Friday, November 13, 2015

Was it Really a Poor DX Weekend?

       This past weekend ( November 7-8, 2015) was supposed to have been a poor DX weekend. And perhaps in some aspects, it was.  There was some solar activity and there was to have been a solar mass ejection that was to reach Earth and cause radio blackouts and such.
       There were complaints on Facebook of dead bands and poor signals from stations that are normally heard well. There were also not the usual high strength  DX signals obvious on the amateur bands.  However, as is often the case in fishing,  when the fish aren't biting in the usual holes,  they might just be found somewhere else. It also might be that the openings were there, just shorter and during limited times of the day. And the third possibility,  the DX signals were there,   just from different places than usual and at lower signal strengths.
       In the case of this past weekend,  it was a combination of all of the above.  I am not certain what the mechanism of the appeared malaise might have been.  It could have been a result of a hiccough on the sun, the CME or maybe just the overall low solar activity coupled with the change of seasons. In some cases it might have even been folks looking for broadcasters on frequencies they had abandoned with the seasonal frequency shifts and they were just in different holes.
       My own tuning actually started a little late in the weekend. It was Saturday morning a bit before 6 AM Texas time or about 1200 GMT that I woke without the usual alarm that during the week goes off about two hours earlier.
       After the morning ritual of feeding animals, walking dogs, making coffee, etc, I managed to get in front of the radios about 1220 GMT.  The sun was already starting to lighten the sky.   I used the R-75 and  80 meter quarter wave sloper ( which is actually a little long for the band, being about 80 feet long) top fed with the feedpoint up about 45 feet.
       I like to start with a sweep of the  WWV and CHU frequencies first to get some idea of what the bands are doing.  They are always there, with predictable schedules and signals and known antennas and give a good day to day picture of what generally is going on.
       It appeared things would be a little abnormal when there was no signal at all to be heard on 15 MHz. I didn't really expect to find anything but quickly checked the 20 and 25 MHz spots.  Absolutely nothing.
       The 2.5 MHz signal for WWV was a blistering S-9 + 20 DB!  WWVH was also audible very strong behind it.  The surprise came with a check of the 3.33 MHz spot for CHU and it was already gone.  The sun had come up at the transmit site and prop to the east was already gone.  Well!
       Let's check 5 MHz.  WWV was S-9+20 DB and WWVH from Hawaii was almost as strong! Then 10 MHz told the rest of the story.  In the mild static crashes present locally that morning, I at first thought there was nothing there. But then came the top-of-the-minute beep and I knew something was there,  but I had not heard the WWV voice.  Waiting another minute for the time station cycle told the tale. WWVH was coming it about S-5, but WWV was not to be heard.  Interesting!
       The 15, 20 and 25 MHz positions showed no sign of signals. A quick scan of the 10, 15 and 17 meter amateur bands showed nothing.  Not too much of a surprise there.  The only band that has been showing any signs of life even occasionally this time of the morning the past month or so has been 17 meters.
       So that's how  we started Saturday morning. I knew it was probably too late, but I checked the 120 meter band, hoping perhaps to hear the  Northern Australian stations, but they were gone.  No signs of the Koreans or the Papua New Guinea stations on the 90 meter band.  the closest thing to Asian DX I found was way up on 4940, one of the Chinese stations was coming in, actually rather well. Up the band a little bit radio Rebelde on 5025 was still S-9+20 DB but its band mate radio Havana on 5040 was missing.
       Up to 49 meters we go. On 5830, WTWW was blasting through, then 5875 BBC World Service from Thailand was about S-5, doing the usual Southeast Asia morning bounce on the S-meter. Another Chinese station on 5915 was not so strong, struggling to S-4 with the same bouncing level.
        I knew that stations up in the higher bands had probably changed their seasonal schedules and the usual spots I checked might not be updated yet on them, so I switched to the amateur bands. By now it was  1330 and I knew it was getting late for the Pacific on 40.  Even at that, usually the Japanese stations roll in well past sunrise.  However, it was not a major  contest weekend that would draw large number of them out and even the small contest of the weekend, the Ukraine Contest, would not likely turn a lot of them out on 40 meters at this time.  Forty would already be closed to DX for Ukraine with the sun well up there. And such was the case: only one lonely Japanese, JS1SUT was found on 7025. I should have gotten up earlier!
       The next fifteen minutes tuning around the band proved it all out.  The short skip was in. Northeast US stations were already weak with their sunrise complete.  The West Coast stations were ok and either in "local" QSO's or hopefully calling CQ DX.  Only the Midwest stations were stoutly over S-9 and involved in local chats.
       Thirty meters showed the same thing. Mostly US stations either calling CQ DX without much luck or involved in US to US QSO's. What was the deal?  The band was obviously open.  Some of the stations calling CQ DX actually were showing signs of backscatter and echo from return skip from very distant locations. Had everyone just believed the dire predictions of bad prop because of solar activity and CME's? Were the Asian stations all on the higher bands working the Ukraine contest?  Where was everybody?  WWVH was if anything even stronger on 10 MHz now.
       A quick tune down just a bit from WWVH showed that there were broadcast stations coming through.  At 9975 was KTWR from Guam at well over S-9 at 1358 GMT.  The band was not dead, just open to a little different place than usual. Still not knowing for sure if the usual places where broadcast schedules  were posted had been updated,  I decided to default to the ham bands.
       A little aside here: It seems I have become a little spoiled by the readily available freshly updated station lists and schedules.  I guess we all have gotten used to the almost  " instant gratification" of easier station identifications.  Its easy to forget how things were back when I started SWL-ing in the fifties and sixties where there were few updated lists.  Even the WRTH was months behind some schedule changes the day it came out!  And other lists such as White's Radio Log did not even have schedules,  just long lists of frequencies used by the various stations.  In those days it took long, sometimes tedious periods of listening to pull out an ID and then try to figure if what you heard in those fleeting seconds was accurate.  Of course the stations in those days used Interval Signals or pieces of music  around ID time that helped out.  Those DX-ers who had the money and luck to have reel to reel audio tape recorders had at least a leg up in being able to record the ID breaks and play them back over and over in hopes of picking out the ID.
       So anyway, it was up to the 20 meter ham band I went without a lot of confidence,  with all indications being that the Maximum Useable Frequency ( MUF ) was probably just over 10 MHz. Wrong!
       There were stations there!  The Ukraine contest was underway and tuning up from the bottom of the band I immediately ran into K3WW at 1410 GMT  on 14007 calling "CQ Test".  He was fairly strong, RST 579,  leading me to believe that this band, too, would be a fairly short skip affair.
       Wrong again! The next signal I ran into was at 14019.5 and was also calling " CQ Test" and working stations.  He was not as strong,  only about S-4, but readable.  LZ5W from Bulgaria was having a fair time of it ( a signal heard often here during contests!)  This was at 1413.
       The band at first glance did not appear to have a lot on it and for the uninitiated it may have appeared in poor shape.  But after a few minutes of tuning around  I discovered there WERE DX signals there,  just not as strong as usual.
       There appeared not to be much coming through via high latitude paths.  Even Canadian VE1DT at 1437 GMT spotted on 14012.6 was only S-5.  I had run across him just dropping his call, apparently trying to attract a European that had been working other stations. Maybe the signal strength was just down because he had a yagi pointed away from me, because I eventually heard the station he was working. It was the first Ukraine station of the morning in the contest, UT0U, who as I listened came up from being almost in the noise to S-5.
       From there things proved to be a little easier.  The DX WAS in fact there,  just at a lower level. The band being open was confirmed when I heard N5WX  on 14002.5 at 1442 on backscatter.  The station he was working was another Bulgarian, LZ5R who was also about S-5.
       That proved to be the average signal strength of several Europeans heard over the next couple hours.  I logged several Ukraine stations over that period and many Southern European stations.  Some like HG7A from Hungary were marked by flutter. It would have been easy to give up on the band after a quick initial glance, but sticking with it proved that signals were, in fact, there.
       I would think that tuning SWBC bands would be similar.  For those interested only in their regularly heard programs, there might be disappointment and a temptation to just turn the radio off.  But for the DX-er wanting to put neat stuff in the log,  it might prove to be more an opportunity.  If the band is just open differently than usual,  either longer or shorter or in a different direction for some reason,  it would be an opportunity to log something else that might usually be buried under the "usual suspects" one would normally find there.  Don't give up so easily!
       After our usual family brunch we enjoy on the weekends, it was back to the radio about 1700 GMT.  The WWV sweep showed 2.5 inaudible, 5 with a barely detectable carrier ( not unexpected for nearly midday!) 10 MHz at S-9+ 20 DB but with some fading, 15 MHz at S-9+10 DB with slow fading and with WWVH audible behind it.  Then came the big surprise. The 20 MHz WWV was booming in at S-9 + 30 DB!!!!  Stronger than I had heard it in a long time. I posted such in one of my Facebook groups and right away a couple postings appeared of others in the Northeast US hearing it well, too!  The 25 MHz WWV however, had a just audible carrier.
       The first thought was to check the 15 meter ham band.  There were lots of signals there,  but mostly single hop stuff.  They were very, very strong, however.  I am thinking the MUF must have been right around 21 MHz for those paths.  Many like KD2RC and K6LL were S-9+20 DB.  This was on the R-75 on the 80 meter sloper at 45 feet. 
       One good catch during this time was a PJ6N on Saba Island.  he was heard at 1820 GMT on 21005.2.
       Being curious, I took a look up on ten meters.  I am not sure why, given the fact that the 25 MHz WWV signal was so weak.  But it paid off.  Perhaps the skip on 25 was just a little long for the path to Central Texas because ten was alive! Unfortunately, not with stations working stations,  but the beacons were pouring in.  For those who do not know,  beacons are very low power stations put up by amateurs generally in the area between 28.2 and 28.3 MHz  Most operate with between one and five watts  with Omni-directional antennas designed to be indicators of whether the band is open.  And it was.  First heard at 1830 GMT was N7UTP on 28200.1.
       After that, over a dozen were logged in quick succession,  including 4U1UN at the United Nations club station in New York heard with an S-9 signal on 28200.5 at 1832.
       Interestingly, even though the band appeared open, there was little activity.  Once again, it appeared the "news" about poor prop or predictions of same might have deterred folks from even looking or making more than a cursory tune across the band. There was one island of high activity, however, around  28017.2 where TG9ADM in Guatemala had set up shop.  He soon was working a very busy pileup.
       A quick drop back to fifteen meters around 1900 showed some activity prior to the beginning of the ARRL Sweepstakes contest.  One really good one was found when a good sized pileup of rather weak stations was found  around 21009.  After considerable listening and pulling out one letter at a time, it was determined that at the bottom of the pile was 9Q6AL from the Democratic Republic of the Congo!  Careful listening and diligence pays off!!
       From then on through the afternoon  it was hopscotching between bands and the TV for college football. At 1933,  a new one for me on 17 meters  was VP2MVI from Montserrat on 18072.  Don't know how I had missed that one in the past,  but sometimes that's the way it works.  One that would seem to be a "given" somehow either gets missed or just isn't heard. That filled the line across the tally sheet for Montserrat for all bands 160-10.
       The afternoon on ten meters turned up many South American and Caribbean stations.  The catch of the afternoon for fifteen meters was V51YJ in Namibia  at 2010 on 21012 working a spirited pileup.  Just in time, too because as the Sweepstakes Contest began a little later, the US stations would have pretty well covered any possibility of deep DX, at least on CW.  The rest of the weekend would have to be either on phone or tuning the WARC bands ( 30,17 and 12 meters) which are contest free by convention.      
       Even though the ten meter beacons were still coming in and a beehive of Sweepstakes Contest stations were audible on ten meters,  twelve did not yield much.  Obviously the band was open, because PY3NA was coming through calling CQ on USB  at 2314 GMT on 24945 with a pretty good signal.  The background noise indicated the band was open. 
       I don't know how many of you have noticed the actual " sound" of an open  band.  There is a sound other than that which is locally generated noise that is often heard that can give you the feeling that the lights are on but nobody is home.  I do not know if it is the aggregate noise from other places that props in like other skywave signals or just what it is,  but sometimes you can actually hear it, sometimes even with a little selective fading in it.  In the old days  when cars generated spark plug noise you could sometimes hear the total sum of that adding up to provide a background floor in an open band.
       I had a friend who is now a silent key who spent time in Panama and on Swan Island on work assignments who told of many times hearing Stateside or other ignition noise propping into Swan Island when there were no engines running on the island at all.( Swan Island is very small and off the coast of Honduras. In the 1960's it was the center of some controversy as a supposed location of a station known as Radio Americas that broadcast on 1160 and 6000 KHz carrying anti communist programming aimed at Cuba. That story could almost make a novel by itself!!!!) But I wander afield again...
       While there were few signals present, it was a matter of just finding where the band is open and drop the hook there. In this case, it was back to 17 meters.  As it was getting close to sunset local Central Texas time, the hope was to find some Asian or Pacific stations.  They were indeed there.
       It was a classic late-in-the-day,  upper-band condition.  South American and Japanese stations were showing up in large numbers.  At 2318, I first found PX5Z in Brazil and  JO1WXO from Japan just a kHz apart on 18076 and 18077 respectively.  The dual 250 Hz filters in the R-75 easily separated the two  The pattern remained the same as the band was scanned.. South American stations were running about S-7,  the Japanese stations were running S-5 or lower.  They were not jumping out of the radio by any means,  and if you spun the dial quickly just doing a  "quick cruise" you might miss them.  But slow and careful tuning would turn them up.  In conditions like this,  I often open the selectivity up to " CW wide" or even a narrow SSB position while looking for stations in the grass,  then if I find a group of stations, THEN tighten things up and gingerly turn the dial to pick out the goodies.  Over the next half hour I filled almost a complete page with callsigns on an afternoon when " the bands are crummy"!
       The one that would have been missed if I had just given up and said " oh there's nothing here" was found at 2334 on 17 meter sideband,  one that would be good in anyone's logbook: VP8LP in the Falkland Islands  on 18155 working a fair sized pile.  Interestingly many of the stations he was hearing and working were inaudible here..
       After dinner, one more check of the bands were made before a little family time. As is often the case,  the upper bands sounding bad were an indication that the lower bands would be fine.  Eighty meters handed up EA8ZS with a fair signal even through the evening static crashes and Sweepstakes Contesers  on 3515 at 0203 GMT on the " next day" GMT though it was of course, evening in Texas.
       Sunday was going to have short time for listening because of an impending visit by grandbabies
and playing of a different sort!.  I got on for a few minutes at 1200 GMT or 6 AM local time and fired up the R-75.  The WWV  sweep showed 2.5 MHz WWV  at S-9+30 DB, CHU on 3330 at S-7, WWV on 5.0 at S-9+40 DB(!!) with WWVH well audible behind it.  On 10 MHz, WWVH was again on top about S-5 with lots of QSB and WWV inaudible.  There was nothing audible,  not even detectable carriers on 15, 20, or 25 MHz.
       Someone had mentioned on Facebook  FEBA from their Philippines Manila site coming in to England, so I made a quick check there.  They were S-7 on 9400 and S-5 on 9430,  the opposite being stronger I Texas  than in England where the poster had shown 9430 to be the stronger of the two.  Thirty-one meters is always interesting and surprising around sunrise and sunset.  This was an interesting logging in particular because he was most probably hearing the signals coming to his location from the East  while I was most probably hearing them  coming from my West!  This is one of the little observations that makes this hobby fun.
       With the little time I had left, I dropped to the "basement " of the HF range and checked for the Northern Australian signals. VL8T on 2325 from Tennant Creek was S-4 but actually readable on a morning where the noise was very low here. Its band mate VL8K on 2485 was  stronger at S-7.  I remember wondering if there was that much difference in prop over 160 kHz or if there was some difference in the characteristics of their transmitting antennas.
       Up the band a bit at 2850 Pyongyang, North Korea was rolling in at S-9, better than its transmitters on 3220 and 3320 which were about S-5.
       One thing I miss from these morning sweeps is the old HCJB signal that held down 3220 for so many years with its local  language programs. I guess times change, but the loss of their facilities in Ecuador marks a change I could have done without!
        The Voice of the People from the other side of the Korean DMZ was coming in well on 3480 and 3912, along with its jamming counterparts.
       The last loggings of the morning and of the weekend was Radio Nikkei on 3925 which was an amazing S-9+10db and sounding good.  The last logging was actually a  " no log" as it appeared, and was noted in the log,  that Radio Nikkei on 3945 appeared to be missing!
       It was not too bad for a weekend that so many folks had moaned about as being poor! I had chosen to spend most of the time in the ham bands because of uncertainty about schedule info being updated for the broadcast stations,  but it might have been a good time to confirm what I believe about band conditions.  Often when the "regulars" are not heard,  it is not because the band is dead,  but because it is open to somewhere else.  The band may be longer or shorter than usual. There may be other things to hear in the absence of the regulars. Or there might be other targets to be sought out on other bands.   Often the WWV sweeps can tell you things about that.  For those on other continents where WWV and WWVH might not be useful as "prop" beacons, there might be other stations you can use as barometers...maybe even other time and frequency standards or stations that you regularly hear at certain times.  Checking the barometers can often save you time and tell you where to drop the hook to find the fish!
       For those listening mostly for programming,  it might be a time to find other programs that you do not usually hear.  For the DX-er,  its  often a golden opportunity to hunt for new things on new bands. It is not a time to give up and default to the TV. There are enough differences in conditions on the different bands stretching from LF to 30 MHz that there is always something to be found  to put into a log!
         Good hunting!


1 comment:

  1. good article Roland---just goes to show you that prognosticators often, if not usually, are wrong--
    while i didn't really chase DX last weekend i did hear a good bit--
    my goal was to try to hear all 50 states during the SS contest--as luck would have it i heard 47--i missed Alaska and of all things, Nebraska--i can't recall off hand the third missing state--
    all in all the conditions were better than i have heard them at this location in a good while--

    Gerald (JERRY) Steck -- k5psh