Tuesday, January 27, 2009

The Vanity Call Sign Dilemma

I have decidedly mixed feelings about the whole vanity call sign system, despite being the holder of a really cool vanity call, W9HQ. My mixed feelings come from a clash between my traditional and nostalgic side, which loves things which are venerable, solid, tried and true versus my pragmatic side which hates to see a good thing go unused. (The call sign [not a vanity!] to the right is that of a ham who makes some really nice and reasonably priced wooden replications of your call. Check out his Web site. I've put this down on my "gift list", so maybe I'll get one from my wife.)

Let's start with the nostalgia. When I was a kid, you knew darn good and well that somebody who held a one by two call with a "W" in front was a venerable old-timer. You knew that he was an Extra class ham who had earned that license level by achieving a high level of Morse code proficiency (20 words per minute) and had mastered some pretty intense technical material in order to be able to take the FCC's highest level exam. You also knew that he had been in the hobby a pretty long time, because the FCC was only giving out 1x2 calls to hams who had been Extras for at least 25 years and they ran out of the one by two W calls well before I got into the hobby. They were, in a word, venerable.

Nowadays, with the new vanity system, a guy could very easily get an Extra class license after only a very short time as a ham, apply for a W#xy call, and look veritably ancient. I've been in the hobby quite a while (albeit with a pretty long hiatus in between periods of activity), but I really don't feel worthy of such a call. So there's a part of me that wants to keep those "golden oldie" call signs out of circulation, because of what they represent.

But then kicks in the pragmatic part of me. These are good call signs; what's wrong with keeping them in use? Indeed, although its parameters are much broader now than they used to be, the history of "vanity" call signs isn't quite as straightforward and restrictive as one might think:

As older hams became Silent Keys and the number of available 1x2 calls increased, the FCC instituted a program effective in 1968 whereby those licensed for 25 years and currently holding an Extra license would be eligible for a non-specific (sequential) 1x2 callsign. The length of time one needed to be an Extra was gradually reduced, until July 1977, when any Extra Class could apply for a 1x2 . . .

Effective July 1, 1976, any Extra class licensee who had been a licensed Amateur for 25 years or more could select one specific 1x2 call sign. This added the ability to pick a specific call, but did not change eligibility. . . .

Effective July 1, 1977, any Amateur Extra class licensee could select one specific 1x2 call sign. Effective March 30, 1978 this was all replaced by the strict "sequential" system until the advent of "vanity" call sign selection in March 24, 1995 (Amateur Radio History).

So it wasn't like these call signs remained ever out of circulation once the original holder died. They were recirculating them at least forty years ago. It's just that the rules are quite a bit looser now.

So where does that leave me in the end? In the end, I decided to upgrade from Advanced to Extra when my son took his Technician test, even though I'm not thrilled with the loosening of the requirements to do so. And although I was happy with my original call of N0CVR, I live in "9" land now so changing my call sign to a "9" designator made sense. When I looked into what was available on the FCC database in terms of vanity call signs, I saw that W9HQ was coming up very soon. The way the system is set up, that call sign isn't going to be set aside for posterity—somebody's going to get it. So nostalgia gives way to pragmatism and that somebody might as well be me.

But pragmatism has its limits and becomes truly noxious if it ends up rendering us oblivious and careless about the past. There are things that the holder of such a venerable call sign as mine can do to perpetuate its legacy and honor its original holder(s). And that is the subject of a soon-coming posting.

73 DE W9HQ

Microwaves: What's the Use?

I had an interesting exchange about microwaves and their usefulness with my friend and colleague, Chris Vanderkoy (KF9OP). Now just by way of background, Chris and I work for the same company, me as a lead test engineer for industrial controls products and Chris as the RF engineer in charge of designing the radio hardware for the company's wireless sensor and controls products (in the 2.4 GHz band.) So Chris is a die-hard microwave guy. In fact, he refers derisively to anything less than 500 MHz as "DC".

But that's just not me. I like HF a lot and am only just now getting turned on to VHF/UHF stuff. Some time ago I was asking Chris about feedlines. He stated:

I wouldn't buy LMR400 for less than 50mhz. At those frequencies, you can get by with a series of coat hangers for your feed line....(well, not really....)

His reply didn't exactly tick me off, but it did seem mighty uppity. So I shot back with a challenge:

Ya know, I realize that actually building the radios is more of a challenge, but the problem is that the darn microwaves don't do anything interesting. They don't bounce off anything in the ionosphere but they do get scattered by everything under the sun. They get sucked in by every water-bearing obstacle (spelled TREES) in their path. They don't even bend to give you just a teensy bit more than line-of-sight. So you have to build a 400 foot tower just to get out. What's the use?

I thought that would put an end to his smart alecky ways. But no, KF9OP shot back with a detailed list of 10 good reasons to look at microwaves Here you go:

Microwave's benefits.

1) Wide Bandwidth (lots of space for everybody)

2) Wide Bandwidth (hard for others to find you if they don't know where to look.)

3) Easy to build Hi gain antennas. (30dBi parabolic dish is reasonable)

4) Good for Satellite communications.

5) 1/f noise much less at these frequencies.

6) If you point your dish to the sky, you can get ultra low noise floors.

7) Awesome directivity (send the RF where you want it).

8) Can't moonbounce at HF.

9) Different freq's get absorbed by different gasses (this phenomenon is a benefit not a problem. CO2 sensors use this phenomenon to detect the gas.

10) You can use microwave energy to see through walls and penetrate concrete/earth/etc. (cool for discovery of underground caves, oil, etc...)

I guess I don't think of microwave frequencies as a place you call for CQ, but rather a frontier of research that has all kinds of gold nuggets waiting to be discovered.

Ham radio is cool because it is cutting edge... 300GHz is definitely an edge.

So there you go. Microwave communication and experimentation might not be your cup of tea. But that's the great thing about ham radio. There are myriad facets of the hobby and you can almost always find some other folks who are interested in doing what you're doing. (But they had better be close if you want to talk to them with those puny microwaves ;o)

The bottom line is, I'm learning more and more to never say never. I didn't ever think I'd be all that enthusiastic about VHF/UHF weak signal stuff, but here I am reading and planning on how to significantly improve my station in that area. Who knows? Maybe someday I'll be as big a microwave aficionado as KF9OP.

73 DE W9HQ

Monday, January 19, 2009

KC9JTL in the 2009 VHF Sweepstakes

Well this past Saturday/ Sunday was the ARRL VHF Sweepstakes for 2009 and my son Christopher and I participated. This event was promoted locally by a gung-ho ham Todd Sprinkmann, KC9BQA and he succeeded in mobilizing quite a few locals to participate. It ended up being a real blast.

Of course, lots of obstacles had to get between us and the contest. Just about an hour before it started, a frozen water pipe burst in our house (thank goodness I was sitting in the shack and heard the snap! and then water gushing down into the basement!) But I got the water shut off, the mess cleaned up, ran to the hardware store, got what I needed to fix the pipe, and we got on the air a mere twenty minutes late. The problem was, the pipe had thwarted my intention to get our 10 element, 2 meter beam on a rotor prior to the start of the contest. We started without it, but it became apparent quickly that rotating that dude was going to be essential.

So in true ham spirit, Christopher and I got out there and did what needed to be done. Then we scampered back into the shack and started making more contacts. Now notice that this antenna is sitting just 15 feet off the ground. We have a ridgetop location, sure, but you can definitely play with a very modest antenna and it doesn't have to be miles in the air.

It was extremely great to hear so many local stations on. I really hope that this is a sign of good things to come in our area. The June contest should be even better, so mark it on your calendar (June 13-14, 2009). As KC9BQA has said, contests aren't any fun if nobody's on the bands.

This was my first VHF contest. We used Christopher's callsign, KC9JTL, throughout the contest, so we'll be entering our score as a multi-operator limited station. The "limited" means we could use no more than four bands. I had only intended to use three: 6 meters, 2 meters, and 70 cm. I don't have a rig for 1.25 meters......or do I? (More on that below.)

The highlights were:

  • We caught a short opening on 6 meters Sunday morning that netted us one distant grid, FN42 in New Hampshire. It really surprised me that we didn't get any other contacts during this opening. K1TR was really strong into Wisconsin and I thought maybe we'd get a flood of signals from out east, but we called and called on 50.125 and didn't hear anybody else. Oh well, we were happy for any opening at all.
  • On Sunday night we heard KB9C/R (a club call being operated by Bruce, W9FZ) booming into our place from his home QTH in Hillsboro, WI. We worked him first on 2 meters, then on 440, then on 6 meters. Suddenly it occurred to me that my Yaesu VX-6R HT has 220 MHz capability at 1.5 watts. KB9C/R was so loud that I thought we could probably make it, even with that low power. So I had my son coordinate the freqs and then, standing outside in the snow holding the VX-6R sideways (to get the horizontal polarization), worked him on 223.5 for our only 1.25 meter contact. So we got Bruce on four bands and gave him a unique grid on 1.25 meters. That's nice teamwork. Thanks Bruce for your patience!
  • I worked seven CW contacts (that's Morse code, for you non-hams) and I got a unique grid on each one; so CW was our key to accumulating grids. The best distance on 2 meters was a 210 mile QSO with WO9S in Chicago. No way we'd have made that one on SSB.

The lowlights were:

  • Not being able to be on the air as much as we would have liked throughout the contest. Maybe in June my wife and the girls can go visit someone and Christopher and I can do a marathon session.
  • Hearing N9UHF in Illinois constantly throughout the contest, calling him about a hundred times, but never working him. I also heard K8EB nice and strong at one point, tried calling several times with no success, and then heard him fade away as he turned his beams away from me. Ahhh! That would have been a new grid and a 250 mile contact. Would have been.......
  • Hearing N0IRS and WB0NQD in EM29 during the last few minutes of the contest, calling and having N0IRS say "I've got Kilo Charlie Nine.....what's the rest?", then QSB blew us away and we didn't finish the contact before the contest ended. Rats! One more grid square lost. Better luck next time. ;o) Our final tally looks to be as follows:

10 QSOs on 6 meters, 3 grids
33 QSOs on 2 meters, 15 grids
1 QSO on 1.25 meters, 1 grid
4 QSOs on 70 cm, 1 grid

So we had 48 contacts spanning 16 grids. I guess that's not too bad for the first time out of the chute.

Contesting is not everybody's cup of tea—in fact, some hams get downright surly about it—but I think it has some real upsides, especially on VHF/UHF. For one thing, you get to sharpen your operator skills and that's always a good thing. For another, with a lot of stations on the air from diverse areas, one starts to get a feel for just what is possible with a given rig/antenna combination on these frequencies. Finally, it's just plain good fun. And ultimately that's what ham radio is supposed to be about--enjoying radio and the people that you meet on the air.

Bottom line is that the activity levels locally were awesome and I do hope that this could start a trend for our area. I actually never knew how much fun VHF stuff could be. The propagation in June should be much better and I'm already thinking of how to improve the score.

73 DE W9HQ

Thursday, January 15, 2009

VHF Contest School: Being a Smart Operator

(by Todd Sprinkmann, KC9BQA)

When VHF contesting, expect lots of weak signals. Embrace them. :) The weak one may very well be a station in a distant grid. Try to work everyone you can hear. Expect to be asked for repeats. Don't worry about it. Take your time. Speak clearly, use standard phonetics and get the Q in the log. If someone seems a bit impatient, explain to them that you are just gettingstarted. After a few contests, it all makes sense anyway. Gotta start somewhere. January contest is a good one to get your start in.

Use headphones. You're going to need them to hear the weak ones. Cans make a big difference. You should see me crossing two sets on my head, while I listen on 144 in one ear, and 6 meters in the other. Friends have, and they just smile and walk away. :-)

Turn your squelch down. You want to hear the light ones thru the hiss. Also, if you have your squelch too high, you may not hear light stations working each other, and then you may QRM them when you call CQ Contest. This happens anyway in a contest and hey, we all make honest mistakes. Nobody should jump down your throat over it. If it seems like maybe you made a boo-boo, don't stress over it. Just chalk it up to experience and move on. I've never heard a fight on the air in a VHF contest. Hardly ever irritation, either.

I know it's harder than heck for a new operator to feel comfortable calling CQ Contest into a dead band. But try it out anyway. LOL :-) Even if you feel foolish calling 3, 5, 8 times in a row and nobody comes back to you. Keep calling CQ. Sure you can tune around and respond to the ones you hear calling CQ. But if you hit a lull, that's a good time to put YOUR call out there.

When you're trying to find contacts in a contest, or if you're calling CQ Contest (which you should definitely do a lot, for best results), start on 144/146. And perhaps call some on 50/52 (6 meters) as well. And you can even squirt out a few calls on 222/223. But don't bother calling CQ on 432.100. I'll explain why.

In VHF contests, you find folks for an initial contact on the most popular bands, where everyone's hanging out. That's 2 meters and 6 meters. Once you've found a station, you then want to work them on as many bands as you have in common. This is called "running the bands". The more bands you work them on, the more contacts and points you score. Always ask a station if they have any other bands you can work them on.

So say you hear me calling on 144 and you respond with your callsign. I give my grid square, you give yours, we roger the info, put the time in our logs, and then I ask you if you have any other bands. You say you have 6 meters. I look at my 6 meter rig and try to find a frequency that is empty. I say to you, "OK, let's meet on 50.140 on 6 meters. If we have a problem, we'll come back right here where we are on 2, OK?"

So off you and I go to 50.140. If we make contact there, we exchange the calls and grids again, enter them in the log and I ask you again if you have any other bands. You say you have 223 or 432, and I am pleased. :) We check 223.5 to see if anyone's busy there, and it's open. We make contact on 223.5, enter the info in our logs, and then agree to meet on say 432.100 or 446.00, depending on your rigs and antennas. At this point, if all goes well, we've run 4 bands and I thank you very much and say 73, good luck in the contest, blahblah.

Then I go back to 2 meters or 6 meters and start looking for new contacts. I don't start calling for new ones on 432. At the most, I maybe ask if anyone else has followed us up to where we just were on 432. That sometimes happens and it's a neat coincidence when it does. You can work anyone on any band, in any order. That's OK. But... but... the custom with VHF contesting is to call CQ for initial contacts on 2 meters or 6 meters. If you spend all your time calling up on 70 cm or 223, you're going to be missing most of the action.


VHF Contest School: What Bands/Freqs to Use?

(by Todd Sprinkmann, KC9BQA)

The bread and butter band of any VHF/UHF contest is 2 meters. A close 2nd is 6 meters. Farther behind is 70 cm, and in 4th place would be 1.25 meters.

With 2 meters being most popular, that's why I'm so gung-ho about getting new folks involved. If you're reading this email, you almost undoubtedly have 2 meters. So you can contest, starting next weekend. Don't worry about someone who has 3, or 4 or more bands and big antennas. Everyone has to start somewhere.

First off, this is important: No contesting on repeaters. Also, no contesting on the national 2 meter simplex calling channel of 146.52. You also avoid 146.505 and 146.535, to give room for 146.52. Now you know where NOT to contest.

Here's info on each band:

** 2 meters: SSB call freq. is 144.200. Tune between roughly 144.150-144.250 for contest activity. Don't hog 144.200, but certainly feel free to use or monitor it. Use only SSB or CW on 144.150-144.250.

On FM, lots of hams use 146.55 simplex to call. Again, if it seems busy, don't be afraid to spread out. In more sparsely populated areas, you're probably best off having everyone meet on 146.55. 146.565, 146.58 can be used if you need elbow room. If those get too crowded, also go 146.49, down to as low as 146.40. Use only FM on 146 or 147 simplex. No SSB. Honestly, I don't know if guys condone CW on Simplex. Maybe they do. Someone let me know what the policy is, please.

Simplex frequencies are only between 146.40-146.58. And 147.42-147.57. Stay within these limits. Don't want to be hitting any repeater inputs! Also remember not to use 146.505, 146.52 and 146.535.

** 6 meters: SSB call freq. is 50.125. On 6, you can only go up from 50.125. Don't do domestic contesting between 50.110 and 50.125. It's reserved for the DX window. If for some reason, you hear a Mexican, Puerto Rican or Caribbean station there, go right ahead and work them. And then congratulate yourself on stumbling into your first DX on 6 meters!

You may hear some guys contest there anyway. Don't hassle anyone about it -- just know that you work USA only on 50.125 and above. Up to about 50.170-50.200. Use only SSB or CW on the lower portion of 6 meters. 6 meter FM call freq. is 52.525. I've never done much here, but I know plenty of folks do. I should see how my horizontal antennas for 6 M SSB load up on 52.525. But, if you've got a 6 meter rig, and FM only, then put this in play for the contest, same as you would with 146.55 FM. You can work people here. Or nearby, if 52.525 is busy.

If for some reason 6 meters opens up with sporadic E skip, then you're going to have some REAL FUN. Stations may suddenly come in from Florida, Texas, New York, anywhere. Then you need to spread out; in a big E skip opening during a contest, you may have activity up to 50.300. This is rare during winter (common during summer) but just be aware it could happen. I know guys also do sporadic Es on 52 Mhz FM; I've just always been a SSB guy on 6. It's all good. I always keep a rig tuned in the background to 6 meters during any contest. 50.125 is probably best if you're just monitoring. Once 50.125 comes alive with skip, you want to spread out, up the band, and find a place to call CQ and get your own little pileup. E skip can happen "THAT" suddenly. In 5+ years of contesting I've had many times where 6 was open for hours on end during the summer. You can work 70, 80, 100 grid squares and 20, 30 states in an afternoon and evening. Easy. That alone is a good reason to start VHF contesting. If you've never given 6 a chance, you're missing out. Even marginal antennas work lots of DX in strong E skip openings. Talking single loops, dipoles, sometimes even mobile whips. You'd be amazed.

**1.25 meters. I like calling this band 222 or 223. I know plenty of guys who have FM equipment for 223. I know this because I make the most FM contacts in a contest (remember, I'm primarily SSB when contesting) on either 146 or 223. I will call CQ Contest occasionally on 223.5 FM, just in case someone's listening. I suggest you do the same. 222 SSB call frequency is 222.100. Problem with beginners and 222 SSB is that it's hard to find rigs with SSB capability for 222. So while 222 is a great band with better propagation than 144, it's a bit of an orphan. Nobody in the USA makes a commercially available rig for 222 SSB. You have to find a vintage Yaesu FT-736R or 726R, or you have to use an IF rig with a transverter. Which is beyond beginning contesting. If anyone is ever interested in getting on 222 SSB, ask me or any other experienced contester for help. It's a great band.

So let's leave it at this: If you have a 223 FM rig, then you know it's a great band. Use this band in the contest! Keep an ear open and call CQ around 223.5 FM.

** 70 centimeters. I call this band 432 (SSB) or 440 (FM). Because gear for 432 SSB is commercially available (it's often thrown in on the newer HF rigs, along with 6 and 2) this band is more popular than 222 in contests. I would say 100% of contesters have 2 meters, 80-90% also have 6, about 20-30% have 222 or 223, and about 30-50% have 432. So this band gets some good use in the VHF/UHF contests. 432.100 is the SSB call frequency. You may bump into activity between 432.070 and 432.130 with SSB. You may also hear some activity on or near the 446.00 FM Simplex call frequency.

For beginners, these are the 4 bands you need to concern yourself with for next weekend's contest. Even if you have only 2 meters, go right ahead and contest! Spread the word to your ham friends to try this out. It's no fun unless it's active. Have fun with it, give it a try.

The next article is going to give some valuable tips on how to put this info to practical use. In other words, how actual contesters do things in a contest.


Wednesday, January 14, 2009

VHF Contest School: Antennas

(by Todd Sprinkmann, KC9BQA)

Experienced VHF/UHF hams will tell you that the antennas are easily the most important of your station. They are right. Every single decibel is precious. This is not like HF where you can throw up a random wire and often work DX. From how high you get your antenna, to how much antenna you can afford to put up, right down to the feedline you use... it all adds up.

Feedline is so much more important than it is on HF. The dB losses at higher frequencies become much greater. There are better feedline experts than I, but if you have junk coax and you're trying to work weak ones on VHF, you're shooting yourself in the foot. Honestly, sometimes just improving old or lossy coax can really make a big difference in what you hear and work. If you know your coax is cheap or old, spend a few bucks and get something thicker and better.

On VHF/UHF get your antennas as high as you safely can. Just getting an antenna 10 or 20' higher can make a huge difference. Or maybe getting it above a tree. Or stepping up to a 7, 9 or 11 element beam, instead of a 3 or 5 element.

If you have a poor QTH, try getting out in your car and driving to a location that's high up. Operating contests as a rover is a lot of fun. For some VHF'ers that live in places with antenna restrictions, apartments, roving is how they really have fun in contests. I love rovers just about more than my antennas! (Look for my article entitled ROVERS when I get around to typing it up.)

I'm gearing these articles toward beginners, so don't get too concerned that you aren't able to have stacked yagis up 100', OK? Put up the most antenna you can, get it as high as you can, have good coax, get on the air and start having fun. But if you want to know more about antennas on 2 meters, or 6 meters, read on.

I found some links to a ton of antenna projects for you homebrewers. Here's a lot of food for thought: http://ac6v.com/antprojects.htm#6M Make sure to scroll down that page a little bit, and you'll see antennas not only for 6 meters, but 2 meters and higher. Happy building! In fact, that whole ac6v.com site is amazing.

For best results in a contest, as well as general VHF hamming, you want to have antennas that are both horizontal and vertical polarization. Horizontal so you can work the SSB stations and vertical for the FM'ers.

This may not be practical, but a lot of guys do have multiple antennas for at least 2 meters, and quite possibly 6 meters and 70 cm as well. If you are a beginner, do keep in mind that you will work some stations even if your antennas are cross-polarized (with the corresponding 20 dB reduction in signal strength). Any contact is a good contact. So don't get too hung up about polarity as a beginner.

We have had some guys check into the nets on SSB, with verticals. They aren't terribly strong, but they're being heard and enjoying the hobby. And if I hear them answer my CQ Contest, I'm not concerned about what polarity they are. I just take the contact, thankyouverymuch. :) An S1 contact in a contest counts just as much as an S9 one.

Just know that if possible, adding some horizontal antennas and being able to work SSB will get you lots more distant stations in your log. SSB is the predominant mode in VHF/UHF contests.

Making a horizontal loop for a given band is a very cost-effective way to start discovering how far you can work on SSB. Plan on having this capability for the summer months, if you don't have the time to get one made by next weekend.

Another consideration is whether you want to have a beam antenna. If you do, you'll definitely work farther when you're pointed at someone. Thing is, though, sometimes you want omni-directional capability. Having both options is a bonus.

Since this is for beginners, I will wrap things up here. The antenna building projects will get you thinking.

But if you're new to contesting and you're wondering how well your station gets out, a VHF/UHF contest is the single best time to gauge what you can do. The sheer number of stations on the bands is larger than at any other time.


Tuesday, January 13, 2009

VHF Contest School: Logging

(by Todd Sprinkmann, KC9BQA)

A lot of guys have asked me how you properly log a VHF/UHF contest. Meaning what info goes where. I'll get to that right away, but first, let me clear up a potential misconception or two.

1) You do not have to be an ARRL member to get involved in ARRL contests.

2) You do not have to officially submit a log to ARRL to get on the air and enjoy contesting.

3) If you prefer, you may simply "hand out points" on an informal basis. Doing only this is far better than not helping contesters at all.

Having said that, I do keep logs, and I do submit my score to ARRL. I keep the logs because they are fun to go through after the contest is done. I submit because I want the contest sponsor to know they had participation. I also submit to show the nation that contesting is alive and well in the Midwest. Finally, having cracked Top 10 in the USA a few times for my category (Single-Op, Low Power), I do enjoy a nice certificate!

Since this is geared toward beginners, I'll confess that I have done mostly paper logging in the 5 years I've contested. I realize the majority of folks have a favorite logging program or two. I'm no expert on those. I do use N3FJP sometimes now for logging. There are others. If you have a favorite, tell me about it and help others make their choice.

But if you're a beginner, a paper log is fine. I'm going to personally help beginners after the contest with submitting logs anyway. Let's just do the basics for now.


(You also want to note the calendar day, but you don't have to write that down for every contact, just keep track of when you switch over to a new day. If you use a logging program, make sure it's entering the correct date.)

BAND means either "50" (6 meters), "144" (2 meters), "222" (1.25 meters) or "432" (70 cm) There are bands beyond 432 that are used in contests, such as 902, 1296. Don't know of any beginners that are on the microwaves, though. Even if you make FM contacts on say 52.525, 146.xx, 223.5 or 446.0 in a contest, you still want to log those bands as "50", "144", "222" and "432" Trust me on that. The robot at ARRL that processes log submissions will reject anything but those numbers. You don't want anything rejected.

MODE means either "PH" for phone (any voice, SSB or FM) or "CW". Those are the only two mode choices. I learned that the hard way, too. Once again, you don't want anything rejected. You could lose 1st place for WI section, by several hundred points, for instance. (Been there, done that, LOL)

TIME means the minute you exchanged grid squares and rogers. UTC time is preferable, like they use on HF. In central time zone, UTC is 6 hours ahead of us in the winter and 5 hours ahead after we turn the clocks ahead in spring. So for instance, the Jan ARRL VHF Sweepstakes starts at 1:00pm central time next Saturday. This would be 1900 in UTC time.

Also remember that when using UTC time, you move to a new day at 6pm in the evening local time. Why? 6pm local time + 6 hours for UTC = 0000 in UTC time. If you have a total block with UTC time, just enter local time and I'll help with adjustments later. Don't let the details get in the way of you trying VHF contesting for the first time. Everybody has to start somewhere. :)

CALLSIGN means the callsign of the station you worked. Take the time to get it right. You will hear a lot of phonetics being used in VHF contests. This is for the sake of accuracy.

If you work a rover station, then you need to add /R to their call. Meaning if you work me at home, I am KC9BQA for your log. If I were out roving, then I'd be "KC9BQA/R" Make sure you log rovers with the "/R". (Again, I will devote a separate email to explaining roving)

GRID WORKED -- Enter the Maidenhead Grid Square for the station you just worked. Exchanging callsigns, grid squares and rogers for that information is all you need for a valid VHF contest QSO. Don't enter your own grid square, enter the one for the station you just worked.

(I will also address grid squares in a separate article. If you want to know your grid square right now, do this: Go to www.qrz.com. Enter your own callsign in the top left. Once you see your own info on the next page, click where it says "click for more detail". 10 lines down it will show your grid square. Just use the EN63/53/62/52, whatever. Don't worry about the extra 2 small letters at the end. Those are there to narrow down your location to a pinpoint. But they aren't important for this contest, or for a beginner.)

If you keep track (whether on paper or a computer logging program) of BAND, MODE, TIME, CALLSIGN and GRID for each contact you make in a VHF contest, you will be all set to submit your log, once the contest is done.

For now, let's not worry about log submission. That's all post-game stuff. You have up to 30 days to submit your log, so it's not an immediate concern. Besides I'm going to help anyone who needs it.

These articles are geared toward getting you comfortable with *starting* contesting.


Todd KC9BQA EN63

Monday, January 12, 2009

VHF Contest School: Introduction

Todd Sprinkmann, KC9BQA is my kind of ham. His enthusiasm runneth over and he's out there actively promoting the hobby. A few months ago a local ham, John Kjos (W9RPM), started sending out notices to our local e-mail reflector that a guy just north of Milwaukee was starting a 2 meter SSB net to drum up more activity outside of the major centers of Milwaukee and Chicago. Well each week he'd announce the net and I'd wish I could participate. I have a 10 element beam that I have been wanting to put on the roof since forever, but I just don't get around to it. So I sat on the sidelines.

Finally, one Wednesday afternoon, the notice came out that the net was going to be that night. "Why," I thought, "am I letting the best be the enemy of the good?" So I scampered home after work, grabbed my beam, put it on a 15 foot mast, lashed the mast to one of our clothesline poles, ran some coax into the house, and hooked it to the IC-746. Fifteen feet isn't very high (although I do live on a ridgetop.) And to complicate matters, I have a big barn with a gigantic metal roof that sits right in the path between me and Todd. Could I work Todd with such a set up?

Well, net time rolled around and I sat listening to 144.240. Sure enough, as he swung his beams around toward La Crosse I could hear Todd's signal coming up out of the noise. By the time he had his antennas pointed at me, we could easily work the path (146 miles). Sure, the signals were only S0, but it was solid copy both ways. Cool!

Now Todd has shared a series of VHF Contest tutorials in preparation for the upcoming ARRL VHF-UHF Sweepstakes that are coming up this weekend. I asked him if I could put them on the blog to share with others and he graciously agreed. So here's the first installment. I hope that Todd's evident enthusiasm will be as contagious to you as it was to me.

VHF Contest School: Introduction
(Todd Sprinkmann, KC9BQA)

To start you off, here's a 20 minute clip of net participant N0IRS -- J.D. -- contesting last June. This should give you an idea of how to contest, as well as show you what's possible on VHF SSB, with a good band opening and lots of action. There are numerous instances of JD making 500, 700, 800 mile contacts on multiple bands. Truly an awesome video.


I want everyone who's reading this to know right away that whether you try contesting or not, you are always welcome to check into the nets I host on Wed. and Thur. nights. I know not everyone is into contesting.

My hope, though, is that my enthusiasm will rub off on some of you. That you'll try something new on a winter weekend. That you'll help make contesting more exciting for all of us. There are really only 4-5 major VHF/UHF contests a year, so it doesn't run your life.

Also, if you get your feet wet now, you'll feel more confident when you get involved with the more active summertime contests. It's an amazing thing when 6 meters opens up with sporadic E skip during a contest weekend. You can work 20, 30, 40 states in less than 24 hours, easily. It's also a real thrill when you have great tropo enhancement on 2 meters, and stations with simple verticals are working each other from Minneapolis, to Burlington, Iowa, to Terre Haute, Indiana. I've done it -- July of 2006. CQ WW VHF contest.

When considering VHF/UHF contesting, don't worry about the supposed big-gun stations. Let's try for a shift in thinking. Let's consider who YOU can work on simplex, on any band you have. Let's say it's just a 10-50 mile range. You must be able to think of at least a few dozen stations, potentially. And that's just on FM. If you have SSB capability and a simple omni-directional loop, that range gets into the 50-100 mile territory. Add a decent beam up 30, 40', and now you're capable of reaching out 100-200 miles, or more, if there's enhanced band conditions. It'sjust a matter of deciding you want to try a contest, and then making sure you get enough hams on the air to make it worth your while.

Why do I care about YOU contesting? Because a dead contest isn't any fun. I see very few people promoting VHF/UHF contesting and that bugs me. I am sponsoring a plaque for the high score from various activity areas in an effort to get more folks interested. These plaques will also be going more to the newcomers, or smaller stations. Guys like W9RPM and myself won't be eligible. I'll explain about the Greater EN43 Plaque deal in the next email. The plaques will also be awarded IF and ONLY IF you guys get a certain number of contesters on from your region. So start thinking right now about how you can motivate your radio buddies.

We need more participants! Overall, the Midwest has pretty decent numbers of contesters. But in the past year or two, I've definitely seen a dip in local numbers. Since this concerns me, I'm trying to do something about it. Just like how we've gotten on the air and improved things with these Wed. and Thur. nets.

Take the time to read the Contest School emails I'm going to send out. Feel free to forward them to anyone you think will be interested. Save these emails in case you need them in the future.

Resolve to get on the air next weekend for several hours. Know your grid square. Get ready to call CQ Contest, so others know you are out there. Have some headphones. Turn your squelch down so you don't miss weak ones. A lot of the joy of contesting is finding out that weak signal is in a distant grid square that you had no idea you'd be able to work. In fact, I've learned that the weaker the signal, the more likely it's a tasty catch!

A good VHF/UHF contest is when the bands are at their best. They come alive with hams from all over. To me, it's absolutely the most fun time to be operating.