Tuesday, June 29, 2010

QRP for Field Day 2010

Other commitments kept me from joining one of the local groups of hams for Field Day this year. But it just so happened that I got an FT-817ND in the mail that Saturday morning. Obviously, I had to try it on the air and Field Day seemed like a perfect opportunity.

I connected the rig to a battery/solar panel combo and my off-center fed Windom antenna. This is the first QRP rig that I've owned, so obviously I'm no expert. But between this and my experiences in VHF-UHF contesting here are a few of the things I found about making contacts in less than ideal situations.

I made contacts on 40, 20, and 10. 10 was great when it was open, because there was so little QRN. One thing is to try and maximize opportunities on the higher bands when they're open, because a QRP signal will really shine because it doesn't have to overcome S6 or S8 noise. 6 meters has been open a lot lately and you can do fantastic things with 5 watts on 6 meters. 10 meters is great this way too. And the antennas are very manageable. I built a little 2 element beam for 6 meters, turn it with a small TV rotor, and it has performed wonderfully for me.

During Field Day I made most of my contacts on SSB, a few on CW. 20 meter CW was an absolute zoo, so I didn't even bother. But in general, CW and QRP are a match made in heaven. CW is good for at least 10 dB in readability, especially in less than ideal band conditions, so you've made up most of your 12 dB difference between 5 watts and 100 watts right there. I was fast back in the day, but I can only clunk around now at about 10 wpm--but it's really a lot of fun and guys will slow down for you. So if you don't already do it, I'd say learning Morse code will give you a lot more satisfaction out of your FT-817 or any QRP rig.

Now on SSB, a lot of guys have commented on the fact that the FT-817 lacks a speech processor. Okay, well that add-on is a little too expensive for me so I just do my own speech processing. I yell into the mike, at least in Field Day type conditions where I'm trying to break a pile-up. Pretty much literally shout into it. And I raise the tone of my voice, so that the higher pitch makes a more readable signal at the other end. My son, KC9JTL, speaks too quietly into the mike and keeps the pitch of his voice too low. He gets frustrated during contests that stations will answer me and don't him. Well, that's because I raise my voice. And I get the contacts. But if you're willing to part with more cash to deck out your FT-817, I'm sure a speech processor would be a nice addition.

I signed QRP in my calls and several of the operators heard and cleared the way for me. "The QRP station, go ahead." Let's face it, a weak signal that is just a weak signal is uninteresting and difficult to work with. But a weak signal that is weak for a reason--either because you're QRP or because you're doing VHF-UHF-microwave stuff and you expect it be weak--well that's all of a sudden interesting to a lot more guys. So I'd suggest signing QRP after your call when calling CQ or trying to break a pile-up. Some guys will perk up at that and take the extra effort it takes to copy your weaker signal.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

KC9JTL/R in the June 2010 VHF QSO Party

After a rocky start, this contest definitely turned around and became a lot of fun.

We were scrambling past our scheduled departure time to pull equipment together, so arrived late for our desired start on Granddad Bluff overlooking La Crosse. I'm grateful for the local hams that were monitoring and gave us contacts. Don't know if we missed any due to tardiness.

Anyway, to run with a metaphor first used by Bill Davis (K0AWU) on the NLRS e-mail reflector, the major opening on 6 meters was almost the Grinch that stole "Christmas" for a rover station like ours. Yes, we had 6 meters and yes we could even operate while mobile. But we were seriously outgunned, with only 100 watts into a coax dipole up maybe 8 feet. So we only made a few QSOs on the drive up to the EN44-EN45-EN54-EN55 grid convergence. And when we got to EN55, 6 was still banging away and 2 was dead. We got a small flurry from the guys in EN44 and we thought, Okay here we go, but then silence again. We tried for more Qs on 6 with little success and even tried calling CQ and announcing that we were in the "rare" EN55. Nothing. This was getting discouraging. Man, I thought, if this stays like this tomorrow it will be a total bust.

Then came Santa Claus, or at least one of his helpers, K2YAZ over in EN74. He caught us just after we moved over to EN45. Worked him on 144, 222, 432 (but not 6 meters, because I forgot to throw the IF switch back to 6 meters after we were done on 222. Doh!). Then I got the idea of just moving to the other three grids and working him from there. He was a great sport and we did indeed catch him on those three bands in EN44, EN54, and EN55. Thank you so much Bob! You really saved the day. Finally, feeling much better about the whole thing, we headed for Wausau where we sacked out about 11 pm.

Sunday morning we assisted at the early Mass at St. Mary's Oratory in Wausau, caught a bite of breakfast, and then fortified in body and soul headed back out to do battle. We listened on 6 meters and heard nothing, so we decided that instead of driving south immediately per our plan we would go back out to the grid convergence and try again. So glad we did. It was much, much better now, with a number of stations finally listening on 2 meters. So in the end we worked KC9BQA, W9GA, W0UC, N8LIQ, K9UHF, and several others as we worked our way back through the grids. Now that's more like it! We then headed south where we set up in EN53 to work some 6 meter e-skip and some "locals", then to EN44 where we worked a few more, then finally back to EN43 for the last 45 minutes of the contest. Whew!

Equipment-wise it was a scramble to pull it all together, but basically the station worked very well. I built a power distribution box with heavy fused cables coming from the engine compartment and PowerPoles out from there that worked like a champ. We had a rotor for the antennas that was a huge improvement over the "armstrong" rotor we used last time. And we had a 4 element beam on 2 meters, 6 element "cheap yagi" on 222, 11 element "cheap yagi" on 432, and a shortened coax dipole inside PVC on 6 meters. All antennas seemed to work pretty well. I had an initial glitch on 432 from Granddad Bluff--W9RPM couldn't hear me and since I could have hit him with a rock I knew I had a problem on that band. Turns out I had a bad connection to the amplifier and, to top it off, the amplifier wasn't working. Nice to catch it early. So we were barefoot on that band. But it didn't seem to matter much. After that, all equipment worked as it should.

Here's where I think we're at score-wise:

QSOs Mults
50 41 18

144 64 14

222 25 8

432 24 7

If I'm doing the math right, that looks like about 10759 points.

73 de W9HQ