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Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Fickled Propagation, Working FT5ZM

One fun thing about ham radio and propagation in particular is that no two days are exactly the same. One day a given path is open and signals are booming, the next day, nothing. Thus the challenge in working difficult paths. Amsterdam, FT5Z, is on the opposite side of the earth from where I live in Texas and is tough entity to work, especially when thousands of others are calling. So the challenge is on.

For those trying to work FT5ZM from the states it has been widely chronicled that the signals are coming in via multiple paths, even the indeterminate "skew" path. In other words just rotate your antenna until the signal peaks. I have heard them on such a path which is more east that the SSE short path heading from my QTH. Last evening they were spotted on 12m, 15m and 17m. I swung the beam SP and, as I would expect, nothing but noise. Skew path, same thing. Well, let me try long path and viola, there they were. A very nice signal on 15m, a fluttery signal on 17m and nothing on 12m. The better signal on 15m was also heard very well in JA as that was all the operator was working. So let me try the weaker signal on 17m. First find where he is listening....he is working a W7, good,  and I can hear both ends of the QSO, cool,.....I drop my call in figuring other west coasters will beat me out, but what do I hear? ....AD5A 599...jubilation...... and with that another band counter in the log.

They will be there for two weeks and working them should get easier, but don't give up, try some of the sneaky ways into the log, it's a lot more fun.

I must issue a disclaimer: This is not a QRP story, I was hitting on all cylinders on this one:-)

Sunday, January 26, 2014

QRP/SOTA Fun Without Climbing A Mountain

Rather than activating summits, I spent the weekend at my small ranch near Rocksprings, TX. I have a nice QRO station there with 107 foot Rohn 55 Tower, a Log Periodic, 40 Meter beam and wires on low bands. I can work a lot of stuff from there. However, I had a plan this weekend to test a few antenna configurations for my QRP operations from SOTA summits.

So I set up my operating position just as I would on a summit. I was testing one of the SOTA beams EFHW antenna with counterpoise and a homebrew 29 ft. wire. I brought along two tuners including Hi-Tee Tuner from SOTAbeams and a recently acquired Hendricks SLT+ 80m-10m end fed half wave tuner.

The SOTAbeams combo was my first configuration. I put the antenna over a limb about 15ft. up and let it slope down to another limb about 7 feet up and then down to the radio. The antenna wire terminated into a 4mm plug that prevented me from running through the eyelets of my pole. I plugged the wire into the tuner (which will only take a 4mm plug, there is no binding post) as well as the counter poise. The antenna tuned nicely and I had QSO with a station in Arizona. As I finished that QSO I tuned across the SOTA frequencies and heard W0CCA calling CQ SOTA from a summit in Arizona on 20m. Cool, now could I work him with this set-up? I usually don't have to wait long in a pile-up but for this QSO I would have to. I was tempted to run over to the QRO shack and make the contact to ensure I got the points since he was on a 10 pointer,  however I resisted the temptation. My faith in QRP was rewarded, Cap finally heard me and gave me a 229. Cool.

So now I set-up the simple 29 ft. wire. Since it didn't have the banana plug on it, the Hi-Tee Tuner was useless, so I set up on the SLT+. I was able to use my pole this time, so the wire was higher off the ground in an inverted L configuration. By that time KX0R was calling CQ SOTA on 20m from a summit in Colorado. Evidently the pile-up had run it's course because I got him on the first call. So my little tuned wires had netted 12 SOTA chaser points. I am regularly amazed by QRP, how much you can do with a few watts and some wire.

A great day of QRP/SOTA fun.

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

More Battery Power for the FT-817

I occasionally use the Yaesu FT-817nd on my SOTA expeditions if I want to use higher bands on the activation or for some odd reason want to operate SSB:-). I actually prefer it to the KX3 simply because it is less bulky and it performs well in the field. One of the concerns I have with taking the 817 is; should I take an external power supply since the internal, rechargable, battery can have a relatively short life span. This is due to the power required to operate the 817 versus smaller, CW only radios. I was looking for a higher capacity battery made for the 817 and came across an interesting offering on EBay. The link is http://www.ebay.com/itm/3000mAh-Polymer-Lithium-Battery-pack-back-door-holder-Yaesu-FT-817-ND-radio-/331093734430?pt=US_Radio_Comm_Antennas&hash=item4d16b9741e#ht_4797wt_706

  The product is a 3000mAh LiPo battery that fits the 817, a replacement for the battery door that allows the battery to be charged by an external charger (included) and a nice stand for the radio. (The battery that comes with the 817 is 1400mAh) All this for $89. Now, it is a product made in China, so it is tough to determine quality, (that's also true for certain US producers as well). I ordered the package and will test it to see if it is as advertised. W4RT offers a similar product but it's priced at $150.00 and the battery is a NiMH.

I have no commercial interest in this product, but it seems worth the money if it delivers as advertised.

Thursday, January 16, 2014

Pico Paddle

A few months back I ordered a Pico Paddle from Palm Radio. It is very small paddle, weighing only 12 grams by itself or 27 grams with the magnetic quick mount. The paddle is extremely well engineered and comes in a nice travel case with two quick mounts and cable. I have recently been using the paddle on my SOTA expeditions and have found it to be a very good paddle to have in the field. There are a few oddities about the paddle that are worth talking about, but overall it is a very well made, functional paddle.

Pico Paddle

Magnetic Quick Mount

 The cable used to interface with your rig is a little unique, in that it is a 2.5mm - 3.5mm and it is reversed with the tip being the dah. So it is a little different than the typical set up. If you are using the paddle with an FT-817 or a KX-3 or similar commercial transceiver, a simple adjustment in the menu will fix the reversed cable issue. If you are left handed, then it's perfect. The problem comes if you use the Pico paddle on a home-brew radio that doesn't have the ability to adjust the dits and dahs. You can do you own fix by cutting and reversing the wires and I suppose if you are using the paddle at a home station this would be sufficient, but the cable wires are thin and the solder job doesn't  hold up well with portable use. There is a pre-made reverse wired cable available from MTechnologies that is a much better alternative.

One nice feature of the paddle is the quick mount. It a very strong magnet that allows you to mount the key on the radio. In the field this is a nice feature and prevents you from having to hold a small paddle and log at the same time. I recently used it in combination with my MTR on a SOTA  trip and I really liked the way the radio and paddle were integrated.

Pico Paddle Mounted on MTR w/magnetic quick mount

Another nice feature of the Pico is that the paddles retract into the housing when not in use. I'm always in search of an efficient, light portable solution for SOTA Operations. These set-up works very well. 

I have no financial interest in this product, I'm just sharing my experience with it. If you Google it you will find the dealers who carry it.

Monday, January 13, 2014

Three Summits in the Wichita Mountains

This trip to the Wichita Mountains in SW Oklahoma was not a firm plan. Unlike many of my SOTA expeditions, I only carried my radio gear in case I was able to use. Unfortunately, I was in Ft. Worth, Texas to attend the funeral of my Aunt and as always, at funerals and weddings, there are always lots of family and friends to catch up with. I figured that the reunion might last through the weekend. However, after the funeral on Friday most of my relatives dispersed back to their busy lives.  I suggested to Cris, my XYL, that we sneak off to the Wichita Mountains for a SOTA date. She agreed, so we set out for Lawton, Oklahoma, which is a 2.5 hour drive from where we were. Upon arriving in Lawton around 10:00p.m., I opened up my iPad and put together a plan.

I had lived in Duncan, Oklahoma for eight years in the '80's and early '90's and had visited the Wichita Mountains multiple times with my family and our Boy Scout Troop, but never with summits in mind. So the must do summits in the Wichitas are Mt. Scott and Elk Mountain. Mt. Scott is a drive up and Elk Mountain is a nice 1.1 mile hike, one way. I knew if I started early, three summits were doable, maybe even four. But which one would be the third? I remembered KC5CW and KD5ZZK operating from a four point summit not far from Mt. Scott, so after a little research, Mount Cummins was added to the list. Below is a report on the trip.

For this trip I used an MTR 20/40, 500 mah Lipo battery, 21 foot collapsible carbon fiber pole and a LNR 10-20-40 "trail friendly" End Fed Half Wave antenna.

Mount Scott W5O/WI-002

This is an easy summit. The weather was on the chilly side with temps in the mid-30's when we started out. Upon arriving on the base of the mountain, there was a squad of army soldiers getting ready for a run up the mountain, something that would appeal to Fred, KT5X, but I was happy to drive up this one. At the summit, there was only one other car, so I had a pick of operating sites. I elected to get out of the wind and down a ways from the summit.
Operating Site on Mt. Scott

The views from Mt. Scott are fantastic, mainly because the mountain rises above the relative flat plain of grasslands. Lake Lawtonka is part of the backdrop. But it was a little chilly. The tree in the foreground of the picture is what I used to support the end of my antenna which I then brought to the operating position down my carbon fiber fishing pole.

Operating on Mt. Scott with MTR

Signals were good and I made 18 QSO's on 20 meters. When I QSY'ed to 40m I didn't get spotted by RBN so I self spotted. Nothing. I wrote it off to poor propagation. However, as I figured out on the next summit, changing bands on the MTR requires changing three switches, I had only switched two and wasn't putting out a signal, so my apologies to the 40m chasers.

View From Mt. Scott

While I was operating I heard some cadence based singing. I thought my wife was listening to something on her iPhone, but it was the army squad. Not looking as fresh as when we saw them at the bottom, but the worst was over. 

Elk Mountain W5O/WI-007

Elk Mountain 8 or 9 miles west of Mt. Scott and it is a great SOTA summit. It has an easy to follow trail that isn't too long (1.1 miles one way) and great views at the top. This would be a great summit to practice on to get prepared for higher elevation, longer climbs. My wife and I made the climb in 30 minutes.

The trail head is at the Sunset Picnic Area and begins where the bridge crosses the creek. By the time we got on the trail the temps had warmed to the upper 40's and the sky was clear, a beautiful day. The climb is straight forward and the summit is large so you have a lot of room to set up. However there no substantial trees on the summit, so this necessitated a different set-up for the antenna. I set up a little below the summit and used an inverted L configuration, running the wire up the pole and then letting it slope down from the top of the pole.

Operating on Elk Mountain

Propagation was good and signals were strong. I received several reports greater than 559 and several 599, so everything was working. I made 22 QSO's on 20m and 4 QSO's on 40m. Included in the log was S58AL.

Toward the end of the activation, a group of boy scouts gathered to watch. I gave them an impromptu lecture on ham radio in general and SOTA in particular. They were very attentive. I told them that the internet was hard wired, but ham radio was magic.

Cris captured my impromptu talk with the Scouts

View from Elk Mountain

Mount Cummins W5O/WI-031

Mount Cummins is also a relatively easy summit, however finding the way to the top was a little more of challenge than I expected. My GPS took me to the wrong side of the mountain. The cell phone tower is the landmark, so I kept driving until I found the road to the tower. The cell tower site is in the activation zone, however, I wanted to get up on the summit to get the antenna deployed, so I did  a little bushwhacking.

On my way up Mount Cummins

There is a lot of scrub oak on the mountain that makes getting to the top a little more challenging than you would think. In the picture above, the cell tower fence can be seen in the right. The antenna above me in the picture must be a repeater antenna. The summit is relatively large, I set up on the summit ridge.

Operating Position on Cummins

You can see the beautiful day, with clear skies, temps now in the lower 60's. I made a total of 27 QSO's with all but four on 20 meters.
Running the Pile with the MTR

This was a fantastic day of SOTA fun. I earned 22 Activator points, enjoyed a beautiful day outdoors and enjoyed a SOTA date with my wife Cris. She loves photography, so this trip gave her some material and a good excuse to use her camera.

This is the first time I've done three summits in a day. My equipment performed well and I received better than average signal reports. I don't know if it was simply propagation or the inverted L/sloper configuration was better. At any rate, it was fun.

I had planned on maybe doing a fourth summit or maybe getting up early Sunday to do one more before driving home to San Antonio. However we received news that our daughter-in-law, who is six months pregnant, was having an emergency appendectomy, so we made the 7.5 hour drive home instead. Both mom and baby are fine.

Thanks to all the chasers. This SOTA stuff is fun.

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

High Cost DX-peditions

I try to not editorialize too much on this blog, but rather report on real activities that strike me as interesting in the radio hobby. I didn't start the blog to present opinions, but rather experiences and adventures. However.....

There have been many reflectors, bloggers, etc... commenting on the current state of affairs in the high-end expedition world. Some of these expeditions have budgets in the $300,000 - $400,000 range. Many commenters discuss that unless amateurs contribute more, these expeditions will no longer happen and the "deserving" will be left with log books devoid of the most rare destinations. And that somehow, its is the responsibility of the non-expeditioning population to insure that these trips are properly funded and if you don't contribute, somehow you aren't paying your fair share.

My feelings, very simply, about this issue fall along the lines of how I manage my personal finances. If I can't afford it, I don't go. No-one is "obligated" to insure that my expedition is funded. That said, I have no issue with someone asking me to help defray their costs, e.g., I am paying for my expedition, if I do a good job and you want to make a contribution, then thank you. But not the approach; I need for you to contribute or I can't go. Two very different approaches.

All of this said, there is nothing new under the sun. I have been an amateur for 25 years and the same issues come up all the time. The fact is, no matter how expensive it gets, someone will go. If we need the entity and we feel inclined, then we should make a contribution, but don't put a guilt trip on me to pay for someone elses trip.

Back to regular programming.

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

Some Video from Summit 7472

I just remembered I had some video on my camera of the activation from 7472. Below are a few clips showing the operation and the snow.

video
AD5A Operating

video
KB5SKN headed down the mountain.
Notice that there is no snow on the mountains
in the distance. We are on the north side of this 
Summit where the snow remains for a longer time

video
AD5A Headed down the mountain