Tuesday, 14 July 2020

Five Days of Peak Sporadic E

I am worried that this looks like boasting.

Probably, because I would be amazed by it if somebody else posted it.

I thought the last posting, with all those Japan and North America stations was fluke. But here we are again with quite a bag full of DX.

The purpose of this blog is to show what I do, with the general idea that anybody could do it. It is supposed to show what is possible. With a reasonable yagi mounted on a pole and a fair radio set, you can do amazing things thanks to propagation, other amateurs and (now) WSTJ-X. No need for a 20m tall lattice mast, a kilowatt and a mortgage.

So I claim not to be boasting. Really, I am just amazed.

My records go right back to day 1 when I got my licence (5 February 1975). However, what matters now starts from 2008 when we moved here. It took while to get the place built and a proper antenna up. Back on 18 June 2011 I worked my first trans-Atlantic station from here on the 6 metre band. That was VO1SO, worked on a Yaesu FT-897 and a two element mini-beam. On 11 July 2020 I worked VO1SO for a second time, using an Icom IC-7100 and 4 element beam. What is different is not really the equipment, it is that it took 5 years for me to work across the pond again after 18 June 2011. Even then, by 2016 I was happy with two contacts in a year. Now, as well as working VO1SO, I worked other 16 stations in North America the same day, some at twice the distance to Newfoundland.

Old hands said at the time (2011) that it would take a return to F-layer propagation and a sunspot peak to get back their fabled days of working all-day across the Atlantic on a hand-held or whatever astounding things happened when they ruled the air waves. Apparently not. All it took was WSJT and a bit of learning.

This posting was supposed to cover a week's working. In the end it is five days, during two of which I had no 6m antenna due to putting in new coax.
All QSOs at GM4FVM 9 July to 13 July 2020.
Before we get too carried away, not all of this is VHF. 4 of these 78 QSOs are on 10m, one each in Germany, Switzerland, Italy and Saint Lucia. OK, I got hooked by seeing Saint Lucia being a new country so I had a few 10m QSOs. Saint Lucia on 10m using 40 watts and a dipole in the attic. Just like me in 1976, except I never reached Saint Lucia then. It is the same dipole though. It might have moved house 8 times but that dipole is a fixture wherever I lay my hat.

Looking at the other 73 QSOs, 6m provided a regular series of openings.
50MHz QSOs at GM4FVM 9 July to 13 July 2020.
41 QSOs in 5 days, 36 squares, 13 countries. Loads of US states, plus three Canadian provinces. Best DX W3UUM in Oklahoma (EL29 at 7448km). I should have something profound to say about that, but I haven't.

I did turn the antenna towards Asia and heard Japan, South Korea and China, but I did not try to contact anyone in that direction. It was amazing to the West. I heard a lot of stations call CQ and then vanish. I developed a tactic to listen to a CQ but not calling straight away. I then set everything up, made sure I had not worked them 20 minutes ago, set up FT8 to call with a report. After that, if I hear them call CQ a second time I reply. Usually that worked for me.

Is there such a thing as one-way propagation? Can I hear some of them and yet they cannot hear me at all? Sure there is. Whatever the books say, and making allowances for the unknown noise level at the other end, you see it all the time. Here is clip from by WSTJ log, a 4m example, but you see this across all VHF bands during Sporadic E openings ...
Screen grab from GM4FVM's WSJT log on 13 July 2020.
With the signal strength swinging as it was then, a 49dB difference between reception at each end might be possible, but there were regular 20 to 30dB differences which were steady for a lot of the time. Then there was a long period when US stations were heard here but they could not hear calls from many GM stations. It cuts both ways depending on the conditions.

On the 4 metre band things were certainly good. While there was no double-hop Es, I was still very happy with the openings we did have.
70MHz QSOs at GM4FVM 9 July to 13 July 2020.
I have to face it that having been a fixture n 70MHz for many years, pretty well everybody has worked me. I know that reduces my response rate. I still enjoy meeting up with old friends. 22 QSOs with 18 squares in 6 countries - nae bad.

For all its charms, the 70MHz band is slightly downgraded here at the peak Es period to provide warning of likely Es events on 144MHz. It is a bit of a stretch. Not many 4m openings reach 2m. However, I have learned to watch the OIRT broadcast stations for a series of clues.

And so to 2m. I had been hoping for a tropo opening. There was one, on a Southerly bearing, with the best DX being to G0RQL in IO70 at 569km. That is good, but more was to come. On 13 July I had been watching things develop on 70MHz, with extremely strong signals (+31dB, see above). Broadcast stations filled the band and I thought it was likely to reach 2m.

An early sign was when I heard SP8WJW on 2m which produced a lovely map on DX Maps showing exactly where the Es ionisation was centred.
DX Maps on 13 July 2020, showing Es at the intersection of the various paths
All the signs were there at 13:30, but nothing was being received here for long enough to decode, let alone work. I knew which direction to look as 4m revealed that the ionisation was peaking to open paths towards the Eastern Baltic.

Infuriatingly the 2m FM calling frequency was filled by stations jabbering on in what I took to be Latvian. Not a common language so I am not sure (could have been Latgalian - tricky to tell apart?). They did not allow a gap between overs ending with few garbled callsigns. Typical FM stuff really. To all those good people out there who love only their FM, I say "good on you", but you are limiting your radio experience to a terrible degree ("capture effect" - FM-ers should look it up in a book).

It was not until 18:30 that I started to decode stations. Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania were all worked over a space of 30 minutes. Lithuania was a new country on 2m, Latvia and Estonia I had only ever reached before on meteor scatter, so they are now added to the "terrestrial" list.
144MHz QSOs at GM4FVM 9 July to 13 July 2020.
Four countries got away during that 144MHz opening- Russia, Belarus, Sweden and Finland. All heard and called, but none worked. The UA1 near Saint Petersburg who got away would have added Russia to that terrestrial list as I have only worked Russia on 2m by MS and EME. He heard me, I heard him, no QSO. More to do there then.

I am less bothered by Finland, Sweden and Belarus which I have worked several times before. However, that is hardly the point. New records are good, but which GM4 station turns down the chance to work Belarus on 2m? Just because I have worked them before does not really take away the joy of the band opening before me.

Kaliningrad would have been nice though. The Gods of Propagation did not even offer that one as a "one that got away".

11 QSOs on 2m, all in different squares, 5 countries, best DX ES4RM in KO49 at 1822km.

I'll take that on 2 metres anytime. Kaliningrad can wait.
So to return to my theme. On these postings I feel the need to show what is possible. It was great joy for me to see several friends of this blog working across the Atlantic on 6m and into the Baltic on 2m (that Russian was hard to reach, eh?).

I look those DX stations up in QRZ.com you know. Nosey sod, me. Some of those US stations on 6m were superstations and no mistake. To me most superstations can do 10dB better than me, but those guys....

I may return to the subject of superstations later. Well, I never stop talking about it really, do I? If I had those extra 10dB (and yes, that is what my local superstations have over me) maybe I would have worked all the possibilities I missed over the last 5 days. China, Russia, ... and what would I do then? What would I do once I had put the last piece in my radio jigsaw? Take up quilting?

Just a bit of DX, and not too much please. Leave me something to do in future.

Today (14th July) things have been pretty quiet. The Sun has thrown a bolt at us and a small aurora overnight put a stop to any Es this morning. The day is yet young though. Who knows what this evening may bring?

Small aurora! Is the Sun coming alive again? We need an F-layer opening to make 6m worth it, or so somebody told me 10 years ago.



Wednesday, 8 July 2020

It is worth bodging coax after all

Just a few days since my last post. I now have my replacement plastic block for my "Dual" antenna. Goran suggested that I contact Nevada who hold stocks of spare parts in the UK for him. Two days later and the part had arrived from Nevada at no cost to me. Pretty good service that.

I had explained last time that I had bodged the thing up again, just to keep 6m working during the peak season.

Bas, PE4BAS, commented that the path to Japan on 6m did indeed open regularly, but only for a short time.  This cheered me on, and I had an idea that I might be able to work North America again too if I found the right time. Mike, GM3PPE encouraged me too by noting my efforts to reach the USA.

So with new-found vigour, I decided to try my patched up, stuck together, lash up to see what could be done.
50MHz contacts from GM4FVM, 5 to 8 July 2020.
Bas was right. 28 QSOs, 25 squares, 10 countries and best DX was JG1TSG in QM05 at 9285km. Nine of the QSOs were to the USA and Canada, and nine more to Japan. Japan of course is a new country for me on 6m, and almost every contact there and in the US was to a new square.

Whilst the opening to North America was a longer affair, the one to Japan lasted just 11 minutes with one part-finished QSO completed an hour later. Both involved pile ups with people calling me mid QSO, and with several never completed attempts at contacts mixed in.

This result is not really my doing. I just happened to be around for the few minutes when the band opened. I was good fun though, and I claim full credit for good operating which is, of course, the key to my success. And my modesty as well.

So I have broken my duck with Japan on 6m, and I did it with a lashed together length of coax held up by tie-wraps and joined and patched along the way. The rig was the £300 second hand Icom IC-7100. Nothing but the best for me on 50MHz.

Thanks to everyone for the various messages of encouragement for this and all my other exploits.

The new coax is here now and all I need to get it installed is a spell of good weather ...


Sunday, 5 July 2020

Oh deer, the QSL card mountain, transcontinental DX and things that go clunk in the shack...

Just as I was considering putting my HF wire antenna back up, something has been tampering with the tree I used to attach it to. Also, something clearly stopped at the water feature pond for a drink and then decided to cross the pond and exit via the fake river, creating a mini-tsunami along the way. Exit many scared frogs stage left, never to return. It took much work to remove a mound of silt dislodged in the pond.

How do I make sure that this rampaging thing does not pull down my carefully arranged wires (or they will be carefully arranged, if I ever put them up)? What is it?

Enter the FVM detective agency, secret filming and ... tah dah!!! The culprit caught red handed breaking Jason Leitch's lockdown, eating my apple trees and charging about in broad daylight at 04:30 in the morning
Roe deer in GM4FVM's orchard on 3 July 2020 (not 3 June - FVM does not know what month it is)
If you are a deer stalker, click this or any other image to enlarge.

Moving on ....

When I get an envelope of incoming QSL cards it usually contains about 10. Me being mainly a VHF man usually keeps the numbers down. Also, I do not initiate sending any, so none are replies to mine. I only send my cards if requested, usually in reply, which should keep the numbers down. I do like them, but I do not collect them. eQSL is my best friend.

There must have been some hiatus in the RSGB QSL bureau system. We had a change in the local bureau sub-manager for my block of callsigns and maybe I missed that I had not received an envelope for a while. Then I got two at once, my last two he had in stock, with a note inside that the new manager had over 300g of cards for me. I sent him a "small packet" rate Jiffy bag which cost £3.10 to send back but even that was not enough and he had to use the second of my new envelopes to send a fourth package.
Time to spend an hour or two on administrative duties Jim
129 incoming QSL cards. A record. I take this seriously. I check and reply to every one. They are a diverse lot, ranging from 40m to 70cms, including 6m FT8 from USA, 2m MSK meteor scatter from Russia, 4m CW from Hungary. Eh? CW? Me? Oh yes, I remember that mode now.

Seriously, I do appreciate every one of these cards. It might take me a while to get through them. If yours is delayed, I apologise. I have a lot to catch up on. I have been busy photographing deer at half past four in the morning.

Some nice propagation on 6m recently. I like to take advantage of that opportunity about 21:30 GMT on days when 6m opens across the Atlantic when I can be fairly sure I will be heard over there. I have said before that I look for that little window when the rest of Europe has faded out, but those of us in the West - GM, GI, LA, OY etc - are the only people with a path across. Then, without so much competition, I might be heard.

On 2 July I managed to work two stations in Brazil,  PV8DX, then PV8AAS, followed by 9Z4Y, my first contact with Trinidad on 6m or any band come to that. In case anyone thinks this was well planned and executed I might point out that it was only later that I remembered that I had worked PV8DX before (though this one was a much easier contact with no doubts about completion). And then again, when I worked PV8AAS he turned out to be 3km closer to me than PV8DX (who is 7847km away from me), meaning that no DX record was going to fall that night. I might well have tried the many other Caribbean and South American stations that were available. But ... that went well by my standards ... so far.
50MHz contacts at GM4FVM on 2 July 2020 (PV8AAS covers PV8DX's contact)

But the chaos at FVM continued when I called CQ. I try to avoid calling CQ DX if I can. With only stations on the Western edge of Europe around there was not much chance of a European calling me anyway. I am never comfortable calling anything other than an open CQ. Sure sometimes if I am on 2m beaming South over the great other place which separates Scotland from Europe I might sometimes call "CQ Es", but I rarely turn away all callers.

EA7Z came back and I thought this was not the best use of my short DX window. It turned out to be for the best. Suddenly there was a loud clunk and my power meter settled back to a very low level. "Oh bother", "Jings Crivvens", "Help my Boab", I said, in Dundee fashion. Fortunately I could complete with EA7Z with the puny 5 watts at my disposal. As it was already 22:45 local I was not thinking clearly and I started changing about patch leads before abandoning for the night and thinking about garden deer instead (he arrived a few hours later).

When I finally worked it out, having changed every cable I could and tried three SWR meters and and two antenna analysers, I found that I had a tricky intermittent coax connection at the antenna end.  When there was a sufficient break in the wind I tipped the mast over and it is clear to me that I had left a bodge-up on the 6m coax for far too long. 6m is not really my favourite band, and it still has my last stretch (erm, stretches) of ancient RG213. Plus a PL-259 to N-type adapter. Plus a joint half way along. Plus a worn section of coax outer patched over with self-amalgamating tape.

Oh I hate intermittent faults. Anyway, after deciding it was not there, and then discovering it was, several times, action is called for. I am not about to waste even one N-type plug on that old RG-213. I cannot rely on that joint, or on that taped-up patch, or on that old coax. Time for new coax. I could use something thinner than the Hyperflex 10 I have been using, but I decided to replace in Hyperflex 10 anyway. In the past this policy has paid dividends because I can then change around my antennas easily. I might put my 2m or 70cms antennas on that mast, and if I do I can use the existing coax. Plus, it is good stuff anyway. So the coax is ordered and awaits a chance to change it. Meantime a new bodge has been layered on top of the old bodge and we are back on 6m again.

Just to put me in the right frame of mind, whilst I was working on the plug, I managed to break the plastic mounting on the N-type socket on the antenna. I may have been a bit abrupt when I tightened the plug and twisted it out of line.
It is only plastic ...
I took the chance to ask Goran in Serbia, who made the antenna, if I could get a spare. He replied promptly, on a Saturday evening, and I hope to fix this too at the same time as renewing the coax. It is not crucial to the functioning of the antenna so I have waterproofed it and tie-wrapped it up so I am going again.

Moral of the story. Sure, you bodged it up, but do not leave it like that until it fails.

Is it just me, or do things seem to be somewhat troublesome at the moment?

On the other hand, good old peaceful 4m seems spared from all the drama. Here is what I have done since the last report, and no loud clunks, alarmed frogs or splashes to accompany it.
70MHz contacts at GM4FVM 24 June to 4 July 2020.

 45 QSOs, 34 squares, 18 DXCC, best DX EA8JF in IL38, 3123km.

Now that is more the way I like it.

Put simply, that is what I enjoy. Using the propagation to the full to gain the maximum advantage, and maybe learn something along the way.

I hope the QSL cards for that lot arrive soon.



Tuesday, 23 June 2020

Summer peak of VHF propagation

I can see a lot of stations on 6m trying very hard to work Japan (though it seems that China or India would do). There seems to be a lot of frustration. The God of Propagation does not listen to prayers, and is playing hard to get. So far.

Me? I have not got involved in that pursuit so far. I doubt very much if I can make a QSO like that and I am not willing to devote the hours of activity necessary to find out. Anyway, it is early morning activity so that is not appealing to lazy old me.

I would have thought that working Kazakhstan on 4m would be an early morning thing until I heard somebody mention that it is more likely in the afternoon. I am not yet too old to learn so I kept a watch on the DX Maps page and when I saw that UN7MBH was active at what looked like a suitable time I gave him a try.
4m (70MHz) stations worked at GM4FVM on 5 June 2020
I worked him first on 5 June 2020 at 16:44. He is in LO51 square and the distance is 3478km (which would be a 4m record for me if I had not worked 4X1TI at 3956km on 18 May). Needless to say that is a new square.

Calling CQ AS (or whatever) repeatedly as done by the 6m DX hunters is not in my style. I prefer to hang around and work people by stealth. I like the long game. Instant gratification is not necessary here. That meant that I missed Cyprus on 4m last year, but worked it this year. And my approach has probably put off working Kazakhstan for two years, but I like it this way. Maybe if I was chasing awards or entering contests things would be different. On the other hand, maybe I work this way because I am not doing those things.

I am not the type of operator who only comes on for Tuesday and Thursday evening between 20:00 and 22:30. I am not against contests; I think that they are "a good thing". I just think that there is more to radio than just that. I hear it said that there is "no activity" outside contest hours - well my experience seems to disprove that. I know some people actually take their antennas down outside those contest hours. They do their thing and I do mine. However, I find it is true that activity is definitely low during periods I have taken my antenna down.

Likewise, I cannot imagine just coming on for the Es season, or only for 2m for meteor scatter during shower periods. I cannot see the point in limiting myself by excluding large parts of the operating year. We have all these different bands for a reason. What I do works for me.

Not content with my first Kazakhstan station on 4m, on 16 June I worked both UN7MBH and UN3M (LO61) and then went on to work UN7IZ and UN9L (MO12) plus UN3GX (MN83) on 6m for one new country and two new squares there. Things like that tend not to happen during contests on Tuesday or Thursday nights, and they were all between 14:00 and 15:00.

You do not need a very big antenna to make contacts like this. Worst report from UN was -14dB so I could have done it on a dipole, though maybe not as easily.

Looking at the map of the first contact on 5 June, we can see that I then worked YL2CA (KO06, 1478km). This was at 16:53. Apart from G1CEY, which at 108km is a bit more "run of the mill" (though still welcome), these were the only two stations I worked all day on 4m. Thus you can see a distinct shape of one hop propagation to YL2CA and two hop to UN7MBH. Often there is so much activity that the pattern is lost amongst other QSOs.

The distances do not quite match 1478 and 3478, but the QSOs were nine minutes apart so propagation may have shifted slightly. I would not expect the distances to be exactly 50% and 100% anyway, as even with the low height of Es propagation and the limited area of ionisation effective at 70MHz, there will be some area of land half way between the maximum which will be "illuminated" by my signal even during a chordal hop. Although we represent radio signals by straight thin lines, radio energy spreads out into space and would be better represented by a cone. 

There are a lot of variables here, so it is good to see the pattern so clearly. The map projection means that the paths will not be shown as straight lines. This is because the Earth is curved but the map is flat. Despite this we can use the maps as a guide to propagation prediction and I may write something about this later. Also, the area covered at the end of the first hop is generally unknown to us, and may be in the sea or somewhere where there are no amateur activity, so we do not always see it. 

Then again, the signal may not actually touch down at all. For best DX there is no "reflection" of the signal off the ground at the mid point. The usual drawing we see in text books of two hop propagation is misleading. All the best DX paths are what is sometimes called "chordal hop" where the mid point may pass quite high over the ground, though for a near-maximum path length such as this one it will be quite low. The conical nature of propagation into free space will tend to bring the signal to ground at mid point, but the idea of it "bouncing" off the Earth to produce great DX, as we read in books, is fanciful. Sure it happens, but you don't work very far using it.

The remarkable thing about double hop Es, or even more amazing for multi-hop Es with more than two hops, is that it is possible at all. It becomes a big advantage that our signals spread out into free space in a conical fashion. The narrow straight lines we see in the books would never make it. The inverse square law makes it weak, but also makes it possible. As the frequency goes up, the ionised area we can hit gets smaller. Getting two roughly in a line is very difficult. When I studied for my licence it was thought to be impossible. I would like to say that we were taught that even single hop Es was possible, but they did not think Es was worth mentioning. Once I was licensed I looked it up and this revealed only single hop Es was covered by the books. 

Those guys spending hours calling CQ AS on 6m are proof of how hard multihop Es really is, but it is possible.

I write this two days after the Summer solstice. "The nights are drawing in". The next two weeks or so tend to produce the best of Summer Es. Whilst no doubt there will still be some Summer Es in September, these are the days to capitalise on it at its best.


Tuesday, 2 June 2020

Four days of Sporadic E, and why a superstation would not help me (much).

Four days of Sporadic E.

Not Four Days of Dunkirk, which is a cycle race, nor Four Days of Ghent, which was an important battle in Flanders in 1789.

Obviously Sporadic E is something you cannot count on. If you are a 10 metre band enthusiast you might get it four days in a row, mind you not necessarily all day. On 6m you might get parts of four days too, perhaps at the peak of activity during the two weeks around the Solstice at the end of June. On 4m four days in a row would be very unusual, and the most days in a row I have experienced on 2m is one.

Yes, maybe I have led a sheltered life, but my experience is for one day of Sporadic E on 2m, followed by a week or two of none. On average I might find two days of 2m Es here all season, with hopes for three days in the year. I might miss it too because "a day" of Sporadic E on 2m here might be three stations worked in 15 minutes and then curtains.

So let us consider (1) what happened (2) what it was like and (3) why I am not going to do anything to be ready when it happens again.

1 What happened.
There was a series of Es openings on 2m between 29 May and 1 June 2020 days. Not only was this unusual, the results on 4m were excellent too, and I could not find enough time to even think about going on 6m or 10m.
144MHz contacts at GM4FVM 29 May to 1 June 2020
Click to enlarge as usual.

This does not look like a 2m map, and nor do the statistics sound like 144MHz, in just short of 4 days operating (my logging mistake included 1 tropo contact from the evening before) resulted in 37 QSOs into 30 squares in 12 countries.  That is a very good month for 2m, in fact 12 countries is more like what I might do in a year. ODX was UR5FLN at 2482km.

On 70MHz I managed this:-
70MHz contacts at GM4FVM 29 May to 1 June 2020
I have left the callsigns off because they just overlap so much you cannot read them. 62 QSOs into 51 squares and 23 countries. ODX was EA8DBM at 3278km. There were lots of new squares worked, such a  new one in Iceland, a hard to get one in Poland and one in Germany which has been outstanding for years (even though it is the closest one). I now only need one square in Germany and two in Poland. I will soon need to find something else to occupy me.

I even managed to work a square in Italy on 4m, which is odd because as far as I know Italian stations are not currently on 70MHz. The rules in Italy are not my area of expertise but I am pretty sure that one was not quite fully licensed. I have twelve squares in Italy from the previous operations there so let us see.

In truth I could have claimed even more. I think I worked the Balearic Islands on 2m but I did not see the confirmation and events moved on quickly. Contacts like that go down in my log as doubtful, though they are complete from my end. By doubtful I mean that they do not count as contacts at all unless I get confirmation from the other station that they view them as complete too. Even though 73 is not part of the contact, despite what some over-zealous individuals might have you believe, if I send RRR but do not receive 73 I do not claim it. That is my choice, and everybody can do whatever they like in this regard. I do not make the rules for what constitutes a contact, mostly because there are no rules. There might be if I applied for an award or entered a contest, but I don't do that. So my rules rule.

2) What was it like?

Does 2m open up and look like 20m? Yes but only briefly.
WSJT-X screen at GM4FVM 31 May 2020

I had to make a quick decision. Do I want to work Romania, Ukraine or Moldova on 2m? All of them, but I have to decide. I have worked Ukraine before, but what chance do I really have with Moldova? Try them all of course, but which one will still be there after I work the first one?

With Es on 2m you often get barely enough time to complete the contact. In fact, most of the time you do not complete and you are left high and dry. So you have to cut every corner and make some guesses, such as if the band is likely to open in a certain direction at a certain time. DX Maps certainly seems to help with the Es MUF chart:-
DX Maps Maximum Uusable Frequency chart on 31 May 2020
I sat and peered at that map as it was updated, looking at where is green, where yellow and where red, planning and plotting. Did it help? Well it kept me occupied.

I watched 6m, looking for clues as to where I might work on the higher bands. This helps distract me. In the past I looked at 10m for clues for 6m, this time it was looking at 6m for clues for 4m, and 4m for clues for 2m. No time for working anyone on 10m, and no time for anyone on 6m either. I did go down for a scrappy contact into USA on 6m, but it did not really work for me. Too stable to be fun really.

So it really comes down to me taking hunches, and regarding the ones that pay off as signs of my remarkable wisdom and operating ability.

What was surprising was the repeated way this happened, day after day.

As for the ones that do not come off, well I know that another chance is not likely to come along again soon. When I noticed on the 24 hour PSK Reporter chart that I had been seen in Portugal on 2m (which would have been a new country if I had heard a call) I reckoned that it would be next year at least before the chance would arise again.
24 hour PSK Reporter summary of GM4FVM FT8 reports on 144MHz on 31 May 2020

Next day I worked two stations in Portugal. The chances of that happening on 2m under normal Sporadic E conditions must be tiny. These four days were extraordinary.

It was nice to work Azores on 4m after 7 years. It was nice to get an opening into France on 2m when I worked three new squares around Lyon and Grenoble in the space of a few minutes, whereupon they were gone. It might be years, or never, before I will hear those squares again.

Of course, I have no real idea when conditions are going to help me. I spent ages trying to work a station in Greece on 4m which would have given me a new square. I watched when he was on and tried to point in the right direction when I could. It never happened of course. I ended up working another new station in Greece with a different new square. That means the first one is still up for grabs, and I still have no clue how to do it.

3) What am I going to do to be ready for when it happens again?

Like many amateurs I am tempted to think that my input on all this is crucial and if I was only better equipped and better prepared it would all go better the next time. What a silly idea, Jim. You will never be ready for something like that, if it ever happens again, which it might not.

Were conditions really so different, or was it just normal conditions and lots of amateurs stuck at home due to lockdown? Do openings like that happen but just most times there are not droves of hams sitting at home wishing for something to turn up? We shall never know. I am not going to lose much sleep over it.

What could I do anyway? Sure I got things wrong and I could have worked more stations if I had been a better operator. I kept pressing the wrong button, sending CQ when I should have been calling a specific station, or sending my locator rather than a report when short of time. Those things I could improve. But I can never be 100% perfect (yes, I wrote that) and nor would that change conditions if it were ever to happen.

And I certainly will not be improving my station just in case. When I moved here 12 years ago I got going with an FT-897 and a 4 element 2m yagi. I now reckon I have made at least 10dB improvement over that - 6dB to 200 watts, 1dB in the coax, 4dB in the antenna. Receive performance is also better thanks to the masthead preamp, plus the coax and antenna gain on receive too.

Some of the superstations round me have another 10dB more than me, and some more than that. I could easily get 4dB more with a linear, another 1dB in the coax and 6dB or more with antennas. Plus more, and more height gain with a free standing 20m mast ... but no.

Those superstations are quite entitled to do what they want, and when the going gets tough they will beat me every time. However, I am quite content with what I did and that is that.

For sure, for weak signal work another 10dB would be handy - certainly for moonbounce. But most Es is not weak signal work. All more power will do is perhaps extend the time I have to complete an Es contact and maybe secure a few more contacts. However the cost of the next 10dB is vastly more than the cost of the first 10dB, and the gain in results is likely to be much less. I feel my station is in balance, and to raise the power further without improving the receive side will only work when contacting other more powerful stations. So I am not about to do it.

Maybe with weak signal work on 70cms or 23 cms I could do with making improvements, but then Es is not really an issue up there.

What we had here was nature treating us to a wonderful display. Such things only come around from time to time. I am not about to try to recreate a fleeting event by changing everything. I like nature to have hand it things, even if they are hectic while they are underway.

For the future I will take my chance.

Just calling CQ and taking a chance is a wonderful thing. When it pays off it is great fun, and I learn a lot about radio by doing it.

I saw some familiar callsigns and I hope you had a good time too.

To those of you who missed it, or who were outside the area it covered, you have my sympathy.

Better luck next time (but I suggest that you don't buy a 20m tower just in case).




Wednesday, 27 May 2020

PSK Reporter - a very useful tool

If you are a user of many data modes, PSK Reporter has the ability to be a big help. Like most things, it is not perfect but it does offer a lot of information.

As the name suggests, PSK reporter originates from the days when PSK was the main data mode in use. Nowadays it also works directly with most "sound card" modes such as PSK itself, FT8, JT65, JT9, MSK144, etc. Obviously it does not work for modes such as JT6M or FSK144 which do not have sufficiently strong error correction to produce reliable decodes (which is also why I do not use those modes).

PSK Reporter also aggregates data from other sources, in addition to what it gathers itself. So although most of the info comes direct over the internet from stations using WSJT or MSHV software, and to a lesser extent fldigi and DM780, it also receives data from sources such as CB-reporter, various CW skimmers, and many other places. So it does sometimes record CW and SSB contacts too, but rarely in my experience.
PSK reporter for 144MHz centred on Europe on 27 May 2020
I have shown the map above, but there is a very handy page of statistics too. For example, it lists who posts most reports ... surprisingly, not me by a long way ... and which modes are in use as reported via their sources ...
Random shot from PSK reporter statistics showing the modes received
It seems that PSK reporter developed out of the page of statistics, but I find the map very useful and this is where I will be concentrating my efforts today. A while back somebody asked me to explain on this blog how it works. I cannot claim to be an expert but here goes.

PSK reporter is a voluntary effort and its users are hugely grateful to Philip Gladstone for keeping it running. Of course, it has its glitches and failures, but in general it is wonderfully reliable.

There is a similar though separate effort for the WSPR mode, wsprnet.org.

So every time you use WSJT software, or MSHV or many others, they communicate via the internet with PSK reporter. You can turn it off, so you will not send any reports, but pretty well everybody else will have it turned on, so basically turning it off at one point is a waste of time. There are millions of reports in a day, tens of thousands an hour - recording and processing all this is a remarkable achievement for a volunteer effort.

In case you think that displaying all this information is some infringement of your liberty, well, if you press a transmit button then you have already made yourself pretty visible. The data from others is already out there because it is coming from people who can hear you on the radio. If you want to stay in hiding I suggest you take up some other hobby. Plus, you are probably already sending the data reports yourself.

From my point of view I set PSK reporter four tasks.

If you transmit, dozens of stations will report you. That is, unless you signal is bad, or you have done something silly, and that is the first task of PSK Reporter. So, first task, it shows IF you are getting your signal out. The second task is showing WHERE you are getting your signal out to. This is easy to appreciate thanks to the map. Even if nobody replies you can use PSK Reporter to see whereabouts you are being heard.

Third task is to show WHO heard you, at the level of a specific station. I use the map for situations where I am calling CQ and I see someone in, say Greece indicating that they heard me. Perhaps I see no reply, which may be because I am not beaming directly at them and signals just hit a peak when he heard me. So I can turn my beam directly towards Greece. This often works. It is quite common for a DX station to get just one decode from me when I am beaming somewhere else, but I need to beam directly to make a QSO.

Then the fourth task is recording and publishing WHO I HEARD. This does not seem quite so important but of course it is crucial if other people are to turn their beams towards me. Perhaps they do not have a beam but were about to go QRT because they were not getting anywhere. Now they can see that I am hearing them, so there is scope to get through.  They need to know there is a path open just as much as I do.

Short wave listeners play an important part in our hobby and PSK Reporter offers them a chance to show everyone who they are hearing. This is often very valuable information. There is no restriction on who can report to PSK Reporter so many SWLs take part. Rather than taking ages to send a QSL card, they can use PSK Reporter to give their helpful information straight away.

So what information is available on PSK Reporter? You can see directly by putting your mouse over the pin in the map (pins are explained later) what the details are. "Here is one I made earlier" ...
Screenshot from PSK Reporter of a reception report.
This is the type of info everybody gets to see on PSK Reporter when you are reported as having been heard. It gives my distance, locator and bearing from the point of view of the receiving station, in this case G8ECI. It also gives the information from WSJT or MSHV or whatever he is using. That includes my locator, frequency down to a hertz (if his frequency is correct), mode, band, and signal strength received.
This information is freely available to anybody with an internet browser. The other day somebody on KST chat room decided to abuse me about something he thought I said about shielding information on KST. It is a fact that the information he seeks to shield on KST is available for anybody too see via PSK Reporter (see image above). Repeating it on KST does not make much difference. I did not say anyone should or should not shield information on KST but despite this he decided I had some view on this and lambasted me anyway. Insulting me is not the best way to get on my side.
I have no need to give reception data on KST because it is all on PSK Reporter all the time. Sure, showing on KST that I am receiving a particular station is a good thing, but I do not feel any need to put any more data on there than a callsign. It is all published on PSK Reporter for anyone in the world to see. I never have and I never will put details on KST simply because there is no point repeating something that is published somewhere else. It seems strange to me that somebody thinks I might. And he got very steamed up about the idea that I might do something which is pointless. Anyway, a bit more aversion therapy from KST for me.

Returning more directly to PSK Reporter. There is also sending information associated with the pin (some call it a "flag" though it is clearly a pin) on the PSK Reporter map. This information will not appear if you turn PSK Reporter off at your end, but the more detailed data will appear from the other end anyway if they are on. I managed to accidentally report myself last night ...

As you can see it is possible to post yourself, but you have to try pretty hard to do it. Unless you have multiple radios with multiple sets of software running at the same radio you are unlikely to find that an issue. My secret is out. I was running five sets of software and four radios, but they are not usually on the same band. Honestly. But in reality this was not a false report, I did indeed receive my own signal, albeit over a very short distance.

As I have chosen to enter this information, it shows my antenna details. In my case I have also entered into WSJT, for example, my 28 element yagi for 23 cms. This will show up on the appropriate band. Some people either enter nothing, or we get a default "dipole" or we see that they have entered the wrong information for the band in question. Some people put their power and equipment details in the antenna field too.

When people enter the wrong information it can produce interesting results. For example, get your locator wrong and you may appear to be in the North Sea, maybe in the German Bight just off Heligoland. Or anywhere else for that matter. Change frequency in WSJT at the wrong moment and you may send reports for the wrong band. Those errors can be quite spectacular when someone comes up from 80m to 70cms and plasters their 80m contacts all over the 70cm map. The issue here is not PSK Reporter's fault but those of the operators. In WSJT you can stop this happening by having a different configuration for each band, or just press "Stop" between bands. Yes, I have done these things myself. I was that soldier.

So having looked at the information which thousands of computers are sending to PSK Reporter, 5218 active reporters sending 200 reports a second as I speak, we are getting near discussing the map. But even above the level of the PSK Reporter map, the PSK Reporter data is aggregated further to the DX Cluster. So when I look at DX Maps I can choose an option to have the PSK Reporter information added to that picture. We might think of DX Maps as something which carries QSO reports, but it can also show real time reception reports directly from software, if you select the PSK Reporter option. PSK Reporter is an the heart of lots of these systems.

Now much as I love the PSK Reporter map, on first acquaintance it looks bewildering. I think you need to tame it by choosing the options you need, bookmarking that page on your computer, and then using your own set up from the bookmark.

The opening page comes up with an array of colours, thousands of contacts in different colours on different bands, and a generally puzzling tub full of information. At the top of the map page here https://www.pskreporter.info/pskmap.html you will find a row of drop down boxes and one text field. To make some sense of it all, I would suggest that you enter On [pick a specific band band], show [signals] [sent/received by] [anyone] [leave this field blank] using [all modes] over the last [15 minutes]. Press the "Go!" button. That should calm things down, though on some bands it will wipe everything off! So you can work from there by selecting what interests you. Once you have the page that suits you can use the bookmark to come back to there as a starting point.

If you follow multiple bands you can open a new tab in your browser with another instance of PSK Reporter in that tab set to the other band. It needs you to press "Go!" every time you open it the first time, but after that each page updates automatically, Flicking between the tabs changes the band, but you will need a decent video card as these maps are quite demanding on computing power. As you learn about the different tabs your use of the thing may change.

If you enter a callsign into the text box which I suggested you should leave blank at the start, the field before automatically changes from "anyone" to the "the callsign". If you press "Go!" only contacts with that station will appear, but it can look a bit confusing as other stations pins still show up but are greyed out. You can put your own callsign in to see who is hearing you (select "rcvd by" in place of "sent/rcvd by). Or you might want to see where on the map people are located who are calling you, in which case you would enter "rcvd by" and your own callsign.

Or you can just nosey about seeing how your competitors are doing. Competitors? This is a scientific hobby Jim, we are not competitors but fellow researchers.

Returning from "the callsign" to "anyone" takes the specific callsign out of the callsign box and if you press "Go!" the screen returns to a general map of activity on your chosen band. You can look to see what you have heard on any band, in which case you use the "all bands" option. VLF bands are bundled together, and then all widely-used amateur bands are covered up to 23cms, including also 11 metres.
11m data contacts (mostly ROS or JS8Call) on 27 May 2020.
There are ways to get the feel for the enormous volume of data being updated every minute or less. If you click "display all reports" you get an enormous table of results. Clicking "show all bands" gets you to that rather bewildering opening map with hundreds of pins all over the map. Be ready with your bookmark because the browser's back button takes you right out of the PSK Reporter (or mine does anyway). This large scale information is of course valid and correct. It is just at the scale of a continent and over the entire spectrum. I feel that PSK Reporter can be a bit overpowering to start with, but it is very good once you learn how not to get overwhelmed.
12 hours all band monitors with map centred on Europe on 27 May 2020
At the other end of this scale, with 411 monitors on 2m alone, there is much to be seen by looking at the whole world view. Not so many people on at night of course, but you quickly see that most activity is in Europe, followed by the US, Japan and South America. Lots of areas with low populations such as in Africa and most of Asia have almost no activity. Frankly, the same it true on most bands. You begin to see why on some bands nobody replies from some places - there isn't anybody there.
15 minutes of 144 MHz with map centred on the world view on 27 May 2020

You can enlarge or reduce the map using the + and - buttons or the scroll wheel on your mouse (I find using the mouse for this makes me dizzy). It is a trade-off between more detail and less coverage. On some bands it is hard to get the optimum balance.

The map pins are different colours on different bands. If you are listening on more than one band at once, such as using an SDR or several radios, your pin will be multi-coloured. As you send in more reports for any period, your pin gets more or fewer segments depending on how many bands are receiving in any period. In my case this can be 4 different colours.

Someone asked me why PSK Reporter does not find beacons, especially data beacons. I have no idea. Perhaps it was decided that they would clutter everything up so they were excluded, but I do not know how or why. There are online discussions (link at the bottom of the PSK Reporter page) and I suppose I could find the answer there. I am not saying I couldn't be bothered to look it up - but then I do not have to say everything I think. The person who asked me should consider the possibility of looking the answer up without assistance from me. I was never a details person, and I am not starting on details at this point in my life.

PSK Reporter is a very useful tool. Sure, it has its issues, just like anything else. I think that if you can find out how to use it best for you it can be a useful tool. I have certainly got more contacts by using it. There is nothing in my book like seeing that somebody is hearing you from an unexpected direction. I still use DX Maps, where the sporadic E propagation map is superb. And PSK Reporter is not good for SSB and CW contacts, as during an aurora for example, or for most contests. I generally have them both DX Map and PSK Reporter open together.

Good luck with it anyway, and thanks once again to Philip Gladstone.



Tuesday, 19 May 2020

IC-9700 preamplifier power (again) and Asian Es at last.

Firstly, I hope this is the last posting on the topic of the DC power provided by the Icom Ic-9700 over the coax for preamps and other in-line items. AI4Y has produced this excellent video clip ...


This does not deal with the issue of using TX Delay to add sequencing to the timing, as M1BTR pointed out in  my last posting. AI4Y says that his SWR does not show a spike using his SSB preamps, and so he seems safe. I found the same thing, and I use a mix of SSB and SHF made preamps. However, to be safe, and when using other preamps, I would suggest adding some delay via the TX Delay control. I also have some added delay selected in the WSJT-X software which I often use.
I have mentioned that I am working from home. I have not had a "full-time" job since the last century, having been self employed with occasional part-time work since then. This suits me fine. The problem with the present project is that it is too big for my "office", which also contains the shack, so I have to set the work station up in the dining room in the East Wing of FVM Towers.

Mrs FVM is given to have a "proper" dining experience on a Sunday evening, I have to clear everything of a work nature away every Sunday afternoon. This week dinner was trout. As we live in an area associated with wonderful fishing rivers, it is only right we should enjoy some fine fish. And Sunday night's trout did indeed come from the banks of the River Tweed. From Berwick upon Tweed in fact. To be precise, from Aldi, in Berwick upon Tweed.

Faced with setting everything up again on Monday morning I decided to exercise my control as my own boss, and give myself the morning off. As my employer I deemed this to be expedient for me, my employee. Why rush to get everything set up on Monday morning?

So I used my time on the radio instead. This was partly down to a hunch that we might be due some Sporadic E. It turned out to be a very productive morning.

On 6 metres there was an opening into Japan and I heard several Japanese stations but as usual only once. After that there was an agreeable opening into Asia and I worked two new countries, A9 and 7Z.
50MHz FT8 stations worked at GM4FVM on 18 May 2020
 As usual click to enlarge if necessary. I worked 13 stations in 7 countries.

This was not easy as there was a considerable pile up on 7Z1SJ. I knew this would have been a new country for me, but pile ups are not to my liking so I went off and found A92GE instead. As it turned out David, A92GE, is further away anyway, so that made the best DX of the day 5326km. Not bad to the East. After quite a few attempts I did eventually work 7Z1SJ too.

All of this was on 50.323, as that is the frequency supposedly set aside for European stations to work outside their own continent. I had moved from 50.313 to find the stations from Japan, so I was already on 323 as all this emerged. There were, of course, European stations working other European stations on 323. It is easy to make a mistake. Then again this idea of reserving a set frequency for DX working is good practice not the law. Of course, all the European stations I worked were all contacted on 50.313.

I kept an eye on the 6 metre band but my main focus was on 4 metres. Last year I remarked on this blog how irritating it was that I had failed to work a station Cyprus run by Norman, 5B4AIE, on 4m. This irked me because we both heard each other, and because not only would it be a new country but a new continent (Asia) on that band. I was rather hoping for another chance of working Norman. As it happened it turned out differently ...
70MHz FT8 stations worked at GM4FVM on 18 May 2020.

My first 4m contact into Asia turned out to be with Efi, 4X1TI. I am not complaining. Norman is 3514km from here, whereas Efi is 3958km away. That is a new personal DX record for 70MHz for me. And then, better than that, I worked Norman too, to make it both countries. Norman often uses the callsign 5B4AIF for his "club" station, and this time he had 5B60AIF. Sounds like an informal type of club.

I was pretty chuffed to work 4X1TI as it has taken me years to repeat being heard in 4X on 70MHz.
70MHz at GM4FVM on 18 May 2020
So that is it, at 11:41 on 18 May 2020 I worked my third continent on 70MHz. That has only taken 43 years, 1 month 6 days and a few hours since my first continent on that band (Europe). Only 9 years and eleven months to the day since the second continent (Africa). Not that these things matter to me, you understand.

Worked All Continents on 4m? How long do I need for that?

Those other 4m contacts are pretty good too. Many of them are over 1500km and OH7RJ very nearly 2000km.In total 21 QSOs in 3 hours 32 minutes, 18 squares, and 9 DXCC. Oh, and two continents, one of which was new - did I mention that?

Now, I need to get my work gear out again and start proper activity.

The trout was great by the way. We must fish in the Aldi pool by the Tweed more often. They do not help you pack your bag at the check-out though.