Sunday, May 24, 2015

Stormy Weather

I have always been one to be concerned about lightning damage to my solid state gear. In the old days of tube gear, other than a direct lightning strike, I never thought about it too much. Oh, if a thunderstorm was coming, I would disconnect the antennas, often leaving the connector lying behind the radios or sometimes on the window sill before I had the leads dropped down through the wall.

Even then I knew about inducing of high voltages in long wire antennas by nearby lightning activity. It was brought home to me one night during a storm when I kept hearing a frequent “ Snap! Snap! Snap “ sound. It actually woke me out of a deep sleep. It took a few minutes to figure out what it was. The antenna lead I had disconnected from the radio and left lying on the window sill was arcing over to the aluminum window frame which was grounded! The arcs were well over an inch long. It scared me a bit and I got up, opened the window and tossed the lead outside!

The next morning, I got to thinking about what had happened. The antenna I had at that time was about seventy feet long and suspended between two wooden masts that were twenty feet high. After reading a bit and talking with some of the older hams at the local radio club, I figured out that nearby lightning activity was inducing currents into the antenna, just as passing radio waves did. The “ signals” from the lightning were just a whole lot stronger, and certainly well over the several microvolts the radio signals might have brought.

The tube receivers were physically pretty stout in those days. Voltage spikes don't scare 12SK7's or 6BZ6's much. After seeing the arcs, I did get concerned about the small Litz wire that the antenna coupling coils were wound with and thus began my protective attitude toward the radios. I still did not disconnect the antennas every day, only when I suspected a storm was coming. And I still used the radios during stormy weather if the cell with its attendant wild lightning was not directly overhead.

When I got my first really long antennas up, that changed a bit. At one point I had a long horizontal “T” up that was supported by a salvaged utility pole and that spanned our entire back yard and two neighboring lots, running along the rear of the neighbors garden and home and all the way to a street that connected to the road in front of our house. There was probably almost 300 feet of wire up. Now that thing really did collect the voltage! In fact it was not just during thunderstorms, but I heard the arcing behind the receiver once during a blowing dust storm. Static electricity was building up on the wire and finally arcing over.

There was no damage to the radio, but the fact that there was arcing inside the house led my parents ( I was 13 at the time) to tell me to “ do something about that”. The answer was a big knife switch outside the house that would allow easy grounding of the wire during scary or threatening times. In fact, it became a habit to ground the thing any time not in use. A shorter longwire or simple dipoles or verticals were used during rough weather. Of course, when lightning was in the immediate area, all activity ceased.

When I began working at my first radio station job, I learned more about lightning protection. The four broadcast towers at my first radio station frequently arced over during storms, with the transmitter tripping off momentarily, then automatically resetting after the arc stopped. There were two large metal balls near the base of the tower only about an inch apart just for the purpose of sending the current from a near or direct strike to ground. One was connected to the ground system, the other to the tower and they were spaced just far enough apart for the RF not to arc across them during normal operation. During storms it was common to see and hear arcs across the spark balls. There were also static drain chokes across the inputs of the antenna tuning units at the base of the towers ( if you ever wondered what was in those little “dog houses” at the bases of broadcast towers, that's it...they contain matching networks-usually T-networks—to match the impedance of the towers to the impedance of the transmission line and in some cases to provide part of the phase shift for the directional system)

All of this gave me ideas on how to protect my gear at home. Some amateur handbooks also called for putting neon bulbs across antenna inputs of receivers. They would normally be open, but if the voltage on the antenna ever got higher than the break over or firing voltage of the neon bulbs, they would ignite and conduct the charge to ground. There were also RF chokes to put across the receiver inputs or 100 megohm resisters to drain the static charges.

The best overall protection, however was to disconnect the antennas and thus not use the radio at time of highest danger.

With the advent of solid state receivers, the problem became more acute. The junctions in the early transistors and connections in the newer forms of transistors and other chips just won't handle the higher voltages that can appear on antennas at times. The newer rigs have some protection built in, usually in the form of high resistances across the input, chokes and diodes...but despite all that, these rigs are more vulnerable than the old tube gear. I lost the front end of my venerable old FT-101 during a storm during which I was operating a contest. I had watched the weather, had the radar on a local weather channel up on the tv and watching and figured that the core of the storm was far enough away. However, an errant lightning strike in my neighborhood took out the front end of the FT-101 even though my antenna was not hit.

That incident got me a little paranoid about using gear even to listen when the weather got questionable.

Which brings me to this past weekend. It was time for a cluster of small contests...including the UN ( Kazakh) contest and the Baltic States contest and I really wanted to get in there and see what there was to see. I am sure the newer gear is more protected than the older solid state stuff, but I was still nervous. I told myself that when the static crashes got strong on the lower bands or became audible on the higher bands, I could just shut down. That lasted about thirty minutes, because it began to look like it would be dicey the entire weekend.

Then came the answer. I wouldn't use the new gear. I would unlimber some of my old favorites that I knew would be “safe” ( or at least “safer”). Thus brought the old Drake 2 B into play along with my venerable old Hammurland HQ-170. The Drake doesn't use narrow filters in two IF's like the newer Icom, but it does have a very good Q multiplier that operates in the 50 kHz IF. The Hammurland also is triple conversion with a 60 kHz IF. While they don't have the digital readout, why is that really necessary when DX-ing the ham bands as long as you have crystal calibrators to tell you where the band edges are.

Did it hurt using the older gear? Well there is the continuous hiss and ringing sound when using the Q-multiplier on the Drake and the hollow “ wind blowing across the end of a pipe” sound of the Hammurland in the narrow selectivity mode...but the results were good. The DX was probably just as good, or nearly as good, while the operating convenience was not as good. After a few minutes the feel of using the Drake came right back...and it was particularly comfortable using a receiver that has been in the shack almost fifty years. The Hammurland has been with me since 1976 and the trick of swapping sides of zero beat with the BFO to get rid of pesky QRM came back quickly.

Did I miss anything? Perhaps. But I do know I what I did NOT miss using those old friends. There was still the long strings of JA's the first evening on 15 meters and the first morning on 40. There was still a long list of UN-prefixed stations on 40, 20, and 15 ( the band was just not cooperative on 10...or was it the receivers? I could not tell...maybe some of you could tell me in the “comments”.) There were several stations from South Korea in the log ( DS and HL). There were 4X and 4Z stations from Israel. There was SV5/DL3DRN from the Dodecanese. And there was

3B9, VP8, SV2, YB8, several ZL and VK stations, several UA's and R's from various locations, UX's and UR's, TA, S5's, and later in the weekend during non contest hours OJ0 ( Market reef) TF3,5Z0L, T88,A45 and JW9. Not too shabby for fifty-plus year old radios. And the solid state, new, high tech stuff got to live to fight another day and I did not have to miss logging the goodies because of nearby storms.

Now none of this is to say that I took chances or advocate taking chances with bad weather. At the first sign of really nearby lightning or the sound of thunder less than a few seconds behind flashes seen in he window, the plug was pulled and the feedline thrown out the window. I want to make sure I get to live to tune another day!!

Sunday, May 17, 2015

A Magic Time on the Radio

This last Friday night –May 15, 2015 Texas time—was one of those truly magical times in front of the radio. It was one of those days like I had imagined shortwave listening to be when I was a kid, times when it seemed all bands were open to the entire world all at one time.

The impression probably came from reading the short wave listening columns and articles in the magazines. I just did not realize at the time that those columns and articles often contained an entire month's worth of “ best of “ listening reports from the contributors to the columns. I did not thik that all those reports were just funneled down into one or two pages of the Popular Electronics or Electronics Illustrated that I was reading in the late 1950's and early 1960's.

Every once in awhile, everything will line up just right to make that imagined scenario a reality. This past Friday night was one of those- a veritable “perfect storm” of conditions.

The previous ten days or so had been pretty poor for listening here. There had been terrible thunderstorms almost daily. One nearby area got ten inches of rain in one afternoon leading to flooding. We did not have that much at my QTH, but there was enough to have everything a bright green. However, the lightning had been so intense as to lead to not only unplugging the radios and disconnecting the antennas, but to also throwing the feedline out the window!

Friday was a little different. We got about six-tenths of an inch of rain Friday morning, but the sun peeked out Friday afternoon. After dinner, I decided to dare checking the bands. I reeled the RG8X back into the shack, shook the water out of the PL-259 and decided to start the evening listening on the FT-757GX. It was just before 9 PM my local time, or 0200 Saturday morning May 16 GMT. I plugged the headphones in and slowly, gingerly brought the AF gain up. I was being careful because earlier in the week the static crashes had been so bad that with the headphones on, each crash would be like a well delivered hammer blow to the temple.

But this was different. No only were there no audible crashes on 20 meters, the sometimes irking power line leakage noise was totally absent. Other atmospheric noise was almost non existant. Was the antenna really connected? Yes it was! The band was just that quiet.

The FT-757-GX had been tuned to 20 meter phone when last used and came up on 14205 in the upper sideband mode. After a moment of relative quiet, the sounds of a nearby pileup became audible. A light touch of the dial found it centered on 14204. A Canadian station was clearing with the guy he had snagged in the pileup and the DX station came back on stronger than the Canadian. There he was...well above the noise with that floating, airy sound DX stations sometimes have...and identified himself as A92HK in Bahrain!! The S-meter showed about S-5, but the band was so quiet that he really sounded strong.

Listening over the next quarter hour was amazing. I could hear all the stations calling him. On that one frequency were US stations, stations from all over Europe, most areas of Russia and Asiatic Russia and South America all audible at once. Some of the Europeans were over S-9. The Asiatic Russians had that characteristic fast QSB, almost fluttery and echoey sound. The US stations were weakest of the bunch. It was as if almost the entire world was being funneled into my little radio in Waco, Texas!

After about a quarter hour of amazing listening, I finally brought myself to tune up the band a little bit and found another pileup on 14214. At the bottom of this one was 9K2UU in Kuwait, also with a good signal and also with stations from all over the world calling. And on up at 14270 was 4Z5PJ from Israel. All of these stations and their respective pileups were heard in a twenty minute period from 0200-0220 GMT.

With all this going on, why change bands and look elsewhere? I don't know. It might be like the question in an old joke: “ Why did the chicken cross the road?” I made a quick foray to fifteen meters, and started at bottom of the cw band as is my usual method. The band was also quiet, but obviously not dead. I don't know how scientific it is, but I can sort of tell if a band is open even if no signals are present. Its something about what the background noise sounds like. Not the static or line noise, but the overall atmospheric noise that is probably made up of an aggregation of local noises that somehow get propagated.

Anyway, the band sounded like it was worth more than just a quick check, so I spent some time slowly tuning across the cw portion. I usually do this with the bandwidth wide open, tightening it down if I run across a cluster of stations that need separating. There was a weak station on 21025 signing off with someone, then signing his call. I missed it but stayed there. Experience has taught that if a DX station clears with someone and no one calls immediately, he will often call CQ after awhile. Its not good to quickly tune away just because the QSO ends. A little patience pays off.

Such was the case here, because about a minute later he was back calling CQ. DS5DNO from South Korea. Not extremely rare, but not every day either. A good one for the log. I heard him work a few, then moved on, this time to 17 meters.

This was where the gem of the evening was found. It wasn't that it was rare DX for me, but because it was hearing a really good QSO for someone else. I found HA9FTA on cw on 18073.5 working a small pileup. HA from Hungary is not that rare at all here in the States, but he had attracted attention because of his signal strength: a very solid, steady S-9 peaking at 10 DB over S-9 frequently. Once again he was working lots of stuff from all over. While many of his contacts were US stations, I could hear many Europeans calling him.

The fun came when I heard one station low in the pile calling him. ZL4AS. Now New Zealand is a long haul from HA. Given where the sun line was at the time, I am not sure which way the signal was going from New Zealand to Hungary, but either way was a LONG way. The first couple times he called, I am sure the HA could not hear him through the deep pileup. But then something interesting happened. Many other US stations must have heard him and STOPPED CALLING! It was like a parting of the waters to let him through! Now that is radio sportsmanship. One more call, and the contact was made.

Its not often that one gets to hear both sides of a great DX QSO but this was one of them....and with good sportsmanship thrown in for good measure.

Of course as soon as the US stations heard that the stations were safely in each other's respective logs, the pileup resumed with great enthusiasm. But it was a great moment to hear!

A quick run up to the phone band found another gem, again not super rare but certainly not to be passed up. SV5CVY from Crete was in at over S-8 completely in the clear. This while just down the band, a ZL had been coming in well from the opposite side of the world!

Back to 17 meter CW led to RA9YN, UA9FGO and RG0A all from Asiatic Russia coming in well with flutter and echo. All of this in just over a half hour of listening. It was as if DX Kharma was making up for the lousy listening earlier in the week.

A quick run back to 20 meters turned up strong signals from an LZ ( Bulgaria), F6( France), RA6( Central Russia) and a particularly good signal from LY2J in Lithuania. All were S-7 to S-8 with the LY2 at 10 db over S-9. Interestingly a VE2 ( Quebec province, Canada) was only S-3. But that could have been either prop or because of a highly directional antenna pointed at Europe.

Well lets check some of the lower bands and see what is happening there. Whoa...down on 30 meters, there were still some static crashes heard peaking at S-9. Maybe not local, but perhaps they were propping in from somewhere else. They skip just like anything else! ( I can remember times in the past when car ignition systems were much noisier hearing spark plug noise propping in on ten meters into East Africa!!) One good DX station was heard above the noise: OK1AMA from Czech Republic on 10111.3 though it took some repeat listening to get his call sign pulled out through the noise.

Eyelids were getting heavy about this time after a full day of work and getting up about 4 AM that morning...but still time to check 40 meters. From the static on 30, I figured the noise on 40 would be worse and it was. But the signals were quite strong. The first QSO I ran across was on 7012.1 with the station signing being K3STX, very strong above the crashes. But then the station he was working was strong too. Turns out to be a station heard and worked here many times: F5IN with an S-9 plus signal into Texas from France on 40 meters. Up the band a ways I find a pileup about 7015 and figuring the target may be listening up from his frequency, I check down one and find TA3D from Turkey coming in on 7014..also S-9. What are those guys running??!! They are always strong here!!

By now the sleepies are catching up with me. Perhaps in the morning this trend will continue, but for now its time for an emergency nap ( or more) after a long day.

As I shut down the FT-757-GX, turn off the Astron power supply and disconnect the antenna ( I never leave an antenna connected on any of my radios when not in use!) it strikes me that all this adventure took place in just about an hour. Its 0253 GMT. Good stuff in the log. Almost thirty log entries and among them some really good stuff coming in from all over the world at the same time. Truly a magic that lived up to all the daydreams while reading the magazines in 1958!

Sunday, May 10, 2015

Listening in on the “M” Contest

This is kind of an example of a “ day project” in the shack here. The idea is to spend some time trolling through the ham bands during a particular contest, looking for participants from a particular country, or sometimes just finding what there is to find. The “M” contest involves mostly Russian stations trying to work each other and DX with others trying to work them.

This was not to be a full time effort as in the case of my SWL versions of other ham contests, but of some time spent through the day an hour or so at a time. Its not a matter of needing the countries or anything, though in this case I did pick up Kazahkstan on a new band, but of seeing what there is to hear and enjoying the thrill of the hunt.

The tools for this one were an Icom R-75 with dual 250 Hz filters ( one each in 9 mhz and 455 khz IF's) and an 80 meter top fed sloper facing east and up 45 feet.

Start time was Saturday morning, May 9, 2015, after making coffee and feeding the managerie, i.e. four dogs, three cats iside and filling the outside bird feeders, plus checking the front porch to see if either of two stray cats who come by for breakfast had shown up.

Sitting at the operating desk, full coffee cup in hand and slipping on my aircraft style headphones, I made a preliminary run through the WWV frequencies to get a feel for the prop. Thunderstorms elsewhere in the state made themselves well known on the lower frequencies, though 2500 and 5000 kHz WWV's were in strong, with WWVH slightly audible in the background. The 10000 khz frequency was marked by lots of QSB and WWVH being stronger than WWV. The 15000 khz frequency was really up and down, not strong at all with WWVH also almost as strong as WWV. For reference, the location here is Waco, Texas.

First stop was 20 meters, getting there about 1225 GMT. Things were not really very promising at all...there were not many signals to be heard and they were all really down in the grass. The only stateside call heard was KW4JA, and it was fluttery sounding, wildly varying in signal strength and marked with mild echo. He was calling CQ with no takers.

A sweep through the rest of the band turned up UW2M from Ukraine on 14023.1 just barely over the noise. Usually potent HG7T was on 14012.7 coming in about S-5, RJ4P on 14020.3 also at the noise level and R9FT about the same on 14027 and finally Belarus in the form of EU6AF. They appeared to be making contacts within Europe, but working few North Americans. They were the only ones heard on the band.

The move was made to 15 meters. This may sound strange, going to the higher band when the lower one was poor, but I have learned that strangely enough, sometimes 15 opens well to Europe more strongly earlier than does 20 meters at time. The sun has been up there much longer—it is midday, and the band will be open solidly there. Why this occurs is a little puzzling to me, but I have learned it often happens, so who is to question, just use the knowledge.

I got there at 1234 GMT, having spent only about ten minutes on 20 meters. I usually start at the bottom of a band and sweep upward. Signals were not strong, but there were more of them and the noise was lower on fifteen than it had been on twenty.

The first station identified was RV3AMU about S-3, just flirting with the noise level. However, the station he was working was considerably stronger: NP2X in the American Virgin Islands peaking about S-8. Right after that VE1DT called the NP2 at about S-7.

Tuning just a bit up turned up RC3W about S-5 only 400 Hz up. At 21007 I heard the familiar sound of K1ZZ holding forth well over S-9 and working a string of folks. For SWL's listening in the hambands for DX, a good tactic sometimes is to find a station “nearby” working a string and stay with him. Often the prop to you will be similar as the prop to him and you may hear a good string of DX stations working him. Sometimes the “nearby” station may be weak or maybe even inaudible, but it will bring a good run of good stuff into your log! In this case, I was able to hear him work S53F in Slovenia and EA1VT in Spain before his run broke.

Going up the band I noticed conditions were gradually improving, with signals going from just above the noise level to being comfortably copyable. UT1IM in Ukraine was working a string on 21010 and as I listened to him for about ten minutes beginning at 1244 GMT, he went from S-4 and marginal copy with fading to a solid S-7 in just that short time. Things were looking up!

Going up the band, I was somewhat surprised to hear the first of several Asiatic Russian stations, though with echos and flutters. The usual early morning fifteen meter openings don't usually turn up stations that far over from here. The first in the log was RU9WZ on 21011.7 at 1246 GMT. He was followed by OE8Q and UA6CC a minute later on 21012. With the narrow filters in the R-75 or in my old 75S3 in years past it was not unusual to log three stations within a 1 khz span during active contests. ( I wish I still had the old Collins!!!!)

Over the next half hour, DX stations were logged at a rate of one or two per minute. In rapid succession, RT9A, UA4W, R9DX, then a surprise 4L8A from Georgia on 21023. One of only a few Scandinavians of the morning came in with SK2T next, though it took some intensive listening to pull the call out with its deep fading, echo and flirting with the noise level on 21023.

A mere touch of the dial up brought in RC3W, SN7Q, R8TA,LZ2A, G3NYY and RC4SAA in just a couple of minutes!

A short break for coffee and an unusual callsign jumped into the log: RP70TM. This was a casual contest participation, so when breakfast called there was a short break, then a return at 1447 GMT

This started a quick run that included some stateside stations starting to show up with very strong signals as the day got lighter and lighter. In the log were another Ukraine station in the form of UX1HW, US station W0YWW at S-9+10 db, I6NO, K0DEQ, OE1PEW in Austria, DL8MLN in Germany, VA3DX in Canada, NN4K then N9BX at S-9+20 db.

Signal strengths from Europe were steadily climbing, with almost all signals S-7 and above by 1500 GMT. At 1501 there was a real surprise in the form of JW8DW from Svalbard on 21010 at S-7 with some flutter. While a good one, this was not a new one for me on this band ( new ones get harder and harder to come by the longer you play this game!) The next good string included R9AE, R7AW,WJ9B, VE1DT, RF9C, UT1IM again still going strong, UN8GD in Kazahkstan giving me that new one on 15 meters, RJ9A, HG5T at over S-9, OK1DOR. Through the rest of the day, coming and going from the radio, three log pages were filled, mostly with European Russian stations...well over a hundred for the day.

Its somewhat strange looking at the log and marveling at what I would have thought of logging these stations in my beginning days of DX-ing. It was not even imaginable. Why these things were not heard in those days is an open question, Certainly some of it was a lower skill in copying CW. Some was probably lower sensitivity of receivers, thought the NC-88 should not have been that bad. Maybe it was the poor selectivity ( probably 10 khz wide with no filters ) Some was not knowing when to listen. A lot was probably antenna, having a mostly horizontal antenna at a height that was not conducive to good low angle response.

This is more DX in a few hours than I logged in my first two years of listening. Hearing Russian amateurs in my early days was an extremely rare occurrence.

So does this mean I am getting jaded and losing interest at hearing this many good DX stations? No! For some reason, it never gets old. Even logging JA's is still new every time. If it ever does seem to be getting dull, I just turn the radio off and come back later. The magic of those signals leaping into space, bouncing off the ionospheric mirror and diving down to make little currents flow in my antenna as they zip by never seems to get old. As I get older, it seems the exotic sound of those weak, fluttery signals sitting on the antennas like butterflies on your arm is probably what keeps me young!

Learning to Dig Deeper for DX

The body of this post was written a few months ago as part of a planned longer biographical look at DX-ing.  It refers to the early days when I first became aware of reference materials for helping to identify DX and the first steps beyond casual, random tuning of the bands and just listening to what I found.

In those days I was still using my very first receiver, a semi-homebrew thing consisting of  a six-tube broadcast receiver with one RF and one IF stage with a single tube converter in front of it to tune roughly 6-18 mhz. It had been part of a series of kits that came with a radio-tv repair correspondence course my dad was taking in the early fifties. In about 1959,  I was entrusted with it, finished the receiver construction and built the HF converter.

The receiver had no real frequency calibration...just a 0-100 logging scale.  The selectivity was very broad and on the shortwave bands, the image rejection was all but nil. That brings us to this episode. This refers to an era in the late fifties and early 1960's.

After the first few months of listening and after getting my first copy of the World radio TV Handbook, I started listening beyond the “easy” targets. I began spending some time trying to identify some of the weaker signals and some of those in different languages.

The way the Voice of America ID'ed in those days actually helped. They would identify the transmitter site and language about the be transmitted. For example : “ This is Voice of America transmitter KNBH in Dixon, California. The following program is in Thai.”( or Russian, or Polish, or Swahili...) It was not long until I was able to identify languages by their basic sounds, even if I could not understand what was being said.

The WRTH ( World Radio TV Handbook) helped in another way. They included phonetic spellings of station identifications in the various languages.( “transmite Radio Atlantco”,”Ici Bamako”, etc). Sometimes the station identity could be confirmed by what band, what time and what language was being transmitted, sometimes with other clues such as locations or city names being repeated a lot.

There were also the Interval Signals. In the days of analog dials and stations seeking listeners they knew often had simple receivers, the stations would help listeners find the stations before programs started by transmitting these signals. Often they were a phrase of a tune, or a short musical excerpt repeated over and over again. The Voice of America used “ Columbia, the Gem of the Ocean” and “Yankee Doodle”. Radio Moscow used a short phrase played on chimes. The BBC World Service used three tones played over and over. Radio Australia used a music box version of “Waltzing Matilda”. The WRTH and many of the DX articles in the magazines of the time would list these Interval Signals. The WRTH went one step further in publishing the actual musical notes under the listings for the stations with the name of the musical piece from which it was taken.

Between these clues and a development of the ability to listen intently through noise and interference, the percentage of stations being identified began to improve. The big thrills came with the logging of the first African stations. My first were the Voice of America Relay in Monrovia, Liberia. In those days each transmitter site identified itself before the programming began " This is the Voice of America Relay Station in Morovia. the following program is in Arabic".  But there was something particularly exotic about hearing the VOA relay from Tangier. Then there was the second station in the log: ELWA, a missionary station that was really weak here. I finally realized that it was probably beaming away from us and toward the center of the continent. It was a true disappointment years later when both of these sites were destroyed in the war that swept that West African nation.

During that same period Radio Brazzaville from the Congo had strong signals here, as did the South African Broadcasting Corp. For many of these, it was a matter of learning what the best times for receiving the signals would be. It was also about this time that I found the VOA station from Rhodes, which was not a land based station, but broadcast from the vessel “ Courier”. The QSL card depicted a blimp like balloon holding an antenna aloft. I never knew if that wire was the one that the short wave transmitters used or if it was just for the medium wave outlet the ship also carried.

I had not logged any Asian stations at all by this time, but again it was a matter of learning when to listen. I think I shocked my parents when I began getting up early and no longer had to be drug out of bed to get ready for school. It was on one of those early morning forays where I first heard NHK from Tokyo on 25 meters. I don't know why I had so much trouble finding them the first time, unless it was just some quirk in the directional pattern of my antennas. I know I never heard any Japanese hams on that particular wire after I got my ham license, either.

It was during one of those morning sweeps that I found one of my long time friends on the dial for the first time: Radio Australia. The first time I heard it was on 9580 and it became a morning fixture to listen to while dressing for school. It seems that 9580 was the morning spot for that station for many, many fact until just a few years ago. I was really surprised to find when I got a QSL from them that some of the hours that I would hear it were not the actual North American service, but the Pacific Service and the power for the time I sent the report in was just 10 kw! Though I spent many mornings hunting, I did not hear their band mate, radio New Zealand, at all during that period. I remember wondering if it was because of their power. In those days, the WRTH had them listed as having just two transmitters with 7.5 kw each. To this day I am not sure if I just missed them or if perhaps their antennas were beaming a path not favorable to the US.

The 31 and 25 meter bands were very interesting in the mornings in those days. It was the first time and place that I heard that unique, fluttery sound that marks that Asia/Pacific path on those bands in the morning. I first heard the multi-path, echo signals during that period also. I often wondered ( still do ) if perhaps I was hearing signals both long and short path at the same time. It was during that period that I first heard the VOA relays from the Philippines and from Okinawa. They were loaded with echos to the point that the first few times, it was difficult to understand them and pick out the ID!

There was one other thing that sometimes made them difficult to identify. It was the first time I heard jamming signals and actually figured out what they were. They were most often heard on the VOA relay station frequencies. After I figured out what they were, I realized I had been hearing some of that on the 31 meter band, too, mostly during the evening hours. In those cases, I was not able to hear the station beneath the sounds at all and could not even tell what was being jammed.

It was during this period that my parents found they had traded one morning difficulty with me for another. Instead of trouble dragging me out of bed, they had trouble dragging me away from the radio to catch the school bus on time!

About this time I began to start “targeting” stations. I would read the DX columns in Popular Electronics and concentrate on the loggings at the ends of the columns. I would pick out a few, look at the times they were being heard and “lie in ambush” for them. Of course with this receiver, that was particularly difficult because of the total lack of frequency readout, but I began using the usual suspects on the bands like beacons just as I had before on the broadcast band. I would look for the interval signals.

I also figured out that it might be easier to find the “out of band” or “edge of band”stations more easily because they would not be in the thick pack. It was that way that I found Cairo and Israel at the lower extremes of 31 meters. I think Tel Aviv held forth on 9009 kHz at the time, if memory serves.  ( that is a good technique for finding some good DX even today!If you have a simple receiver without a lot of selectivity, hunt away from the big packs!)

Tuning the home built receiver was always difficult at best and often the tuning rate was a bit fast for trolling for the weak ones. I tried putting a larger knob on the tuning shaft and that helped some. I also developed a two-handed tuning technique that helped overcome the less than smooth operation of the dial-string-and-drum tuning arrangement.

The big problem that was coming to the fore was the lack of selectivity of the receiver with its single IF stage and no filters. A bit of reading in an older Radio Amateurs Handbook at the Waco Public Library gave a few clues on things to try. There was an article in one of the books about coupling between tuned circuits in IF amplifiers that gave me an idea. I probably shouldn't have done it, but being a kid, did not think about the possible consequences, but I removed the shield cans from the IF transformers and saw that the coils for primary and secondary were wound pie fashion on a horizontal wood dowel and were fairly close together. After reading about the effects of coupling on selectivity, I decided to try to loosen the coupling and see if that would help.

Luckily the glue on the windings was not too tight and they both sprang free with out much twisting. I was probably very lucky I did not break the tiny wires leading to the windings. I moved them as far apart as possible, out to the ends of the horizontally mounted dowel. That was for the input transformer to the IF stage. I did the same for the output transformer and replaced the shield cans.

The trimmer capacitors for aligning the IF's on this rig were on the bottom and had to be reached with a screwdriver from the bottom of the chassis. I had a feeling the movement of the coils might change the tuning, so I peaked those trimmers on a steady local broadcast signal. There was some improvement, noticeable right away. The peaks seemed a little more well defined. I was afraid that the decreased coupling would reduce the gain of the stages too much, but that fear quickly disappeared. There was a just noticeable drop in signal level. I found the improvement noticeable in trying to separate some of the close packed signals on 31 and 41 meters the first night.There were some new loggings right away, and looking back at my “ stations heard list” from those days, I found a note where the modification was made, so even years later its easy to tell the difference it made. Some of the stations had been covered by strong VOA or Radio Havana signals. I was able to dig out Vatican Radio, Radio Prague. Austria and Deutsche Welle ( the latter might have been audible but just not identified before). It might have been frightening to know just how broad the tuning might have been on that thing before the change!

I also found the idea of “targeting” stations by looking up their schedules and frequencies was productive for finding “ new “ stations I had not heard before. Some of these were not really buried in the crowd, but had just been missed because I was stopped during band sweeps listening to a program that sounded interesting. Looking back, it seems almost odd that it was only after several months of listening that I found Radio Nederland from Hilversum, Holland given how strong it was. The same for Italy's RAI.

One disappointment to this day are the Scandanavian countries that are now absent from the bands and cannot be heard today. They were on the air then, but even though I lay in wait for them, I never did not log the stations from Denmark, Sweden, Norway or Finland during those glory days of short wave listening.

The improved selectivity of the receiver also made listening in the amateur bands much more enjoyable. Previously the crowded bands filled with predominately AM signals were a cacophany of whistles and squeals of carriers beating against one another with high pitched heterodynes making listening difficult. The narrower tuning began to make many weaker signals audible and tuning the 40 and 20 meter phone bands became much more pleasant and I began spending more time there. I was soon logging stations from all over the country, and from Canada and Mexico. Soon there were DX stations from the Caribbean and South America in the log for the first time.

Of course, improvements always lead to a desire for more improvements. I had read about another technique for further tightening up the tuning and providing additional gain: regeneration. This involved introducing a little intentional feedback in the IF amplifier. I was already somewhat familiar with the idea from my little one tube “ little howler” receiver I had built from a kit a couple years before. Soon the receiver chassis was once again turned over and this time the soldering iron was out. I had read about a simple method for introducing regeneration by soldering a short piece of insulated wire onto the plate pin of the IF amplifier tube and moving it close to the grid pin. The article cautioned about not getting it too close or full oscillation would take place.

The soldering job did not take long and soon a one inch piece of wire with insulation still in place on the free end had appeared on the bottom of the 12SK7 tube socket. Firing up the receiver soon showed what the author had meant about oscillation. Wild squeals burst from the speaker of the radio!. It took careful movement of the wire away from the grid lug using a pencil ( receiver was on and high voltage present on the plate lug!!) to reach the point where there was some feedback, but not enough to break into oscillation on weak signals. ( I learned later that the automatic gain control bringing the gain up on weak signals would increase the possibility of oscillation, just like turning the gain up on a public address system will do the same with audio).

Once again, peaking the IF tuning adjustment was done. The results were amazing. Just tuning the IF's made the change very obvious. The peaks were very sharp, with only a fraction of a turn resulting in a peak being found or lost. There was also what would later become a familiar sound, the swishing in the audio as the peak was swept past.

This turned out to be the biggest improvement made in the receiver to that point. Tuning was noticeable sharper and any gain lost by decreasing the coupling before was more than made up. Now we were getting somewhere.

But something else came of the experience. I found that by moving the coupling wire back and forth to intentionally get the receiver into oscillation, cw signals were suddenly audible. I had just begun to study the Morse Code with an Ameco course on a record and had been wondering how long it would be before I could afford an actual amateur receiver to hear code on the air. There would be no wait. It turned out that a plan to improve my existing radio led to something totally unexpected of it: the ability to hear cw. A major door had opened.