Sunday, July 19, 2015

A VHF Field Day

Amateur Radio Field Day is a yearly adventure I have enjoyed since 1962 when I first experienced one as a visitor at the Central Texas Amateur Radio Club. Operating or listening away from the regular shack or with other than “usual” antennas has at times been a fun diversion and at others has allowed antennas to be used that could not normally be used because of apartment restrictions.

This year, scheduling with family events and other things had made planning difficult. At one point there was a plan to go operate with one of the local clubs, but times available and their schedule was making that hard to work out. Operating at home was considered, with the thought of setting up in the back yard with emergency power and erecting different antennas than normally used to simulate a Field Day situation. When it appeared that assistance in raising heavy masts would not be available, things began to look a little iffy for the 2015 edition of Field Day.

Then I got to thinking about the previous two Field Days when six meter openings had resulted in many, many signals being heard and several hours being spent just on that one band. Previous Field Days came to mind where there was a fair amount of two meter activity to be enjoyed during parts of the day.

VHF antennas being available and being very light weight and a home location on a good hilltop with good views of the horizon in three directions brought the idea of trying a VHF only Field Day. The limited operating time and simple to raise antennas seemed to fit the bill.

I had purchased a three element six meter beam at a ham fest two years ago that had not been assembled, so the plan was to use it on a short mast.  The hilltop location and the fact that Sporadic E openings don't require a very high antenna anyway made that a viable thing to do.

I have had a couple of eleven element two meter beams for many years with another light weight twenty foot mast that could easily be raised by myself, so the plans were to use one of the beams. It would be mounted horizontally for SSB.

Field Day is an activity that is generally thought to be for hams, but it can also be enjoyed by SWL's and other DX-ers. Those who live in apartments or in locations where antennas are restricted can at least during the activity use antennas they could not have at their home location. Some might even get away with a day or weekend use of those antennas at their home location if not left up permanently.

Antenna prep work before contest time went pretty smoothly. The six meter antenna assembly went well and the antenna adjusted for the low end of the band per the included instructions. In this particular case, the antenna was a kit that someone had purchased years before and not assembled and the entire thing in the original shipping container had been sold at the Belton, Texas hamfest at a real bargain price. Nothing on the paperwork with the antenna indicated how old it was, but from the condition of the shipping carton, it was probably at least twenty years old.

It was mounted on a fifteen foot mast consisting of ten foot and five foot “stack together” mast sections purchased from Radio Shack probably thirty years ago that were part of my antenna “ junk pile”. I am one who never throws anything away—a veritable pack rat when it comes to metal tubing, old TV antennas, push up TV masts and that sort of thing.

The base of the mast was placed in a heavy base designed to support an umbrella to shade a back yard table. The mast fit perfectly into the hole in the middle of the 24-inch diameter round base and did not even need guying initially. I did for safety's sake tie it off with nylon cord. It would be rotated by hand.

The two meter antenna went on a thirty foot telescoping mast that was not telescoped up all the way. The two top sections were only pulled out half way each. I did not feel safe in trying to tilt it up by myself.  The two meter antenna would also be turned by hand.

The method for raising it was one that I had developed over the years for even taller masts. I used nylon ski rope for the guys with three attached at the fifteen foot level on the mast. The length of two of the guys was figured out and they were tied ahead of time to a chain link fence around the yard. The third guy was left slack. The mast was then laid on the ground with the bottom of the mast in a shallow hole in the ground with concrete blocks behind it to keep the base from slipping. The mast was then “ walked up” by starting with the antenna end and walking in the opposite direction from the already fastened guys. When the mast was vertical two of the guys were already taut. I had one assistant who was available only for a few minutes stand at the base of the mast and hold it steady while I tied off the third guy to a tree. I never cut the ski rope, but coiled up the unused portion so it can easily be used for another project later! The entire antenna set up time had been less than two hours.

The time had been shortened considerably by the ready availability of plenty of hardware. I have collected over the years a lot of antenna “ parts” that are handy for such things. There are plenty of U-bolts, screws, tie wraps, nylon string, twine and rope, pulleys, extra nuts and washers of the size nearly universally used for small antennas in jars and plastic bags always “ at the ready”. I always look for old TV antennas and mast sections, broken vertical antennas and such at hamfests, picking up bits and pieces here and there usually at very low prices, as each piece is not worth much by itself, but when you need it, you need it!

I also have rolls of RG-8X with connectors attached in various lengths from 25 feet to 100 feet, stored in plastic bags. For relatively short runs, the loss in this cable is acceptable and its much easier to handle than something larger. I do have a few short runs of RG8, RG6, RG-11 and RG-213 with connectors attached, also in “ go bags”. Short runs of this cable is readily available cheap at hamfests, sometimes really cheap if no connectors are on it. Developing the skill to attach the connectors can result in good useable feedline being obtained at very little cost! RG 6 is readily available from old cable tv drops or may be even be purchased new at reasonable cost and on the HF and lower VHF bands has acceptable loss figures. It being a 75 ohm line is not a problem with wire antennas or even other types as the match is fairly close. And with short runs and the use of antenna tuners in many modern rigs, its a good alternative to more expensive line for portable operation.

Now for the rigs. There would my venerable old Icom all mode rigs plus my R-75 receiver for help on six. Other than the R-75, these rigs are probably thirty-plus years old, but still do pretty well on receive. The R-75 does very well. The two meter rig was obtained as a real bargain because its internal AC power supply was not working. It was a switching supply and rather than even bother with fixing it, I have always just run it off a battery or an external Astron DC supply. In this Field Day Operation, the supply would be a twelve volt car battery running all three pieces of gear. While the set up of antennas was in the “ field” of the back yard, the radios were still in the house. This was to be a “ just for fun” operation with no score to be turned in. Besides, being VHF only, what could one expect to really do score-wise​?

The set up went so quickly and smoothly that there was time to shower and even go get a haircut before start up time! Trying the rigs initially turned up one problem right away. My local, neighborhood power line noise chose this one day to really kick up. With the six meter beam turned in any direction from due east through south and over to southwest, the noise was terrible. It was S-3 on the R-75. The unusual thing about the direction the antenna was peaking was that it was away from the power lines that run on the north west side of my yard!

A look around showed one possibility. One of my permanent station antennas—my 80 meter sloper—was running across the path of the beam on the south side. Could it be picking up the noise and re radiating it into the six meter antenna? It was dropping across the path of the antenna only about ten feet away. The answer came quickly when I untied the lower end of the sloper and walked it off across the yard and away from my temporary VHF antenna farm. A check again showed the noise much, much lower and peaking where it should this the north and northwest, and just detectable by ear. It was not moving the S meter on the R-75 at all. On two meters, the Icom 251A was not being bothered by it at all. The old 551 showed only a small amount of noise on six.

It was soon to be time for Field Day to begin. A quick sweep of both bands showed.....nothing. There were some beacons coming through on six meters. If there was not to be a Sporadic E opening there would not be much to find, as by noon local time, all of the tropo enhancement would be gone. Just before contest time, there were a few W9 and W4 area beacons coming into Central Texas. Oddly enough, the one good beacon within normal groundwave range at Goldthwaite was not audible.

Time to start! Scanning the bands on six: Absolutely nothing. On two meter cw: Absolutely nothing. On two meter SSB: three stations from North Texas, all in the Dallas-Fort Worth area and normally workable in the worst part of the day anyway. Just for fun, checking the FM simplex frequencies knowing that the horizontal antenna would not be worth much at a distance but thinking perhaps someone local might be on: Nothing.

This wasn't a good start at all! Maybe this wasn't such a good idea after all! The beacons were there, but no Field Day stations on six. Usually a number of Non Field Day base stations will show up just for contacts with the band open, but absolutely nothing! Grrrrrr!!!

Nothing to do but take a break and come back later. I took a drive over to the local club site and sat and watched the cw station making a fair string of contacts on 15 meters, came home and checked again. Nothing. Went with the wife for lunch of Mexican food and came back about 4 PM local. Nothing. I did find a few more stations on two meter SSB including one in Oklahoma.

Since this was not going to be an official entry anyway, I decided to check DX Summit and see if anyone was noticing an opening. They were! Stations along the Eastern US were working New York to Florida and stations in Cuba, Grand Cayman and Puerto Rico were being spotted. But nothing here. I kept the beam pointed just south of due east straining to hear any trace of KP4 or ZF2. Nothing but noise! Grrrr!

Meanwhile back on two meters, a few more stations showed up, this time from East Texas, one from Austin and a couple from the San Antonio area. Where were all the Houston area stations? On two, the big base station guys should be there looking for a few contacts. Grrr!

But then,a VHF contest is like that. Its very similar to what an old ( now silent key) airline pilot friend used to say about flying the airlines: “ Its hours and hours of sheer boredom punctuated by short seconds of stark terror!” Or in this case, short seconds of elation followed by a drop back to depression and boredom again!!

The only thing I could figure was that the E cloud was out over the Carolinas somewhere and just not between me and those other guys. I did see a few 5's on DX Summit posting, but it was very few. Earlier in the day, the Europeans had been working all kinds of Sporadic E. But here, nothing. It made me think that perhaps more than stuff from the sun affects the formation of E clouds. Just guessing, but it sure seemed like that. I thought back to a few weeks earlier when thunderstorms were scattered all over the Midwest and East and there was a big E opening. Just thinking and tuning and thinking and tuning....

During one of these quiet periods, I switched to one of my regular antennas and just listened a little on the HF bands to the activity there, wondering if I had made a big mistake. The bands were fairly good and there were even some Europeans making contacts with US Field Day stations on 20 meters.

Soon it was suppertime. A break from listening to white noise and time for a little sustenance and a visit with the wife away from the boredom.

It was getting late in the day and I spent more time trolling two meters, hoping for some late in the day tropo. Well! Here came some of the southeast Texas stations...Houston, Beaumont and a station from Lake Charles, Louisiana. But soon those same stations were all I was hearing calling “ CQ Field Day” over and over.

Back to six meters, thinking maybe the sun to the west of us in the sky would do SOMETHING! Lets check the beacons first starting at 50050 and up.
Whoa! Where did this come from? KA0CDN/B was almost S-9! When did this happen? A check up and down the “beacon band” turned up two more very strong signals:K0EC/B from Colorado and N7JW from Utah both up and down but pushing S-8 at times! It was like someone had flipped a switch opening the band. And there was the semi local K5AB back in its usual spot, too.

A quick trip up to 50125 found bedlam! It sounded like 20 meters! Stations calling CQ Field Day, some working good strings. Actual QRM. Before diving in, I took a swing through the cw portion from 50085 up and heard nobody. So it was back up about 125 to begin filling in the log.

There was a beehive of “zero” stations, with the strongest from Colorado, but others from Nebraska and even fairly rare ( for me at least) South and North Dakota. A couple from Minnesota. Interestingly, the weakest stations were from Kansas. One “zero” station was a surprise when the section was copied...they were in Utah. The strongest station heard during this particular opening was W7GJ in grid DN34 in Idaho at 10 db over S-9! Where were these guys earlier! There was one K3 heard, but it wasn't really an indication of a Northeast stretch of the band. It was a bit of a disappointment when the section report indicated he was in Colorado. ( Imagine disappointment

hearing Colorado on six after all the white noise heard earlier...such is “ living in the moment” in DX-ing!)

It was a busy couple hours with my handwritten log ( yes I do still use one, entering in the computer later---hopelessly old school) getting a little messy in places until about 0345 GMT where as suddenly as it was opened, the band snapped shut. It had started getting a bit stale anyway, with mostly the same stations being heard over and over and no fresh blood. As I think back, some of them that had been strong had started slipping and were mostly calling CQ without finding any new stuff anymore either.

A check of two meters revealed only the same stations I had heard earlier. Well, this was the advantage of a VHF Field Day. While others working HF were finding foreheads dropping down to the table tops if overnight reliefs weren't found, for me it was Nap Time! I set the alarm for 4:30 AM and dropped off to la la land with dreams of ZS6 on six meters dancing in my head. ( Hey! A guy can dream!)

Rising Sunday morning at 4:30 AM CDT or 0930 GMT and checking the bands showed only a few stations on two meters, all the same ones heard the day before in the Dallas/Ft Worth and Houston areas. Nothing on six meters but the K5AB beacon within normal ground wave distance. Oh well, time to make coffee and grab a bowl of cereal.

Back behind the radios at 1030 GMT netted a few more extended ground wave two meter signals on SSB, some newbies within about 200 miles. Still nothing on six. Continued search on two meters turned up a few more, including one station from Lafayette, Louisiana.

About 1130 GMT, or about 6:30 AM local, the signals on two meters began to pick up. Two more Oklahoma stations were heard and one in Arkansas. A couple tropo signals were found on six, but still no Sporadic E. A bit early for that.

About a half hour later, things began to wake up with a few beacons beginning to prop in from Florida and the Carolinas. A few minutes later it was really on when one of the beacons from Atlanta, Georgia hit a solid S-9( W4CLM/B)

The rest of the morning was a blur of log entries. First it was stations from Florida, Kentucky and Georgia. Then the band stretched up into Pennsylvania, New Jersey and New York, then swinging around to the Midwest and finally stretching into the Caribbean. This time there were plenty of cw stations coming through, with the absolute strongest being WA8FTA which was 10 db over S-9. By 1415, the VE's were coming in, with several VE3's hitting S-7 and later in the morning a couple VE4's and a VE5. The strongest Canadian here was VE3SAR at S-8.

The band was chock full of W0, W9, and W8 stations...some of them actual Field Day operations and some fixed stations taking advantage of the opening and handing out contacts. Stations from KP4, CO7, KP2, ZF2 and PJ4 were heard. DX Summit showed folks hearing the ZD8 beacon and some east coasters hearing Europeans, but they did not make it to Texas.

All in all, it was a good time! For VHF DX-ers, contest days are good times to get into a target rich environment. For listeners, its also a good time for DX, too. Most VHF hams would be happy to get reception reports and QSL. And as shortwave broadcasting has less activity, tuning the amateur bands is a good way to still enjoy the thrill of logging DX and adding to the country list. Activity on six and two meter SSB is up because of many HF rigs now including one or both VHF bands in the mix. Particularly on six, there is a lot more activity because of this, and with higher power than in years past as most of the rigs put out 100 watts on the magic band.

Overall, the idea of a VHF field day was a good idea, and perhaps good practice for the more dedicated VHF contests.

I would be very happy to hear from others involved in VHF DX-ing, either amateur or as listeners. I would particularly like to hear from anyone who has done TV or FM DX outside the US, particularly Hawaii. Just drop a note with your email address to “comments” on this blog.

Good DX!

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