Wednesday, December 31, 2014

W1AW-Portable - Thanks for a fun year!

Well, it's over now. All the W1AW-portable operations are complete. It's been a great, great year. I have had a ton of fun chasing these stations. I only wish I had gotten started in the first couple of months, rather than just the last 10.

According to my log, I've worked W1AW-portable stations 1276 times. It's been a lot of fun. I'm definitely going to miss this in the new year.

ARRL 160m 2014

Two radio setup for the ARRL 160m contest.
K3 on right, K2 on left.
For the 2013 running of the ARRL 160m, I put in more operating hours than ever before, but I fell short of my personal best set in 2010. For 2014, I wanted to make sure that I set a new record.

Two radios would allow me to call CQ while I am scanning the band for other stations. I had used two radios in 2013, but it proved to be ineffective.

The inverted-L is my only 160m antenna. That would go to the K3. What I needed was some type of receiving antenna for the K2. The 80/40m dipole wouldn't cut it, as I found in 2013.

I had intended to set up some K9AY loops, and I've been working on a push-button controller for it. That project ran into a snag at the last minute, so some creativity was in order. I ended up stringing a 150 foot "Beverage" antenna into the woods. At such a short length and unterminated, it's not a true Beverage, but it did allow me to receive with the K2.

The two-radio setup was configured in haste about an hour before the contest. While the K3 continued to overload the K2 even with the receiving antenna, I used the K2 to populate the band-map while CQing. This did not produce a significant change in the number of Qs, but it did allow me to listen to other parts of the band during the slowest periods.

Started the contest at 2201z and continued all night to 1230z, right at sunrise. The all-night shift was tough, but netted 544 Qs and 68 multipliers. Conditions seemed good but not great. Worked 47 states - all but AK, HI and MT. Early part of the contest was nearly all CQing, with short sessions of S & P to look for mults, as well as when rates got slow after 0600z.

Second night started at 2210z until 0456z. It might have been better to stay on until 0600z, but I was exhausted. Got back on at 1040z, and switched off at 1240z. That's over 23 hours of contest time. There are only 28 hours of darkness in this part of the world at this time of year, and I was on the air for 22 of them.

Passed 700 Qs around 0430z the second night -- which put me into personal record territory. What I needed was mults. In my previous best, I had 78 mults. However, there was no DX to be found. I heard no Europeans, and very little from the Caribbean. Worked XE, PJ2 and ZF. Heard a V3, but he did not hear my calls.

Very hard the second night to decide between calling CQ and S & P. I ended up mostly S & P, because the rate was slightly better.

Found missing mults the second night, with MT, LAX, SCV, SV, MAR and WTX. With three countries that makes 74. Total 745 QSOs for a total score of 111,148.

I really feel like I am pushing the limits of what can be done with 100 watts and 1500 feet of wire suspended from trees. Score might be a little higher if I had stayed up the second night.

This contest is always a blast. See you next year.

Monday, December 22, 2014

Logbook of the World

In the last month, I passed a significant milestone. I now have over 25,000 confirmations in Logbook of the World. Not bad for using it for the last eleven years.

I went back and checked, my first upload was on November 11, 2003. It took me just over a year to upload all my logs, including all of the hand-written logs that had to be typed in.

Every QSO I have ever recorded, as WN8WOY, WB8WOY, N8BHE and AA4LR has been uploaded to Logbook of the World. However, those early callsigns have not been very fruitful. My novice calls have not garnered any confirmations, and my general call just two, both from my brother NJ8J.

With those confirmations, I have qualified for several awards. I earned DXCC in three and a half years. Today, I have DXCC Mixed, CW, Phone, RTTY and on 40, 20, 15, and 10 meters. I've earned WAS Basic, CW, Phone, RTTY, Triple-Play, and Six-band WAS (160, 80, 40, 20, 15, 10). And from Floyd County, I have the confirmations to get WAS Basic, CW, Phone, RTTY, Triple-Play, and bands 40, 30 and 20m, with two other bands (160, 80m) just one state away.

Logbook of the World is a tremendous resource. While getting your account set up is just a little bit of trouble, gathering confirmations is so easy and inexpensive. Much better than the old-fashioned method of using physical cards.

If you have any interest in awards-chasing or DXing, you should be using Logbook of the World.

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

What Ever Happened to 2m FM?

My first 2m FM rig was the Icom IC-230, like this one.
I was reading an article in a recent issue of QST, talking about the rise of FM in amateur use, and it dawned on me. It's been nearly 10 years since I had a VHF FM radio in the car.

Thirty-five years ago, in September of 1979, I got my first 2m rig -- an Icom IC-230.

My brother Ben, now NJ8J, had gotten a 2m handheld several months before. While home before college, I noticed how much fun he was having on 2m, and I wanted to be part of it as well.

One of his 2m contacts, a gentlemen whose call I have forgotten, had a Icom IC-230 for sale, and the price was reasonable for my college-bound budget. Ben and I went out to his house and came home with the rig. I fashioned a 1/4-wave whip using 19" of coat-hanger wire with four copper wire radials attached to an SO-239 connector. A quick jaunt out the dormer window and the antenna was attached to the roof just above the window.

That old house was in a prime spot for VHF. Right at the top of a hill, it was the highest spot for a couple of miles around. And it didn't hurt the antenna was near the top of the roof.

Propagation that week of September, just before I headed for school in Georgia, was also fortuitous. There was a massive troposphere opening, and I worked FM repeaters in four or five states in just a couple of days. I don't believe I've ever experienced such an opening since then.

Back in the days before frequency synthesizers, the IC-230 was an ingenious design. It used about 18 different crystals in a mixing arrangement that allowed it to generate all 67 of the 30 kHz spaced channels from 146.01 through 147.99, plus the standard repeater offsets of +/- 600 kHz.

Ingenious as it was, this arrangement was obsolete by the time I purchased it. The 2m band had expanded to allow repeater operation in the 144 and 145 MHz sections of the band, and some repeaters were operating on the 15 kHz splinter frequencies, which the IC-230 couldn't access. The rig did have provisions for adding three extra crystals to generate oddball repeater frequencies, as well as a switch position for an external digital VFO. On my college budget, I never could afford these options.

Even so, I could generally find plenty of activity on the main 30 kHz channels. Somewhere along the line, I bought a car, and of course I put the IC-230 in it. My antenna was a home-brew magnet mount made out of a tuna can with a plastic lid, a phono connector with a 19" curved copper wire sticking out of it. Not sure where I got the magnets, but they were strong enough to hold it in place. While the IC-230 was sold long ago, I still have this home-brew mag-mount.

Driving around downtown Atlanta, I often heard other hams complain about intermod from the other VHF signals and the tall buildings. Not with the IC-230. The designers put five helical resonators in the front end to pass the 146-148 MHz signals. Those resonators were like a brick wall to out-of-band VHF signals. In downtown Atlanta, I might hear some picket-fencing, but never any intermod. That's the one feature of that rig I miss.

I eventually traded in the IC-230. I had a Heathkit HW-2036 for a while. I also bought several hand-held transceivers. Today, I have an Alinco DR-570 as well as an old Yaesu FT-227RA Memorizer. Neither of these rigs has seen the inside of a car in over 10 years.

I don't know what it is - perhaps it is the rise in cell phone, but there doesn't seem to be as much activity on 2m as there was a couple of decades ago. Maybe it's just because hams stopped putting rigs in their cars....

Monday, November 10, 2014

Dipole Back Up!

I wrote back in May that my 80/40m dipole had fallen down when a tree branch broke off and came through the antenna.

While there was no real damage, it did dislodge the rope anchor I had cast over the tree. Because it is so difficult to cast a line into the trees when the foliage is out, I had to wait.

It was fortunate, however, that I did wait. During the summer storms, this same tree shed a couple more large branches. Well, the leaves have thinned out considerably from the trees, and I've actually been out in the woods a couple of times to cast a new line.

Those sessions didn't end well. You see, I'd go out with a weight made of a 1/4 to 3/8" bolt and a few nuts, and on the first cast, I'd lose them. They came sailing off the end of the line, never to be found.

Assembled parts for the antenna launch weight
As I wrote about the Mark III Antenna Launcher, losing weights is inevitable. Given the beautiful fall weather we had this weekend, I decided I was not going to have my antenna raising session interrupted by a single lost weight.

Normally, I'd recommend you construct these antenna weights with hardware you're not likely to use for anything else. This likely means old, corroded nuts and bolts that you've taken off some old assembly. However, I did not have much of this kind of hardware on hand at the Micro-Shack.

Technique for jamming nuts together
Time to fight back with numbers. A quick trip to the local home improvement store found 100 1/4" nuts and a dozen 1 1/2" long 1/4" bolts for about $8. The plan was to jam on as many nuts as the bolt would allow. This would make for a reasonably heavy weight, but one that would fit well in the slingshot pouch.

Assembly is easy. Simply screw the nuts on to the bolt as far as they will go, and repeat. I managed to get six nuts on the 1 1/2" bolts, although I did have one overachiever bolt that received seven.

The finished product. A dozen weights, most with six
nuts, one with seven.
Once the nuts are on the bolt, but loose, take a couple of wrenches and jam them down on the end of the bolt, and then one against the other. Make them tight enough that they won't go flying off when launched into the air.

Less than 20 minutes later, I had a dozen antenna weights. Filled with confidence, I marched outside fully prepared to lose numerous weights in order to get the dipole in the air.

Naturally, given my readiness for sacrifice, I managed to get the line over the tree branch on the first shot. I didn't lose a single weight. Well. I am now prepared for the mid-winter antenna raising season.

I am very happy to have this dipole back up. I have missed it all summer.

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Forth Quarter in Centennial QSO Party

No, I don't use paper any more....
We're now well past half-time. It's the beginning of the forth quarter.

Honestly, I'm amazed at the Centennial QSO Party. I have really enjoyed the W1AW-portable operations. I checked my records and I have made nearly 900 QSOs with W1AW-portable stations this year. 820 of those from Floyd County.

I'm kicking myself for not starting this right off the bat January 1, and pursuing these portable operations on every band/mode combination. Nope, I ignored these operations until February, and at first I was only trying to fill in bands - like 30m, 17m, and 12m - that I didn't have confirmed already.

Now, I'm having too much fun. I'm ducking into the shack each day to try and work a few band/modes that I can. It's been fantastic practice trying to break into the pileups.

I'm really, really impressed at how much I've been able to work with just 100 watts and wire antennas.

And the WARC-band WAS? I'm advancing. 30m - 45 confirmed, 17m - 40 confirmed, 12m - 29 confirmed. And there's still W1AW-portable logs that still haven't been uploaded.

If you haven't tried working these, there's still three months of fun left. Join in!

Sunday, September 28, 2014

Yes! Found It.

I wrote earlier in the week about a disturbing amount of power line noise. It had sprung up sometime in the last couple of weeks and was a deafening S9++ on 160m. Not good at all for the start of the low-band season.

A day later, I had an opportunity to try scope it out. I found the noise was readily apparent on an AM broadcast radio. In my car, I tried to find the noise, but found it diminished greatly when I left the driveway, and returned once I parked my car near the church. This mean that it was very local, it wasn't something propagating along the power lines in the front yard.

Getting a little portable broadcast radio, the noise was quite loud in the shack, but diminished as I walked to the church. This meant the noise was likely coming from the parsonage itself.

Next step was to flip every breaker off in the parsonage as I listened to the radio. Of course, once I flipped the very last breaker, the noise disappeared. Turning all the other breakers back on -- no noise.  Then it was a matter of deducing what was being powered from that circuit breaker.

The circuit breaker in question, number 15, was powering a few outlets that supplied power to my internet router and other pieces of equipment on my wife's desk. A bit more unplugging found that the parsonage wiring wasn't the culprit, but something plugged into the wall. A bit more, and the cause was found -- it's a wall wart power brick that powers my AT&T Microcell.

When we got the Microcell back 3 years ago, the coverage underneath the parsonage's metal roof was extremely bad. Since then, it has gotten a little better. Until I can replace the bad power brick, we can live without the Microcell.

And no more noise on 160m. Hurray!

Thursday, September 25, 2014

Crap. Line Noise

OK, perhaps I could use stronger language. Here it is, the start of the fall low-band DX season, and I have line noise.

In the three years I've been out here in Floyd county, the low bands have been very quiet, so it has been easy to hear other stations. You'd think being out in the country like this it would stay that way.

Well, something has changed in the last week or two. On 160m, I'm reading constant line noise 24/7. In an SSB bandwidth, it is S9+20. In a CW bandwidth, it is still S9. Terrible. On 80m, it is a little better, about S7 in SSB, and S5 in CW -- about the same level as the atmospheric noise. Above 80m, I don't notice it, really.

It's been very dry, as is typical of this part of the fall here in Georgia. However, even a recent downpour didn't silence the noise.

This is very bad. I guess I'll have to hunt down the source and tell Georgia Power about it. I sincerely hope they can fix it before the ARRL 160m contest.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Not One, But Two.

I've written my story before, about how I got started in the martial arts. At that time, I'd just started to train in Tae Kwon Do and Hap Ki Do.

Doing more than one discipline is difficult. While you'd think that the general principles of one would reinforce the other, there's also things that get in the way - prior learning that you have to unlearn and re-learn anew. It becomes a struggle to keep it all straight, to differentiate between styles.

You can't just rely on habit, you have to build new habits, one for each style.

I've kept at it. It's taken almost three years, but this week I tested for my Black Belt in Tae Kwon Do. I now hold two black belts - the other being second degree in Tang Soo Do. Not bad for a 53 year old guy who started training six and a half years ago.

Naturally, I'm not stopping. I'm going to continue to train so long as my body and my financial situation allows. There's still a black belt in Hap Ki Do to pursue, as well as higher degrees in these disciplines.

Find something you love doing, and keep doing it.

Saturday, September 6, 2014

It Pays to Think Out of the Box

I was trying to contact W1AW/7 in Oregon today on 10m SSB. He was operating simplex, and he definitely had a heck of a pileup. Of course, 10m skip being what is was, I couldn't hear most of that, so it wasn't so bad working simplex. It was nice and orderly, if a little slow.

Well, I'm getting beat out over and over, considering all I have is my 100 watts from the Elecraft K3/100, going to the 160/80/40m Inverted-L. Who knows what the SWR or radiation pattern is like on 10m.

Anyway, I'm just getting settled in, when he announces "QRX 5 minutes." Just my luck, I think -- I finally get this guy dialed in and he's taking a break. Well, I sit there for a few minutes checking up on Facebook or whatever while I'm listening. And he doesn't come back. I look at the clock, and it's been eight minutes. I figure, what the heck, I'll give him a call or two. I have nothing to lose.

    "Whiskey One Alpha Whiskey Stroke Seven from Alpha Alpha Four London Radio"

Silence. OK, one more time.

    "Whiskey One Alpha Whiskey Stroke Seven from Alpha Alpha Four London Radio"

    "Alpha Alpha Four London Radio from Whiskey One Alpha Whiskey Stroke Seven you're five-nine in Oregon ...."

And, BAM, I'm in his log. Apparently, they were just changing operators and I caught the new guy just as he was sitting down. Immediately after, the impenetrable pile-up cranks back up.

Sometimes, you don't need big power or fancy antennas, just being at the right place at the right time.

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.

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.

Sunday, January 12, 2014

Straight Key Night 2014

Homebrew Transmitter and Receiver, ready for another
go at Straight Key Night in 2014
Last year, Straight Key Night (SKN) was kind of a bust for me. As I wrote then, I ran into trouble trying to key my 35+ year old electronic keyer to key the 40m "Novice" rig. This year, I got to operate SKN with no problems.

Despite having an entire year to figure it out, I left fixing the keyer to the last minute. Back in the summer, I had modified the keyer to use a 2N3906 to key the gate of a BS170. However, when I hooked it up to the rig, it wouldn't key -- oscillator problems again. It went back to the project shelf to be figured out later.

At some point, I took the keyer back to Gwinnett county to try to troubleshoot it there. But as fate would have it, I didn't have time to figure it out. Right before Christmas, I brought it back to Floyd county.

A bit of work with the mini-scope proved that the oscillator wasn't firing at all. It took a while until I found the source of the problem: one of the wires to the speed potentiometer had broken off, so the RC circuit was broken. Without it, there's no phase delay, and therefore, no oscillation.

Built in 1979, Mini-MOS keyer provides yeoman service again.
Great! This means I just hook it up to the rig and go right? Wrong. It appeared to work for a few seconds, but then it would continuously key. It was erratic. Troubleshooting it a bit more, and it seemed to work -- the keying signal would get to the gate of the BS170, but not beyond. At one point I thought maybe I had a bad MOSFET, so I pulled the BS170 out. (In the process, I ended up destroying the part - oops)

Pulled a 2N7000 out of the junk box. The 2N7000 and BS170 are pretty much the same part, although the pin-outs are different. Hook it up and it seems to be working great. I can see the keying on the gate on the 'scope, and the transmitter is happy. Unplug the scope probe, put the lid on, and ... it's locking up again.

Hmm. Take the lid off, put the probe on, and it works again. On a hunch, I pulled a 100k resistor out of the junk box and put it across the gate to ground. Working -- even with the probe removed. Ah ha! That's the problem. The gate of the 2N7000 (or BS170) wasn't being pulled back down to ground, so the floating leakage from the 2N3906 was just barely enough to keep it turned on. Adding the scope probe brought in just enough resistance (a few megaohms), to overcome that leakage.

All ready to go. After dining out with a church group on New Year's Eve, I managed to work seven stations all before the ball fell. Of course, I told them that I was cheating, using a 35+ year old keyer instead of a straight key. No one seemed to mind. I did find that my 7061.1 kHz crystal stopped working. Worked one more person on New Year's Day for a total of eight.

A great way to bring in the new year. I guess I'll submit mine as a check log....