CHANGES TO THE ROVER STATION
After the September 2016 contest, my goal was to try having all permanent equipment ready to go for the January 2017 Contest. Some equipment changes required a dry run of the usual antenna support structure in order to see if the old feedlines still reached the antennas. Two of those feedlines no longer reached, so two new lengths of LMR-240 were ordered. I added a 1500-watt low-pass filter to the output of the 6m station. This filter was customized with some additional attenuation right at each of the higher bands to help reduce nearby transceiver interference. On 2m I replaced the old DCI bandpass filter with a new OCI unit, but on-air testing showed no change in performance, so the new one will stay inline and the old one will be used at the home station. The new 2m external preamp is "too hot", so it would have to sit idle for this contest until I get time to do more testing with the transceiver's attenuator. Only the transceiver's preamp would be used for this outing. The 222 station had a problem with a BNC connector not being a good fit for the transverter until I moved the feedline to just the right spot. Now that feedline is permanently secured in the right spot. The RF-sensed external preamp was repaired and re-installed, and the 50w transverter, which used to be set at 30w, was turned down to 15w so as not to burn out the preamp again. This preamp is also too hot and pulls in TV broadcast interference at two of our sites, so more testing will be needed with that transceiver's attenuator also. The remaining custom length Superflex jumpers were obtained and installed on the 432 station. Custom cooling fans from Directive Systems and Engineering were also installed on the 3 amplifiers that still needed them.
HEADING FOR WARMER LATITUDES
Heading south into PA as usual Saturday, we left early in order to give ourselves some time for testing equipment and taking photos. There was fog when we left central NY and it stayed with us into northern PA. But as we approached central PA, we instantly had a clear blue sky. In sunny, 50-degree, windless conditions we set up the full system in FN20 at the same site where we used a 6m/2m-only quick-deploy system two years ago. We had enough spare time to test the SWR of the 2m loop that we were borrowing, and it tested good. For the first time ever in a January VHF Contest, we had to turn on the air conditioner. Activity levels were terrific here, and we were off to a strong start because this time the contacts were on all 4 bands, which really helped with our total number of grids worked. We stayed here 2 hours, our longest time yet in FN20.
Our next planned site was a summit in FN10 not far from the grid border. We were able to tear down, get there, and be set up in about a half hour in thick fog. The Packrat VHF Group stayed strong and really supplied the contacts for us here also--this ended up being our best grid activation of the contest with almost 70 QSOs in less than 2 hours. Normally we like to stay 3 hours, but we spent more time than usual in the previous grid. We had a tough time pulling ourselves away from such a productive grid activation, but we had planned to meet someone later in the evening who wanted to see our rover station, so it was important for us to stay on schedule.
We had originally planned to get on 2m during the few minutes that we would be driving through FN11, but had to cancel that plan because there was just too much else happening. We drove northeast into FN21, the last grid activation of the day. This was our highest elevation site in the contest and always does quite well for us on 6m/2m. We were pleasantly surprised to find that the TV broadcast interference was not bothering 222 this time, and the lowered noise floor likely resulted in QSOs that could not have been made in the past. More testing will be needed in order to find out the reason for the improvement, but it is likely due to the external preamp having too many dB and not being powered up for this event (but the transceiver's preamp was turned on to compensate somewhat). We left a half hour late from this grid, so we decided to delay the start of our Sunday plans by one hour. That turned out to be a great move, because we would both need the extra sleep for what would happen next.
Sunday morning it was off to our most northerly and most easterly site (FN23) to try picking up the Canadian stations as well as the eastern US grids that we didn't get the previous day. Unfortunately, when we got to the roadside overlook, it hadn't been plowed all winter and there was still a foot of snow there. So we drove to our secondary site, but the access road to the summit was getting worse with every passing moment. First there was clear pavement, then snow, then snow with some ice on the steepest part, then pure ice on the hilltop. I think it was the momentum that got us up there because it sure wasn't the rear wheel drive and lack of weight in the cargo area that did it. When we got out to have a look around, we realized it was impossible to get enough foot traction to push a tiltover antenna system into the vertical position, so assembling the full station was now out of the question due to the risk of injury. Then there was the small matter of figuring out how to get back down the mountain without slipping off the road and getting stuck. After closely inspecting the ground litter, it became more obvious that there had been an ice storm here recently (probably the January 10th event) because in addition to the various sizes of branches torn off the trees, the ice chunks that were on branches were now on the ground, separated from the branches and easily identifiable. Should we go back to the overlook and spend a half hour taking turns shoveling a spot? We decided that the best plan was to stay here, relax a while, use the 2m loop to activate FN23, and let some time go by so that the melt could continue to help our situation (while we decide whether to back down the hill or drive forward down it). I used my boot to chip away at some of the ice, making stripes across the road for the tires to gain traction, and spread some small branches on top of the harder ice to try increasing traction, while Tom made a few contacts, including 254 miles to VE3ZV EN92. The time came for us to leave, so we backed up to the end of the level area before the downhill slope, managed to turn the van around thanks to some small bare pavement areas (and there was still some slippage), and let gravity take us back down the access road while letting the compression of the engine slow us down with the automatic transmission in gear 1. We were happy to be safely out of that situation and set our sights on the FN13 activation 90 minutes away.
It takes about 25 minutes for us to get through the nearby corner of FN13, so it's important to make lots of noise to get someone's attention. If we don't connect with anyone, then we just spent all that time driving out of our way for nothing. But this time we had the advantage of a loop more than a quarter wavelength above the roof. The additional power output also helps for these short drive-through grid activations. Tom worked 3 stations (in 3 unique grids), and now we can count FN13 as an additional multiplier.
Getting to our FN12 site, we were happy to see that the roadside snow mound had diminished enough that we could drive over it. The drift half way up the access road didn't look too formidable, so we gathered some speed and blasted through it without issue. There was no snow or wind at the top, temperatures were pleasant for January, and the sun was out. We found a spot to set up away from the power lines and got on the air early, thanks to leaving the previous grids early. This was a fun grid activation because of the great paths to the west. We even picked up rare EN93 and FN04 but were also able to reach the FM field to our south as well as FN43 to the east on all 4 bands.
Now that it was Sunday evening, we started watching the wx more carefully. The National Weather Service began talking about
a coastal storm Thursday. It was in the southeastern US Sunday morning wreaking havoc, including tornadoes, but wasn't
supposed to start affecting the northeast until after the contest. We got to our final hilltop (FN22) and started up the
access road. The first drift was gone and the second and third drifts weren't going to pose a problem. We easily made it to
the top and life is good! We immediately noticed the winds out of the east in advance of the nor'easter. We expected a great
performance which this hilltop has always provided in the past, but at this moment in time there was S5 power line noise on
6m. Also, a poorly-timed football game was apparently pulling operators away from the radio, causing one of the lowest QSO
counts I can remember from this very good location (and a 3rd best grid activation instead of 2nd or 1st like usual).
Nonetheless, we had fun picking up great new grids like FN34 and FM17. Switching to CW on 6m helped with the S/N ratio quite
a bit and gave us a couple more contacts. When the time came to go back outside and disassemble the antenna system, the east
winds had picked up noticeably from when we first got there. By contest end, we had activated 7 grids, a noteworthy
accomplishment for all the challenges we face in January. Overall this was a strange contest in which there seemed to be
lots of "distracted operating"--lots of folks disappearing in the middle of a contact, lots of people getting the call
wrong and not confirming the corrective information, lots of folks did not show up on the next band, etc. It was probably due
to checking out the new MSK144 digital mode, as well as the football game, plus the barrage of chat pages, DX clusters, text
messaging, and phone calls. It seemed like the battle shifted away from the wx and toward the operating and driving. In any
case, missing the full FN23 activation hurt our score compared to the last all-out attempt (2015), but the grid count stayed
almost the same because we used all 4 bands from FN20 instead of just two bands. We ended up with our first January win:
Band QSOs QSO pts. Mults. ---------------------------------------------- 50 72 72 14 144 111 111 23 222 44 88 9 432 41 82 12 ---------------------------------------------- TOTALS 268 353 58 +7 grids activated -- 65 --- Claimed score = 22,945 ---
|N2SLN/R: A fringe rover in more ways than one.|