On the Air

QRP Dreaming

With no antenna in the air for more than a month I’m getting a little stir crazy. Sure, I played with the KX3 using the telescoping AX1 portable antenna from the kitchen table last month, but ain’t nothing like the real thing.

Having had all the radio silence I could stand, I strung a random wire up a 30-foot mast that’s still attached to the back of the house on Sunday morning. The AH-4 antenna tuner liked it well enough on 30 meters that I decided to try to make my first FT8 contact of the New Year.

Mission accomplished. A few watts to the (mostly) vertical wire using FT8 yielded more than a dozen contacts on 30 meters and another handful on 80. One of those contacts with fellow ham-blogger Steve, K9ZW who was enjoying a snowstorm in Wisconsin while I watched it rain here in Central Indiana.

I wasn’t surprised at this modest success. Having been a QRP-only operator from 1997 until 2015 I’ve worked more than enough DX with low-powered kits and oddball wire antennas to have long ago become a believer. Though after nearly 20 years of this kind of activity I found it difficult to not become jaded about the efficacy of five watts and a wire.

But lately I’ve been taking fresh inspiration from Rich, KY6R who has started making a habit of trolling the bands for DX at QRP, while experimenting with various oddball antenna designs, I find myself thinking about a return to the minimalist radio lifestyle…

I dream of an Inverted-L to best take advantage of the low-bands from my small lot and build around the fully loaded KX3. All the equipment is powered exclusively from batteries that are charged via the Sun. I chase the DX Marathon using QRP CW every year while riding out the balance of time remaining in my lifelong ham radio adventure.

I’d never tell anyone that whatever particular joy they take from this hobby is not real ham radio, but success, however you define it, with a minimal station is as real as ham radio ever gets.

On the Air

South Orkney 2020

The South Orkney 2020 DXpedition (VP8PJ) team has been focused on this project since January of last year and it seems to have come together nicely, with only few bumps in the road and no major problems or surprises. The team is ready to leave home late next week and will all stay at the same hotel in Punta Arenas where they will meet up with Nigel Jolly (RV Braveheart) on the 12th for dinner and a last minute briefing before the ship arrives.

If plans hold, the radio operation should get underway on February 21st and run for about two weeks.

These islands were last activated as VP8ORK in 2011 by the Micro-Lite Penguin Expedition Team which made almost 64,000 contacts. By the time the VP8PJ team arrives, it will have been 9 years since its last activation. Given the cost and difficulty in reaching this remote dot on the globe, it could be a very long time until it is activated again.

At the moment, South Orkney is 16th on the Most Wanted list.

The estimated cost of the operation is $325,000(USD). Individual team members will shoulder half that cost, but they hope to raise the other half from the DX community. The team kindly requests your donations. If you work the Dxpedition and donate $10(USD) or more BEFORE they set sail your LoTW confirmation will be processed from the island. All other donors (that work them) will have their confirmation processed via LoTW when OQRS opens.

Donors of $50(USD) or more will receive LoTW and free QSL card(s).

The South Orkney Islands lie in the Scotia Sea about 600 km northeast of the Antarctic Peninsula, 1440 km southeast of Tierra del Fuego or 800 km south of the Antarctic convergence. They were discovered by American and British sealers in 1821 and have since served as a base for Scotch, French, and Argentine sealing and scientific expeditions.

On the Air

NAQP Indoors

The CW version of the North America QSO Party took place yesterday. I’ve always enjoyed the NAQP because of the 100 watt power limit and the easy exchange. But at this particular moment in the transition state of my shack and antenna garden, there’s nary an aerial installed on my property right now. Nada. Zip.

So while I was aware that the contest was taking place, I busied myself with other tasks. But then I got to thinking that I do have the new portable AX1 antenna for the KX3. It’s a short and stubby little fellow that covers 20/17 and with the addition of the AXE1 extender, it’s supposed to cover 40 as well. Hmmmm…

Out comes the KX3 from the protective pouched I stored it in a few months ago. The 12V/6Ah (LiFePO4) battery from Bioenno had held its last charge. I unpacked the AX1 and extender, stretched a single counterpoise wire across the floor from the kitchen into the living room. Things setup on the kitchen table and with the telescoping antenna fully extended and the KX3 on the table, the antenna was just a few inches from the ceiling.

I turned the transceiver on, fairly certain that I would be able to hear stations using an indoor antenna, but had very low-expectations of being heard. Fifteen minutes later I had five stations in the log. All on 40 CW with just 5 watts out using the small antenna. An hour or so later I went back to the well and worked five more. Later in the evening I went back a final time hoping to work another five and call it quits. But signals were much weaker now and I only managed three more.

I ended the day with 13 stations in the log. Six different states (PA, FL, MD, VA, NC, MN) plus one Canadian (ON). The SFI was 73 and I thought conditions on 40 were a little better than normal.

And mind you, this wasn’t an effort where I had to call and call to be heard. All told I had less than an hour of time at the table. Most answered my first call, only a few required a single repeat.

I’m still grinning about the performance of the AX1 with the extender for 40 meters. Surely a wire antenna would easily outperform it, but I bought it specifically for those times when I just want to walk into a park or the backyard, plop the KX3 on a picnic table and make a few contacts without having to install another antenna. 

This combo sure seemed to work admirably, from inside my house and now I’m anxious to get it outside to see if it can drop my jaw again. Maybe on Winter Field Day

On the Air

Happy New Year

Was an easy enough night for me. No partying and I was in bed an hour before midnight. Just spitballing here, but I imagine I woke up feeling much better than a lot of folks! And I still have a few more days of vacation before the conclusion of this long holiday break.

20 Meter Morning

Just before sunrise, I was in the shack and made a few contacts on 20 meters. Not much, just a couple on Phone and two more via CW.

First was a quick chat with Walter, VP9KD on Bermuda. Shortly after I spoke with Theo, OT4A in Belgium. His homemade antennas and coils (see his QRZ bio) are definitely not “amateur”. Next was LZ5R in Bulgaria and then Marco, IK0YVV in Italy. 9K2MU was armchair copy but, sadly, he never heard my peanut whistle.

It goes to show that 20 meters still supports global communication even without sunspots. You just have to fish in the right pool at the right time — and it helps to have a little luck.

Looking to 2020

Though today is just another day, it does serve as a useful marker in the sands of time. It’s a good chance to reset and begin fresh in whatever joy and adventure you seek. Here’s wishing you well in that journey, and I hope you enjoy much health and prosperity in 2020.

Happy New Year!

On the Air

Goal Achieved

Following up from yesterday, I finally made enough contacts to match last years HF total. I did that by hanging out on 60 meters for a few more hours last night and another hour this morning. In the process, I worked stations in Belgium, England, Bolivia, Uruguay, Portugal, and several in Canada. Five new countries on a new band using FT8. And as usual with these digital contacts, almost all of them have already confirmed via LoTW.

Prior to this week, I had made exactly 14 contacts on 60 meters, all of them via CW. It was really a delight to find so much digital activity on a band that hasn’t been severely degraded by present solar conditions. I really don’t know why I hadn’t listened on 5MHz for digital traffic before, especially given FT8’s ubiquity.

I’ll crunch all the logging stats from 2019 over the next day or two. I already see that for a third year in a row, more than half the contacts made were via a digital mode, although this time it wasn’t due to FT8 but to my entry in several RTTY contests.

Even with my focus moving to VHF in the New Year, I expect the overall trend to continue to be even more digital work. And I think that accurately reflects what’s happening across all of hamdom.

On the Air

Leveling Up

I have a friend who has always been a confirmed low-power CW operator. But last summer he told me had started using digital modes while in the field. When I asked why, he explained that field organizations, like POTA and others, require a minimum number of contacts before an activation is considered valid. So when all the HF activity moved to FT8, many field operators started taking it along so they could be assured of making the minimum number of contacts before switching to a more favored mode.

That conversation came to mind a few days ago while compiling year-end statistics for my radio activity in 2019. Total contacts for this year lagged last year by a few hundred. With less than two-weeks to go before we roll over to the New Year, I figured I could easily match last year’s total if I spent a few evenings using FT8.

These kinds of metrics don’t normally motivate me, and there’s not much to be gained from making a few hundred more domestic contacts, I already have WAS via FT8. But this year was trending lower than last year and that was down from the previous year. No doubt a result of diminishing HF propagation on the way to the bottom. Still, seeing the numbers made me want to at least equal last years efforts.

So, on this day after Christmas, I need less than fifty contacts to match last year. Hitting that goal seems fairly certain. There’s seemingly unlimited FT8 activity on 80, 40, and 30 meters.

And then this morning, I made my very first digital contact on 60 meters and now it feels like another magic portal has opened…

On the Air

Back to the Future

Somewhere back in my long ago the local ham radio group conducted a Sunday night 6-meter AM net. I joined the fray when I upgraded to Technician. That began a period of radio woes for me that included neighbors complaining to my Dad that my antennas were attracting lightning to the neighborhood, and that I interfered with their television programs when transmitting during the AM net. Fortunately, my Dad ignored the lightning nonsense, but I did have to curtail the 6M activity until after the TV stations went off the air around midnight. Yes, TV stations used to shut down after the late-night news and the national anthem.

Gonset G-50 6 Meter Communicator (1958)

It wasn’t long until the net moved to the new two-meter FM repeater and TVI complaints disappeared. Fast-forward forty-years and another local fellow and I were discussing the old 6-meter net and decided to do something about it. We’ve been meeting at 8pm local on 50.400 MHz AM for weeks now and have managed to attract a small following. Last night I counted eight total check-ins all from around town. A few weeks ago, we had two stations check-in from Indianapolis (50 miles).

Signal strength has been a bit of a problem because few of us have decent six-meter antennas. I’m just using a dipole that I had available. The tuner likes it well enough, but I can’t imagine it’s terribly efficient. A few of the guys have much better signals since adding new 50MHz antennas. The rest of us will likely suffer a little longer until the weather cheers up enough for some outdoor work. A three-element beam is typically a nice choice for this band, however, it’s directivity isn’t welcome when working others in the area who are scattered about town. An omni-directional would be a better choice for our net operation. One fellow recently installed this 6M horizontal antenna with great results and now we all want one.

One of the guys who checked in last night lives across town from me. He talked for a few minutes about the success he had the night before using meteor scatter on two-meters. This weekend was the big Geminids meteor shower and he reported contacts with stations in Texas, Florida, Michigan, Wyoming, and Canada. It was encouraging to hear from a local who was having success bouncing VHF radio signals off the ionized trails of falling rocks using a modest setup. I’m anxious to give that a try and pleased as punch to know there’s a local ham who can help me get started.