Thursday, November 4, 2010

How to Bust a Pileup

I've had a great time this past month chasing the four new entities from the dissolution of the Netherlands Antilles. Even with a modest station with a small amplifier, I've been quite successful in getting through the pileups. Sure, some hams don't even have a tribander or amplifier at their disposal -- but there's no reason they can't work DX. It may just take a little more effort.

The key to busting pileups is to listen. That's what the DX experts will tell you -- and they are right. The first thing about busting pileups is not to transmit. You can't listen when you are transmitting. 

But just telling someone to listen doesn't help if they don't know what to listen for. There are several things you need to listen and find before you begin to transmit.

First, you have got to hear the DX station. If you can't hear the DX, and hear him well enough to tell exactly what he is doing, there is no use transmitting at all. This can be very frustrating when you hear him work your buddies all around, but its the truth. If you can't hear 'em, don't even try to work 'em.

Next, once you can hear the DX well enough, you've got to know where he's listening. This is easy if he's working stations simplex. But, more than likely, for any reasonably sized pile-up, he'll be operating split. And that makes things more challenging.

If you have a fancy radio that allows you to listen to two frequencies at the same time, this the next step will be easier. Basically, what you have to do is listen to the DX station on his frequency, and then find the station he's working on his receive frequency.

You don't have to have the fancy radio -- you just need two VFOs and some nimble fingers. On the Elecraft K2 I use, you can hold down the A/B button, which activates the REV or reverse feature. This causes the radio to swap the VFOs it is using for receive. So, one moment you are listening to the DX station come back to someone, then you press REV to switch to the other VFO, and then hold it down while you tune around for the station being worked. But, don't hold it too long, or you'll miss the DX station's next transmission.

Sounds complicated, eh? Well, maybe. Figure also there's no guarantee you can actually hear the station the DX is coming back to. You might have to do this over and over again until you hear one. Then you have to worry that the DX station is staying in one spot -- he might be tuning around in the pileup. But the best place to be when you start transmitting is right around the place the DX station was listening last.

Once you've done this, it is probably time to start calling. If you need to tune your amp, please move a few kHz off the DX frequency before you start.

Your calls should be short -- just your full callsign, and then go back to listening. Perhaps you do this cycle two or three times, depending on the pileup. Once the DX station comes back to someone, there's no sense in continuing to transmit -- unless that stations is you.

Even though you start transmitting, you don't stop listening.

Who is the DX station working? Is he working stations in your area, or are they all on another continent? Perhaps he's working folks from all over. Listen closely to figure this out.

Who are the stations he responds to? Are they the earliest, strongest callers, or is he picking later in the pileup when the calls die down? Is he accepting or ignoring tail-enders? Figure out the pattern that the DX station is using, and use that information to place your calls better and better.

OK, you've done all that? Now is the time to have patience. Pileups can be huge random events, and if you keep on listening and carefully transmitting, you'll eventually get through. It may be on the first or second call, or it may take a half and hour of calling with no joy. Don't get discouraged.

Even so, there are a few that get away. Propagation will change, or the station will QSY or QRT. You can't help that, so don't worry about it. Most of all, don't let your worry interfere with your operating.

Careful listening can make all the difference. I've broken several pileups on the first or second call after listening to them to for several minutes. Good listening should tell you where to transmit, and precisely when.

Don't allow yourself to get frustrated and learn to enjoy the hunt.

Good DX!


  1. Thanks for the tips. Wish every HAM would listen carefully in a pile-up. 73, Bas