Wednesday, 28 February 2018

It's braw ...

... but with much worse snow predicted, Katy the shack cat knows exactly what to do ...
We should all stay inside and keep warm.




Sunday, 25 February 2018

2m and low signal work, plus the "good old days".

In my youth there was a programme on the television called "The Good Old Days". I found it excruciatingly bad. It was a collection of old music-hall acts, has-beens and superannuated old crooners. It was topped off by an audience of cranks wearing Edwardian costumes. To make matters worse, Leonard Sachs, who was the compere, was dreadful.

I see that some wallpaper daytime TV channel is re-showing this putrid wallop. I took a look. It hasn't got much better over the years.

But we loved it. There were only two channels to watch anyway, and "the other side" was probably showing camp rigged fake wrestling featuring over-oiled monsters pretending to hurt each other. Or maybe motor bike scrambling from a muddy field in Uttoxeter.

But we still loved it. We didn't have much choice. Not much scope for dissent in those days, and now I make a life out of dissent.

Anyway, Bruce, GM4DBJ, rightly pointed out to me that there was period of "good old days" on 2m before the ones I was referring to in my earlier post on this topic. More of that in another post shortly.

I doubt if many current-day 2m operators could credit the way we used to operate on that band, and indeed perhaps I have chosen to forget it myself. But it was fun and we loved it.
Sometimes all I find on 2m from here is a choice between listening to the local repeater GB3DU sending its callsign ident (boring) or watching the Fairseat beacon, GB3VHF, chuntering away on JT65B (probably more entertaining than GB3DU). Automated signals from 10km away and 532km away, but no people.

Actually the past couple of weeks have been better on 144MHz, as maybe I have been trying harder.
144MHz contacts at GM4FVM 9 to 25 February 2018

This, of course, is small beer. But that analysis hides the fact that I worked Belgium (twice) when I have only had one opening before into Belgium from here in almost ten years. Denmark isn't bad on tropo (707km). Is it thanks to FT8? Is it thanks to me feeling more motivated? Maybe, but either way, I have been getting south over Ayton hill into places that are usually difficult. Doing in on an otherwise flat band is even more encouraging.

That I managed this at all is due to the encouragement of Jeremy, M0XVF and Gordon, GM4OAS. These guys are sticking with it and trying to work some stations. They kept my spirits up and I can see that I should make more effort.

And yet my frustration with 2m continues. These are better results, but they are still not good. Of course there is always the option of getting to the keyboard and complaining about it all here. And I do, but that does not really solve the problem. I can blame the lack of a decent VHF radio here, or gurn about everybody else here. This brings me some short term satisfaction but I need to make progress as well.

So in the spirit of amateur radio, I recognise that complaining is no way forward. A change of plan is needed.

I could always try even harder.

Is trying harder in the spirit of amateur radio? Not on the vulgar websites I occasionally read where blaming everybody else seems to be the Thought For The Day. But for me, working on the FT-817 with mods and add ons is better than complaining about it (though doing both is nice too). And now it looks as if the FT-818 is actually going to be WORSE than I thought, so I can say "I told you so" sometimes. These are insignificant successes and complaining leaves me cold in the longer term.

So how can I do better at 2m? Why do I only run 200 Watts? Couldn't I get a full legal linear, or apply for a 1KW special permit? What about a new rig? The IC-9700 is at last in the course of development, and it might be a contender for 2m rig for the future. Sure, those are perfectly plausible ways to go. Instant gratification is the way of our times.

This is GM4FVM we are talking about here. He does not do things that way. How can I get more from what I have? This is a good plan but it has already come a cropper.

First step - set some sort of target. Can I work somebody on Earth-Moon-Earth? Not that I want to become an EME regular, but that looks like a pretty good target to set. Improving my weak signal results to even a basic-grade EME standard will do everything a power of good.

After quite a bit of trying I just managed to prove what I already knew. An IC-7100, a 200W linear with inbuilt preamp in the shack and a single antenna with no elevation is not quite up to the job. I could see all sorts of folks chatting away - on the cluster - and saying they were calling CQ, but I could hear nothing on the IC-7100 even at low elevations. Having an antenna in just one polarisation does not help me.

To set a baseline I decided to try listening for HB9Q. Everybody said that should be easy as they use a 15m dish and plenty of power.
HB9Q heard via Earth-Moon-Earth path at GM4FVM on 20 February 2018

I listened to HB9Q for an hour and 38 minutes that day, even without elevation. That was almost as interesting as the Fairseat beacon, and the Moon is a moving target too. I learned that my efforts to date had got my rudimentary EME set-up working fine as far as it goes. Frequency correction perfect (110 Hz low), antenna direction perfect (was several degrees out). It works for HB9Q. As for actually hearing anyone other than HB9Q - forget it. But it looks very good on PSK Reporter...
PSK reporter on 20 February 2018
A minor 2m weak signal victory at last. I did not dare to transmit and before long my output power was reduced 50 Watts anyway.

So what is to be done?

As Mr Scruff pointed out in his seminal 1999 record "Get a Move On" (with a bit of inspiration from Charlie Parker and Shifty Henry) "You had better keep moving, or you'll be left behind". And so that lyric became the theme for my 144 MHz improvement programme.

Maybe "Spandex Man" is a better Andy McCarthy track musically, but Get a Move On still motivates me. In addition, both tracks come from Mr Scruff who appreciates a good cup of tea, just like myself.

Wallace "off of" Wallace and Gromit appreciates tea too, of course. Miniatures of Wallace and Gromit peer down at me now, from the top of the shack cupboards.

Following Mr Scruff's lead, what needs to be moved to avoid being left behind? What about my mast-head preamp? I don't have one.

No point having a linear or a new rig if you cannot hear weak signals. Right. Get a mast-head preamp, plus a sequencer to stop me blowing it up.

New co-ax. It is already here, in the shack, but with snow predicted that will take a week or two. As my 2m antenna is already fed by fairly good spec Ecoflex which dates from 2014, I will move the Ecoflex to the 4m antenna and install some of the Hyperflex which I already have. The specifications are much the same but the new stuff should go on the highest frequency and 4m will certainly benefit because either one is much better than the ancient RG-213 on the 4m antenna.

Right, so new co-ax is under way. New plugs and sockets next. N-types all the way of course. That cost almost £100 in plugs and sockets alone. First of all a new N-type on the IC-7100. This is an easy modification which does not even involve soldering.
IC-7100 at GM4FVM with replacement N-type socket fitted on the VHF/UHF side

Then it came to installing N-type sockets to the linear. Oooops. At this point everything came to a juddering halt.

Before I even touched it, my linear started playing up. My wonderful long-lived ultra-reliable Microset suddenly presented a high SWR to the rig on transmit, and the relay began chattering on receive. A hard look inside by me resulted in another decision. The linear is to be replaced too. The Microset is fine for general use, but it is not quite up to the job for EME. I need coaxial relays. The mast-head preamp will make the Microset's preamp redundant anyway. So time to advance on the linear front too. I have resisted it for years, but new 2m linear is needed for this purpose.

I could see all of this coming and I was avoiding doing anything about it. I will end up changing everything from the output socket on the rig to the input socket on the antenna. I may even change the antenna. Changing everything is a strange way of getting the best from what I already have, but it sure beats the full cost of going into the EME big league.

So what about the rig then?

Yes, following all my griping about the lack of a good VHF rig (link above), the fact remains that a good transverter is still my preferred path. The IC-9700 may be great. It probably will be. But it covers 70cms which I don't do, has options for 23cms which I don't want, and viewed as a single band rig it is hardly going to make economic sense. Haven't I got enough rigs already?

I am now focusing on a transverter and I have fair idea which way I will go.

So that will be that. Everything 144MHz from the microphone to the antenna socket will change. And all to achieve better results on EME which I do not intend to concentrate on. EME is not the end point of this journey, it is just the measure I am using to move things along. I need to reach that standard and then I will feel fairly sure that my tropo, aurora, meteor scatter and everything else is as good as it reasonably can be without going the whole hog for a competition standard station.

If it all sounds a bit drastic, it is. I was not expecting to replace the linear but it seems to be the right thing to do just now. I will not get a stonking high-power linear but then I do not want one anyway. I will not get a new rig. However, I will improve everything a bit, and I hope that the combined effect will show the improvements I feel I need.

There was none of this in the "good old days". Then you made good and mended. Simpler times, but I still feel happier living in the here and now.

Hey, there is a saving here. In true "make do and mend" style, I have moved the temperature controlled fan from the Microset to the back of the FT-817. Or one of the three fans, so I had some wiring to do. Now I have a full 4W output on 10m WSPR. 3dB improvement, as good as a linear.

There you are, an off-setting saving. You cannot say that I am a reckless spender. Homebrewing is at my heart still.

I will let you all know how this develops.




Saturday, 10 February 2018

My FT-817 - battered but still going. FT-818? Maybe not.

My FT-817 is looking a bit sorry for itself. The top panel is scored and scratched. It is battle-weary, after operating from 9 DXCCs and passing through endless airport baggage checks. It has had more X-Rays than I have (which is saying something, I had a X-Ray last weekend. Bet it hasn't had an MRI scan though).

GM4FVM's FT-817nd, complete with dents and scratches.

It is not very original. So far the modifications and additions I have made for my trips are as follows:-
1) "Peg Legs" which allow it to be set at a reasonable angle and which help ventilation
2) "Kranker" VFO knob
3) TCXO - temperature compensated crystal oscillator for better stability
4) Collins filter to replace the pretty dire original
5) ZLP datalink interface (with VOX)
6) Bluetooth CAT dongle
7) 70MHz (4 metre band) transverter
 8) Whip antennas for 2m, 4m, 6m, 10m, 12m, 15m and 20m bands, plus various random wire antennas and assorted dipoles
9) A 13.8 volt 2 amp power supply
10) Various leads for audio and earth connections.

Every acessory was supplied directly from UK, Japan, Germany, China, Ukraine, Malaysia and USA by my exclusively preferred up-market accessory emporium - Messrs E-bay of Bond Street, London, with branches on every computer worldwide..

Quite a pile of cheap extras in fact, with the Peg Legs and the Kranker making it bulky, the internal bits making it heavier and the outboard bits looking like a 1930s telephone exchange. Somehow I have always made it onto the aircraft.

Very early on in this process I did wonder whether this radio deserved all this investment. Compared to the Flex 1500 I had it seemed like an old technology solution, as I debated here on this blog. But, the FT-817 is still around the shack while the Flex is long gone. It has also had various repairs, like the end of the DC plug breaking off and blocking the socket (fairly common I believe, but surprisingly hard to fix).

So I backed the FT-817 to the extent of spending more money on it. Largely, each time I changed something it was to target some design failure in the basic rig. The legs and the Kranker mods would not have been necessary if those features had been considered at the design stage. For example mine might run almost 5 watts at turning on, but it falls to 2 watts as it warms up - and the Peg Legs help a little. Really I would need to use a fan and I do this sometimes, but why does it not have a fan if it needs one? Then again, its substantial power consumption even on receive suggests the power goes somewhere, and I guess it is into heat. Even on receive it gets mightily hot.

I have often thought about replacing the PA device and making sure the new one has a good heat path to the frame, but so far I think it is best to leave well enough alone. 2 watts is usually enough for me. The TCXO is essential for my data modes work, and the better filter makes a significant difference. The ZLP interface has a VOX because the rig does not have a digi-vox, and nor does it have a USB connection. I use the Bluetooth dongle to work the CAT control as I found it impossible to connect the CAT control to any computer with a lead without creating a lot of white noise in the radio.

The 4 metre transverter is a new idea. I already have a transverter but this one is intended for taking away on holiday and also for using from my car. It is not a great piece of equipment but it works. It is moderately effective on receive and produces 10 watts happily on long transmissions FM, needing only 1 watt drive from the FT-817. It solves an issue I have when out portable where up to now I have all the bands I want on SSB and data, but only FM on 4m. Now I can use all modes on 4m whilst away.

Perhaps the most tedious aspect of the 817 is that it is sold with a "battery charger" rather than a power supply. The charger can produce neither the current nor the voltage to run the rig directly and the 817 reduces the output power to 2.5 watts if you try. So I have a small switch mode PSU to fill the gap, which, being bigger than the supplied charger, adds more gubbins to carry around.

Tedious also because the batteries are fairly useless. I think that the earliest FT-817s had nickle cadmium batteries, but by the time I got mine they had switched to nickle metal hydride, better but still to be stored in the bull crap drawer. At the same time,. Yaesu were selling the VX type of handheld for FM with a vastly better lithium battery. I suspect that as the VX series had Standard-Vertex parentage, whilst the FT-817 was from pure Yaesu stock, and nobody at Yaesu thought of it. Whatever, the charger/battery guddle is probably the Yaesu FT-817s biggest drawback for a radio you want to pick up and go with.

So there are a whole series of things which I have felt obliged to correct or add to the basic rig to make it suitable for me. Some might say, that is fine, as why should everybody pay for what you need when they can customise it to suit themselves? Hey, if I had nothing to gripe about there would be no point blogging, and society would be the poorer for not having my thoughtful prose.

Never mind what it doesn't do, what does it do? Pretty much everything, if in a rather moderate fashion. TX on all the HF bands, plus 6m, 2m and 70cms. FM, SSB, (AM after a fashion) and data (analogue out), at up to 5 watts and down to flea power (I do like running 1 mW on data). What it can do is brilliant if you are happy with all the drawbacks. A big drawback is having to squint at the tiny screen for Yaesu's dorky menu system. If you don't mind prodding tiny buttons and scrolling through tons of options to switch from the back to the front antenna socket, or likewise for changing the control working RF-Gain to Squelch (which is infuriating when you change from SSB to FM) it simply has no rivals. The general coverage receiver makes the FT-817 a really useful tool on holiday.

Now by this stage somebody somewhere will be reminding me of the Flex 1500 or pointing out the Elecraft something or other. Well, not for me as they do not meet my needs. I do lots of things but I also do VHF (remember that?), and for all that in one box it is terrific. OK, I have to peer at the tiny screen like Mr Magoo, but it is worth it.
Mr Magoo and McBarker - Wikipedia low resolution screenshot for illustrative purposes
Me like Mr Magoo? For those of a younger disposition Mr. Magoo is a wealthy, short-statured retiree who gets into a series of comical situations as a result of his extreme near-sightedness, compounded by his stubborn refusal to admit the problem. However, through uncanny streaks of luck, the situation always seems to work itself out for him, leaving him no worse than before.

Affected people (or animals) consequently tend to think that he is a lunatic, rather than just being nearsighted.

This is not like me, because I am often left in a worse situation than before. As for the rest of that description, well, maybe. Not the hat though.

Leslie Nielsen, that wonderful and much missed actor who made such a splendid job of Police Squad (in color) on the television, made such a mess of playing Mr Magoo in the film. Stick to the cartoon versions if you want to do more research into Mr Magoo. The film was a dud.

Anyway, word is trickling out about a replacement for the Yaesu FT-817. The latest story is that Yaesu have applied for FCC approval in the United States for a rig called the FT-818. The details are scant (we are told) because Yaesu applied for confidentiality --- as you might expect. The release date is expected to be around August but it make take some time to reach the shops.

Razvan, M0HZH, covers the latest news of the "FT-818"on his good blog which you find here.

To sum up though, Razvan's posting on another site just about gets the whole thing in a nutshell:-

Basically, it looks like a disappointing mild refresh of the FT-817 ... still superheterodyne and no 70MHz band. Hopefully they added stuff like LiPo battery, IF-DSP and a decent size screen.

Exactly correct. The key clue is what purports to be the certification panel.
Supposedly, this is information supplied to the FCC regarding the FT-818 (as always click to enlarge).
Would I be tempted by an FT-818 based on this? Well, maybe this is all a spoof and there is no FT-818. However, if there is I am greatly disappointed that it is still a superhet. Thus it will almost certainly have Yaesu's stock 69MHz IF, making it unsuitable for 4m coverage. It REALLY needs a lithium battery, a better screen and IF-DSP. It REALLY needs 10 watts peak output on SSB which a good lithium battery should permit, plus a proper charger. It REALLY needs a USB socket for CAT and digital audio, better frequency stability as standard and better filtering (which would all be easier if it was an SDR, which it seems it is not).

So if this turns out to be true, I doubt if an FT-818 would attract me unless it has all or most of those features. And frankly it is hard to see how it would fit into Yaesu's model range if it did have all that. At present at £530 it sits comfortably below the FT-857D at £690. The FT-857 has several of the things I would want from an FT-818, apart from the size and battery. They can hardly load the FT-818 up with more features than the FT-857 and still charge less for it. At £530 the old FT-817 is already discounted because it is really an antique design, but can Yaesu charge much more for a breathed-over superhet? And is it not part of the economics that the 817 was a stripped down 857 anyway?

Why would anybody make up a story about new FT-818? Well, it has been done before.

A few years ago there was a spoof news article circulating (on Sparky's blog?) about an SDR replacement for the FT-817 with coverage down to VLF and including 70MHz and 1,296MHz. It did not take much of a genius to realise that this was not genuine as it had a picture of the device below which was an FT-817 with an IC-7000 display Photshopped onto the front ... nice try but really ...
Not the FT-817 replacement, but if only it had been ???
Several years have passed since that bit of fake news. My FT-817 still works away as my holiday rig and from home as my perpetual 10m WSPR beacon.

I think that the Yaesu FT-817 is a very limited rig on many fronts, but it has no equal when it comes to working both HF and VHF from hotel rooms and caravans. I have formed this opinion after years of adding outboard boxes and internal necessities. It fails many tests and yet I cannot be without it. It seems like Yaesu's policy is to stick with superhets and simply give it a re-vamp as the FT-818. The FT-818 would need to have a lot of extra features to win me over, and then it would appear to be creeping into the price range of other rigs in the Yaesu line-up.

I suspect that my FT-817 will be seeing a few more airport scanners (and the ones at St Pancras International railway station) before it finally gets retired.

(EDIT October 2018:- The rumours turned out to be correct. The FT-818 is just a breathed-over FT-817. Yaesu have slightly improved the output to 6 watts max as apparently the output device is now unavailable and they had to fit a new one. The battery is slightly upgraded but still Ni-HM and not lithium. Still a superhet, still no RF DSP, still very high current consumption, etc .... No, the FT-818 does not offer anything for me which my FT-817 does not already have. If I was in the market for a new one then the 818 would be the one to have, but for me it is not worth upgrading my FT-817.)




Friday, 2 February 2018

On being a VHF radio amateur

I like meeting other radio amateurs. It is good to swap experiences. I like to ask questions about things which I am unsure about. I like to learn.

However, I have a hurdle to get over before we can exchange views.

As soon as I say "I do VHF" they go cold. It is as if it suddenly started to snow. Their faces descend into a crumpled frown. That frown shows incomprehension and pity. I see them think "How can he do THAT?" "What is THAT anyway?"

I know what they are thinking. Being paranoid helps me translate their blank looks.

Sometimes, to excuse their ignorance they will smile and say "Oh, I do VHF too", which turns out to mean that they have a quarter wave vertical for 144MHz. It is a mobile whip on a magnetic base, stuck on a tea tray, and they use that to listen (but not actually speak) on their local repeater. Don't we all do that by having a (hopefully better) set-up for local chats? In my book this is not really "doing VHF".

I spent a long time once explaining to fairly recent amateur that it is possible to use SSB and data modes on VHF. "But I thought VHF was for FM only" he said, even though he had recently passed his exams.
SSB on VHF - who'd 'ave thought it?
Now I have no problem with people who concentrate on a specific part of the hobby. Why not be an 80 metre band enthusiast, or a CW only operator, or a data mode only person? They are quite entitled to do that. Even if somebody wanted to do RTTY only, which would be pretty strange given what an inefficient mode that is, then fair enough I say. Slow scan TV, APRS, PSK, entering direction finding competitions, satellites, construction, propagation studies ... there is room for all of them.

Despite my liberal (?) views, others seem to find the idea that I spend most of my time on VHF as being really strange. I try to engage them on their take on the hobby and we can talk fairly freely about that. However, they seem very reluctant to get onto my favourite topic. I think that they genuinely find it difficult to imagine what an amateur interested in VHF might do all day.

I might ask them about their antennas, or the grey line, or recent DX-peditions I have heard about, but they know nothing about my area of interest, and clearly don't want to ask. One or two of the older ones might have had VHF-only licences when they started out, but they only seem to be surprised that I have not yet grown out of VHF (as they said they had done).

Sometimes I can produce some details of the places I have worked for comparison. Somebody was proud to have worked Andorra recently. I said that I have worked it, but only on 70MHz - which closed the topic down. Likewise Liechtenstein, which I commented to another person that I had worked on 50MHz - he seemed unable to take in that I had worked his prized DXCC, but on VHF.

Let's get this straight. I do not do what I do to impress other amateurs. I do it because I love it and because I learn things. I could not care less about DXCCs or squares other than to set myself targets, and to show others that it can be done with modest equipment. I am qualified for various awards but I have never claimed them. I have never entered a contest, but I do sometimes go on to give points for others. I am not competitive in that sense. So I am not trying to big myself up - not that there is much point because these other amateurs are never going to be impressed. They simply do not understand what I am talking about.

I try to point out the VHF is a span of spectrum with different characteristics and challenges, not "a thing".

2 metre band (144 MHz)
I think that a lot of this comes from what limited experience these folk have of the 2 metre band. I have said here many times that 2m is not my favourite band. I had a long discussion with a recently qualified amateur pointing out that VHF propagation is not "line of sight" only. He was sure in his experience of 2m that this was so - but he had also been told it was true during his training. Taking the last year as a guide, my 2m performance has not been good, but that not many of these QSOs were "line of sight".
144MHz contacts at GM4FVM in the year to 29 January 2017 (excludes giving away contest points)
I do not enter my 2m contest contacts in this log, and there would be more UK contacts if I did. But, nevertheless, you can see my issue with 2m. I cannot get out due South, especially during tropo openings. The hills prevent me. And so this is constant refrain from many nay-sayers "VHF is no good from here because I am surrounded my mountains". Rubbish. If I can work Northern Sweden, Finland, Latvia and Ukraine from here, I am hardly entirely screened off. And neither are most people. For those who are in a worse position than me there is always satellite and Earth-Moon-Earth operation to try. And then there is the possibility of portable operation, which actually gets benefits from the same hills.

And then there is the old tale that VHF enthusiasts use the internet for their contacts. Grrr.

The contacts I make are all radio - radio between my antenna and the other antenna. Wireless, as they say.

I am not against internet linking, but I view it rather like an advance over using FM to talk to the locals. It is a great way to contact like minded individuals. You might learn something setting it up, and you would definitely learn something if you set up a voice gateway or a linked repeater. But you might not learn a lot about propagation. It is your choice: so far it is not compulsory.

2m thrives on transient propagation methods, tropo, aurora and Sporadic E. There might be a couple of days each year when we have tropo and aurora here which results in good 2m contacts. There might be two or three hours of Sporadic E. Certainly you would do better with tropo and Es if you lived further South, but I live where I live. So, good as it is, 2m is not my favourite. But then there is plenty to do elsewhere.

I do feel that I could do a lot better if I cared for my 2m operation as much as I care for 4m and 6m. I mean, what does it say about me that I have a mast-head preamp on the antenna for my TV receiver and I not have a mast-head preamp on my 2m antenna. There are things that I would like do to improve my 2m operation.

So 2m tends to stick in the minds of many amateurs who feel that large antennas, expensive co-ax, preamps, etc., are needed for VHF and therefore it is not worth the trouble. I think that they mean "not worth the trouble for 2m FM", but for most of them 2m FM and VHF mean the same thing. Nothing I can say seems able to convince them otherwise.

As always, you can click to enlarge the images I post here, on a PC anyway.
Start of a busy day on VHF at GM4FVM
More of the same busy day on VHF at GM4FVM

4 metre band (70MHz)
Moving on ... 4m is more my thing.
70MHz contacts at GM4FVM in year to 29 January 2018. I seem to have worked an Italian pirate (!).

Ah, four metres. If you live somewhere which does not have 4 metres then I feel sorry for you. True, it is mostly a European band, but then again there are a few African and Asian countries which have it. Not that I have worked into Asia, though I have been heard there. Looking at that map my initial reaction is annoyance - how did I manage to miss Greenland while there was a station on from there this year? That would be a new 4m continent for me. So you can see, 4m is a bit of a challenge.

Working new countries or even continents is not what all this is about for me. Sure, my current two continents might be fine, but there are two others on offer which I could easily work if the conditions were right. But that's the thing with 4. You are always straining at the edge of conditions.

I recall that my interest in 4m, and I guess VHF in general, started in May 1977 when I was driving home with my 70MHz AM Pye Cambridge in between the back seats of my Ford Escort. In fact, in Belfast I had just turned into Dundela Avenue at the side of the Wilgar Park football ground, home of the mighty Dundela FC (once holders of the Irish Cup).

You may gather from the detail that this event is etched into my memory. Suddenly the Cambridge sprang into life with The Song of the Volga Boatmen in Russian. This surprised me, as although I knew that VHF was not line of sight, I was not expecting this. It was probably from Kaliningrad, over 1400km from Strandtown. I was hooked.

The broadcast was distorted, of course, by being in wideband FM and my rig being AM. That didn't matter to me. How can this FM broadcast station be reaching my modest ex-taxi radio and its quarter wave whip? So I started to try to learn more about it. I guess that I had only a hazy idea about Sporadic E then, though I had been using it on 10 metres. There was no 6 metre band in most of Europe in those days, so I had no other VHF point of reference. Sure, 10m had Es for long periods, and 2m had it for fleeting moments, but what happened in between was a mystery to me.

I was entranced by VHF, but this was after I had been freed from having a VHF-only licence. Much is made of the "good old days" when new entrants to the hobby in the UK often took up "Class B" licences while they improved their morse. The Class B ticket gave them access to VHF and above, though many went no further than 2m FM and the new-fangled repeaters.

It is said that we were all the better from having to serve an apprenticeship on 2m. I doubt it. I can see the point in having frequency limitations on new licensees, who have to sit exams to progress. After all, other countries do that with some good reports about how it works. However, if the UK was to limit its Foundation licensees by band rather than power, then I would suggest that limited HF rights should come with VHF. Anyway, everybody has their own views on that one. Let's just say that being limited to 2m and above did not excite me, whereas as soon as I got on 4m I was on board.

I have since spent long hours listening to Eastern European broadcast stations around 70MHz. There are very few now compared to 1977. Large swathes of Eastern and Central Europe have moved away from using the OIRT band for broadcasting, allowing in many amateurs instead, in new countries let alone new arrivals from existing 4m countries.  So now I can hunt between the massive signals from the broadcasters to winkle out weak double skip from places like Greece, Bulgaria and Romania. This was unheard of until fairly recently.

It is at the edge of propagation that I feel most at home. Plucking out those weak double hops. Trying to plot via the Es maps on DXMaps as to where I might reach. The ones that got away - Sam Marino heard and not worked ("Don't worry, it will come back" - but it never has). Special stations in Sweden, heard on meteor scatter but never worked. Long, long meteor scatter contacts lasting hours. Struggling with the auroral noise to find swooshes of sound which just might be CW.

Magic.The magic of VHF.

For all the frustration I now count as friends a band of enthusiastic VHF regulars who keep calling CQ and listening into the night. These people are knowledgeable and capable radio amateurs who have been helpful in the extreme.

6 metre band (50MHz)
Some amateurs move up to 50MHz because it is easy to do - many HF radios cover this band. If you are used to HF antennas then 6m ones are relatively small. Despite this being easy to do, the proportion of those actually doing it is quite small. I suspect that many HF operators are expecting to find DX every day, which 6m does not provide. Me, I find any band which produces DX every day too boring.

The fact that only a small proportion of HF people graduate to 6m knocks a hole in the idea that lack of equipment is what prevents people from operating the VHF bands. Most commercial HF gear now covers 50MHz as well. This issue used to be trotted out about 4m too, but if you want to operate on these bands you will find the gear. If all else fails you could always build some, or at least assemble some modules.

Given that 6m has more DXCCs available than 4m, and paths are more consistent than 2m, you might expect that my contacts over a year would be more, and you would not be wrong.
50MHz contacts at GM4FVM in the year to 29 January 2018
There are several books on 6m operations. They usually have long sections showing QSL cards from small Pacific Islands and contacts to the Antipodes (the other side of the world from where you happen to be). I do think this is pointless. Such contacts are from history: they are not available to anyone as I write. Well, maybe if they do Earth-Moon-Earth, which is not easy on 6m and there are not many folks to work. No, the grand 6m days when you could work the world on a bit of wet string are over for now, and just as well in my book. If 6m was still in that situation I would not be on it.

There are those who bemoan the end of the great days at the peak of earlier sunspot cycles. Maybe, but we are where we are. The present situation in the solar cycle means that those days are in the past, and the next cycle is predicted to be similar to the last one - which brought no F2 propagation on 6m. Still, there is meteor scatter, aurora, and Sporadic E propagation, all accessible with modest antennas and simple stations. There are also some more unusual propagation modes like Trans Equatorial or Spread F but for these you need to be in the right place and usually have a top class station (which, like most of us mortals, I don't have).

You won't find accounts on this blog of hardy operators working from mud huts or from the Steppes of rare Asiatic DXCCs. That is because they are not around any more. Yet you still read books written by grizzled old timers who somehow or other imagine that we have something to learn from times when they had it easy. No Sir, these days we have it hard and we have to be content with what we get.

So, setting aside tales of marvellous times past, 6m these days is still a fine place to get your feet under the VHF table. When it comes to Es, 6m is a reliable provider and you can watch 10m as a guide as to when to hope for it. Auroral propagation tends to allow SSB QSOs, and meteor scatter is good (save between mid January and the end of March when MS conditions generally are poor). So what is not to like about 6m? Why do I get that baleful look from fellow amateurs when I say I do VHF? Why do I feel I have to justify myself so often?

One upside of 6m is that it provides the occasional opportunity to work multi-hop Es into far distant territories. So the chance of trans-Atlantic contacts keep me watching. Working into Africa is also possible from much of Europe, but I am a bit far north for that on a regular basis. Asia is also possible from here on multi-hop Es. On 4m these are very faint hopes, whereas on 6m at least this type of thing is possible but still fairly difficult.

6m is not a world-wide band. I suppose that is one drawback. The only world-wide band on VHF is 2m, and as I have said, 2m seems to look tricky for HF operators. They draw from their experience of 2m FM. Plenty of others enjoy 2m FM and they have the right to do that, but they may miss everything else. For me 2m FM lacks a challenge, so the very difficulty of doing VHF SSB and data is what I like.

You do know I wear a hair shirt all day and sleep on a bed of nails at night.
A varied day on VHF at GM4FVM
So it comes down to this. I am like the Junkie always hoping that his next hit will be as good as that first hit which was what got him into drugs in the first place (how do you know all that, you old Hippy?). I can still remember the Song of the Volga Boatmen in 1977. And when for a time in 2010 I just had FM for 4m operations here, I remember working Ivan, S51DI, on 70.450. When a couple of weeks later I worked 5 OH stations also on 4m FM I thought to myself that 1900km on a taxi radio wasn't half bad. And my 4m FM experiences continue to amaze me, like working a totally gob-smacked Italian station on 70.300, and a station on a yacht in the Mediterranean off the coast of France. On VHF FM? Come on, be serious. But it was serious when it actually happened.

After all that, working Canada for the first time on 6m SSB felt pretty good in 2011. First time over the pond on VHF from here, and only as far as Newfoundland, but just 50 watts and an HB9CV. Not that trans-Atlantic QSOs are easy on VHF, but they do keep your interest up.

There are still plenty of challenges for me. On 6m these include the rather strange paths to Japan and China in the Spring which look like multi-hop Es. Then there are loads of DXCCs in the Caribbean, plus South America. On 4m pretty well everything is a surprise. For two metres I have done very little from this QTH, making everything novel there too. But working three new DXCCs in one crammed half hour of 2m Es last year was pretty good fun. So was working Belarus in similar circumstances in 2011.

The way the VHF bands suddenly open and surprise me are now "Volga Boatmen" moments. Not that this brings back memories of the crackly Feodor Chaliapin recording, nor yet the superlative Paul Robeson one, nor even Glenn Miller version, but the unknown Russian choir I heard in East Belfast, through the distorting filter of slope detected FM.

And these surprises happen quite often, but yet they still have the ability to take me unawares. On SSB I hear the surprised voice of someone who was not expecting to hear me. On data I get further than expected (Puerto Rico). On aurora, my rusty slow CW nets some country I would never work any other way (Faeroe Islands). Polar Es brought me a contact with Jan Mayen island on 6m, another one to treasure even if it is not that far away. One Sunday afternoon a station from The Azores rose out of nowhere on 4m for a memorable 2658km QSO. On 6m I heard my first Russian station (there are only a few), but he faded out - one for another day. Yet, like San Marino on 4m, maybe never again. Who knows?

It is nothing to do with equipment really. Yes, a better station might get further, but the joy for me is doing it the way I do. A bit slap-dash maybe, better than a long wire, but not quite a 20m tower and 5m boom antenna. Just a middling station riding the wave of propagation and sometimes getting lucky.

And as you all know, I am up all night to get lucky, or so somebody once said.
The strange thing is that I feel this need to explain myself. I do not seek to convert anyone to my way of working. They can go along their own path. But I guess I need to try to open a door for them into a world which they never visit. Maybe they will someday, and they they will not have to take pity on me when they hear that I "do VHF".