July 27, 2014
We have had a very interesting summer – the weather and clouds have been “different”. We have had a lot of clouds rotating in from the Arizona monsoonal areas, and then combining with a fog layer that has acted like our wonderful “natural air conditioning” – all while still having sun. Most of this summer has been in the 70′s and 80′s – with only a couple days hitting 100.
I’ve been “dry farming” tomatoes this summer – and while the plants end up looking “scraggly” – wow – do they taste fantastic!
Our apple tree is full of apples – its only a matter of weeks before we start the harvest.
We saw “X” last night at the beautiful and wonderfully restored Napa Opera House – now called “City Winery”. They were great – and I found out that their lead guitarist (my favorite in the band) was a ham radio operator back in the 50′s, played with Gene Vincent, and does a lot of tube amp repairs and customization. He is one of the best guitarists – heck multi-instrumentalists that I have ever seen, and his sound is just the best. He also is so well known as an excellent guitarist that Gretsch has a model named after him.
Now – the big surprise of the night was a duo called “Folk Uke”. They tried to downplay who they were, but I googled them and found out that they are the daughters of Arlo Guthrie and Willie Nelson. They were absolutely FANTASTIC. They came on stage almost looking a bit corny and confused – even sweet and “innocent”. But then the “mayhem” started. With superb playing and harmonies that were just gorgeous, “Old Tymie” and sweet, the lyrics were filled with dirty words and concepts that would make a sailor blush. Its was hillarious – but oh sooooo good. I really got a kick out of them – and love em’.
So, we are about to enter the “Harvest Season”, and my favorite time of the year. We are reaping the rewards from getting back in shape by mountain biking:
I’m already harvesting some DX on my new lowband antenna:
I heard an Hk working a JA recently in the morning, and there are two entities being activated starting tomorrow that I need on Top Band – VK9/C and VK9/X – both should be work-able if the JA team has a half decent antenna up.
Top Band will start having some serious activations as we get closer to the Autumnal equinox – so I am totally stoked.
VK0EK is going well, and I think this summer “growing season” will pay off in spades this fall.
July 26, 2014
July 25, 2014
My 15M monoband full sized yagi with hairpin match – ready to be deployed on a push up mast at a moments notice
Awards chasing was fun for a while, but lately I have been feeling a lot of “been there, done that”. Luckily, ham radio offers almost endless possibilities where you can have fun. Its an amazing hobby!
One thing that still gets me really excited is designing and building antennas. Tinkering is where its at for me – and is the antidote for sitting in front of a computer at work all day writing code. I carry a notebook around with me and doodle ideas on it while riding BART to work – and listening to my favorite music (this summer I’ve been listening to old “Uncle Tupelo” albums) . . . .
“Old School” – I actually print out and glue / tape the output of N6BV, Dean Straw’s fantastic YW software that I used to design monoband yagi’s into my “engineers notebook”. I then scribble notes – including construction designs, propagation affects, HFTA models and other related information to give a “full view” of all aspects of antenna design, manufacture and deployment.
I also draw “site maps” of all of my antennas on my small lot. This has become really critical in recent years.
For about the last several years, I’ve been on a “Monobander Jag”. It actually started when I went to Carl, AI6V’s beautiful “estate” when he lived in Nevada City – up in the gold country. I purchased two big old antennas – a Wilson 5 element 20M yagi on a 3″ 40 foot boom (the Wilson M520), and a KLM 5 element 10M monobander on a 2″ 27′ boom:
Basically, these “sticks” have given me years of fun – the best $300 I ever spent on ham radio. The hardware that came with the antennas was useless, and the aluminum was in a wooded area, basically laying in the leaves. The yagi’s were missing some parts – so I bought the antennas for a “recycle” set of projects. I bought some really excellent hardware from DX Engineering – boom to mast plates, boom to element plates, resin insulating standoff blocks and capacity hats.
A duo band 17-12M 2 element yagi
YW is only good for monoband yagi’s, so when I design multiband yagi’s I use EZNec. But over the years I have become a mono band “purist” – I just don’t like the compromise you introduce in an antenna when you multiband it. Sure – if you buy a giant antenna on a giant tower and turn it with a giant rotator, you might overcome the “negative interaction” that you get with a multiband yagi, but I also subscribe more to the super contesters who believe in stacked mono banders instead – who have multiple towers.
I tried a 2 over 2 stack of 17M yagi’s for a while. It was a great learning experience, but ultimatley, I decided a full sized monoband 20M yagi – as high as I could put it was a better strategy – for the DXCC entities that I have yet to work.
Here’s the “rub” – for the first time this summer, I modeled all of my antennas together, and found that I had inadvertently introduced negative interaction between antennas. This led me to visualize my entire antenna “site” as a holistic single antenna “system”. The one thing those contesters have with their multiple towers and stacked yagi’s is acres of space. My lot is .3 acre – and heavily wooded with only one small strip of land to put up antennas. It creates a very serious challenge:
So – on a small lot – I can understand why a multiband antenna makes best sense for some. For me – I’d rather have a couple GREAT mono band antennas instead of an antenna that covers more bands – with compromise on each band.
One can argue that even a monoband yagi is a multiband antenna – a full sized mono band 20M yagi works fine as a rotatable dipole on the higher bands – with a tuner. In fact, when I worked FT5ZM on the high bands, I used a 20-15M nested wire Moxon as a rotatable dipole on 17 and 12M – no problem. But conditions were right during the beginning of the “second peak” of cycle 24 – so that was a gift from heaven so to speak.
You can see the size and scale of my 20M full sized mono band yagi in my back yard – its a pretty big antenna for such a small wooded lot!
My latest whacky idea is that I have a full sized 15M and 17M yagi on the side of my house – all ready to deploy “field day style” on a second push up mast – that has a rotator and coax already staged there – but in the down position. This lets me have a couple of very good mono band yagi’s up during an “ATNO Session”, but also lets me only keep up my “main antennas” in between ATNO’s.
Experimental “cell driver / OWA” feed on a full sized 17M yagi
For example, this year, there are only two ATNO’s that have been announced / executed – FT5ZM, where I worked them on 160 – 12M, and next up is FT4TA – Tromelin.
One thing that I take complete advantage of is how many DX-ers put all of their work into their high band antennas and don’t take the low bands very seriously. In fact, back in 2001 – 2009 or so, I can honestly say that while others were whining about “no or low sunspots” on the high bands – I was working very rare DX on the morning long path on 40M and 30M. I worked all of my zone 39, 37 and 21 mostly on 40M and 30M CW during this time. In fact, I will go as far as saying that it is the number one strategy I used as a little pistol to make it to Honor Roll in 11 1/2 years. If I had decided to slug it out on the higher bands pointing toward the short path – I would still be whining on eHam about all of the DX that I missed (hi hi).
160 / 80M vertical with capacitance hat and 100 radials
I’ve never worked an ATNO “only” on 160 or 80M, but my best ever QSO – and by a country mile was with FT5ZM on 160M. I still can’t believe you can work 13K miles with a “short” 160M antenna – its just magic. Its why I do radio in the first place. Radio “magic” helps me escape all of the bad news in the world – its a place I come to to “escape” and dream.
But since about 2010 or so – my “stealth / secret weapon” band – 40M and also 30M has become overrun by many who have put up much better antennas – so I now have a lot more competition. Back in 2001 – 2005 – I was “sneaking past” everyone else with 200 watts and a single 36′ ladder line fed / remote auto tuner short hatted vertical dipole – used on 40 and 30M – to work juicy DX like FT/J, FH, the 3B’s, Iraq, Afghanistan, etc
Today I am competitive on these bands – but there is no stealth any more – just brutal pileups to conquer. My 40M phased array keeps me in the competition and in the hunt:
The DX-ers I admire most and look up to are the QRP-ers who have made Honor Roll or 10BDXCC. I have read about two of these guys lately. I don’t feel that my accomplishments are nearly as great – but that’s OK – because I have learned so many things taking the crazy approach I have.
I do have some competitive tools that I use to beat the bigger guns, but these are becoming far and fewer between than they used to be – it seems most people have caught on, and the cluster has trashed many of the old tricks (like when I sat on P5/4L4FN’s published frequency on 10M and 15M with 100 watts and a Cushcraft MA5B and was in the first three to work him). I only worked him on 2 bands because back then I would work some DX on two bands – one acted as an “insurance QSO”. I did not care at all about Challenge, or even 5BDXCC – this was during my “newbie” phase I guess.
But my grey line skills are probably the last remaining skill I have where I can still beat out the bigger guns – or at least work the DX lock step just after this “higher tier” of DX-er. It used to be – as a little pistol, I would have to wait until the second or third day. Since making mono band antennas and doing all of the site and HFTA research – I now bust pileups on the first day on at least one band – usually several. Not bad for 500 watts, but no big deal when compared to those guys running only 5 watts.
I have an Elecraft KX3 that I fantasize will become my only rig some day – but with my really nice mono band antenna. Maybe I will take the QRP Challenge some day – during retirement in 10 years?
One thing for sure – my notebooks contain so much learning, and because of the “Old School” cut and paste approach – they are keep sakes and memento’s that contain all of the hair brained ideas and thoughts I have had along the way. They contain reverse beacon network data, NCDXF data, drawings and plots of antenna construction, VOACAP and HFTA analysis – basically anything you could possibly relate to ham radio DX-ing and antennas. To me – they are priceless.
July 24, 2014
The sun affects the DX-er in profound ways. While some say that the low bands do not need sun spots or other solar activity, this is not entirely true. However, the low bands (160 – 30M) will work quite nicely with much lower sunspot activity than the higher bands (20M and up). The low bands do need lower noise levels to be most productive. Solar noise is one form, and then there is the man made noise. The best thing is that bands like 160M are still a mystery propagation wise. For example, a few mornings ago I was able to copy a QSO between a ham in Colombia (HK) and Japan (JA), and this was during fairly high lightning activity in the US – even out West. But in general – 160M is not very useful during the summer in the Northern Latitudes. 40M has been fantastic every morning on the grey line to Africa and on the Short Path at night to Europe, and 20M has been awesome almost every night – into Africa, the Middle East and Europe – on the Short Path and just after sunset. I have even heard some decent European DX at night on 30M. I haven’t been checking 80M at all.
This has been one of the better summers for DX, and the SSN has been around 40 for many of these nights. The noise level (excluding lightning noise) has actually been very low at my QTH, and so – even with lower sunspot numbers, the signals seem much better due to lower noise, and there are “enough” sunspots to support world wide DX. I think this bodes well for several years to come.
Solar Cycle 25 Predictions
In this paper:
The predicted peak sunspot number for Cycle 25 is 7. Is this cause for concern?
Disclaimer: after experiencing the predictions for Cycle 24 and seeing how “all over the map” they were, I now take them with a big grain of salt. I don’t trust that any will be “right on”, but I still like to read what the scientists / sooth sayers predict and then use that to create a simulated “what if” strategy. Lets say its “hoping for the best but planning for the worst”. Part of the fun of being an Armchair (or is it really backyard?) DX-er is to come up with alternative antenna strategies based on my DX-ing goals at the time – and what the ionosphere will support.
My DX-ing Goals (in this priority and chronological order):
I only participate in the ARRL DXCC program, so this article focuses on my participation in the DXCC.
- Play with my new home brewed antennas – continuing to test their performance by busting pileups – especially 40M and 20M
- Make DXCC on 160M which will also get me to 9BDXCC
- Work FT4TA on any band – one band on CW and another band for SSB
- Honor Roll #1 (I need E3, FT/T, FT/G, VP8/S, KP1, 3Y0/B, VK0/H, KH5K)
This approach could be called “Do what you can, when you can!“
At the bottom of Cycle 23, I remember what seemed like years where 20M never even opened up. However, I still worked something like 18 ATNO’s between 2007 – 2009 – and 40M “saved the day” in this regard. But I also did have some 20M and even 17M rare DX in the log. I also remember reading about VK0IR – who worked 80K QSO’s with the SSN at ZERO in 1997. The main reason? Pretty much every path to world wide DX-ers did not involve a polar path. For me, only E3 would be an entity that probably would demand a polar path – as far as what I need to get to HR #1, and I expect it to be one of the last ones that could be activated towards that goal. 7O2A was amazingly strong on the Short Path – and that was during a CQ DX contest last October with constant giant pileups and the SSN at 141 – so E3 is probably the only SP entity I need that really would require some serious sunspots to work. HOWEVER, during Cycle 23 I worked Iraq and Afghanistan on 40M during a grey line, and so – 40 or 30M could be usable. They were not “easy” – but at the time, there weren’t as many strong players on the low bands – so that used to be a great way for the little pistol to “sneak” in some juicy rare and difficult zone DX. Alas – it seems every band now is full of high power competitors – so those little “tricks” are fewer and far between.
So – even with ZERO sunspots – it certainly IS more frustrating – but no where near time to give up. Those who persevere will get to Honor Roll – or whatever your goals are. Patience becomes one of your biggest tools, and by far – you will need to finally get really serious about antennas. I wish I had then what I have now in my back yard – because I would not have missed FT5GA (Glorioso). Oh well. I have now worked every part of the world – and with far lesser antennas than what I have now. SO – I have done my homework and wrench work . . . I am well prepared. The learning on the way to Honor Roll far outweighs the award itself. The journey was everything.
So – for me – the answer to the question in the previous paragraph is NO.
Slippery Slope Down to Cycle 25
We are something like 5 or 6 years away from Cycle 25, and the slope down from this second peak of Cycle 24 will be long and slow. There is certainly plenty of time for anyone within a handful away from DXCC Honor Roll to make it. Likewise for all other awards. So – what is the biggest mitigating factor?
Location, Location, Location (er, Activation, Activation, Activation)
The biggest “throttle” on making one’s goals is simply “timing”. Timing as in “Who is activating what and when?” – and “What do I need?“. As you climb up the ladder towards Honor Roll – you will find that some years you will be very lucky to work one or two ATNO’s, tops. And, as VK0IR did – some of these will be activated at the very bottom of a cycle. I think I worked something like 18 at the bottom of the last cycle – and they were all somewhat rare, rare, or very rare – because this was when I was past the 300 mark. Some say this is “butt in chair time” – but for me it wasn’t. I pretty much only transmit to work a new ATNO or a counter on 160M. Sure – I transmit to test new antennas, and I used to participate in DXCC Challenge – but these days – its mostly just ATNO’s and 160M counters. However – I am listening every day – so there are no cob webs gathering on my gear. I prefer to have more butt on the bike time – and I go road cycling or mountain bike riding when there is nothing on the bands that I need.
This is a great “post honor roll” year for me – FT5ZM last Winter, and FT4TA this Fall. I’ve finally grown completely patient with this pace. I’m also up to 60 confirmed on 160M – and 10 new ones there a year is about how it goes these days. While I have waited – I have spent all of my ham time in the back yard working on antennas and a new most excellent tower – the AB-577. I’m having great ham fun – and have gotten completely back into cycling too. Its all good.
My Cycle 25 Strategy
I already know exactly what I will do for Cycle 25. If the SSN really does hit 7 for a peak – I will keep everything in my antenna farm exactly as it is (see QRZ.COM for a complete description). If 20M really does “go away”, I might think about swapping the 3 element 20M full sized yagi with a 2 element full sized 30M yagi – and I have the boom and aluminum already on hand to do so, but this is really a “Plan B” – heh heh. I will go back and see how many ATNO’s I worked on 20M with an SSN of Zero – that would be good to know.
I predict that more than sunspots, these things will affect what I can work and when (in what I think will be the priority and chronological order)
- Several protected environmental “heritage” entities will become much harder to access and activate. They will enter and climb the Top 10 Most Wanted
- Geo-political upheaval and change will force changes in the DXCC list – some entities might split – and some combine
- Polar expeditions will continue to become more expensive to activate than they are today
The DXCC List will continue to “stay the course” as it has for years. I don’t expect any big changes – maybe not even little changes.
I am very glad that I started my Honor Roll “quest” in July of 2001. Time surely is the great equalizer with the DXCC program.
There have been many “impossible” entities that were in fact activated seemingly against all odds (for example, 7O and KP1), and there are a few that I did work before becoming “impossible” (for example, P5, EZ). There will be some new “impossible” entities, and I expect that as they climb the list, people will be talking about them and several will be activated as a result. Many of these are being worked on now – and I do expect a lot of success – I expect most of what I need for HR #1 to be activated before I retire – at the top of Cycle 25 – but that there will be a few “stragglers” that will await me to work during my retirement years.