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.

Sunday, January 19, 2014

CW Op -- When Did That Happen?

I came to a realization late this fall. I'm a CW contest operator now. I'm not sure how that happened.

As I recounted in my Novice story, I started off with CW, since that was all Novices were allowed to operate. Even after I upgraded to General, I still operated mostly CW.

When I started radio contesting in 1986, I did both CW and Phone contests at first. Phone contesting brought more success. By 1990, I had pretty much given up on CW contests.

In 1996, something happened. Bill Fisher (then KM9P, later W4AN and now, unfortunately a silent key) was asking people to join teams for the North American QSO Party (NAQP) for the newly formed South East Contest Club (SECC). While i hadn't operated a CW contest in years, I wanted to participate in SECC activities. So, I volunteered to join in.

I've misplaced my write-up for that contest effort, but I won't forget it. I moved into the house in Gwinnett county late in 1994. In January 1996, I was still finishing rooms in the basement, and did not have any ham equipment set up.

My 1996 NAQP CW effort was a hastily improvised affair. I hung a 125 foot doublet fed with open wire, between the railing of the deck and a tree in the back yard. It was probably all of 15 feet in the air at its highest. I set up my venerable Kenwood TS-430S on a lunchroom table, with a  Murch UT-2000A antenna tuner. The setup was in an unfinished basement with no heat, so I put on warm clothes and wrapped myself in a blanket.

Ten hours of operating later, I had all of 120 QSOs in the log, and I was cold despite the blanket. Many of the operators were going far, far too fast for me, and it was real work to get them into the log. Despite this, I was pretty pleased with my score. Still, there was plenty of room for improvement.

Real contest CW operators don't operate as I did then, scribbling everything down on paper. They copy in their head. The first revolution was to throw the pencil away. At first, I copied code by typing notes into the computer. I would use two computers, one for logging, and one with a TextEdit application running. A year and a half later, I had progressed to the point where I could copy standard contest exchanges in my head. Well, at least long enough to type them into the computer and log them. That contest, the NAQP CW Summer of 1997, was the first contest I would consider "fun" instead of "work."

It would take about five more years before I could copy most of the high-speed contest code, sent around 30 words per minute (wpm).

The second revolution came in sending. Until 2002, I send everything by hand using a keyer. Then I hooked up a simple little circuit that would allow my logging computer to send the code. What a God-send! While I might be able to copy code at 30 wpm in my head, I could only send about 20-25 wpm, and sometimes not that well. The computer, on the other hand, would send flawless code, and could do so at 28-30 wpm.

At this point, I could receive and send contest CW at nearly 30 wpm. That's basic. But, there's still more. Just receiving and sending isn't enough -- you have to know what to send in response to what you receive. You have to know how to pick up calls the first time when you tune up on them would S & P. You have to know how to sort out the pile when three or four people try to answer your CQ.

Slowly, I accumulated some operating skills. In 2005, I was recruited to be a CW operator for a large 9-transmitter Field Day operation. I ended operating 15m, 80m and 10m CW. What fun! I had such a blast that I did it again the next year.

The hardest skill to acquire is knowing how to run -- how to answer when multiple people are calling in response to your CQ. You can't know what to do without lots of practice. And, with low power and mediocre antennas, it's hard to get a lot of practice. All the time I've spend operating with the NQ4I multi-multi team has slowly paid off.

I've finally reached the point where I feel pretty confident on CW, even calling CQ. During the NAQP CW recently, I watched as the last 10 rate meter peaked at 264 / hour. That doesn't happen often, but it makes me smile when it does.