January VHF SS by Matt KF0UK
January is the perfect time for a contest...not exactly. In September 1998 I operated my first VHF contest and had quite a bit of fun. Beyond the September VHF QSO party the next biggest VHF event is January Sweepstakes. The name is a bit of a misnomer as the exchange is not like that of the November SS HF contest, it’s just the grid square as in most VHF/UHF contests. And VHF means any thing 50mhz or higher which means stations are active from 6M all the way to and beyond 10ghz. Mostly phone (SSB) and CW are used but FM can be found as well on 6M, 2M, 1.25M (220Mhz) and 70cm. The only reason I ever got interested in this type of contest stems from my interest in trying out my Icom 706mkII transceiver at VHF which most of you know has built in 6m and 2m all modes. The 100W on 6M is actually more than enough power for most types of work on that band. How does you may ask a valley dweller such as myself living at 749ft above sea level even consider a VHF contest? Enter the rover class. Although good propagation can occur on 50Mhz at any elevation, other bands seem to follow the line of sight condition a bit closer. This is where the "rover" comes in. In this class you may operate as a mobile station from any location you choose. If you activate at least two different grid squares you are a rover. One benefit of this class is that you may contact any previously worked station from a new grid all over again. Or pick a rare grid and you may be the DX! Sounds good so far but rovering in January ...why? Well I just can’t do the contest from home, and rovering is about the only way for me besides a DX-pedition to be in the contest. So on or about October of last year I decided to learn as much as possible about VHF and rovering. In the September contest I was disappointed when other stations asked if I had other bands and lost many potential contacts (and qso points) by only having the two bands. I set my sights on the January contest, and started building/buying/collecting the equipment needed for a good rover station. As I am not quite independently wealthy it took a bit of time to accomplish this. Searching the net, looking at the used equipment lists and so on. My goal was to have equipment and antennas for five different bands. The last two bands added to the station were 222 and 1296Mhz. The best way for me to get these was to use a transverter. Transverters are a neat way to get on the VHF bands at a lower cost. They use the IF in an HF transceiver and step up the receive and transmit frequency to that of the desired VHF or UHF band. A 28Mhz IF can be used for 144, 222, or 432Mhz. If you have a 144Mhz IF you can go much higher such as 1296Mhz and beyond. Now back to the contest. Originally I thought a nice loop through MN in January activating a few grids would be fun… and with five bands really fun. As my knowledge of VHF contesting grew I also learned that any of the serious rovers were planning on activating at least 8 grids. Not only that but the grids that I wanted to activate already had rovers scheduled to operate in them. Enter Iowa. It looked like several grids in the great state of Iowa would be open, so by Christmas I knew that was the place to go. By January 5th my planned visit to Iowa was on the VHF reflector for all to see. I spent the next three weeks finishing every detail - building feedlines, adding antennas and finding enough power for all the gear. As most of us do in this part of the country in January I too kept an eye to the weather. Just days before the contest I received an email from N9ISN titled "Big Storm on Saturday for MN and WI? "containing the text of an alert from the National Weather Service about a potential whopper storm for the contest weekend that could slam into MN, WI and IA of course. This left me with a few other issues to consider as well as the equipment. Delays at Down East Microwave resulted in my receiving the 222Mhz transverter only one week before the and the 1296 transverter only hours before the contest. Luck as never before was on my side. The weather looked pretty good for Iowa, and the 1296 transverter and amplifier worked right out of the box as did the interface and 22 element yagi. Only one adjustment was required to get the 1296 gear on the air with full power. By Friday night a few logistical issues still needed to be worked out such as build (2) telescoping masts, mount eight antennas and feedlines, and install the new equipment in the vehicle. At this stage help was needed. Enter Clare K0NY, and Jim N0WE….
Well once again the day before the contest and the station wasn’t quite ready yet. Clare and Jim both jumped in to help. One may think that I was savoring the thought of getting ready for the event, rather than working, but preparing five bands for the first time and planning a trip to the snow drifted state of Iowa does require some preparation. Telescoping masts were required in order to travel down the road with some degree of safety. We worked until close to 11:00PM Friday night, and with a small amount of sleep I was at it again Saturday by 5:30AM. We worked Saturday all morning putting the finishing touches on the rover station. Most of the work had to be done outside in the driveway which was pretty cold on contest day! Finally we installed the last mast. With 3 masts, five yagis, three omni angles mounted and eight feedlines going through the rear passenger window we were ready. The original plan was to be in IA by 1:00PM, but at this rate it would be at least 1:30. Jim and I were both hungry and as it turned out we had both pulled our backs out in the process of preparing the rover station! A quick spin through drive through at the local food emporium and we were on our way to the great state of Iowa. Jim was driving so I could get the first contact. The glove box door was removed to make room for the 222 and 1296 gear. A bundle of cables for battery power, feedlines, and cables with labels taped on them for "ALC", "RXIF", "TXIF", "PTT", "222AMP", "144SND", and "1296AMP" were en-masse on the rear of the transverters. Amplifiers were mounted below the dash on the passenger side allowing just enough room for the knees of the passenger. The Omni-angle antennas were used to provide horizontal polarization for us in a omni-directional pattern while moving. This was a great idea except that without gain on VHF and higher you really can’t accomplish much, (as we later discovered on 6M). As the UTC clock on the dash approached 18:00Z the 2 meter band opened up with many stations calling CQ. We were in southern MN just about ready to cross into Iowa as we attempted to make the first contact. W0OHU was calling CQ and every time I tried to call back the rig would jump into some unknown (un-wanted) frequency and mode. For some reason the VOX and headset microphone were acting in a way to cause the rig to go crazy. I ripped the mic plug out and put the hand mic back on the ‘706. Well now that we missed the first couple of q’s we headed on to the south. We looked for the first place to pull over on a county road in IA EN33. We found a spot were the drifts were just over the roof of the Cherokee. I jumped out put together the six meter beam in a 25MPH wind. After about fifteen minutes we were on the air. The 432 antenna just cleared the drifts. My fingers were froze and the bands were terrible. The only station we could here was calling CQ on our frequency! Little did we know that this was about the best conditions we would see in IA. We made a few qso’s and decided to move on. Problems with the mast system made me decide to sacrifice the 6M yagi in favor of the 432 antenna. The mast design was far too complicated for the snow/wind in IA. The roads were ice-covered all the way to EN23. Safe speed on the highway was about 45MPH, and less in some areas. We arrived about three hours late…way behind schedule. By now it was dark, but we found a high area and pulled over. The conditions were a bit better. The first contact with the 222 transverter was great. We received great reports, and signals on 222 from EN34 were S9+. (This was really a surprise as I later discovered that the power switch for the 120W 220 amp was off!) Signals on 432 were good too. After working all we could here we decide to go to EN22 and see what we could find. The drive to EN22 was long. It took about 45 minutes to get to Algona, IA; just north of EN22. We noticed the traffic and people in downtown Algona just about stop in their tracks as they saw the brilliant shine of the aluminum antenna array on our roof under the street lights! A few miles south of town and the GPS toggled to 42 degrees north latitude. We found a quiet county road and set up the mast. For about an hour we battled for six qso’s. Not at all as we had planned. By now it was quite late. Our plan was falling apart, and the back pain was really bad. We drove by a few motels in Algona but it looked like getting a room would be tough…all the lights were off. The thought of returning home seemed more than attractive at this stage. We had a quick bite of fast-food just before closing and headed north. Roads back to MN were in tough shape. Things started to improve a bit west of Albert Lea, and the rest of the trip was fine. We arrived back to EN44 at my house just before 3:00AM. After a brief sleep the thought of contesting sounded pretty good. (I found out later that we missed a great 6M opening!) Jim and I decided the best way to start out would be to catch up with our Sunday afternoon schedule in EN43. The roads were now pretty bad in Winona county due to the snow falling all morning. We got to a spot outside of Wyattville and set up. The snow was terrible, but signals were good. The biggest thrill was working W0UC on 1296 for my first 1296 contact ever. We finally heard Rich N0HJZ/R in an adjoining grid, and stepped through the bands with him too. By now Jim was really having fun. I kept telling him "This is the way it is in September!". We made dozens of contacts and decided to move on to EN44. >From EN44 we really had fun. Many FM stations were out there on 2M and440Mhz, and contacts we coming in on all bands. At one stage we had stations calling us on three different bands at once! This was even confusing for me as I wasn’t sure which mic to grab! Although this is a good problem to have - Jim was at-wit’s-end with the logging. "What bless-ed band are you on any way?" he said. I tried turning the volume down on two of the transceivers so we could work on one band at a time. Once again we made dozens of contacts on all bands. The equipment was working well and we were getting tired. As the sun set once again we headed back for home. The contest still had a few hours left, but we decided this was a good conclusion to the effort. We made so many qso’s in Wisconsin that our score would be listed in the Central division. In spite of the problems I considered the contest a success. Even though there were no awards earned for the effort I was satisfied. The equipment with the exception of the boom mic performed flawlessly. Although travel was slow we never had a problem on the road either. Will we do it again? Probably. After all what adventure could compare with contesting in Iowa in January!