The 'Magic' Band
And so the magic starts...long ago...on a hot July afternoon back in 1938, as Harry - W6DNS, returns from work to his hillside home in San Diego. Before taking a short pre-dinner nap, Harry tunes across "five" and hears the usual hiss of a dead band. Wakening for dinner, he checks the band once again. Dinner will have to wait tonight. The band is full of signals...more than Harry has ever heard before! He later reports to RADIO magazine, "What a shock I got! The band sounded more like "ten" than "five". W1's, 2's, 3's, 5's, 6's, 7's, 8's and 9's were coming through. The QRM was terrific...."
Twenty-five hundred miles to the east, Nat - W1EYM, in Connecticut, is also carefully tuning "five", hearing mostly stations from the central states and the Great Lakes area. Digging a little deeper he is shocked to hear the S7 phone signal of W6DNS in QSO with a W7! Nat anxiously waits for the two stations to sign before calling the Californian and then holds his breath...he knows that, should he hear a reply, things will never be quite the same on "five" again.
"W1EYM this is W6DNS in California!" is heard through the QRM and at 1810 PDST the first confirmed trans-continental double-hop QSO on the "ultra highs" forever becomes part of history.
Up until this point, "five" had always been regarded as unpredictable with 'quirky' propagation. Amateurs had discovered that for some reason, the summer months would provide sporadic openings out to 800~1000 miles. There had been rumors of W1's hearing W6's and even reports of trans-Atlantic and trans-Pacific receptions...but always unconfirmed and often dismissed as "wishful thinking" or "bootleg" operators. But there was no mistaking what had happened on July 24, 1938!
Eventually amateurs would trade "five" for what would become known as today's "magic band"... but I think Harry and Nat had already discovered the magic, back on that warm summer evening so long ago.
W6DNS- Harry Hasenback of San Diego, CA. Harry used a National NC 1-10 super-regen receiver along with a homebrew HK54 parallel line grid circuit oscillator driving a pair of HK54s at 175W input. The power supply and transmitting gear were all located on the roof in a plywood box in order to reduce feedline losses. His antenna for the milestone QSO was a vertical collinear array consisting of 3 half-wave elements with directors on a 50' mast.
(QST Sept 1938)
W1EYM - Nathaniel Bishop of Fairfield, CT. His carefully assembled station consisted of a homebrew acorn tube converter feeding a Hammarlund Super Pro for receiving while the transmitter used the newly introduced 6L6 to drive a pair of 6L6's in the final. Nat also used a vertical array fed with a Johnson 'Q' match.
(QST Sept 1938)
Six meters has been my favorite band for over thirty-five years. I first got on 'six' back in the early 70's using a homebrew FET 'Handbook' converter and a homebrew 6360 transverter at 8W output. I was hooked from the beginning, managing to work 32 states during that first summer on six. I learned very early that openings could easily be predicted by knowing when you were leaving the house, as it seemed (and still does!) that the band is always open when you are not at home. Part of the challenge of six is just being able to be there when the band is open!
6m From Western Canada
PROPAGATION - on six from southern VE7 land is probably about the poorest in North America, with the exception of points to the north (Alaska, northern BC, VE8). The major propagation mode on six is during the summer months and is via "SPORADIC-E" or "Es". Starting about mid-May through to mid-August, peaking around early July, the band can open at any time via this fascinating mode. Typically, Es will peak in the morning and in the late afternoon and evening hours. From south-west B.C., most Es openings are single-hop, and favor the south-western states from California to Colorado. Several times each summer, openings will extend out to the eastern states, eastern Canada and down to the southern states. There always seems to be at least one or two openings via multi-hop Es into the Caribbean each summer but these are usually in the morning and short-lived.
These unpredictable openings are part of what makes six so interesting. Often, signals via Es will reach bone-crushing strength. Often the band will open in an instant, as if a switch has suddenly been thrown into the 'on' position. Listening on the calling frequency (50.125), I have often heard stations suddenly appear in mid-sentence, as the band suddenly pops open for the evening! Since the main generator of Es is now thought to be related to high-speed wind shears, this 'sudden' open band concept is easier to understand.
F2 - the real workhorse mode of the HF bands is much rarer on the magic band. Only during peak years of the solar cycle is six meters likely to support propagation via the F layer. We have been fortunate in that the last three cycles have been 'big' ones and have generated sufficently high levels of solar flux to open six via the F layer. On the other hand, Cycle 20, peaking in the late 60s, was a very poor performer and only one QSO via F2 from western Canada is known to have taken place, when VE7XF worked several KH6s in March 1969 following a strong auroral event the previous day. During the peak solar years of strong cycles, with sustained flux levels in the low to mid 200s, one should start watching for F2 openings starting in late October through to late March. Typical openings from VE7 land will begin towards VE1/W1 and progress from there, following the daylight. Normally the band will slowly shift towards the Caribbean and Central/South America and then out to the Pacific and Japan. On rare occasions, morning openings will take a more northerly direction providing a very rare polar path, while afternoon openings might dip more southerly towards New Zealand and Australia. There is only one certainty....you just never know what the band might do!
One of the most fascinating activities associated with 'solar high' winters is to watch the 'maximum usable frequency' or 'm.u.f.' rise from 10m to 6m by slowly following all of the commercial FM activity in the 30-50MHz range. Paramedics, fire crews and police services can be easily heard, often with sirens blazing in the background, as the m.u.f. climbs towards 6m. New York or Boston accents will usually indicate that six will open to the east coast on the northerly path, while southern drawls should alert you to possible Caribbean signals about to reach 6m. Each morning will be different, with the m.u.f. rising slowly over one to two hours while other mornings it will shoot up like a rocket in a matter of one or two minutes. More often than not, the m.u.f. will climb to 47 or 48MHz and stop, then slowly drop.....no 6m DX on those days!
Magic or Not? - You Decide...
During Cycle 21, I operated 6m from a suburb about 25 miles N-E of Vancouver. My station consisted of a little Yaesu FT-620 transceiver (10W) driving a homebrew 5894 amplifier at about 100W output. My antenna was also homebrew - a 5 element 'W1HDQ' yagi on a 12' boom at 55'. There were many 'magic moments' during Cycle 21, as it was my first exposure to F layer propagation on six.
One of the more interesting contacts of Cycle 21 was on November 10, 1981. The band had opened to JA in the afternoon and I had worked a number of JA's until the band closed at around 1600 local time. Needing to do a little repair work on the antenna changeover relay on my amplifier, I decided that it was safe to take the amplifier apart, repair it, and be ready for anything that might happen the next day. I disconnected the amplifier and started the repair work, having plugged the antenna into the transceiver to monitor the calling frequency (50.110 in those days). At around 1715 I went upstairs for dinner but no sooner had I arrived upstairs when I heard an SSB signal on the calling frequency. Knowing that the band was 'dead', I ignored it until I heard it a few more times, coming from the basement shack. Going back to the shack, I was shocked to hear VS5DX in Brunei calling CQ! With my amplifier torn apart on the bench, my heart sank as I realized that my 10W transceiver would never be enough to make the QSO...but wait...wasn't this the magic band? Somehow my lowly ten watts found its way to Brunei with no problem (7300+ miles) and VS5DX was worked at 1730 local time, over forty minutes after the November sunset.
One of the most exciting days ever, occured on June 10, 2001, in the middle of the ARRL summer VHF contest. The band had been very quiet with little activity other than locals and the odd signal on scatter from the south. At around 1030 local time, Ralph (VE7XF), had been listening to K7RAT on CW tropo-scatter when he heard the Oregonian calling a European! Listening closer, it became apparent that Tree was running Europeans. Ralph quickly alerted myself and Jason (VE7AG) on two meters and all of us swung our beams towards Europe...and waited hopefully. About fifteen minutes later, ON4GG's 599 signal appeared out of nowhere and was quickly worked. This was not only my first European QSO on 6m but also the first ever "VE7-Europe" contact made on 50MHz since the band was established in 1946. Both Jason, Ralph and Gabor (VE7DXG) also hit pay-dirt that morning as we all worked a number of Europeans before the magic stopped, just a few minutes later!
A memorable day from Cycle 23 was January 4th, 2002. The 'normal' opening to the east coast had failed to appear that day. Apparently what had really happened was that the skip was longer than 'normal' as the first signal to appear was around 1015 in the morning. It was EH8BPX in the Canary Islands! I had only heard Africa once before (in Cycle 21) and had failed to work it. I was determined not to let my next chance of completing W.A.C. on 6m slip away! As it turned out, I needn't have worried... the signal from Africa steadily got stronger and stronger and was in for well over an hour. Several other locals were fortunate enough to be around that morning as well to catch a very, very rare opening from VE7 to Africa on six.
Nothing was heard again until around 1330 local time when I began to hear the OX3 beacon from Greenland. A short CQ on 50.110 brought a thundering reply from OX3OX, running 100W to a dipole! Ole kept CQing for another fifteen minutes with no replies as apparently all of the locals had abandonded the band. For the next ninety minutes I periodically keyed up on .110 and asked, "Are you still there Ole?" and always got a response, as he was quite content to just monitor on .110 while doing other things in the shack. It was truly an interesting day on the magic band.
Working Aurora on "six" is usually fairly predictable. With the beam pointed to the northern auroral zone, the geometry is such that signals from Washington, Oregon and Idaho are usually dominant. Occasionally, signals from further east such as VE5 and WØ will make it here as well. On the night of October 28th, 2000, as Cycle 23 was ramping up, the 'normal' aurora became something very different.
I had been listening to auroral CW signals from Washington and Alberta, with the occasional peep from VE5 when I heard something that sounded too strange to be true....a VK4 calling CQ! I quickly turned my beam towards Australia and listened intently but heard nothing. Bringing the beam back to the north produced the VK4 once again, with a pure auroral "buzz" on his signal. Evidently the signal from down-under was propagating across the Pacific (still in daylight) via the F layer and arriving at just the right angle to reflect from the auroral curtain in northern BC or Alaska, as the signal peaked towards the N-W. Over the next hour, four VK4s were worked on CW, all with the beam pointed towards Alaska! They also reported that my signal had the tell-tale "buzz" of aurora. True to the words of Robert W. Service, "The Northern Lights have seen queer sights...", both the aurora and the magic were working overtime that night.
October 15, 2000 was another day that "six" chose to demonstrate its mysterious charms. A solar flare the day before had put most ops on high alert for anything unusual. There had been little activity on the band since mid September. At around 0850 local, PYØFF on Fernado de Noronha was heard and worked with weak signals both ways. No other signals were heard before or after his sudden appearance. The band remained quiet until a little after 1000 when LU5VV in southern Argentina made an equally sudden appearance. Located in grid square FE48 ( a little over 7000 miles away) his signal was exceptionally strong, peaking 30-40 db over S9...almost as if he were in the next block. He explained to me that he had blown the final transistor in his transceiver and had to make a substitution with the only suitable one in his junk box. He was putting out about 8 watts. Pure magic !
Operating on 6m since the early 70's, I had pretty well thought that there weren't too many more surprises left in the band that I hadn't already run into...until the morning of July10, 2009 when once again the magic would appear. Very early in the morning I had been talking with Jack, OA4TT, on the 6m internet chat page. Jack was located about 110 miles south of Lima, Peru, and a little over 5000 miles south east of me. I had jokingly said that in order to work we would need at last four good "hops". One down to Utah / New Mexico, another into central Mexico, a third over the Pacific Ocean and a fourth down to Lima. I had never worked into South America on summer Es before and I'm sure Jack had never worked into VE7 as well. Since the band was dead, I left the shack a few minutes later without giving the idea much further thought. Around two hours later (almost 1000 hours local time) I returned to the shack to see that Jack had posted a message to the board that he would be calling CQ on CW on 50.115. Having lost track of conditions, I quickly checked the band and found it to be open towards Utah. With little expectation, I tuned the receiver to 50.115 and immediately heard Jack calling CQ on CW! After picking myself off of the floor, I answered Jack and he immediately responded as we exchanged 449 signal reports! Jack signal was weak but steady along with a slight flutter. Once again, the magic band had caught me by surprise when a routine opening into Utah had suddenly become far more than I had ever expected!
Tuesday, July 8th, 2003 started out like any normal summer morning but would soon turn into the most exciting day I have seen in over 30 years of operating on six. The band was already open when I got out to the shack at 0730. For the next hour the band bounced around between the Great Lakes states and Ontario with the odd W2 popping up now and again. The skip was decidedly east-west, favoring the border states. There had been massive Es openings all day in almost every part of Europe, with Es strong enough to get to 2m for much of the day. With the Es building quickly in North America, it looked like things could get interesting.
At 0845 the band suddenly went quiet and nothing was heard for about 30 minutes when the 5x9 signal of VE1YX was heard. The appearance of VE1 via Es is very rare. As he faded out, K1TOL in Maine took over, his 5x9 signal being the only one heard on the band. About ten minutes later, Lefty faded out and VE9DX appeared! It had been an interesting morning but the best was yet to come. As Andy's signal faded away, the band apparently went dead...or had the skip just shifted further to the north? No beacons were heard but a quick check of the 48.250 western European video channel showed a strong signal. The video buzz was continuing to build in strength when suddenly IK2ECC (599) appeared on the band calling CQ! Two more Italian stations were worked before the band shifted to Germany and then to the Netherlands. This amazing propagation lasted for an unbelievable two and a half hours with 44 different European stations worked as the spotlight shifted around Europe from the UK, the Baltics and Italy. Evidently the widespread Es generators in Europe as well as in North America were accompanied with intense Es over the north Atlantic and the polar regions. A later check of the geomagnetic polar activity showed almost nothing happening in the auroral zone - the day was the quietest in several months. I suspect the almost total absence of geomagnetic activity played a large part in the stability and generation of the global Es that developed that day. It was surely a day to remember on the magic band and probably one not likely to ever be repeated!
This last statement continued to ring-true for almost 10 more years...until the 'magic' struck again......
Friday, June 29, 2012, began like most other summer mornings, with a 6 a.m. glance at the ON4KST website to check 6m conditions before my morning bike ride. The ride would have to wait today....Europe was being reported in the PNW! A quick dash to the shack found Joe, CT1HZE, and a few others, CQing on CW. For the next five hours, the band remained open to 'somewhere' in Europe, with signals coming and going..... wave after wave. As the sporadic-E clouds continually shifted alignment, individual signals rarely lasted for more than thirty to forty seconds and contacts were short and fast. All QSO's were on CW except for a short exchange again with CT1HZE, when his loud signal suddenly appeared on 50.110 SSB! The previous day, I had jokingly remarked to Ralph (VE7XF) that my re-tallied 6m DXCC total was now at 77 worked and that I probably wouldn't live long enough to work 100.....Ralph told me to eat more vitamins. I may need those vitamins yet, but the day ended with 7 new countries worked and a significantly shortened climb to the long-sought DXCC. With 31 QSO's in the log (DL, F, SP, CT, ON, GM, IT, LZ, SV, LY, EI, G, S5, I, EA8) it was truly another great day on the Magic Band and, as the 6m QSO map shows below, one never to be forgotten!
For all of the contacts that have been made and for all of the cards that have been collected, I think none of them have brought me more pleasure than the one shown below. It, more than any other, represents what is so truly 'magical' about this part of the spectrum. It is contacts like this that have kept me mesmerized, for over forty years now, by the shear unpredictability of 'six'. Normally, during the summer Es season, I rise early and check the Internet to see what has been happening on 'six' back east, before heading to the shack to have a listen. More often than not, the band is quiet and the morning regime continues, uninterrupted. On the morning of July 13, 2012, there was no indication that the band was open...in any direction. There were no beacons from anywhere in North America to be heard. There were no 49 mHz videos from the N-E, indicating the very rare polar path to Europe might be brewing. There was but one signal heard.... 4Z1UF, in Lodd, Israel, calling CQ on .087 CW ! Ilya quickly answered my call, with a 'GM Steve' (we had worked each other on 160m the previous winter), followed by a fast exchange of signal reports, and he was gone.....in and out in less than 60 seconds. I give all of the credit for this amazing contact to Johnny, KE7V, a very skilled 6m operator about 40 miles to the southwest of me, and to Ilya. Earlier, during my routine internet check, I saw that Johnny had just posted a QSO with Ilya on 6m about two minutes earlier ! I was stunned, as the only propagation indicated on the map was a small opening between the eastern U.S. seaboard and Europe. I rushed to the shack, turned the amplifier on, and began to tune the band...but nothing was heard. How could this be...a 6000+ mile contact between the west coast and Europe only three minutes earlier and no indication that the band is open...no signals from any direction? I knew that Johnny was too good of an operator to make an error but it looked like I was too late for the action.
One thing noted over the years, between here and KE7V's location, is that very often, we rarely hear what each other is working .... especially on long-haul signals that often land in our backyards with extremely small footprints. However, it seems that those same signals that neither of us could hear earlier, will show up a few minutes later, as the footprint dances to the north or to the south. About seven minutes after Johnny's QSO, Ilya's signal suddenly popped-up...in mid-CQ...and right on schedule! Johnny also reported a very short appearance of Ilya's signal at his location. Thankfully he had been slowly tuning the band while watching the 'Tour de France' bike races on TV, when he stumbled across Ilya's weak CQ...almost hidden by a local 'birdy' at his end. This was true 'heads-up' operating on both station's part and thankfully Ilya continued to CQ into a 'dead band' for some time before his signals drifted to the north and into my own backyard! Ilya reported no indicators of west coast propagation from his end and his only QSO's were with Europe and one east coast USA station....another amazing summer morning on the magic band!
Using TV Video Signals To Find 6m DX
Most dedicated 6m operators can spot possible openings to Japan or Europe by listening for the high-powered TV video signals coming from Siberia (for JA indicators) as well as for central and western Europe. These are the frequencies that I use for JA prop checking. I believe most of them are located around Vladivostok or Kamchatka in eastern Siberia. They are also valid for central European markers if you suspect there may be propagation directly over the pole to Europe. These frequencies are all the "zero-beat" frequencies. With your radio in the 'CW' mode you should hear the carrier tone by tuning to these frequencies, assuming that there is suitable propagation.
49.740.0 (UAØ, UA9) 49.744.0 (UAØ) 49.749.5 (UAØ, UA9, UA1) 49.758.5 (UAØ) 49.765.2 (UAØ)
Unfortunately, if you live near lots of homes, you may hear a lot of other strange stuff in this region which may lead you to think you are hearing the video when you are actually hearing a neighbor's latest appliance or spurs from their baby-monitor! One of the ways to determine if you are hearing the real thing is from the direction. From southern VE7 land, the signals will peak very sharply around 310 degrees, so if the signals you hear do not fall off immediately from this direction, they are something else. These signals, no matter how strong or weak, always have a high fade rate. Often they will swing from s0 to s7 or s8 within a few seconds. Only on strong F2 openings during sunspot-high winters do these signals sit at s9+++ with the s-meter pegged. Only on a few occasions have I heard these signals at s9 on Es and even then, they fade up and down often. Another clue is that there are often several transmitters sharing the same frequency so you may hear two or three signals all on the same frequency, separated by a few tens of hertz but enough to tell that you are listening to more than one transmitter and all fading at different rates. The actual signal itself is not pure dc but has a fast repetitive video 'sync pulse' which makes the note sound slightly 'growly' or 'buzzy'. You can't really notice this easily until they get stronger but be aware that they don't sound like a pure cw carrier. Once you have heard one you will know...and note how fast they fade up and down. I have never worked JAs on Es without hearing the videos first so without them I believe there is little hope.
The same can be said for the Central and Eastern European videos as to sound and fade rate.
The amazing opening of June 29, 2012, allowed me to scan for active video markers from Europe once again and the following signals from Central Europe were easily heard (rx in 'CW' mode). Particularly busy was 49.750, with several loud carriers all fading rapidly.
49.739.6 (numerous) 49.740.9 (UA4, UA6) 49.747.4 (UA3) 49.750.0 (numerous) 49.757.8 (UA1,UAØ) 49.760.4 (numerous)These ones will peak up from 010 - 025 deg (from VE7) and for some reason sound a little 'raspier' than the Siberian ones.
One more note on the search for JA's via Es. There are several 10m beacons in Japan which you will likely hear via Es before you hear anything on 6m. If you monitor those beacon frequencies and start hearing them, at least you will know that there is a possible 6m Es path forming and close attention can be paid to listening on six.
The best times for EU openings from VE7 appear to be from around 0900 - 1030 local time, while the optimum times for JA are from 1400-1700 local and any time after 2100 - midnight. Although JA's have been worked on Es at other times, these appear to be the most common. Although I have never monitored for EU videos throughout the hours of summertime darkness, it appears that this may be an overlooked opportunity. The midnight Es opening during the summer of 2006 between KL7 and several European stations indicates that it may be a possibilty from southern VE7 during the hours of darkness. As shown on the mid-summer (July 1st) map below, VE7 is in 'twilight' all night long and a short single-hop to the north will provide an all-daylight path to Europe. Compare this to the often-worked late night JA path which appears to have even more twilight to pass through in order to hit daylight. The EU path is a possibility well worth exploring during the bright summer nights!
Using 11m To Find 6m Sporadic E
I have found that monitoring the propagation on the 11m band to be the single best indicator of possible Es openings heading for 6m. Unlike 10m or 6m, the 11m (CB) band is populated with several THOUSANDS of stations with many of them running big antennas and high power. Although Es can form quickly throughout the 11m - 6m portion of the spectrum, it usually creeps higher in frequency as the density of the Es layer grows in size. On a normal summer Es opening, the directions that you hear on 11m will eventually arrive at 6m.
I usually put my HF transceiver on Es-watch during the summer, letting it run 24/7 and squelched on 27.385MHz (LSB), a popular 11m DX calling frequency. It seems that even the slightest hint of an Es cloud will produce a plethora of activity on this frequency which can provide a real 'heads-up' for what is coming to 50MHz. Once the 11m alert has been sounded, a quick check of the 10m CW Beacon Band (28.175MHz - 28.300MHz) will provide a few more hints about which direction to point the beam for possible 6m Es. Of course not all Es openings on 10/11m will produce an opening on six, but I have never heard Es on 6m without hearing it on 10m as well. A few CQ's on six will often produce a response on what initially appeared to be a dead band.
One of the quickest ways to get the 6m community saying nasty things about you behind your back is to mess-up in the DX Window. The DX Window (50.100 - 50.125 kHz) has long been established for one type of contact only, that being a legitimate DX QSO.
Don't Be A 'DX-Window' Lid!
The DX Window can only be of value if everyone follows these basic 'rules':
If you are in the U.S.A. or Canada, DO NOT WORK ANY OTHER U.S.A. or CANADIAN STATIONS INSIDE THE WINDOW. The window is NOT for North America - North America contacts.
Do not answer the "CQ" of U.S.A. or VE stations if you are in North America. This creates unnecessary QRM and chances are, they will not respond to your answer anyway. Calling or answering other North Americans in the DX-Window only reinforces bad operating habits, encouraging newcomers to do the same. If you want to work U.S.A. or CANADA, do it outside the DX Window!
Work or call only stations outside of North America inside the DX Window.
The only legitimate exception to these rules, that will not get you in the naughty-corner, is working a KL7, VE8, XE or some other such fairly rare North Americans.I hate to say it, but some of the worst offenders to the successful function of the DX Window are my fellow VE's, many of whom don't know or don't understand the simple concept of how it works. Now that you know, pass it on!
Summer E-Skip (Es)
Winter F2 Skip (Solar Peak Years)
MAGIC BAND LINKS
The ON4KST 50MHz Chat Page - The best one. Log into the I A R U Region 2 site for North American activity.
The U.K. Six Meter Group - Propagation, history plus the latest 6m news.
G3USFs Beacon List - Get the latest list of all 6m prop beacons.
The 50MHz Propagation Logger -Can be useful at times.