Tuesday, 27 December 2016

Seasonal Sporadic E

What  I like about operating on VHF is the opportunities it brings for sudden long distance contacts.

The down side of this is that you need to sit around for long periods in between bursts of activity.

This is especially true for what is sometimes called "Christmas Es". I fact it is more like "late December and early January Es", but that does not trip off the tongue so easily.

In fact it is very unpredictable, may not happen at all, and if it does come, it can arrive any time between the beginning of December and mid January. It is usually weak, short lived, but for those reasons, great fun if you happen to find it.

This year there was a sudden opening on "Boxing Day", known in many other places as St Stephen's Day, i.e. 26 December. This is close enough to Christmas to make the title just about accurate.

Most of us had been watching for a while, more in hope than expectation. In my case this involves the usual WSPR study of the 10 metre band. This is where Es springs from for me. If there is Es on 10m I look at 6m, if it is there is Es on 6m I look at 4m, and if it is on 4m I look at 2m, with each step getting less and less likely, but better in outcome if it does occur.

So on 26 December once 10m WSPR started to get very busy into the "near Continent", mostly PAs and DLs to start with, I moved up to 6m JT65.
10m WSPR activity from GM4FVM on 26/12/16. The more distant stations came at the end of the event.

6m JT65 was proving hopeless, with no takers at all. Then I noticed that Gianfranco, IU1DZZ, had posted on the WSPR.net site that 6m was open at his end. GF's posting got me thinking. Perhaps WSPR would work better than JT65 (which would happen if the signals were weak but steady). So I switched to 6m WSPR to find out.
6m WSPR activity from GM4FVM on 26/12/16.

As it became clear that 6m WSPR was well established I turned again to 6m JT65, and eventually to 4m SSB too.
4m and 6m log entry, see map below.
I was a bit surprised that this unseasonal Es lifted the MUF as high as 70MHz.

So this was a classic late Es opening. The good conditions lasted from 11:20 to 15:14 on 10m (around 165 spots), 12:00 to 13:20 on 6m (10 spots and 5 QSOs), and 12:57 to 13:29 on 4m (2 QSOs).
6m JT65 and 4m SSB activity from GM4FVM on 26/12/16
Hardly much to get excited about really, in the sense that nothing new was worked and these events do happen from time to time. But I really enjoyed the opening.

What does excite me is the unexpected nature of it all. Yes, I do get steamed up about these things.

4m was, as so often, very interesting. I worked 9A1Z fairly easily, though strong winds meant that my mast was lowered. Then I could hear GM4JJJ working some stations on CW, including what sounded like an OM or OK station, but I could not hear the other station at all. I called CQ and then, suddenly, SP6RLA popped up, worked me 5/9, and vanished. The event was over on 4m.

Es openings are always best just before they end. To work a station like SP6RLA (JO81, 1368km) out of the blue like that is typical. It combines the joy and pain of VHF working perfectly. I had thought that the 4m opening was over (wrong), but I was still calling CQ just in case. He was very strong. I heard no other SP stations, though I know other stations around me were working other stations in SP. I did not hear him working anyone else.

At times it feels as if VHF propagation provides a unique pipeline between me and the other station. It is so selective, especially as you move up the bands. By the time you reach 2 metres, where Es is fairly rare, you might just hear one station but none of the ones around that station, and nobody but you can hear him. Then the propagation moves on, and you might, or might not, hear another one.

It is this "either you work it right now, or it is gone" aspect of VHF which fascinates me. I suppose 20 metres must have similar attractions but I cannot see them.

So here I am on 27 December, with WSPR again running on 10m. Nothing is happening. In my experience of this type of Es (well, all Es really) the same thing does not often happen on successive days. But it might. You never know.

Why is there often Es activity in the depths of Winter, near the Winter Solstice? I do not know. Could it be ionisation from the Southern Hemisphere spilling over? I have never seen a satisfactory explanation.

Who cares about the explanation, it is fun to work.




Friday, 23 December 2016

WSJT-X 1.7.0

Thanks to many of you who notified me that WSJT-X 1.7.0 has now been officially launched on the WSJT website here.

This brings to an end the testing phase, when the trail versions were only available on Sourceforge.

Time to see what WSJT-X can do. I will report here on some issues I have noted so far. Some aspects like QRA64, which is an experimental mode for Earth-Moon-Earth communications, have not been tried by me yet so I will have to leave them for later.

1) Configurations
As I use different rigs for different purposes, I find this setting very useful. I have stored configurations for HF (FT450), 50MHz (IC7100), 70MHz (IC7300) and 144MHz (IC7100). Thus I can simply select the configuration and WSJT selects the rig control, sets the frequency and connects to the correct audio stream.

To make some sense of this from a ergonomic angle, I keep the HF activity to the top left of the PC display screen, 50 and 144MHz to the bottom left and 70MHz to the top right (the logbook is on the bottom right and the rotator control centre top). If I do not do this I get mightily confused (and the rigs are arranged in similar fashion on the bench).

WSJT-X 1.7.0 has a built-in solution for this, as not only does selecting the right configuration select the rig and its frequency, it also places the display in the correct part of the screen depending on which configuration I select. Now that is definitely clever. Add to that the fact that it can store the power levels by band and so forth, and that becomes a very powerful rig control tool.

2) PSK Reporter
PSK Reporter has been an option on WSJT-X as far back as v1.3.0 (and possibly further back). Whereas WSPR has its own dedicated reporting system in the excellent site WSPR.net, the other modes do not have anything similar which would allow simple "reverse beacon" operations. You can set this option and then you have to make sense of PSK Reporter, which is a bit clunky in operation.  It shows stations using various modes, including of course PSK. You can establish which mode is in use by reading the roll-over text boxes of the stations on the map.

This allows you to call CQ and then check PSK Reporter to see who has heard you. "But don't stations who hear your CQ reply to you?" I hear you say. Not likely, in my experience. I now know that I am heard by three or four times the number of stations who call me back.

And, yes of course, I pay them the same compliment by ignoring them too.

For several versions of WSJT-X we have had WSPR included.
WSPR is a low power beacon mode. In its WSJT-X guise the waterfall is much wider than the 200hz band in which WSPR stations live, so you can easily see stations who happen to be slightly mistuned.
The only possible issue I have with this version of WSPR is that the power slider allows you to carry over your power settings from other modes. You can opt to choose to carry over the settings per band, but not per mode.

WSPR is typically run using powers of less than 5 watts, often very much less than 5 watts. So a preset calibrated power attenuator for WSPR like that one that existed in WSPR 2.21 etc would be very useful, for me anyway.

This is not a big problem so long as you remember to check it, and WSPR operators are usually very careful about setting their power output carefully.

4) JT9 and JT65
As with previous versions of WSJT-X since around v.1.5.0, it is possible to run both JT9 and JT65 simultaneously, on receive at least. You have to choose which one your transmit on. This is especially useful with SDRs which allow for wide rx filter settings. The JT9 frequencies tend to be 2kHz above the JT65 ones, so with a (say) 4kHz filter you can listen to both.
You can see here that the higher rx reports, which were for JT65 stations, have a # mark, whereas the later JT9 ones are marked with a @. You need not worry too much, as if you want to reply to any of them, you just click on the station, and WSJT selects tx on either JT9 or JT65 as appropriate, moves to the correct frequency on the waterfall, inserts the callsign into the generated messages, and puts the signal report in automatically too.

If you did click on the image above to look more closely, you will see that I worked DL1FAM at a signal strength of -25dB. Now this is a figure taken against a reference figure for noise in a standard receiver using an SSB filter and it can be taken with a pinch of salt. Yes, the signal was weak, but not 25dB below my noise floor. I could also hear stations on the speaker at -10dB, but I could not hear that station at -25dB. So it was certainly weak. JT9 gives about a 2dB improvement over JT65. I would say that JT65 is a bit better than a good morse operator. So -25dB was certainly a weak signal. Not perfectly received though, as I missed one rx segment, but then QSB is always with us.

Far and away the majority of my 6m QSOs are made using JT9 or JT65, and pretty well all of my HF ones. JT65 was originally designed for use on Earth-Moon-Earth paths, but it is now firmly rooted on the HF and VHF bands for F and e-layer communication as well.

5) MSK144
This new mode offers advantages over JT6M and FSK. These include faster data rates and much better error correction. The general convention to use 15 second tx/rx segments does fox me a bit at times, but I am getting used to it. Unlike the previous modes in use, MSK144 seems at home on both the longer meteor bursts of 6m and the shorter ones on 2m.

I have reported before how I stupidly managed to get the configuration wrong somewhere along the line of setting up. I am now using RX 1500hz, F Tol 100, T/R 15 seconds. I have decode set to "deep". Deep will use more processor power than fast or normal.
The % figure in the "receiving" box indicates processor power used.

If you tick "Auto Seq" you allow the suite to complete your QSO once you initiate a contact. It will incorporate the reports and progress down through the QSO format as it receives the appropriate replies. In the absence of replies it just sends the same message (but updates the reports!). Note that the "TX Watchdog" (also a carry-over from previous versions) will eventually stop you transmitting if you fall asleep while this is working automatically.

This works well enough, save for a few niggles. If you receive more calls from a station before their report arrives, the suite keeps updating your report based on the last signal received. I have once sent five different reports before I received mine. Let us hope that the other station did not get confused. Also, some stations have sent me out-of-sequence messages, such as sending their first report as, say R-02 rather than -02, which sets the Auto Seq off course. But provided you stay in control this setting has the advantage of speeding up contacts and reducing use of the spectrum It certainly helps you get the best out of a long meteor burst.

The automatic setting for split frequency (entering a working frequency while calling CQ on a common frequency), is something I have not yet got working with the IC-7100. Nor have I used the "sh" box for shorthand messages, which I feel are not necessary for my type of operation.

6) Summary
WSJT-X 1.7.0 is another step forward.

Much has been said about MSK144, a new mode which seems by all accounts to render existing meteor scatter modes outdated. Apart from the new modes, this marks another step to incorporating all the "JT" modes into the WSJT-X wrapper. For me for instance, the "configurations" setting is a real plus. In the past people struggled to get on the air with JT6M or FSK441 using WSJT9 or 10, which did not interface well with modern rigs. Now they can use MSK144 with WSJT-X, and benefit from CAT control.

The WSJT-X suite brings us to another milestone  - the multi-band suite. Now, in theory anyway, you only need one suite to work HF, Es, E-M-E, meteor scatter, using modes such as JT9, JT65, QRA64 and MSK144. You can switch between rigs using configurations, use certain modes on certain bands or with certain rigs, and generally never actually touch a VFO or a mode control.

Ham Radio Deluxe and FLdigi may have been good HF suites, but WSJT-X is becoming spectrum-wide.

I have said it before, but it deserves saying again. If you can set up your rig audio and CAT as for, say Ham Radio Deluxe or any similar data mode, you have got exactly the right setup to run modes covering many aspects of radio activity today. The days of having several different pieces of software to run WSPR, HF data modes and meteor scatter are long gone.

Unless of course you are mad enough to run all your rigs simultaneously as I do.

But them I am a bit crazy.



Monday, 19 December 2016

It's meteor scatter time ...

I have once again been distracted by other things. Things like crimping and soldering fork connectors onto DC leads, and fixing the TV rotator.

Actually, there wasn't much to do with the TV rotator. Careful jiggling around re-engaged the gears. I took it apart and it turned out to be a superior type of TV rotator, with nice metal gears and bushed bearings, though the bearing rested on nylon-type discs. Anyway, a bearing is one thing, but when it is open on one side save for a casting on the body to hold it in place, then it is going to tilt and the gears are going to separate, if the rotator has a strong sideways force.

I guess the makers of these cheap items are not too familiar with tilt-over masts. They expect the TV antenna to be dropped into the rotator from above, rather than attached with the whole thing leaning sideways, only then to be tipped upwards to the vertical. So I suppose it is hardly surprising that after I put it on the tilting mast it jammed on being turned vertical.

Anyway, it works again in that cranky half sensible way those things do. If you do not mind having a fairly inaccurate indication of direction and keep the load light (and don't tilt it) it is fine. For portable operation in some unspecified situation yet to be defined. I have only been portable twice in my career where a rotator would have been any use, so I am not sure when this is really needed. But you never know.

No, you never know. The Perseids meteor shower in August did almost nothing here, for the second year running. So I was not sure about the Geminids in December. As it turned out things went pretty well.
 GM4FVM VHF Meteor Scatter contacts by locator squares from 1 to 18/12/16 with 500km circles.

I am a regular meteor scatter operator. This means that the showers come and go while I just plod along. Other operators turn up for a day's frenzied operations on the peak night, which gives them about 5 reasonable days operation each year. Not everybody devotes the time to it that I do, which is fair enough.

So for me, given that the peak for the Geminids this year was predicted to be 13 December, I started taking an interest on 1 December. In it for the long term, I am. 10 days of white noise beckoned. Except you never know.

Here is the table of stations worked before 13 December.
As usual click to enlarge if necessary.

The red squares are new ones.

First of all it shows that there is no need to wait for the peak day to work stations.

Secondly it shows how I can be busy only working MSK144 on 4m and 6m.

Thirdly, and sadly, it shows that JT6M is still around. Stations who worked on MSK144 during the rest of the time use JT6M for the Nordic Activity Contest on 8 December. Strange.

Fourthly, I seemed to do very well at various times of the day. Certainly, contacts are likely to be weaker and take longer away from the early morning peak, but there are still lot of people around at different times.

I have tried to encourage people to use the latest modes but it seems that they are reluctant to do it. I even tried diverting people onto the bandplan frequencies. I also tried to encourage some of them to move  away from the established calling frequencies during contests. However I have decided that this is a waste of time - they seem to need to go wherever they please and my efforts were in vain. So I will have to content myself with following the crowd.

For the 13th itself I decided to try harder to make some 2m band contacts.
Most stations on 2m were using FSK441 mode, and all the ones I worked were using this older mode.

Six new squares would always be worth the effort in my book.

Most stations send 73 to confirm the contact, some do not. I always do, and I either send 73 briefly in return to a 73 as well, or call CQ. If you do this you can be certain that you have completed the contact. If, as in one of these contacts, you get no response to your RRR message you are left high and dry. This time I claimed it.

So clearly it is worth coming on during the peak day. After that things cool down a lot. This seems to me to be a waste as there are often good contacts to be made.
In fact, there are some minor showers between the Geminids shower around 13 December and the Quadrantids during the first few days in January. These Ursids showers are weak by comparison but still useful in making a bridge between the two main peaks.

I feel that too many operators turn off their rigs between the showers and do not try during these periods. To counteract the reduced meteor action you can operate closer to the daily peak (around 06:00 local time). The only period I find it difficult to make contacts is mid-January until around the end of March.

One contact in this later group which specially pleased me was Rudi, DK7OM. We tried two days earlier, but although we exchanged reports we could not complete a QSO. I asked him for a sked and the result was a good QSO.

I have noticed that MSHV was out-performing WSJT-X on MSK144 reception. I could see and hear signals on 6m but WSJT-X was not decoding them, whereas MSHV was decoding them. In fact, the final QSO in the list with PeO, SM5EPO, was a test to see what was happening. I quickly noted that opening out the frequency tolerance on WSJT-X helped, but that also over-strained my computer processor.

Checking everything carefully I discovered that the  audio rx frequency (showing as Rx 1400 Hz) was at its default position of 1400 rather than the recommended 1500. I must have updated WSJT-X so many times over the past few months that I forgot to update that parameter this time. When I corrected it I could reduce the frequency tolerance back to 100 and still receive all the signals. Silly mistake. I wonder how many others make it too.

MSK144 is normally used, by convention, with 15 second tx/rx sectors. This is unlike FSK (30 seconds), JT65 (60 seconds) and WSPR (120 seconds). Some operators were turning up over the past few days using MSK and 30 second sectors. This still works, but it is slow, wasteful of spectrum and frustrating for other operators.

On one occasion I switched to 30 seconds to work a station. Then I saw him later still using 30 seconds and struggling to complete a QSO. So I sent him "pse change to 15sec", which he did. I then worked him again and felt that I had done us all a good job. As soon as I had finished, a German station called him on 30 seconds, he went back to 30 seconds, and that effort was wasted.

There are only certain things I can change, so the I will just have to accept the other things.

So I think that was a good meteor shower.

MSK144 is very good when it comes to working those stations who want to use it. Why it is not tested more on 2m is a mystery to me. I suppose that may be because WSJT-X is still marketed as a trial version, so some people are reluctant to try it. That's the clue in the name - trial versions are meant to be tried.

This warning every time you start it will put some people off ...
However, as I pointed out before, MSHV is available without such a warning.

Until it is launched on the official WSJT site, WSJT-X v1.7.0 will remain slightly beyond the average amateur's line of sight. Let us hope it soon progresses into general usage.

Then, hopefully, we can say goodbye to JT6M and FSK441.



Thursday, 1 December 2016

MSK144, and a lean November

It certainly has been a busy month at GM4FVM, but not on the bands. Antenna-wise there has been a lot of action, but radio activity has been less noticeable.

At last I have started to use the new mode MSK144, either in the excellent test version of WSJT-X 1.7, or in MSHV 1.28.

Perhaps you have a 6m transceiver, and maybe a half decent antenna. Well you can be on meteor scatter in a few minutes, working all over Europe with MSK144. So why not read on and try???

If you look at the WSJT official site http://physics.princeton.edu/pulsar/K1JT/ you will find no mention of WSJT-X 1.7. The official site is promoting the last stable version of WSJT-X, 1.6.0, in versions for Windows, Mac and Linux, plus the source code. However, version 1.7.0 is out there in various test versions.

WSJT-X 1.7.0-rc2 in its various builds is a development on 1.6.0 but also includes a different suite of modes. Well, most people call them modes, but "protocols" may be a better term as they are all related. 1.6.0 offers JT4, JT9, JT65 WSPR, and Echo. Currently 1.7.0 offers JT4, JT9, JT65, WSPR, ISCAT, QRA64 and MSK144.

It is MSK144 which seems to have most appeal for me. There is no place in this latest trial version of WSJT-X for either FSK441 or JT6M. These two modes are in use mostly on 6m (JT6M) and 2m (FSK), with 4m dividing opinion as to which was best at that frequency. The key issues I saw were the FSK was not effective on longer bursts, which is what you tend to get on 6m, but JT6M's poorer error correction made it generate screen-fulls of garbage text. JT6M worked on Es, FSK struggled with those steady signals. Each had its own place on those specific bands.

MSK144 offers better performance in both respects. Using MSK, I find that it is equally happy with either long bursts or short pings, making meteor scatter easier. It seems to decode weaker signals than before, including inaudible ones. There are almost no garbage decodes. On VHF we seem to have settled on 15 second tx/rx segments, making QSOs, potentially, shorter. There is not a lot I do not like about MSK144.

If you get MSK144 in the WSJT-X suite there are several useful features. I have been using WSJT-X since version 1.3, and it is a joy to simply click on a callsign and reply without typing, entering reports or organising which segment to use etc. The 1.7.0 version bring this to MSK, and also adds "auto sequencing" whereby the software recognises the stage in the QSO, and steps itself through the contact without intervention from me. Well, I look on in amazement. I even transmitted to a station for 10 minutes and had given up, when the other station's reply arrived. The suite sent my RRR reply without me doing anything.

Now if you are like me, and read some of the amateur bulletin boards, you probably know how this is going to be received. "This is the thin edge of the wedge" ,"automatic QSOs, we might as well stay in bed" ... which is of course nonsense. You have to initiate the contact or noting happens. There are no automatic QSOs. It is real radio. Yawn. The level of debate on these sites is dreadful. I have watched a fine amateur being torn to shreds of admitting he went to bed and left his WSPR running. Yesterday I read that buying a Chinese screwdriver would bring about the end of liberty in the world. Here's the trick with these people - don't tell them what is new. They oppose anything new, but they never do any research or even reading. So, if we leave them to find out for themselves they will never bother us.

Anyway, yes, there is an issue about remaining in control. We need to show this thing who is master. To help, since v1.3.0 there has been a "watchdog" feature should you suddenly be called away to help chop down a tree and forget to stop transmitting CQ or anything else. My experience with v1.6.0 on HF suggests setting the watchdog to 10 minutes is good for calling CQ, if a bit long for other situations. For meteor scatter, 15 minutes might be best. After that time it simply stops transmitting and shows a red banner.

So this is all tantalising. A new suite with new modes and features. But you said it is not available, Jim? Yes, true. The official WSJT-X site does not even mention it. This is in part due to a complete faff over v1.6.0. As JT modes are open source then anyone can produce variations on them. It got crazy when a certain person put out his own version of v1.6.0 while it was still in development, and the developers got swamped with bug reports about something they had not issued and which was officially still being developed all the time. At one stage they asked other developers to back off a bit.

WSJT-X 1.7.0 is well enough advanced for many stations to be using it in development mode. It appears to be moving towards a "stable" version for the public as a whole. As I write (1/12/16), many stations are using MSK144 on 6 metres with WSJT-X, so it is getting a good test. However, I am not about to set myself up as a source for a test program. There is another way.

I have said before that I use Christo's (LZ2HV) suite "MSHV". Well, after a while during which the JT folks asked everybody to hold back on MSK144, Christo has had the go-head and has produced steadily improving versions of his suite.

Now, MSHV is a much simpler set-up than WSJT. The modes available include ones left off the JT version, such as FSK441 and JT6M, plus JTMS from some time ago. But it does have ISCAT and MSK144! So if you install the latest version of MSHV (v1.28) you are ready to go.

The MSHV website is here http://lz2hv.org/mshv and it is simple to follow. Choose the installer version of MSHV if you want minimum hassle, whereas the ZIP versions allow you to retain a copy in a file more easily. Installation all goes the way these things do. After installation you set up your audio and PTT settings and you are ready to go. It is pretty light on processor power, but if you select "deep search" on the decode options it will use more PC capacity (but it will work better!). Tx/Rx is adjustable and pre-set to 30sec, but most stations using MSK are using 15second segments, whereas most using FSK and the other modes use 30 second segments.

MSHV is not "feature-laden" in the way that WSJT-X is. There is no watchdog, no automatic progression, no changing frequencies using CAT. But it works and it is available to all now.

There are a couple of issues with MSK. There are plenty of stations trying the new mode. I sort-of fear that the same thing will happen as took place after the "VHF features" were introduced to WSJT-X some time ago. Then a whole world of amateurs emerged onto VHF and made contacts on the new high-speed JT9 modes. Then they went back to using JT6M and FSK441. Let us hope that this time JT6M and FSK441 are quickly abandoned.

Also, the frequencies to use are a bit problematic. People seem to have decided that 50.280 and 70.280 are the places to go (though the band-plan says otherwise; 50.320-50.380 and 70.250). Why the opportunity was not taken to move to bandplan frequencies (say, 50.350 and 70.250) is a bit of a mystery to me. But there is no shaking the ability of amateurs to defy reasonable planning and just do whatever suits them. Who am I to disagree? I am just following the crowd, for lack of any alternative.
A 6m contact completed in 2 minutes ...
You can opt to report your presence on PSK reporter. This shows who is sending and receiving messages by band. It is useful to some extent, if you can drive it properly. More on that later.

I am sure that WSJT-X 1.7 will be widely available before long. However, in the meantime, if you can work any data mode you can download MSHV and use MSK144. Good luck.
Not much to report in November.

VK5ZK on 10m JT65 on 4 November set a nice tone, but there was nothing more like that. 10m and 40m WSPR were generally poor.

Meteor scatter
Meteor scatter is where most of the action was, FSK441 gave way to MSK144 here after 17 November. OZ1JXY, OH2BYJ and LA4LN, all regulars, were worked on 4m before that. Afterwards,
MSK accounted for DM2ECM, DF9OX, SM4GGC, SP8SN, G3XVR, OE5MPL, EA2ARD and GU8FBO on 6m, plus OZ1JXY and PA5Y on 4m. OK, no new countries and I have worked most of these stations before, but the contacts were quick and easy on MSK. Any I had not worked were new squares, showing how little attention I have paid to 6m before a better antenna arrived.

Eh? Not really expecting this. Very strange conditions on 25 November. There was that fraught contact with OZ1DJJ (not DZZ!) on 6m. I thought that was back scatter but he was far too steady for that. Then I heard Henning OZ1JXY (732km), very strong and steady, on 4m FSK. His signal was distorted and only decoding for some of the time, and this went on for about 10 minutes. I tried various modes before just calling him on SSB.
Very strange tropo on 4m
Henning reported my audio as Q4 at first, before QSB made a good QSO possible. Then I heard the OZ7IGY and PI7CIS beacons on 2m before a long period listening to the GB3PI repeater in Cambridge (446km). Tropo OK, but not as we know it. Really good on 6m, which is unusual, and even on 4m it is not usually that good. Atmospheric pressure was high, but there were few reports of other stations getting in on it.

There was short 4m opening on 10 November. I worked GM4OBD (IO97, a watery new one for me) and GM4ILS (IO87), but the distortion was terrible. It took OBD a lot of calling on CW to raise me. I was calling on SSB, and I thought  "well that is a funny noise" before it dawned on me that it was actually CW with no tone somewhere in amongst that huge aurora whoosh. ILS was trying to tell me something, but apart from the basic details I could make very little out. Later I heard the Faeroes beacon, OY6BEC, which is common on these occasions, and then it was over.

Thanks to MSK144 I have had a few contacts. Otherwise it would have been really depressing. But December is usually good for meteors, and maybe an aurora would brighten things up. And at least I now have a new mast, a better 6m antenna, a functioning power supply, a project to fix the old power supply, and I am ready for the new month.



Sunday, 27 November 2016

PC crashed, PSU blew, and a core melt-down for me.

It's been a funny old month - and it is not quite over yet.

On Friday (it all happened on Friday!) the PC crashed. Finally, after loading more and more on to it, it just stopped. Nothing fatal of course, it just turned itself off.

My fault really as I have been loading more and more onto it. At one stage in the past I had two computers, one for what would now be the Internet programmes, and the other, faster one, ran the Flex SDR and data modes. This would have been fine had not the best faster one made slight but annoying noise on VHF. My numerous attempt to solve this failed.

Usually noise gets out of the computer via the connecting cables. This is something I am well versed in trying to deal with. I have established that some cables are reliable, and ferrite rings and clips are very effective. But with the fastest one nothing I changed outside the computer seemed to matter, and even the cables inside could not be silenced. It seems as if the noise is coming off the motherboard itself, though how it gets out of the computer case I cannot find.

So, I went over to one quiet computer driving two monitors. One monitor covers the Internet and email, and the other shows the data modes. This looks like two computers but of course all the processing falls on just one. I have worked like this for a couple of years.

Constantly adding work to this computer finally pushed it over the edge. I should have realised, because I was watching the processor load climbing higher, but somehow I kept putting off doing something. I seem to be good at that.

Nothing seems to have been harmed, though of course it might have been. In the past I have broken disc drives in crashes like this.

If all this sounds like I should learn a lesson, here is part 2.
I have ordered a 5 element 6m PowAbeam yagi from dxshop to replace the Diamond HB9CV. This should be here in a few days.

In the meantime I dug out my old 3ele/4ele 6m/4m dual band yagi. This was stored in the garage for some undefined portable operation at some distant future date. It was a simple matter to make a 3 element 6m beam out of this and it seems to work well. It will do for a few days and it immediately proved to be more effective than the Diamond.

So I have been busy on 6m. The set-up is that the 6m linear shares a 50amp switching power supply with the 2m linear. This does not matter as they are both connected to the same rig and therefore cannot transmit at the same time. The PSU is a MyDel MP50SWIII, but you may recognise it as something else, as it appears under various brands in different markets.
The MP-50 photographed last year in happier times

Having had some success  on 6m for a day, I noticed the PSU making a noise. This was a rattling type noise, which became louder as the current drawn rose. This PSU has been making noises for some time, which did seem odd. I had intended to have a look inside to see if I could work out what was happening. I sat watching the ammeter at 32amps pondering the amplifier efficiency and maybe the rf power meter could be wrong, when the power supply blew.

Current had fallen to 6 amps, the noise stopped and I quickly turned it off. Quickly in my terms, but the damage was done.

I am aware that they can fail with a spike of voltage or current. I disconnected the linears and nothing changed, so it does appear to be the power supply at fault rather than the linears. I hope that the linears are not damaged.
The MP-50 - now in disgrace.

In an attempt to test the linears, I swapped things round and put in an Amperor 25amp supply instead. Both linears seemed to be working up to about the 100W output that was all I would risk.I do not want to blow something else.

I should have had some other 50 amp power supply to back up this one. Yes, I can juggle about my linears and get back to almost full power on all bands, but that is not really the point.  Any of the 25amp PSUs can fail and I have a spare. But if this one fails, 6m and 2m output drops considerably. You might think that the rig runs at 100W for 6m and 50W for 2m and that should surely be enough. Yes, when it comes to SSB that is true.  But for the data modes I use so much, the rigs simply cannot supply that sort of power on a prolonged basis.

I have linears, not so much to raise my power overall, but to provide a buffer to allow the same power to run on the high duty cycles of data modes. I do not run legal maximum on VHF: generally I only send 100 - 200 watts from the linears, from which you need to subtract line losses. On HF, I run a fraction of that.

Hey, I can live with this. Just find a new power supply and then fix this one. Then I will have a spare. In fact, I have a Sharman 23amp one which has died and been fixed twice. But during the downtime things are far from perfect. I think I should have thought that the strange sound coming from the PSU was more important than I did.

Why does a power supply make a strange sound? I had some inkling that this was coming and I did nothing about it.

Erm, a bit like the computer crash.
I have been very busy with antennas, masts and domestic duties. So, there are only 15 entries in the log book for the month to date (I do not log repeat contacts in GM or G-land). There certainly have been interesting things, but I will leave that for the end of the month.

The new addition to the skyline, the temporary 3 element 6m beam is working well.
Note the 4m element, which is carried over from its previous life as a dual band beam - it was too difficult to take off! Also, lots of spare coax for the yet-to-arrive 5 element.

I was surprised to have a call from Bo, OZ1DJJ, whilst beaming West on 6m meteor scatter. At the same time I was doing all sorts of domestic things and I committed the cardinal sin in amateur radio or replying to the wrong callsign (OZ1DZZ).

Thanks to David GM4JJJ for pointing this out. David saw that Bo was calling me on the KST chat page to tell me I had made a typo. I had indeed made a typo.

I should explain that I am not on KST. Yes, it would have alerted me to using the wrong callsign, but following KST just adds one more layer of complexity to my already crowded life. KST is both a solution to the complexity problem, and a cause of more complexity.

I suddenly realised that I was overdoing it. There were signs that I was trying to absorb too much information, process too many operations at once, and generally, trying to produce too much power from limited resources.

I should have seen the warning signs. I should have closed a few brain programmes and let my central processor cool down. Instead I battled on and got my callsigns mixed up.

Not that I actually mixed the callsigns up, I just did not think about it because I was thinking about something else at the time. Not a deliberate act, a loss of concentration. Trying to do too many things at once.

Is this sounding familiar? Did I ignore the signs, just as I did with the PC and the PSU, that I am overcooking everything? Yes probably.

I am not about to give up radio, but I do need a reminder sometimes that I tend to over-complicate everything, to the point of overload. You will all be surprised to hear that.

The PC crashed and the PSU blew after I lost track of that QSO, but on the same day. So I cannot say that there was some deep spiritual connection between all this, the warnings of which I had ignored. But it all shows that everything has its limit.

This is only a hobby. It can become an all-consuming passion which fills the mind, empties the wallet and causes you to forget what is important in life.

I am off to let my internal fan reduce the temperature of my overheating regulators.

(IRONY WARNING): There must be a lesson in all this, but maybe I will just ignore it. That strategy has worked for me so far.



Wednesday, 23 November 2016

More antenna work, introducing MSK144 and streetlights

This mast has turned out to be quite a struggle. It has needed a lot of tinkering, tightening and adjusting. More of that later, no doubt. But I will get there eventually. It may be built down to a price, but I still reckon it is the best solution for me right now.

Actually putting an antenna on it turned into farce, of course. The idea was simple. Just transfer the rotator and 6m antenna which used to be on the temporary mast onto the new one. Then put the Moonraker 6m/2m/70cms vertical on top. Job done. Well, for course it was not like that.

I have written a complete report, but I will spare you the details. Trying to get it done before the RSGB 6m UK Activity Contest was a target of course. An excellent test. Two days work, in freezing conditions, rain, wind. I am not asking for sympathy. You can just be amazed by my pig-headedness.

I should say that the TV rotator can only take a 35mm pole, so everything was organised around that fact.

It took a day to get the previous set-up onto the mast and get a photo of it before I put the mast up.
It is not much of a photo due to the lack of light, but note the frost on the ground. I had just lined the HB9CV with North, by turning rotator and lining it up level with the ground with a small correction for the fact that the house is a few degrees off East-West.

So I put the mast up and the rotator failed.

At first I thought it was the cable, but more work proved it had just given up. TV rotators are not made for a long life. They only fail when you rely on them.

It did not take long to see that I had to give up the plan to use the previous set-up until next Spring, when I planned to put up my Yaesu rotator and a better 6m antenna. So I had to face doing all the work again, but this time with the Yaesu rotator, 6-core cable, and a 50mm pole above the rotator. That should be OK, as the vertical was bought to fit 50mm pole. Plus, all the other kit was in the garage ready, waiting for Spring.

After another day, I was standing in the gathering gloom, with frozen ground under my frozen feet, almost ready with the new set-up. Just time to fit the vertical before it gets dark.

Then I discovered that the vertical does not fit a 50mm pole. Nothing else for it, I had to dig out my Diamond X-30. Half the length of the tri-band vertical, and as it turned out, it works better too. And I fitted it, helped by the torch on my mobile phone.
It looks the same. But everything has been done twice. Two lots of cable pulled through, and one pulled back. Two verticals fitted, one removed, two sets of waterproofing PL259 plugs and sockets done, one pulled apart. Two beams fitted and lined up, one removed again.

Another hour's work in the house got the rotator controller as far as my desk and I was ready for the contest.

This was one of the worst contests I have ever listened to. I only heard two stations, and neither was calling CQ. Total result = NIL.

Well, it is not all bad. After the contest I worked DM2ECM on 6m meteor scatter MSK144. More about MSK144 later. But it is all working now, and I can turn the rotator.

So what is this long tale meant to convey? Well, that I am a determined old toad, ready to get cold and wet. It shows that this hobby can drive normally sensible people to do mad things in the winter, and then do them again the next day.

BUT, it also shows what I can do now without climbing. It was all done from the ground or from a three-step handy folding stool. Hooray! I'll get as cold as I need, so long as I don't have to climb to do it. I am too old to climb.
MSK144 is a new mode from the Joe Taylor stable. It is designed to improve upon the performance of FSK441 on meteor scatter. There are new versions of the WSJT-X suite including this new mode.

MSHV has been updated to include the new mode.

There are other new modes for Earth-Moon-Earth and other propagation methods too.

At the moment the latest modes are still in the process of completing development, and new versions are being issued as bugs are identified.

I do not have space here to say more, so I will leave it for later to cover it in more detail. But it is clear now that things we used to think were really difficult, like meteor scatter, have been revolutionised. This revolution continues. Nowadays the average amateur with moderate power and fairly simple antennas can communicate efficiently using the WSJT-X suite, whether it be in HF with JT65, or EME with QRA64.

The days of using tape recorders to speed up morse are long gone, the days of building massive linears and huge antenna arrays are coming to an end. WSJT-X and its clones are remarkable.
Scottish Borders Council, our municipality, has started a programme of replacing sodium street light elements with LEDs. This has obvious advantages for the council. The new lights have longer lives, need to be maintained less often, produce (almost) white light, and consume a lot less energy for a given light output.

For an amateur, the prospect of have a street full of LEDs outside the shack is a bit scary. That is why I asked the maintenance team about two months ago if we were due to get the new fittings. No, they replied, they are busy elsewhere and it would be a year or more before the change-over happened.

Thus it came as a complete surprise when they fitted the new lights, completing the whole street using the existing lamp standards in a day.
This photo shows the street now looking like daylight. The new lights are VERY effective.

I suspect that they used some of the reduction in power consumption to provide some headroom to raise the light output level too.

I was in fear of the consequences for noise on my radio. I have a very dim view of LEDs in general. We have very few, and those that we do have are either far away from the shack or rarely used at the same time as the radio. So having a street-full outside my control was a worry.

I need not have been concerned. There may be a slight increase in background noise. I cannot measure it, so it must be very low. I can cope with that. There are no terrible consequences on the bands that I use. Or at least none that I have found yet, and I have looked.

Even the sodium lights caused noise, but only for ten or fifteen minutes when they were starting up each night. This actually seemed to be better.

Lets hope that I see a reduction in my local taxes to pass on the savings to me. I am not as troubled by noise as I thought I might be at this stage.

I know that LEDs need not be a problem if they are properly installed. It is good to find some that are.



Tuesday, 15 November 2016

New mast up at last.

Firstly thanks to those of you who posted and e-mailed about the listening station featured last time. There may be more news on this in due course, but otherwise feel free to add anything more which strikes you.

Gary, MM0CUG, arrived today and installed my new (second) mast.

Firstly I had better explain the background. After a couple of incidents I decided that the second mast I had mounted on T and K brackets on the gable end of the house was not practical for me any more. I am getting too old to go out there and climb, plus it is in the full blast of the wind and there are few days when I can work in the wind at height.

My main mast is a fine Tennamast, but I cannot add more antennas to it without exceeding the capacity of the rotator, or breaking the space constraints and overhanging next door's garden. Apart from that, I am limited to having antennas which are not visible from the road when the mast is cranked down, and adding more antennas would break that rule. I have broken it briefly from time to time, but really I want to be invisible from the road in front of the houses for most of the time.

Thus the second mast appeared almost as soon as the first one went up, to start with for a 4m vertical and then soon after for the 6m beam. This makes for great flexibility working 4m/6m openings, as I do. The two beams often point in different directions, and the inverse square law resolves most overloading issues (though I do have stub filters too). I am thinking of replacing the stub filters with lumped component filters, but a bit of space between the antennas always helps too.

So I wanted to have a tilt-over mast to replace the second pole. The object of the exercise was not to significantly enlarge the antenna farm, though someday a better 6m antenna than the HB9CV may be on the cards. Rather it is to get access to the antennas from the ground. The ground to the top of the ridge tiles is 5.2 metres. I drew up plans for various systems based on home-brew components. I have some winches, all the poles and so forth, but eventually it looked like a purpose-built solution would be stronger and simpler. Once I added up the cost of the bolts, brackets, hinges, concrete base, etc.,  and then I began to doubt my strength calculations, I moved on to the idea of square section inside square section (just like the Tennamast!). That would have brought the cost of changing everything else as well.

Eventually I settled for a simple aluminium tilt-over, crank-up mast by MM0CUG http://www.mm0cug.co.uk/ . Gary does a range of masts, the smallest (which is square section all along its length) is a 10m mast which is 5m when lowered. This is exactly what I needed as 5m, plus the rotator and poles, brings the HB9CV just over the ridge tiles. I then have the vertical on the top, but even that is not visible from the road. Gary has a 12m mast and various other options, such as steel construction. While steel would add more strength and also cost more, I have modest requirements for the antennas. This is, after all, my second mast. So I settled for 10m and aluminium, basically for cheapness, but really because that is all I need. My main mast is 7.2m fully extended, so this is potentially taller, but as I say, I doubt if I will extend it much, if at all.

I did flirt with the idea of another Tennamast, but that would be over-engineered and more expensive. Gary's mast bolts directly to the wall, needs no concrete base, but I suspect, is not as strong as a steel Tennamast. It is horses for courses, and there is no need to spend more money on a stronger mast when all I am doing is replacing a pole on a couple of wall brackets. Gary said his mast could take my mini-beam, so I have plenty of strength in reserve if I need it.

So anyway, it has taken this long to install partly because it arrived while I was away in Italy. We thought it was best to leave installing it until I was here. Gary delivers and installs his masts throughout the Britain and Ireland during runs at fixed dates, so I had to wait for the next delivery round. No problem there. It went up today in about an hour and a half.
You can see that it is neater than the previous muddle of wires and poles. As expected, it sits at just the right height above the ridge tiles. Surprisingly, once the rotator and the beam are mounted up there, just as before, this will not be visible from the street in front of the house. I am basically keeping the same antennas and only altering the mast which supports them. Of course it can be cranked up to double the height, but that is not my intention.
The fixing arrangements are entirely different from the Tennamast as shown in earlier posts. A length of square section is fixed to the wall using six bolts in the form of a large bracket. The mast itself, also square section with the extending section inside, is hinged to the bracket by a single pin, and retained by a clamp with a removable pin. Remove the clamp pin and the mast tilts, supported by steel wire and one winch. The other winch raises the inner section. Simple really.
It doesn't look quite as elegant as some other masts, but it seems to work.
The winches are very strong for my purposes, and probably standard for larger masts too.

Now that it is in place I can think about getting the HB9CV and the 2m vertical on the top. I may leave that set-up, with the Conrad TV rotator, in place until the Spring when I might be able to get up a better 6m antenna and the Yaesu rotator up instead.

So, lets see how it goes. It looks like it may rattle in the wind, like any extending mast. Having said that, I can see how a couple of wedges would lock it up and prevent that.

All I need to do now is get the antennas and rotator installed, plus the co-ax extended, ...

Happy Radio.



Sunday, 6 November 2016

Galashiels Rally and World War 2 listening stations

I mentioned that I visited the annual Galashiels Rally recently. It has been a few years since I went, and in the intervening period several old regulars can no longer attend. If we do not recruit new members to our ranks the amateur population around here will eventually fall to zero.

Still, there was still a fairly good crowd coming from a wide area. The stalls are always interesting, and I bought a few odds and ends ranging from used re-chargeable batteries to crocodile clips. Where do you go for things like that nowadays?

I will not be going back to the retailer who sold me two Panasonic AAA alkaline industrial cells when I asked for rechargeables. They are perfectly good batteries, and I will use them, but not what I asked for. The old AA rechargeable ones are fine though.

As usual you meet lots of people at such events. In fact, meeting people is the real purpose of going for me. One such was Bruce, GM4BDJ. Bruce gave me a photo, apparently taken by David GM3BFU (SK). It is dated 25 December 1945 and has written on it "H/F D/F", or high frequency direction finding (or Huff-Duff as it was called).

Now Huff-Duff was the cutting edge of technology in the late 1930s, though as World War 2 progressed it was steadily overhauled by VHF and UHF radar. Nevertheless, it has its uses when it came to finding clandestine transmitters or locating shipping traffic. Huff-Duff continued in use up to around the 1970s, before satellites and frequency-hopping rendered it more or less obsolete. Not completely obsolete mind you, but it is a lost art now when it comes to intelligence work.

Here is the photo Bruce kindly gave me, with some notes added by me.
It is not very clear, and I have further affected it by scanning it in, but that is the only way to get it onto this blog.

On the left we can see two HRO receivers. Next to that is a Cathode Ray Tube display, which would have been pretty high tech and expensive at that stage. In the centre is a classic Bakelite telephone, two sets of HRO coils (marked M and W). To the right is a loudspeaker, oddly, as listening stations used headphones. Below the loudspeaker is something difficult to make out but it might be a small domestic radio. Note the blacked-out window and the wall construction (it seems to be a solid wall rendered with plain plaster).

To me, the presence of two HROs makes this look like a WW2 listening station. No amateur of that era would have had such things until they appeared on the surplus market. In any case, although some mysterious German amateur stations remained on the air during the War, in the UK amateur activity was officially forbidden. So I doubt if we are looking at someone's shack. This appears to be official premises. 
The CRT display was described by someone as "looking like a home made oscilloscope". I very much doubt that it was home made, but rather an austerity "Supplied for the Public Service" type-model. I also doubt if it is an oscilloscope. Such a thing would have been confined to high-end RF research, not sitting beside a receiver in some out-station. Rather I think it is a display for direction finding (or some rudimentary radar). Early in WW2 "DF" (direction finding) equipment usually had mechanical readouts, but later CRT displays became more common. After all, although the theoretical idea of the CRT was the best part of 40 years old at the start of the War, the practical and widespread introduction of such exotic valves took the impetus of war to push forward (note the huge cost of pre-War television sets!).

So to my eye anyway, the H/F D/F comment on the back of the print looks to be correct. But how dare a serviceman (presumably) take a photo of such advanced equipment? Maybe by 25 December 1945 he thought it was all over. It wasn't over, and he was taking quite a risk with this photo.

Looking a bit more closely, there seems to be a morse key in front of the telephone. A listening station hardly needs a morse key - reception reports travelled out by land line which would surely have been telephone or telex. Huff-Duff stations would not normally have been taking down the content of messages. They would have been getting a bearing as part of a wider effort to get at least three or more bearings and thus triangulate onto the position of the transmitter. So why have a morse key, if that is what it is?

At the time, late in the War, Huff-Duff would still have been useful looking for "spies", survivors of downed aircraft, submarines, ships or any enemy traffic which would allow a location to be pin-pointed. Even intelligence coming from Allied spies and implanted agents had to be subjected to Huff-Duff to check that the station had not been captured by the enemy and moved to more friendly surroundings (from their point of view!).
It was apparently possible for good Huff-Duff operators to get a bearing on a signal as short as 10 seconds or less and get the information anyway down the line to HQ within a minute. There is no sign of the paper and writing equipment you would need to copy down the messages, so direction finding seems to be the game for this set-up. If there are headphones which we cannot see, some identification details of any messages would be included if possible, and a paper log kept.

Aside entirely from the mysteries of the display, the key, the role of the equipment, etc., the location seems particularly intriguing. There was a chain of "Y" stations which used Huff-Duff. Often they were in former pre-War GPO listening posts or in remote and hard to spot locations (hiding in plain sight). Often the vertical antennas were mounted in wooden mast, and the stations located in either wooden sheds or tanked underground. They were definitely not conspicuous or large. In the photo though there is a window, which has been blacked out. I doubt if a window would have been added to a purpose built station, just to black it out. Windows in buildings where you are figuring out the enemy's secrets are not common. So was this an existing building into which a listening post was installed?

There has been plenty written about the "Y" stations (you can look them up on Wikipedia). However, the exact methods used are still a mystery to me. I have read out goniometers and phased verticals, but the actual physical set up is still confusing to me. At this stage enter Roger, MI0WWB, who is interested in the former Y station at Gilnahirk. We can perhaps gain a little knowledge from Gilnahirk as it continued to operate into our lifetimes whereas most other stations disappeared after WW2. Roger wrote ...

Gilnahirk, nestled in the Castlereagh Hills overlooking east Belfast, was one of Northern Ireland's best kept secrets.  Opened before WW2 it continued in active service right up to 1978 as a secret listening radio station.  It's work was classified secret and few people were aware of its existence.

A collection of wooden huts originally built by the GPO as part of the Radio Security Service it was quickly militarised being put under the control of MI8; it was quickly transferred to MI6 as part of the Special Communication Unit and later through reorganisation it became part of GCHQ.  During the war its role was to intercept transmissions, record the codes and to relay them to Bletchley Park for decoding.  Other tasks included direction finding to pinpoint the location of transmissions.

Gilnahirk played a significant role in intelligence gathering during the war and well into the Cold War period.  It played a role in the famous operation mincemeat and in helping to locate the German battleship Bismarck.  This work was augmented by Voluntary Interceptors throughout the UK, as many as 1500 radio amateurs, who used their own listening equipment to record data and forwarding it on a weekly basis to HQ.

The Station's importance was demonstrated by a new and enlarged station being built and opened in 1952, with antenna arrays established in the fields around the location.  This is the station I remember as a child, it continued in operation during the cold war right up to 1978 when it closed, becoming obsolete with the development of new technology. 

So, we know there were well established stations like Gilnahirk, and we know that there were Voluntary Interceptors, but yet Bruce's photo looks to me like some intermediate arrangement. No amateur would have had such complex and modern equipment in their shack (as far as I know!). So is it a photo of a Y station? The substantial walls and the window make this look like a converted building, not the low profile look of a Y station. What is the key for? What is the display for?

The fact is we shall probably never know.

But it interests me all the same. I, like many of my generation, were amazed by F. W. Winterbottom's book, "The Ultra Secret" when it appeared in 1975. I went straight to the library and devoured it. The secret surrounded the cracking of the Enigma and other codes during WW2. The book has various flaws, but it opened the door to a secret which had been carefully held by the people involved since 1945. I think some of them might have frowned upon the photo we have seen taken on 25 December 1945. Nevertheless, Huff-Duff is not directly to do with code breaking. Vital in an indirect sense, and in a way we never understood until even more recently.

During the long periods before the high-level German codes were cracked, and during quite long periods whilst the code-breakers had to re-crack the codes, the Enigma and other codes were incomprehensible. All the signal intelligence community had to work on were the Huff-Duff and traffic volume reports. Even without the code, the signal intelligence experts learnt how to deduce lots of important information just from these reports. Of course, it was better when they could read the code, but there is a lot of information hidden inside the direction and traffic volumes.

Many wonder why the enigma secret was so well hidden when the basic technology was outdated at the end of the War. Well, in part it was to continue to hide this other secret. To this day, the modern equivalent of Huff-Duff is a major part of signals intelligence. When we hear from reports of "whistle blowers" that the security services are following billions of emails and phone calls, you can bet that they are not listening in to them all or reading every one. No, their first line of enquiry is, how much of this is there, and where is it coming from? Which is what someone sitting at that listening post was doing during World War 2.

So at this humble station, we know-not-where, the momentary lapse in security which took the photo, our memories of shadowy places like Gilnahirk, raise more questions than they answer. The questions may never be answered as the basic task of signals intelligence in finding out "how much and from where?" remains vital to this day.

Thanks to Bruce and Roger for their input.

We as radio enthusiasts look at the equipment, and we lose sight of the actual task at hand. This is very useful to the spooks. Maybe it is just as well if we never really know the answers.

Luckily, as I do not know how to put the question, the answer may remain shrouded for ever.


P.S. Was the operator left handed?

Friday, 4 November 2016

A little bit of band action, antennas down, and Gainmaster replaces Gainmaster,

I had planned to write something about computers and EMC, but that seems to be taking longer than expected. So here is a round up covering what has been happening chez FVM.

There have been a few short openings here on the VHF bands, notably an aurora on 25 October. Not a large event but nice all the same. On 4m I worked GI4OWA (again!) and G8VZT, both on SSB, and LA9BM on CW. I am trying harder with CW, particularly during aurora.

Towards the end of October there was a period of high atmospheric pressure. As I do not get out well on tropo to the south I had to wait for an opening in other directions. On 30 October I worked  Denis EI4KH via the Mullaghanish repeater on 145.750, in County Cork. The distance to the repeater from here is 628km and nicely positioned at South West and clear of the hills at my end. I could not raise anyone else either on the repeater nor on simplex. I did however work Derrick, GM4CXP, in Kelso, also via the Cork repeater. I also worked Eamon, GI0BDX on 2m SSB.

On 31 October I worked OZ5NJ and OZ1BEF on 2m SSB. Once I had realised that I was not beaming the right way, and conditions came up a bit too, I was hearing them both almost 59. At 664 and 704 km that is good for tropo for me. During the same event other GM stations with a clear take-off to the South were working into France. I have to take the rough with the smooth. OK, I do not hear stations in that direction, but I do well enough in other directions.

HF has been quite good too, despite the sagging solar index. The same heightened solar activity which pepped up VHF has been good to 10m. I read all the woe and misery in the band reports about high K numbers, but never a word is spoken about the Es this can bring on 10m (and 6m). EA3LX was worked on 6m 15 October when I was running up and down the bands following the variable MUFs caused the fluctuations. The 10m Es in this period were very nice, bringing in several far-away Russian stations such as RN6AM (KN95 3086km) and RX6DF (also KN95, 3096). I doubt, though, that Es was responsible when I called CQ on 10m JT65 and immediately worked VU2PCL in Bangalore (MK83 8090). That, I suspect, was just being in the right place at the right time. Likewise on 31 October I was appreciating the 10m Es by working EA3GJO on JT65 when I worked PU1KDX (GG87 9565). This followed PY4XX (GG88 9458) caught in similar fashion on 27 October. Best DX on 10m was CX8ABF on 17 October (GF15 11301).

Who said 10m was dead? (FVM never gives up on projecting his own sweeping generalisations onto others, does he?)

These things go to show two points. Es is around a lot, and like the same period last year, it is easy to see the link between enhanced solar conditions and bursts of Es. Then again, if you are around enjoying the Es you might work VU or PY alongside your other activities. The secret, as always, it that to work people you need to be on the bands. Sitting watching computer screens just does not do it.

40m produced the same batch of surprises as it has done for some time. With my lowly dipole I have been hopping round Europe, adding the more distant W8FHF for good measure. Calling CQ on 22 October brought back VK5ZK (PF94 16303), a surprise at just 20:32 on JT9 mode. 40m continues to amaze me.

Meteor Scatter has not been great here. I worked OZ1JXY and SP9HWY on 4m, but conditions were not as good as I hoped. The Orionids did not produce much of a peak.

I have taken down all the antennas on the gable end of the house extension. This involved removing the 4m vertical, the 6m beam and the 40m dipole. Also removed were the rotator, the brackets and the guy wires. I am still in business with the 2m and 4m beams, plus the 10m and 2m verticals.

This all stems from the realisation that climbing and using wall brackets is not practical for me any more. Supporting the weights involved is no longer something I can do on a regular basis. So I have decided to go for a second tilt-over mast. That might sound a bit excessive, but I have no intention of putting up any more antennas. I just need to be able to work on them from the ground now.

Although the new mast can be cranked up, I do not intend to raise it above ridge tile level (5.2m) plus space to turn it. Once sorted, the 6m HB9CV will go up there, with the 2m vertical re-located from the other mast. I am not sure if the 4m vertical will ever go back up given the collapse in activity on that band round here.

So it will look like what has been up before, with the 2m vertical replacing the 4m one, and without guy ropes and so forth. I can hang the 40m dipole from it too. It should reduce the ragged appearance of all the guys and rationalise two masts into one. Maybe later I will put up a rather better 6m antenna, but that is not crucial.

It looks a bit bald, after I used the scaffold tower to remove all the clutter ...
I will have to manage without 6m and 40m until the new mast is up aloft.

Maybe soon I will not need the scaffolding tower either...
Part of the same anti-clutter movement, also intended to make things look less conspicuous and more robust, I have changed my beloved Sirio Gainmaster vertical for a Sirio Gainmaster HW vertical.

When first released the Gainmaster had just one version - a 5/8th dipole, end fed. This is what I view as the ideal 10m antenna, requiring no radials and capable of working reasonably well on 12m. However, the years have passed and Sirio have released a half wave version, the HW.

I have been very happy with the original version, save for a couple of points. It is very long. In fact, in old money, 28 feet tall. This is high enough to be seen all round the village. Also, being fibre glass, it whips about a lot in the wind. We get a lot of wind here, up to 130km/h and more. So it is not just large, it is whipping about like a demented bamboo cane.

The Sirio instructions advise that the original version should be guyed in high wind locations. I am very reluctant to guy it as I already have guys for the 40m dipole and it might just attract more attention to it. So the half-wave version, which is "5 feet" shorter looks like just the job.

I have remarked before in this blog that it is very difficult to replace a good antenna with a less good one. It is hard to step back from performance you once had. All the same, I am doing it in this case. I know that the HW Gainmaster will not perform as well as the Original. But I have a need for something smaller, less wind attracting, less conspicuous and with most of the performance. So the HW it had to be.

The two antennas are constructed much the same way. The HW does not need the tuning arrangement in the middle, and only has three fibreglass sections. It is easy to construct, with the sections joined together with "Jubilee Clips" (aka worm drive hose clips).
The photo shows it stretched out before assembly (as usual, click to enlarge if necessary). The internal cable can barely be seen above the lowest section. You feed this through the upper fibreglass tubes and cut to length.

There is a table to show how to set the length of the upper sections. I set this for the bottom of the 10m band, allowing some extra for a later fine cut. Once connected I got a very strange reading from the antenna analyser in the shack which showed a resonance below 10m and a stronger one above , at 32MHz. Once I left out the co-ax from shack and measured the resonance at the antenna, this top resonance disappeared, so there is something wrong with the co-ax. I have wired it up as roughly cut and I will run new coax later.

It works. I have already been using it on 10m. Unlike the Original, it cannot be seen from the street. However I am not going to kid myself. This half wave version is never going to work as well as the 5/8ths one. In general terms, less wire means less performance. The angle of radiation will be higher and the efficiency lower. Not much mind you, maybe a couple of dB, which I am willing to accept for now.

I have taken the 5/8th Gainmaster apart and it is in the garage antenna mortuary. It might yet come to life again and see the light of day, later.
That is it for now. Since we last communed I have visited the Galashiels Rally and I hope to say more about that later. For now though, as the great Edwin Starr might have wished you: Happy Radio.



Thursday, 13 October 2016

The joys of radio. Intercontinental, Es, aurora and just a bit of fun.

Radio horizons, good old fashioned radio, and a timely aurora.
When I get obsessed about things I do a lot of thinking on my walk. On my walk I noticed that the alpacas have been shorn again.
You would think they might be getting cold at this time of year, though I believe that they can get three fleeces off them, so there must be a late sheering every year. They must be capable of bearing a lot of cold, up in the Andes. Erm, time to think of working South America? You have to admit, my mind works in predictable ways.

Or not as the case may be.

Meanwhile I have been flapping about my radio horizon.

David, GM4JJJ, helpfully sent along a radio horizon for this QTH from Radio Scout. I still have my physical horizon from the HeyWhatsThat site - if you go to HeyWhatsThat site there are also tools you can your for line of site paths and so forth.

My horizon looks like this:-
The lower line is zero degrees elevation, and the higher one is one degree elevation. What it shows is what we knew, I have a hill in the way to the East and South. David's radio horizon showed me that I need 3.25 degrees elevation to get over the larger parts of it.

Which just confirms what evidence already shows, that I cannot get a tropo enhanced signal to the East and South, but I can get out that way during ducting, sporadic E and meteor scatter. In fact I can get out to distances which the calculations suggest require zero degree elevations, but not on tropo.

So I am sticking my my thesis, that I have done enough for tropo. I feel that raising the antennas or making them longer will tend to improve my shot at the hills, and weaken my shot over the hills, so I am not going to do it. And I am not going to try 70cms either.

All this looking at horizon charts confirms one thing in my mind - if I want to get out to the South and South East, especially during VHF contests, I need to go portable on top of the hills, rather than sitting here expecting the hills to vanish in front of my radio signal. We shall see if that happens or not.
When I get into a tizz about something like the horizon issue, I often think that just going and working some stations will help.

This has to be the basis of what I do. I still get a thrill from sending out a CQ and sitting waiting to see if anyone comes back. I still like collecting a new square in Guatemala on 12 metres (erm, that doesn't happen often I must say) or just yakking to someone about stuff. Stuff, the great subject for debate in amateur radio. Like why has Yaesu introduced a new microphone at £595?

I did a bit on 40m working WB8JUI and W3BI on 12 October.

I have been noticing that North South paths were good on 10m in the early afternoon, and on 11 October I worked this lot
A bit of DX is good for the soul. Not content with that I came back the next day ...
Now I know that the Solar Flux Index had risen to just over 100 for the first time in ages, and you cannot do that every day, but it shows what you can do if everything works out. Yes, the Solar Cycle is on the way down and likely to stay that way for years to come. But that does not mean that there are not pickings to be had, even on 10m. Into alpaca areas too.
During this period, SolarHam had been predicting the arrival of a coronal mass ejection. "Weak" was how it was described, possibly making "a glancing blow" on the Earth. In due course it did this on 13th October:-
 I know that raised solar activity, as well as causing an Aurora, can cause enhanced Es. So I was ready for some life to arise from a different direction on 10m, which it duly did early 13th ...
Now you can never convince me that Es is not encouraged by solar activity, and that seems to be all the proof I need. But then we DID have an aurora, and associated Es before, and Auroral Es afterwards.

Bundling all the Es and aurora results together I had this outcome on 6m:-
Even lowly old 4 metres got a look in during the aurora:-
I did hear a couple of LAs and an EI on CW, but I was happy with 4 DXCC on SSB (though the GM3UAG QSO was me sending SSB and him replying on CW). All approaches welcome.

Now this is the joy of amateur radio for me. I can get a kick out of stalking Brazil and South Africa stations on 10m F layer, switch to Russia and Ukraine ones on Es, take in some aurora and auroral Es all around me.

I feel cheered up. So what if I am beaming at a hillside? This is the type of contest I want to win. (before you all say, I approve of contests, just not the ones where I am beaming into Ayton Hill).

And joy of joys, most of these people I worked on VHF I have encountered before. GI4DOH on 6m aurora. GM4JJJ also via the aurora. Both well known, but first time on the aurora for both. ON7EQ for yet another QSO on 4m, having now worked him on tropo ducting, meteor scatter and twice on aurora. Jean-Jacques is the proof that what is impossible on tropo can be done lots of other ways. Gerry, GI4OWA, is now a front runner for being the first aurora contact each time and therefore my new beacon in the West. I even managed to see, but not work, IU1DZZ on 10m Es. GD3YEO was a completely new one for me, though I have worked GD from here before, never on aurora until now.

It is a joy. And what a handy and timely relief from my gloom.

If in doubt, turn on the rig and work someone.

Thanks everyone



Friday, 7 October 2016

VHF from a fairly poor QTH

There are many amateurs who have to make do with a less-than-perfect QTH. Like me for instance. But that is no reason to give up.

This location was chosen for reasons which did not include its radio potential. Sure I knew that it is, more or less, the highest house in the village. However, it was chosen mainly because of its cheapness, its suitability for being gutted and rebuilt, and the scenery.

Once every room in the house was altered, extensions and garages built, and everything was finished I could turn my mind to radio. OK, I now knew about laying drains and driving diggers, but I had left the radio for later. It turns out that this is not a great VHF location ... or is it?

First the bad news.

If you were to come here and plonk down a 2m colinear you would conclude that it does not have much going for it. Judged on the standards of normal conditions or mild tropospheric enhancement it does not do well. Years of working during the RSGB "National" Activity Contests, and the Nordic Activity Contests mean I know now what to expect. Mostly silence.

The site is fairly open to the East and not bad to the North. To the West are the Border Hills, part of the "Scottish Lowlands", a series of hills around 1000 to 1500 metres high stretching from here about 150km to the West Coast (EDIT OK, that was  a bit generous, the Lowlands have eleven peaks over 700m, and the highest is less than 850m , but bumpy nevertheless). To the South is a large headland with the bulk of The Cheviot behind, 815m high towering over our measly 60m. So to the South for sure, there is a big obstacle.

The main feature to the East is the North Sea, stretching away about 500km and bounded successively from North East to South by Norway, Sweden, Denmark, Germany, Netherlands, Belgium and England. That ought to help with sea paths but the ground rises from here to the coast, only 3km away. I cannot complain, as once you reach the coast there are some very nice cliffs. So if I can get over the rise to the cliffs I am well away in that direction.

The North is not as bad as it might be. We are in a dip and to the North of us is the Eastern Extension of the Lammermuir Hills, succeeded to the North West by the Pentland Hills so I cannot hear anyone in Edinburgh 80km away, nor in fact in Dunbar about 30km away. But once past these obstacles the path to the North is not bad and I do fairly well there, as the Scottish Highlands are rendered invisible by the curvature of the Earth. To the North I am impeded mainly by the fact that there is almost nobody there.

Being in a dip in the hills means that local stations are few to non-existent. For example I struggle to work one station due South (G3KML) 11km away in Berwick upon Tweed. Kelso I can just about make, reaching GM6ZFI 34km away to the South West only because Doug uses an 8 element beam pointed directly at me.

It would be easy to conclude that this is a poor location for VHF and give up. But you may have noticed that I did not give up. Or at least I have not given up yet.

During normal tropospheric conditions I struggle, for instance during contests. I may hear one or two stations from the West Coast, a couple in Fife to the North and one or two on hills in Durham or Northumberland to the South. And that is it for "locals". I do not enter these contests, not just because I am not a competitive person, but also because I have almost nobody to work. I hear of stations in the South East of England who can work 100 local stations, whereas within a 100km radius I might have 7.

So how do I do with stations further away? Thanks to Cheviot, the Cheviot Chain and then the Pennines, I find it very difficult to work anywhere in an arc from South East towards the Netherlands to due South about as far as the Isle of Wight. That must cover almost half of the VHF stations in the UK. I can get to certain places further West, such as Lancashire, the tip of West Yorkshire and then Wales, Devon and Cornwall. The Border Hills more or less cut off South West Scotland and Northern Ireland. Not great coverage for a contest if it happens under normal conditions.

The solutions which many operators use involve bigger antennas, taller masts and more powerful linear amplifiers and preamps. I would rather use guile than brute force.

So what do I do about it?

I have my VHF fall back position. I just do not do much standard tropo; I concentrate on what used to be called "the esoteric modes" instead. I have checked it out and my horizon has hills in every direction if you look horizontally. If you looked along the booms of my beams you would see hills for the full 360 degree turn. If you angled the beams up 1 degree (apart from spoiling any chance of working tropo DX) you would still find hills all the way from South East to West to North. It is not until you aimed the beam up 2 degrees that you would find a clear horizon. Not great for DX? Well, not for tropo maybe.

The methods of VHF propagation I use more are tropospheric ducting, ionoscatter, sporadic E, meteor scatter, aurora and a continuing list of less well used methods. I have not tried earth- moon- earth or satellites yet but they would also be possibilities. These modes all work surprisingly well without being fired exactly horizontally. With standard tropospheric propagation your success depends crucially on a good horizontal takeoff, but these other methods are different.

After spending paragraphs telling you why this place is hopeless for VHF, I have to say that for the other methods of propagation it is really very well sited. I could moan that the glass is half empty, but I rejoice in the fact that it is also half full. So a few points arise.

Point 1: Tropo ducting is different

Unlike normal tropo propagation, tropospheric ducting is tolerant of me being in a dip. It is fairly rare and depends on bending of radio signals in the troposphere, so it is a weather effect. Radio signals normally pass through the atmosphere more or less unaffected, spreading out as they do so. Under certain conditions, when the weather systems produce a certain pattern of air density, the signals can be confined to a layer close to the ground. This has the effect of not only keeping the signals low, but concentrating them in certain directions by keeping them inside the duct. The usual rules for path losses do not work as the signal is not moving out in all directions in to free space.

OK, this effect is fairly rare. You usually find it on a still dry day, with similar weather conditions all the way between you and the stations you are hearing. Typically this is caused by a high pressure weather system, slow moving, allowing the necessary conditions to build up. High pressure of itself helps to produce tropospheric enhancements, but it will not usually form a duct. This is where my location does help. Tropospheric ducts often form over water and me being near the North Sea is a big factor. the influence of the North Sea can be seen in the results on 2m on 5 June 2016 (normal activity in that direction would be zero) ...
As usual, click on the photo enlarge if necessary.

In reality the duct only covered small areas of Europe at any one time, but over a day it has moved around to cover various parts of Belgium, Netherlands and Germany. Ducting can be very pronounced on 70cms, sadly a band on which I am not currently active, 2m and also sometimes on 4m. On the same day, 5 June 2016 there was ducting on 4m too:-
I worked two stations in IO94 square and one in IO75, both locations difficult to reach due directly due to my nearby hills. The effect of the duct has been likened to "bending" the signals and though I do not want to take that idea too far, it is a useful way to consider it. Whilst normal tropo enhancement has the ability to gently bend the signals towards the earth, it is nothing like as effective as a duct and the results do not have such a marked effect.

Ducts rarely affect other bands. They can be very tight, sometimes only affecting one or two stations and sometimes even more annoyingly, one or two beacons. Signals can be quite strong.

I accept that ducts are rare, but they are very useful for stations like mine where there is a sea or coastal path and they are very tolerant of the dip I am located in. I probably see good ducting three or four times per year and signals are loud enough to be easily worked with my modest station.

I hope that I have made the point that while tropo lets me down thanks to the hills, ducts are a particular type of tropo which works well here.

Point 2: Using the ionosphere is different again

Ionoscatter and sporadic E are the next modes and I think any reader of this blog already knows how they work. Basically a layer in the ionosphere reflects (or partially refracts and reflects) or scatters the signal back to earth. On the face of it (and as shown in hundreds of text book illustrations which are WRONG) we might think that as we are reflecting our signal off an upper layer of the atmosphere we should direct the signal upwards. This may or may not work, but the object of working dx is to use a layer of the ionosphere above the mid point between you and the most distant station you can reach. And the geometry of this suggests that the best dx will result if you beam horizontally. So that sounds just as bad as standard tropo for me, located as I am in a dip in the land. Horizontal for me is straight into the headland.

Thankfully it does not work like that. Whereas tropo requires horizontal takeoff for almost all distances, iono and Es only require it for the very, very, very longest distances. In real operating situations, given the distances, the patch of ionosphere you are firing at from your location will be reached (thanks to free space propagation) This will result in you reaching the patch you want even if you are a degree or two out. And it only takes two degrees to get past all my local obstructions.

The scenario is much like this (though I am simplifying greatly). Fail to reach horizontal or very near it on tropo and you have lost a portion of your take-off horizon (tropo ducting is different as the signal is confined or "bent"). By contrast, fail to reach horizontal on iono or Es and you lose a bit of signal at the far end, nothing more.

Let me give an example. As I say I can hardly work G3KML, 11km, due to the hills. That direction is blank for normal tropo. It is blank all the way down through England to the coast at JO00 square. I have never worked JO00 square by tropo, and all points in between are very difficult. The hills screen me completely. Here is the same direction in Es on 4m ..
You might think that the same hills would cut out the signal near the horizontal to reach IS0AWZ and IS0GRB in JM49 square along the same bearing. Clearly not. The geometry is complex but the easiest way to put it is this - to work JO00 square involves getting the signal at ground level there, whereas with Iono and Es the signal is passing over JO00 at somewhere near 100km above ground - which is a lot easier to do when you have a socking great hill at the bottom of your garden.

I cannot easily work anywhere along that line into England, but I can get over the hills and let the expanding signal front reach the ionosphere beyond England.

It is almost like an HF skip zone, all the way down inside the normal tropo range. Instead of the HF signal never reaching those areas, my VHF signal could in theory reach England but cannot due to the shadow of the hills which are very near me.

JM49 square used in this example is just on the theoretical maximum distance for a single hop Es path, 2021km. OK, on the day this might have been a double hop path (but I doubt it). Anyway, a double hop makes the path even easier as the angle of departure would be higher. Careful calculation here suggests the optimal angle of elevation for the single hop path to JM49 is 1 degree, which I can probably just about do. But it is not zero degrees. I know I cannot reach zero degrees elevation. at one degree and I suffer on tropo accordingly, whereas 1 degree gets me great distances on Es.

What I am trying to say here is that in my book there is no such thing as a bad VHF location. There may be poor locations for normal tropo, which might be fine for pretty distant contacts using other methods of propagation. And yes, zero degrees elevation might get a bit further than the 2000km which 1 degree gets, but not much. A better site is always a better site, but what is practical might be greater if you do not limit yourself to tropo contacts.

Point 3: Meteor Scatter and Aurora are new worlds

The same approach works for meteor scatter and aurora. There you are relying on the signals being scattered by ions (and in the case of large meteors, ionised layers) in the ionosphere. And handily both these methods occur at similar heights to Es, so the ranges are similar (though the signals are weaker, so it is harder to reach the extreme distances). The WSJT software many of us use actually gives elevations figures, all worked out for us. For example, I have little difficulty working Henning, OZ1JXY almost every Saturday on meteor scatter. Hardly surprising I can get over the rising ground towards the cliffs in his direction, as the optimum elevation is 12 degrees! And, meteor scatter is effective every day, and during the periodic showers, can be very effective.

In practice I find that for meteor scatter in the practical ranges I can work from here, no hills cause me any problems at all. I have never worked anybody below about 4 degrees elevation, so the hills are irrelevant. Maybe if I ran more power and was trying to reach the very edge of my possible range it would play at part, but not yet. The same applies to aurora, which almost always involves beaming North anyway.
Does the above QSO wheel, all worked on 70Mhz SSB on 17 March 2015, look like a man bothered by bad take off to the South? They were all worked with the beam pointing North with the help of auroral scatter. The hills make little difference to aurora if you are located as far North as me. If you are located too far to the south you do not get to hear so many events and hills and the curvature of the Earth start getting in the way.

4. Even if these do not work for you, there are other possibilities

For earth- moon- earth and satellite work, if I ever do any, my one to two degree penalty will not make much difference, except, once again, at the very extreme ends of potential range.

And if, for example, you are too far South for much aurora activity, Trans Equatorial Propagation might be your saviour. Once again, strict horizontal take off is not absolutely necessary. 


So here is what I find. I cannot get out very well on tropo and my success in monthly contests is limited to the point of making them impossible to enter. I could get over that to some extent by putting up bigger antennas and taller masts. You can get software which shows what you need to do (to reach parts of Yorkshire, for example, a 150m mast would do the trick from here). But any improvements to the antennas and masts would help to some extent. I am not going to do any of that.

I do know that using the less popular methods of propagation I can reach really remarkable distances with the limitations I have. 1 or 2 degrees elevation (enforced on me by the surrounding hills) is not really a problem. I do not raise the antennas, I just let the hills have their share and get over it in more senses than one. 1 or 2 degrees are punishing on tropo, but insignificant in the geometry of the other methods.

So if you leave the rather silly idea that surrounding hills are the only factor, then being near the sea for ducting, a reasonably rare square for Es, fairly far North in UK terms for aurora, and a nice quiet spot for meteor scatter all add up to quite a fair location after all. Yes, a huge mountain right at the bottom of your garden will be a tougher nut to crack, but a hill on the horizon may not be such a problem, thanks to the curvature of the Earth and radio's kind property of spreading out into three dimensional free space.

Contests? Who needs them?

Anyone who thinks that a VHF contest run under normal tropo conditions gives any indication of the suitability of a site for VHF work is crazy. UK Activity Contests are a measure of the depth of the pockets of the individuals who buy bigger and bigger towers and linears. While these folk are busy perfecting their stations for the scalp-hunting season, their money is mostly wasted when it comes to the modes I hold so dear.

If you live down a hole then my advice is to save your money and try the other methods. You could be in for a surprise.

Key point: don't give up just because you don't hear many repeaters. In fact, try harder.


P.S. Thank you all for quite a few emails about this. I am not talking about contests in general, but rather about contests not being a good measure of a VHF site's potential. Some of my best friends are contesters. I am happy to take all the squares I work during contests. Contests are good, I am saying that my lack of success in them does not mean I cannot work on VHF.