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There are quite a few folk who claim that morse code is obsolete.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 4, 2009

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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