Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Pursuit of 5BDXCC II - 80m

As I wrote last year, I have DXCC awarded on 40, 20, and 15m, and have more than enough credits for 10m. I'll probably submit for 10m this year. For Five-Band DXCC, that leaves 80m.

Last year, I had 71/70 confirmed on 80m. Today, that stands at 77/76. So, in the entire winter season I only added six additional confirmations. That was only about one fifth of my goal.

The 160/80/40m inverted L has been a great antenna. I've been working the W1AW-portable operations since February. I really don't have much of a problem busting through on these bands even with just 100 watts. In fact, this antenna has really been my ONLY antenna since April, when the 80/40m trap dipole fell down.

So, why did I fail to work 30 entities? Well, part of the problem is that people just can't hear my 100 watts. I had many instances where really loud DX stations could not hear me, even after calling and calling.

I'm once again thinking of the things I can do to push toward that magical 100 on 80m, before fall gets here:

  • Inverted L - currently, it has 24 radials - Eight 125 feet long, and sixteen 62.5 feet long. That's 1500 feet of wire, and at about $45 for a 500 foot spool, it wasn't cheap. Could be that this is my last winter at the Floyd County QTH, so it might be worth putting down a couple of more spools for 32 more 62.5 foot radials.
  • K9AY - I talked last year about building a push-button controller. I've got that about half-way complete. Perhaps I can get that finished. The K9AY loops themselves will likely be suspended under a magnolia tree in the front yard. This would be close to the power lines, so I'll have to test to make sure I'm not picking up noise there.
  • Amplifier - At the moment, the AL-80A is busted. Something went pop and now the grid current meter reads funny. I've determined that the tube appears to be OK - no shorts. I think something in the metering circuit is toast, although it isn't obvious. However, since it is on the bench, maybe I can re-wire it for 120 volts.
  • Being There - While I've been active on the air much more this year than in the past, I don't think I concentrated enough on looking for 80m DX at the right time. I'll try to remedy that this fall. I really didn't make a habit of this last year.
  • Contests - I did work the ARRL DX CW as 80m single band. I've done that before, and I wouldn't be surprised if I win a certificate for my low-power token effort. I may do that again this year, if I don't wind up at NQ4I's multi-multi. Even if I go the all-band route, I do plan to emphasize some 80m operating time. 
Fall is always a very busy time. Wish me luck. If nothing else, I hope to get closer this year.

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Half-time at the ARRL Centennial QSO Party

This logbook was last used in 2006.
OK, we are now half-way through the year, and that means we are half-way through the ARRL Centennial QSO Party, with portable operations of W1AW visiting all fifty states!

As I wrote earlier, the Centennial QSO Part is a great opportunity to get nine-band WAS confirmed, since all of the W1AW-portable operations are being loaded up to the Logbook of the Word (LotW).

So, it is half-time! How are we doing?

Well, I can say for one that I have been having a blast trying to work the W1AW-portable operations from Floyd county. With the dipole down, I have been forced to make all contacts with the 160/80/40m trap inverted L. The Floyd county station only has 100 watts (so does Gwinnett county as well, since I blew up the amplifier -- but that's another story).

Sometimes, I've been very successful working stations in every band and mode possible. Other times, it has been very difficult. Just recently, I worked the Alaska operation on exactly one band/mode. One. Conditions just weren't optimal for that circuit. Conditions can also be very weird. I had pretty good success with the W1AW/9 operation in Illinois, working them on all modes from 80-17m. But, I hadn't made any contacts on 15m or above. Then, yesterday morning, I worked them on 15m RTTY early in the morning. Late that the evening, at around 0200-0300z, I worked six more contacts for 15m CW, 12m SSB, and 10m SSB, CW and RTTY. Who would have thought that the band would be open on 10m two hours after sunset?

What's the secret? Well, you have to know how to bust a pileup. Other than that, it's just perseverance. Like working a Dxpedition, early in the week of operations, it is tougher to get through. By Friday or so, it is usually easier. By Sunday, they often are begging for contacts. I temper my patience by calling on Wednesday or Thursday, but I don't waste a lot of time.

And, how am I doing on the whole WARC-band WAS? If you remember, I had no states confirmed on 30m and one each on 17 and 12m when I started. Today, I have 34, 30 and 21, respectively. And there's still more logs to be uploaded from the last month of operations.

So, if you haven't jumped in to the fray, perhaps it is time. Enjoy.

Friday, May 30, 2014

Dipole is Down

I had an 80/40m trap dipole  up in Floyd County since 2011. It was initially about 3m high, and I moved it up to  to 10m in height in the fall of 2012. It had done very well at that height, being an extremely effective antenna on 40m, and not terribly bad on 80m, either.

Well, all good things have to come to an end. During a wind storm in the last month, a very large branch, weighing a few hundred pounds, broke off a tree and fell through the dipole.

Amazingly, all it did was unravel the ends at the insulator. The wire is unharmed. However, I will need to cast a line over the tree again in order to loft it back up. Unfortunately, this late in the spring, that becomes very difficult, since the leaves are all on the trees. It's so much easier for those leaves to tangle or snare fishing line.

I'm still working on a design for an 80/40/30/20m trap dipole. Perhaps that will go up next.

How NOT to Run a W1AW/-Portable Operation

OK, I've been chasing some of the W1AW-portable operations. The light dawned on my back in February, when I realized that these operations could help me achieve WAS on the WARC bands of 30, 17 and 12m.

Managed to work quite a few, some with great ease. Some of it has to do with favorable propagation during the week they were on, but most has to do with the quality of the operators and their scheduling.

Others, I struggled to work at all, and in some cases barely made contacts on some bands. If this is the kind of operation you prefer, here's my list of tips on how to best optimize that outcome:

  • Don't operate on the WARC bands. If you're not familiar with them, they are 30, 17 and 12m. These aren't terribly popular, since they have only been ham bands for a couple of decades now. I'm sure some folks don't even have equipment for these bands. Best to stick with the harmonically related bands of 40, 20, 15 and 10m, although I'm not to sure about 15m....
  • Don't operate on 160 or 80m, even when it is dark. Rates will certainly be better on 40 or 20m, right. Few hams have the real estate for the enormous antennas required to operate these bands. Best to stay on the higher bands even after the sun goes down -- until the bands close, at least. 
  • Don't operate exotic modes, like RTTY. Not many hams will have that fancy RTTY equipment. So, you're sure to work many more stations using good old-fashioned CW or SSB. If you must work a digital mode, make sure it is one of the new-fangled ones, like PSK 63 or JT 65.
  • Don't operate split. Takes up too much bandwidth. We hams can't figure out how to set up our rigs for split anyway. Who cares if the rate really stinks, since everyone is calling on top of you. That will make getting the QSO all that much more challenging, right? 
  • Don't operate between midnight and 7 AM. We hams certainly need our beauty sleep. They'll be no one to work anyway, right? Everyone should be asleep. And there's no need to start operating early in the morning, especially before sunrise. No one is awake then anyway, right?
  • Don't operate more than one band at a time. Hams will get too confuse if you appear on more than one band at a time. Besides, there's probably only one band that's really open, so there's little need to move around.
OK, OK, I kid. I know, these operations are run by volunteers, and not everyone is an expert operator.  It just amazes me at how poorly scheduled a few of these operations were. It was especially frustrating wanting to work these operation on the low bands, and staying up late, or getting up early, only to find they were QRT.

I've slowly been increasing my LoTW totals for WAS from Floyd County. 

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Fixing the K2/100, Again

D16 and D17, plugged into machined socket pins.
About a year and a half ago, I wrote about repairing my K2/100. Part of the fix involved replacing diodes D16 and D17 on the KPA100.

The same week I bricked my K3/100, I found the K2/100 was acting up. I was going to grab it in case I needed to send the bricked K3 back to Elecraft.

But, before I did that, I spent part of an evening trying to work some of the W1AW-portable operations. I didn't have a lot of luck. The power output seemed erratic on some bands, and on others, the automatic antenna tuner couldn't seem to find a match.

Seems to me I'd seen this behavior before -- when the SWR bridge diodes, D16 and D17, had undergone a soft failure. I figured that if this was going to be a regular occurrence, I ought to make the job easier.

I found an old machined-pin IC socket and carefully clipped away the plastic to reveal four individual pins. Actually, it was more like six pins, since I dropped one and couldn't find it under my desk. And another one I hopelessly bent. Fortunately, these things come packaged with fourteen to sixteen pins at a time, so I had plenty of spares.

A bit of work with a screw and nut driver released the KPA100 board from the heatsink. Pulling the old diodes from the board is a bit of a delicate operation, since you want to be carefully not to mess up the board traces. However, with the socket pins, this is the last time you'll do this.

Soldering the socket pins in place is one of those operations that would be easier with four hands. Even holding the board in a small Panavise, I needed one hand to hold the machine pin with pliers, one hand to hold the soldering iron, and one more hand to hold the solder. That's one more hand than God gave me, but somehow I managed.

Once the pins are in place, it is a simple matter to trim the diode leads and bend them down to fit the socket pins. I had ample spares from my earlier purchase.

I checked the diodes with my DVM. (Oh, I should mention that I discovered my 20 year old Radio Shack DVM bit the dust. Apparently one of the AA batteries inside managed to get enough corrosive goo on the circuit board to render it irreparable. So, I had to go out and buy another DVM. It would have been nice to know this before the last hamfest, as these types of devices can easily be had for a few dollars. As I was, I bought a cheap unit at the local Home Depot for about $20. More than I wanted to spend, but I had it in my hands immediately.) These diodes didn't show any obvious odd behavior. The forward voltage was a little off, and the reverse voltage was at the limit, just like you'd expect.

Nevertheless, I put new diodes in and ran the calibration procedure for the SWR bridge. Not having a dummy load handy (something else I left at my other QTH), I used a 40m antenna that was a pretty good match. After calibration, the K2/100 seemed to work as expected.

I'm surprised how sensitive these diodes appear to be to static discharges. I'm going to have to make sure I keep the rig antenna grounded when I'm not around.

Honey, I Bricked My K3

K3/100 in the operating position
A couple of weekends ago, I noticed that Elecraft had updated the release firmware for the K3 back in February. I'm not much for trying beta firmware, but I try to keep up to date. 

So, I fired up the old Elecraft K3 Utility and set it to go. I did not realize at that moment that I was to undergo a multi-day ordeal. 

MCU load went OK, but then it decided to upload the FPF. It kept getting stuck on the FPF. I figured it was just a glitch, so I tried it a half-dozen times. Each time, it would fail on the FPF load.

Of course, this left the K3 unusable. Without the front panel firmware, there's no front panel. My K3 was just about as useful as a brick.

Frantic e-mail to the elecraft email list brought several helpful responses, the most helpful was from Elecraft support.

Unfortunately, it would be a couple of days before I could try their suggestions, as I had to leave my Floyd County QTH for Gwinnett County. 

Three days later, I was able to put my full efforts into the solution. Apparently, I had tried to load the firmware with an old version of the K3 Utility. While Elecraft says this won't work, what they don't tell you is that it breaks your K3 in a weird way. 

That was easy enough to figure out. However, my problem was that even after I updated the utility, it wouldn't load the firmware, either.

At some point, someone suggested I try to load the old firmware. Well, doing that is not straightforward. You see, you have to go to your firmware download directory and remove all the files that weren't in the previous firmware. That's not obvious.  Eventually, I figured out that the FPF firmware hadn't changed -- only the MCU and DSP firmware were updated. Removing those files, I attempted a full download.

Voila! It worked. My K3 is un-bricked. I was now back to firmware 4.67. Now to try the update.

Instead of selecting the option to download all firmware, I chose the option of only downloading the updated firmware. That way, it wouldn't have to try to re-load the existing FPF, saving a bit of time.

Of course, it upgraded without a hitch. Goes to show you need to use the right tool. And follow directions -- the Elecraft instructions stated you need to use the latest utility. I should have checked instead of just assuming.

Friday, February 14, 2014

W1AW Centennial Operation - The Way To 9B WAS

OK, it took me a month to catch on. I read about the ARRL Centennial celebration. If you haven't heard about it, take a moment to check out the link. What you want to see is the Centennial QSO Party.

I'll wait.

Now, I didn't get very excited about the Centennial Points Challenge. I'm sure I'll work a few points this year just as a natural side effect of operating in contests and other events throughout the year. When I read about the W1AW portable operations from all fifty states (plus US territories), I didn't get all excited either. After all, I already have 6-band WAS. It took the LoTW and many years of work to complete that, doing mostly contest operation, so I didn't make the connection at first.

The W1AW portable operations make it easy to achieve 9-band WAS.

I think it hit me one night when I was looking at spots for FT5ZM. (Great DXpedition, if you didn't manage to work them, well, it wasn't their fault...) I saw spots for W1AW-portable. Some of them were on 30, 17 and 12m.

Now, I said I have 6-band WAS. That's because there are no contests on 30, 17 and 12m. I do operate there, but it's been mostly DXing. I do a little casual style operating with USA stations, but many of these rag chewers don't tend to QSL via LoTW.

I then made the connection -- these highly visible W1AW-portable operations are the perfect way to fill in all the holes in your LoTW WAS confirmations. All of the W1AW-portable contacts will be confirmed on LoTW. They will operate from each state twice throughout the year for an entire week, being on the air virtually all the time. Perfect.

Since then, I've been sneaking into the shack working W1AW-portable on all the bands that I need. I have two award accounts, one for Floyd County and one for the QTH in Gwinnett, so I have a chance to fill in the holes for each.

Don't have WAS? Or need WAS on a hard band like 80m, 15m or the WARC bands? This is your chance. Good luck.