Amateur Radio Emergency Service - W4ACA

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Monday, October 29, 2007

Letters from an HF Newbie

Steve Handler, N9ABC

Some of us know code and some of us are “no code.” Some of the latter, including the author, now hold General and Amateur Extra class licenses.

A view of the balun and west leg of N9ABC’s indoor dipole antenna.

My modest station: Yaesu FT-897 transceiver, LDG Z-11Pro tuner, headset and clock.

Two QSLs from my DX activity: OX60AD, Greenland, and 5D5A, Morocco. I’m a proud member of the group of people who, since February 24, have become radio amateurs with HF privileges without having to pass a Morse code exam. My adventures in ham radio to date may be both interesting and instructive.

First, the nitty-gritty. My shack qualifies for the worst-case scenario. I have a great rig and tuner -- a Yaesu FT-897 and a LDG Z-11Pro. My antenna, however, is an indoor 33 foot dipole with a balun in the feed line. Because of its substandard location, I somewhat affectionatelycall my antenna the “Krappo One.”

An indoor dipole? I can hear you snickering. CC&Rs (deed covenant, conditions and restrictions), right? No, much worse. It’s a matter of my wife’s restrictions on what she will tolerate outside. In this case, that means nothing unsightly that the neighbors can see.

With 100 W and my indoor dipole, you might wonder what I’ve been able to achieve. Well, after my first eight months on the air, I’ve worked 97 DXCC entities (formerly called “countries”), and have QSLs from 86 of them. “Not bad,” say I.

Using my tuner and my 20 meter dipole, I can also get on 40, 17 and 15 meters. Most of my contacts have been on 20 meter SSB, although I have started to play with PSK31.

So, what DX does a newbie from the Midwest encounter on HF? If I rounded up the usual suspects they would include contacts with Europe, the Caribbean and South America. Within Europe, Italy, Spain and Russia seem to be the most plentiful. Their friendly hams appear willing to work with newcomers to the HF bands. Being a glutton for punishment, one day I dropped my power to 10 W and still was able to work Slovenia.

Many Europeans seem to enjoy short QSOs (often just an exchange of signal reports) and then move on. Not so for many of those from the United Kingdom. They love to chat. Bless them for putting up with my low power, marginal antenna and puny signal. Contacts with Africa have been sparse. I’ve worked a handful of Moroccans, Algeria, Liberia, Madeira Island and little else. The Caribbean and South America hold a special place in my heart. Operators in those parts of the world generally seem friendly and interested in working stateside stations.

The lesson here is that even with minimal gear and a compromise antenna, it’s still possible to have a lot of fun on HF, including working DX.

What I Have Learned So Far

Lesson 1: Courtesy and patience are the golden rules.

Lesson 2: Find an Elmer, someone who can be your mentor. I’ve gone “two better” and have three of them. All have provided invaluable tips and hints. All are long-time hams who have been there and done that. They are patient and more than willing to help me out with problems and questions.

Lesson 3: Not all days are created equal. Propagation at this point in the solar cycle seems to vary not only from day to day but according to the time of day. Find something else to do when propagation is poor, unless you enjoy warming the ionosphere. This brings me to “Steven’s Rule of Woe”: The amount and quality of DX available on the air tends to be inversely proportional to the amount of time you have available to hunt DX.

Lesson 4: Timing is everything. I’m learning to operate like an ant dancing with elephants. Although outgunned in power (and antenna system) by almost everyone else on the air, I’ve already learned about using timing to break a pileup. One recent evening, I worked Algeria by listening to the pileup and noting a pattern to the QSOs. I determined that after the DX station called CQ, about six seconds into the caterwauling of call signs there almost always was a slight one-second lull before he either answered a station or the bedlam resumed. I timed my call to hit that lull, and, sure enough, I got through and he came back to me.

This method has worked over and over for me. Although each pileup seems to have a different pattern, there is almost always a pattern to be found. If you’re running low power, try timing your calls for the lulls in pileups.

Lesson 5: Every dog has its day, and every region has its time of day. Different regions tend to have better signals at different times of the day. For me, the Caribbean is good in the early morning and late afternoon. South America also is good in the late afternoon. Europe tends to be good from mid morning to mid to late afternoon, while Africa has been good in the early evening hours. Your situation will differ depending on your location, but listen a lot and get a feel for when to expect to hear one region of the world or another.

Lesson 6: Stick to it! Pick a band, and learn it. I have chosen 20 meters and am learning its various ins and outs -- especially propagation and knowing what parts of the band yield the best chance of working DX. For example, I have found that above 14.300 MHz are a number of nets, and my chances of catching any DX there are not as great as in the lower end of the band. Like all rules, however, there are exceptions. Recently on 14.330 MHz I worked a maritime mobile out of Germany and had a nice 10 minute chat.

Lesson 7: Become a contestant. Early on I complained to one of my Elmers that contests clogged the bands on weekends and made it hard for me to DX. He wisely pointed out, however, that contests are golden opportunities. Join the contest, and go after the participating stations. I’ve snagged a number of DX entities this way.

Lesson 8: Listen before you speak! Very early on, I joined pileups even before I had solid copy of the target station’s call sign. I figured it if was good enough for others, it was good enough for me. This bad habit ended abruptly. One day using my timing technique, I broke a pileup to work what I thought was a great catch. His exotic DX location turned out to be a neighboring city, and I had to face his question as to whom I thought I was calling. Oops! Never mind!

Lesson 9: I have heard the enemy, and it is I. Using an indoor antenna I have sometimes caused RFI within the house. The Palomar Engineers RFI Kit of toroids and beads judiciously placed on telephone cords, computer mouse, keyboard wires and other key locations have helped me eliminate RFI within the house.

Lesson 10: CQ, CQ, CQ Whirlpool? Household appliances create interference, and having an antenna indoors only makes things worse. My front-loading Whirpool washer is one of the worst offenders. The faster its high-speed motor whirls, the worse the interference. Let’s see, clean clothes or DX? Guess which one wins out? Other offenders include two of our televisions and the fluorescent lights. All of the interference is radiated, not arriving via the power line. Detective Steve found that if you detach the antenna, the interference goes way. The moral of the story is to DX when no one else is home (or at least doing the laundry), or learn to live with some interference.

Final Observations

New licensees want and need to learn. Most want ham radio to be a great hobby not only for themselves but for their fellow hams. Veteran radio amateurs have a golden opportunity to help educate and teach new hams and shape their operating habits for life.

Unless you enjoy talking to yourself, ham radio will always be a matter of teamwork. Get on the air and join the team, and we’re all winners.

73 and good DX!

Steve Handler, N9ABC, lives in Buffalo Grove, Illinois. His interest in ham radio began as a shortwave listener (SWL) using a Knight Span Master. He became a Technician class Amateur Radio licensee in 1991, and he’s been involved in ARES and RACES. Earlier this year he upgraded, first to General and then to Amateur Extra, and he obtained the vanity call sign N9ABC. He’s also written for Satellite Times and Mobile Computing Magazine.

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Anderson County ARES Information

The Anderson County ARES net meets every Tuesday Night at 7PM local time.
We use the the W4SKH Oak Ridge ARC repeaters.

The main repeater is: 146.880 PL Tone 88.5 (Currently Online)
The current back up is: 146.970 (Currently Online)

The ARES Nation Simplex Frequency is 147.420 and will used if required.

The net preamble for the Anderson County ARES net can be found here.

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