Saturday, 17 July 2021

The drama of 144MHz Sporadic E, and how I nearly gave it all up.

Here's the thing about 2m Sporadic E ("Es"), it is very dramatic.

I was sitting here on Sunday 11 July 2021 at 15:59, musing over my previous successes and failures during previous attempts to work 2m Es. I was ready for an opening, but so far it had not happened.

For some time I have been learning how to apply my hardware set-up to try to be prepared for 2m Es openings. For instance, on 8 July I had been ready and I worked  IK8BIZ, IK6DTB, EA2Z, EA5TT, IU4CHE, IZ7UMS, IZ7UMS, IZ8OFO and IK0IXO in an hour long whirlwind of 144MHz Es. Key to this was that I was forewarned by activity on 70MHz.

That was common enough for me not to mention it on this blog at the time.

Just to put some context round this, my time trying for 2m Es from here had a very poor start. On 10 June 2011 I worked EU7AA on 2m, a distance of 2070km, and my only 2m contact of the day. It came as a complete surprise at the time. Of course I knew it was 2m Es because I had knowledge of 2m Es from before we moved here, but I was still in the dark about how to manage that aspect of VHF propagation. Looking back at the log, I had worked two stations in Estonia minutes before on 70MHz. If that was today I would have been watching 2m and be ready to pounce.

At the time I looked at "Make More Miles on VHF" and that site, which was focused on 2m Es, suggested that I might find three or four 2m events in a year, and those were almost entirely located in the Mediterranean or over the Alps. None of them came anywhere near Scotland. This seemed to me like an unpredictable means of propagation now that I had relocated north to GM-land. I decided not to go looking for 2m Es, and indeed I thought very hard about giving up on 144MHz entirely.

After that I did not work any 2m Es for four years, until three Italian stations popped up in June 2015. Those were the only Es contacts that year too. Make More Miles appeared to be correct - 2m Es was something that was welcome but not predictable enough to spend time looking for.

So what I was sitting here mulling over was - what has changed now that I think I can rely on finding multiple openings each year? I pulled out some facts. Up to that point in July 2021, the years so far has produced 55 2m Es contacts into 11 countries and 35 squares, with a best DX being IT9GSF at 2333km. 

2011, one QSO, 

2012 zero, 

2013, zero, 

2014 zero, 

2015 three, 

.... (must work these ones out)

2020 22, 

2021 so far, 55 (make that 77 by the end of the day, see later)

Then, to interrupt my pondering, up popped S58P to start a 90 minute 2m QSO-fest.

144MHz contacts (all over 1050km) at GM4FVM on 11 July 2021

22 QSOs in 8 countries. Dramatic or what?

If I include two tropo QSOs with GM and G, that brings me to 10 countries worked in just over an hour. Unlike 2011 I was prepared for this to happen and I reacted quickly.

DX Maps looked like a bad nosebleed (I have been having a few of those lately), so many stations were in the mix ...

144MHz on a 15 minute slice on DX Maps on 11 July 2021

And just to backtrack, I was interrupted by this opening. I had been musing on how much more common this has become. Basically I was analysing while I was waiting for it to open, when it opened.

Returning to my earlier thinking that day, I had done this map before the opening started.

144MHz Es contacts at GM4FVM 1 January to 10 July 2021

Not a bad map and it excludes the contacts in the first map above.

So has 2m Es got easier since 2011?

I know that I have mused about this before.

The subject came up in an email conversation with Andrew, G0JCC, and I suggested that FT8 is a big factor. He raised several things which affect 2m performance as well. These included better radios and better antennas. Also more information like DXMaps and alert emails. Certainly we did not have those before. He is correct.

Another key factor Andrew reckons are better receivers. He and I both have mast head preamps. Although their influence may be smaller on 2m than on 70cms or 23cms, they still help a lot. Correct again.

Everybody's setup will be different and will be affected by these many of these factors to a greater or lesser degree. In my case things that go with the grain here are using FT8 and more use of the lower VHF bands.

I doubt if FT8 really makes much difference in terms of distance reached, but getting us all listening on and calling on the same frequency has made a huge difference for me. And so has much more activity on 6m and 4m which makes predicting 2m Es so much simpler.

Since speaking to Andrew I have signed up for a 2m Es alert. I did it at who also do my 4m alerts. I was stuck in the past thinking that 2m Es was not for me.

Back in 2014, with no 2m Es worked since 2011, I almost gave up on 2m entirely.

Now in 2021, my analysis of previous successes on 2m Es this year was interrupted by another big 2m Es opening.

And during the opening on 11 July, I was called by Thomas SV8PEX. That would be a new country, and Thomas is 2406km from me, so a contact would also be a personal best on 2m Es. Of course I called him many times. We did not complete a QSO.

210711_161600   144.174 Rx FT8    -20  0.8 1752 GM4FVM SV8PEX JM99
210711_161618   144.174 Tx FT8      0  0.0 1750 SV8PEX GM4FVM -20

Later Thomas emailed me. He is as keen to work me as I am to work him. He confirmed what I had thought, that there was a large tropo duct in the Adriatic Sea, and that must have connected to the Es event. He said that he was hearing me for a long time, but he could not get through the pileup (!!!).

Maybe another duct, at either end, may make this possible eventually. My best 2m Es DX is still 2333km so it is not totally inconceivable. However, earlier in July I had emailed G0JCC with my view that working SV from here was "not practical". Clearly, once again, I don't know what I am talking about. Or maybe all those factors have changed my mind.

Still, SV8PEX heard me, and I heard him. That is good, but not a QSO. Next time, maybe.

I think that 2m Es is easier than it was, thanks to all these factors. However, it is still the ionosphere which calls the shots. However good your equipment, you still need nature to co-operate.

And, of course, I have my superior intellect to help me outwit the Laws of Physics.

Plus my often mentioned modesty and humility.




Friday, 2 July 2021

Summer is here (I think), and why are my reports always worse than theirs.

Ah, Summer.  Midges, flies, wasps, ants, too hot to sleep, sweaty days, noisy neighbours at stinking barbecues, traffic jams, cafes full of day trippers, grass cutting ... don't you just love it?

No, I do love it. There is the Tour de France, Cricket, long warm evenings, and relaxing beside the radio.

I know when it is Summer because the local flocks of alpacas sit down in the field rather than eat the huge banks of grass which the warm weather produces.

The Ayton Law alpacas, a recurring topic in this blog

They have been shorn again. This seems to happen a lot but early July seems a bit late to me. I thought they only gave up their fine wool once a year, but what do I know?

I find that my knowledge of small domesticated camelid shearing is much like what I know about radio propagation. I do not really know very much. Clearly they are both complicated subjects. However, I can observe what is happening, and maybe I can learn from that experience. These things can surprise me but they are very common so I should take note.

I mean, what is unusual about alpacas? It all just happens whether I take note or not. Like radio. So take note and learn from what you cannot change.

On the other hand do I actually need to understand the processes involved? Is there not a chance of just looking and marvelling without really comprehending in detail what I observe?

Perhaps there are some things I might never understand.


Anyway, June has ended with a long-ish Es event on 2m and I managed to get into part of it. Then there was also a fairly long tropo event which I managed to participate in for most of the time.

It all brought a reasonable map for June on 2m

2m contacts at GM4FVM during June 2021.

As usual, click the image to enlarge if necessary.

The Es openings accounted for my contacts into Spain and Portugal, while the tropo explains those across the North Sea. What I missed was an opening into Central Europe. Ah well, there is always next year (maybe ....).

Basically, it is astounding. 13 countries in 44 squares in a month with no EME or meteor scatter. All Es or tropo. Remarkable. When I was G8JWG I would have doubted such a thing was possible, never mind that I would do it without trying very hard. Plus I was away for a number of days during June.

On 4m I might rue that fact that I "ONLY" worked 19 countries, down from 25 in May. (But 25 is a huge number, Jim, so it was bound to be less the following month)

These are the sorts of figures which amaze me. I know I keep banging on about my station, but it is not in the superstation category. I do not want a superstation. 7 elements on 2m where I have just over 200 watts, and about 100w on all the other bands. Antennas just sufficiently high to clear the roof tiles.

Enough already.

I had some email correspondence with GM3PPE. Mike is always interesting. He was raising the subject of antenna height gain and the possible relationship between antenna height and differential signal reports.

Spurred on by his line of thought, I did some analysis on a random (?) slice of my log book. This confirmed my feelings, which mirror Mike's, that I give better reports than I get. The section of log is posted below but you will definitely have to click that one if you want to study it (personally I wouldn't bother to study it if I was you).

Random slice from the GM4FVM's VQLog log book

It has changed slightly from when I did the calculations - one doubtful contact has since been confirmed. I disregarded the doubtful ones. "Doubtful" and "failed" contacts appear in orange, but sometimes doubtful ones get confirmed later.

And, yes, EA4T was a treble, and he called me to complete it so it is not just me who chases these things.

Anyway, when I worked it out there were 43 valid entries then and the total was 28 times I gave them higher report and 12 times they gave me higher with 3 exactly the same. So, yes, I do give better reports than I get.

That does not give the full story. I gave two of those 34dB better than they gave me. Two of them! The highest the other way was someone who gave me 15dB more than I gave him. 

I remember the few instances of big numbers in the different reports. I forget the many smaller differences. When I average the whole thing out, even with two 34dBs in there, the difference taking all 43 entries into account is 3.5dB. While the massive differences might have caught my eye, the reality is not so bad. 

My final conclusion after all this waffle is that there is evidence that I give better reports than I receive. I doubt if my antennas, or my lower power or my titchy masts, are to blame. Many stations have higher noise levels than me, some use lossy analogue audio connections, and some use a lot more power than I might expect.

Then there is rapidly changing propagation. But would it always change to benefit the other station's reports? That is a mystery just like alpacas.

Perhaps nobody knows.

Or perhaps it is just not worth finding out. 

Or maybe I am happy with the results I am getting (see map/log).

Apparently the BBC do something to inform the public about alpacas. I have been told to watch "Nuzzle and Scratch". Seemingly it is about my level, or so Mrs FVM says.

Not sure what that is but I must get on to finding out.

Or not. 

I did mention I am paranoid, didn't I?




Saturday, 19 June 2021

Mostly about antennas and masts

I have had to go away for a few days. The long waffle I was writing about conditions now seems old hat. So I will cut almost all that wonderful creative writing, and just summarise it. Most of the rest is about antennas and masts. Antennas like these ones:-

Old 23cms Wimo on the left, new Dual 36el on the right.

First the round up:-

6m... I managed to work trans-Atlantic on 6m barefoot. This surprised me but a linear was not required to work a handful of stations and indeed add a new square.

4m... I managed to work a new country to bring the total to 49. The latest one was Gibraltar. Given that Gibraltar was the pinnacle of 4m DX when I started on the band it is odd that it has taken me since 1977 to work it. Still, it is in the book at last. And an elusive square in the Balearic Islands - JM29 -  was worked today.

2m... I managed to work a new country (OE) during one of several Sporadic E openings. Not sure how OE had evaded me for so long. Once again the basis of "doing the treble" works even if I feel less moved to actually work stations on all bands. I just need to see what is coming in on 6m, wait on 4m for signal to peak about about +05dB, then go for 2m. It does not work on 6m alone, I have to move up to 4m and listen there. Today I have worked EA and DL on 2m that way, and just missed 9A.

70cms... Old news, I worked a new country in the shape of Spain. That was back in March but I have only got round to mentioning it. There were several good tropo openings in late April with some new squares on offer.

23cms... Those tropo openings allowed me to have a couple more long rag chews with OZ2ND. I continue to be astounded by what I can work on 23cms.

Secondly - moving on to antennas and masts:-

This complicated re-organisation, whereby everything ended up back more or less where it was ages ago, started with moving the 2m/70cms dual band vertical.

2m/70cm vertical at GM4FVM, back where it used to be years ago

There was nothing particularly startling about this as that mounting was the first one I used when I moved here in 2009. It was there for years. However, by putting the vertical back up in that place I was able to free up the location it used to use and that allowed me to reuse the coax route to that one for the further developments which I then made later.

This was the first use I have made of Hyperflex 7 coax. I wanted to try it for a lower specification run like this, hoping that if it worked I could use it later for other things. It certainly does work, and the M&P plugs specifically made for it are very good.

The vertical is working very well in its new/old location.

I have mentioned before that I have had problem with mains breakthrough on 70cms. This has rendered my almost new nice high powered Tajfun 1000 linear pretty well redundant. I can use 100W safely with no problems. While moon bounce on 70cms is probably terminally affected, I am doing more work on 23cms instead.

To reduce problems with the 70cms breakthrough I moved its antenna to the mast furthest away from my neighbour's house. To allow for that move I took my 4m and 6m antennas down from that CUG mast. It seemed to me that I could not get both the combined 4m/6m antenna and the 2m/70cms antennas on the one mast. I was wrong about that and I had to reverse the initial thinking and get all four bands onto the one mast.

The problem was that I would need to get four runs of coax to that mast. Previously there were only two. After making a few compromises it worked because of this:-

1) by using Hyperflex 7 (H7) for the 4m antenna it would all fit through my conduits and it is much cheaper that Hyperflex 10 (H10),

2) by moving a run of H10 from the Tennamast and putting in an N-type joint I could save the cost of another run - and an N-type joint is acceptable to me on a lower frequency so that is for 50MHz

3) by using tails of H7 instead of H10 from the 2m and 70cm preamps I can squeeze in enough space to fit both antennas onto the existing stub mast (making the stub mast longer would cause neighbour problems). H7 has a much tighter minimum radius and this made the whole thing possible.

Trying the H7 on the vertical proved I could use it on 4m, and it is a lot cheaper. It is much easier to fit through the conduits in and out of the house. This may open the door to squeezing more runs through in future, though I expect 70MHz is my H7 limit for dx-type antennas. It is fine for the vertical too.

The result looks better to me than what I had before. Previously, as I was using coax with a longer minimum radius I felt that I had to take the coax down vertically from the antenna. This is because the Dual antennas have N-type sockets mounted below the boom, and it was really difficult to bend the coax back towards the boom. Such a problem does not arise with the thinner coax, so I could loop the coax round and run the leads along the boom rather as you might in a conventional single band antenna. Looking at the Dual website revealed that others have done the same.

Dual 2m/70cms yagi about the Dual 4m/6m yagi, with the CUG mast lowered

This gives me 4 elements on 6m, 5 on 4m, 7 on 2m and 12 on 70cm. Boom length is around 3m in total but used length is slightly shorter on 4m and 70cms.

Moving the vertical freed up the Ecoflex coax which fed that antenna in its previous location. The Ecoflex is now eight years old, and it is stiff and rigid. Ecoflex has been a disappointment to me, as it is inclined to form kinks and get stuck in places. When it came on the market it was the best coax I could use. Now I would not use it again.

Then it was time to put up my 36 element Dual yagi for 23cms. This goes up on the Tennamast and is double the length of the previous Wimo. The plan was to get a 10m dipole up there too but a snag developed and I have since taken it down again. For now 23cms is the only band on that mast.

36 element Dual 23cms yagi on the lowered Tennamast

I have to accept that this is the best combination of antenna locations that I can do at the moment. Given that I work five bands, having four on one mast and one on the other is not ideal. I have to point all four of the lower band yagis in the same direction, which rarely happened when I could do it differently. The two double band yagis are mounted on the weaker of the two masts, and they are all turned by the weaker of the two rotators. At least 23 cms has the more accurate rotator, which is useful for such a long antenna.  

I am working on all five bands again. I have antennas that many amateurs would think are pretty good. So I should be happy. 

I have been wondering whether a dish would be better for 23 cms but where would I mount it? I did see this idea while I was away recently.

Tree mounted dish seen at Grantown on Spey

All I would need to do would be to chop the top off one of Mrs FVM's trees.

I read that Blogger is going to stop email notifications for new blog postings from next month. That would be a problem for me. We need to see how that pans out.




Thursday, 27 May 2021

25 May 2021 - more Es, only better still

When I was attending the City of Belfast YMCA Radio Club, back in the early 1970s, learning my trade, there were some things I picked up from the old codgers with 2-letter calls who taught me what I needed to know. Everything was available on SSB with the KW-2000 and the magical new band of 15 metres. Actually, SSB and 15 metres had been around for a while, but it was amazing to them at the time.

But principally, in relation to my plan to earn a VHF licence I learned:-

1) VHF is a waste of time

2) The 2 meter band is not worth spending money on because there is no DX

3) The 4 metre band is even worse than 2m, but there is no money to spend there as everybody knows it is useless

4) This "Short Skip" thing gets in the way of DX working every year and only extends to France anyway.

This information rather flew in the face of scientific evidence, gathered during the World Geophysical Year in 1957/8 which showed the relationship between the E layer of the ionosphere, solar activity, and Sporadic E. This was what they called nuisance "Short Skip" down at the YMCA radio club.

I knew that I should listen to my "elders and betters", but I pretty soon came to realise that they were wrong in this case.

25 May followed the usual warning on Solarham. On 23 May a "minor to moderate" storm watch was put in place for 25 May. This followed a coronal mass ejection which only hit the Earth a glancing blow. As it turned out only the minor G1 level storm resulted, but that was enough for me.

23 May 2021 warning on Solarham

The result of this was a K number of 5 on 25 May and a very nice Sporadic E opening on 2 and 4 metres. Well, 6 metres too but I was not much involved in that one. 

Amongst other things, on 6m I worked UN3M in Kazakhstan at 22:41 local which rather gives a lie to the theory of Es as a daytime event but 6m is not what I am writing about today. I am not sure what the time difference to Kazakhstan is, but that was not a day time path. 

Enough about 6m.

Starting on 4 metres, at 06:43 I had a QSO with 9K2YM. I have been hoping to work Kuwait on 4m for some years and when it came I only received a -21dB report, but that will do nicely. I heard him working several G-stations but he was only workable here for a few minutes. Needless to say LL48 is a new square for me. It is definitely a best DX for me on 4m at 4974km.

Stations worked on 4m at GM4FVM on 25 May 2021

As usual, click to enlarge the images if necessary.

This was followed by a prolonged opening into the Balkan region. Over the next four hours I worked another 12 stations in seven more countries. Of the 10 additional squares, four were new.

On 2 metres the action did not start until 10:57. I had spent the previous 20 minutes calling several stations until eventually I managed to work YU7ON. Serbia is new country for me on 2m. In a little under an hour I had worked into 4 different countries.

Stations worked on 2m at GM4FVM on 25 May 2021

This proved that I was wrong two postings ago to say that my best Es DX on 2m was into Southern Spain. On 25 May I worked IT9GSF, who I had worked before. The distance then was 2333km. That must surely be my best DX on 2m Sporadic E. I was also heard on one of the small islands between Sicily and Tunisia but sadly no contact resulted. 

I had also worked YO7FWS before, but both his and IT9GSF's QSOs had been during late June. I was surprised to be doing this in May.

I will skip the map showing 2m stations worked in May to date. That included  42 QSOs to 10 countries. Interesting though that is, the 4m map is more surprising to me.

4m stations worked at GM4FVM, 1 to 26 May 2021

26 countries, 68 squares, 3 continents (Europe, Africa and Asia) in 104 QSOs. On the 4 metre band. In May. Back learning at the YMCA club I would have thought it unimaginable that this would be possible. I would have thought that because I was told that it was impossible. Back then it was the accepted truth that 4m was hardly worth the £10 it cost to buy my AM Pye Cambridge.

I have not done anything special here. I do not use any remarkable gear or even any of my many Super Powers. The special trick was done by the ionosphere. It has proved the doubters wrong. My only contribution was to ignore bogus "Sporadic E predictor" apps and stick by the basics of solar observation. I knew when to look. Joe Taylor and his WSJT-X suite has brought everybody into the same frame of mind and onto the same frequencies. It all helps, but the Sun rules the roost..

Wait, this only covers up to 26 May. Five more days to go! The possibilities are endless and we have not got to the happy times of late June or early July yet. 

I think it is all over for this month but Solarham is suggesting more possibilities for later on 27 May. My own feeling is that the glancing nature of the last CME suggests that we have had all we will get for now, but that is not clear. Predicting both the direction and magnetic polarity of such events remains uncertain.

We shall see.

Actually that is the best bit of it. 

We shall see.

What chance tropo on 2m to fill up the log? It is looking a bit empty.




Thursday, 20 May 2021

19 May 2021 - 2 metre Es DX like I never saw it before

I have said it before and I'll say it again ...


Piles ups. Log book out of control. Domestic duties going begging.

It was not as if I had not had warning.

I do not do as others do. I do not look at Jet Stream maps, which as you know I regard as similar to looking at tea leaf patterns, feeling bumps on the head, and testing the dampness of sea weed. I prefer to look at the Solar predictions. I do this because it works for me.

To me this means that I know on 16 May there might be an aurora on 18th and I need to look for Es that day and the next. This is especially so at this time of the year. Experience tells me that early and late in the Es season any major solar disturbance has the habit of generating enough ionisation in the upper atmosphere to tip things over into Es. At the peak of Summer of course Es just happens regularly, and during the Winter it takes a big event to trigger it.

There was not much sign of aurora here but on 18 May the K number rose to 4 and I had a few nice 4m and 6m Es contacts later on. It just proves the link to solar activity as on 17 May, just the day before this event arrived on Earth, I worked nobody at all.

Come 19 May I was on watch from 06:00 looking for Es and hoping for some activity on 4m and 2m. You never know. There is always hope.

Right from the start there was 6m Es, which is what you might expect as I worked a couple of stations in Italy with very large stacked yagi arrays.

I took the precaution of working some EA stations on 6m to be ready in case I could do the treble again. At 09:08 4m opened to Spain and  Sure enough at 09:46 I worked EA6XQ on 2m, for a new DXCC on that band, followed by EA6VQ for a new square on 2m. Later I worked them both on 4m for a station double into the Balearic Islands. Whether a station treble to one of these was possible I cannot say because it all got so busy that I rather lost track of 6m. In fact I lost track of everything, including allegedly "important" things like cutting the grass and fixing the back gate hinge. Huh!

Stations worked at GM4FVM on 19 May 2021. Red=2m, Gold=6m, no pin=4m

As usual, click to enlarge the image if necessary.

The following two metre band opening lasted until 12:12, over three hours. From here it spread over time from the Balearics to Spain and France. The figures on 2m speak for themselves, 20 QSOs, 3 DXCC, 13 squares, and best DX to EA6QX in JM19 at 1878km. During those 3 hours and 6 minutes the area I could work moved around between the Balearics, Spain (Catalonia, Navarra and Bizkaia) and then a swathe up through France from the Mediterranean Coast near Beziers (1448km) north to near Angers (945km) and back again. It was amazing to witness.

New squares on 2m totalled 9 plus another one on 4m, with a 6m/4m/2m country treble to Spain and three station doubles, two to the Balearic Islands and one to Spain (EA2EVY).

144Mhz on PSK Reporter at 10:07 on 19 May 2021 - more like HF than 2 metres??

I do not know what others were doing because I could hear only one G station. I could see DX replying to some people I can usually hear. I suppose that happens when everybody near me beams South.

This was the best 2m Es day since I moved to this location 12 years ago, and indeed the best I can remember. Perhaps not the best in terms of distance, but certainly in terms of coverage and duration.

Have conditions changed over the past 12 years? I doubt it. I think that the emergence of data modes has concentrated DX stations onto a single frequency on each band and this has made all the difference. There is no longer a need to search for the DX. And then the speed of completing a QSO had increased - first PSK took an age, then JT65 and JT9 took 6 minutes, and now FT8 just 90 seconds. With 2m Es being a fleeting thing, often offering only a minute or two to complete a QSO, these things matter.

For me, using digital modes during Sporadic E openings has made little difference to the way I operate. I was using them with FSK441 on meteor scatter for a decade or more before FT8 arrived. What it has changed for me is that others are using it for DX purposes too, and the scope for finding someone ready to work me has increased hugely.

As we study the science of Sporadic E in greater detail we can now have a better impression of what it is and how it develops. As more DX is worked a better picture emerges of how propagation is affected by the Sun's influence over the ionosphere.

It is true that data modes are soul-less. I certainly miss the familiar voices and the chat with people I have grown to know on SSB. However, there is nothing to stop anyone from using SSB, or CW or indeed FM (I did hear Spanish stations on 2m FM during this Es opening). The use of data modes in this rather extreme form of DX-ing shows, in my view, how amateur radio constantly develops and adapts to find the maximum distance to be covered. It is the same process we have followed for generations, whether that was the trans-Atlantic tests of the 1920s or the introduction of SSB, or the adoption of higher gain antennas. 

If anyone still wants to yak reliably every day on with AM on Top Band I say, fine, off you go. But I won't be joining you. For sure I will spend a lot more days like 17 May (worked nobody on any band) than 19 May (pile-ups on 144MHz). VHF DX-ers live for days like 19 May 2021. They tend to forget the 17 Mays, though there are lot more quiet days. 

I do not consider myself to be a true DX-er. I have no free standing 20m lattice mast, I have no huge stacked antenna array and I do not run "full legal" power. But does that matter? Even those with simple antennas like my 7 element can take part, and they make the many days of silence worthwhile.

If you sense enthusiasm here and in my last post I make no apologies for it. More on my quieter time on 23cms later. Much quieter but still fun.

DX can be fun, and as part of a balanced diet can result in boredom loss (as they say on the slimming product advertisements).

Now, back to the silence.




Saturday, 15 May 2021

Aurora! DX Sporadic E! Doing the treble, again!

What is the excitement all about, a seasoned HF operator might say. Sure, don't these things happen every year?

Well, no. We have not seen an aurora here for several years. And an aurora often predicts an upturn on Sporadic E. As it is early in May it would be a bit unusual to have a lot of Es right now. But that is what happened.

Doing the treble again : first the Aurora.

As usual, Solarham correctly predicted the arrival of the aurora, so I had 24 hours notice. I was hoping for some auroral contacts and some Es afterwards. What was not predicted was just how strong the effects actually were. This type of prediction is still developing. The speed of the particles and the magnetic orientation they have when they arrive are still largely a matter of guesswork. This uncertainty is why we need to be on our guard for a big one which could damage communications and power supplies on Earth. In the event the K number went to 6 and possibly more.

It started here around 14:00 on 12 May and on SSB I worked GM4JYB. I was pleased to get a call from GI0OWA to make it two DXCC. A lot of the action was on CW and I heard quite a bit on 2m including an OZ. As my sending is hopeless now I refrained from answering.

I also heard a GM station calling CQ so quickly that I could not make out the rest of their callsign. Some G stations do the same, whereas Scandinavian operators generally seem to go more slowly in the difficult conditions. I always think that working aurora requires pretty slow morse as the signal is always distorted.

The aurora cycle on Earth is tied to the solar one and that explains why we have missed them during the solar minimum. Hopefully now we will see more of them. The wisdom in the books suggests that the aurora cycle runs two years behind the solar one, with a later peak too. Fingers crossed.

The point about the aurora was not what I heard or worked, but that it often precedes better conditions on the Sporadic E front. No point watching weather charts when an aurora had shown me that I should watch out for a Sporadic E opening, even in mid-May. And what an opening!

Secondly the 4m and 6m Es opening.

13 May was packed on 6m from start to finish. There were 894 pages of decodes on my WSJT-X log, each page totalling 52 entries, plus 32 on the final page, a total of 46,520 spots decoded here on my (temporary?) 6m two element. Taking 6 spots per QSO - though sometimes as few as 4 suffice - and maybe 4 more CQs unanswered per contact - there were not many unanswered CQs - that makes more than 4,500 QSOs. Those were just the ones I heard. I am not about to count them individually. So I have little to say other than there was too much going on with 6m for me to describe it here. Not bad for early May.

50MHz contacts at GM4FVM on 13 May 2021

As usual click to enlarge if necessary.

I mostly stayed clear on 4m. For all the activity there were no new countries and only one new square (KO28). I still enjoyed it.

70MHz contacts at GM4FVM on 13 May 2021

As befits a sizeable opening caused by solar action it was still going on 14 May.

50MHz contacts at GM4FVM on 14 May 2021

As is apparent from the map, I tend to use my time on 6m now by ferreting about finding unusual places to work - like the Azores or Gibraltar. A nice one was a new DXCC in Morocco. I heard CN8LI so many times over the years when I used 6m WSPR that is seemed odd that CN was a missing one for me. Well, I got that sorted on 14 May. So for me 6m is a sort of pointer for what I look for on 4m and 2m.

As usual I spent my time on 70MHz, always keeping an eye out on 2m just in case some brief opening would occur on 2m. I tend to find those 2m Es openings in June and July, but you never know...

70MHz contacts at GM4FVM on 14 May 2021

It is becoming clear from those maps that my new policy of concentrating on frequencies higher than 50MHz is having its effect on my activity pattern. There has always been a habit of mine not to do so much on 6m. For the first 10 years of my amateur radio hobby 6m was not available to me, and even when it was permitted the number of European stations to work was initially quite small. I did not really get active until about 2010, and it has, somehow, never found a place in my heart. Sure I still use it, but it just seems too crowded for me (!!!). Well, it was for the past two days.

The presence of a "French" station on 4m was a bit of a surprise. I have worked France several times 4m/6m cross band. This was somebody with /EXP after his callsign. He thanked some of the stations for helping him with his "trial". Was this legal? I do not know. I cannot vouch for the legality of all the stations I work. They should be legal, but we shall see about this one. Any station we work could turn out to be a pirate, we never know, do we?

And finally the cream on the cake ...

Suddenly, at about 14:00 on 14 May, 144MHz took off.

144MHz contacts at GM4FVM on 14 May 2021

I had decoded one G station in the hour to 13:00, and only decoded three in the following hour, and so far I had worked nobody at all. Then suddenly EA1NL popped up at +17dB. IN52 at 1569km was a new square. Then EB1DJ in the same square.  This was followed ten minutes later by EA4BDL in IM69, 1850km and another new square.

After the first three contacts there was a 20 minute gap and total silence - I even heard nothing from G-land which is only 10km away. I then put out one CQ and back came EA1AF at +13dB. 1658km in IN71, and a third new square. Brilliant.

And finally I worked EA7HLB who is 2145km from here. I had worked him before, in August 2019. Still, I am not complaining.

Five QSOs (one of the stations was worked twice) in a nine hour 2m a day, and all in Spain. Three new squares and my 2m Es record equalled. Now, that makes all the time spent on 6m and 4m worth while for me. Just waiting to "do the treble" by working Spain moving up the spectrum on three bands is my goal. Following the propagation up and down is what I do this for.

I will work anybody in EA who wants to work me. Since I came here 12 years ago I have now only worked mainland EA on 2m on 6 occasions, a total of 13 stations (four of those for the first time yesterday). I had to wait almost ten years for the first one, by which time I had already managed to work EA8. There is something about EA which is tricky for me. I really savour each contact. CT is even harder. 

So that was me doing the treble. EA on Es on three VHF bands in one day.

This is really the sort of thing I strive for. Using the bands as steps and stairs to climb the frequencies is my thing. I still recall my first 2m Es from here, working EU7AA back in June 2011. That was 2070km and stood as a personal record for years. 

That day in 2011 too I had stepped up from working east on 6m to contacts into the Baltic on 4m and eventually to Belarus on 2m. Not quite the same country, but the same idea. Almost doing the treble but not quite, as Belarus did not have either of the lower bands. I decided to make it harder in future - three stations on three VHF bands in one country in one day. Of course doing the treble with locals does not count, it has to be at least a 500km+ series of QSOs.

Since then I have done the treble on 4m/2m/70cms tropo too but that is hardly the same challenge. With tropo you usually have time measured in hours, with 2m Es you usually have five minutes to complete it. Yesterday was unusual in that I was hearing various EA stations over a 50 minute period, albeit with a 20 minute gap in the middle. The trick with 4m/2m/70cms tropo is to get 4m tropo to work, because tropo is not good at lower frequencies.

So working 2m DX is not enough for me. With Es I try to build my way from 6m, working up as I go to see if I can find the propagation to go further. I have done the 6m/4m/2m treble in one day several times now. First with Italy, then with Croatia, and now with Spain. While doing it on tropo is not quite such a challenge, I did it on 6 May 2020 on 2m/70cms/23cms with one single station, OZ2ND. While it was not a one-station version this time, I did work EA1AF on both 4m and 2m yesterday - a station double within a country treble.

What is the point? Well it shows me how propagation moves up and own the bands - broadly speaking Es goes upwards reaching the highest frequency at its height of activity, whereas tropo moves downwards, generally peaking on the higher bands I use. I am curious about how this all works.

The mystery, the unknown timing, and the probability of nothing at all happening is what keeps me going. But most of all, the sudden nature of it all gives me enjoyment. For all the expensive gear anyone could have, nature has the final say. We are powerless to control nature, but we can try to learn about it. Learn to follow the solar activity, learn about the passage of tropo systems, learn some science and learn some patience.

For now, it is over. The Es has gone. Will I ever do it again? Who knows?

An auroral treble? Hmmm. Not with my CW.

Just follow the available information and you shall find Sporadic E.



Thursday, 29 April 2021

23cm progress with the IC-9700 and linear amplifiers

I have worked 9 DXCC on 23 cms in a little less than two years. Some of this has been on SSB (16 QSOs), some on FT8, JT9 or JT4 (30 data contacts) and even one contact to Sweden on CW. This totals 16 squares, leaving large numbers of workable squares not yet reached. Some others are harder to reach but might be workable someday.

All 1296MHz band contacts at GM4FVM up to 26 April 2021

Why does Eddie EHV appear to be floating on Dogger Bank in the North Sea? Typo by me - I think he should be in IO84XT. He is appearing under both locators. D'oh. Log book correction needed here.

The distribution on the map leaves some pretty obvious reachable countries not worked, such as GW, EI, LX, ON, SP, OK, LA, and of course GU and GJ. Activity is low on 23cms and several local squares have little or no activity at any time. During contests there is more activity and I can often work four or five stations during UKAC, not that I try to work too many stations during UKAC. I prefer to identify likely targets and work the best DX rather than the maximum number of stations.

During tropo lift conditions it is common to have stations on 70cms ask me if I have 23cms, which often allows some DX stations to be worked. I can also fish on PSK Reporter looking for active stations who I can then try to work - this is another big advantage of data modes.

Aircraft scatter has produced some good results. Two of those countries have only been worked on aircraft scatter, well so far anyway. Those QSOs usually have to be arranged in advance. During lockdown the number of planes seems to have about halved, but there are still quite a few "heavy" aircraft around, including freighters.

So I have gradually amassed a reasonable number of contacts. The total is 47 QSOs  with best dx to DF5VAE at 1001km. These results have exceeded my expectations by a large margin.

I still think that I can do better on 23cms.

My 23cms project started with the arrival of the IC-9700 with its 10W output. Neil G4DBN gave me an antenna, I had enough coax, I bought two plugs and a masthead preamp and off I went. I never expected much and I certainly thought my station would stay like that for good.

Later I added a 100W amplifier from Riccardo IK5CON.

All through this short story I have been plagued by doubts about measuring my output power. The Wavenode power meter I use showed that the IC-9700 only put out about 4 watts and the linear only 50W - both about half what I would have expected. At first I blamed the IC-9700, now I blame the meter. Without any way of calibrating the meter, I was left in the dark.

Lest you think that I am being negligent by operating without a proper power meter, I can measure my mains input power very accurately and I have definitely been operating legally. Unless of course my amplifier has an efficiency greater than 100% and is generating its own power internally.

Recently, Sid, G8SFA, offered me the loan of an amplifier capable of about 200W output. Certainly the Wavenode shows that my power has increased by 3dB over the 100w amplifier.

G8SFA 1296MHz linear amplifier

It is very kind of Sid to lend me this piece of kit. The snag I have now is that despite the extra power I cannot work him using his amplifiers at both ends. In this case it is the terrain which is causing the problems. Sid has improved his antenna. I can hear him but he cannot hear me. He is 100km away in Prudhoe and he cannot detect me, yet I have worked Charly, DF5VAE, on an island in the Baltic Sea at ten times the distance.

Trying to work Sid is the sort of challenge that makes amateur radio interesting for me. There are hills between us, in contrast with Charly. Surprisingly, the path from here to Ruegen is almost line of sight even accounting for the curvature of the Earth. We both have elevated sites close to the sea. There are no intervening hills in Denmark along the way which are high enough to get in the way. Everything else between us is either North Sea or Baltic Sea. Here I have the Cheviots between me and Sid.

I have run tests with Tom GM8MJV and Jon GM4JTJ. They both kindly spared the time to test Sid's linear and the tests confirm that it does indeed produce the expected difference in received signal. It also seems to sound good and looks like it produces a narrow signal. So, thanks to Sid, I have enough power now and the otherwise excellent IK5CON amplifier can serve as a backup.

What I really need is a better antenna for 1296MHz. In the photo below we see a new team member examining the 23cm antenna, or at least, the shadow of the 1296MHz antenna ... she is not impressed.

Paddy observing the shadow of the 23cms and 4m antennas, other masts are in the distance

A new shack companion, Paddy, has arrived safely but so far she is proving to be rather different from the much missed previous Officer Of the Watch, Katy. She does not like the shack for a start. Wait for winter I say. The shoe will be other other paw then.

I am keen to work Sid on 1296MHz. An antenna with more gain should help. Is this my next step on a band I never really expected to be so productive?