Tuesday, 23 October 2018

Galashiels Rally and how you should spend your money on VHF

Last weekend I visited to Galashiels rally. I should have taken a photo but it never occurred to me. Anyway there were plenty of people there and various trade stands. I bought a solder sucker (90p), a switched mains plug (£1.60), two fixings for wire antennas (50p) and a rather flash loud speaker for £6.00. This was all swamped by the fuel to get there and back, which I estimate at £10.00, plus an hour's drive there and another hour back. You see, I compare all costs and all benefits.

"He is mean".

It was worth it though to meet various people, including a couple of hams who I have worked before but not met. I enjoyed a chat with Dick GM4PPT who is a stalwart of VHF operation, and Robin, GM7PKT, who I have contacted quite a few times on FT8 on the 144MHz band. What both these amateurs have in common is that the paths between us are very difficult due to the mountainous terrain. So it was good to have the time to chat.

Robin's experiences with FT8 are very like mine. In fact the mountains which surround him are much taller than the hills I have to deal with. Despite this he is having success with FT8. This, and comments on this blog, all make me ponder about the success we have been having with FT8. I was a regular user of JT65 and JT9 before FT8 and somehow I never seemed to do as well with those modes, The facts though are that FT8 is slightly less sensitive than those modes. I suspect that a lot of it is due to the greater take-up of FT8 on VHF.

Also at the rally were a lot of second hand radios. There were the usual rather ancient VHF rigs, but there was also a rather neat looking Icon IC-7100, the very rig I was claiming is quite good value at £700. There it was at £550. And they didn't sell it during the rally so I asked how to buy it afterwards just in case.

At the same time I met another amateur who had brought a year old 2m and 70cm radio which he was offering for sale at £35 and eventually he took £33 for it. He then tried to buy a 40 year old 2m FDK for £25. Here he was bringing a perfectly good modern radio and trying to upgrade to an ancient one. He admitted to me that the FDK was very large and would probably not fit in his car. I asked him why he would make a swop like that and he said "nostalgia". In the end somebody else bought the FDK from under his nose - no doubt soon to find that it doesn't have CTCSS or 12.5kHz channel spacing and it is pretty deaf anyway.

Thinking a bit more about all this, I have come up with my own theoretical "law of diminishing returns". This is entirely non-scientific and definitely not a law. It is just my theory about how to best spend money. It was prompted by the experiences at Galashiels and also one particular local who has an interesting approach to VHF operation. The guy in question has outdoor HF antennas, and used to be a keen VHF dxer. For VHF now he uses an indoor quarter wave whip on a magnetic mobile base, stuck onto a biscuit tin lid.

I cannot help feeling that running a radio into a quarter wave vertical and using a biscuit tin lid for a "ground plane" is not a really good use of resources. So I have come up with a graph to represent my law of diminishing returns (which, again, isn't a law). The graph shows a better way of gaining returns for your money be showing an alternative red line.

The idea is that if you use an indoor vertical it doesn't matter how much you spend on a better rig it makes little difference. Your money is better spent on ancillaries like masts and antennas, or coax and pre-amps. Well, that is my view.

Of course lots of people have problems putting up large outside antennas (though the biscuit tin lid guy can as he has HF ones), or have planning issues, but it might be worth a try with something simple - more than buying a new radio anyway. Even if you go portable because you cannot get a good antenna up at home the same general rule applies, so long as you can lug the associated gear out to your portable site. It will usually make your station work better than the same investment in a fancy radio.
The GM4FVM VHF cost/benefit graph (aren't results measured in "JIMMYs"?)
 You will probably need to click on this to enlarge it enough to see it.

I am suggesting that after you have got a "new" multimode (by which I mean modern, the second hand IC-7100 at Gala show would do at £550 and save you some dough for antennas), spending more on radios just keeps you nearly flat on the dotted line. You will have diminishing returns in that there still is a return, a better rig is a better rig, but you get less benefit in term of results for the £££ you spend now than on your basic radio. On the other hand, spending on other things (along the red line) brings you steady returns. I have found that spending a £ on the red line brings a considerable result, whereas spending a £ on the dotted line seems to do very little..

Who am I to tell people how to spend their money?

I have no right to suggest all this, but I do believe that you get a lot more return out of improving your station generally rather than improving your radio. Yet at Galashiels nobody was selling yagi antennas, good co-ax or masts (well, there was one old but nice second hand Clarke pump up mast which I looked at for a long time!).

So what is the way I am measuring "results"? Well, based on my experience - locator squares, distance, countries, surprise long distance contacts, learning about propagation, lots of things. I never said my theory was scientific.

Hey, results are measured in units of increased utility (work that one out).

As for my order of things to improve, well that is based on what I see going on around me. A gable end mast is just a pair of T and K brackets attached by expanding masonry bolts into the end wall of a house - fine if you have a masonry end wall, but there are other ways of doing it. If you have a vertical, get it into the clear and as high as you can using a gable end mast. Ideally use something like a half wave which does not need a biscuit tin to ground it. Next thing is a directional antenna, even if it has to be turned by hand. We used to have TV rotators but nobody has made one that passes the CE test so they are not available in Europe at present. Rotators are simple things, just a motor and a gear box and you can usually get them cheap second hand.

Here is s simple example. For a while I used a vertical on 50MHz. I did very well during the sporadic E season. Then I got an HB9CV (the Diamond one) mounted on a simple bracket cadged off a neighbour and supported by 1.5 inch thick-walled alloy tubes. With the vertical I could work Europe; once I had the HB9CV I could work across the Atlantic. It wasn't easy, but it was possible.
Simple, HB9CV, old TV rotator, good enough to work Puerto Rico on 6m.
The step up in results from a vertical to a directional beam, even a simple one, was huge and far greater than any investment in radios or linears could have done. I was very chuffed when I worked across the Atlantic for the first time. That antenna opened the door to meteor scatter and aurora work too. Better antennas are better on receive as well, so they beat linear amplifiers by a mile.

After that, a better antenna - I am not suggesting that your first steps in improving your antenna are likely to be your last. I certainly have tried my first setup and then upgraded in every case (except, so far, 70cms). As you know, none of my current antennas has a boom longer than 3m and that is enough for me. My advice is to pay little attention to the number of elements and more to the length of the boom (the HB9CV being an honourable exception).

It cost a bit, but I found a tilt-over, crank-up, mast to be very valuable - also more valuable than a linear. For VHF use it allowed me to get to twice the height over the ground of the gable end type of fixing. Partly getting a tilt-over is due to me getting older and less about to climb and haul things about up ladders. Also I live in a wild and windy place. Once again a wall-fixed tilt-over mast is enough for me, free standing masts are a step too far here.

Whilst I rank the free-standing mast as being more useful than a small linear, I don't rate big linears anywhere. I do not see the need for full legal output anyway, and I am content with moderate power. After a while barefoot is not enough, but I am happy to look in the magazine at what the contest operators are using and get with about 3dB of majority are using.

Better coax. A lesson we all have to learn one way or the other. It is expensive but it is worth it and in my book worth more than the same amount of money spent on the radio. Coax does not last for ever, and when you need to change it there is a chance to improve it. A mast head pre-amp - the final essential item on my list to a achieve best results, something to bring your receive performance into line with your transmitting ability.

Then, maybe, someday, a better radio. I like better radios, but I am kidding myself if I was to claim that they really get much better results.

I bet I am criticised for saying all this. If it was not for the subsidy the amateur radio magazines receive from equipment sellers advertising really expensive radios then we wouldn't have a radio press. And we all love a nice radio, including me. Yet when I want to buy a £200 mast head pre-amp I had a devil of a job finding somebody to sell me one, whereas I can buy a TS-890 at £3999.95 (carriage extra) - reduced from £4299 - a snip - anywhere.

By all means spend your hard-earned money on a shiny new radio. But please, think about climbing the red line first.

"There he goes again - off on his hobby-horse."

"I bet he buys some fancy radio soon - he is just softening us up."



Sunday, 14 October 2018

My grudging appreciation of the Icom IC-7100

Yes, I know I have promised something more about 1970s VHF, but it is all just too complicated. I am working on it. In the meantime, this ...

I believe that the major Japanese manufacturers are puzzled by the Western habit of buying "mobile" radios and using them as base stations. Why, for instance, when Icom offer us the IC-9100 base station, would anyone want to use the IC-7100 mobile radio from home?

Erm, maybe because the IC-9100 is currently £2799.95 while the IC-7100 is £999.95.

Now of course the IC-9100 is a better radio than the IC-7100. It is better equipped, it has a built in ATU, it will produce 100W on 2m and 75W on 70cms (or at least it claims to, I have no personal experience) compared with the 7100's 50W on 2m and 35W on 70cm. With the 9100 you can add a module for 1296MHz, if you have £623.99 to spare for that.

If you accept that the IC-9100 is better, even though you might wonder if 180% more £££ would bring you exactly 180% more joy, that does not mean that the IC-7100 is easily written off as a base station.
The IC-7100 control box at GM4FVM

I must declare my interest. I have had an IC-7100 here since August 2013. You can look back in this blog and find me moaning about the "clicking" sound on transmit, which I can find but nobody else has ever heard (maybe it is inside my head). You can also find me complaining about the low average output on SSB, which I resolved by using an outboard speech compressor. Apart from that my total list of complaints is NIL.

(EDIT -  here is some of it http://gm4fvm.blogspot.com/2015/03/is-ic-7100-good-rig.html)

Five years is a long time for me to hold on to something which I might have doubts about. That's the thing about the IC-7100, it just does its job. It works. I have never doubted it. OK, along will come the IC-9700 which will I guess make a better VHF  base station than even the IC-9100. But will it cost £999 new?

I noticed a couple of second hand  IC-7100s on eBay. They sell for about £700, or even less. That is quite a bargain. No doubt there are some poor condition ragged ones about, perhaps modified ones too, but mine has had nothing more radical done than to add an N-type socket to the VHF side. Any others like it on sale might be a very handy used radio.

Let's think about it. Rather than comparing it with sets at three times the price, at it's own price, second hand, it is streets ahead of anything else around. The Yaesu FT-857 is an ancient plodder by comparison - it doesn't have IF DSP like the IC-7100.

The 7100 is still in production. You could pay sky high prices (£1000++) for an out of production IC-910, and not get the USB connectivity of the IC-7100. The 7100 just needs to have its USB plugged into the computer with no audio data interface. Sure the IC-910 is better in many ways but the 7100 gives you HF for free.

There are lots of out-of-production VHF radios you could buy second hand for maybe half the cost of the IC-7100. The problem with this is that they are now so old that their performance is below what we have come to expect. Solder joints are failing and capacitors are drying out. The IC-7100 is stable enough for data in that it does not drift significantly. It is probably more sensitive than the old rigs but maybe not quite in the latest transverter league. For £700 you would get solid performance by comparison with older equipment, but it is not quite earth shattering.

The IC-7100 was designed with FM and DStar operation in mind. It has good cooling and an effective fan. This means that it is very happy with high duty cycle work, and data seems to pose it few problems.

There are some nice aspects of using the IC-7100. It has separate PTT outputs for HF and 2m/70cm. This means you can use a linear on 2m and a different one on, say 4m or 6m, and the linears would only come into use when you select the right band. Of course, HF, 4m and 6m are all one one PTT output, and 2m and 70cms are on the other, just like the RF output sockets. I certainly made us of this feature. Also, as the control head is separate I could mount the radio at the point where the 70cms coax enters the shack whilst having the control box on the desk. This saves some lossy coax.

For the European market the IC-7100 comes equipped with 70MHz. This was a bonus for me at the start as I already had a 4m transverter. I planned to stick with the transverter. Within weeks I was using the IC-7100 on 4m exclusively. Later I used the LDG IT-100 automatic ATU with it on HF and that proved very satisfactory. After that it was my 6m rig, then my 2m rig, and now it is my 70cms rig. In that role I can produce a map of what it has done because it is my only 70cms transmitter (apart from FM which I only listen to).
70cms contacts at GM4FVM 30 June to 14 October 2018 (F1BHL/P sadly missed off the bottom of the map)
If this looks modest, it is 70cms and I had my first QSO on 30 June which is three and a half months ago. All of them on the IC-7100 - though lately with a 95w linear. On all bands I have had hundreds of contacts on the IC-7100, from Greece on 70MHz to Canada on 50MHz, to Australia on 28MHz and lots elsewhere too.

There have to be some downsides. My early model came with a fairly poor microphone. The physical design with its sloping display is a bit odd. Spinning the VFO feels rather peculiar as the control head tends to move - it needs the free moving finger cup which the IC7300 has. Some of the logic for switching between meters on the touch screen display seem strange. Some people don't like the monochrome display but it never bothered me.

This is a very personal thing. I borrowed an Icom IC-910 and hated it - the ergonomics appalled me. I do not like the looks of the TS-2000 (but it is discontinued now anyway). The IC-7100 is not a radio I love either. I cannot deny it has served me well. As a new buy at the current price of £999 (and less on the grey market) or about £700 used, it really does compare well with older models in the same market sector (which means the Yaesu FT-857). As for anything older still, I wouldn't consider any of them if I could find a clean used IC-7100. It certainly is not perfect, but it is modern and it works.

In case you think I might throw my IC-7100 out when I do eventually buy a VHF base radio, have no fear. I have plans for using it mobile - goodness, a mobile radio used mobile! Of course, I cannot buy a VHF base station until somebody makes one I would want or could afford, but that is another story.




Saturday, 22 September 2018

VHF, 1970s style.

I have been away, in Norway this time. Here is the usual photo of me somewhere unexpected ....
I was only on Honefoss platform because of a landslip on the track, and the Oslo to Bergen train had been diverted over a freight route to bypass the problem. This then led to us missing some stations and we then had to wait at Honefoss for buses to bring along the stranded passengers. After some shunting, the whole effect was to make us a hour late. Many UK rail travellers believe that such things only happen here. Thanks to a passing Australian tourist for taking the photo.

Anyway, I was going to say something about the radio world I joined, and how different it was from now. Sorry it is too long, but I cannot make it much shorter. Any errors are my fault, I am relying on an over-stuffed memory.

1) The Licence
I was first licensed as G8JWG on 4 February 1975. That was an "Amateur (Sound) Licence B"  which only allowed operation above 144MHz. I had passed my City and Guilds Radio Amateurs Examination, which was one part of the process, but I had yet to pass the Post Office morse test, which involved sending and receiving 12 words per minute morse.

I could only move up to an "Amateur (Sound) Licence A", which covered all permitted amateur bands, once I had passed both the exam and morse test. Some people waited until they had both and went straight to Class A. Others, like me, did the exam first and then learned the morse. The exam pass lasted indefinitely, whereas the morse pass was only valid for a year. If anyone had not applied for a licence within a year of passing the morse test they had to pass it again, which they also had to do if they later let their licence lapse for a year or more. On the other hand, once you had a Class A licence you never needed to do a morse test again for as long as the licence remained valid. It seemed a bit barmy that a morse test pass was only valid for a year, whereas if you could get a Class A licence, never use morse again, but still be regarded as proficient for as long as you paid your fee every year (which was exactly what I did).

The Class A and Class B thing was a clear enough system then?

There was a strong incentive to do the exam first and the morse second, as then the exam pass could not expire while you waited to pass the morse, whereas the other way round the morse pass could expire waiting for the exam pass.

You had to pay a fee every year. More than one for me actually, as in addition to the main Amateur (Sound) Licence B, which was then £3.00, I had an Amateur (Sound Mobile) Licence B which cost £1.50. The fees soon doubled. You had to renew each of them every year, and they kindly wrote to you telling you the time to pay had come. You then posted them the money and they sent you a receipt through the post, stamped "PAID" by the Cashier of the Home Office. All very formal and there was no Paypal in those days. You had to be careful as not only was illegal operation actually pursued in those far off days (which is not the case now) but if you had a Class A licence and you let it lapse for a year you would have had to retake the morse test.Taking it once as bad enough, taking it again would have been terrible for me. Actually managing to pass it twice was probably impossible for me.

Then, not only did I have my licence, and my mobile licence (I never had the television one to make up the full set - that came with an additional callsign too), there were all sorts of other bits and pieces. When I moved house and potentially had two possible operational locations, one had to be signed G8JWG/A. You needed to write to the local Post Office engineer and get approval to use a /A address. As usual click on the photo to enlarge if necessary.
When eventually "hand portable" equipment became available (in my case a 1 watt Kenwood TR-2200 which weighed 1.7Kg and needed a neck-breaking shoulder strap) you needed permission for that too. Given the quality of the equipment available and the capacity of the batteries of the era it was barely a practical idea anyway.
This was in the era before mobile phones, a time when anyone walking about the streets talking to someone far away was likely to be thought to be mentally deranged. There was, however, a further oddity. This portable operation was an extension of the mobile licence so you used your callsign /M, which seemed a bit odd being portable. /M meant mobile, or at least potentially mobile, be it in a car or on foot (but never in a bus, which was specifically banned). /P (for portable) did not mean what we all thought portable would mean, /P meant in a field, or by their definition somewhere without a postal address. If it had a postal address it was /A (for alternate) anywhere other than at your registered station address. But woe betide you if you used the wrong one, for there really was enforcement!

Slightly strangely, if you were not earning enough money to run a car and decided to operate pedestrian mobile instead, you had to spend some of the money you didn't have to buy a mobile licence you wouldn't use in order to get a piece of paper to tell everybody that you were not a madman but a radio amateur.

The first licence I had was that, then standard, Amateur (Sound) Licence B, the one with the specific ban on using spark transmission. If the use of spark seems improbable even in 1970s, it hadn't long died out for ships lifeboat emergency sets. When I worked in a photographic shop we sold remote shutter releases operated by spark transmitters. Am I really that old? Wot, no Bluetooth enabled 35mm cameras then?

In February 1977 the Home Office wrote to me and advised me that I could now have an Amateur Radio Licence B instead of an Amateur (Sound) Licence B. I was told that this would give me greater flexibility and I would now not need two licences (one Sound, the other Sound Mobile) plus two letters authorising use at an alternative address and pedestrian mobile. Also gone was the requirement to get the approval of the local Post Office manager for /A operation (you only had to notify them instead). Hurray! The price went up so that the one licence cost more than two previously. Such is progress.

I would love to show you the original licence but the Home Office insisted on me returning it before they would send me the new one. I think this shows how important the actual bit of paper was in the days before electronic communication. Somewhere I hid the mobile version as I only sent them the main one back, but right now I cannot find it.

The Home Office sternly advised me ... "Be sure to read the clauses concerning calls signs and log-keeping". I mention this because nowadays suffixes such as /A, /P and /M are no longer even a requirement, now they are just a recommendation. You don't need to sign /M any more, and generally I don't after establishing contact. Nor do you need to keep a log except under specific circumstances. At least this new licence had shifted pedestrian mobile into portable, which seemed more sensible at the time.
Debate about the difference between a "temporary location" and "alternative premises" was to dog the hobby for years. So was the requirement to use your callsign every 15 minutes and when changing frequency - people still do even though this is no longer mandatory. It just shows that we amateurs have our own rules over and above those imposed on us. Try giving out an address when you contact every station, every 15 minutes and when you change frequency.

The logging requirements were very onerous. Although the new Mobile licence clarified mobile logging in the sense that it made clear that you had to log everything as soon as possible, you still had to log everything. Everything included CQ calls and the many tests using the frequency testing equipment you had to have (and there was a page in the licence devoted to that), mobile or not. Think of it as using today's contest logging, but on paper, and if you were rash enough to go mobile you had to recall it all and write it down later.

It was really very bureaucratic, even with the "flexible" new licence. You trifled with it at your peril. There were station inspections (the unit who did this have been more or less disbanded so there is not much chance of it now). People listened and on one occasion I received a very odd telephone call from a Government employee in the radio department which proved that.

2) Class A licence.
I really wanted to get my Class A licence, at least in part because I had heard about this 4m band thing and I also heard a rumour that there was more to VHF than 2 metres. So I had to learn morse and reach 12wpm. I did this with the help of Eden GI4AIO and Dave GI4CWZ. These people took me in and spent time training me. You had to go to them - the Class B licence did not allow you to use morse on the air to reach proficiency. You were banned from sending CW on the air - even though you only had a VHF licence which did not require morse proficiency.

There was a large band of people keen to tell you that because they could do morse easily, you should find it easy too. This was rather like people telling someone with dyslexia that he ought to read the rules they had drawn up. But wait, those people still exist and still think that their fortunate ability to do CW should apply to everyone. It doesn't. It never did.

I did listen to weekly slow morse (from GI3SXG I think), but of course that only covered receiving. As it happened, my sending was fine, it was the receiving which needed attention. I also had some morse records. These were 12 inch vinyl records which you could play at various speeds, 33, 45 or 78 rpm as your speed increased. The drawback was that the tone of the morse changed when you changed the speed, and so did the spacings. It was tedious, but it had to be done.

Eventually I applied for my morse test. Some of my contemporaries had hit on the idea of heading off for Lifford in County Donegal where the Republic of Ireland post office examiner was very co-operative. I never heard of one of them who did not pass first time. I, on the other hand, being more principled and not wanting to spend the money on the 200 mile round trip, opted for the UK test. This took place at the Custom House in Belfast. I won't mention the examiners name, and the pass certificate was not issued by him personally so it has a different name on it.

The gentleman in question was a marine telegraphy examiner. It was pretty clear that English was not his first language, which might have helped me in the end. For whatever reason we didn't exactly form a natural conversational duo.

He gave me some character groups and let me practice on his morse key to get accustomed to it. He told me to try the whole script twice, which seemed odd. Then he started the test with the same script. This seemed even odder to me, as I had already got used to it. While I was sending he was signing a large pile of pink expenses claims and nodding regularly. Anyway, that seemed to go OK.

Then he sent to me. I still have the copy I took down, written in the faint pencil he loaned me, scrawled on a small square of lined paper. I won't embarrass myself by showing it here. "Read it back", he barked. I got on fairly well because he had asked me to read it back. I corrected a few mistakes which he would have found if he had read it himself. Then I got stuck.

"THE - missed a bit - SAMR ICANH" I stuttered.
He peered at me
"Doesn't that say THESE AMERICANS"? he grumped.
"Yes, I think it does" I replied.

I knew I had blown it but I carried on. I finished and at first he kept silent. Then he leaned towards me and grabbed me by the arm:-

"Tell me this is for amateur radio" he barked
"Yes it is" I said, a bit confused "I booked it for that"
"Don't ever let me find you at sea with that performance" he growled
"Oh no" I confirmed
"If I ever find you on a boat, I will throw you over the side. Your morse is terrible"
I nodded. It was true. My nod was my acceptance of his assessment. I would never make a marine operator, not that I had ever wanted to be one.
There was a long pause.
"In that case you've passed" he said.

That was that. The marine morse test was far harder and entirely different, so I still do not understand what he was on about. I have wondered ever since if perhaps his thick accent or my thick accent caused some confusion.

It is possible, allowing for the couple of corrections I made which he did not see, that THESE AMERICANS was within the allowable error limit (I missed three letters and got the spacing confused). Years later I recalled that I sent him letter and number groups of five characters, but he sent me plain text - I never even noticed that at the time. I guess because the slow morse I had been listening to was plain text I thought it was normal. The numbers were in random groups of five. He never even looked at my copy, but relied entirely on my smoothed out spoken version of it.

I had passed. My immediate CW career went on to see me work one station on 2m, one on 20m and I did not have another CW QSO for more than 25 years. I still have this man's assessment of me playing in my head.

At least it saved the petrol money for the trip to Lifford. The UK standard was, well, possibly on a par with Lifford. I did not sneak across the border to a foreign jurisdiction to gain a questionable pass certificate.. Oh no, I earned my questionable pass certificate by bungling my way through the oddest test I have ever undertaken, right here in the UK.

Later I received a certificate, signed by somebody else, and after that I also received through the post something called  a Radio Amateur Certificate and eventually a Class A licence covering all the amateur bands. I still wonder quite what all that was about.
Hmmmm. Apparently I had passed.
I immediately framed my Radio Amateur Certificate and proudly put it on the toilet wall - I never did find any other purpose for it. Then I had to wait to see what callsign would turn up.

Both of my callsigns were simply allocated to me. You had no choice, though a few patient people waited without a licence for a "better" callsign to be reached as they progressed alphabetically through the list. So I had been first been allocated G8JWG, which I disliked. It was awkward to say due to the W in the middle. I supposed that G8JUG would have been worse. Second time around I got GI4FVM which was better. I might have got GI4FUM, and becoming that would have been terrible.
At last I had my Class A licence.
There was a clause in the second licence which revoked the first one. I have never understood why people need more than one callsign in any country. It just seems to me to confuse things, befuddles the QSL bureau, and prevents the official number of licences issued figures from accurately representing the number of amateurs. Anyway, the only re-appearance of GM8JWG is the odd occasion when he spots GM4FVM on the cluster.

With GM4FVM being a "full" licence I could apply to operate in some other countries. Only some, as a only few had reciprocal arrangements, and some others would accept a UK licence as qualification for one of theirs. In those days the Republic of Ireland authorities required all their amateurs to provide them with details of the radio experiments they intended to carry out. Of course they required that for their "visitors" licence too, so for several years I had to set out the technical aspects of what I wanted to do, attach the required drawing, and back came this ...

3) Equipment and Operations "pre-transceiver"
When I started working on HF this was simple. The modern concept of the transceiver had emerged in the 1950s and by the late 1960s and it had really taken hold. Most HF operators had abandoned their old separate transmitters and receivers and gone over to SSB. The secondary bonus of  the transceiver was that you automatically transmitted on the same frequency as you received (the primary bonus being that it shared components as was thus cheaper than the separates). People rushed into the more efficient SSB and almost everybody was on the same frequency on transmit and receive.

There were,  of course, some HF old timers who refused to modernise. They often used surplus gear, with crystal controlled CW or AM. The use of crystals meant that they had fixed transmit frequencies and thus usually worked what we would now call "split". There were AM nets, who were theoretically on the same frequency, but this was pretty approximate. SSB required much better frequency stabilisation than AM.

Manufacturers offered matching transmitters to ease the pain of converting. If you had a receiver you could add a transmitter and share the VFO, which at least brought you onto the same frequency. If you had different types of tx and rx but you had a separate transmitter with a VFO and you wanted to get onto the same frequency then you could transmit a weak "netting" signal and tune your tx frequency until you could hear yourself in your receiver. It was not a very accurate way of doing things which was fine on AM but did not really work too well on SSB. It was tricky on CW. I still recall hearing netting signals before stations called me.

However, although the HF community had jumped into transceivers made by Drake and Collins, there was nothing similar for VHF. I used to visit the City of Belfast YMCA radio club in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Their pride and joy was a KW 2000, a lumbering beast of a thing. No doubt, as an SSB transceiver it was cutting edge for its time; to me it seemed vast, heavy and unyielding. Later as Chairman of the Queens University of Belfast Radio Club for several years I used their Yaesu FT-200 which was a joy in comparison - but still heavy (7.6kg). The arrival of radios like the FT-200 and the ground breaking FT-101 changed something very important - they were affordable. It was the end of an era. The day of the HF SSB transceiver, however clunky at first, had arrived. For VHF there was nothing like it, so we muddled on.
Yaesu FT-200. About 60% of the price of a KW2000 and better all round. Photo rigpix
In VHF the world was very different in the late 60s. It was as if the transceiver had never been invented. Leaving aside SSB pioneers, the traffic later carried by FM repeaters was almost all on AM. By the time I was licenced the RSGB had produced a bandplan which was rather like a simplified verison of what we have now. Previously there was a regional bandplan for the 2 metre band. It looks very odd now, but it seems to me that the object of the Regional Band Plan was to bring together stations rather than keep them apart, as is the case now. At some time there must have been so few VHF experimenters that something was needed to let them hear each other.

The thing was, in the absence of new equipment, and given the well known reluctance of many amateurs to even consider keeping up with progress, pretty well everybody was still using the old regional band plan. The  home brewers probably did not want to go back to the drawing board and the users of commercial equipment quickly found that there simply was nothing suitable available apart from their cast-off ex-PMR taxi radios.

Thinking first about the more local traffic, there was a marked difference between London and "the North". In London the 2m band sounded to me like HF must have sounded before the arrival of the SSB transceiver. There were lots of AM stations, added to by a growing number of FM ones, scattered about an "all modes" section. The one thing which almost all of these had in common was that very few of them had more than one frequency to transmit on.

This seems very strange now. When I bought my second hand (used) 2m transmitter (I think it cost £11.00) it came with three crystals. That was my entire range of options for frequency selection. I see from log that I used 144.365, 144.770 and 144.950. Everybody else had different crystals and nobody really seemed to be on the same frequency. One joy of it was that your crystal seemed to give you personal use of a specific frequency - the downside being that nobody else was there. This was very much how things used to be on HF years before.

If 144.365 seems very close to the SSB "calling frequency", in those days the new band plan allocated SSB calling to 144.200 and described the upper end of the SSB section as "flexible", whatever that meant. With that fudge everybody could go on as if the new band plan did not exist. My 1974 "NBFM Manual" outlined the benefits of FM and showed the new band plan, but nobody seemed to care about either of these things.

The drill was that you called CQ for a long time on the one frequency you had in the hope that somebody would happen to be tuning past on their receiver. If they heard your call they would also hear you say, right at the end of your call, "tuning the band from high to low", or "tuning the band from low to high". If they only had one crystal, and many did only have one, they would give you a long call and hope that you would tune past them and find them before you had found somebody else.

Of course, I had the unusual luxury of three crystals. If somebody was calling CQ and said they were tuning from high to low I could select 144.95, which they were likely to find before 144.77. If they were tuning low to high I could select 144.365, and hope to get in before somebody else. As everybody was working split it meant that every QSO occupied two parts of the spectrum, and listening to both sides of a QSO involved me in a lot of VFO spinning. In a net of three or four stations you would find them all over the band. I have some cassette tapes of all this going on, and it is mayhem.

One reason why many people only had one tx crystal was that they were using ex-taxi type surplus mobile radios. These usually only had one socket for a tx crystal and one for an rx crystal. A company called Garex sold a conversion of a PMR radio which had a frequency tunable receiver while retaining the crystal controlled tx. This beast had a vernier dial for the VFO, but the receiver was not very stable anyway. These old PMR radios were amazingly bulky and crude. Brands like Pye, Cossar, Bundept, Storno were common.
I used a single channel version Cambridge on 4m. Photo: Pye History Group

Whilst by that stage the PMR users such as the fire brigades and the police forces had gone over to transistorised gear, the surplus we had was their previous generation of valvised equipment. These had been discarded for all sorts of reasons but made fairly good fixed stations. Older ones were entirely valvised, later ones were hybrid designs with a valve in the final transmitter stage.

The downside of these pieces of equipment must have been the trembler power supply. They were designed for use with 12 volt car electrics, and early ones had a simple buzzer-type circuit which cut the car's DC voltage into a square wave to feed to the primary winding of the HT transformer feeding the valves. Although later more efficient transistorised inverters were introduced, this was still fairly inefficient for amateurs who found access to high output power supplies tricky. Converting from mains AC to 12v DC at high current was hard enough with the technology of the day, but when it was then chopped up and converted back to high voltage AC and rectified and smoothed into DC you were really wasting a lot of energy in the process.

It must have been clear that this "tune the band" system was never going to last much longer but you would not have thought so. The 2m band was full of AM stations using two frequencies to work each other. FM was easier to generate than AM, and more efficient to amplify to useful output power levels. Repeaters were on the way, and with that would come an era where people used dedicated amateur gear rather than PMR cast-offs. It took time though, and many said that they would never change.

Of course, you did not have to use ex-commercial surplus equipment, You could build your own, and many did. There were one or two commercial products. TW made a range of transmitters and receivers for the amateur market, including some transceivers which were a receiver and a transmitter built into one box. Then there was the one I had - the EMSAC TX2 (there was also a TX4 for 70MHz).

Away from London things were simpler but also messy in a different way. "The North", where I ended up, seemed to include everywhere from Northern England to the North of Scotland and included the Isle of Man and Northern Ireland. As we shall see later, many people in the North avoided the tricky issue of crystals and tuning by using the same AM frequency and avoiding new-fangled FM entirely.

That was the local traffic. VHF Dx-ers had virtually no commercial equipment available.When you think about it, dx is generally across regional boundaries and that meant crossing the regional bandplan areas too. Thus you had to work split or break the band plan rules.

The options for SSB were limited. In the early 70s basically you had to use an HF transceiver and a transverter. You could build a transverter or they were available from makers like SSM (later to be SEM). These things were essentially like the receive converters we used on AM but with the local oscillator frequency tapped out and used to mix up the SSB transmitted signal to 144MHz. I mention this because some of them actually had the receive converter (still in its box) attached to the back of the case. The final output stage then was a valve, usually a QQV 06/40 producing upwards of 50 watts.

There valve transverters were potent things indeed. I had one. Usually they relied on the HF transceiver for their high voltage to apply to the valves. Most Japanese HF rigs had a socket like an octal valve base which allowed you to extract the high voltage. Later I also had a Yaesu transverter which went further and was even styled to matched the FT-101 I had. This one made it possible to just turn a switch and move between HF and 2 metres - what a luxury. And this transverter had a transistorised final stage, though only 20W output.

The obvious problem with transverters is that they required you to have an HF radio to drive them. An HF radio involved a very large cash investment for a Class B operator who could not use it for HF. Even for those who could, the HF radios of the time were not very suitable for general 2m use as they lacked FM, did not have the ability to work split frequency and many older ones had no provision for a low power output to drive a transverter. Lacking an alternative, we still did it and made everything work somehow. If you did not have the money, or the determination, or the knowledge, you were stuck with AM and either split frequency operation or the perils of using the single AM mobile frequency.

4) Equipment and operations "post transceiver"
There was a time which I can well remember when 2m (which was all of VHF for most people) lived like a hangover from the 1940s, with valve equipment, fixed crystal frequencies, split operation and a rather hit and miss CQ system. I see that in my AM/FM only days in 1975 I worked stations using many Pye Cambridges, Pye Vanguards, and even a 90 watt Pye Base Station (probably the one out of the dire but homely TV series "Dixon of Dock Green"), all ex commercial. Apart from the Base Station, nobody was using more than 10W, many a lot less.

One station then was using a Heathkit HW17 valve "transceiver", another variant of Garex's idea of a tunable receiver with an unrelated crystal transmitter. About a quarter of them had homebrewed the tx but used commercial HF receivers with VHF converters. Somebody was using an ex-Navy B40 receiver with a homebrew converter. The receiver alone weighed 46Kg, as much as I weighed myself in 1975. One station (G6QN) told me that he was first licensed in 1922. He must have felt at home.

Although it was a joy to operate in what was really a radio museum, this had to end sometime. The regional band plan had been officially replaced by 1974 (though clearly it took a while for anybody to notice). The arrival of receivers that weighed less than a young radio amateur, the appearance in amateur circles of reliable transistors for output stages, and an influx of remarkable compact, cheap, Japanese gear changed everything. The change was really product led rather than any effort by amateurs to modernise.

Probably the first thing that most people noticed was the appearance of the Belcom Liner 2. This appalling excrescence was in fact an SSB CB transceiver with a 144MHz transverter, all bundled into the same box. It was a true transceiver, and it ran about 7 or 8 watts of SSB, so it was immediately transformative. It came with the standard cranky CB-style VXO with stepped frequencies. With a bit of twiddling you could tune right onto somebody's frequency, which was a novelty at the time. It arrived before the end of the Regional Band Plan so the supplied coverage of 144.100 to 144.340 was no use to those unfortunate enough to live in "the North". Modified ones were available for us, but then those ones shared no common frequency with ones used in other regions. Those sticking to the old Regional Band Plan, which was already doomed by the possibility repeaters, were going to have to get up to date.

I have a Liner 2 here. I never owned one years ago, so I bought one from Derrick, GM4CXP for "old times sake". I get it out sometimes and look at it. It is awful. This is a "Northern" one, so the frequencies are wrong for the current band plan. I seem to recall that 145.41 MHz was the Northern SSB calling frequency. I wouldn't use it now anyway so it stays the way it is.

The Liner 2's great plus (the transistorised output) was also its weakness. Already operating at the limit, the final could not take any more. People realised that the Liner 2s audio stage was uncompressed and thus its average output was low, so they turned up the drive. Bad idea. Although the talk power went up, the Liner splattered all over the place on speech peaks. Sure, they were fine if you left them alone, or so the story went. Better still was to add a Datong RF speech processor (I still have one of those too, this time my own one from 1975), but then if you used one on a Liner 2 you just overheated the output transistor and it died anyway.

For those who treated them well the Liner 2s were a joy. People climbed hills, put up aerials, and actually came on the band. Distance records were broken, and 2m had come of age. How come? Well, the Class B licence helped to get the numbers up, but freeing people from the necessity of owning an expensive HF radio and a transverter too was key.

The Liner 2 cost £151.80 from Lowe's in 1973, which was 5.5 months pay for me. I might have afforded one if I had been prepared to go without food for 5.5 months. I never had one then but it changed the face of VHF operation.

By comparison, the FT-200 transceiver was £159.00 at the same time, so the pathetic Liner 2 cost as much as a very competent 100W multi band HF rig. An SSM transverter cost £79.09 and suited the FT-200 perfectly, so a much more effective solution existed if you could afford it. Nevertheless, the Liner 2 was still the most portable thing around. It was years before Icom, barely functioning when the Liner 2 came out, produced the rig the Liner 2 should have been, the IC-202. But that is another story.

Briefly there was the Braun SE600. This was a majestic radio, an attempt at a multi-mode VHF transceiver. It still had a valve in the final stage (!) and about 20 watts output on SSB. It looked like a piece of lab equipment and with a digital readout (gosh) and two VFOs it cost £627.00. The Liner 2 cost the price of an FT-200; the Braun cost the price of four FT-200s. I don't think they sold many but it was a bold view of the future.

On the transceiver front, the mainstream Japanese manufacturers were not far behind Braun. By 1975 my notes record a few, a very few, stations using rigs like the Yaesu FT-220 and the Trio TS700. These were the first mass produced VHF multi-mode transceivers we had seen. They included FM and moderately stable VFOs. By modern standards their output power (10W), receiver sensitivity, and strong signal handling characteristics are not great shakes. But at the time they offered a real step forward. They came with repeater shift - the first UK repeater GB3PI arrived with an experimental service in late 1972. Within 5 years most UK amateurs were within range of a repeater. My first repeater contact was via GB3LO on 18 March 1975.
The Yaesu FT-221R. How I would have loved one. Photo rigpix
Later the Queen's University Radio Club had a Trio TS770 which included 70cms - now that was a shock. Even the basic TS-700 was well beyond my pocket, as was the Yaesu FT-220. I really loved the look of the 220 and the later 221, and its VFO. I still find it a pleasing design but there just was no money for it. I decided to go down the transverter route because I already had an FT-101 to drive one.

Briefly, before the transverter I had one glorious period with an SSB mobile rig. Not wanting a Belcom Liner 2, I bought the mainstream answer to it, the Trio TR-7010, as soon as it was released. It was an SSB/ CW transceiver. I had joined the modern world at last. I could operate on the same frequency without problems and run to the dizzying heights of 8 watts through its transistorised final stage. It was magic and there was lots of SSB mobile and fixed operation to follow.

On the local AM/FM front, things were changing too. Tuning the band in either direction was not easy while you were mobile. In my part of "the North" everybody stayed on the mobile frequency of 145.800. This meant that all the local traffic, fixed or mobile, in half of the UK was on one AM frequency. There were always multiple QSOs going on. There were heterodynes all the time. As you drove about you found yourself in the middle of somebody else's conversation and neither of you had an alternative frequency to use.

For most people 144.8 AM was VHF, end of story. How wrong they were.

The rig that caught the mood for local operation was the Inoue IC-2F. It helped that is was more or less the first of its type available in the UK. It was a compact FM transceiver equally at home mobile or in the shack. It offered 6 crystal controlled channels and 10W output. Compared to a Pye Cambridge this was an object lesson in miniaturisation and efficiency. It actually had a knob on the front which you could turn and change both the receive and the transmit frequency (fancy that). It is difficult to describe how revolutionary a radio like the Inoue IC-2F was, and it was quickly followed by Yaesu's imaginatively named FT-2F and many others.
Inoue IC2F - a game changer in a modest way Photo ik3hia
By 1975 I had worked someone using an IC-2F and visited someone else who used one. I was already converted. Inoue changed their name to Icom and started developing a series of VHF base station rigs which quickly progressed to the IC-201, a remarkable bit of kit which competed in the multi-mode area with Yaesu and Trio (later to be Kenwood in the UK as it already was in some other areas).

Having heard about the Inoue IC-2F I knew I had to do something as single fixed tx frequencies and separate receivers were quickly becoming obsolete. My first (mistaken) reaction was to obtain a modern transmitter, as I already had a receiver. I was still thinking in terms of separate tx and rx. The tx I bought was something called a Telford TC9. This was an FM transmitter with a VFO. I would still have to net in, but I would be freed from crystal control. It didn't last long as the internal power supply blew and took everything else with it. That was a pity as it had a very nice Eddystone-type slow motion drive. I did try a VFO kit for the EMSAC. It worked, but was hopelessly drifty. 

Eventually I caved in and at the end of 1976 I bought a Standard C-828 Japanese FM transceiver and went channelised for FM. I never worked AM on VHF again. The Standard 828 was a fairly novel thing as it used the same crystal for receive and transmit - useful at a time when crystals were so expensive to buy. Later I also bought the optional VFO which ... also ... turned out out be hopelessly drifty. This was the factor which caused so much trouble then. Before phase lock loop technology nobody really cracked it. I am still using the Standard 3 amp power supply I bought with the 828 in 1976.
Standard C828 Photo rigpix
Soon everything had changed. Within a couple of years we had given up tuning the band and separate receivers. We arrived at channelised working, transistor output stages, repeaters, a unified European Band Plan, multi-mode VHF transceivers (even if I couldn't afford one), compact mobile rigs ... modernity ... in a very short period. These days I might be surprised if someone turned up on the doorstep wanting to inspect my equipment, but in 1975 I expected it to happen any day.I knew someone who had his licence suspended after such a visit. It was a worry. However, we all got on with it and tuned the band from top to bottom.

There are still some dunderheads who, 45 years after the frequency was allocated for other uses, still operate AM or FM simplex on 145.800. Other, more sensible individuals, try to rekindle their memories by refurbishing old radios from this era and they get much satisfaction from doing so. I personally would like to just remember how it was and move on. I prefer to use modern equipment in a modern way. Each to their own. However, I still remember the complex licensing, the separate transmitters, the valves glowing purple and the whole rather primitive nature of it all.


P.S. I do not know whether bandplan is all one word or two, so take your choice from the above.

Sunday, 2 September 2018

Equipment, autumn and the Microset RU432-95 linear amplifier

Now that September has arrived we can start to think that the Sporadic E season is almost over. There may well be several good days for Es during September, but the regular openings are usually over by this stage of the year.

I tend to take a spell off from radio sometime around now, though that generally means that there will be a brilliant tropo opening which I shall miss.

Trigger for this change of mood is the harvest in the field outside the shack. This year the weather, which has been very dry at times, has brought the harvest forward despite the wheat having been sown late. The dry season has also resulted in unusually high demand for fodder, raising the value of grass hay bales. This has, in turn, created more of a market for the lower grade straw cut from the wheat fields. Usually the straw is left to dry and collected long after the wheat has been harvested, but not this year.

The harvest turned into a dramatic dash with 7 machines at work at once - and 432MHz being obliterated by various signals, intended and unintended.
Harvester hard at work outside the shack
Straw bales being removed immediately by Manitou reach stacker
This seasonal change marks an alteration in the nature of the radio here too. For me, meteor scatter and tropo become of more interest. However, the pace generally slackens and I have other things to attend to.

Time for a review of the equipment.

A few months ago I bought another Icom IC-7300. This came second hand (used), was installed and after that I basically put it into use and have nothing further to remark on ...
IC-7300A (left) and the original IC-7300.
The large gap between the two radios was filled, until last week, by the control box of the IC-7100. However, with the general reshuffle the IC-7100 control box has moved to the other side of the desk. On reflection, I may move it back between these two.

End result is that the FT-817 is not in regular use.

Things are now divided up as follows. The two IC-7300s cover 4m and 6m. The TS-590 drives the transverter on 2m. The IC-7100 does 70cms. Any of the radios could cover HF, but that duty presently falls to the IC-7100. Well, it does in so far as I do any HF.

Another second hand purchase has been a Microset RU432-95 linear amplifier. This thing is capable of about 95W output. I tried to photograph it in position, on a shelf in a dark corner, so sadly the image is rather grainy and of poor quality.
Microset RU432-95 linear with sit-on fans and temperature controller.
It currently has three fans sitting on top. This may appear rather excessive. Two are there under the control of a thermostatic switch, the same system as I have on my 6m linear and my 2m transverter. The third one is controlled by the sequencer to activate during transmit only. I tried both systems separately and they worked OK, but having the linear hidden away at a distance made me uncomfortable. Plugs and temperature sensors can pull out, and it would be easy for it to overheat. So I have two independent cooling systems.

Not that this particular linear looks to be liable to overheat. It shares the same size box and heatsink with the SR-200 I used for many years on 2m. It ran 200W, this one runs 95W, so the heatsink looks well able to handle the heat. So far that seems to be true, though it is still early days. I am not yet sure how it will behave during a contest or a long 70cms opening, so I am playing it safe for now.

I dithered a bit before buying the Microset. First of all - do I need a linear on 70cms at all? Then, although the Microset looked like a good bet based on my experience with the SR-200, it seemed far too expensive new. I watched this second hand one for a month to see if the price would fall - in fact all that happened was that it was offered with free postage, which is a price reduction in a way. Eventually I decided that I had waited long enough.

I think that most of you know about my approach to equipment by now. I do not go in for expensive rigs, free-standing masts or full-legal linear amplifiers. Instead, when I want to extend things I tend to upgrade to a modest level - or, in the the recent case, go for a new band (70cms). Thus you will not find a 4 yagi stack here on 2m. On the 70cm linear side there are much more powerful linears at twice the price, and some smaller ones which offer little progress over barefoot. The only other one in the 100W-ish range is from RM Italy. I know that RM Italy have improved their designs, but the Microset seems better constructed to me. There is also the issue of the drive level - the Microset suits my equipment better. The RM linear has a very low drive level, and I know that my IC-7100 puts out a spike on starting to transmit which might overdrive the RM.

So a second hand Microset it is. Second hand is what made the difference. It saved me over £200. It brought it within my affordability limit. Buying second hand equipment comes with a certain degree of risk. However, I have bought an IC-7300, a TS-590, a TE Systems 6m linear and this Microset all for prices I could afford.

If they fail then they fail, and I have not lost so much money. It is a risk I am willing to take. I know for instance that this linear has already been back to Microset in Italy for repair before I bought it. Life is full of risks. I had looked long and hard at older BNOS linears before concluding that this was the way to go. Time will tell.

One downside of buying second hand is never knowing quite what you are going to get. This time there were no instructions, circuit diagram or PTT plug. I must search the internet to try to find instructions or circuit diagram for a Microset RU432-95 linear amplifier. As for the PTT socket it is a "Molex"-type 2 pin. As this is the same as the SR-200 I was able to improvise to start with and order a new one. To my surprise, these could not be found in the UK for a reasonable price and I had to wait for some to arrive from China.
The 2-pin "Molex" plugs had to come from China.
I suppose I should not be surprised. The days when "Eddie's" shop across the road from school contained any plug I might need, or if needs be I could visit Smithfield market where surplus stores sold everything from Post Office relays for 5 pence to entire receivers for £2, are long gone.

I did take the time to tidy up a bit on plugs and sockets. The SHF-Elektric Bais-Tee and masthead pre-amp both use phono plugs as DC connectors. I have to use them there, though I always short them out trying to connect them (try turning the power off first, Jim). Then again I have been using phono plugs for the same purpose for my cooling fans. Phono plugs are just not suitable as DC connectors. But what to use? Even more surprisingly, the 2m pre-amp uses a PL-259 socket for its DC supply socket. I prefer to restrict the use of phono plugs to PTT leads, but here the Microset uses Molex connectors for PTT when you might think they would be better for DC. Banana plugs are awful, so maybe spade connectors and screw terminals rule. Anderson power plugs seem rather over the top to me.

Anyway, I am still sorting out the 70cm set-up. I have moved the radio section of the IC-7100 to be beside the Microset linear. This saves 4m of RG-213 coax. I could not see the point of having a radio which allows the RF section to be separated from the control box and then not moving the RF section as close to the antenna as I can. This is especially true for 70cms. This has created a "70cms outpost" at the far side of the shack, with the IC-7100, sequencer, linear, fans, SWR meter, the Bias-Tee and a PSU all located at the end of the Hyperflex coax. This is worked remotely from the IC-7100 control head. It saves using any RG-213 coax (except for a short length on the mast). If I had another 2m of Hyperflex I would get rid of that bit too.

That seems to be plenty to report on the equipment front for now.

With the 4m allocation to Germany coming to an end this year on 31 August there have been many German stations to work, especially on meteor scatter. 28 August brought an unexpected tropo duct opening into Switzerland. I worked HB9MFM  and HB9DFG on 2m (both JN37 - 1162 and 1138km respectively). I took the whole thing rather casually as I knew I had worked HB9 on Earth-Moon-Earth. Except that I hadn't. HB9 was a new country for me on 2m. I think that I spent so much time listening to HB9Q on EME that I convinced myself that I had worked them.

This was a classic duct opening. Apart from one or two stations in England I could hear nothing apart from the two Swiss stations. Actually, nothing was worked here for more than 4 hours on either side of those two contacts. I can see why ducting is very localised, but why "normal" propagation seems to vanish at the same time is something which puzzles me. Perhaps this doesn't happen. Perhaps I am just not seeing things logically.

HB9MFM was heard here for over an hour, mostly calling CQ and working nobody. There did not seem to be any other GM stations active, or else they were out of the area fed by the duct. I felt a bit for the Swiss stations when I heard long calls and no response.

I have now got to 27 DXCC on 2m excluding EME. EME only adds one more not worked directly (Bulgaria).

I am still mystified by all this tropo success.




Monday, 27 August 2018

Well, I got Tropo wrong

Recently a political spokesperson was being interviewed on television, and she was confronted with the accusation that what she had been saying did not agree with the facts, as had been pointed out by others.

"Well" she replied "they may have the facts, but we have alternative facts".

Her interviewer quickly pointed out that there are only facts. "Alternative facts" are, in fact "falsehoods", the interviewer retorted. I agree with him. The only facts are ... the facts.

I may have got the wording of the quotation a bit wrong - after all who cares about the truth (see later)? But that was the gist of it.

A weighty amateur of many years standing remarked to me that I could hardly keep saying that this QTH is not good for tropospheric propagation (tropo) when I had recently worked the Canary Islands on 2 metres, a (now corrected) distance of 3264km. Fair point.

It is true that I have said many times that this location is not good for tropo. If you were to be mad enough to look back in this blog you would find me saying that lots of times. I also fretted for years over "not being able to" work into France on 2m, due to the presence of "the headland", an outcrop of higher ground to the south of me.

How can I square the "fact" that I still feel that this QTH is not good for tropo and (the alternative fact) that it has proved itself to be rather good for tropo? I think that that both of those things exist at the same time - it depends what you mean by "tropo", but saying both of them looks a bit daft.

I decided to look at a map of my 2m tropo contacts since my last posting on this site (click to enlarge if necessary) ...
144MHz band FT8 contacts at GM4FVM from 14 to 25 August 2018
I have to say that I am pretty pleased with that. However, looking at the 100km radius circles some interesting pattern emerge. I seem to do fine over 400km, and badly under 200km.

Taking the contacts per 100km increase in distance from me...

0 - 100km NIL
100 - 200km 1 GM0NRT
200 - 300km 5 MI6XZZ, MI0KOA, M1AVV, G4JIX, G8EEM
300 - 400km 5 MW0RSS, G7RHF, G8EFU, M0JDK, M0NPT
400 - 500km 2 G3RMD, G4TRA
500 - 600km 1 M0WGF
600 - 700km 1 F1IEE
700 - 800km 2 ON4POO, ON4KHG
800 - 900km 1 F6DBI

There could be all sorts of explanations for this result including the proportion of the area which is sea, and the geographical distribution of amateurs. The 0 - 100km circle has almost 50% land and the 100 -- 200km has more, but in general the total area of land in the other circles does not vary too much. Each more distant circle is larger than the closer ones, but the ever larger ones tend to include more of the Atlantic Ocean and the North Sea which have very few amateurs operating from them.

As for the distribution of amateurs, this often follows city size. Even the 0 - 100km circle has Edinburgh, Dundee and Newcastle upon Tyne in it - though I have never heard a station from any of those cities. Most UK cities are at sea level or very low, and that plays a part too. The 100 - 200km circle has Glasgow, Aberdeen, Leeds, Bradford, Hull and so forth in it. Yet I do not hear from these cities. Just about the only nearby place I do get into as well as I might expect is Fife.

You can only take this city thing so far. I do not live in a city myself. Nevertheless, in general there are more amateurs where there are more people.

I am drawn to the conclusion that I am right that this location is not good for what an FM operator might think of as tropo propagation, but yet it is good for distant tropo from 200km out to 500km and beyond. When I describe this distant propagation I do not mean tropo ducting (of the type which brought in EA8 from over 3000km), but simply "flat band" working. There were no discernible "lift conditions" during the 12-day period covered by that map.

I think that I am not alone. I suspect that others have been fooled by this effect and have also assumed that their site is not good for VHF, whereas in fact for more distant contacts they may be in a fairly good position.

When I do come on for 144MHz contests I am always surprised by noting from the serial numbers that many other stations work dozens (yes, dozens) of stations close to them before turning their attention to dx. These are stations local to them and maybe I just do not have those stations around me. I certainly have no local stations to work. What I think is most likely is that such local stations as there were have given up on 2m dx.

When I arrived here 10 years ago there were local stations on 2m. Now there are almost no stations within 75km of me in any direction. For example to the south the station I would first come across would be Jeremy M0XVF who is 137km away. There may be nearer stations in Newcastle upon Tyne or Gateshead, but I cannot hear them. Even working Jeremy can be a struggle due to the difficult path between us. Yet, in that 12 day period covered by the map I easily worked ON4POO three times and ON4KHG (709km) twice. These long distance results are not a fluke.

I cannot blame anyone for giving up when faced with the evidence. I almost fell for it and abandoned 2m. When I arrived here I put up a 4 element yagi and did badly. Even after I  put up a 10 element I did not do well. I took the absence of stations out to about 200km as a sign that this QTH was not good for tropo. I was under the impression that if there was not much to hear on tropo at that range then there was not likely to me much to hear further away. This was because I knew that tropo has no "skip zone" and that events such as ducting were few and far  between. Whilst I did not give up, I certainly relegated 2m down my priorities.

It has taken years for me to realise that I was wrong about that. The evidence is still there - I have a half wave vertical and an FM rig constantly scanning around and generally I hear nothing at all. The hills mean that I cannot hear any stations from Glasgow (maybe 120km) or Edinburgh (about 60km). I cannot get into Berwick upon Tweed (12km to the south) or Dunbar (15km to the north). It is hardly surprising that I thought tropo was no good from here.

Why complain about not being able to hear any locals? There are lots of dx and contest stations who would love to get rid of their local QRM. Well, the absence of locals almost caused me to give up on the 2m band entirely.

Part of the problem with understanding this is that everybody seems to mean something different when they refer to "tropo". For this purpose I am excluding ducting. I tend to lump in assistance from aircraft scatter with general tropo propagation, though that is not correct. Many of my middle-distance QSOs are a mix of tropo and aircraft scatter. All of the contacts on the map were made during a period when there was no unusually high barometric pressure, no noted temperature inversions, no fog and none of the features associated with a tropo "lift". They were what I call "flat band" QSOs.

So there it is. My view that this site is not good for tropo was based on solid observations that the standard fare of tropo, up to about 200km, was more or less absent. I could have given up at that point, and I suspect that many others around me have already given up years ago (which only makes everything seem quieter). Somehow I kept at it and now I have the help of FT8 to corral all the dx into one place.

I feel fairly sure that several local amateurs who put up a vertical for FM, and who then heard nothing, have concluded that their location is no good for 2m tropo dx. They may well be wrong.

I am going to stop suggesting that this location is not good for tropo. That is an alternative fact. In other words, it is not true.

Of course, more recently another political figure said that "the truth isn't the truth".

P.S. Grand Tour cycling is on again. The 2018 Vuelta a Espana is underway and Uran, Aru, Nibali, Quintana, Porte, several guys named Yates, and the main favourites are all in action. I will be watching them all closely, but especially Michal Kwiatkowski.




Wednesday, 15 August 2018

Unexpected DX and Perseids

In this posting is a report on the Perseids meteor shower and some rather unexpected success on VHF and 70cms. As usual, click on the images to enlarge, if you need to.

First the Perseids. This meteor shower peaks around 11 to 13 August each year. The usual drill is for me to watch a large number of stations being received and not manage a contact with any of them. This is especially true on the 2 metre band, where success has been limited up to now.

Therefore imagine my surprise this year when one of my attempts to work somebody far away on 2m actually came off. For several years now I have been calling R1AY who is 1941km away in KP50. Astonishingly I had a two way success with Serge this year. I almost fell off the chair when I saw him replying to my call ...
R1AY replying to GM4FVM's call on 2m meteor scatter on 12 August 2018
Of course on 2m these meteor scatter contacts can go on for an hour or more, so it is not exactly the place for sudden excitement, but that one moment sticks in the mind. That was the first time anyone has replied to me from Russia on 2m apart from moon bounce.

Aside from that, the usual pattern of seeing CQ calls once from all sorts of places and replying to no effect continued this year, and included EU3CZ and numerous others. I could see many closer stations hearing me on PSK Reporter who did not reply, or I did not hear them. However, the R1AY case shows that it is worth giving it a try.

On 4m the Perseids brought me plenty of action
GM4FVM contacts on 70MHz meteor scatter during the 2018 Perseids shower
The contact with OH1MLZ is certainly the furthest at 1686km it was not quite the most notable.

Przemek, SP7VC, has activated many unusual places on 4m over the years, and given me several new squares. At the start of the Perseids he appeared from Guernsey, in a square and DXCC which I already have. "Why doesn't he go to Jersey?" I asked in my ignorance, before noting on his website that he planned to move on to Jersey too.

When I eventually worked MJ/SP7VC in IN89 I had a new DXCC. I had never worked Jersey from here on any band, so that is one for the record book. Not that it was a new square, as GU8FBO gave me that square some time ago.

Another surprise was working SM7CAD on 4m. I have remarked before on the short-term 4m licenses issued in Sweden and how hard I found it to work one. I have worked Curt before several times on 6m meteor scatter. On 14 August I found him working split on 70.1735/70.167. This took a bit of jiggling with WSJT-X and split on the IC-7300, but I was able to get back to him for a very easy QSO.

So Sweden and Jersey get me back up to 40 DXCC on 4m, and 217 squares. on 2m R1AY at 1946km is a new meteor scatter record for me. I heard some stations over 2000km. Not a bad Perseids after all.

New Continent and personal record DX on 2m
144MHz tropo ducting on 5 August 2018 as shown by DXMaps
On 5 August 2018 I worked EA8TJ by tropospheric ducting on 2m. He is in IL18 square, a distance of 3261.69km. It is also my second 2m continent (Africa). It almost didn't happen.

I had just returned from a trip to visit my sister and I saw that stations in Cornwall were working the Canary Islands and Capo Verde. They have a sea path to those places, I don't. They are a lot closer. Despite this I decided to listen.

While watching the WSJT-X screen I saw Chris, GM4ZJI, work EA8TJ. I sent Chris a congratulation text and he phoned me to warn me about the propagation at the same moment. I told him that I could not hear anything. For about 15 minutes I heard nothing and Chris sent me several texts encouraging me to try to work the EA8. It was only at this stage that I realised this was an EA8 and not a mainland Spanish station.

For some reason I decided to beam towards Chris instead. At this point I could hear EA8TJ. I called him and he came back, but when I beamed towards him I lost him again. So I quickly beamed back to what appeared to be North West and he completed the QSO. David, GM4JJJ, went on to work EA8TJ too.
FT8 QSO between GM4FVM and EA8TJ on 5 August 2018

What was happening? My SPID rotator controller had lost its settings and was pointing the beam 120 degrees off the true direction. I managed to run into the kitchen and peer out the window at the rotator which proved that I was beaming the wrong way. The only way I completed the QSO was by running back and forward into the kitchen, setting the beam heading by eye.

Just to put this tropo contact into perspective, it comfortably breaks my personal 2m Earth- Moon- Earth record of 2727km, and my overall non-EME 2m DX record of 2069km which was done on Sporadic E. It is 2m personal best using any form of propagation and I suspect it will take EME to break it (if I ever reach this distance again).

This was no great feat on my part. I was already aware of the path from EA8 to GM4ZJI when I made the QSO. Not only did Chris do this first, but he can claim a GM 2m tropo distance record as he is 6km or so further away from EA8TJ than I am. He phoned to alert me to the possibility and I certainly appreciate that. So Chris gets the congratulations. However, it is still a personal record for me and it tells us something about the propagation.

It certainly is not a totally sea path as it passes over the Cheviot Hills, the North Pennines and English Lake District, over North Wales, then briefly Cardigan Bay before crossing South Wales, but it misses Cornwall and Cape Finisterre.
144MHz contacts at GM4FVM 25 July to 14 August 2018
Putting R1AY and EA8TJ onto my map rather puts the other 2m contacts into the shade. This would be a mistake as there is interesting stuff in there. More contacts with ON4POO, meteor scatter into Germany, IO61 square activated by the EI9E group, and more. But it is the distance of the other two which catch the eye. For EA8 I just happened to be in the right place at the right time and my own efforts at station building almost prevented me working him due to using the wrong beam heading. With R1AY it is different - I have been trying to get him to hear me for years. Maybe he did in FSK days, but this time on MSK144 I saw his report in return, so I know I am getting there.

Is it FT8 which is making the difference these days? Not for meteor scatter where I was using MSK144. Anyway EA8 has been worked from Eastern Scotland before. However, MSK144 is getting more popular and for now almost everybody is on the same frequency. I haven't used FSK441 for years.

What makes a contact significant anyway? Long ones which are almost flukes, or short ones that prove the reliability of the equipment and propagation (and the superior abilities of the mature, yet technically savvy, operator)?

6m Trans-Atlantic and new 2018 DXCCs from nearer home
DX is one thing, whereas proving your all-round abilities by setting targets and beating them is another.
50MHz contacts at GM4FVM 25 July to 14 August 2018
Not so long ago the idea of working across the Atlantic on VHF was a dream for me. That a period of three weeks could contain six contacts "across the pond" on 6m would have been unthinkable not long ago. But when it happens I move on - what is next? I need another challenge. Working all those stations is a great bonus but now I am focused on maximising my DXCC count for this year!

Yes, working OY9JD and GU8FBO on 6m gave me more satisfaction than reaching the US and Puerto Rico. I have worked both Jon and Richard before on 4m and 6m, but on this occasion they provided the 2018 entries in the logbook to bring me to 65 DXCC on 6m this year.

Collecting DXCCs is a different challenge to working DX, at least until you need the last few. It is more about putting in the hours and taking the time to get things right. And you learn things like it is very difficult to work Netherlands and Wales from here on 6m.

I hope I am not becoming too blasé. Faeroes and Guernsey need to be worked, but working the Americas is very nice too.

6m moonbounce reception.
Following a tip-off from David GM4JJJ on 9 August I heard that W7GJ was being received via Earth- Moon- Earth on 6m JT65. At first I heard nothing, but once the moon elevation fell below 4 degrees I had copy ...
W7GJ heard at GM4FVM on 9 August 2018 on 6m JT65B via EME
I always thought that 6m moonbounce was confined to the realms of the "super station". I thought this because I had read it in a book. However, receiving a signal from Lance confirms that with a super station at one end it is possible. I sent a report to Lance and he sent a courteous reply. He encouraged me to call him if I see him again. I tried to hear him again the next evening but only got traces of Lance and meteor scatter traces of others working him.

I think with my station it is unlikely that I will ever make a 6m EME contact, but that is no reason for not trying. Reading how difficult it is in a book just put me off, whereas actually listening showed it is a possibility, however remote.

There is no doubt about it in my mind. Books on VHF operation for amateur concentrate on the mega-stations and the vast antenna arrays. Yep, I need those at the other end to work EME. They help with other propagation modes too. However, nothing beats just turning on and having a go, even if you only have a simple system.

70cms - it is all great
Anything worked by me on 432MHz has to be good. After all, with only a dozen or so contacts over my entire amateur career it is all new. Pretty well every contact brings a new square.

Several very helpful QSOs have convinced me that there is something for me to do on this band. GM0HBK on FT8, plus GM4JJJ and G0XVF on SSB were all good markers as to how far I would be likely to get. However there was nothing else for it but to try the RSGB UK Activity Contest on 14 August and see how it went. Before the contest I got the sequencer working - more of that in a later post.

I was really happy with the way the contest went, hearing well over 30 stations and working 10. There was lots of activity. According to reports from participants afterwards I think that conditions were just moderate. A slight lift would have dramatically improved my contact rate as I heard so many borderline stations. The last half hour was poorer for conditions but I still managed to work some stations rather closer to home during the period.

You may know that my attitude to contests is not really to engage with them. Rather like Jeremy Corbyn in Tunisia, I am taking part but not participating at the same time. I am happy to give away points, but not so committed that I cannot make tea, toast, have a Fig Roll, feed Katy the cat, stretch my legs and make a few phone calls during the session. At my level of limited participation it was GREAT FUN. I lasted for the full 2.5 hours with a good few breaks along the way.

No new DXCC to report (I missed GW and GD during the contest), but I have very quickly reached 15 squares to add to my 5 DXCC. Given that I only have 25 watts and a 12 element antenna I am really pleased with that.

And all this activity has made my map since 25 July look much more promising
432MHz contacts at GM4FVM 25 July to 14 August 2018
70cms seems like an interesting band. Where has it been all these years? I cannot blame anyone but myself. I keep saying that others should try VHF, and then I did not try UHF at 432MHz.

In Summary - what do I mean by unexpected DX?

Before the past three weeks:-
Working Sweden on 4m is not something I had expected to happen soon,
Reaching 65 DXCC on 6m in a year is not something I had expected to happen soon,
Being heard in Russia on 2m meteor scatter is not something I had expected to happen soon,
Working the Canary Islands on 2m tropo is not something I had ever expected to happen,
Hearing a US station on 6m EME is not something I had ever expected to happen,
Working 15 squares on 70 cms is not something I had expected to happen for years.

Phew! What next?

At this stage of the year I expect radio to wind down for the winter. "I expect"?

Some things are certainties. I am certainly taking "The Message" by Grand Masterflash and Furious Five as one of my eight discs to any desert island that I am sent to. And "Police and Thieves" by Junior Murvin (the long dub version please, not the rip-off recorded by The Clash). Do they have to be discs? Could I not have an MP3 version? Anyway there might be certainties with the musical choice, but on amateur radio, as in life, maybe nothing is certain.