Sunday, August 30, 2015

DX Record Keeping: The Log

I have mentioned that I use a paper log for initial logging. Its not that I am anti-technology, it is just what I am used to and it really does not slow me down. When logging amateurs, I often enter the callsigns directly into the log without use of scratch paper if the signal is strong and clear. If not, I have a half sheet of paper or folded sheet lying on top of a portion of the log page for use as scratch paper.

I am sure everyone has their preference for logging and I present mine not as any kind of inference that it is superior, just to share what I have been doing over the years. I am sure there are much better ways to get the job done.

I use regular school notebooks for logs, usually the spiral bound ones. I leave a little margin on the left for special notations, then make columns for times in GMT, the station callsign or identifier, frequency, mode if not obvious, signal report ( I still use the old RST's one I know and am familiar with and provides me the info I need for comparison later) and the location. I take a full line for entering the date, always putting it at the top of the page if starting over or if carrying over from another page. I usually put the receiver I am using and antenna at the top left of the first page when I change rigs. It is decidedly low tech, but it is inexpensive and convenient. I can always transfer the entries into the computer logging program later. Its not a chore for me and its like reliving the DX experience.

I use the computer logging program for amateur logings mostly, having not found a log appropriate for how I like a log to look for broadcast and utility stations. The SWL logging programs seem to have way too much information to enter. I am interested in a straight, one line logging of the format that I use in the notebooks, but that would allow me to keep track of countries overall and countries for each band. If someone has a suggestion for one that would do that, I would be very happy. Attempts at adapting amateur programs have not worked well.

Below are some samples of my paper logging over the years. The first was probably not technically a log in the purest sense of the word. In my beginning days of broadcast band DX-ing, I just kept lists of stations heard. This was back in my pre teen years, beginning in 1958. I had the lists just segregated into US and foreign stations. the receiver used was a Watterson 5 tube table radio with 70 foot longwire up 20 feet. A sample of that is shown below:

When I began to listen to shortwave in late 1959 and 1960, the simple listing continued. Again there was no record keeping of time and date, just lists of the stations received. During this period I was using a home brew receiver for listening. Note the use of call letters a lot more in those days, particularly for the Voice of American transmitter Sites!

Later I began using the ARRL logbooks to enter my received stations, and began including date and time information. It was in this period that I used a National SW-54 and later a National NC-88 for listening.

Thus followed the pattern for several years. When I landed in East Africa in 1972-73 , I used a Radio Shack log for keeping track of stations heard in Asmara, Ethiopia using a Hallicrafters SX-99 Receiver and a 125 foot longwire fifteen feet above the roof of a three story barracks building..

When I got back to the US and found myself at Ft Polk, Louisiana DX-ing in the barracks with a National NC-190 and 125 foot longwire strung between two barracks buildings up about 25 feet.  I was back to using the ARRL logbooks

Later in the civilian world I began using spiral notebooks. At one point, I kept a separate log for utility stations, using a different kind of spiral notebook bound at the top. Note use of the Drake 2B with crystals in the auxiliary bandswitch positions for bands outside the amateur frequencies during this session and a listing of which antenna was used in the far right column.  The Windom antenna used was 135 feet long up 40 feet. I used a Heathkit roller coil amateur tuner to match the antenna on all bands. I still have that receiver today and it is excellent for all kinds of DX work between 3.5 and 30 MHz.

Now I continue to use the spiral bound books for initial paper logging for all forms of DX-ing, including the medium wave. Note the R-75 was used for this session with the 90 foot long sloper antenna at 45 feet.

The same works well for logging shortwave broadcasts. Again in this session the R-75 and sloper were used.

And it also  works well for me for amateur band DX. For this session the FT-757-GX was used with the sloper. Note the X's in the far left column to draw attention to some "good stuff"

Where is the DX, Jamming and World News

This previous two week's listening has been somewhat jumbled because of work and other requirements, and covers some scattered ground. There has been an obvious continued drop in solar activity that has left the upper bands a little weak. However, as far as the amateur bands go, it appears that from an operator's standpoint, it may have been a self fulfilling  prophecy.

I had no organized listening plan for the weekend of August 22nd-23rd, thinking there would be very little time, but figured one of the things I would check out would be the amateur Hawaiian QSO Party. This is one of what I have grown to term “ smaller contests” that can be listened to or participated in on a rather casual basis. Hearing Hawaiian amateurs is not particularly difficult in Central Texas but its a fun place and there are various time windows for the different bands on which to look for them, leaving time for other activities with the family or tuning for other things.

On the morning of August 22,  I sat down in front of the radio a bit after 6 AM local time ( 1100 GMT) and ran a quick check of the WWV frequencies. Hawaii being to the west of me and it being daylight, it seemed obvious that the place to start would be the low bands. Running WWV, I found the 2.5 MHz signal being S-9+20 DB with WWVH ( of course, from Hawaii) being well audible behind it. On 5.0 MHz, the Ft Collins WWV transmitter was S-9+30 DB with WWVH even louder than its lower frequency cousin behind it. On 10 MHz, WWVH was dominant at almost S-9 with WWV down very low beneath.

On the higher frequencies it was a predictable story. On 15 MHz there were just detectable carriers with signals so weak that no audio was recoverable. Nothing at all was audible on 20 and 25 MHz.. ( There was an old joke in a magazine I read when I was a kid—and I cannot remember what it was to give credit—but the joke was about a ham or SWL who had sent out a plaintive cry “ Help, the bands are so bad I can't even here my own crystal calibrator!”. Wups, guess I gave away my age because some reading this may not be old enough to know what one of those was for or what it was!! But I digress...)

A run through twenty meters showed few signals at all. All were very weak except a few first hop US signals from the Southeastern US. So it was down to forty meters to look there.

At first it did not seem like a very promising morning. No stations were heard calling “ CQ Test” at the bottom of the band. A tune upward to 7033 did find a group of stations dropping their callsigns. There it was! The first station from Hawaii heard for the morning. He was so strong that if I had not copied the callsign right away, I would have thought he was Stateside. KH6J was S-9 and above and had attracted a small crowd This was at 1146 GMT.

A return to the bottom of the band and the beginning of a sweep upward began to turn up a few Asian signals. Perhaps it had not been sundown or close enough to it when I first tuned in and I was hearing the band open. JH1RZY was coming in RST 569 to be the first in the log. A few more then followed.

A few minutes later, a bit of a mystery developed. I head a bit of a pileup on 7015.6, including both US and Japanese stations calling someone. There seemed to be a lot of interest in JA4GXS/4. A check of DX Summit showed a few stations posting him. Going to did not turn up anything unusual, just his home QTH without the “/4”. I am not sure if he was perhaps operating portable on an island or was doing some kind of special event thing. I marked him for further checking later. Perhaps something will turn up. If not, at least he is another station in the log!

While looking on the computer for info on JA4GXS/4, I was also still tuning and tuning. At 1158, whle down around 7008 I spotted a weak signal with that “ DX sound” ( how can I describe it. It just sounded like DX!) After listening through a QSO or two, I finally picked out the call: VK2AWD at RST 569. Forty was for sure officially open!

Over the next thirty minutes, signals from Japan increased in signal strength as the sun came up in Texas and went down there. Several were heard, among them JA7ORC, JA1NUT ( an old friend on this and other bands) In between over the next few minutes, a couple of Asiatic Russians, the strongest of which was RW9JZ peaking at 589 and heard several times while sweeping back and forth across the band. As conditions improved, I ran across JA7ORC again The first time I heard him at 1159 GMT he was RST 579, but the second time I crossed paths with him at 1210, he had come up to S-9 + 10 DB!

Then it was time for breakfast.

OK, healthy diets or no, there is no way to continue hunting DX on an empty stomach! Weekends around our house, after a week of low fat, high fiber breakfasts, we break the mold. It has to be thick bacon, fried eggs sunny side up or occasionally scrambled with capers, green onions, and cheese, toast with home made jam and sometimes sliced tomatoes with gravy. Ahhh. The breakfast of DX champions!

OK, back to the radios to search for DX. A short sweep through fifteen meters results in only a handful of US stations. On to twenty meters. By now its 1600 GMT. Only one Hawaiian heard. KH6Y is very busy on 14033. Seventeen meters yields only two signals: K7RI on SSB and VE5SD on CW.

OK, lets take a crazy step and check ten meters. Nothing across the CW portion. But ten meters has one group of targets that are always there, no matter how much the hams looking around might be discouraged from making a call. They are the beacons, generally found between 28150 and 28300. The band had that “ open sound”, again an undefinable sound that tells the seasoned listener that something should be there. Its a kind of increase in the noise level that is not man made QRN, but a general rise in a soft sounding rustling. I know its not very scientific, but I am sure some of you know what I am talking about.

Using the FT-757GX for the mornings exploring, it took spinning the dial many times to go from the vicinity of 28000 up to 28200. No keypad frequency entry for this beast! Slowing down above 28200, I ran into the first signal at 28222.1 Beacons are generally very low powered, mostly 5 watts or less, many just one watt. But there the first one was: W4KLP/B, not strong, only about S-4, but readable. Up a bit at 28232.1 was a beacon heard many times here: W4CLM/B stronger at 569. Three others were logged in short order. All were from the Southeastern US, indicating the opening was to that area particularly and perhaps even a Sporadic E opening. The main point is, the band was open and nobody was home! Nobody noticed.

So it was back to twenty meters, by now at 1700 GMT...still predominately US stations. Oh well, lunch break, chores and back at 2200 GMT.

This time was different. In between the strong US stations, there were some weaker signals. Finally at 2203 the first European came through: IK2CIO, not strong, just 559. Then as the hour wore on, more and more showed up the strongest being HA8IB at a healthy 589. It was a matter of digging for them. They were there, just down in the grass. Its another case of not getting discouraged if the DX doesn't just jump out of the radio into your lap.

It definitely appeared the Maximum Useable Frequency was just plain low, even in mid afternoon local time. On a total whim, I dropped down to 30 meters just to see what was cooking.

WWV on 10 MHz was booming in and steady so things did not bode well, but why not at least look around. Another sign things weren't too promising was the lack of the non amateur digital signal that usually appears at about 10101 when the band is open to Europe. But there was a cluster of signals calling someone about 10103. it was now 2220 GMT. Admittedly a little early for 30 meters, but things had been dull on 20 so why not check. It took listening to three or four exchanges before the surprise of the afternoon was identified: 4X4WN, David, was working several East Coast US stations. He was not strong, about S-3 and a bit of a difficult copy, but there he was! And in the log! Interestingly enough, careful tuning of the rest of the band turned up almost nothing. It appeared that anybody who was anybody was on that frequency trying to work the 4X4!

The rest of the afternoon was spent back up on twenty. There was DX to be found among the stronger “ local” signals. It just took work to find them. Instead of finding one every two or three minutes, it was more like one every ten or fifteen minutes. It took careful tuning but several Europeans were logged then as later afternoon approached and it became August 23 GMT 0000 things got a little better. KH6J appeared again, along with RG0A from Asiatic Russia and EA6UN from the Balearic Islands. Otherwise it was mostly US and Central and South American stations till radio shutdown at 0100 GMT.

The next morning, Sunday morning August 23 Texas time or 1145 GMT after feeding dogs and cats and making coffee, I lit up the FT-757GX once again and proved to myself that the lower bands are the place to be during low solar activity, I immediately ran across XE2CQ from Mexico holding forth on 7004 with a beehive of Japanese stations working him. Some of the JA's were quite strong, S-8 and greater. The strongest was JH1JBV.

There was DX to be heard elsewhere than just in that one pileup.Up the band a bit at 7012.5 was DS4AOW from South Korea coming in quite well with an RST 579 signal at 1157 GMT. Minutes later at 1159 GMT, just 3 Khz down the band was the prize of the weekend, P29LL from Papua New Guinea, a good log any day! He was not strong, RST 559, but readable. Over the next few minutes, several JA's jumped into the log.

A check of the WWV signals showed WWVH from Hawaii coming in S-9+ on 10 mHz with the US WWV inaudible. On 5 MHz, WWV and WWVH were in together, at S-9+30 DB. Whopping signals. It was decided to make a swing through the lower Tropical band frequencies and just see what might be what.

After getting fresh coffee, it was 1235 GMT of 7:35 AM local time here. The very lowest of the Tropical band frequencies would be already fading. Besides that, as luck would have it, my local somewhat erratic power line noise was kicking up, covering the weaker signals any way.

The lower South Korean frequencies were marked by a more intense than usual jamming. I chalked this up to the new round of tension between North and South Korea that had been brewing the previous week. This turned out to be the case as I worked my way up the band, even as the post sunrise propagation was beginning to fail.

Moving up through the 80 meter amateur band and checking for broadcast signals, the usual Radio Nikkei signal on 3925 was there about S-5, already down from its usual S-9 level that might have been found even a half hour earlier. Radio Verdad from Guatemala on 4055 was also already down to S-6. Of course they are an hour earlier sun time wise than my location. Even with their listed power of about 700 watts, they are sometimes 10-20 DB over S-9 here into Central Texas. I am not sure what antenna they use, but it obviously must be something with a rather high angle of radiation.

More intense jamming was found on 4450 at 1239 GMT atop the Voice of the People. Usually here the music is at least recognizable under the jamming but not this time around. The same went for the signal on 4557. Prop from that part of the world was still holding up for the next half hour as VL8A from Alice Springs on 4835 was about S-8 as an aside, with what ever problems they have been having with their lower frequency operation, them spending earlier time on their 60 meter transmitter has certainly made hearing them here easier. It almost makes one wonder if it might even be better there and they have just not made the corrections to the problem. The published reasons I have read have had something to do with trouble with their automatic timer operation to change frequency, a problem one would not think would be that difficult to fix after this length of time!)

Other signals further up the 60 meter band were as to have been expected, though the lateness of the hour had some of the “usuals” not showing up. Xinching, China on 4940 was S-7, The AIR transmitter for Kashmir on 4950 was S-5 with its characteristic rapid fading. And Radio Rebelde on 5025 was its usual raucous self on 5025 at S-9 + 20DB, though they were even further into sun. It sometimes is as high as S-9 + 40 or more here and I remember times when it would actually pin the S-Meter on my Hallicrafters SX-96!

A the sky became lighter and the signals further began to drop, I made quick run up to49 meters, finding the Chinese signals on 5915,5925, 5955 and 6000 kHz all in the S-7 range. The Echo of Hope on 6003 and KBS on 6015 were about the same, but plagued with jamming.

Rather than a study in post sunrise prop, this listening session reminded me of another aspect of this hobby: that of noting things that happen on the broadcast frequencies during times of political upheaval or tension between countries. Jamming goes up, Sometimes broadcast schedules are changed to bring more new and information or propaganda to bear on the other side of the issue. Sometimes broadcast schedules can add programming aimed at peripheral countries. In any event, it can bring another dimension to listening and maybe the chance to log stations or frequencies that might not ordinarily be available during certain prop windows. Even with increase dependence on the internet by some international broadcasters, broadcast schedules might be beefed up if there are indications that internet service might see increased censorship. If schedules don't change, it might be a symptom of some governments or agencies not catching on that this is the case and indicate a mistaken over-dependence on such delivery methods. Even transmissions on lower HF and Medium Frequencies might be affected.

It is interesting to note that jamming and interference with US broadcasts has not diminished since the recently heralded change in relations between the US and Cuba. This is a condition that might be noticed only by DX-ers and SWL's since it has not been reported in the commercial domestic media!

I am sure there are many other such changes that have occurred in Eastern and Southern Europe over the recent months. Perhaps some of this blog's readers would like to contribute some of their observations. Regardless of one's political beliefs or positions, it is always interesting to note such changes from a DX or SWL point of view and to provide information for possible DX targets or opportunities that might arise.

Sunday, August 16, 2015

DX Seasons Change

The seasons are changing and days are getting shorter. Already the DX opportunities are changing, not only for the yearly seasons, but for the longer term cycles as well.

June 22 was the longest day of the year, and already the days are getting noticeably shorter. My morning drive to work has gone from being in full light to sun in the eyes ( I catch this both coming and going, driving east to work in the morning and west going home in the evening). This past week, the sun has been right on the horizon as I pull into the parking lot of the television station where I work.

The past couple of weeks I have been noticing that some of the more distant groundwave stations I listen to on the radio in the pickup have been showing signs of increased co-channel interference. Even as the sky has already been fairly light, the distant stations have begun to show up, even on the lower parts of the dial.

The old familiar “faces” are beginning to show up, along with a few surprises. The first of the real DX stations to appear here were KOA from Denver on 850 and KSL from Salt Lake City, Utah on 1160. The 1690 from Denver has sort of there on first check, but still being on night time power and with daylight still showing here was not that readable. The first two were predictable since they both run 50 kw and have real powerhouse signals anyway.

Stations to the east are not coming in that well yet, being in even more sun than I am at my location, though some of the fairly close in stations are a little stronger. The KMOX signal on 1120 from St Louis is audible behind the daytime only station that has come on in recent years from the Austin area. KWKH from Shreveport on 1130 was in. KOKC on 1520 from Oklahoma City was audible but being covered by the daytime only station from the Houston area that relays Radio China International programs.

KOKC is a bit of a special case. They are still on reduced power day and night because of damage to their antenna system from a tornado. They had just completed a refurbishment of their three tower directional when the system was all but destroyed by the storm several months ago. Two towers were destroyed and one was bent and had to be taken down. They were off the air for several days while that was done.

As an aside, they might be a special DX target for medium wave listeners as they transmit non directionally night time with I believe 10 kw during the rebuild process. While some listeners normally in the main lobes of their directional pattern might note them down in signal strength, others in other directions might be able to hear them in areas where they might not usually be audible at all.

As we get toward the later parts of the month, other DX possibilities appear. Stations operating with full daytime power will start to skip better as darkness extends later and later. While their hours of operating with day facilities takes into account these changes, there are still some times where those signals will begin to travel greater distances than even predicted.

Other impacts on the dial have really shown up on the higher frequencies. XERF on 1570 now has an almost local signal strength level here during my morning drive ( 6:45 AM local time, or 1145 GMT). The other Mexican stations on 1220, 1190, 1050, 990, 940,900, 800 and 540 that are usually very strong at night have begun to appear even over some of the more distant groundwave stations that are already on daytime power here in the Central Time Zone. Even the stations on 1000, 1030 and 1060 have been audible. The 1030 from Mexico City has some mornings covered the 50 kw KCTA from Corpus Christi which is usually audible even on groundwave from over 200 miles away.

It is also interesting to note that during this time of flux in morning prop, the conditions and specific direction that the band appears to be open seems to shift from day to day. Some mornings the Mexico City 1030 will be in strong, others it will not. Also, it should be noted that while all of the Mexican stations mentioned have been coming in, the ones higher on the dial are still much stronger than those down low. That will change dramatically when the morning drive is in full darkness.

It should also be noted that 1060 now offers a new DX possibility for many BCB DX-ers in the southern US because it appears that heritage 1060 station in New Orleans is now off the air and may not be returning. This is a real tragedy for those of us who grew up in the sixties listening to legendary WNOE. Of course in recent years, the station had different call letters and a much different format than the rocking Top 40 tunes it played back in the day!

For those who listen in an around sundown, the same kind of thing can be noticed, but with stations from the other direction. Stations from the east and northeast will be coming in a little “ early” while still on their daytime facilities. Here, the Cuban 1620 has been showing up under the near local WTAW along with US stations in the southeast. The Caribbean Beacon has also appeared a bit before sunset on 1610. However, the Cuban on 530 has not made a pre-sunset appearance yet. The 1540 from Warterloo, Iowa has appeared behind and occasionally over the 1540 in much nearer Ft Worth, and Nashville's WLAC on 1510 has begun showing up over much nearer, low powered daytime only stations on that frequency.

The real surprise here has been on 800 khz. I am not sure if something has changed with antenna systems at the station in Windsor, Ontario or if in years past I just never noticed or just wasn't in the right place at the right time. But there have been times just before sunset and just after sunrise that CKLW has been audible under XEROK. Particularly in the time just before sunset CKLW will completely override XEROK, which is well to the west and more in sun than its neighbor to the north.

For others, similar opportunities come this time of the year. I am not sure how many stations in Europe operate with reduced facilities at night, but the opportunities for extended prop at sunrise and sunset exist. With some AM stations being shut down, the DX opportunities are increasing anyway. It would be good to hear from some of you with your observations of sunrise and sunset DX. It should probably be the subject of another column, but the opportunities for some really long haul BCB DX in southern Europe should be increasing daily with some long time stations disappearing from the dial, while stations in Africa and Asia still on. I am not certain about the status of many of the high powered AM stations in the former Soviet Union nations or in Russia itself.

While the changes in the yearly seasons have been marked in the DX log here, so have the changes in a much longer cycle of seasons: The eleven year sunspot cycle. On the amateur bands this weekend ( August 15 and 16, 2015) there were three regional radio contests. Monitoring the upper HF bands of ten and fifteen meters, it was very obvious that the sunspot count and solar activity level was down.

Checking the WWV frequencies at noon local time, or 1700 GMT, the signals at 15, 20 and 25 MHz were all S-9 and steady, while the 10 MHz was S-9 +10 DB with 5 and 2.5 MHz inaudible. Over the next hour, no contest signals were heard on ten or fifteen meters. On twenty meters, US stations were all strong and steady and while some east coast stations were heard working Europeans, none of the Europeans were audible here in Texas. The only station heard outside the US was from Mexico.

By mid afternoon or 2200 GMT a few Cubans were heard, and by 2240, some Brazilian stations active in the CVA contest were heard. As the afternoon wore on, a few stations from Spain and Southern Europe started coming through, though not with much strength. As the clock moved through 2300, many South American stations began coming through. Numerous stations from Brazil were heard.

A switch to forty meters showed the first station from Brazil come through about an hour before sunset, at 7:03 PM local time or 0003 GMT. As the hour wore on, signal strength of the Brazilians active in the CVA contest grew stronger and stronger, many up to S-9. While there was also a Russian contest going on, none were heard here by the time I turned the radio off at 10 PM local or 0300 GMT.

A quick check of 80 meters at 0230 GMT showed the Brazilians coming in there, too. Some were displaying pretty good signals with PY5XH at S-9!

At this point a check of WWV showed 2.5 MHz at S-9 +20 DB, 5 MHz at S-9+30DB, but 10 MHz down at S-5 with WWV and WWVH about the same strength. The 15 MHz signals were even weaker with both stations coming in equally. Nothing was heard at all at 20 and 25 MHz.

Just as the seasons change through the year, the seasons change with the sun. Through the year listening habits have to change to match the conditions, at various times in the sunspot cycle “seasons” need to change to match the conditions. Some would say the bands are just “ terrible” when in fact, the activity just shifts to different frequencies. In some cases, time spent listening might need to be adjusted along with what frequencies are tuned.

I have often compared DX-ing with fishing, and here I will do it again. With changing times and changing conditions, the place to “drop the hook” changes, too. Some fishermen will say when the weather is hot or the weather is cold, or conditions are this and conditions are that that the fishing is terrible. The truly experienced fishermen will still find a way to catch fish. They may go to different places or go fishing at different times, but he will still catch fish.

The same with the “ Compleat DX-er”! Happy listening and good DX!

Sunday, August 9, 2015

When Sunspots Fade

        As anyone knows who has tuned the bands for any significant amount of time, the fate of our loggings is in the "hands" of the sun.  Sunspot activity results in the higher bands being open more. The Maximum Useable Frequency becomes higher and for reasons known only to the physicists, the higher bands seem to be more amenable to sending lower powered signals very easily.
       We are currently on the downside of the eleven year sunspot cycle and the days of bands up to and above 30 MHz being open are rapidly fading.  For those of us in the U-S that means the higher bands may be open, but for shorter distances and for more limited times of the day. Signals on the 13 and 16 meter shortwave broadcast bands are almost non-existent.  On the amateur bands, little or nothing is being heard  ten and twelve meters, sometimes little on fifteen.
       Such was the case when I tuned the bands this past Saturday morning ( August 8, 2015 at 2300 GMT)  I had planned to look for  some DX and get a little intense cw copying practice listening in on the Worked All Europe contest. I heard nothing at all on ten meters or fifteen and only stateside signals on 20.  Checking a little later in the morning about 1800 GMT there was one station audible calling CQ with no takers on ten meter cw.
"Wake me when the band is open", (C1AT-second op)
       At this point I figured it was time to make a swing of the WWV frequencies and see if any kind of trend could be determined there. On 25 MHz, the stateside WWV was in at S-5 and steady, 20 MHz was S-9 and steady, 15 MHz was S-9 and steady and 10 MHz was S-9 + 10db.  Nothing was audible on 5 or  2.5 and there was no sign of WWVH coming into Central Texas.
        Going back to fifteen meters resulted in a number of strong stateside stations being heard  with a second tier of weaker stations distributed among them. The strong stations were apparently first hop deals, while the weaker stations were generally from Europe.   This was a case where the opposite of the usual tactic is taken.  Instead of tuning in the wide bandwidth mode and tightening down when a desired station is found, this situation calls for tuning in the narrowest mode to begin with to prevent the much stronger stations from washing over the weaker ones  It requires very slow tuning and careful listening.  When doing this I often tune up one kHz, then back a half, then back up one, etc.
        In this case, several European stations were pulled out that were "just over the grass".  While many US stations were S-9 and well above, most of the Europeans were S-5 and under. A quick tune across the band in the wider band modes might have given the impression that there was no DX at all to be had.  Once again, patience is the key to this hobby,  much as it is with fishing!
       Another method for logging DX stations in a contest when conditions are less than optimal also requires patience, but of another kind.  You can find a US station calling CQ contest and park on his frequency waiting for stations to show up.  Often the nearby station may be weak or fluttery sounding.  You may have to listen for an extended period of time to get a good one, but often the wait is worth it.  If the band is marginally open, a run of stations by your target will also indicate the band is getting better and that it might be  "safe" to start random tuning across the band. Of course this applies only to those SWL-ing the contests. Those operating an amateur station and transmitting plays a different game altogether.
       Finding a station as a "lure" that is more attractive to Europeans or other DX in such a situation can improve your chances greatly.  For example, here in Texas I will look for a KP4, KP2, PJ4, FM5, or some other Caribbean station that would be more attractive to the DX than a W2 or W5 and park on them for awhile.
       This  particular Saturday, these methods did turn up a few DX stations on fifteen meters,  but it soon became obvious that the band was not really hot or that many stations just were not spending time there but hanging out on other bands where higher QSO rates might be found. So the next step was to try the next lower band, which was twenty meters.
       After a break for lunch, surely enough, a little more activity was found on twenty meters. A similar situation was found on twenty as was found on fifteen earlier, but the "second tier stations" were a bit stronger and a little easier to pull "out of the crowd".  In this case, the first hop stateside stations were S-9 and above, while the Europeans were about S-7 or so, occasionally topping S-9. The ratio of DX to stateside stations was better, also...almost half and half as opposed to one out ten on fifteen meters a couple hours earlier.
       Interestingly, later into the evening when one would have thought things would decline with darkness, things actually picked up on twenty meters.  I can't help wondering if it was because of the long summer days in the polar regions because most of the signals were Russians and Swedish stations,  with a sprinkling of Asiatic Russians. Signals from them to Texas would be taking the polar route.
        But the real telling of the tale came later in the evening, after dark Texas time.  At 0300 GMT August 9, I made the move to forty meters.  It made me wish I had gone down there much sooner. This was where the gold was hiding. Here the European stations were stronger than the US stations.  Some HB9, S50, YO and Italian stations were S-9 +10-20db! This was more like it! The DX stations were not only stronger than the stateside stations but outnumbered them about three to one!
        After several years of very good band conditions and a couple of years of slowly declining conditions, the situation where a change in tactics was required caught me a little by surprise after all my years of listening.  I should have immediately gone to the lower bands.  When the sun's activity begins to wane, it doesn't mean the DX goes away.  It just means that it is found in different places. 
It means spending time on the lower bands, and because those bands are often rendered less useful during high sun times because of absorption in the  D layer of the ionosphere, it means a shifting in time spent in front of the radios.
       The lower bands, while best after dark or with the path between transmitter and receiver mostly in darkness, can indeed show some life in partial daylight.  The thirty and forty meter amateur bands and the 31 , 41 and 49 meter shortwave broadcast bands can bring some amazing results as much as two hours before sunset and two hours after sunrise. The lower bands, meaning the 80 and 160 meter amateur bands and the 60, 90 and 120 meter shortwave broadcast bands might not show quite so much life before the sun goes down.
        One other consideration for finding good DX on the lower bands is the antenna.  While a short wire antenna will give some results,  the really good stuff will show much better signal strength if the antenna is responsive to lower angle arriving signals.  While this is probably much more important on transmit,  once you have seen the difference in strength of signals with an antenna with good low angle response you will never forget it.  Not only are the signals stronger from the DX, but the QRM from closer in stations will be less because the antenna will discriminate against the higher angle arriving signals.
         Antennas for receive do not necessarily have to be resonant with the sensitivity of most modern receivers,  but everything helps.  If you have a horizontal antenna only fifty or less feet long and only up about twenty feet, don't expect to hear the really weak signals on the lower bands.  The difference is actually phenomenal.  The only way to get good long angle response if you cannot get really good height on eighty and 160 meters is to have a vertical or inverted L antenna.  Even on forty meters, a flat top dipole would need to be 66 feet high to be optimal.  That is not to say something lower won't will hear things,  just not as easily or as often.  You won't "open the band" often. 
       The maximum current in an antenna fed against ground is a quarter wave back from the distant end. That is where the most " work is done". If you can't get more than thirty or so feet up,  the best thing to do is get as much wire vertical as you can and run the remainder out horizontally,  making the classic inverted "L". The idea is to get that high current part in the vertical section to get a good low angle response. Top fed slopers where the center of the coax goes to a wire suspended from a metal mast or tower with the shield going to the metal support will work, too.  The wire then slopes down toward the ground, hopefully at an angle 60 degrees or better...though anything greater than 45 degrees will work. That will get the high current part even higher off the ground and reduce losses in things cluttering up the RF space in your yard.
       Again,  as the sunspot activity declines even more,  you will find the lower bands getting better and better and the higher bands showing less and less life, with their windows of time being shorter when they are open.
       I have found this to be a cycle that has gone through my hobby over the last fifty-plus years of playing with the radios. This will be the fifth time.  The thing to keep in mind is that its not a loss of band activity, but a shift in band activity.  The only negative is that the time of day is shifted,  just like the time of day shifts for fishing in hot weather. Its an eleven year cycle that we just have to live with.
       Just when I thought I was finished,  I remembered something else I need to add.  Don't completely write the upper bands off.  Check Space Weather from time to time or sign up for alerts about solar storms or Coronal Mass Ejections.  Remember that when those things hit, be ready to check the upper bands shortly after the event,  because as things  "settle back down" there will be a short period of time when the ionosphere will see that little extra ionization that it would otherwise get from higher sunspot activity.  You would not want to miss an opportunity of some "gift" openings of the high bands!.
       I still will continue to make quick checks of the bands from "the top down" when I first turn on the radio.  And I always run the WWV frequencies to get a feel for how things look-particularly for situations when WWVH  is stronger into Texas than WWV is ( happens more often than you might think) It gives a good indicator of openings over the Pacific. For those in other parts of the world,  I am sure you can find other such markers that can give you an indication of what is going on.
       In any event, as things change, shift with it.  Its just a matter of knowing when and where  to "drop the hook into the water"!  
       Good DX!


Wednesday, August 5, 2015

Antennas for Adventure

Over the years, I have used many different kinds of antennas.  There are all kinds of theories about which antennas are the best and what should be used for different kinds of listening and amateur radio operating.  Some folks have the opportunity, space and finances to put up optimum antenna systems for what they want to do,  but most of us fall into the category of having either limited space, limited money or some kind of restrictions in the neighborhood.  So often what happens is there is sometimes a small and sometimes a big compromise on what goes up in the air.  For most of us, its a matter of what we can do and what will fit in the spaces we have.

I have been in my present home for about fifteen years.  There are lots of trees and moderate space, hemmed in by power lines, telephone and cable tv drop wires and other obstructions.  Early antennas here were suspended from tree limbs  or short masts.  The current system evolved over time and has been very successful,  though not exactly text book.

The most successful have been the variants on vertical antennas or inverted L's.  The idea being to get the lowest angle of radiation or reception possible.  Ground radials for the verticals have been made difficult by very rocky soil and tree roots close to the ground. After several years of running over radials with the lawn mower,  it was decided to attempt elevated radials or ground plane antennas.  The try, though brought about by mechanical needs, turned out to be very satisfactory, as the antennas performed very well, even with fewer radials,  even outperforming my thirty-three foot high ground mounted vertical with sixty buried radials beneath it. 

Here are the antennas that have resulted in the best DX at this location, both for amateur and SWL DX.  All are fed with either RG8X or RG8 coaxial cable.  Most are resonant on one band, but tunedto match on any frequency with either a Heathkit roller coil tuner or a Dentron Super Super tuner.  I know there are all kinds of reasons why force tuning antennas is not optimum,  but all I can say it has worked well enough for me to but 326 countries into the log.  I will leave the arguments to the theorists!
Two ground plane antennas, made from aluminum tubing and mounted atop television antenna mastswith the bases about 25 feet above the ground.  One vertical element is 21 feet high, the other is 16-1/2 feet high.  Each has four radials the same length as the antenna element which also serve as the top guy wires.  They were each gyed at the middle by plastic rope.

This is a view looking up at the mast that supports my 80 meter sloper. This is a fifty foot telescoping TV antenna mast that is not extended quite all the way with a lighter aluminum extension out the top.  The idea was to give it more strength in the middle.  It is fed at the top with RG-8X coaxial cable that can be seen coming down in the picture. The actual antenna wire is longer than would be resonant on 80 meters and was made the length that would fit sloping down to a tree at the front of the back yard.  The actual length is closer to 85 feet than the 66 feet to be resonant as a quarter wave on 80 meters.  Once again, the antenna tuner takes care of the mismatch at the receiver and transmitter end.  The fed end is about 45 feet up with the mast supported by a small outbuilding at the back of the yard.

This is the antenna that was originally a ground mounted vertical and was then raised above ground to eliminate the ground mounted radials.  It is 33 feet high and had originally been intended as a tuned forty meter amateur antenna but has always worked well on almost any band up through  21 MHz with the use of an antenna tuner.  Six elevated radials the length of the element were also used as guy wires.  Various sizes of aluminum tubing were used for the center element with it guyed at mid level with nylon string which is not visible in the picture.  It is mounted on a ten foot mast.  Unlike the other ground plane antennas which have drooping radials, the radials for this antenna went out horizontally to keep them high enough to allow walking beneath them.  This antenna has performed very well for SWBC from 49 meters through 16 meters.  On higher frequencies, the extra high angle lobes makes it less than optimal for long haul DX on those bands.