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".



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