Friday, March 27, 2009

In quest of the elusive VK

The original appeal of ham radio to me (and this goes back to my pre-teen days, years before I got my licence) was long distance communication, what we call DX. To me the thought of sitting in my room and talking into a microphone, connected to a radio on the desk and conversing with someone on the other side of the globe was magical. To this day, even with all the different and wonderful aspects of amateur radio, making a DX contact, especially if it’s somewhere particularly far away, beats all.

Operating with compromised antenna configurations, serious DX has always been a challenge. A few years back, when the sunspot cycle was at it’s peak, I managed a number of quick SSB contacts with Japan (JA), which was thrilling. However, the one DXCC that has always eluded me….mainly because it’s just so darn far away, is Australia (VK). I’ve certainly heard my share of VK’s on various bands over the years, but have not managed to work one. Although not a rarity on the bands, the Ozzies do attract the attention of operators on this continent, and their presence often results in a bit of a pile-up. When you’re running 100 watts into a chunk of wire and many of the other stations calling are running “a gallon” into their directional ionosphere blaster antennas, the on air result is akin to a freight train ramming into a Smart Car.

Sometimes I grab 15 to 20 minutes of quick dial spinning weekday mornings before heading off to work, usually between 7:15 and 7:45am. 20 meters is often coming to life at this time and with less competition on the air, I might even make a few quick contacts with some Europeans. This past Tuesday, 20 meters was flatter than roadkill on the freeway, so I flipped to 40 meters where I was met with my usual S6-7 noise level. A scan of the upper portion of the band didn’t produce much until I stumbled across an S8-9 signal peaking above the noise on 7088 kHz. To my surprise it was a VK in a three way QSO with another VK and a station in Puerto Rico (KP4). After listening for awhile the KP4 signed off and the stronger Australian station called for any DX. I figured, what the heck, keyed the mic and gave my call. He acknowledged another station. I then realized my RF power out was still set at 40 watts from the RTTY I was doing last weekend. I quickly dialled back to a mighty 100 watts and gave another shout, but nada. Time to go off to work. Wednesday, morning…there he was again! Still a nice signal and he was calling for DX. I gave several calls but each time another station was acknowledged. At one point he called “who’s the VE3”, I quickly keyed the mic and gave my call phonetically twice. But….alas is was another VE3 near Hamilton who managed to make the contact. No doubt he had his ionosphere buster antenna pointed right down the VK’s throat! Oh well, off to work.

That evening while pondering the situation, I looked up the station I’d been hearing the past few days on VK2APG, Gerry in a little place called Bundanoon, not too far from Sydney (yes, it’s a funny sounding name, but I’m not going to poke fun at it. There’s a lake not too far north of here called Skootamatta!). I decided to drop him an email. Maybe if he was on the air tomorrow morning (that would be about 10:30pm his time) he’d give a listen for my flea-powered call. Thursday morning came and no return email and the band was dead. Oh well, it was worth a shot! That evening an email from VK-land…Gerry would give me a call “tonight”. At first I thought I’d missed my opportunity, then I remembered the huge time difference, and that meant Friday morning my time.

Friday morning arrives, lucky coffee mug in hand, time to head down to the shack to see if we can finally bag that elusive VK. I fired up the radio on 40 meters…my noise level was a solid S7 plus some health sounding static crashes to boot! Then I see an email from Gerry saying he was calling at 1109 zulu. It was now 1125…oh no! A quick email back, maybe he’s still on line….and in his shack. A quick tune around the frequency range we agreed to try and nothing but static. Then as I hit 7095, I’m hearing my callsign be hailed from the land down under. That’s great, but can I squeeze enough RF out of that wire to bounce off the atmosphere and land oh, a mere 16,000 kilometres away (that’s pushing 10,000 miles for you non-metric types!). Right away, VK2APG responded, a 55 to 56 signal for me….way down there, from my wee 100 watts and home made windom antenna! Only hams would understand the rush! 21 years of operating and, finally, a VK in the log….and the solar cycle is still on the outs…I was happy.

Not just that, we actually had a QSO, not a long one as some CW QRM started playing havoc and I had to get off to work, but about a 10 minute chat to the other side of the world. It was the usual ham small talk, our equipment, the weather and such, but still a pleasant chat…..much nicer than your typical DX contact where it’s signal report and 73.

So, Gerry…thanks. A pretty routine contact for you, but a very memorable one for me. Looking forward to the QSL card. Now…what’s next. Bring on a ZL!

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Signals from Hell

The great thing about amateur radio is it’s almost impossible to get bored. Tired of SSB?...brush off (or brush up on) your CW skills. CW not your scene? No probs, there’s VHF/UHF, repeaters, IRLP, EchoLink and numerous HF digital modes to try. A couple of years ago, a friend lent me his RigBlaster to try out. I was soon hooked on PSK31 and was having a lot of fun using the keyboard to communicate instead of the mic or keyer. This led to some dabbling in that older, but still common digital mode, Radio TeleType or RTTY. I remember years ago, before computers were as common in the shack as solder splatter on the floor, a ham friend who was into RTTY had a room full of vintage Teletype equipment salvaged from some telecommunications centre somewhere. Back then the only way to copy the strange sounding signals was to bring these great beasts to life. The things clattered, the house shook, the dog was barking, the paper spewed! As fascinating as it was, at the time I couldn’t see myself trying something like that! Much easier to key the mic and say “CQ”! Well, now the computer and greatly improved and simplified interfaces like the RigBlaster have made RTTY and many other digi modes much more accessible. I spent part of this weekend making contacts on the BARTG (British Amateur Radio Teledata Group) RTTY contest. I made just 39 contacts, but I can just imagine how much paper would have been snaking across the floor had this been the “olden days” of 20 years ago!

I’d heard tell of this other mode with the sinister name “Hell”. I thought working “hell” was when you were trying to crack a DX pile-up with a noise level of S9 and heavy QRM! Well, this “Hell” is actually short for “Hellschreiber”, and it’s anything but new. It was first developed in the late 1920’s by its namesake Rudolf Hell (wonder what his priest though of the family name?!), and is similar to facsimile. During World War II, the Germans often used Hellschreiber in conjunction with the Enigma machine and the equipment used to send and receive the mode looked similar to that of the Enigma. Move ahead to today and modern computer-to-radio interfaces and sound card technology allow this to be replicated on your monitor. Unlike many of the digital modes, that use variations of phase-shift keying, “Hell” uses on-off keying to “paint” a picture of letters, word and symbols. In that way it’s very similar to Fax and even CW. It may be based on old technology, but it’s pretty cool to watch!

I had considered playing around with this mode once I got around to learning a bit more. But, after a post on by Jeff, KB3ELT mentioning he’d made his first Hellschreiber contact, and seeing there was a Hell contest underway this Saturday, my interest was piqued. I actually found that the CD that came with my recently acquired RigBlaster Plug-n-Play contained the popular Hellschreiber software by IZ8BLY. I loaded it up and within a few minutes was watching words being “painted” on the signals. Unfortunately, I had to move on to some other activities and didn’t get a change to try a transmission before the contest ended. Efforts to find other Hell signals were unsuccessful, partially due to the heavy RTTY from the BARTG contest. Maybe next weekend I’ll have my first “Hell-ish” radio encounter!

There’s a good website by WB8NUT that explains the various digital modes used my amateurs complete with links to software downloads.

So, if you’re getting stuck in a rut with your operating practices, try something new!

Radio hobby looses a champion.

Brian Smith left us this past week at the far too young age of 52. A paramedic for 26 years with the Toronto EMS, saving lives was part of his day-to-day life. In fact even after death Brian has likely saves several lives through organ donation. On the radio side Brian was an avid SWL and radio enthusiast. He was a long-time member of a group with which I’ve been involved for many years, the Ontario DX Association, serving in recent years as its Chairman. He was also moderator of a very popular Yahoo group for fans of Toronto radio station AM740 (CFZM, formerly CHWO), and befriended many at the station over the years. He also served as the station's QSL manager (it’s a 50KW clear channel station, so does get many reports from around the world)! A read through that on-line group and that of the ODXA proves Brian touched many, many lives in the radio hobby.

I can’t say I knew Brian nearly as well as some, as my job took me a few hours away from the Greater Toronto area about 16 years ago. However, I had the opportunity to talk with him many times on the phone, via email, at ODXA functions, a couple of “DX Camps” many years back, and pretty much any Ham Radio Fleamarket I’ve attended in the last decade or so. Brian was tireless in his efforts to promote the ODXA and the hobby he loved and attended the majority of Hamfests across southern Ontario manning a booth on behalf of the club. Mostly, I remember an extremely friendly person, warm greeting and conversation, and just an all round nice, gentle guy.

When something like this happens, you can’t help but sit back and think of your own mortality. A little over a week ago, Brian was his normal self, and then suddenly he was lying in hospital unconscious, the victim of an brain aneurism. This is particularly poignant for me as it was that same ailment that took the life of my mother 25 years ago, and something for which I’ve undergone tests (with negative results, thankfully).

Brian Smith, 1956-2009, he will be missed. Rest well my friend.

For those who are able make it, there will be a memorial service Thursday, March 26th at 11:00 AM. It will be held at the Toronto EMS Headquarters, located at 4330 Dufferin Street (corner of Dufferin & Steeprock Drive - north of Sheppard Ave) in Toronto.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

CW Renaissance

After several nights of sending a shaky CQ on the ‘novice’ section of the 40 meter band and only hearing static, I was beginning to wonder weather the used rig I’d picked up at the fleamarket was actually emanating something resembling RF. Maybe I hooked up the mobile antenna affixed to my apartment balcony railing incorrectly, and the guy in the apartment below was watching a shower of sparks rain down. Finally, late in the evening of June 8, 1988, after sending CQ three times on my trusty old straight key, I heard a relatively faint signal with the familiar rhythm of my call sign. Fumbling for the pencil, sweat beginning to form on my brow, my toes curling…that first QSO was finally underway! It wasn’t rare DX, but that first contact with KA8WMX in Ohio was just as thrilling as nabbing a new country now. Over the next two years I made only a handful of contacts because, quite frankly CW still scared the bejebbers out of me! While I was semi-confident in my ability to send, I was always apprehensive about copying. Truth is, I looked at CW as a necessary evil to progress as an amateur operator, kind of like castor oil to improve your health!

Back then in order to be able to upgrade to the advanced ticket in Canada, which would give phone privileges on HF, you had to have, I believe, a minimum of 100 CW contacts in your logbook within a one-year span. I felt that was a truly unobtainable goal for me. Luckily the licencing structure changed in late 1990 and I was “grandfathered” to the advanced level. So at that point, I picked up the microphone and rarely looked back.

It wasn’t until a few years ago, after unearthing my old Healthkit electronic keyer that I built when I was 14 back in 1975, that my interest in the ‘original mode’ was rekindled. I’d built that keyer long before I got my ticket, and it was a very rewarding when the thing actually worked! That experience also gave me a love for the smell of solder. (I’ve since learned inhaling burning solder is about as health as smoking an old lead window frame!) After blowing out close to 30 years of dust bunnies, it still worked! I’m not sure why I close to learn CW on a straight key prior to getting my licence, but I now felt sending on paddles would ultimately be easier. I had to essentially relearn the whole process. I downloaded a free program called Morse Cat (great program, and it's fun to watch the kitty tap the straight key!). I also tried to catch as many of the W1AW broadcasts as possible to brush up before daring my first CW QSO in many years.

Well that first contact did come and with that old Healthkit keyer to boot! Shortly afterward, I upgraded to a nice set if paddles from MFJ. I don’t make a huge pile of contacts on CW, but every once in a while, when I’m feeling nostalgic for simpler times, or just feel like a challenge, I’ll give it a shot. I’ve also dabbed in a few of the CW contests, most recently the RSGB Commonwealth contest held this past Saturday. I admit, I do ‘cheat’ a bit by having a CW program running on the computer to aid with copying, but I do send manually and try to copy with a pencil as much as possible. However, in contest situations, the wpm rate of some of the stations would make a machine gun sound it’s pretty much an essential tool! One thing I know for sure, I need to invest in a good CW filter for my FT-897. It’s inevitable, whenever I’m trying to copy one station, another strong one fires up nearby and attenuates a good chunk of the band. Ah, CW exhilarating and frustrating at the same time (like parenthood!).

Sunday, March 8, 2009

Everyone's a 5-9!

Amazing! Even after repeating my call sign 13 times and told my signal is very weak, I’m managing to punch a “5-9” signal into the lower mainland of Blutonia! Really, if there’s one aspect of the typical contest exchange that ought to be dropped, it’s the signal report. For once, I’d like to hear someone say: “You’re 4 by 3 with heavy QSB.” Then listen as the band falls silent waiting for the response! Okay, I’m just as guilty of doing it, but every once in a while I’ll give a true report and it messes ‘em up everytime! There must be some other piece of relevant information we could pass in the quick contest exchange other than “5-9”. Name?...nah, would need too much clarification. QTH?...most contests only care about what state/province or zone you’re in. Model of car you drive? What you had for breakfast? (Personally, I’d like to hear what the guys at the 9A1A contest club in Zagreb had on their plates this morning).

In all, for the ARRL DX SSB contest that just wrapped, I worked 28 different countries (29 if you count Blutonia) and managed to snag a new one…which made the whole effort worthwhile. J7Y provided me with Dominica. I would gave assumed I’d worked that small island in the Caribbean at some point, but my Logger32 software tells me otherwise. Now, for serious contesters with Linears and Log Periodic Antennas and Speech Processors and Magnetically Charged RF Atmospheric Eradicators (okay, I made up the last one), working 28 countries is likely accomplished in their first hour of operating. I, on the other hand, spent a combined total of maybe 5 or 6 hours at various points over the weekend trying to wring 100 watts out of my rig and push it through the coax to my modest home-made windom, where the end result is likely something more like 75 watts. So I’m pretty happy. However, I don’t think I’ll need to clear a space on the wall for a certificate!

Putting my 3 ½ year old to bed tonight, his storytime book choice (honest)… Green Eggs and HAM. That’s my boy!

73, Greg

Thursday, March 5, 2009

CQ Contest!

On the eve of one of the biggest SSB contests of the year, I ask…are you a contester? I don’t consider myself to be one…at least in the sense of seriously competing. I must admit, though, I often casually participate. This weekend for a 48 hour period stating at 0000Z Saturday (7pm EST Friday) the phone portions of the non-WARC bands will be a vast sea, more like a title wave of “CQ Contest”. It’s the ARRL International DX contest and probably 2nd only to the CQ WW DX affair in October. I do pity anyone trying to keep a sked, conduct a net or just have a ragchew on weekends like this! I suppose some could move off to 17 meters or try a digital mode or even CW of they’re so inclined.

When I look at my log over the years, I can’t help but notice a lot of new DXCC countries came courtesy of a contact during a contest. For us “small gun” stations, contests do offer a good opportunity to work new, and sometimes rare, countries. While there are pile-ups, they don’t seem to be as intense and a bit of persistence often pays off with a contact. One advantage of the ARRL contest is that DX stations are looking to work Canadian and U.S. stations, as opposed to many of the other international contests where it’s everyone looking to work everyone. So, a “CQ Contest” call from a North American station can quickly produce some attention (even for us 100 watters!).

Hmmm….I’m starting to sound like a “contester”, which as mentioned above, I don’t consider myself to be. A “contester” would submit his/her logs, while I rarely do. A contester would also plan to spend as much time as possible on the air for the duration of the contest, while I try to grab a hour here and there while I accommodate typical weekend family and household obligations. (The really serious contesters must have VERY understanding spouses….or are divorced!).

So, while I plan to spin the dial as much as possible this weekend and make some contacts (a new country would be nice!), it won’t be the focus of my whole weekend. Actually in the last year or so, I’ve rather enjoyed the non-SSB contests. PSK31, RTTY and CW to be specific. There’s an awfully nice sound and rhythm to the sound of “CQ test” on CW. (I’m sure it gets the true contester’s adrenalin flowing!)

Maybe we’ll work you on the bands this weekend!

73, Greg

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

The first "official" post!

Okay here we go, first blog post! First question, why blog? Hmm, I don’t have a firm answer for that. I could say because a lot of other hams are doing it…but I suppose that by itself isn’t the best answer! Part of it is definitely the desire to communicate. I like to think that’s why most of use became amateur radio operators in the first place. In my opinion, some of the better blog and web sites by hams are he ones that offer something beyond a ‘brag file’. While it’s nice to see other operator’s set-ups and hear about their on air exploits, the better sites also offer something extra…a reason to check back from time to time. In some cases it may be tips and tricks on specific aspects of the hobby. These could include antennas, operating, certain modes, chasing DX, etc. Sometimes they act as portals to other interesting sites.

So….as this site develops, I’ll endeavour to provide some of those extras. There won’t be too much ‘bragging’ as my station is very modest (okay if I get a really juicy catch, or do something really neat, there may be a little boast here and there!). In fact my focus for this site will be on resources for what I call the “small gun” station (sounds more respectable than pee-shooter!). While the “big guns” have multiple yagis and directional antennas to choose from, with a nice 1KW Amp to add the punch, the rest of us (the majority!) are running 100 watts into something a little less flashy. In my case it’s a home brew windom that tunes 40 thru 6 meters. Here’s a link that’ll give you the basic of a windom if you’re interested:

Well that’ll do if for now. This site is in the very beginning stages and I’ll be working on it as time permits! Check back often & feel free to drop a line.

73, Greg

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Weekend activities

Well another weekend comes to a close! Had some unplanned fun with RTTY during the North American QSO Party Saturday. I had to remember how to use my MMTTY software! I’m not a big contester (I’m definitely a “small gun” with my 100w into a windom), but enjoy making a few contacts particularly with modes I don’t use every day. I dabbed a bit in the CQ WW CW contest last weekend and managed to pick up a new country (Nicaragua). Okay, I was using software to decode the CW (some of these guys are sending at 50 WPM+!!….I’m sure many…maybe most…are using software) I imagine the purists would protest, but I DID use the paddle for sending! Again lottsa fun but I don’t take the competition part too seriously (read comment about the antenna!).