GM3WOJ Contesting page Updated - August 2006
Welcome to all readers of September 2006 RadCom !
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This page contains a series of 20 articles entitled 'Contesting from Scotland' which I wrote between 1998 and 2003 for the quarterly 'GM DX Group Digest' ( www.gmdx.org.uk ).
These articles have been edited slightly to make them more Internet-friendly. I've highlighted the key headings. Remember - these articles are written from the perspective of NW Europe and do contain some references which are now slightly out-of-date. See August 2006 update at the end....
'Contesting - from Scotland' - Part 1
I was licensed as GM3WOJ in July 1967 when I was 16 years old. Later that year I visited a Scottish Rally at Culzean Castle in Ayrshire, where the Royal Signals had set up an HF SSB station signing GB3CC, and I was stuck in front of the microphone to make some QSOs ! We were beaming to the U.S.A. and running 400W from a massive dark-green military amplifier - I called 'CQ' then went back to receive - what was that babble of voices ? My first ever pile-up, of which I could make virtually nothing - talk about 'thrown in at the deep end!' After a few QSOs I was quietly ushered aside to make way for more experienced operators. That experience shaped my interests in amateur radio - what was this babble of voices, and how could they be controlled so that QSOs could be made ? A life-long interest in contesting had been born. In the mid-1970s the 'South of Scotland VHF/UHF Contest Group' came into existence (ironically it folded up immediately after we won the VHF National Field Day in 1989 - we had achieved our goal) and the 'North of Scotland Contest Group' rose from the ashes.
Firstly - why participate in a contest at all ? Contesting represents everything that is good and bad in Amateur Radio - the bad points are the indiscipline of operators, who can also be rude, the QRM, the pressure to achieve (we are all naturally competitive, whether we admit it or not) and the tiredness - why bother ? These bad points are outweighed by the good points - the thrill of doing well, the technical challenge of setting up a contest station, the general all-round excitement of a contest weekend, the sunshine and fresh air of a portable contest, etc etc. The equipment and antennas of a good contest station make day-to-day DXing easy. Worldwide, interest in contesting has developed so much that there is a contest almost every weekend - don't hold up your hands in horror and say 'these contests just cause QRM to my regular sked with Fred in Sydney' - generally speaking the major contests which use up a whole band, or all of the bands except the WARC bands, only occur on a few weekends each year. In other words, there are plenty of contests, both on HF and VHF to take part in, and the rules are sufficiently different to present you with a good variety of challenges. Recently, a new series of contest have been introduced on VHF - the 'Backpackers' contests, where everyone is encouraged to go /P with a modest station and antenna. Even up here in Scotland, where QSOs on VHF and UHF can be very difficult, these contests are a lot of fun (if you don't get blown off the hill and soaked through!) On HF, there are contests for just about every aspect of our hobby - SSB, CW, RTTY, SSTV 160m, 10m etc. There are relatively few stations in Scotland who actually enter contests - surprisingly those that do include a number of 'old-timers' with GM3 calls (like myself?!) - age is no barrier to contesting. By choosing a section in a major HF contest where you think there might be no other entries from GM, you could win a certificate at your first attempt e.g. 7MHz SSB, 10m CW. Set yourself some modest targets for the contest weekend - no-one else will know if you don't reach them - e.g. 500 QSOs on 15m, or whatever - it's very satisfying to pass your own target. Where you live will also determine which contests you want to take part in - I'm lucky and live out in the country, so putting up temporary antennas for a major contest is possible - I've also lived in a city where a dipole made of thin wire was the only possible antenna - you can still enjoy contesting wherever your home QTH is, or you could ask a friend if you can use their station for the contest weekend - this 'guest operating' is common worldwide.
Something for you to think about - when I give a talk at a radio club I usually say :- 'SPEND AS MUCH ON YOUR ANTENNA AS YOU HAVE SPENT IN THE SHACK !'
Part 2 - Antennas - the key to success
'SPEND AS MUCH ON YOUR ANTENNA AS YOU HAVE SPENT IN THE SHACK !' Well - maybe a bit overstated, but the underlying point is very important - if you have the space available at your QTH, and can overcome any planning restrictions, you should install the best antenna system you can afford. You might spend thousands on transceivers + amplifiers etc., but trying to save money on your antenna system is a fatal mistake. Let's think about two different ways to spend £3500 in 1998 :-
Station 1 = New TS950sdx + G5RV
Station 2 = S/H TS850s + S/H TL922 + S/H P60 Versatower + new A4S + 80/40m dipoles
Station 2 will work lots more DX than Station 1, more easily, much faster, and will have £1000 extra left-over to spend !
This article on antennas is in two parts - this first part discusses feeders, connectors, antenna tuning units, power meters, baluns, antenna matching and books on antennas - part 2 discusses the antennas and antenna supports/rotators used for contest working.
Feeders - as important as the antenna itself. Look around your shack - is there any antenna, no matter what frequency or how short the feeder length, that is fed with RG58/UR76 (0.25") coax ? If the answer is yes, then that antenna will be performing badly - on transmit you are wasting most of your power in feeder loss. Get rid of all RG58/UR76 if you can ! Contest stations pay a lot of attention to minimising feeder loss - less feeder loss benefits receive performance as well as transmit performance. It's easy to test your feeder loss - do this once a year for each feeder, keep a note of the results, and you'll quickly find out if, for example, water has got into the coax and its loss has increased. You'll need a power meter, 50W dummy load, and a 10W transmitter - 28MHz is a good compromise test frequency. Connect the 50W dummy load to the far end of your feeder, measure 10W into the feeder, then move the power meter to the far end beside the dummy load and measure the power arriving at that end. Recently I did this test with a local amateur, testing feeders which are in good condition :-
RF 'Input' power to coax cable = 10W at 28.500MHz
RF 'Output' power from coax cable :- 100 feet of LDF4-50 Heliax = 8W
100 feet of RG213 (UR67) = 6W
100 feet of RG58 (UR76) = 3W
(You can calculate the loss in dB for each feeder by using the log. of the power ratios) The conclusion - even for 160m and 80m, thin coax is a disaster. If you can, use Heliax (called 'hardline' in the U.S.A.) - changing to Heliax makes an incredible difference, especially on 144MHz and above. You'll think you've added an extra antenna ! One problem - Heliax cable is heavy, and you have to have some method of supporting this weight if using it to feed an 80m dipole, for example. A final point about coax cables - made by Jim Fisher GM0NAI, concerns the efficiency of the outer braid for 'screening' - RG213U is only rated 90-95% for this, therefore on transmit RF power is leaking from the coax into the shack, and on receive, noise or local RF can be picked up. Heliax cables (and some others) have a solid outer, therefore should provide 100% screening.
Open-wire feeders - very low loss (theoretically zero), but rarely used at contest stations - why not ? Well - open-wire feeders need an antenna tuning unit to match the 50W unbalanced output of the transmitter to the 600W (usually) balanced open-wire feeders. It is difficult to construct an antenna tuning unit which can handle the power levels used at contest stations. Open-wire feeders are also mechanically tricky, and need to be kept away from other feeders and metal objects to perform properly.
Connectors. Unfortunately, most manufacturers fit SO239 ('UHF') sockets to their equipment for the amateur market. I don't know about you, but I detest fitting standard PL259 plugs to RG213U/UR67 (10.3mm) coax - I'm never convinced that the braid has been properly soldered. Luckily, you can buy 'pressure-seal' PL259 plugs for RG213U - these are more like an N-type plug to fit, and are much better. Always buy PTFE PL259 plugs and SO239 sockets - some of the cheaper brown insulations just melt. If you can, especially on VHF/UHF, use only BNC connectors for low power, and N connectors (for power levels up to 1kW) Both BNC and N connectors are fiddly to fit to cables, but if properly fitted should last for years. Use the minimum number of connectors between your radio and the antenna - each connector introduces a little extra loss and possible unreliability. Sealing up connectors to prevent water getting in is vital - I've experimented over the years with a variety of methods e.g. 'Denso' (grease-impregnated) tape, car underseal, etc. - all these have some drawback in the long-term. Use self-amalgamating tape, stretched to 50% extra length and overlapping 50%. In commercial installations, 2 or 3 layers of self-amalgamating tape are covered with layers of PVC tape, then a sealing varnish like 'Scotchcote'.
Antenna Tuning Units. Avoid using these if you can - try to use a resonant antenna which presents a 50W resistive load to the transmitter via the feeder (the antenna itself may have a matching system like a gamma or hairpin match.) A.T.U.s introduce loss, and are unreliable - especially those which use 'roller-coaster' variable inductors. Many transceivers have built-in A.T.U.s which may be convenient for temporarily matching an antenna, but it's better not to use them.
Power meters. Nothing special here - just make sure you have one connected in line, and that you watch it all the time you are transmitting - investigate quickly if the power changes or the SWR increases. One point to note - most power meters will indicate a higher forward power than normal if something goes wrong with the SWR of the antenna - don't be fooled !
Baluns. Divided into two common types - voltage baluns (which usually burn out straight away!) and current baluns. A 1:1 current balun usually consists of about 30cm of thin PTFE coax with about 20-30 small ferrite rings stacked around it, all packaged nicely in a weatherproof plastic cylinder with an SO239 socket on the bottom, and two 'lugs' or wire 'tails' for connecting your wire antenna or the wires from the yagi matching system. Baluns like the W2DU (larger and better than old W2AU) cost about US $30 and can handle a lot of power if the antenna SWR is low - there is a 'yagi' version available which has the drain holes in the side, for clamping horizontally below the yagi boom. Current baluns are available for frequencies from 1.8 - 30MHz, and 50 - 144MHz, and are a worthwhile investment.
What is the purpose of a current balun ? To match a 'balanced' load to an 'unbalanced' coax feeder, and to stop RF flowing back down the 'outer' of the coax, and back to the P.A. However, antenna expert Mark Hughes GM4ISM pointed out to me that RF radiated by the antenna can be picked up on the outer of the coax, bypassing the balun, and that feeders should be properly earthed at the tower base, or where they enter the shack. This is a good idea, although if you're cutting back some of the outer plastic covering of the coax to fit an earthing clamp, it obviously has to be well sealed up to prevent water getting in.
Antenna matching. Specifically - matching yagi antennas. The two most common types of matching system are the Gamma match (e.g. CushCraft antennas) and the Hairpin match (e.g. Telex/HyGain antennas) Gamma matches are used where the driven element of the yagi is not insulated from the boom - a hairpin match needs a split driven element, with each half insulated from the boom, which is mechanically more complicated. However, gamma matches 'skew' the beam pattern of the yagi slightly, and can have problems with the insulation breaking down. Hairpin matches are easier to use than they look, and can be connected to the 50W coax feeder via a 1:1 current balun or a coax balun.
Antenna books. Some good, some excellent, some a waste of money! ARRL Antenna book = good. ON4UN 'Antennas and techniques for Low-band DXing' (ISBN 0-87259-466-1) = excellent - despite the title, this book covers a lot of basic and advanced ideas for LF and HF antenna work. It goes over the top at times - for example describing a 3-element full-size 80m quad antenna which weighs 2 tonnes (2000kg), but is a very useful source of information. This ON4UN book is published by the ARRL. Many other antenna books are very out-of-date or reflect the author's preferences too much.
Part 3 Antennas - the key to success - continued
Antenna modelling software/Antenna analysers. With the increase in computing power available to the average amateur, it is now possible to use antenna 'modelling' software which will optimise a yagi or wire antenna - you can choose the 'tradeoffs' e.g. gain 35%, front-to-back 30%, SWR 20%, Z 15% etc. and the software will re-optimise the dimensions of the antenna to suit. For yagi antennas, the YO (yagi optimiser) software is very good, and similarly the AO (antenna optimiser) for wire antennas. The associated TA (terrain analysis) software allows you to examine antenna gain etc. specifically for the terrain surrounding the actual antenna installation. Generally speaking, computer-optimised yagi antennas have the reflector, driven element and first director close together, and the other directors at wide spacing. This close coupling of these elements means a low feed impedance, which can make matching difficult. Also, the performance of these antennas depends (as in all yagi antennas) on low resistance joints in all the elements.
Antenna analysers - an excellent idea - self-contained and can make tests anywhere. One word of caution - check the antenna analyser SWR reading using a conventional SWR bridge and your transmitter - the antenna analyser SWR reading is sometimes too high, and you will waste time trying to reduce it.
Rotators Rotators suffer during a contest - they do more work in one 24-hour contest than in 3 months of normal operation. Rotators which cover more than 360 degrees e.g. the G1000RC save time by letting you move the antenna past the normal end-stops. I like Telex/HyGain rotators - like the HamIV and T2X - they lack the features of other rotators, but they are rugged and reliable. The handbooks for the HamIV and T2X specify that an 8-core cable is used (with 2 of the cores thicker, for the 30V wedge brake solenoid) - 8-core cable is expensive, however a 6-core cable (e.g. cheap 7-core trailer/caravan cable) can be used if the 'start capacitor' is removed from the control box and mounted at the rotator, suitably waterproofed - this is easy to do. One problem with HamIV and T2X rotators is that operators who are unfamiliar with them tend to release the 'Brake' switch before the antenna has stopped moving - this can damage the wedge brake. An electronic 'mod' fitted to the control box does this sequencing for you. Take your rotator to bits every 2 or 3 years and re-grease the gear rings, etc. - don't wait until it fails ! (it is sure to fail during a contest!) Use a good quality thrust-bearing above the rotator - some of the cheaper ones do not take 2" diameter tubing.
Antenna supports. Crank-up tilt-over lattice towers are the ideal support for contest antennas - a faulty antenna can be lowered and repaired in minutes. However, some of the larger auto-braked winches have very low gearing - it takes 450 turns of one winch handle to lower the antenna from 80' to 20' and another 350 turns of the other winch handle to tilt the tower over - very time-consuming (but good exercise!) Mobile towers can be used for antennas that are set up for a contest weekend, but they need to be well guyed. The actual height above ground of an antenna on a fully-extended 60' Versatower, for example, is probably about 56' - you have 3 x 20' sections each overlapping about 4' = (20 + 16 + 16 = 52') + (head unit/stub mast = 4') makes a total of 56' above ground. A longer stub-mast gives extra height, but may need guying with a rotary bearing. For VHF/UHF or wire antennas, scaffold poles (aluminium ideally) can be joined to make 40' or 60' poles which can be raised using a 'gin pole'. The gin pole method of raising antennas is an excellent method - a single operator can raise a 60' pole carrying e.g. 4 x 19ele 144MHz yagis - using a winch and 2 pulleys. One important point concerns the weight of what we are putting on top of the tower - it is not possible to lift a head-unit + rotator + stub-mast + 5ele 20m yagi, etc, yet this is going to be at the top of the tower - a frightening thought - it's like having someone standing on top of your tower all the time - pay extra attention to guying the tower, and keep the guys properly tensioned. One good tip is to weld onto the head-unit a metal rod sticking out horizontally about 15" - this is used to space the feeders and rotator cable away from the tower, and prevent them catching and being damaged when lowering the tower. Pulleys at the end of this metal rod will let you have 'halyards' for wire antennas. The metal that lattice towers are made of is amazingly soft steel - they rely entirely on the lattice structure and guys ropes or wires for their strength. Guy a lattice tower every 20' - not just at the top - they can bend in the middle (as I discovered on 25th October 1995!) Use guy wires for the lower sections, and guy ropes (10mm minimum diameter) for the top section, to reduce degradation of the antenna performance by nearby guy wires.
Antennas for contesting. You can easily fill a book with info. about antennas - with only a couple of A5 size pages I'll concentrate on some general statements about antennas for contesting, and some of our experiences with specific antennas :-
HF antennas. Trapped antennas e.g. trapped HF yagi beams, trap dipoles - not very good performance - on transmit in particular - the traps are inefficient, and absorb/waste RF power. Larger trapped yagis, like the TH7, work well for single operator contests where you need to work 20/15/10. A typical 3-ele trapped yagi is poor on 20m, fair on 15m, and reasonable on 10m. Linearly-loaded yagis e.g. KT34XA - fairly good forward gain, but poor front-to-back. Here in Scotland we are right in the 'firing-line' for European stations beaming to the U.S.A. - good front-to-back on a yagi is essential (although if it's too good other European stations come on the same frequency, so a compromise is needed!)
Quads - not widely used by contest stations, for the following reasons - good performance, but difficult to install (a 3-D antenna whereas a yagi is 2-D), difficult to resonate/adjust/match, poor long-term reliability - wires break eventually due to flexing of the spreaders.
Monoband yagis - essential if you want to be really competitive. Computer-optimised as discussed before, fed with good feeder via a high-power balun. As high as possible e.g. 40m yagi - min.height 90', 20m yagi = 70', 15m yagi = 60', 10m yagi = 40'. With 10m yagis in particular, it is essential that they are not too high - all that happens is that the main lobe of the 10m yagi splits up, which is an undesirable effect. Gain of a yagi depends mainly on the boom length, so how many elements you have does not matter too much (as long as it's at least 4!). On receive a trapped yagi may not be too far behind a monobander - it's on transmit that the difference really shows up.
When assembling any yagi, put a thin layer of aluminium-based anti-seize compound (Hy-Gain supply 'Penetrox-A' from Burndy Corp. and Cushcraft supply 'Noalox') on all aluminium to aluminium joints - a couple of years ago I dismantled a 20m monobander which has lain for 18 years in the grass at a government installation - to my amazement the joints came apart easily, solely because of proper use of 'Penetrox' when originally assembled. Never, ever, varnish any antenna - the varnish penetrates into the joints and causes continuity problems.
LF antennas. Height is the key here - a half-wave dipole, high above ground in the clear, is a good antenna. It is difficult to get directivity on LF, and European QRM is a major problem. Some LF antennas we have used :- 80m - Vertical with 2 elevated radials (as per ON4UN book) - made from 19.2m of 40mm thin-wall aluminium tube, fed via W2DU 1:1 current balun - height of radials above ground adjusted to give best match - length of radials adjusted to resonate antenna at 3780 or 3520kHz as required. Works well. (In theory the radials should be 17' above ground to minimise losses - this gives about a 1.8:1 SWR which is then reduced using a tapped 'Un-Un') In practise I found the 2 radials were about 4' above ground (in a straight line, one on each side of the vertical section) for minimum SWR. The length of the radials is really critical. The 40m version of this antenna is a very effective antenna. 80m/40m Sloper-systems - Stewart GM4AFF is an expert on these 'slopers' - they are very time-consuming to set up, but do give you directivity/front-to-back on 80m/40m This antenna consists of 5 half-wave dipoles sloping down from a single high support, spaced at 72 degree intervals round the support, fed separately with coax. via a switch-box - when any particular dipole is selected, the others behave as 'reflectors'. Slopers work well. (a single half-wave sloper on 7MHz, sloping NW, using the pole or tower as the 'reflector', is very effective for reducing unwanted European signals) Beverages - used by all the top contest stations to improve receive performance - lots of open space needed, and you may need a 'pre-amp'. Used mainly on 160/80m. but can be used on 40/20m also.
To sum up - antennas are the key to successful contesting, but you have to make do with whatever antennas you have or can put up temporarily. A good operator will achieve good results despite a mediocre antenna, but having a good antenna makes life a lot easier.
A quick question - about operating techniques - send me an e-mail with your translation 'Chan eil ann an deanamh liost ach cosg uine gun feum' There is a prize for the most accurate translation (adjudicator = Rita GM1MYR)
Part 4 - Equipment for contesting
Although good antennas are the key to real success in contesting and DXing, the equipment used also is very important. Whether we like it or not, a top contest station in the late 1990s, especially in the Single-operator class, is using two of everything, and I mean everything! Two transceivers, two amplifiers, two towers, two antennas, two rotators, two computers - this is an expensive treadmill to keep up with ! We'll discuss why 2 of everything is being used later in this article. Let's look in more detail at each aspect of what you need in the shack :-
Transceiver. I've heard it said 'they are not making good radios anymore' and I probably agree. Without being nostalgic, the reality is that the basic 'radio' performance i.e. blocking dynamic range, 3rd order intermod. etc of almost all current transceivers is inferior to that of older designs. Often, manufacturers install D.S.P., not only to attract buyers, but partly to make up for poor receiver design. D.S.P. is of limited use in contesting, and I would say is less effective in any kind of radio use than the manufacturers would have us believe - give me a well-designed front-end any day ! The best feature of D.S.P. is the 'auto-notch' which removes carriers - it works brilliantly but almost everything else does not do very much, except maybe impress visitors to the shack ! I use an FT-1000MP, which has some good features, but has some design deficiencies (I don't think many 1000MP owners like to talk about this!) - it is a bit deaf, especially on 15m, and suffers from an audio hiss problem - for day-to-day DXing these deficiencies don't really worry me, but in a contest you need to be confident that you can hear most of the stations who are calling you. Unfortunately, the standard modification that can be made to reduce the 'hiss' degrades the strong-signal handling noticeably, so is not recommended. Having used just about every different type of transceiver over the last few years, I would strongly suggest that you borrow a transceiver and compare its performance before you buy it - do not believe the advertising ! Also, the ARRL have available on their web-site (for ARRL members) the 'extended test report' for most different transceivers - these quote the measured figures and you can compare results for yourself. Points to look for in a good transceiver are - good strong signal handling and good selectivity - the bands are very crowded during a contest, so purchase 'narrow' filters from e.g. INRAD (W2VJN) 1.8 or 2.0 kHz on SSB, 250 Hz on CW (a 500 Hz CW filter is useless, you will find 3 or 4 stations within the passband, but remember that with a 250 Hz filter you need to tune around with the R.I.T. for stations calling slightly off frequency) If your transceiver has 2 I.F.s, purchase the first/second I.F. (cheaper but poorer shape factor) filter first - you might not need both filters. On C.W., an external audio filter can often out-perform the internal (D.S.P.) filtering. Learn how to operate your radio under high-QRM conditions (also training your ears and brain to be a good filter) - which controls help and which don't ? Under contest conditions, always have the A.G.C. switched to 'fast' and never use the noise-blankers. If you have a radio with 2 receivers, or are operating with 2 transceivers, practise listening to 2 frequencies at once - it is very difficult to do at first and during a contest is not the time to learn this skill. There is a new generation of 'computer accessory' transceivers like the Kachina - they have some advantages e.g. they can be entirely remotely controlled so you can sit in your office and work 15m or whatever using your home station - however the user-interface does not support contesting well as yet, and many operators bemoan the loss of an old-fashioned tuning dial ! (you can buy one). Amplifier. Most commercial amplifiers have inadequate cooling for contest use - however this problem can usually be easily overcome by fitting an extra fan or fans. Amplifier power supplies are usually neglected by manufacturers - the reliability is considerably improved if a cold draught blows across the transformer, diodes, capacitors, etc. Under contest conditions the duty-cycle of the amplifier is well beyond the normal ratings, but it will suffer no ill effects if the cooling and the tuning-up are properly done. Check that the air inlet cannot recycle hot air from the air outlet. Unfortunately extra cooling can add considerably to the noise level in the shack, but this is the price that has to be paid for reliability. In a multi-operator station, every operator should know what the 'normal' meter readings for each amplifier are, and how to switch off the amplifier if these readings change. Amplifer design and construction will be the subject of a future article. Computer + software. The use of computers has revolutionised contesting in the last 10 years - you can log stations quickly, your transceiver is connected to the computer so band changes are automatically followed, and 'dupe' checking (checking for a previous or duplicate QSO which would score zero points) is very fast. One of the first, and arguably the most successful, software written specifically for contest logging is 'CT' written by Ken Wolffe K1EA - still available today and still widely used. Computers are easily networked using 'CT', for multi-operator, multi-transmitter situations. Other software allows the computer to actually work the stations on CW for you ! The day of the totally automated contest station is already with us, but which section of the contest should the computers enter ?! Single-operator stations are now often using two computers connected together to make a 'back-up' log after every QSO, in case one computer 'dies' during the contest. Other things that logging software can do are:- 'grab' DX Cluster 'spots' and QSY the radio instantly to that frequency, check your 'rate' (no.of QSOs per hour), check for 'mults' (contries/zones that you need to work), save the log to floppy disc every hour for backup, etc. Processor speed is not a big consideration, nor is memory capacity - an old 386 with 4MB of RAM is adequate for up to 20000 QSOs, but the 'dupe' checking takes noticeably longer once you have worked a lot of stations with a slower processor. Make sure you are totally familiar with the software commands and what the software can or cannot do before the contest starts, and find out what to do if the software 'crashes' during the contest.
Footswitch/ electronic T/R. A contest station must change as quickly as possible from transmit to receive and vice versa - most modern radios have very fast T/R times, but most amplifiers, especially high-power amps., are fairly slow. The excellent circuit from Dave GM4EVS (GM DX Group Digest - Autumn 1998) speeds up the whole process slightly. Another technique we use is to have the footswitch control the amplifier and an additional contact in the amp. switches the transceiver - again this speeds things up. On SSB, the use of 'VOX' is a disaster - if you think about it, unless the circuitry is sophisticated, you are asking the antenna change-over relay to change over just as the RF is at a peak - result = burnt-out relay contacts in the long run. If you need to use 'VOX' in an SSB contest your transmissions are far too long anyway ! Similarly on CW, I can't see the need for QSK - it's just a distraction ! Using a footswitch as your PTT leaves your hands free to write, drink coffee, etc. (however the command from your brain to press the footswitch does take longer to reach your foot than your hand!) Try to get hold of an old office 'Dictaphone' or similar foot-switch - most footswitches you can buy new at the moment are either too small, too unreliable or have springs that are too strong. Operating position. Very important - if you have to sit for many hours, you must be comfortable, and able to easily reach all the operating controls on the radio/amplifier/rotator controller/computer/antenna switch, etc. You must also be able to easily and quickly read all dials, meters etc. This is not easy to arrange if a lot of equipment is involved. The operating position should be well lit (you'll fall asleep in a cosy dimly-lit shack) and plenty of fresh air available - in summer an 'operator cooling fan' is essential ! Great-circle maps, zone maps, and posters outlining the main software commands should be easily visible from the operating position, although again the software now provides the operator with the information about prefixes, beam headings, etc. If your shack is in the house, the family will not take kindly to you shouting 'CQ contest' all night - take them into consideration.
Two-radio working. This is very fashionable - if we consider a single-operator multi-band entry (widely regarded as the most important section in any contest) then 2 radio-working, so called SO2R (single-op two-radio) is the latest idea. You 'run' stations continuously on 1 band, while searching for/working 'mults' on another band. Unfortunately, this often means that some SO2R stations call 'CQ' on both bands and attempt to run 2 pile-ups at once - something that may be specifically forbidden by the rules but is often difficult to detect, even when examining the timing of QSOs in the computer log. The equipment setup for SO2R is complicated - you need a 'lockout' switching system which prevents one radio transmitting into the other, transmitting without an antenna, etc. Antenna switching is a major consideration - ideally every available antenna could be switched to either radio, but this may be impracticable. Amplifiers, voice/CW keyers, headphones, etc also all need to be switched correctly. Despite all these complications, SO2R is seen as the way forward in contesting, and all the latest software supports SO2R control. I have tried SO2R and it is quite an experience (both on phone and CW) having separate pile-ups calling - one in your right ear and one in your left ear - it certainly tests your operating skills ! Other equipment for contesting. Headset - essential - leaves your hands free for typing etc. Make sure that it has 'closed' earphones to cut out room noise, and a small flexible boom mic. Voice keyer - essential - allows you to call 'CQ' even when you are totally exhausted and hoarse - you'll wonder how you ever operated a long SSB contest without one! A typical 'external' DVK (Digital Voice Keyer) like the MFJ-432, guzzles batteries - I power mine using a small 12V 2.1Ah sealed accumulator as used in burglar alarms, which powers the DVK easily for 48 hours. (Users of the MFJ-432 have had problems with RFI when using mains power supplies) Programmable memory keyer for CW - essential, although the software now does the job for you. Bandpass filters - essential for Multi-transmitter environments. Available as single-band units or multiband units - switched manually, or automatically tracking the radio/software band-changes. Antenna switches - most are poorly made, introduce loss, and are unreliable - avoid using these unless you have to. Antenna switches which change antenna automatically are available, but are fairly expensive.
There's one reassuring factor in all this - a good operator will still achieve good results in a contest even if he/she does not have all of the hardware we've described - operator skill is another key factor in contesting. Before discussing contest operating techniques, it is worthwhile looking at day-to-day operating practices on the amateur bands. There are some examples of good practise to be heard, and some bad practises. I emphasise that these are my personal opinions, based on 32 years of operating experience.
Good techniques include :-
(i) making short QSOs when many stations are waiting to work you, and conversely respecting another station's wish to only have short QSOs.
(ii) giving your callsign after every QSO or at least every 2 or 3 QSOs so that stations do not have to wait long to identify you. Remember that the majority of stations do not have access to the DX Cluster network, so don't know who you are until you identify. A rare DX station may quickly get fed up waiting for you to give your callsign, and QSY.
Poor techniques include :-
(i) 'list' operation - I cannot see any circumstances, and I really mean any, where 'list' operation is good practise - it slows down the QSO rate a lot and leads to frustration when waiting. I've had it suggested to me that, for example, a portable station who is only spending a few hours on an island under battery power prefers to have a list made - I disagree strongly - if you think about it, half of the stations on the 'list' may be unable to actually hear the portable station and this wastes a lot of time. Propagation often changes while waiting and you lose the opportunity of a QSO. The alternative to 'list' operation viz. working 'pile-ups', can be daunting to an inexperienced operator, but is well worth using - the number of QSOs made per hour will increase amazingly, you should work everyone who is calling, and it's great fun ! An experienced operator can easily work 200 or more stations per hour under normal conditions. Other poor techniques regularly heard are -
(ii) working by 'numbers' (unless you are a new DXCC entity!) and (iii) having a 'net controller' - on HF especially it is often difficult for the 'net controller' to hear the stations wishing to join the net (or sometimes the DX station he is supposed to be controlling the net for!)
I am not trying to tell you how to operate - we all have different interests and enjoy different operating techniques - I'm just pointing out that 'list' operation is inefficient and outdated. There is so much to say about working pile-ups that an entire future article will be devoted to the subject.
Part 5 - Contest operating techniques
Contest operating - time is the key factor here - the whole point of most contests is to make as many QSOs as possible in a given time - if you are making QSOs quickly, you have extra time available to search for 'mults' (= multipliers i.e. countries/zones/U.S.states which multiply your 'QSO points' to give the final score) Most contests involve the contester in reaching a balance between quantity and quality - lots of QSOs are no use unless you have enough 'multipliers' and vice versa. In a contest, what you say into the microphone or send on CW governs how well you will do (assuming you have competitive equipment and antennas and reasonable propagation) - you cannot blame anyone else if you operate badly or make an error in your tactics, but you can take great personal satisfaction if you do well. In a multi-operator situation, every operator should not be afraid to ask for advice about what band-openings are likely, what is the best technique for working split-frequency on this band ,etc - someone will have the answer ! In general terms, contest operating techniques have changed - a good operator in 1979 would still be a good operator in 1999, but they would do things differently - the use of computers has speeded up all logging operations, the DX Cluster has changed operating habits (for the worse in some cases which I'll explain later) - a 1999 contest station is a high-tech environment, with a high degree of automatic control, placing extra demands on an operators knowledge, skill and determination.
Preparing for a contest. Some obvious things here - check the contest calendar (there are some good ones on the Internet) for dates and times, then read the rules - decide which section/band/mode you want to enter. Make a detailed operating plan, including rest breaks (easy if the chosen band is only open for part of the 24 hours) - consult 'band experts', previous contest logs, WWV numbers, propagation predictions and propagation modelling software (e.g.HFX) (I always worry that propagation prediction is inevitably inaccurate because natural processes are involved, but some of the predictions can be useful - don't rely on them though - check the actual conditions!) Study propagation, but more importantly, check the actual propagation in the days leading up to the contest weekend. Make notes about possible band openings, possible unusual paths, when rare multipliers might be worked, etc. Check bandplans - which parts of 20m are the different U.S. licence classes allowed to use ? Where will JA stations be found on 160m ?, etc. This helps you choose the best operating frequency on each band. Check the latest prefix lists (new prefixes or variations seem to appear all the time) and have a rough idea of beam headings to the different parts of the world, both short-path and long-path. This may seem obvious, and I mentioned it before, but know how to operate your station ! Know which controls work for reducing interference, the characteristics of each available antenna, the drive levels on each band that prevent the linear amplifier from being over-driven, all the software commands that you are likely to use, etc. You do not want to have to learn any aspect of this during the contest. Tidy the operating area, and have spare pens, spare computer discs, etc nearby. Physical preparation - get plenty of sleep in the week before a 48-hour contest (our group specialise in starting contests totally exhausted after 15 hours of antenna work in the rain !) If it's a CW contest, practise your CW by running RUFZ or PED (CW pile-up simulators) on the computer - there is an SSB version of PED - it's amusing to listen to but not as useful as the CW version. Mental preparation - think positively !
A good operator sounds as if they know what they are doing, or trying to do - in the next major HF contest, spend a few minutes listening to one of the top operators in action - you will notice the following habits :-
1. they give their callsign regularly (not doing this is a 'DX-Cluster' induced bad habit - the operator makes the assumption, which is completely wrong, that everyone calling is responding to a 'spot' and knows what the callsign is - this bad operating habit has plagued several recent DX-peditions) Depending on the number of stations calling, it may not be necessary to identify yourself after every QSO, but many good operators do - every 2 or 3 QSOs is the acceptable minimum.
2. they don't waste ANY time - no extra words, no extended 'CQs', no un-necessary actions.
3. they seem confident, and completely in control of the pile-up calling.
4. they will (nearly) always immediately reply to one station from a pile-up calling - no dithering about.
5. they might make QSOs in English, Spanish, French,German or Italian if necessary.
6. if they are a 'single-operator' station, they may 'disappear' for a few seconds, maybe leaving a voice-keyer calling CQ - they are working a multiplier somewhere else on the band or on another band.
7. they will quickly QSY if the frequency they have chosen is unsuitable - they won't waste time if the band is not open, or by 'slugging it out' with another station to make a point of principle which damages their score overall.
8. they will ignore deliberate QRM completely, and just keep working stations.
9. they will not be impressed by stations calling them who give only two letters of their callsign (another bad operating habit!) - this slows things down considerably. If there are many stations calling they may proceed with the QSO having only heard 2 letters of a callsign, but it is bad operating practise to call with anything other than your full callsign.
10. they will take the time to check a callsign or report carefully, before logging the QSO.
Compare these two examples of a good operator and a poor operator working the same station on SSB, exchanging the same information, but taking very different amounts of time :-
GM7V : CQ Golf Mike Seven Victor ..
JA stns. : xxxxxxxxKPxxxxx .. (the JA stations are giving their full callsigns in the pile-up)
GM7V : Kilo Papa Five Nine One Four ..
JA0KPL : Japan Alpha Zero Kilo Papa Lima Five Nine Two Five ..
GM7V : Japan Alpha Zero Kilo Papa Lima Thanks QRZ ..
GM7V : CQ CQ CQ, CQ Contest, CQ Contest, Golf Mike Seven Victor, Golf Mike Seven Victor,
Golf Mike Seven Victor is calling CQ Contest and standing by ..
JA stns. : xxxxxxxxKPxxxxx
GM7V : Er.. Was there a station calling with Papa in the callsign ? Please go ahead the station with
Papa in the callsign ..
JA stns. : xxxxxxxxKPxxxxx
GM7V : Kilo Papa something, Kilo Papa something - please go ahead ..
JA0KPL : Japan Alpha Zero Kilo Papa Lima
GM7V : Er.. Japan Alpha Zero Kilo Papa Lima, Japan Alpha Zero Kilo Papa Lima - you're Five
Nine One Four, Five Nine One Four, is that a roger ? over ..
JA0KPL : Thank-you, Five Nine Two Five ..
GM7V : Er ..Five Nine Two Five, Japan Alpha Zero Kilo Papa Lima - thank-you - CQ CQ CQ,
CQ Contest, CQ Contest, Golf Mike Seven Victor, Golf Mike Seven Victor, Golf Mike
Seven Victor is calling CQ Contest and standing by ..
It's painful ! - for the operators waiting at the other end to call, and for the other GM7V operator who has just spent the previous three hours working hundreds of stations quickly and efficiently before this poor operator took over - the other stations will think "I'm wasting my time calling this station" and the GM7V operator will think "I've wasted my time". THINK all the time about how you are operating, and what you can do to save time without sacrificing clarity or efficiency - we are not born good operators, we must learn and practise operating, and not be afraid to change bad habits or try new ideas. Phonetics - choose the best, then use them consistently - for example Golf Mike Seven Victor takes less time, but the variation Germany Mexico Seven Victoria from time to time is more easily understood by some stations. As I mentioned before, there is so much to say on the subject of working pile-ups, that this will be the next article - a real thriller !
Remember, although you may have an operating plan, many things can change during a contest - keep an open mind and change what you are doing quickly if things are not going well.
The golden rule of contest operating is - whatever you do, do it quickly !
Logging. The first thing to be clear about is what constitutes a QSO - it is generally accepted that both callsigns and both reports have to be exchanged and acknowledged to complete a QSO - however this is where the problems start - many operators either don't bother to check that the callsign of the other station is 100% correct, or even to give the full correct callsign of the other station - this means that (a) your log could be wrong because you have not given the other operator an opportunity to correct their callsign, or (b) their log is wrong - you have not actually worked them, but they think you have and have entered a QSO with you at that time. This may all sound a bit strange to those of you who have never operated in a big international contest like CQ Worldwide SSB, but it happens a lot when there are big pile-ups, there may be more than one station with similar callsigns calling simultaneously, and operators are under pressure to keep QSO 'rates' as high as possible. (Anecdotally, a JA operator at VP2KC had a peak rate of 480 stations per hour, all in Japanese - that's one QSO every 7.5 seconds - in CQ WW SSB, as long ago as 1978 !) The CQ WW Committee take this problem of logging accuracy very seriously, and can supply a 'UBN' file after the contest for every entrant - it is produced by comparison between your computer log and the other logs. 'UBN' stands for 'Unique call, Busted call, and Not-in-log call'. These 'UBN' files are very informative, and if interpreted carefully, can improve future results from your station. In 1997 our Multi-Multi (Multi-Operator Multi-Transmitter) GM7V station lost nearly 10% of its claimed points because of poor logging - in other words we wasted 4.8 hours and 710 QSOs because of poor logging, which is depressing ! (Some of the points lost were due to poor logging by other stations) Take the time to confirm the callsign or report - it's time well spent. Other logging issues - in the U.S., stations do not now have to vary their call letter or sign /3 etc. if they move QTH, therefore you have to check their zone number or state more accurately than in the past. The computer software will automatically enter the zone number that used to apply (e.g. W6 = CQ zone 3) but you must check carefully in case the station is no longer in that zone. If you don't log the information correctly, for whatever reason, you are better not to have worked the station !
Use of DX Cluster. The DX Cluster has many advantages, and some disadvantages. The advantages are easy to see - considerable time-saving, and dozens of other stations searching the bands for multipliers for you to work. The disadvantages are - every pile-up seems more intense than in pre-DX Cluster days, and, less obviously, many stations are adopting a mental attitude which means they don't bother to search for multipliers themselves, and rely on the DX Cluster - this is very foolish - remember that worldwide only perhaps 50% of all operators (your guess is as good as mine) have access to the DX Cluster network, and that many of those that do may not have as good equipment or antennas as a well-equipped contest station, therefore their 'spots' may be less than useful. Propagation conditions differ over even a few hundred miles. There has been some debate about the usefulness of 'spots' from DX Clusters in other parts of the world - my opinion is that these are very useful for giving a good operator a 'global' picture of what is happening on the bands, and the software or our brains can easily filter out any unwanted 'spots'. The message is - spend time looking for multipliers yourself, or have a 'spotting' station - there are many multipliers to be worked which are never 'spotted' on the DX Cluster, for a variety of reasons.
Single-operator 2-radio working - SO2R. As I mentioned in the last article, this is becoming more and more common in contests, particularly single-operator multi-band entrants are using a second radio and antenna system - in its simplest form the second radio is used to tune another band (or the same band) for new 'multipliers', while the main station is 'running' stations i.e. working a pile-up of stations. Taken further, the complexity of contest station that can be set up in 1999 is virtually limitless - stations report using 2 x FT-1000 transceivers which allows them 4 receivers simultaneously on 4 different bands if necessary - perhaps too much information for one operator's brain to handle effectively ! Antenna and amplifier switching can be made entirely automatic, and various permutations of antennas can be available by manual switching. Unless various 'lock-outs' are incorporated into the system, the potential for transmitting into a receiver or without an antenna, etc. is high during the heat of a major contest.
One interesting idea (tnx Keith GM4YXI) - if you have 2 ICOM radios, e.g. IC765, IC735, and you link the CI-V computer control line sockets together (using a simple single-core screened cable and 2 miniature jack plugs) then the VFOs in both transceivers will 'track' as one VFO dial is turned - with separate antennas pointing in different directions this gives you the ability to tune a band beaming in 2 directions simultaneously - another useful option for SO2R !
To summarise - as well as experience, skill, speed and stamina, a good contest operator is determined - if things are going badly they keep going to overcome the problems - they also seem to have a measure of good luck !
The Gaelic translation was "list operation is a total waste of time!"
Visit the web-pages - http://pages.prodigy.net/k2kw/story.html
Part 6 - Working Pile-ups
Once you have sorted out the hardware and software of your contest station, inevitably you will be called by more than one station at once (GM/MM stations are moderately rare on the HF bands) - a pile-up. This article describes some of the techniques that can be used to work these pile-ups as effectively as possible. The techniques described are derived from experiences in the CQ WW SSB Contests (last full weekend in October), but apply in general terms to all HF Contests and DXing. CW pile-up techniques will be discussed in more detail later.
Firstly - some basic ideas. Generally speaking, contest operating divides into three activities - RUN, MULT, and SEARCH and POUNCE (S&P) - when a station is 'running' it is working pile-ups and when it is 'mult hunting' it is searching for and working new multipliers. 'S&P' is where you tune the bands and call ANY station that you have not worked. Working pile-ups is the best way to increase your overall QSO total, but it is easy to get the balance wrong - you must have sufficient quantity and quality to give a good overall score. It is easy to be 'mesmerised' by a massive pile-up of stations calling, and it can be difficult to force yourself to leave the pile-up and QSY to work a multiplier which may only be on that band for a few minutes. However, almost always, working that multiplier has a greater effect on your overall score than missing a minute or two of a pile-up. Search and pounce tactics are used if conditions are poor, or by QRP/restricted stations who find it impossible to 'run' - however almost every contest station needs to do some 'S&P' during the course of a contest.
From Scotland, there are really only two parts of the world which allow pile-ups of '3 points per QSO' (in the CQ Worldwide scoring system) stations - Japan and the U.S.A. Europe can provide a large number of stations calling at 1 point per QSO (an inexhaustible pool of DL stations in particular) but you must pay attention (in terms of available antennas, propagation etc) to working Japan and the U.S.A. for as long as possible each day, on both short and long paths if possible. Fortunately, operators in both these areas are well disciplined and communicate well in English. Japanese operators are so well disciplined that you have to be absolutely precise in giving their callsigns - one letter or number wrong and they will not respond ! Unfortunately, propagation to Japan and the large number of lower-power/restricted stations in that country make JA pile-ups noticeably more difficult to work than the equivalent U.S. pile-ups, but the great number of QSOs available make it worth persevering, and fortunately the bands are not usually open to both Japan and the U.S.A. at the same times of day.
Choosing a 'run' frequency can be very difficult - for example on 20m in the CQ Worldwide SSB Contest the high-power East-coast U.S. stations inevitably choose a frequency within a few kHz of the lower band edge e.g. 14.151MHz on SSB - and will remain there for the whole 48 hours - don't waste time trying to run a pile-up in this part of the band ! If possible, spend some time in parts of the band where different classes of licensee are allowed to operate, to maximise the number of stations who can call you. Remember that the operator at the other end of the QSO may not have English as their first language, may not have access to the DX Cluster, they may be experiencing QRM and/or QSB, and they need to copy your callsign correctly to ensure that you do not lose points for the QSO. This means that you have to give your callsign as clearly as possible, using the best available phonetics. As mentioned before, Golf Mike Seven Victor works well, but some operators might find Germany Mexico Seven Victoria more understandable. It is your responsibility to check that the other operator is going to log your callsign correctly. Linked to the clarity of your chosen phonetics is obviously the quality of your transmitted signal. Where more than one transmitter is operational at the one site, unexpected RF feedback problems can occur - make sure your transmitted signal is of the best quality you can, while using sufficient processing/clipping to make the signal penetrating. Contesters are not interested in BBC quality audio but will quickly complain if you are taking up too much bandwidth !
Ten key ideas for working pile-ups :-
1. Keep control of the pile-ups at all times. This is easier if your signal is loud, so pay attention to hardware and antennas. On the bands we often hear an inexperienced operator in a rare country being overwhelmed by the pile-up and going QRT or changing bands - with experience (or advice) this would not happen. It must be said, however, that contest pile-ups are much easier to control than DXpedition pile-ups, even for an experienced operator. Timing of transmissions is a key factor in pile-up control - keep transmitting regularly and never allow stations to call more than twice before you next transmit.
2. Announce your callsign regularly - in contests the population on the bands is changing more rapidly than normal - stations are tuning around and need to know who you are quickly to decide whether they have worked you or not. Often stations call you without knowing your callsign (!) so make sure that they will log it correctly. Incorrect DX Cluster spots are fairly common in major contests, so it benefits everyone if you give your callsign regularly. How often 'regularly' is depends on a number of factors which you will find with experience - after every QSO may not be necessary under some circumstances, but many good operators do this - after every second QSO is really the minimum.
3. Make sure that you give everyone a chance to work you - for example, 'stop' a JA pile-up every few minutes and make a selective call - any Pacific please, any Zone 24 please, etc ? (Japan is in the Pacific of course!) This is a very effective technique, and surprisingly often results in a rare multiplier being worked. Spend a minute or two thinking about what it would be like to be a YJ or ZK3 station listening to a GM station running a pile-up - what would make you give the GM station more than 1 or 2 calls ?
4. ALWAYS reply to one specific station and give them a report immediately - no dithering about and constantly asking for repeats - contesters are in a hurry. Usually you need to have copied at least 2 letters of the callsign before replying, and there may be more than 1 station with these same 2 letters in the callsign. Very often you might only copy the last letter of one callsign - you can still say "the station ending in Bravo you're 5914" - this usually works but can waste time.
5. Ask stations to give their full callsigns when calling - unfortunately this only works for a few minutes (or less) after you make the request, then it's back to old (bad) habits - however if you reply to full callsigns, the calling stations might get the idea ! As long as you are working stations quickly then it doesn't really matter how they are calling you, but full callsigns are ideal. One common problem is that if you respond to a callsign having heard only one or two letters, the station assumes that you have their full callsign and does not give it - this is a common time-waster - you have to quickly say 'Your full callsign?' or similar.
6. Don't hesitate to break off from working a pile-up and spend a few minutes searching for multipliers or working DX Cluster spots which are multipliers - this is difficult to do if there are dozens of stations calling you, but is essential - you can say 'I'll be back in a minute or two' but in the world of contesting the probability of the frequency remaining clear while you are away is zero ! (A voice-keyer is useful for keeping the frequency occupied, and if you are only away for a few seconds the pile-up will still be calling you)
7. Don't hesitate to ask for a repeat of the callsign or report if you are not 100% sure that you have it all correct. Pronunciation of phonetics can be a problem, and stations often repeat the same (unintelligible) phonetics when asked for a repeat. Persevere with this until you can LOG THE QSO ACCURATELY.
8. Try to build up a 'rhythm' when working stations - if a friend calls to say hello, don't allow them to break this rhythm, just say 'I'll speak to you after the contest'. To avoid fatigue and boredom, however, vary the way in which you work stations (as long as you don't waste time) It helps to 'speed up' every now and again, for no apparent reason other than to vary things ! It is very important to let the other station know that you have all the information and that the QSO is over - get into the habit of saying 'Thanks' (or just giving your callsign, or 'QRZ') - some regular indicator to those listening that they are invited to call.
9. Periodically, especially if the station worked is the first in a new part of the world, ask them to 'please spot me on the DX Cluster if possible' If they do, you can expect more calls from that area - the effect is quite noticeable.
10. Watch the QSO rate - set yourself a realistic target for that band/time of day e.g. 150 QSOs per hour, and if the ratemeter (built into the software) drops significantly below this target, think about changing band, beam heading, tactics etc. Don't persevere with a slow or weak pile-up when your overall score will suffer. If all else fails, work Europeans !
In the last article I mentioned the story of the VP2KC operator whose peak 'rate' was 480 QSOs per hour - I've since received an e-mail from Jeff Steinman N5TJ describing how he worked 457 stations in 1 hour (this is an amazing achievement - it is not likely that VP2KC worked 480 stations in a one-hour period, but rather had a peak rate of 480/hour) Jeff described how he was operating P40L in the 1993 CQ WW SSB Contest and they were the first P40 station to realise that 15m was open to the U.S.A. He said that they had several minutes during the hour when he worked 12 stations in 1 minute ! He mentions the DX Cluster as being a major factor in being able to achieve this.
Part 7 - More about antennas
This is a pretty obvious statement :- antennas which are physically large work better than smaller antennas. Of course, we are all restricted in some way or other about what size or complexity of antenna we can erect - we just have to use the best antenna possible. Almost all physically small antennas, whether they use electrical 'shortening' effects or other methods, will work, but will not match the performance of a full-size antenna. Similarly, multi-band antennas, whether using traps, linear-loading, etc. will work, but not as efficiently as mono-band antennas. This leads to a quandary for contest stations - should they be as efficient as possible on one band, or compromise performance to enable multi-band operation ? An ideal HF contest station would have 6 separate towers with 6 monoband antenna systems, but this is difficult to achieve. Over the years there have been various manufacturers offering 'miraculous' performance from small radiators (usually at large prices!) - do not believe claims made by any manufacturer unless they are independently verified, quote gain figures (dBd or dBi) or, better still, do a comparison yourself, before spending any money. One design which was widely marketed in the 1960s and 70s was effectively a broom-handle with a coil wound round it, fed with a length of wire - you could have made this for 50p ! (This would work quite well if the broom handle was mounted on top of a 60' tower !)
The power lost Plost in a conductor of resistance R when a current I flows is calculated by using Plost = I2 R - it is therefore crucial to keep the resistance R as low as possible. Similarly, if current I can be minimised (for the same transmitted power Ptx = V I ) then power lost is reduced. In other words, a low-resistance (physically large) radiator, voltage-fed to minimise current, will be most efficient. This also shows why maintaining low-resistance joints in yagi and vertical antennas is crucial to ensure high efficiency. Unfortunately, voltage-feeding an antenna poses some practical problems - feeding with a 50ohm coax line will need some sort of tuner/matching network, a large insulator may be required, etc. Another key principle is to ensure that the high-current point of any antenna is as high as possible above ground level. This applies especially to vertical antennas - if the base of a vertical can be raised even a few feet above ground level, the performance should improve. Another advantage of raising the base of a vertical is that the radials can be sloped down, with the angle adjusted to achieve the lowest SWR. Base-loaded trap verticals do not perform well when compared to full-size, linearly-loaded, or verticals where the traps are not at the base of the antenna. Above poor ground, elevated radials are best - above good ground the radials can lie on the surface.
On the WWW
Have a look at these 'contesting' web-sites :- www.contesting.com, www.cqww.com www.qsl.net/ct1boh
and, for nostalgic readers, www.kwarc.on.ca/hammond/
Some details of our 1999 GM7V CQ WW entries.
In 1997, we had 13 operators, and a mountain of equipment and antennas. Conditions in 1997 were not very good overall, and the whole operation was too complex to be efficient. In 1999, we decided to do the SSB Multi-Multi (6 bands 160-10m) entry with only 7 operators - as things turned out, we had only 5 operators (Cris GM4FAM was in a car-crash en route to the contest but is OK now) - GM3WOJ, GM4YXI, GM0NAI, GM0GAV, GW0GEI - we made 11500 QSOs, and set a new GM record score. Conditions on 10m in particular were terrific, with DX from all round the world. For the CW event, we had 6 operators - GM3WOJ, GM4YXI, GM0NAI, GM0GAV, GM4CXM, GM3YOR - we made 10400 QSOs and again set a new GM record score. The results on 40m and 10m were outstanding, and we worked well over 100 countries on every band except 160m. In both events, a group of German operators operating as CN8WW shattered the existing world records - an excellent achievement. I'll describe some of the GM7V hardware and antennas in a future article.
Conclusions : 1. you can do a Multi-Multi with fewer operators - 7 or 8 is probably optimum. (I dislike Multi-Single events - even with only 3 operators you spend a lot of time hanging-around waiting to operate) 2. for the next year or two of the sunspot maximum, make sure your 10m station has very good equipment and antennas. 3. maybe it's just my recent experiences, but it seems to be becoming more difficult to work 'multipliers' - within seconds of them being 'spotted' on the DX Cluster, a mass of stations descends on their frequency and starts calling (whether they can hear the mult. or not!) - this situation will only get worse unfortunately. 4. more positively, there is a world-wide increase in activity from rare countries, despite what we hear about the Internet, data modes, etc. attracting people away from our hobby.
Part 8 - Computers in contesting
The widespread availability and use of home computers and software has revolutionised our hobby, and the impact on contesting has been particularly noticeable. No serious contest station would even consider entering a major contest in the year 2000 without a computer system, for logging and many other tasks.
Logging software During the 1980s, personal computers had relatively feeble processing power, and slow processors, yet their potential for contest logging was realised and developed. Probably the earliest software which was actually useable for HF contesting is 'CT', developed by Ken Wolff K1EA, and the benchmark for all other subsequent contest logging software developments. Contest logging software obviously allows you to calculate your accumulating and final score, but most important is the ability to instantly check if a QSO is or would be a 'dupe' - a duplicate QSO which would waste time and count for zero points (ironically, it is now considered better operating practise today, under most circumstances, to just work the station again, without a time-wasting discussion/argument about whether the QSO is a 'dupe' or not) In the year 2000, there are many contest-logging programs which do similar jobs with varying degrees of sophistication and features e.g. 'CT', 'TR', 'NA', 'SD'. It is a good idea to try as many different programs as possible before deciding which one best suits your needs. I've been using ‘CT’ since 1992, but have tried various other programs - 'TR' looks a good competitor to 'CT'. The advantages of 'CT' are:- relatively simple to learn quickly, fairly reliable - disadvantages are :- supports only a limited number of contests (although IOTA has now been added), on-going support seems to have weakened a bit. In CW contests a computer reduces operator workload amazingly - you do not normally use the keyboard to send CW, but instead use the function keys with pre-programmed responses/messages - when a pile-up calls you quickly type in a callsign, then hit the 'Insert' key and the software sends the callsign and a report + zone, or report + serial number. 'CT' allows you to type while it is sending CW to correct errors - the inability to type while sending is a major deficiency of another 'highly recommended' contest logging program. Keyboarding skill + speed is another prerequisite of a good contest operator, as is some knowledge of out-dated DOS commands ! During a contest the software allows you to keep track of your QSO rate, which countries or zones you have or have not worked, etc. After a contest, logging software allows you to prepare summary and dupe sheets, and print QSL labels if needed. You can then e-mail your log file to the contest organisers – another great time-saver. It's worth looking at the details of the 'CT' computer network we used at GM7V Multi-multi stations in October/November 1999 :- Hardware The GM7V computer network consisted of 6 PCs (1xP133,3x486,2x386) connected as a network using 10baseT Ethernet cards and RG-58U type (Thin-net) coaxial cable fitted with crimp-on BNC plugs. The maximum cable-run needed was approx. 35m. Each Ethernet card was fitted with a BNC T-piece, and the 2 ends of the network were terminated in BNC 50 ohm terminations. Transceiver control interfaces were connected to each of the computers using the COM1 serial port, and for CW the keying leads were connected (via a switching interface) to the LPT1 (printer) port. The DX-cluster was connected into the network via a serial port on the 80m computer - a separate lap-top computer controlled the TELNET connection to GB7xxx. The timing of all logged QSOs was determined by the clock in the Station 1 PC, which had to be accurate. Software The contest logging software 'CT' (Version 9.45) is DOS based software, so all machines were configured to boot up in DOS mode. (the Pentium 133 booted up running Windows 95, then was shut down and restarted in MS-DOS mode) The Ethernet cards were initially configured using EZSTART to have IRQ 10 and base memory 300 - this configuration was retained by the card and did not have to be repeated each time the card was used. Then, the following lines in the AUTOEXEC.BAT file ran the Packet Driver software PKT8000 and the (K1TTT) Network TSR NETTSR :-
(Each PC had its own IP address for the NETTSR i.e. 160m = 10.0.0.16, 80m = 10.0.0.80, 40m = 10.0.0.40, 20m = 10.0.0.20, 15m = 10.0.0.15, and 10m = 10.0.0.10)
Each PC had a GM7V.BAT file to allow the operator to just type 'GM7V' (N.B. from the C:\> prompt)
following a software crash or a power-loss, etc. For example, the GM7V.BAT file on the 40m computer (connected to an FT-1000MP) was :-
COMTSR1 -N82 -B4800
CT GM7V -NOW
In the event of a major problem, operators had to remember to re-boot (Ctrl+Alt+Delete) the computer to re-run PKT8000 and NETTSR as above, before re-starting 'CT' Before use, each computer had to have 'CT' suitably configured. Firstly, each MULTI.CFG file had to be edited (the MULTI.CFG file is the same on each of the 6 PCs) to give each station a unique station number viz. 1 = 20m, 2 = 40m, 3 = 160m, 4 = 10m, 5 = 15m and 6 = 80m (these numbers were allocated on the basis of the geographical layout of the stations) 'CT' was then started (N.B. from the CT945 directory) - the following configuration was required :- Callsign : GM7V Zone : 14 Contest : CQ Wordwide Section : Multi-multi Mode : CW TNC : Remote (all except the 80m computer) Station number : as above Keying : LPT1 Radio 1 : as appropriate All other questions, answer = NONE When the SETUP screen appeared, selections were COM1 = Radio 1 = 4800 bps and COM4 = Network = 1200 bps
Also, for CW, each computer had the messages stored in function keys f1 - f7 altered to match the 'key-strip' above these function keys, by pressing Shift + function key number, and the filtering of DX-cluster 'spots' to each band had to be configured as necessary. Also checked was correct CW keying of the radio, Alt-J and Alt-G operation, etc.. When using the actual GM7V.BIN files, operators checked that the BAND was correct ('CT' read this from the transceiver) before logging any QSOs. 'CT' Version 9.45 seemed stable, but still had the 'bug' where slow typing in the Alt-G window caused <network received bad checksum> errors, and the possible 'dropping' of a QSO from one or other of the computers. The use of Alt-G messages was therefore minimised. AUTOSAVE (save GM7V.BIN file every hour on the hour to a floppy) was enabled on 1 or 2 of the PCs (but would not be necessary if the network was working well) 'CT' Version 9.45 used the latest CTY.DAT file for its prefix/country info., downloaded from the 'CT' web-site shortly before the contest.
This network as described worked fairly well - 'CT' almost always crashes at some time or other on one or other of the PCs so after the contest the 6 individual log files are merged to give a single log. The Ethernet network worked better than our old 'Serial port' network, but networking is something that can only really be tested under the exact conditions of a major contest, with 4, 5 or 6 high-power transmitters operating simultaneously in close proximity to the network hardware, software and cables.
For this reason, the latest network technology might not be the best – what might sound like an old pile of junk in computing terms might make a very good network at a multi-multi contest station !
Antenna modelling software Computers now allow a contest station the ability to optimise commercial or home-made antennas very effectively, which in turn will give better antenna performance, which gives a better score and less operator stress/fatigue (you can 'null' out QRM more easily !) Early antenna-modelling software was highly specialised, and required computing power well beyond that available to amateurs, but now software is based on NEC or MININEC - a really excellent derivation of this is 'YO' (Yagi optimiser) written by K6STI. 'YO' was mentioned briefly in a previous article - it cycles through thousands of possible combinations of element lengths and spacings in a few seconds – it’s amazing to watch and gives you a design which will work. The associated ‘AO" (Antenna optimiser) and ‘TA’ (Terrain Analysis) programs are also excellent, giving 3-D plots on the average home PC.
DX Cluster Computers allow a contest station to connect to the DX Cluster network (using a TNC or Modem) - increasingly this network is becoming 'global' with Internet linking used between countries and continents - it is not unusual to see 1200 other users connected. For a contest station there are many advantages of being connected to the DX Cluster, and a few disadvantages which I've highlighted before - the main one being the increased intensity of pile-ups calling a rare station. So, although the DX Cluster saves time finding a DX station, that time may be wasted by having to call for longer to actually work the station. 'CT' software allows a contest station to 'grab' a spot from the DX Cluster (suitably filtered to be on the correct band) - the software enters the callsign of the spot into the callsign field and QSYs the transceiver to the correct frequency.
Propagation prediction I've already said I'm not a great fan of trying to predict propagation - however some of the recently released software again allows contest stations access to powerful prediction tools. One excellent program is Hfx – we used this at GM7V and it did draw attention to paths/propagation that we might not otherwise have exploited. However, I’m still sceptical – with HF amateur stations there are too many variables in the equation for my liking ! For a full review of Hfx see October 1999 Radcom.
Internet As with most other activities, the Internet provides a lot of useful information for contest stations – dates/times/rules of contests, photos and descriptions of contest stations, and extensive post-contest analysis of results/propagation etc. These is a ‘cq-contest’ e-mail reflector which provides a forum for discussions about contest-related issues all year round – some of the discussions get very heated ! Immediately after major contests, participants post their claimed scores to another reflector called the ‘3830’ reflector, so you can compare (roughly) how well you have done instead of waiting anything up to a year for the results to be published. Most equipment manufacturers have web-sites, and there are independent reviews of most types of equipment on the ARRL members web-site.
An apology – something went wrong in the last article and the URLs were missed out – a useful ‘contest calendar’ is at www.hornucopia.com/contestcal – and there are many other interesting web-sites (often with a heavy U.S. bias but still interesting) :- www.contesting.com, www.cqww.com, www.qsl.net/ct1boh, www.gm7v.com (and, for nostalgic readers, www.kwarc.on.ca/hammond/)
Excellent images of the auroral ovals are available at www.sec.noaa.pmap/index.html If you’ve really got nothing better to do visit www.qsl.net/gm3woj/
The next article will be about VHF/UHF contesting. It’s not all plain sailing at the GM7V contest station – hurricane-force winds struck my QTH in January, blowing down 5 trees and bending the top section of my P80 Versatower, despite some serious guy technology (obviously not serious enough) – this ‘global-warming’ gale even loosened a concreted-in guy stake – amazing. It’s taken several months to complete repairs, and it was nerve-wracking tilting over the P80 with a 5ele 20m yagi on top, with the top section of the P80 only half telescoped in ! Please e-mail me any comments/feedback to email@example.com
Part 9 - VHF/UHF Contesting
Contesting on HF definitely offers the best 'value for money' - you make more QSOs per pound or dollar spent on equipment and antennas, and you can change band to overcome changes in propagation. However, slightly different skills are required for successful VHF and UHF contesting. During the 1970s and 1980s, VHF/UHF activity was very high - in the late 1980s and early 1990s a top UK contest station on 144MHz could work over 1000 stations in a 24-hour period - things are different today - far fewer stations active on a day-to-day basis, for a variety of reasons, but still a good number of stations to be worked in most VHF/UHF contests. Inevitably, geographical location plays a major part on VHF/UHF - Scotland is 'out on a limb' in NW Europe, and unless conditions are good scores from here are inevitably lower. However, many VHF/UHF operators say that successful VHF/UHF QSOs are generally more rewarding than on HF. Europe has always had a lead over the USA and the rest of the world in VHF/UHF contesting technology.
Equipment Equipment for the VHF/UHF bands has improved slowly in the past 15 years - the basic requirements are : RX : low noise figure, high immunity to overloading TX : as much (clean) RF output as possible. A 1980s contest station would still give good results in the year 2000, but might not match some of the latest equipment for performance. Peripheral equipment has changed a lot in the last 20 years. Poor band conditions can mean many minutes/hours of fruitless CQ calls - a Digital Voice Keyer (DVK) makes life a lot easier for the operator - he can sit back and read a newspaper while the DVK sends out endless CQ calls. Generally speaking, there are two ways of producing/receiving signals on VHF/UHF - firstly using an 'all-band' transceiver like the FT-847, IC-756 etc. (or an older generation FT-736 type or single-band 'multimode' type) or using an HF transceiver with a transverter connected e.g. FT-1000MP + Mutek transverter. The first approach offers more convenience, everything is in the one box with no connecting cables, but the second approach usually gives far superior RF performance. Newer 'all band' radios seem to have poor strong-signal handling characteristics, and poor IF filtering – they are fine for day-to-day use, but not very suitable for contesting. Solid-state amplifiers ('bricks') are available in powers up to about 500W output, but above approx. 150W output their battery requirements are very high. Most serious VHF/UHF contest stations use valve amplifiers, using e.g. 3CX800A7, 8877, 8938 valves - these amplifiers can be very expensive to buy, especially if they have to be imported from the USA or Japan. Home-made valve amplifiers are not nearly as common now as twenty years ago. Mast-head preamplifiers make a significant difference to receive performance, and of course short runs of low-loss feeders, ideally heliax, should be used. A lap-top computer is ideal for portable VHF/UHF contesting, perhaps with a CW keying interface or rig-control port to allow scanning, etc.
Antennas Commercially-made computer-designed antennas are almost universally used now - some stations still make their own antennas (usually for 4m and 6m) - VHF and UHF antennas are expensive, especially if you are buying 4 or 8 yagis to make a multiple-antenna system. Antennas can either be stacked i.e. one above the other on a pole, or bayed, two antennas side by side, or stacked and bayed i.e. 4 antennas in a ‘box’, with 2 above and 2 below. The three different arrangements give slightly different characteristics - generally a portable contest station would use stacked antennas, which are easier mechanically to erect. Single-operator contest stations often use single long-yagis, with booms up to 10m long, which are reasonably lightweight with good performance. Many of these yagis are too flimsy to stand more than 24 hours of use at a time ! Antennas are an obsession with the top VHF/UHF contesters - one well-known station in England uses 4 separate stacked antenna systems on 144MHz (each fed with a separate amplifier!) - it is not easy to compete against this level of commitment. VHF/UHF antennas usually do not need to be too high above ground level, but an electric rotator (with good accuracy) is essential to reduce operator stress.
Location Most of Scotland is at a disadvantage for VHF/UHF operation - an ideal QTH would probably be about 400-600' above sea-level, within 1 mile of the sea, and with the land sloping gently in all directions - not many home QTHs fit this description, so many stations go portable. This means extra planning for camping or a caravan, plus batteries or a generator + fuel for 24 hours, etc. Operating portable (on VHF or HF) in the summer is one of the most enjoyable aspects of our hobby - it combines fresh air with the opportunity to operate from a better or rarer location than at home. Taking this one step further, the RSGB have introduced the 'Backpackers' series of contests, where entrants should carry everything to a site. Unfortunately this makes life a bit difficult in Scotland, where we are away from population centres. My own opinion is that sites in the SE part of Scotland, between Edinburgh and the border and near the coast, are probably the best in Scotland, or at least this area of Scotland is most likely to benefit from any slight improvement in tropo conditions into Europe. Under certain conditions it is possible to be 'too high' above sea-level i.e to miss out on ducting effects. Also, very often a site down the slope of a hill (usually the S or SE side for Scotland) gives better results than being on the top of the hill. If more than one band is being used, stations should be sited as far apart as possible, to reduce interference between stations. One advantage of being in Scotland is that, if the band conditions are good, QSOs made are many kilometres further than from England, therefore scores are higher. These good conditions unfortunately are rare, but Scottish stations have done well in UK and European contests in the past.
Operating techniques As on HF, the speed of VHF and UHF QSOs has increased in recent years, but there are often QSOs made which take several minutes to complete, usually because of fading on the path. A typical VHF/UHF contest exchange consists of RST + Serial number + Locator e.g. 59101 IO75WS - however in some contests you also have to give QTH information, which can slow things down considerably, and lead to an increase in errors. Operators on VHF/UHF have to be on the alert at all times for short sporadic-E openings, or other openings in which even a few minutes of QSOs makes the difference between winning the contest and coming well down the field. For some reason, major VHF contests seem to miss good Auroras, but there have been some good auroral QSOs made. Computer logging is widely used, and the software gives instant information about the distance of the QSO being made, and the beam heading, etc. CQ calls are usually longer than on HF, and the QSO rate much lower. An experienced VHF/UHF contest operator will persevere with CQ calls, respond quickly to stations to make QSOs where the path may only be open for 30s or less, and keep rotating the beam to different directions looking for new paths.
EME (Moonbounce) contests These are slowly becoming more popular, but still attract very few entrants from the UK, for the simple reason that the equipment and antennas required are still beyond what is available to the average station. It is reasonably easy for a station on e.g. 144MHz running 400W to a single long-yagi to work one of the major EME stations, who may be using up to 32 yagis on VHF, or a massive dish antenna on UHF, etc. The EME contest weekends are publicised well in advance, so you could have a listen and see if you can hear one of the big stations. 99% of all EME QSOs are on CW, dodging computer spurii at the bottom end of the bands. Skeds are often made via the EME nets on 20m, or the K2UYH web-site. A station and antenna system capable of EME working may not actually be best for VHF/UHF contesting (because of antenna beamwidth/elevation control etc) but should give very good results.
6m Es contests Our 50MHz band provides plenty of sporadic-E (Es) propagation every summer - there are several contests timed to take advantage of this - however Murphy's Law often means that there is excellent sporadic-E before and after the event, but it fizzles out for the duration of the contest ! Scotland is at a real disadvantage in this type of contest unfortunately, because Es propagation further S in Europe persists while there is nothing happening in Scotland.
Scoring Early VHF/UHF contest were scored on a radial-ring system, but nowadays most contests use a points/km system. Obviously the winner is the station who makes the most points during the 24 hour period. In some contests, UK regions/counties etc count as multipliers, and there are some specialised contests e.g. WAB contest, FM contests, Microwave contests, etc.
Cumulative contests These are fairly popular, and allow an operator to enjoy an evening knowing that there will be activity on a particular band, and some good DX QSOs made. They are usually on weekday evenings, which allows you to take part without giving up a whole weekend. Cumulative contests are often on bands where day-to-day activity is low, e.g. 70MHz, and they do bring the bands to life.
Internet There are several internet sites dedicated to VHF/UHF contesting, or specific bands/activities :- RSGB VHFCC,4m, 6m (www.uksmg.org), EME (K2UYH, K1RQG).
To summarise - contesting on the VHF and UHF bands is alive and well, but don't expect the hectic activity of an HF contest. Although Scotland is at a geographical disadvantage, many exciting DX QSOs can be made - for example in VHF NFD in July 2000 there was a long Es opening to LZ on 2m, with dozens of long-distance QSOs made.
The next article will describe in detail our trip to Shetland for the CQ WW Phone contest at the end of October 2000. As usual, your comments/feedback on this or other articles is welcomed - please e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org 73 Chris
Part 10 – The story of GZ7V - October 2000
The prefix GZ was originally requested by Shetland amateurs in the 1980's, and was about to be issued then when some amateurs on the Isle of Wight complained that if Shetland got its own prefix, then so should they - laughable, but unfortunately this denied the Shetland Islands the use of a separate prefix for all these years. Try travelling to Shetland if you are not convinced that they should have a separate prefix from the rest of the UK.
In 1999, Rob Ferguson GM3YTS of the GM DX Group raised this issue again, planning to survey opinions amongst Shetland resident amateurs, to assess support for a possible separate prefix. Rob mentioned this to me when I told him we were thinking about a contest expedition to Shetland for CQ WW SSB October 2000, so I decided to ask the Radiocommunication Agency if we could use the callsign GS7V for our Shetland trip. The ‘GS’ prefix is normally used by Scottish Club stations e.g. our normal club call GM2MP is usually used as GS2MP. I did not think it was likely that ‘GZ’ would be possible, so GS was the next best thing – anything other than GM to try to make other contesters aware that we were not on the Scottish mainland. In February 2000 I applied to the R.A. for the use of GS7V – as the months passed with no real progress, I decided to advertise our callsign as GS2MP, which we would definitely be able to use. Thanks to intervention from the RSGB HF Contest Committee, and excellent co-operation from Aaron Abiaw of the R.A., we were proud to be issued with the callsign GZ7V just 8 days before the contest. The Shetland Islands have IOTA reference EU-012, IOSA reference SH1, WAB HU27 and locator IP90 - they are reached by a 14 hour, 220 mile sea crossing from Aberdeen to Lerwick, by P.and O. Scottish Ferries (the route is soon to be taken over by CalMac)
We departed for Shetland on Friday October 20th 2000, towing the GM4AFF 60’ mobile tower and with the ink still drying on the GZ7V licence document. I was really looking forward to visiting Shetland – my late mother was born there in 1914, but I’d never visited the islands. The ferry ‘St Clair’ carried us (me and my daughter Carrie) to Shetland, along with open ‘pens’ carrying sheep on the car-deck ! It was a rough crossing – looking out of the cabin in the middle of the night I saw an awesome seascape with mountainous waves (well they looked mountainous to me!) We arrived in Lerwick harbour at about 0800 on the Saturday morning, just as dawn was breaking. As we moved up the coast I realised how thinly populated Shetland is – only a few forlorn lights were visible every few km along the coast. After a morning looking around Lerwick, a fairly spread out town with many stone-built houses and a busy fishing harbour, I travelled to our rented QTH near Eshaness. One of the best things about this Northern part of the Shetland ‘mainland’ is that there are few roads near to the coastline, therefore no holiday homes blighting the landscape. The coastline is really spectacular – eroded basalt cliffs with many offshore natural arches and caves on small islands, and many jagged rocks just below the surface. The house was a 3-bedroom bungalow, owned by Linda and Bertie Pearson, with oil-fired central heating which was essential in late October. The 39-mile drive from Lerwick took about an hour when towing the mobile tower.
After a couple of days sight-seeing, I set up a 10MHz inverted-vee on a 20’ pole lashed to a fencepost, and made a few QSOs as GM3WOJ/P on CW. I’d heard how good a DX band 10MHz is, but I was not impressed - it seemed full of stations signing /QRP and sending at 5wpm – a nightmare! Probably it was just the wrong time of day, but I did listen at different times. The following morning I shortened the antenna to resonate on 18MHz, phoned a friend to check what the band-edges were (!), then worked 300 CW stations in 2 hours from all around the world - I had to work split at one point – 17m is a good DX band ! On the Tuesday before the contest I visited the GB3LER Beacon site 2km S of Lerwick, and removed the GB3LER 50.064MHz beacon and antenna for testing – these have now been re-installed at a new site by Frank Sinclair GM4SWU and this beacon is back to being a really useful auroral indicator for European 6m operators. On the Wednesday just before CQ WW SSB, Jim GM4TXX and Stewart GM4AFF arrived with the van full of equipment, and we started to set up antennas as soon as possible, worried that the weather might get even worse – it was difficult working in a constant 30-40 mph wind, with passing rain-showers. On the Wednesday evening I managed to damage my car (no alcohol was involved, just tiredness and carelessness) – this caused us a lot of extra problems we could have done without. The wind seemed to drain your motivation. It’s surprising how important good wet-weather equipment is on a DXpedition – for example my rubber Wellington boots sprung a leak, and I had to work with one cold wet foot every time I went outside – it seems obvious now but I don’t know why I didn’t just go to the local shop (10 miles away) and buy another pair ! The land around the QTH was ideal for our antennas, and we had been given permission by the brother of the house owner to put up antennas. There were large flat areas of peat - very damp – ideal for LF antennas. On Thursday Keith GM4YXI arrived to complete the team, and we had all the 6 antennas and 4 stations ready for use by about 1700 on Friday – this was a strange feeling for the GM7V team – we are usually trying to resonate antennas at 2300 on the Friday evening, using arc-lamps in the rain and wind !
GZ7V Stations/antennas :-
160m/15m TS-950SDX + Alpha 91B + 160m dipole + 15m 4ele Cushcraft yagi on a 35’ pole.
80m/10m TS-950SDX + Alpha 89 + 80m Vertical + 28MHz 5ele YO6.55 yagi on a 35’ pole.
40m IC-775DSP + Ameritron AL1500x + Vertical with 2 elevated radials.
20m FT-1000MP + GM3WOJ 4CX1500B amp. + 3ele YO6.55 yagi at 60’.
All antennas (except for the 160m dipole) were fed with Andrews LDF4-50A Heliax.
Keith Kerr GM4YXI had purchased 3000m of wire and manufactured 2 radial mats (alleged by ON4UN to give up to 6 dB improvement in performance) for the 2 verticals – the efficiency of these mats was difficult to assess under the temporary GZ7V set-up, but they were surprisingly easy to install and remove. With the exception of the 15m yagi, all the antennas belong to me and were tested during August/September, then dismantled into as few parts as possible to save assembly time – for example the 5ele 10m yagi was transported in 7 parts – the 2 boom sections + 5 fully-assembled elements. As we were assembling the antennas and stations, we were thinking about the ‘tear-down’ on the Monday after the contest – we had to check-in for the ferry at Lerwick by 1700z, which with the van now towing the tower meant that we had to leave the GZ7V QTH by 1500z, which with dawn not until about 0800 meant that everything had to be dismantled and packed up in 7 hours. We made the assumption that it would probably be blowing a gale and raining so we were concerned that we could do everything on time. If we go back to Shetland we would try to stay until the Tuesday to avoid this time pressure. On the Friday we put up a 450’ Beverage antenna then after discussion took it back down again, worried that it would be one job too many to have to dismantle it on the Monday.
The contest started well, with fairly good conditions and the GZ prefix creating extra demand. During the early hours of Sunday morning however, the aurora arrived – we went outside to see a fantastically dramatic scene – the pale green aurora surging overhead, the Eshaness lighthouse sweeping the sky just a mile to the west of us, and to the south-east the pulsing orange glow of the Sullom Voe Oil Terminal flare stack – amazing to see. At about 0400z 70mph winds severed the 160m dipole and broke the top 10’ off the 80m vertical. Even with 15 guy-ropes, the 60’ mobile tower was struggling in the gale. We went outside to try to repair at least the 160m dipole, but after 3 attempts we gave up. It’s easy to say "what – 3 grown men could not repair a simple wire dipole ?" but the reality was grim – it was pitch dark, blowing a severe gale which had wrapped the feeder around one of the guy-ropes, and the freezing rain had started – driving horizontally against our backs like someone standing pointing a hose at you. As dawn came we looked at the damaged 80m vertical and discovered that the new ‘riveted’ design used by me, copying Force-12, was NOT a good idea – the top section had broken off because of metal fatigue just above a riveted joint, and it was a major repair – if I has used our normal ‘slotted end + hose-clip’ method, we could have repaired it fairly quickly I’m sure – another lesson learned the hard way. We were very disappointed to miss out on many QSOs and Mults by losing both 160m and 80m at a crucial time. The wind was still very strong on the Sunday afternoon, so we stopped for a while and with the help of visitors we lowered the 60’ tower to about 25’, which made us all feel a lot safer.
Monday was a dry calm day, with weak sunshine – ideal for dismantling and packing away everything – our worries about time were groundless (however we did have only 4 antennas left by then !)We finished the contest with 8000 QSOs for 11.6 Million points – the aurora and antenna damage prevented us reaching our targets, but we were satisfied that we had done our best under the circumstances. The car-crash definitely affected my normal approach to contesting. Ironically we maybe also suffered by being the first-ever GZ station – the last two Internet ‘Announced operations’ lists had us wrongly listed as Scotland not Shetland, which was unfortunate – I had e-mailed to try to prevent this. I think that future contest expeditions will fare better in terms of identification world-wide. I wonder if our UBN will suffer a lot by being logged as GM7V ?! It’s surprising how many ‘casual’ contesters don’t know that Shetland is a separate multiplier – Shetland (and formerly Trieste, now African Italy IG9/IH9) are/were on the Worked All Europe country list, and the CQ WW Countries list combines DXCC and WAE. So – will we be GZ7V next year ? - probably not - for a variety of reasons, but I know of another GM friend who is hoping to be SOAB for CQ WW CW 2001, and I’m sure that the GZ/MZ prefixes will be used a lot over the next few years. I will definitely be GZ7V again at some stage. A big 'thanks' to Stewart, Jim and Keith for helping put GZ7V on the air, and to everyone who helped us in some way - Jim Fisher GM0NAI, Gavin Taylor GM0GAV, Martin Gill 2M0ALS, Allan Duncan GM4ZUK, Ian Millar GM7RKD, Hans Hassel GM4SSA, Frank Sinclair GM4SWU, Rob Ferguson GM3YTS, Dave Lawley G4BUO. Shetland is a wonderful place to visit – the Shetlanders are very friendly people, and helped us tremendously, especially when things were going badly. The scenery and weather are spectacular and wild, and I’ll definitely be going back in the future.
CQ WW SSB 2000 – GZ7V Contest expedition
Country: Shetlands Mode: SSB Category: Multi Multi Zone: 14
Operator List: Chris Tran GM3WOJ, Jim Atkinson GM4TXX, Keith Kerr GM4YXI, Stewart Cooper GM4AFF (GM0F)
BAND QSOs QSO PTS PTS/QSO ZONES COUNTRIES
160 231 250 1.08 9 47
80 396 560 1.41 13 58
40 1053 1539 1.46 24 96
20 2219 4111 1.85 38 136
15 2210 4462 2.02 39 136
10 1815 3980 2.19 38 143
Totals 7924 14902 1.88 161 616
Increased HF activity from Scotland ?
It seems to me that there is a big increase in activity on HF from Scotland. There are many GM/MM stations to be heard on the bands, and the new MM5 stations are especially welcome – every MM5 I’ve heard seems really enthusiastic! In the contesting world, the following special calls have been active in the last 12 months : GM2T, GM6NX, GM0F, GM3W, GM7R, GM0B, GM5V, MM2R, GM5A, GM7V, and maybe some others. Let’s hope that this increase in activity continues after the sunspot maximum.
Some thoughts on operating
Having watched 3 DXpedition videos in the last 2 years (VK0IR, ZL9CI and XZ0A) and worked several other of the ‘big’ DXpeditions, I’ve noticed that many of the SSB operators are poor operators, whereas most of the CW operators are good operators. This is a generalisation of course, but you don’t need to listen to an operator handling a pile-up for very long to form your own opinion. It’s easy to sit at home and criticize a DXpedition operator without knowing their exact operating conditions, but there does seem to be a common factor - I’ll discuss this in more detail in the next article. What do you think the common factor is ?
Congratulations to the GM5V team on winning the RSGB IOTA contest !
As usual, your comments/feedback on this or other articles is welcomed - please e-mail email@example.com No-one has made any comments at all about the last 3 articles so I guess I’m not being controversial enough ! 73 Chris
Part 11 – More about Operating techniques
Regular readers will think that I am becoming obsessed with discussions about operating, and they are probably right ! The recent XZ0N Myanmar DXpedition has just given me some more evidence to support the statement I made at the end of the last article – many SSB operators on DXpeditions are not so good, but most of the CW operators are good – did you agree with this or not ? The D68C DXpedition showed the advantages of operator ‘training’, or more precisely, an operator ‘code of conduct’ which was followed well by most D68C operators and helped them to their world-record 168,000 QSOs.
The reason I’m going on about DXpedition operating standards is that the same ideas apply equally to contesting, and I would go as far as to say that the best DXpedition operators usually have learned their skills in contests. What’s the big deal if an operator is slow ? Surely everyone can operate in any way they want to ? – sorry, no – the DXpedition sponsors, and the amateur community worldwide, want an expedition to make as many QSOs as possible in the time that they are operational, and that means each operator has to think carefully and make fast, accurately-logged QSOs. There is nothing more frustrating than listening to a DX station’s signal peaking up for the first time, and hearing a slow inefficient operator – you then realise that you are probably not going to work the station, specifically because of the poor operator rather than propagation or your equipment and antenna, and that could be your only chance on that band. The European operators are particularly intolerant and badly behaved in this situation.
There are many possible reasons for an operator to be struggling with a pile-up, and it is worth considering some of them. Firstly, they may never have handled a big pile-up of stations calling them before, ever – this could be geographical – if you live in e.g. New York or Geneva you don’t usually get a pile-up of European or Japanese stations replying to a CQ call – take that operator to a DX location without any training or advice and they will be easily overwhelmed by the pile-up. Secondly, some people don’t think as fast as others – they may do an equally good or better job given time, but time is a key factor as I’ve mentioned before, especially in contests. Stations calling do not expect an operator to be polite to them, just work them and put them in the log as quickly as possible. Another major factor is tiredness – it is difficult enough when you are fresh to separate even part of a callsign from a 20kHz wide mass of stations calling, but doing this day after day for 2 weeks is a real killer. The operating environment is crucial, but often cannot be predicted or controlled – too hot, too humid, too cold, uncomfortable – all adding to fatigue. Add to these - unfamiliarity with bands, propagation,.equipment, software, antennas, etc. and it all adds up to a stressful, not enjoyable, experience for the untrained operator. You could argue that poor leadership is another factor, but it’s not easy telling your friend ‘you are not doing things properly’.
There is another problem – to go with a major DXpedition nowadays is expensive and time-consuming – this, and I’m generalising again here, means that often older, perhaps retired, operators are invited along, for no other reason than that they are available to go, with no real consideration of their operating suitability or experience. I’m not being ‘ageist’ here (I celebrated my 50th birthday in March this year !) just pointing out what seems to happen on some expeditions.
Why do I think that the CW operators are often better than the SSB operators – this is more difficult to explain – one possibility is that an expedition organiser thinks ‘this guy can talk so he can operate SSB’ – wrong ! The skills needed to be a good contest or expedition CW or SSB operator are learned skills. One thing I am sure about is that it is a lot less tiring to operate CW than SSB over long periods – using the keyboard to send (I don’t mean one letter at a time, but the whole callsign you have typed in + 599 etc.) reduces fatigue considerably. Perhaps the fact that CW, by its nature a ‘code’, means that information can be sent faster with common abbreviations, and QSOs made more quickly. For some unknown reason, there can be an element of elitism amongst CW operators – I think it’s better to be a good all-round operator if you can, rather than just SSB or just CW – you need to practice both equally.
Roger Western G3SXW, who was recently active as VK9CXW, and has many years of experience on DXpeditions, sent me these interesting comments after reading my last article :-
1 - if he (the DXpedition operator) is inexperienced then we should be generous, give him time to learn. It distresses me when folks who are unaware of the circumstances criticise from their comfortable shack. Anyway, we prefer an inexperienced operator to hand out 30 contacts an hour than not to be there at all. Example: returning from ZD9SXW in 1993 I met Alan, ZD9CQ who had just had a year on Gough Is. He was proud with his 3,000 QSOs in a year but then asked me about my log (23,000 in three weeks) and went pale! It turns out that he got his ham licence in S.Africa just before leaving home, specifically for the trip. His first ever HF QSO was signing ZD9. Can you imagine?! Not only that - while on the island he taught himself CW and made some QSOs. Now that REALLY impresses me. Perhaps some hungry DXers sitting at home and not understanding the situation were frustrated at his lack of skill and speed, but few of them could have matched Alan's achievements. And in the process a few more of 'the Deserving' got a ZD9 card.
2 - without experiencing the hot end of big pile-ups with a range of different receivers it's hard to appreciate that some of them are poor at differentiating signals. Some receiver front-ends just can't cope. This is one main reason why we have stuck to the trusty TS930 down the years. So, when a pile-up operator takes ages to pick out a call-sign it may not be just operating ability. There can also be other reasons, of course - static, local QRN, QRM inaudible at this end, people in the shack, paper-logs or pen falling on the floor, insects, lack of sleep and so forth.
One last factor to do with operating (I’m choosing my words carefully here) – it is human nature to think that we are good at something, and some people find it very difficult to admit to themselves that they need advice or training, especially in something so superficially easy as ‘operating a radio’. The real conclusion to all this is that no-one, no matter how many years they have been operating, should think ‘I know it all’, and not be willing to learn from someone else or just simply copy some good techniques that they hear on the bands.
An antenna project
I’ve started constructing a new contest antenna for 40m, and I thought you might be interested in following the project step-by-step. At GM7V, our LF antennas are a weak point – we have a 3 element KLM yagi for 40m, but it has a 4" diameter boom and is too heavy to keep permanently installed – we need a new 40m antenna which will give some gain and directivity, but not be too unwieldy. After a lot of thought, I decided to construct a 4-square, by constructing 2 phased verticals first, then adding two more verticals at a later date. If the 2 phased verticals work well enough, the extra complexity of the 4-square might not be needed.
The GM DX Group Digest is published roughly every 3 months, so here is what you could try to do before the next issue (I’m hoping that you get some sunny weather to do this!)
Step 1 – Manufacture 2 quarter-wave verticals for 7MHz – the ones I’ve installed here are made of scrap yagi elements, plus some wider (1.25" diam.) tubing for the lower half. They are 9.8m long, which is a bit less than the calculated required length – I’ll explain later why 9.8m will be OK. Using 2 x 12" lengths of white 1.5" PVC waste pipe, make a base insulator
for each vertical. The PVC pipe only needs to overlap the lower 3" of the aluminium tubing, secured by a through bolt, e.g. M5 x 50 stainless steel. The 2 verticals should be mounted 10.65m apart, with approx. another 12m of space beyond each vertical for elevated radials to be added later. Ideally, the verticals should be aligned SE/NW which should allow some European QRM to be nulled out. So far these lightweight verticals, which have 3 guy ropes about 2/3 of the way up, have survived some very strong winds. Alternatively, if you have 2 40’ high supports about 40’ apart, you can install a rope across the gap, and suspend 2 wire quarter-wave verticals from the rope, again spaced 10.65m apart.
Step 2 – Manufacture this 7.05MHz test oscillator – to be used later to adjust the phased verticals for optimum performance. This is a Colpitts circuit - almost any xtal oscillator circuit suitable for ‘fundamental’ crystals will work. The xtal I used cost 10 pounds from QuartSlab, because I was only ordering one xtal. Build this in a small metal box, with a PP3 battery and on/off switch, and an antenna connector, to which 10m of hook-up wire will be connected as a test antenna. Component values are not at all critical in this circuit – virtually any transistor will work :-
I’ve also constructed an RF Current Probe, and an RF Phasemeter using the G3PJT MiniCircuits SBL-1 Balanced mixer design, but I now realise I might not actually need either of these items, but we’ll see. We don’t want an antenna design that is too difficult to set up or keep working. You will need 2 variable capacitors – 500pF approx., so look for these at junk sales, etc. Step 1 and Step 2 should keep you busy until the next instalment.
IOTA contest 2000
‘Congratulations to the GM5V team on winning the RSGB IOTA contest’ The author of the IOTA Contest 2000 write-up in Radcom lost the place completely and could not write that simple sentence – a disgrace. Many foreign stations will be wondering if they should bother entering the IOTA contest again. Our dismal 9th place at GW6J merited a telling-off for ‘talking too fast’ – what a joke !
I’d like to thank the GM DX Group for sponsoring the QSL cards for last year’s GZ7V Contest expedition – this was greatly appreciated. Who wants to come to Rockall for GR7V ?!
Part 12 – Equipment for contesting
I’d like to take a much more detailed look at suitable equipment for contesting, and make some specific recommendations if you’re thinking of setting up a contest station. In this article I’ll discuss HF transceivers, and in the next article I’ll discuss HF linear amplifiers.
In part 4 of this series of articles, I made some general statements about transceivers – I’d like to be more specific now about some transceivers which are used at contest stations. There are many different transceivers on the market today, so I’ll stick to discussing those that I’ve actually used, rather than comparing ‘numbers’. Unfortunately, recent magazine reviews of transceivers seem to have lost the objectivity they had a few years ago, and seem afraid to criticise any new radio which is marketed – for example the transmitter in the new TS-2000 is poorly designed and performs poorly, but the review only mentions this in oblique terms. It’s hard not to feel that advertisers are now driving the content of these reviews, rather than the reviewer. Some current adverts for radios are completely inaccurate !
The transceiver is a key item in any station – they also cost a lot of money. If you look inside a modern transceiver you wonder why, because most of the parts look like consumer electronics parts that you might find in a CD player or TV set. Manufacturers argue that the amateur radio market is a very specialised market, and development costs are high, but I don’t entirely agree with this – however only a small minority of amateurs have the ability and test equipment to make a high-performance HF or VHF transceiver, so we just keep paying the high prices. However, more and more manufacturers claim that their commercial enterprises are the real profit makers, and that they run the amateur radio side of their business at a loss – I really don’t believe this – who runs a loss-making business year after year these days ?! (mmm…I can actually think of a few examples!) One interesting point is that if you are not desperate to have the very latest model of radio in your shack (which is not necessarily the best for contesting anyway) then there are some really good contesting radios available at reasonable prices on the secondhand market. One argument against buying a second-hand radio was that the previous owner might have ‘tweaked’ some of the internal adjustments – only a complete fool would attempt to adjust any radio built in the last 10 years. For example, an FT-1000MP has 4 microprocessors on the back of the front panel alone, so who would attempt to fiddle with this sort of complex circuitry ?
Before looking at some specific radios, it is worth looking at some of the ‘numbers’ that are quoted enthusiastically by manufacturers and reviewers. The recent ARRL Handbooks give details of what the different parameters of a receiver mean, and the one ‘number’ that you should look at in any review/test of a receiver is the ‘Two-tone Dynamic range’ – if this number is above 90dB, then that receiver should perform well in a contest situation. This is a simplification of results of course, and other factors like intercept point, gain compression, reciprocal mixing, IF rejection, selectivity, AGC performance, etc. are all important, but the parameter ‘Two-tone Dynamic range’ gives you a broad idea about the likely receiver performance. (Two-tone dynamic range is usually measured at a number of different tone-spacings)
I emphasise that the comments below are my personal opinion, based on using each radio, often for 48 hours in a contest. Feel free to disagree with these comments.
(The number in brackets is the approximate year in which each radio was introduced)
TS-430/440/450 (450/1991) – not great radios, but very cheap now. Ideal stand-by radio.
TS-850 (1991) - brilliant – now reasonably cheap. Excellent strong-signal handling, but again some reliability worries – common faults are that the front-end blows up easily with too much RF nearby, and the PLL can become unlocked. The first of the generation of radios built using surface-mounted components.
TS-870 (1995) – not as good as you would believe – real concerns over the concept of relying on DSP only for selectivity. Avoid these for serious contesting, but they are a good radio for casual DXing
TS-930 (1982) – fairly good performance, but a bit basic and now becoming very unreliable. There must be dozens of faulty 930s lying unused in shacks around the UK. Replacement circuit boards are available (PIEXX) but whether this is worthwhile I don’t know.
TS-940 (1985) – fairly good for contesting, and now fairly cheap. However they are a very complicated radio, and prone to faults, especially the PLL circuitry. The last of the generation of discrete component radios.
TS-950 (1989) - horrible – mediocre performance linked to the second-worst ergonomics I’ve ever used – only Yaesu’s awful FT-ONE (1982) was worse ! An expensive turkey of a radio.
FT-920 (1997) – not very good on HF – poor strong-signal handling and poor selectivity. Fake second receiver !
FT-1000 (1989) – excellent – solid, quality design and construction, and cross-band receive (with the BPF option) Avoid early models which have computer-control problems.
FT-1000MP (1995) – very good – very popular with contesters, and the second receiver is well implemented, but can only work on the same band as the main RX. See further comments about the 1000MP later.
FT-1000MP MkV (2000) – early days, but the one I’ve used briefly impressed me. Not sure if it’s really worth upgrading from an FT-1000MP.
IC-735 (1985) – disappointing performance – poor selectivity and blocks fairly easily.
IC-737 (1992) – excellent strong-signal handling, but poor selectivity.
IC-775DSP (1995) – good, but expensive, and the second RX is not well implemented.
I’ve heard good reports about TS-570 (1996) radios, but have not had a chance to use one yet. There are of course a lot of other radios e.g. Icom 746/756/761/765, Ten-Tec, Drake, JRC, Elecraft, etc. that I’ve never used.
Once you’ve purchased a radio for contesting, you may want to improve its performance further by adding extra IF filters to narrow the selectivity, and other external accessories. International Radio (INRAD, run by W2VJN) sell a range of replacement or extra IF filters – buy the cheaper 1st IF one first and see how it performs before spending quite a lot of money on the larger piece of quartz for the 455kHz IF. Buy a 1.8kHz SSB filter and a 250Hz CW filter. INRAD filters have good shape factors, but at the expense of slightly higher insertion loss, sometimes up to 8dB. If you own an FT-1000MP, there are 2 important points – firstly, do NOT install the ‘IF modification kit’ – this DEGRADES the strong-signal handling characteristics of the 1000MP (the advert claims that it improves the strong-signal handling !), and secondly, there is a FET in the 1000MP Noise Blanker circuit connected to the I.F. even when the NB is OFF, so you have to make sure that the front-panel NB control is turned to minimum or the performance of the RX is degraded. Visit www.w8ji.com for more info.
Operating a transceiver during a contest
Actually using your radio under contest conditions i.e. high QRM, adjacent signals, etc.. is very different from normal day-to-day DXing. Some operators only like to listen to strong signals – you’ll never do well in any contest until you can copy, using your ears as part of the filtering system, an S3 SSB signal which is 1kHz above an S9+10dB signal – this really tests the filtering in a radio, the front-end performance, and all the ‘bells and whistles’ e.g. DSP, IF Shift, IF Width, VBT, Slope-tuning, PBT, etc.. Try this next time you switch on your radio – tune around and find a weak signal near to a loud signal, and find out which of these controls actually help, and how they should be set up. Often this weak difficult-to-copy signal is a new multiplier in the contest or a new DXCC country, so it’s really worth making the effort. Two basics that I’ve mentioned before are to always have the AGC set to ‘Fast’, and never use the Noise Blanker when strong signals are nearby. Finally, readability is almost always improved by switching out any Preamp, or by selecting the manufacturers idea of how to improve the performance of the front-end e.g.Yaesu’s IPO or Kenwood’s AIP. I’ve found DSP, especially audio-derived DSP, to be of little real use in improving readability under contest conditions, and can sometimes make things worse – there is no substitute for proper RF design of a receiver. One thing to bear in mind is that, even with monoband antennas which have good patterns and can help reduce QRM by many dBs, there are times when you just have to QSY because of QRM, and no amount of filtering or fiddling with controls will help in this situation. A good contest operator knows when to move frequency, and when not to move.
Antenna project – 40m Phased Verticals – Part 2
In part 2 of this 4-part project, I’ll describe how to make the 2 quarter-wave lines which are needed to connect the 2 verticals to the phasing/switching unit (to be described in Part 3) This method of making quarter-wave lines needs an RF noise bridge, which not many shacks have, but hopefully you can borrow one from someone at your local radio club. Both ON4UN’s book and the ARRL Antenna book describe other methods of making quarter-wave lines, but I found this RF Noise-bridge method to be fairly easy and accurate. At the time of writing (Sept.2001) I’ve been testing these phased verticals for about a month, and they work well – well enough to justify the extra effort involved in the project.
Choose suitable coax (and connectors e.g. N-type) for making the lines – remember that the physical length of these lines must be more than 5.4m = 17.7feet (the verticals are 10.65m = 35feet apart, so the phasing lines have to reach the middle or further) The formula for working out the length of a quarter-wave coaxial line is :-
Length = (245.9/f) x V.F. where length is in feet, f = frequency in MHz, and V.F. = the velocity factor of the cable. If we choose the commonly-available RG-213 (RG-8, UR-67) coax, it has velocity factor = 0.66, so for the chosen frequency of 7.05MHz, this formula gives Length = 23feet.
Step 1 – cut a 23’6" length of RG-213, and fit an N-type plug, or your chosen connector type, to one end. Leave the other end open-circuit.
Step 2 – set up the circuit below, with the receiver AGC OFF, and nothing connected to the ‘LOAD’ socket of the RF noise bridge :-
Step 3 - while carefully listening on 7.05MHz to the received noise level, prune the cable slowly and carefully a few mm. at a time until the minimum noise is heard. At this point, the coax is an exact electrical quarter-wave at 7.05MHz.
(You can sweep the VFO of the RX over the range 6.6 to 7.1MHz initially to let you hear the dramatic dip in noise level that occurs, and on what starting frequency the dip occurs) Important – with this RF noise bridge method, the far end of the quarter-wave line should be open-circuit, not short-circuit as in other methods.
All this sounds difficult – it’s not really, and you will find it very useful to be able to make quarter-wave and half-wave coax stubs, etc., which will be discussed in a future article.
In the next article – is your linear amplifier any good, or is it ‘two light-bulbs in a box’ ?!
Despite what I said, we’re travelling back to Shetland this October to sign GZ7V again in CQ WW SSB – a 2-man Multi-Multi which should keep us busy – please work GZ7V !
Part 13 – Equipment for contesting
A perennial question is – which is it best to have - a tower, a beam, or an amplifier ? Ideally you should have all 3 for contesting, but let’s think first about the ‘amplifier’ part of the question - do you really need a linear amplifier – after all, 400W output is only 6dB i.e. 1 ‘S’ point, more than 100W, so why bother buying an amplifier ? Well, the answer is an emphatic ‘yes, you should buy an amplifier’ if you want to be serious about contesting (and DXing) Of course there are QRP and Low Power sections in most major contests, but the stations who do well in the ‘Open’ section i.e. usually the best-supported section, are all using amplifiers. You can argue that this is a spiral of increasing power, which it is, but there is no way of going back in time to everyone running 100W. If you’re a DXer, running an amplifier saves you a lot of time calling in pile-ups.
A brief history of SSB in amateur radio
The January 1948 issue of the American Radio Relay League’s QST magazine devoted the cover, editorial and 3 articles to describing the ‘brand new’ ‘single-sideband suppressed-carrier radiotelephony’. Three years later it was duly reported in QST that one station had worked 100 different SSB stations. The superiority of SSB over AM for reliable worldwide communications was proven to the U.S. military when the famous Art Collins W0CXX flew with an SSB station around the world in a U.S.A.F. bomber, maintaining good communications with the U.S. mainland. In the April 1958 QST, the first SSB/CW transceiver for amateur use, the Collins KWM-1, was reviewed, and the writer of the review wrote ‘it is the writer’s opinion that the KWM-1 may well mark the end of one era and the beginning of another’ – he was 100% correct.
HF Linear amplifiers
The original HF linear amplifiers for amateur use were marketed in the U.S.A. in the late 1950’s and early 1960’s, just as the changeover from AM to SSB was speeding up. They used ‘glass’ valves e.g. 813, 4-400A, 3-1000Z, 4-1000A – physically large valves. In 2002, there are far fewer manufacturers of amateur radio HF amplifiers than there were 20 years ago – these are specialised items, with a fairly limited demand world-wide – for example fewer than 2000 of the Alpha 87A auto-tune amplifiers have been sold in the 12 years that they have been available – it is an excellent, but very expensive, addition to your station. The increase in planning restrictions and the proliferation of electronic interference, both to and from an amateur radio station, mean that there are now fewer amateurs able to use an amplifier without worrying about TVI, etc. There are about 10 manufacturers who make HF amplifiers, mostly in the U.S.A. The VHF/UHF amplifier market is even more specialised.
HF amplifiers are either valve (tube) or solid-state. As a general statement, solid-state amps are more expensive per Watt of RF output, but are usually ‘no tune’ and physically smaller/lighter than their valve equivalent. However, solid-state amps will probably have a separate power supply, which may be fairly large and heavy, and usually sits under the bench out of sight. Some larger valve amplifiers are remotely-controlled, perhaps using ‘pre-set’ tune and load controls, with only a small control unit sitting on the operating bench beside the rig.
Valve HF amplifiers
This is 2002 – who would use valves for anything ? Another interesting question – the reality is that for amateur radio use, valve amplifiers are still best – yes there are some excellent solid-state amps available, but valve amps are good value for money, and usually much more easily repaired than solid-state amps. They are also usually cheaper on the second-hand market, and parts are readily available. You can also homebrew a valve HF amplifier for a fraction of the price of a commercial one, if you are confident about working with high voltages safely.
An HF amplifier is usually about 60% efficient, which means that at 2000W input, it will deliver 1200W of RF, and 800W of heat. This heat must be removed from the cabinet, so usually a cooling fan or blower is used. The key factor is keeping the valve seals (where the metal pins and anode cap are embedded in the glass or ceramic) cool. In 2002, valve HF amps. use either older glass valves like the 572B or 3-500Z, or the ‘external anode’ type of valves, like the 8874, 8877, 3CX800A, 3CX1200 etc. Several manufacturers now use ‘Russian’ valves, like the 4CX800A or 4CX1600B, but long-term supply may be a worry and the 4CX1600B has a design problem which makes it a very unsuitable valve to use in a linear amplifier – I’ll give the details about this in the next article. About 20 years ago Heathkit made the SB-230 amplifier which used the 8873 conduction-cooled valve, which had a Beryllium heat-transfer block and heatsink, and was totally silent, but the valve is very difficult and expensive to replace nowadays. The SB-230 did not produce much RF, even when new !
Most valve HF amplifiers are manually tuned (some recent ones cover HF + 50MHz) and have a bandswitch, perhaps covering the WARC bands separately or paired with the nearest band i.e. 7/10, 18/21, 24/28MHz. There are two types of ‘Auto-tune’ valve amplifier – the early Alpha 87A’s used a set of ‘pre-set’ Tune and Load positions, whereas newer models like the Acom 2000A use a true phasing method to tune up on every frequency selected. Usually this auto-tuning is very fast (<1s) using control electronics and stepper motors to turn the bandswitch and tune/load variable capacitors. The RF decks and power supplies of the Alpha 87A and Acom 2000A are identical to their manually-tuned brothers (Alpha 89 and Alpha 91B/99) so you are paying a lot extra for the same power output as the manual version – with practise an operator can change band and tune/load ‘by the numbers’ in about 5 seconds on e.g. an Alpha 99, so I’m not sure that the extra cost is justified – you can buy 2 Alpha 99’s for the cost of an 87A !
Choosing an HF Amplifier
1. Cost - like most things, how much you can afford to pay is what determines which amp. most of us buy. You can buy a second-hand 400W output amp. for about 200 pounds, but a new 1500W output auto-tune amp. costs over 4000 pounds !
2. Weight - the first indicator of a likely good amplifier is that it is heavy ! The HV transformer in an amp. is a very important item, and some manufacturers use smaller, marginally-rated transformers to save money – a bad idea. Some amps. use toroidal transformers which are lighter than the conventional equivalent, but I would recommend an amp. that is heavy, as a generalisation – the heavier the amp., the more rugged the components, therefore the more likely it is to be reliable in the long term.
3. Power supply – look at the circuit diagram or ask – does the amp use a voltage-doubling HV PSU ? – again tied to costs, but again a bad idea. Much better is a full-wave or bridge HV PSU. Several currently available amplifiers use these poorer voltage-doubling HV power supplies.
4. Cooling - look or ask about the cooling – is the existing blower adequate, and/or does the amp. have an additional fan/blower fitted, for contesting or high-duty cycle modes like RTTY ? Airflow is another weak design area in many commercial amps – the transformer and PSU components need cooled as well as the valve. For example, the life of HV smoothing capacitors is considerably shortened if they are not adequately cooled.
5. Quality of construction - look or ask – does the amplifier have any self-tapping screws used in the construction ? – this is another sign of economising on the part of the manufacturer – you want an amplifier that is manufactured, not assembled. Good engineering would never use self-tapping screws for anything. A nice front panel and illuminated meters can hide some bad construction practices !
6. If the amp. is a solid-state amp., look or ask – is the PSU switched-mode or linear ? There are many excellent switched-mode PSUs available, but again I prefer a solid linear PSU with a good heavy transformer.
Antenna project – 40m Phased Verticals – Part 3
In this second-last part of these project notes, I will describe in detail the switching/phasing unit that you need to make. This can be built into a plastic waterproof box (IP65 rating) but you do have to mount 3 coax sockets on the box, and your own choice of 2-pole connector or feedthrough capacitor for the 12V d.c. supply, so at least 4 holes in the box have to be carefully sealed up. I obviously failed to do this properly, and after 3 months of use, my ‘waterproof’ box had about 1cm depth of water inside ! I did use a surplus box which had extra unwanted holes drilled in it, but that’s no excuse. The size of the waterproof box needed depends on the sizes of the 2 variable capacitors and relay that you intend to use, but remember that the connections inside the box have to be as short as possible. I used a box about 10" x 8" x 4". Ideally the variable capacitors should be adjustable from outside, but I decided to avoid two more holes in the box, which would be difficult to seal. Building this unit is probably the most difficult part of the whole project, but it will work with a fairly wide range of components from your ‘junk box’, provided you use heavy wire or copper braid for all the interconnections, and solder everything carefully.
The relay I used was a 12V 2-pole C/O ‘open-frame’ relay (R.S. 348-447 or equivalent) rated at about 8A/230V – I desoldered the 2 short lengths of copper braid which connect to each moving contact, and soldered these directly onto the centre pin of each coax socket. For convenience, I used an SO-239 input socket, and N-type sockets for the 2 outputs, but any good RF connectors are suitable. The small SPST switch is mounted inside the box, and is used only during setting up of the unit. The final part of this thrilling antenna project will deal with how to install and set-up the phased verticals.
Visit www.rsgbhfcc.org for more info. and the rules of all RSGB HF contest.
In the next article, some more information and opinions about specific linear amplifiers that are available, and the concluding part of the ‘40m phased verticals’ project. Following that, some detailed advice for new Multi-Multi stations, who are starting on a long painful learning curve.
Last October, Keith GM4YXI and I travelled to Shetland to do a Multi-Multi entry signing GZ7V – once again the aurora gave us only 1 good day of propagation during the weekend – we ended up with 5900 QSOs for 9.1 million points – over 4000 of these QSOs were made on the Saturday. In November 2001, Ian G3WVG and Nigel G3TXF at MZ5A suffered even more from the effects of aurora. Our GM7V Multi-Multi station also entered CQ WW CW, operated by me, Stewart GM4AFF, Ray GM4CXM, Gavin GM0GAV, Jim GM0NAI and John MM0CCC, making 9300 QSOs. One of these days we’ll get a 2-day CQ WW contest !
Part 14 – Equipment for contesting
More brief history of SSB in amateur radio
Nostalgia has overtaken me, and I can’t resist telling you more about the early days of SSB. I’ve received more information from friends Dave ZL1AV and Dave F5VGJ. In 1954, the head of the U.S. Strategic Air Command (who had ordered the atomic bombs to be dropped on Japan) was Curtis LeMay, and his deputy was Butch Griswold. Both these high-ranking and influencial military officers were radio amateurs, and quickly saw the advantages that SSB had to offer over AM. (Curtis LeMay was W6EZV and Butch Griswold was K0DWC) They authorized Ed Collins W0CXX to fly around the world in a C-97 Stratofreighter, with a KWS-1 1kW SSB transmitter and a 75A-4 receiver. The KWS-1 was reviewed in the April 1955 ‘CQ’ magazine – it used a pair of 4X150A valves at 1kW input. There is a Scottish connection to this history - older readers may remember Bob Milton GM3OEV (ZC5AJ) who was involved in the early British forces use of SSB for communication. All this is a bit disjointed – I’ll collate all the information I’ve received (which includes an interesting article in French) and write a separate article about this in due course.
HF Linear amplifiers
Following on from the last article, it is worth looking at some available valve HF Linear Amplifiers in more detail. Again, I will discuss only those amps. that I have used (or repaired for friends).
Yaesu FL-2000 (4 x 6KD6) avoid all early Yaesu amplifiers like the plague ! Some used sweep-tubes which were very unreliable even when new, and are very difficult to replace now.
Yaesu FL-2100z (2 x 572B) Good points : very popular and quite cheap secondhand. Compact and easy to transport. 572B valves are fairly cheap to replace. Bad points : Struggles to deliver even 400W, especially on 10m., and gets very hot after a few minutes of use. One common problem is that the 2 small cooling fans (which are feeble) need regular oiling or they stop during use, and the valves overheat and die. Bandswitches and transformers are other weak points.
Trio/Kenwood TL-922 (2 x 3-500Z) Good points : Fairly compact and nicely painted box. Bad points : Woeful voltage-doubling HV PSU – struggles to deliver 1000W. Poor cooling, and no real way to improve the cooling. No WARC band coverage, and 3-500Z (or ZG etc.) valves are expensive to replace. One common problem is that the valve filament pins desolder due to overheating/poor connection. Has been out of production for several years, so spares may be a problem.
Linear Amp UK Challenger 2 (2 x 3CX800 or 1 x 8877) Good points : Made in U.K. – very good after sales service. Bad points : Disappointing design, disappointing construction. There is a new version using a Russian valve that I have not seen yet. The Jackson slow-motion drives are unreliable.
Ameritron AL-80 (1 x 3-500Z) Good points : Cheap secondhand, and compact. Bad points : Poor cooling, and struggles to deliver more than about 500W. Later model AL-80B’s are generally over-priced on the UK secondhand market.
Ameritron AL-1200 (1 x 3CX1200) Good points : Loads of RF output. Very rugged valve. Bad points : After-sales service maybe a problem (if imported direct from U.S.A.) – new Ameritron owners MFJ have a poor reputation for reliability. Expensive to buy now, and the valve is very expensive to replace. Fairly basic construction.
Ameritron AL-1500 (1 x 8877) Very similar to AL-1200. HV capacitor bank rating a bit marginal. Blower a bit feeble, yet fairly noisy.
Alpha 76CA (3 x 8874) Good points : Compact. Bad points : Early model, which despite having 3 holes in the lid, struggles to deliver 1000W. Valves becoming rare and expensive.
Alpha 87A (2 x 3CX800) Good points : Auto-tune = superb performance, almost instant band-hopping. Sophisticated protection of valves. Fast T/R times with vacuum relays. Bad points : Too expensive for just one item.
Alpha 89 (2 x 3CX800) Manually-tuned version of the 87A. Superb amplifier, very reliable.
Alpha 91β(2 x 4CX800) Good points : Budget-priced Alpha (still fairly pricey) – excellent after-sales service is provided by Glenn Pladsen AE0Q (ex GM5BKC) of Alpha, no matter how old the Alpha amp. is. Valves are fairly cheap to replace. Bad points : Needs extra cooling fan fitted (there is also an easy modification to speed up the existing blower) Now replaced by Alpha 99.
Henry 3K-Ultra (1 x 3CX1200) Good points : Loads of RF output, mostly large rugged components. You (and other stations!) know you have an amplifier if you have a 3K-Ultra ! Bad points : fairly basic construction, with one or two components struggling to handle the +4kV HT. Very heavy (200lbs = 90kg !) and large (console = floor-mounted) Noisy blower.
Ten-Tec Titan (2 x 3CX800) Good points : Smooth easy tuning, plenty RF output. Has a separate power supply unit.
Well – it seems as if I didn’t have much good to say ! Not strictly true, I’m just trying to point out the weaknesses and possible problem areas – all of the above amplifiers will work, and improve greatly your contesting or DXing results. Once you’ve got used to using an amplifier and can use it without worrying about TVI or BCI, then it’s difficult to stop using it – it saves a lot of time spent calling in pile-ups, giving you more time to work other stations. One problem with purchasing an American-made amplifier in 2002 is cost – some manufacturers have changed their policy about dealer discounts, and are often only despatching amplifiers direct from the factory. This and the weaker exchange rate have increased the price of American amplifiers dramatically in the last 18 months. In a future article I’ll review solid-state HF linear amplifiers (like the Yaesu Quadra). If you interested in the history of ETO-Alpha amplifiers, visit www.alpha-power.legacy.htm
Antenna project – 40m Phased Verticals – Part 4
In this final part of these project notes, I will describe how to set up and test the phased verticals. Firstly, each vertical, with its single wire elevated radial, should be connected separately to the TX via an SWR bridge, and resonated on 7050kHz. Do this by adjusting the length of the single wire radial only (leave the length of the vertical section at the value described previously) – the radial length is quite critical – a few inches longer or shorter can move the frequency where the SWR is lowest by 50kHz. Adjust the height of the radial above ground, and the angle near the feed point, to give the lowest SWR – it should be easily possible to get 1.1:1 over the whole 100kHz of 40m using this method. The verticals can have their quarter-wave phasing lines attached when you are resonating them.
Secondly, connect the 12V d.c. power supply and check the switching action of the DPDT relay, firstly using the switch in your shack, then the ‘test’ switch in the switching/phasing unit. Position the switching/phasing unit mid-way between the verticals, on the ground.
Next, connect the 2 verticals, via the quarter-wave phasing lines, to the switching/phasing unit.
Position your 7050kHz test oscillator about 50-60m away, carefully in a straight line looking along the plane of the 2 verticals. Connect a receiver with calibrated S-meter to the input of the switching/phasing unit, switch on the test oscillator and tune in the test signal until you hear a strong heterodyne. The received signal should be about S9 or better with the oscillator circuit previously described. (QRM can be a problem at this point – the verticals may be receiving strong signals on 7050kHz which will mask your test oscillator signal, so you may have to wait until propagation changes – it is difficult to find a time when there are no signals on 40m)
Carefully adjust the 2 variable capacitors, trying different combinations of settings, until the lowest possible reading on the S-meter is obtained i.e. you have ‘nulled out’ the test oscillator signal as well as possible. You should see a dramatic null in the received signal as you adjust the 2 capacitors – from S9 down to not moving the S-meter. Switching the relay should bring the test oscillator back up to S9, as the null is moved to the opposite direction. If all is well, your phased verticals are now ready to use – don’t expect 9 S-points of a ‘null’ on real signals arriving at different wave angles – 2 to 3 S-points is more like it, but it still is very useful on a crowded band like 40m.
Note – I found that although I had resonated the verticals separately on 7050kHz, when they were connected to the switching/phasing unit, the combined resonant frequency fell to 6950kHz, and I had to shorten each elevated radial equally to restore resonance to 7050kHz. Interestingly, the handbook for the commercially produced Comtek 4-square switching boxes suggests that exactly the opposite should happen, and that the resonant frequency of the combined (4) verticals will be higher than any individual vertical. I have not had time to investigate this further, but I’m guessing that other nearby antennas, trees, ground conductivity etc, all play a part in this. I’m now installing 4 identical verticals for a 40m 4-square, so I’ll report back once I’ve found out more later this summer.
Advice for new Multi-Multi stations I’ve been involved with organising Multi-operator Multi-transmitter stations since 1995, so can maybe help some of the newer Multi-Multi stations to avoid some of the problems we experienced. Firstly – why enter a contest as a Multi-Multi ? A difficult question to answer – probably being part of a team is the best answer – some people might think that a good operator would want to show off his or her skills as a Single Operator entry, but this is not always true – it is an enjoyable experience working with a team, and everyone can learn something from the others. However, this is the first piece of advice – choose the team carefully, and try to balance expertise – it is not easy to tell someone that they are not needed for the next team event, so don’t invite people you know nothing about. A Multi-Multi effort can be an ideal training experience for operators, but not if the team wants to do well in that particular contest. Secondly, the team has to do a lot of talking before the event, so that everyone knows clearly what the overall aims are, what the strategies are, and who will be expected to do what, before, during and after the contest. There have been major disagreements between team members when some arrive expecting a really serious contest entry, and others arrive expecting a barbeque and sun-bathing weekend – sort this out in advance !
Another major problem can be equipment and antennas – we each ‘test’ things in different ways – I was brought up on the idea that you have to test everything, exactly in the configuration that it will be used in, long before the event. In the old days of VHF NFD, I used to assemble the complete station + antenna in my back garden, to check for any problems, then dismantle and pack everything for transportation. Don’t be fooled into thinking ‘this worked fine when I used it last month’ – test it again ! This is particularly important for items like antenna rotators, which are inherently unreliable, and coax feeders which have relatively fragile connectors fitted.
Compatibility is another key concern, particularly when several different people are providing their own antennas, feeders, mains cables etc. for the team event – find out in advance what connectors are fitted and whether the feeder lengths will reach, etc. You must make a detailed list of equipment for every station, from the a.c. supply through to the antenna, and include a list of back-up equipment if possible. All this is common sense – more advice in the next article.
Just to give you a rest from my ramblings, later this year there will be a ‘Contesting’ article by Gavin Taylor GM0GAV, describing the new ‘21st century’ contest station he is building near Perth.
Part 15 – Multi-operator stations
In part 14, I started discussing multi-operator events – this is a fairly specialized part of contesting, but does seem quite popular here in Scotland. For example, in CQ WW SSB 2001, the only Multi-Multi entries in the UK were all from GM-land – GM0B, GM2T and GZ7V. There were quite a few Multi-Single entries from other UK countries. Just to clarify things, Multi-Multi means Multi-Operator, Multi-Transmitter i.e. as many operators as you want operating up to 6 bands simultaneously. Multi-Single means Multi-Operator Single-Transmitter, which means as many operators as you want operating a single transmitter, although in most contests a second ‘Multiplier-working’ station is allowed in Multi-Single. A common pattern is for groups with limited resources or experience to start off as a Multi-Single entry, and progress to Multi-Multi in future years, or just continue as a Multi-Single if they prefer that section.
Operator numbers Something I mentioned before – how many operators does a ‘Multi’ operator station need ? Far fewer than you might think. Why ? – well first of all, even at this point in the sunspot cycle i.e. just past the peak, there are really only a maximum of 3 bands open at any given time, so you definitely don’t need to have all 6 bands (160-10m) activated continuously. Generally speaking, 20m is open for virtually 24hrs/day, and 40m is useful for about 20 hours perhaps. 10 and 15m should be open during daylight hours, although 15m can be open until late on, with 160 and 80 at their best during twilight and darkness. However, setting up and dismantling a ‘Field-day’ style Multi-Multi station with a minimum of 6 antennas and all the associated hardware is a difficult and tiring task, so ideally you want extra helpers for this process, but not necessarily for the operating part of the contest. This is a real problem – everyone who takes part in the hard work of setting-up naturally wants to operate during the event, but unless they have had some training or experience, this can be disastrous for the overall success of the group. It’s a good plan to have some group meetings dedicated to discussing operating procedures and tactics, maybe with an experienced visiting speaker, rather than waiting until the weekend and having no real knowledge of others operating abilities, strengths or weaknesses. Use a less important contest or activity weekend from the club station as a training opportunity. Some members of groups are quite happy to be helpers, cooks, etc, but might feel more confident about helping with the operating if they had some guidance in advance. In any multi-operator event, a good back-up person is every bit as important as a good operator.
Money Not surprisingly, costs are a factor here – if you are part of a group of say 12 operators, for a 24-hour contest, your operating ‘slots’ might be 2 hours on the ‘run’ station and 2 hours on the ‘mult’ station – if you’ve had to pay £120 for your share of the transport, accommodation and running costs, you are not getting good value for money if you only get to operate for 4 hours total (especially if your ‘run’ slot is 160m at 1200z, or 10m at 0200z !) If there are fewer operators, overall expenditure may be reduced, so your share of the overall costs will not necessarily be all that much more, but you will be operating for much longer, which is what the contest is all about of course. In my middle-age, this has become a key issue for me – I want to operate for the whole time during a contest, even if it’s a multi-operator event. For this reason, I don’t like Multi-Single events with more than 2 operators - you waste far too much time hanging about waiting to operate.
Logistics The logistics of a multi-operator station can be difficult. For example, at my QTH here I have to store 11 old PCs, monitors and keyboards, which are only used on 1 or 2 weekends of the year. Antennas, rotators and feeders need constant maintenance and upgrading. If the entry is a ‘Field-day’ style one, there are difficulties in finding a suitable site (as far south in Scotland as possible!) and the additional complications of camping, generator power, etc. (Having said this, I still feel that operating portable away from your home QTH is one of the most enjoyable aspects of amateur radio, and everyone should give it a try, not just for contesting.)
Inter-station effects One key problem which affects every Multi-transmitter station is inter-station QRM. This can be harmonic related e.g. the 3rd harmonic of the 40m station on 7080kHz interfering with the 15m station on 21240kHz, or it can be simply overloading/blocking due to the close proximity of high-power stations. These are 6 commonly-used techniques for reducing inter-station QRM :-
Despite all the difficulties, it is an interesting challenge to overcome inter-station effects – even after 7 years of running Multi-Multi stations we still have problems, but they are fairly minor now, and can usually be fixed.
Multi-operator events are great fun, and can be enjoyed by everyone in the group, if the planning and discussion beforehand are done properly. Let’s hope we see the same number or more Multi-Multi entries from Scotland this year.
Part 16 – Some bits and pieces …
A shorter article this time – autumn is the start of the ‘contest season’ and I’ve been very busy getting ready for several events. In our GMDX Group, we have a receiver expert – our new Webmaster Dave Johnstone GM4EVS. Dave has been studying receiver performance (one of the most important parts of any contest station) for many years, so I’m hoping that he will write an article for us soon. One interesting comment from Dave recently concerns the Blocking Dynamic Range of the Yaesu FT-1000MP series (1000MP, Mk.V and Mk.V Field) – according to the figures measured by the ARRL and published in their reviews of these radios, the figures are getting progressively worse with the newer models ! I’m sure Dave will tell us all about this in due course.
Transceiver adjustments One common problem with a transceiver, especially older models, is that when you change from USB to LSB, there can be a significant change in the pitch of the audio – this is usually an indication that the carrier frequency for one or other (or both) modes is wrong, and needs adjusted. No crystal filter is completely symmetrical, but the audio ‘hiss’ and the received signals should sound very similar on both USB and LSB. In the past this meant having a good frequency counter and measuring the carrier frequencies accurately (which can be difficult on a surface-mount PCB) but nowadays there is an easier method, using a PC and software as an ‘audio spectrum analyser’ connected to the audio output of your radio. I recently installed INRAD 250Hz CW and 1.8kHz SSB filters in my 'new' TS-850sat, and both filters gave very poor results and sounded terrible until I reset the precise frequency of the carrier oscillators. I’ll describe this method and you can give it a try – it’s very easy and will help you set up all your SSB and CW filters correctly. You will need a PC (Windows 98) with a soundcard, and a simple cable from your RX ‘Headphones’ socket to the PC soundcard ‘Line in’ socket – a screened cable with a 0.25” jack plug on one end , and a 3.5mm mono jack plug on the other end.
There are various pieces of software suitable for this task – some freeware, some not – for example the Elecraft K1/K2 kits can be adjusted using software called ‘Spectran V1’downloaded from www.qsl.net/padan/spectran.html – however the version of Spectran I’ve seen only works up to 1200Hz, so is really only suitable for testing CW filters. If you’ve used WSJT software, you will know that part of this program has an audio spectrum display in the top RH corner of the screen, but it is too small to be very useful. The software I used is designed for the digital mode PSK31, and is called ‘DigiPan 1.6d’ (As a side-effect of this, you can receive PSK31, which has got to be the slowest QSO mode ever, but has allowed a lot of people with difficult QTHs or TVI etc. to work worldwide DX) Audio experts will probably know of other suitable software.
Step 1 – on the Internet, go to http://mywebpages.comcast.net/hteller/digipan/ and download DigiPan 1.6d (a 600Kb zipped file, from the European site) onto your PC into a directory e.g. c:\digipan Install the software to this directory (an icon will appear in your Programs menu)
Step 2 – run the DigiPan software, which has a 'waterfall' display which is basically a graph of frequency 0–4000Hz with marks every 100Hz across the screen, against time down the screen, and behaves like a simple audio spectrum analyser, the brightness of the display being the amplitude of the audio signal. Click and drag the horizontal bar upwards, to give the black lower part of the window i.e. where the 'waterfall' display appears and moves slowly downwards, more space.
Step 3 – connect a source of broadband white noise to the antenna socket of your transceiver (taking suitable precautions to avoid transmitting into this source) I used an old 2m transverter with the 2m antenna disconnected, and selected 28.300MHz on the transceiver to be tested. Another useful noise source is an antenna noise bridge – if you don’t have a convenient noise source you can even use band noise e.g. 10m when it is closed at night. Take care not to overload the receiver front end with too strong a noise signal.
Step 4 - connect the audio from the RX headphone socket to the 'Line in' on your PC soundcard, and when you turn up the RX audio to feed noise into the soundcard, the waterfall display should appear, showing you the spectrum of the received audio. Adjust the RX audio gain until the slowly moving display is mostly blue with some yellow - do not overdrive the soundcard. (You may also need to adjust the PC Volume control for the ‘Line in’ input, or use the ‘Mic.’ input on the soundcard)
Step 5 - switching from USB to LSB, USB to CW, Wide/Narrow, DSP on/off, etc should show you whether your filters have good skirt selectivity, their actual bandwidth, and where their response is positioned relative to the carrier frequency. Also, compare the spectrum on USB and LSB and adjust the carrier oscillators so that they are as near identical as possible. This can be done by ear of course, but this software makes it much easier. (FT-1000MP menu 8-9 is used for adjusting these carrier offsets, but the TS-850 adjustments are difficult – I had to download the Service Manual to find out how to adjust the TS-850!)
Results ? My TS-850 certainly has superior selectivity to my 1000MP, or more precisely the Yaesu filters do not compare well to the INRAD filters. The RX DSP filtering on the 1000MP gives impressive results however (shame I hardly use it) There seemed not as much real difference between the Yaesu 500Hz and 250Hz filters (8.2MHz IF) as I would have expected. There are obviously many factors which affect the frequency response of audio coming out of a receiver audio stage, but if you are feeding in white noise to the RX, you’ll see interesting and useful results with the method described. Thanks to Dave GM4EVS for suggesting this technique.
In the next article – how to modify useless QRP UHF Bird 43 Wattmeter elements into useful QRO HF elements, some interesting historical info from Jimmy GM3CIX, and more about contest operating – here’s a question to think about – what is the easiest one thing you can do to improve your contest score ?
Part 17 – More about operating
It’s always risky to announce what you are going to write about – I’ve had no time to modify these Bird wattmeter elements, so that will have to wait until a future article. Also, this series of articles will draw to a close with Part 20 at the end of 2003, otherwise you’ll be getting bored with me repeating things ! I hope some other keen contesters will continue this series, giving you new information and ideas.
I received a large quantity of written material in response to my mention of the history of SSB, including 2 very interesting letters from Jimmy McDougall GM3CIX. Jimmy’s first 2-way SSB QSO was on 20th October 1956, using a homebrew SSB phasing exciter on the 20m band. When the band was open to the U.S.A. there were massive pile-ups – all the W’s needed GM on SSB ! The January 1954 copy of QST carried adverts for SSB exciters e.g. the 600W input ‘Elenco 400-3’, made by the Electronic Engineering Co. of Wabash, Indiana, and the ‘Sideband Slicer Model A’, made by Central Electronics of Chicago. In April 1955, CQ magazine reviewed the Collins KWS-1, a ‘table-top Kilowatt’ (if you had a strong table!), using 2 x 4X150A tubes. In March 1960, Jimmy GM3CIX was the first U.K. amateur to receive the CQ magazine ‘Two-way SSB’ award, for contacting 100 stations on SSB – congratulations Jimmy ! I’ll pass on more of Jimmy’s letter in my main ‘History of SSB’ article, which is progressing slowly.
In the last issue I asked the question ‘what is the easiest one thing you can do to improve your contest score?’ Surprising as it may seem, and it may seem obvious to a newcomer to contesting, but the answer is simple – you sit at your radio, working stations, for the entire contest. It’s very tempting to rest, to eat the large meal brought to you on a tray, to tune aimlessly and curse poor conditions, but all these things waste time. If it’s a 24 hour contest, you should be able to operate for at least 23 hours – yes we all need sleep, but it’s relatively easy to train yourself to stay awake and alert for the whole 24 hours. A 48-hour contest is a bit more of a problem, but again you can train yourself to get by with the minimum necessary sleep (e.g. a total of 4 hours) The top operators on the world stage do not sleep at all for the whole 48 hours, yet seem to be able to keep working stations for the whole time – amazing stamina. If you are a single-band entry, things are a lot easier, because the band you’ve chosen may close for a few hours, and you can sleep without the contester’s constant nightmare ‘I’m missing a good band opening’ ! However, a band like 40m can be open 24 hours per day, with some interesting DX to be worked in the late morning for example, in amongst the interminable nets. If conditions are poor, or you feel that your rival is doing better than you, adopt a different strategy, but the key thing is to persevere with working stations – they all count for points in the end. If no-one is replying to your ‘CQs’, go looking for stations and call them – it’s surprising how high you can get the QSO ratemeter by doing this.
Assisted or unassisted ?
In 2003, it is normal for the big world-wide contests (ARRL DX, WPX, CQ WW) to have both an ‘unassisted’ and an ‘assisted’ category. ‘Assisted’ means using the DX Cluster network to ‘spot’ multipliers or stations to be worked. There has been a lot of debate about these categories – it is almost impossible for the contest organisers to monitor the unassisted category, and unfortunately there seems to be abuse of this – stations using the DX Cluster to boost their score, but entering as unassisted. We saw a clear example of this at GZ7V in October 2000 – we were a Multi-Multi, using the DX Cluster, and a leading European station, who went on to be first in Europe as an unassisted single-band entry, beat us to a ‘spotted’ new multiplier on numerous occasions. Good operators will find and call in pile-ups which are generated by the DX Cluster spots, but this was happening too quickly and too often for the station to be doing anything other than looking at the DX Cluster. (This has been called ‘pecking’ spots from the DX Cluster) This is unfortunate, because the unassisted section remains one of the last opportunities for operating skill, and what might happen is that the contest organisers will say ‘OK, we can’t properly monitor the unassisted section, so let’s do away with it, and assume that everyone has access to the DX Cluster’ This would level the playing field, but would be a sad day for contesting. I don’t think this form of cheating is widespread, but it is happening, and there seems virtually nothing that anyone can do about it – it is technically impossible nowadays to determine whether or not someone is using the DX Cluster – you don’t even have to be connected to it to receive the spots if you are using a VHF Packet link. So, I’m very much in favour of the unassisted section – having been brought up in the good old days before the DX Cluster, I enjoy searching for multipliers much more than just clicking the mouse on a callsign. You’ll also find that a lot of rare countries are never spotted on the DX Cluster – the DX operator may feel overwhelmed by the Cluster-driven pileups so never calls CQ, so unless you spend a proportion of your time calling CQ (with some knowledge of propagation and therefore where to point the beam) they will never call you. Apart from anything else, working rare DX by your own efforts is much more fun
My thoughts about QSLing didn’t seem too popular when I gave a talk at the GM DX Convention – to remind you, I basically said that I did not agree with the ludicrous statement ‘A QSL is the final courtesy of a QSO’ – whoever said that was not an active contester. Visit the K1TTT website for an interesting article on how a big U.S. Multi-Multi contest stations deals with QSLs. I’m sorry, but for me a QSO and a QSL are two separate things – contest stations are happy to have a QSO lasting a few seconds with you, but it is not realistic to expect a QSL card in return. We have 2 very efficient QSL managers who work hard on behalf of our contest group, but if we had to do the QSLing ourselves, then we would have no time to actually operate in any contests ! Anyway – soon we will not have to send out any QSLs at all, once the new ARRL Logbook of the World is up and running (it may be operational by the time this appears in print). I think that for active stations, whether contesters or not, this LOTW offers a real lifeline for QSLing problems. LOTW differs significantly from e-QSL ™ in that the data will be used to process DXCC awards electronically, so the 92000 contest QSOs we’ve made since 1997 will all count towards other amateurs gaining DXCC awards. ARRL are taking a long time to implement LOTW, simply because of the problems associated with storing data which could be accessed via the Internet. Once the ARRL have sorted out the security, I’m sure other award sponsors will use the LOTW to verify their awards as well. Goodbye cardboard QSL cards, for better or for worse !
You may not have heard, but there is an e-mail reflector for contesters in the U.K. – called firstname.lastname@example.org For info on how to join this mailing list, visit http://lists.contesting.com/mailman/listinfo/uk-contest Quite a few GM DX Group members are already on the list.
Part 18 – More about Software
When I went into my radio shack this evening, which piece of equipment did I switch on first ? I’m sorry to say it was my PC, not my radio. In the year 2003, there are computers in many amateur radio shacks, and they have many uses. I would go as far as to say that it is now impossible to be successful in a contest without employing a computer – for logging, dupe checking (checking instantly whether a station has already been worked), checking multipliers (stations which are worth extra points) and scoring or printing the log after the event. There are various types of software of particular interest to contesters - contest logging/station control software e.g. CT, NA, TR,Writelog - propagation prediction software e.g. HfX - greyline software e.g. GeoClock - antenna modelling software e.g. YO, AO - CW practice software e.g. PED, RUFZ. Many of these software packages are DOS-based, so could be described as ‘obsolete’, but still do absolutely everything you need in a contest. Unfortunately, the amateur radio contesting market is a very small market, and it is not an attractive proposition for software developers to invest any time or money in contesting software. However, many of the contest software packages have been written by amateurs who are software professionals, and are very good, and very cheap compared to other software types.
This started to appear around about 1982, with the advent of the IBM XT, then AT, PCs (and the Apple Mac) bringing personal computing to a worldwide audience by the late 1980s. The key early commercially-available software was ‘CT’, written by Ken Wolff K1EA, and still widely used today. When first released, CT caused a sensation amongst contesters, who until then had been forced to use pens and paper to log QSOs, and ingenious methods (usually large sheets of paper) for mult or dupe checking. CT offered these contesters the chance to concentrate entirely on operating, and let the PC do the logging, checking, produce the final log for the entry, and even print QSL labels – wonderful. As radio transceivers have become more computer controlled since the mid-90s, contest logging software has become much more sophisticated, expanding its role to include ‘station control’ – switching/logging between 2 radios for SO2R, networking PCs for a multi-op station, changing frequencies, interfacing with the PacketCluster, switching antennas and amplifiers automatically when changing band, and even rotating the antennas automatically. Add the DVK (Digital Voice Keyer) features, and a completely automatic contest station, with no human operator, is within reach. It is already possible in CW contests.
Everyone has their own ‘favourite’ contest logging software, so it is not easy to recommend one particular package. As a general statement, every logging package has some problem – you just have to choose one that you like, and persevere with the learning curve (it is not a good idea to ‘learn’ software in a contest that you are hoping to do well in). For example, CT is a superbly written package, but does not support many ‘minor’ contests, and in recent years has been plagued by bugs in new versions, which were often written to overcome previous bugs. CT has now been released as ‘freeware’ and can be downloaded from www.k1ea.com/ctvault/
With the demise of MS-DOS, and the inexorable drive of Microsoft to change us all over to XP, it is inevitable that our current computer hardware (I’m referring to the pile of Pentium 1’s running W98 that we use at GM7V) will eventually have to be replaced by up-to-date hardware. There are no processor-speed issues with contest logging software, just the fact that several of the most popular packages e.g. CT, NA, TR, are not available as Windows-based, and will probably never be. These DOS-based packages are not very good at networking, but good at everything else.
There are several Windows contest logging packages, of which Writelog is probably the best. It has some peculiar quirks, which makes me think that the authors have not done much CW contesting. Writelog currently costs about U.S. $75, and is well supported and regularly upgraded. It is a very complicated piece of software, catering for many different contests, SSB/CW/RTTY, etc – you really need a large-screen monitor (and good eyesight!) to absorb all the available information. Anyone with software-writing expertise can easily create a Writelog ‘Module’ for their favoured minor contest. Take a look at the N1MM software for a freeware Windows based logger.
In the mid 1990s, the contesting community attempted to define a ‘standard’ log format, which could be used for all contest entries, and would be acceptable to competitors, software writers, log-checkers, and the contest sponsors. The ‘standard’ arrived at was called Cabrillo, and this is now the format in which all major contest entries (and all RSGB contest entries) should be sent in. All curent contest logging software packages should be capable of producing a Cabrillo format file. To call Cabrillo a ‘standard’ is not strictly correct – it is better to call it a ‘template’ because there are slight variations possible. Overall however, a Cabrillo format file is a text file, which contains all the information needed for checking and scoring a log. Have a look at this sample Cabrillo log-file, which contains only 5 QSOs :
CREATED-BY: CT Version 9.65
CATEGORY: SINGLE-OP ALL-HIGH CW
OPERATORS: Chris Tran GM3WOJ
QSO: 7008 CW 2003-02-15 0152 GM7V 599 400 K3PH 599 PA
QSO: 7007 CW 2003-02-15 0152 GM7V 599 400 W3BGN 599 PA
QSO: 7006 CW 2003-02-15 0154 GM7V 599 400 K4JA 599 VA
QSO: 7001 CW 2003-02-15 0155 GM7V 599 400 N3RS 599 PA
QSO: 14004 CW 2003-02-15 0202 GM7V 599 400 N2RM 599 NJ
As you can see, the Cabrillo file incorporates at the start all the information formerly given on a ‘Summary’ sheet. Also, and this is crucial to the thinking behind Cabrillo format, no scoring of the log is done by the entrant – as you can see from this example, there are no scores shown. As a contester, you obviously want to know what your score is at any time during the contest, and your logging software will tell you this. However, the contest sponsors (CQ, ARRL, RSGB etc) will ignore what you think your final score is, and apply their own log-checking software to your Cabrillo log-entry. This seems sensible to me, because not everyone will be using the same up-to-date DXCC countries list, for example, to check their multipliers, so the contester’s estimate of their final score could be incorrect. Also, the log-checking software will check the Cabrillo log for duplicate QSOs, and for ‘Zero-point’ QSOs, and adjust the final score accordingly. Make sure your chosen software can produce a Cabrillo format file for e-mailing as your contest entry.
Part 19 – More about operating
Back to basics …
For the last two articles in this series, I’m going back to my favourite subject – operating a contest station. This is one area where everyone can easily improve things, for absolutely zero cost, so it surprises me to hear bad operating practices every day. I’ve struggled to believe my eyes reading some of the articles in the RSGB ‘Radcom’ recently – incredibly bad operating advice from operators who obviously have no idea about operating efficiently. The Radcom advice directed to M3/MM3 stations was particularly bad, and will not prepare them in any way for the real-life situation on the bands. I also see some Scottish contest groups putting a tremendous amount of money and time into equipment, antennas, towers, travel expenses, site rental, etc, but neglecting something that would increase their score a lot, and increase their enjoyment of every contest – some basic operator training. Even if the operators were given a simple ‘do this’ or ‘don’t do this’ list, things would be so much better. Very often things seem to be left to hope or chance, and operators are considered ‘good’ for no real reason other than that in the past they did better than another operator. Even one club night set aside to actually discussing operating would be time very well spent, or invite an experienced contester along to share their experiences with your club. Try to avoid ‘dictatorial’ club leadership styles, and everyone in the group should be willing to do every task associated with a contest e.g. setting up and dismantling the antennas in the rain, not just arriving to operate when everyone else has finished all the work.
It’s a personality thing…
What characteristics make a good contester ? I think there are five important characteristics.
Surprisingly, impatience is probably the most important – not normally considered good in everyday life, but definitely good for contesting. An impatient operator will start tuning around looking for multipliers after only 2 or 3 unanswered CQ calls, whereas a more patient operator might persevere calling CQ, maybe not be the best thing to do. Competitiveness is another key characteristic – they want to win. Being ‘competitive’ is viewed strangely by our Scottish/British society – we want our country to produce successful competitors in events, but the single-mindedness needed to be successful is sometimes frowned upon or misunderstood. Determination is also very important – a determined contester will keep trying for the whole 12, 24 or 48 hours of the contest, and won’t give up early, blaming ‘poor conditions’ or some other reason.
Careful preparation is another key characteristic – a good contester will prepare and test everything weeks before an event, not leave anything to chance, have back-up equipment, and not rely on others if possible. Lastly, a good contester will be able to self-evaluate – to look objectively at what they did, and say ‘well, that was not very good, was it’, and to learn something new in every contest that they enter over the years.
Let’s list some of the bad operating practices (in day-to-day operating as well as in contests) that seem to be on the increase :-
‘Last two’ – the operator asks for stations calling to give only the last 2 letters of their callsign. Apart from being against your licence conditions which specify that you should identify yourself with your full callsign, this is a major time-wasting technique, which has spilled over from the awful ‘net’ and ‘list’ culture. Everyone can join any net or list that they like, but in a contest you should always call in a pile-up giving your full callsign. You will sometimes hear operators asking for ‘full callsigns only’, but unfortunately the effects of this request usually only last for a minute or two, and then other stations joining the pile-up are back to the bad habit of ‘last two’. If you hear Bob Furzer 9K2ZZ on the bands, listen to how he replies to anyone foolish enough to call him with the ‘last two’ ! There are now several amusing websites dedicated to ‘last two’.
‘What’s your call ?’ – almost as bad as ‘What is the DX ?’ A good contest operator running a pile-up will identify themselves every 2 or 3 QSOs, or even every QSO, so never call a station until you know their callsign. Many poor operators running pile-ups rely on the DX Cluster spots to inform everyone of their callsign, thinking that they are saving themselves time, but this is poor technique – many stations are not relying on the Cluster to find a new station, and just find the pile-up. Also, many callsigns spotted on the Cluster are ‘busted’ i.e. incorrect in some way, so the QSO could be bad if you don’t identify yourself often enough. If I was in a rare country and tuned in to a big pile-up, I would not bother calling the station if they made more than 2-3 QSOs before identifying themselves.
‘Go ahead the station with Kilo Mike Lima in the callsign’ – ouch – you have at least half the callsign, so give them a report straight away - ‘Kilo Mike Lima 5914’. This is a common mistake amongst newer contest operators – it saves the other station, and you, a lot of time if you just take the chance that there is only one station with the letters ‘KML’ in the callsign calling (it’s not impossible that there could be 2 stations calling simultaneously with the same suffix, but very unlikely!) Be confident – you are controlling the pile-up, so just give them a report straight away, and if you make a mistake now and again it does not matter – overall you are saving a lot of time.
Don’t waste time giving out QSL routes, QTH information, equipment details, etc – none of this extra information is part of the required contest exchange, and can usually be found elsewhere by the other operator e.g. by looking at the DX Cluster or QRZ.COM.
The last two examples above illustrate the first key point about efficient contest operating – do everything quickly, using the least number of words necessary to convey the information. For example, if you are using a voice keyer (DVK) to call CQ during quieter periods of a contest, programme the DVK with a very short message e.g. ‘CQ Golf Mike Seven Victor’ Everyone knows it’s a contest, so you don’t even need to say ‘CQ contest ….’, and if you need a longer CQ, then just press the button 2 or more times. A lot of time is wasted with long CQs, or listening for too long between CQ calls – just a few seconds listening between calls is enough.
Secondly, a QSO is best ended by just saying ‘thanks – Golf Mike Seven Victor’ – the single word ‘thanks’ conveys to the other operator that you have all the information correct, that you have logged the QSO, and that they can move on to their next QSO. It also invites listening stations to call you. Don’t waste time with polite remarks like ’73 and good luck in the contest old man’ – the other station will not be interested in this – ‘thanks’ says it all.
Lastly – keep asking yourself the question ‘is what I am doing at this moment the best thing for my overall score ?’ Quite often the answer is ‘No !’ – you may be impressing yourself with a 250 QSOs per hour run of 1-point European stations, while what you should be doing at that precise moment is looking for multipliers from the Far East on another band. It is absolutely essential to keep thinking all the time about overall strategy, and avoid missing any short band openings by following any operating plan too rigidly.
Dave Lawley G4BUO was a referee at last year’s WRTC 2002 in Finland – the Olympic Games of amateur radio contesting. Dave was at the station operated by the eventual winners, Geoff Steinman N5TJ and Dan Street K1TO. I asked Dave what it was that set these 2 operators apart from the crowd, and he made 2 points (a) they did everything very efficiently and very fast and (b) they were able to remember, without writing them down, at least 2 and sometimes 3 different callsigns of stations that were calling them in pile-ups, so could work these 2 or 3 stations in turn without having to call CQ – this is quite an achievement. He also said that they had thought out their tactics very well e.g. they went to 40m and 80m before their competitors did, specifically to work the big Multi-Multi HQ stations who would be CQing there anyway, so picking up these multipliers very easily without having to call in the pile-ups which would develop later. So, something to practice here – trying to remember more than one new callsign at a time without writing it down – not easy !
By the time you read the final article in this series, I should be living and working in New Zealand (far enough away to escape everyone I’ve offended over the last 5 years!) – please call me if you hear ZL1CT or ZL1V. It will take me a year or two to get fully organised, and I’ll be concentrating on 20m at first, because of its reliability through the low-sunspot years.
Part 20 – Au revoir …
This is the final article in this contesting series – I’m sure that someone else will take over, and give a different insight into how to do things. A planned change is almost always a good thing, and Rob will have someone new in mind to pass on their expertise and hints to you, and to encourage you to have a go at contesting. Why enter a contest ? - one of the first questions I asked in this series of articles, and the answer is easy – contesting is the ‘leading edge’ of our hobby – you cannot be successful in a contest without investing time, money and effort into improving your station and operating skills – this really pays off when you find that day-to-day DXing becomes much easier and more enjoyable with your improved station and antennas. Many of the technical developments in our hobby originated in the contesting sector and spread from there.
To summarise ..
It’s not easy to summarise 19 articles spread over 5 years, but I would like to repeat these following 5 key points : (Numbers in brackets refer to previous articles in this series)
1. Spend as much as you can on your antenna, and avoid any sort of trap or linear-loaded antenna if possible. For example, you will work far more DX with a home-made 14MHz vertical made from a £17 fishing pole with wire taped to it, and a single 5.0m long radial wire, than you ever will with any of the available £300 trapped verticals, which are all a compromise on every band, and very inefficient. Yes, they let you work several bands, but 20m is the place to be over the next 5 low-sunspot years. Use a resonant antenna, to avoid having to use any form of A.T.U., especially those built-in to your transceiver. (See Part 3)
2. Spend as much as you can on your feeder – use RG213 as the minimum, and never use RG43/RG58 for anything. Avoid joints in the feeder, and have as few connectors as possible. (See Part 2)
3. Don’t buy the latest model of transceiver – they will be relying on DSP to make up for underlying poor performance. Colour LCD displays, etc. contribute nothing to whether you can work a station or not. Don’t be fooled by bells and whistles. (See Parts 4, 12)
4. Invest in some station accessories, like a Linear amplifier, Digital Voice Keyer, remote antenna switch, etc., and a PC to do all your contest (and station) logging, CW sending, etc. (See Parts 4, 8, 13, 14)
5. Practice working pile-ups – take every opportunity you can to operate in a contest or at a special-event station. Anyone can be a good contest operator if they just think about what they are doing. (See Parts 5, 6, 11, 19 )
Please visit www.qsl.net/zl1ct , www.qsl.net/zl1v , and www.gm7v.com Please e-mail zl1ct <.at...> gm7v.com
Update - August 2006
As always, I can't resist voicing my opinion about some of the newer products on the amateur radio market !
Antennas - SteppIR antennas - clever concept and very fashionable, but how many broken ones will be for sale in 5 years time? If you have a triband trapped yagi, a SteppIR will be an improvement, but otherwise I would not recommend them - too many moving parts up in the air, longer-term reliability and availability of parts is a concern. Friends used a SteppIR yagi as a 'mult' antenna in CQ WW 2005 and were annoyed at how long it takes to change band - too slow for band-hopping SO2R - tunes at 1.6MHz per second, with hash in RX during tuning. Mediocre Front to Back ratio on 15m and especially 10m - changing element lengths without changing the element spacing is not good engineering. Have a look at http://www.k6if.com/steppir/steppir_4el.html
Software - Win-Test - 35 Euros approx. Excellent - modern 'CT' with colour and *lots* of features - good networking (now sorted out) - GM7V ops love WinTest 3.0.7 ! http://www.win-test.com/rubrique.php3?id_rubrique=1300 Writelog - fairly good, but expensive. Originally written for RTTY, that annoying QRM mode ;-) Networking works far better than 'CT' ever did - based on Microsoft networking. We've never lost 1 QSO with a Writelog network. N1MM - I don't like N1MM logger - poor start-up screens and not intuitive - a disappointment after all the hype. SD - I don't like SD - cannot be networked, which is a serious problem for even a single-op station nowadays wanting to run SO2R or have a 'live' logging PC as a stand-by. On CW, cannot correct the callsign as it is being sent, another serious deficiency. Logger32 - excellent (free) logging software for day-to-day use : http://www.logger32.net/
Transceivers - Icom 756 ProIII - my friend Keith has one and is not exactly raving about its performance. The Pro III receiver seems fairly good, but the TX audio on SSB lacks 'punch' - a common Icom complaint - the TX does not produce 100W o/p on any band. The original 756 Pro and Pro II were prime examples of under-designed and under-tested radios released too quickly onto the market - this series of radios should maybe be avoided ? Elecraft K2 - superb CW contest radio (although no second RX) but why is it not so good on SSB? Yaesu FT-2000MP and FT-2000D - waiting to see what these are like - don't buy one yet !
Keyers - CMOS Super-keyer III - good keyer, but why is the CW sending disabled when you try to store a message in one of the internal memories - this means you have to try to listen to the feeble keyer sidetone instead of the normal transceiver sidetone - this makes the internal memories almost useless - most people will be using the function keys for any messages anyway....
Finally - QSO rates - following on from what I said about VP2KC in the articles above, there have been some phenomenal QSO rates achieved in recent years, helped by big DXCluster-driven pile-ups and computer logging. From the OH1NOA website (tnx) http://www.qsl.net/oh1noa/rates.htm here are the 'High-scores' for SSB and CW stations worked per hour (note - there is a subtle difference between QSO rate hour and Clock hour)
480 VP2E N5TJ CQWWSSB 2004
278 P40W W2GD CQWWCW 2004
464 VP2E N5TJ CQWWSSB 2003 275 D4B 4L5A CQWWCW 2004
460 WP3R K9PG ARRLSSB 2003 267 VE2IM VE3DZ CQWWCW 2002
457 P40L N5TJ CQWWSSB 1993 261 P40E CT1BOH CQWWCW 2003
On SSB, 480 QSOs per hour = 8 QSOs per minute = 1 QSO every 7.5 seconds !
Thanks for wading through this lengthy page of text - I intend to re-write this page to reduce the content...
73 Chris 16th August 2006 e-mail zl1ct <....at.> gm7v.com
These articles are © Chris Tran GM3WOJ / ZL1CT and the GMDX Group