Sunday, February 2, 2014

Listening for Amsterdam Island

Adding to a countries list is not always a matter of looking for a broadcast station. There are many countries or “ DX Entities” that either have no broadcast stations or perhaps have only low powered Medium Wave or FM stations with virtually no way the will be heard at your location.

That means going to other types of radiators of RF to bring those entities into the log. There are utility stations to be logged and there are amateur radio stations to be logged. Even with those, there are limitations. There are some places with very few amateurs. Those may often be logged during contests or other special events. But there will be some that can only be pulled in when special operations are mounted to put them on the air...DX-peditions.

Such was the case beginning during the last week in January when a group mounted an expedition to a truly isolated place: Amsterdam Island. To find this spot, look on a map of the Indian Ocean and look about halfway between the tip of South Africa and Australia. The story of how the expedition came about and the details of it may be found on the expedition's website.

The story of snagging the signals from this one, however, will be a different thing altogether. From Asia and Europe it would be a bit of a challenge, but from North America in general and Texas in particular, it has been something else again.

For us in this part of the country, Amsterdam Island is just almost at the antipodes. Just about on the exact opposite side of the globe via the Great Circle Path, which is how radio waves tend to travel. Day and night are just almost opposite, with the winter situation in the Northern Hemisphere having longer nights and summer in the Southern Hemisphere having longer days. If the expedition had occurred near an equinox, things would not have been so difficult, but as it is, there is a real challenge.

The problem comes from the fact that there is not a good time when both areas are in or near either darkness or light. The window for propagation on the very low bands and the very high bands is very narrow or signals will be very weak. Stations with very large antennas have a better chance of making it. And of course it depends on which bands the operators there choose to use. The expedition appears not to have enough stations to have all bands on the air at once, so at least at the beginning when demand is especially high, they would naturally choose the bands that give the most activity, rather than “gambling” time on marginal bands and times.

The first evening I listened for them was Wednesday evening January 29th Texas time or the morning of January 30 GMT. The DX Summit spotting network website showed them being heard by some stations on 160, 20 and 30 meters. Tuning there first, I found, of course nothing on 160...not even stations calling. This was just after midnight GMT on the January 30.

The next stop was 30 meters, the idea being that the band here in Texas is often open to Africa and Southern Europe before sunset and might be long enough to reach them as their sun was probably nearly rising there. I found the pileup easy enough. It was like a hive of bees humming with literally hundreds of cw signals all jumbled together. How in the world would an operator on the other end ever pick callsigns to work out of this mess!!

Usually DX stations listen up from their frequency on most bands, so I slipped down a ways. DX Summit had him listed as being heard on 10115, but one never knows about these things, so I cruised back a forth a bit with the R-75 hooked to my sloper facing East.

Usually when hunting a general area for a DX target I use a wider bandwidth, hoping to get a taste of the signal first, then tightening down to copy. In this case, that was impossible because the pileup was so wide and signals in it were so strong. It was immediately to the 250 Hz bandwidth and very slow tuning.

I kept getting snippets of a signal, but not enough to lock onto. Apparently he was having trouble picking out callsigns because there were long gaps between transmissions. There were also bursts of other signals on his transmit frequency. Apparently some operators were not aware that he was working split and were calling on his frequency. Sometimes ops working separate transmit and receive frequencies with two VFO's on a transciever would, in their excitement, get things reversed and accidentally call on the wrong frequency. There were also no shortage of “ policemen” on the frequency sending “ Up! Up!” or “ QSY” or “ Lid” ( the amateur term for poor operator)

Finally I found what had to be him! He would announce callsigns then give a short signal report, listening then for a reply with his report. As is often the case in operations where everyone knows who the DX station is, he was not giving his callsign with every transmission.

This brings up the conundrum for SWL's. For the ham, he is pretty certain he is listening to the right signal and will hear his own callsign coming back. He will also get confirmation when his call shows up on the online log later ( though some will insist on making repeat “ insurance QSO's” later!This is much to the chagrin of the expedition operators who are dealing with a big enough crowd without having repeat calls from the same stations on a given band) For the SWL, is it enough to presume that the station you are hearing is indeed the target? How well do you have to hear it in that case?

For me, I choose to have to hear it well enough to actually copy a callsign. In the case of an expedition or fairly rare DX station working a huge pileup, sometimes this means having to listen for awhile. It can be particularly tedious if band conditions are poor or noise and QRM conditions are bad.

( Why do fades or noise bursts always come at the most inopportune times?) I also make sure I am copying well enough to get three or four callsigns of stations he is working in order to make even a personal “claim” that he has been heard. Its not enough to just know the signal is there and it is “supposed to be him”.

After about twenty minutes of straining through the noise, miscalls and “police actions” I was finally satisfied that it truly was FT5ZM that I was hearing on 10115. A brand new country was in the bag for 30 meters and overall! Amsterdam Island has been on the air only rarely and outside of the ham bands, I can't think of any other way it could be logged. The signal was not very strong, S-5 or less, and fading pretty badly.

Now it was time to check other bands. DX Summit was still showing him on 160 cw and 20 meter phone. There was no sign on 160 so it was up to 20.

Bedlam! His frequency was loaded with misscallers and “policemen” Finally at 0146 I was able to log him, but only as “presumed”. Not really good enough.

The next night ( Thursday January 30 Texas time, morning January 31 GMT) it was back to the hunt. Working hours for my “ day job” had precluded listening during the morning “window” for him. The first stop was 30 meters where he was more easily identifiable on 10115 at 0020 GMT. A check of 40 meters showed him with a whopping signal. S-7 or S-8! He was identifying every third fourth contact with occasional deep fades, but generally pretty strong.

A check of 20 meter CW found him on 14023 at 0037 GMT with another huge signal: S-8 at times! Perhaps they had not had all their main antennas up that first night and now had the big stuff going? In an event, FT5ZM was now in the log on three bands.

Friday night I did not have the opportunity to listen, but Saturday morning Texas time I got up to look once again. Nothing heard on any band. No sign of him. DX Summit showed him on some of the higher bands, but there was absolutely no prop to Texas on them. It was not yet sunset for him there so there was little chance of prop on the low bands.

It was back into the regular search mode I do on Saturday mornings. Prop was a little strange, with an apparent very low MUF ( Maximum Useable Frequency) A check of the WWV frequencies showed nothing audible from either WWV or WWV on 10, 15 and 20 mHz. The 5 mHz frequency showed a total signal of S-9 plus 20 DB, with WWVH strong on top of WWV. On 2.5 mHz the aggregate signal strength was S-9 plus 20 DB with WWV and WWVH appearing to be about the same strength. Hmmmm. Should be good hunting.

A run through the 80 meter ham band quickly turned up JA1BXS on 3503.9 with a big signal from Japan at 1233 GMT. Might be worth checking 160. Yes! Several good logs within minutes.

1244 GMT JR7VHZ 1822.5 559 Working K4RO

1250 GMT JE1BMV 1810.7 449

1253 GMT JA6JEW 1810.7 559

1258 GMT JA8CSG 1810.7 549 ( the latter three working K0HA)

A run back to 80 meters found JR3AAZ on 3514 at 1303 GMT with a good signal. There were also several coming through on 40 meters as the sun was coming up, but that is not an unusual occurrence here. ( I did hear an old friend JA1NUT who I have actually worked on the ham bands many, many times over the years. He had his usual 599 plus signal on 40 meters)

Then began the usual morning swing, starting with a check of the Australian 120 meter signals. VL8T had a weak signal with detectable audio on 2325 at 1309 GMT with its partner VL8K somewhat stronger on 2485 at 1310 , about S-5 with good audio.

The sun was coming up well now, it would be time to move on. Pyongyang was in very well with an S-6 signal and very listenable audio on 2850 at 1312 GMT. RRI was in at least that well on 3325. The Voice of the People was very stout on 3480 at 1321 GMT—S-9 plus 10 db with audio listenable on the speakers rather than just headphones. Radio Nikkei on 3925 was S-9 Plus 20 DB. Various frequencies for Voice of the People were all audible well on 3480, 3985, 4450, 4557. Bhopal, India was in weak but readable on 4810 and VL8A from Alice Springs very strong on 4835 ( are they ever going back to their old frequency schedule??!!) and wonderful Chinese music was very listenable on 4940.

Maybe, just maybe, it would be worth going back to check on Amsterdam Island one more time. A check of DX Summit showed them to be on 80 meters now as their night began. With the signals as strong from China and India broadcast stations, maybe there would be a chance, even though the sun was up locally. What would it hurt to check? Down to 3532 we went.

Whoa! The pileup was there. Careful tuning and There He Was!!! A good S-5 of S-6. Now that's a catch! This was at 1351 GMT...almost 8 AM Texas time. At least to me, this was a good one! It really made me wish I was in a position to try to actually work him, but the current situation precludes transmitting for the time being.

Now here's the odd thing. While only an hour or so earlier, the MUF was low enough for WWV and WWVH to be inaudible on 10 mHz, a quick check after sunrise showed a quick change. Europe was coming in well on 10 meters! Sometimes prop can be a real mystery.

After a breakfast break and some morning chores, a check back for FT5ZM resulted in further loggings. At 10:37 AM Texas time and 1637 GMT they were still coming in on 30 meters..10117 this time. But on 20 meter cw they were just detectable on 14032.1. Stateside stations with big towers and beams were apparently working them, from the size of the pileups, anyway. But on the wire sloper here, they were just not that strong. Through the day ( their night) there was no sign of them on 15, 12 or 10 meters.

Much later in the day, actually after dark at 0108 Sunday GMT ( Saturday night 7:08 PM Texas Time) I finally found them on 17 meters on 18079, but not very strong. For the first time I found them on phone on 40 meters on 7082 LSB at 0113 GMT, but again very weak. A little later at 0221 the came through on 20 meter CW on 14023.5 with their best signal heard on that band so far, though with deep one time up to about S-7.

This group will provide an interesting study of propagation to the antipodes over the coming days. It would be interesting to see what would have happened if this trip had been near the equinox.

In any event, it has been a fun experience to study over the past few days and to think about...and of course a great addition to the countries list!

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