many amateurs did what they had to in order to pass the test, and then promptly forgot about the code, spending their entire amateur careers using phone or digital modes.  With the exception of the approximately 10 CW QSO’s I’ve had in the last 30 years, I’m one of them.  Now that a knowledge of morse code is now not even a requirement for earning an amateur license with access to the HF bands, I have no doubt that large numbers of amateurs don’t even learn code, and don’t ever think about the possibility of learning it so that they can use it on the air.

So what is my problem?

My problem is this.  I really like the idea of morse code. I always have.  I have spent many hours since being a teenager fascinated with radio, looking at circuits and plans for homebrew QRP transmitters and transceivers,  and thinking about how beautiful the concept is of communicating over long distances with such simple, efficient transmitters. I think QRP with CW is a brilliant idea; a fabulous concept.

I just don’t use code on the air, and the absurdity of this is starting to bug me.

For a start, my amateur activity in my adult life has not been consistent.  I operate for a year or so, then become inactive for a few years; then I start up again. During the periods when I am active, I often find that I get more enjoyment from listening than I do from actually making QSO’s, so the need for a distance-busting low power wonder mode like CW doesn’t seriously rear it’s head.  I think this is the reason, I have not been seriously motivated enough to use code on a regular basis.

I didn’t have much trouble learning the code so that I could pass the standard UK amateur radio morse code test at 12 words per minute at a Post Office testing station when I was 15.  I also didn’t experience any problems getting my code up to the 20 wpm required for the US extra class license about 10 years later.  Some folk find learning very difficult if not impossible;  I wasn’t one of them.  It came fairly easily to me.  The only reason I think that I didn’t pursue the code once licensed was sheer lack of gumption.

So things are going to be different this time.  I have always wanted to build a small and light low power transceiver for 30, 40 or 20 meters and have the satisfaction of having made lots of contacts with it. I’m going to do it this time.

Oh – and the picture of the Bencher paddle at the top of this post?  I took it so that I could sell the paddle on eBay.  I had decided that paddles and I didn’t get along.  I was going to trade it in for a straight key.  Well, I am still going to get the straight key, but for some reason, I have been practising with this paddle and have realised that I really can get comfortable with using it.

I think I just found my gumption.

Don’t wish me luck.  I don’t need it; I now have gumption!

July 4, 2009

Amateur Radio on a World War II Submarine!

This blog is a little out of chronological order.  It happened before Field Day, yet I am writing about it after Field Day.  This kind of thing shouldn’t happen once the blog is well underway, but after making my first entry, I realised I wanted to talk about this, so here we go.

The weekend of June 6th and 7th was the annual Museum Ships On The air event in which historic vessels take to the amateur bands. I met Bill KF6RMK on the Mount Diablo repeater the day before the event began and he invited me to take a look at their event station aboard the USS Pampanito. Well, I had never seen a WWII-era submarine, so the next day, my friend Antoinette and I took Bart to San Francisco to take a look at this sub which is anchored at Pier 45 at Fisherman’s Wharf in the city.


Bill KF6RMK in the operating position of the radio room aboard the USS Pampanito.


Dennis K6ZJU in the radio room aboard the USS Pampanito.

At the back of both pictures, you can see the original equipment (all I understand in working order – and it is fired up from time to time).

To the left, hidden away in a cabinet is the more modern amateur radio equipment that is used to put the Pampanito on the amateur bands.

Antoinette was sufficiently interested that she is now thinking about getting her tech license. Go Antoinette – and talking of Antoinette (also known as Mixtress 9 of KALX Berkeley), here she is on the sub as well:


A most interesting afternoon. Thank you Bill and Dennis – and make sure to look out for the USS Pampanito, NJ6VT. They operate on the second Saturday of every month, and during special events.

Field Day 2009

Filed under: Amateur Radio,Ham Radio — AA7EE @ 4:13 pm
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I was originally licensed in the UK in the late 1970’s, and earned my US license about 10 years later.  To this date, I had not ever attended a Field Day event.  Granted, my amateur radio career has seen many extended down periods, and I am much more of a solitary type than one for group activites, but even so.  Pretty shocking! This Field Day was going to be different.

My current home is not a great radio location.  I live in a ground floor apartment with a balcony. Luckily I am a little elevated with a clear view to the west and southwest, over the San Francisco Bay, the city of San Francisco and then out to the Pacific Ocean.  This is good for reaching places like Hawaii, Australia and Japan with my little QRP signal.  Here’s a view from my balcony looking out over the city of Oakland towards San Francisco.  Even though I’m living on the ground floor of my building, it is a little higher than the neighbouring building to the west, so I (and my antenna) can see clearly to in the direction of all that lovely DX over the ocean!

What My Vertical Sees

What My Vertical Sees

This is my main antenna for HF.  It’s a Buddipole configured as a vertical.  You can see the zipcord radial sloping down toward the bottom left side of the frame. Anytime I want to change bands, I just pop out onto the balcony, adjust the arms, loading coil tap and whip length (depending on band), attach a new radial, fiddle around a bit with the tuning, helped by the MFJ-259b  SWR Analyzer, and bingo – I’m on another band!

This Buddipole antenna is great.  More on it in another post.

Not a bad view for an antenna eh?  If you stand on the ground in my back yard and look at the antenna, it’s a different picture though:

View of my antennas from the back yard of my apartment building.

View of my antennas from the back yard of my apartment building.

You can’t see it, but it’s a 4 story building, with the upper floors tiered away from me.  Although you can’t see it, the top of the antenna does not have a clear view over the building, it is actually blocked by it.

Oh well, you can’t have it all, unless you live on a mountaintop.  I really hope to live high up in a good radio location one day soon.

To the left is the Buddipole, and to the right is a 2 meter Slim Jim made from 450 ohm ladder line and enclosed in a PVC pipe painted green (to protect it from UV and also to make it a little less obnoxious-looking to the neighbours, although they don’t seem to care,  as far as I can tell.

So anyway, to get back on topic,  I decided that for Field Day, I was going to climb up somewhere high and kill ’em all with my QRP.   The highest point locally is Vollmer Peak.  It is in Tilden Regional Park in the Berkeley Hills.  It is at 1902 feet above sea level.  I’d been there for the first time during the ARRL VHF QSO Party and had a great time, so decided that I would do a little field day operating from there for Field Day 2009.

Fellow QRP operators – this piece of advice especially applies to newer operators;  if you ever get a little discouraged by the fact that making contacts can be a little harder using low power, whatever you do – don’t throw in the towel and buy a QRO rig and a linear – grab your QRP gear and find a nice high place to operate from.  You’ll be amazed how great your modest signal sounds to others when it’s coming from the top of a mountain!  If you ever want a panacea to cure the “I can’t make no QRP QSO blues”, the quickest way to do it is wait for any contest weekend that includes a VHF band, go sit on a mountaintop, and operate.  5 watts of signal on 6 meters, 2 meters or 70cm will get you lots of contacts and quite a few comments on your strong signal.  It feels good to be at the receiving end of that once in a while!

Back on track.  I took the bus from my home to the Brazilian Building in Tilden Regional Park and then hiked for an hour to the top of Vollmer Peak.  I didn’t take my camera with me, so no pictures – maybe next time.  This was obviously a good radio location, as there are two buildings at the top containing all manner of transmitting gear, and lots of antennas on towers outside them. Bingo – I had hit radio paydirt!  I strapped the Buddipole to a fence post, configured and tuned it for 40 meters (thank you MFJ-259b SWR analyzer) and lay down for a nap, as Field Day didn’t start for another hour.

Fast forward an hour – FD starts.  I try in vain to make contacts on 40m, but keep getting beat out by other stations.  Shucks – so much for mountaintops.  I QSY’ed to 20 meters and things looked up – 8 contacts in 45 minutes – definitely not a swift contest pace, but I’m having fun, which is the big thing. Then I QSY’ed to 6 meters, and maaan, did things heat up – people were actually calling me.  I was having QSO’s as fast as I could scribble them in my temporary logbook.  I did take a few breaks in the next hour to walk around and exercise the legs, nibble on a Clif bar, look at the view etc. but still managed to make 22 contacts on 6 meters in an hour.  Several stations commented on my great signal. It all made up for the many hours I had spent at home trying to work DX with 5 watts of SSB from a compromised location!  I then QSY’ed back to 20 meters for 3 more contacts and feeling well satisifed, called it a day. I still had an hour hike down a trail, and an hour on the bus,  and was starting to run out of water, so it was time to split.

I spent about 12 hours out of the house, with 2 hours hiking up and down hills, an hour of napping on top of a mountain, and 3 1/2 hours of operating – a totally worthwhile day!

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