Bouvet (3Y0Z), 10m and micro-openings


For me, part of the fun of Ham Radio is working to improve my understanding of propagation.  That led me to create K6TU.NET and in turn the opportunity to work behind the scenes helping DXpeditions with propagation & antenna modeling. Since I started this in 2012, I've helped over 50+ Dxpeditions, most recently the planning for the upcoming 3Y0Z expedition to Bouvet.

As Yogi Berra said...

"It's tough to make predictions, especially about the future!"

Part of the "tough" when it comes to modeling propagation is the uncertainty of where solar activity will be come January 2018 and cycle 24's continued decline. At the time I ran the modeling, NOAA predicts a SSN value of 18 for January of next year. A couple of points up (or more likely down) won't make a huge difference in the model results. The Sun could still throw a wrench in the works with a CME (coronal mass ejection) or flare which could cause storm conditions in the Earth's geo-magnetic field and kill propagation for a couple of days.

Ralph K0IR, one of the team heading to Bouvet and who is intimately involved in the planning/preparation for this epic DXpedition, recently posted a tweet on Twitter with a link to the 10m propagation video I had produced as part of modeling work.


Work Bouvet? On 10m? K6TU must have lost his marbles!

Not so fast...  when was the last time you called CQ on 10m? Didn't bother because the band is "dead"? Likely the band is dead because everything thinks the same way! I had a similar view during the VP8STI expedition to South Sandwich Island. On 15m, the propagation modeling showed a similar weak opening but I was very skeptical. Nevertheless, as I worked in my home office, I kept watch on the published 15m phone frequency - albeit, with very low expectations. Yet, as the model predicted, a signal (an oh so weak signal) fluttered in and out of the noise - cranking in 20 dB of pre-amp for once made a difference between copy and no copy. Sure, enough, there they were and shortly after a number of stations here in the San Francisco Bay Area were in the log.

At a minimum, it pays to monitor solar activity and consider the impact on the propagation models.

One way of monitoring the impacts of both solar activity and the Earth's geo-magnetic field is to keep an eye on the Equivalent Smooth Sunspot Number, a solar index produced by NorthWest Research Associates.


The SSNe (e for equivalent) is a back solved value; it compares the reported MUF values from ionosonde stations around the world, with the input value to the propagation model which would have generated the observed values. Put another way, the SSNe value, when plugged into the prediction model, generates MUF values that closely match those observed. The chart above shows how this value fluctuates over time and the root mean square (RMS) error between the observed and predicted MUF values.

With fortunate timing, this image capture shows the impact of two solar events that disturbed the Earth's geo-magnetic field. You can see that both events generated a period of low propagation (SSNe value zero or negative!) but in BOTH cases, were preceded by a brief period of significant enhancement.

Capture one of these events and the predictions could easily be on the money!

Two things to note about the predictions; first, the map overlay shows predicted signal strength in S units - the pale blue color indicates a value greater or equal to S3 but less than S5. With typically low average noise levels on 10m, this is workable with a good set of ears and some help from a pre-amp. The second point is the predictions are generated from the ITU-R Recommendation P.533 annex 13 - the latest revision of this model from late 2016 - a much improved model over that of the late 1980's VOACAP model. Still, like VOACAP before it, Rec. 533.13 uses a statistical model of the ionosphere as it basis. Remember the quote "Lies, Damned Lies and statistics!"

Only time will show whether 10m will cooperate and some lucky few will work 3Y0Z on 10m come January 2018.

But for sure, if you don't listen, you won't be one of them!


Why do YOU contest?

Ham Radio Contesting (a.k.a. RadioSport) is an interesting aspect of Ham Radio.  Some hams despise it and object to the use of "their frequencies" by contesters who turn otherwise quiet bands into Ham Radio rush hour.  Others see contests as an opportunity to work on awards like "Worked All States" or add countries to their DXCC totals.  Finally there are the contesters themselves.

I am a contester.  I do my best to be courteous to other users of the ham bands, avoid causing QRM but when I contest, I contest for a reason.

  1. I contest to have fun!  This is rule #1 for me - if it isn't fun, don't do it.  For me the fun element comes from the satisfaction of doing something I like, doing it well and striving for improvement/proficiency.  Contesting lends itself to metrics - number of contacts/hour, number of points or multipliers, number of band changes...  Modern contest logging software provides many of these metrics automatically - others require using additional simple tools for analysis.

    I can fulfill this reason without making an all out effort to participate in a given contest.  I get on the air, provide some points to others who are making an all out effort and send in my log.  Like the chicken, I made a contribution.

  2. I contest to evaluate changes or improvements.  Although propagation conditions vary, I can contest to evaluate changes I make to my station (antennas, power level, reduction in local noise sources etc) as well as changes to my strategy.  Strategy may be choice of bands by time, how much time I spend running a frequency versus looking for multipliers, which directions do I chose to look for contacts etc.  Much like the first reason, I can often do this without making an all out effort.

  3. I contest to improve.  Yes, this is a by-product of reason #1 but it is often THE goal for me.  After each contest I think about what I did and how I did it.  I try to take the time to write this down so that when I get ready for the next contest (especially the next running of the same contest), I can review what I did and consider the things which I thought at the time went well or were first class mistakes.  Some of these mistakes are comical; I blew a very good score on one contest when I forgot that I had reversed the direction of my SteppIR during a run of JA's to answer a slew of South American stations that called me - and then forgot to switch back to the normal direction before taking a rest break.  After the break, the bands were SO dead - doh! Beaming in the wrong direction will do that to you! Now I have a big red REVERSED label on my SteppIR control software.

  4. I contest to WIN. With few exceptions, for me this means winning as part of a team. While by no-means is my home station a "little pistol", I have a single tower, a dipole and a vertical.  Without some stacks, gain antennas on the low bands, I'm competitive but an unlikely winner especially when folks are looking to qualify for the next WRTC.  SO2R is on my to-do list together with adding a couple more antennas - that still won't make a WRTC contender.

    But as part of a COMMITTED team, I can and do win.  Just like the pig providing the bacon, a commitment to be part of a team means making an all out effort with all the skill and operating hours I can muster.  Commitment means keeping one's butt in the chair, making the right choice for band changes, running time versus search and pounce, minimizing bio-breaks and distractions as well as grinding though the slow and dreary times of the contest.  

    Maintaining the concentration and operating time requires another element less obvious to the typical ham operator - physical fitness.  Young or old, physical fitness is not a given.  It requires attention to diet, weight control and physical exercise.  While disease and injury play a role as we get older, most of us at any age can do things to improve or maintain our health.

Contesting to win is not for sissies. Keeping your butt in the chair and maintaining concentration for the entire contest takes work - especially if your fellow team members are counting on you for a decent score.

Therein hangs the rub.  Considering the reasons for contesting, do all the members of the team take part with the SAME REASON as THEIR dominant reason when they agreed to take part?

In my experience, the larger the team, the less likely that all team members have the same reason in mind.  Some contest categories even reinforce (exist because of?) this dynamic.  When the goal is to simply play the law of large numbers and get as many people to participate as possible, the typical ham makes a contribution, not a commitment.

Taking part is a fair decision - so long as everyone on the team then realizes  that winning is secondary to taking part - and doesn't expect a bunch of pony-club participation ribbons as a result.

Its a good idea when agreeing to participate in a contest as part of a team, to think about YOUR REASONS and whether it supports the expectations of the rest of the team.

Mis-set or unstated expectations are the cause of disappointment and discouragement. These in turn lead to less future participation and apathy.

Consider writing down why YOU contest and share it with other team participants - you and they may be surprised but at least expectations will be managed.



HFTA and generating FANS

HF Terrain Analysis (HFTA) is an excellent tool for modelling an antenna over real ground.  Written by Dean Straw N6BV, HFTA is included on the CD that accompanies the ARRL Antenna Handbook.  I don't remember which editiion of the handbook ARRL begain including the CD but its been there for a long time.

HFTA models the performance of an antenna over real ground by examining the diffraction and reflection that occurs in the near field around the antenna based on actual terrain.  The near field in this case is the terrain surrounding the antenna out to 4.4 Km.

HFTA comes with extensive documentation describing its use but hasn't been updated for several years to reflect where and how to get terrain data.

SInce I don't use HFTA every day, I find myself having to relearn how to do this everytime - hence this blog post to serve to remind me (and others) what to do.

Getting the terrain data

HFTA needs elevation data that describes the terrain in spot heights above mean sea level around your antenna.  You can get elevaton data from two sources depending on where on Earth (literally!) you need the data.

National Elevation Dataset - The NED database holds elevation data at various resolutions for the conterminous United States, Alaska, Hawaii, and territorial islands.

Shuttle Radar Topopgraphy   - The SRTM database holds elevation data for over 80% of the Earth's land surface between 60° north and 56° south latitude.  Elevation data is available at various resoultions with 1 arc-resolution (30m) for the United States and 3 arc-seconds for the rest of the world.  At the time of this post, data at 1 arc-second resolution is being released for territories outside the US.

HFTA can use data at different resolutions including 10m (1/3 arc-second), 30m (1 arc-second) and 90m (3 arc-seconds).  I use the highest resolution data that is available for the location I'm modelling.

Getting data from NED

Clicking on the link above will open the National Map Viewer.  To access the elevation data, you need to click on the tab marked Overlays, then click on the + icon to expand the Elevation Availability and then select the NED 1/3 data source.  Here's a screen shot:


To get the elevation data around the location of the antenna site, you want to click on the tool bar to bring up the "Bounding Box from Coordinates" tool.


This pulls up a dialog box that enables you to enter the boundaries of the geographic area for which you want the terrain data.


 To define the rectangle you want, take the location of the antenna and define a box that is 0.1 degrees around the location of the antenna.  For example:

Antenna at 37.4N, 122.2W, select boundaries that are south limit 37.3N, 122.2W, north limit 37.5N, 122.2W, east limit 37.4N, 122.1W, west limit 37.4N, 122.3W.  Don't forget the note at the bottom of the form "Use the minus sign (-) to indicate Southern and Western Hemispheres"!

When you enter the coordinates and click on draw area, you will be given a choice of different overlays to order for download.


Click on Next and you will get a list of the available datasets to download.  Scroll down through the list looking for data with resolution of 1/3 arc-second in IMG format.  The form will look like this:

NVavailableOnce you have checked the box, click on Next for the final step in the order process:


Fill in your email address, re-enter it for verification and then click on Place Order.  The National Viewer will show you a form with the order number of your order and let you know that it will email you when the dataset is available for download.  The email generally takes about 5 minutes to appear.

Click on the link to download the .ZIP file containing your data set.

Almost there...

Look in the .ZIP file and you wil see a good size file with a .IMG extension.  This has to be converted to a GeoTiff file before you can run MicroDEM to generate the FAN data required for HFTA.

This intermediate step is required because the option to get the data in GeoTiff format is no longer offered.  Fortuantely the conversion is simple using the GDAL tools which you can download from the website - click on the download link and then select the version of tools for your operating system.  Download and install the tools on your system - following the instructions to make the tools available from a command (shell) window.

Open a command shell, locate the directory where you extracted image file and run the following command:

gdal_translate -oF GTiff filename.img filename.tif

Where filename is the name of the file you want to convert.

Now you can run MicroDEM per the instructions from the HFTA documentation and extract the FAN data HFTA needs to do its magic.

Getting Data from SRTM

Open the EarthViewer from the link above and then select the Search Criteria tab.  To select the area for elevation data, you need to  add the coordinates of the bounding box:


To add the corners of the bounding box, you need to click on the coordinates tab in the middle of the form and then click on Add Coordinate.  Use this to add the four corners of your bounding box by adding each corner as a new coordinte.

Now click on the Data Sets tab to see the available data sets. Click on the + icon by Digital Elevation followed by the + icon on the SRTM opton.  Now select the SRTM 1 arc-second dataset.

Now click on the Results button to get the data set:


USe the tool bard to download the dataset you have found and then select the GeoTiff option from the list presented:


You do have to have an account on the system but this is free and can be done by clicking on the Register button at the top of the screen.

The resulting GeoTiff you download is usable by MicroDEM directly without any file conversion being required.


That's it!  Refer to the HFTA documentation for using MicroDEM to generate the FANs and then use them in HFTA.





Flex-6700 & Diversity

In my earlier, somewhat tongue-in-cheek post on diversity with the Flex-6700, I probably sounded like I had discovered the New World!  The New World in this case wasn't the concept (with which I'm very familiar) but rather the real world first-hand experience of hearing it in action.

Since my first in-anger use of Diversity was in the ARRL Sweepstakes Phone weekend, I didn't have the time or the thoughtfulness to make any recordings.  This past weekend provided an opportunity to remedy this and capture some recordings during the ARRL 160m contest.  Rather than an all out BIC (Butt-in-chair) effort, my focus this year was US state hunting to get closer to 160m WAS.  This provided plently of time in-between fishing for wanted states to make recordings.

Station setup and recordings

I set up my Flex-6700 for diversity reception using the TX antenna (55' top loaded vertical) for slice A (left channel) and a PixelLoop for slice B (right channel).  The TX antenna has a good radial field and is separated from the PixelLoop by roughly 500'.  

With the exception of the first recording, the balance of the two channels was full left and full right for slice A and B respectively.  The first recording used the same setting I'd used during ARRL Sweepstakes with slice A set with the pan control centered and slice B full right.  The first recording also has poorly matched audio levels between the two channels.  I tried with subsequent recordings to equalize the audio levels between the two channels and also adjust AGC-T to match the relative noise levels between the two antennas.  I'll leave you to judge but listening to all three recordings several times, I can't tell much difference.

The recordings were all made using the Mac OS X version of Audacity and exported in MP3 format.  No post processing was done on any of the recordings - they are all uneditted.  I had to resort to a plug-in USB sound device to get stereo recordings as the native Mac microphone inout is mono-only.

Listening to the recordings

You MUST use a stereo headset, ear buds or headphones to get the full diversity experience.  This is the only way to insure that you hear the audio without multi-path or echo effects resulting from speaker placement and room effects.

You might want to download the audio files and use Audacity as the audio player so that you get to see the audio waveforms as you listen.  This helps you see what you are hearing and visualize what you wouldn't have heard without diversity.

To listen, click on the links below or right click and select "Save As..." to download the file to your own computer/device.

Recording #1: KO7X in Wyoming (length 6:43, download size 6.4MB)


Comments: A longer recording which captures several mini pile-ups showing how the diversity helps "spread" the stations out around your head.  Many places where there were deep fades on the vertical that didn't occur on the loop.

Recording #2: N8II in West Virgina (length 2:36, download size 2.5 MB)


Comments: WV was one of the states I needed for WAS.  This recording includes me working him!  Again some good examples of where one or other of the antennas would fade but copy wasn't serevely impacted.

Recording #3: WF2W in New York (length 3:07, download size 3 MB)


Comments: Good examples of diversity rescued fades but mostly WF2W calling CQ - he was lonely so eventually I called him!  Astute observers of the sound clip in Audactiy will notice that there is a roughly 7 mS time delta with the right channel leading the left by that amount.  I had enabled APF for this recording but only enabled it on slice A!  Currently the DSP functions in diversity mode do not track one another - if you enable APF in one, you need to enable it in the other!


I continue to be very impressed with diversity on the Flex-6700 - so much so that I'm thinking this should be standard operating procedure at K6TU for bands where separate antennas are available.  The PixelLoop works great from VLF to 10m so I've got that covered!  In a word - Awesome!

There are certainly other radios available that support diversity.  For me, the combination of reduced operator fatigue, excellent AGC characteristics and how signals just pop out of the noise makes the Flex-6700 my tool of choice for Dxing and Contesting.

If you aren't using a Flex 6000 6700 radio, you aren't using the best tool for the job.






Contesting & Propagation Predictions

A short paragraph in the Nov/Dec edition of the National Contest Journal caught my eye in the Little Pistols section.  This is a quote from John VE3EJ commenting on part of his preparation for the WRTC-2014 held earlier this year:

“Propagation prediction software from K6TU, as well as VOACAP, was used to get a feeling, prior to the contest, for what might happened during the event.  I think that these are great tools, as long as they are used as flags for what might happen, rather that what will happen.

Working with many major DXpeditions like FT5ZM, NH8S, FT4TA, VU4KV, T33A… over the past year or so has reinforced John’s experiences with WRTC-2104.  The leaders of these DXpeditions confirm that the predictions were really helpful in initial planning and establishing the BIG PICTURE.  That big picture quickly got modified by on-air experience as the DXpedition progressed.

Establishing a valid BIG PICTURE requires two things - modeling the transmit antenna and power levels per band as accurately as time and energy permits coupled with a full 24 hours set of predictions for each band.

Seeing a full set of propagation predictions for a day allows you to see how propagation is likely to change as the day progresses.  When weighted with the same data for other bands, you can develop a plan of how changing propagation should impact band changes.

Here’s an animated GIF that shows what I mean:


To get this visibility you need to generate a full 24 hours of predictions and have the ability to page through them quickly - it doesn't need to be an animated GIF!  I included that just to show the visual picture you can gain from cycling through the hours.

To really get the best effect, its good to have an option to cycle through multiple bands at the same time - for example like this from Sweepstakes 2014 planning at K6TU (but without animation this time!).

4upNow you can see how the picture changes across multiple bands by the hour.

You are set and ready to go off to battle in the contest!  Remembering of course that no battle plan survives its first encounter with the enemy...

The other critical ingredient is how you specify the antennas to be used by the underlying VOACAP software.  Ideally, for HF antennas, you want to take the time to model your specific antenna (yagi and height above ground) over your specific terrain.  The ARRL HF Terrain Analysis (HFTA) program developed by Dean N6BV allows you to do this by accessing one of the sources of Digital Elevation Model (DEM) data on the Internet.  I developed an add-on to work with HFTA so that I can automatiaclly build a VOACAP antenna model for each location in which I am interested.  

The combination of the specific antenna modelled over real terrain coupled with the big picture of each band across all 24 hours works exceptionally well to develop the big picture.

If you are looking for another competitive edge in your contesting, this should be on your to-do list!  If you want to generate these predictions in less than 3 minutes, then take a look at K6TU.NET - my propagation as a service web site.  Fill in a few forms, click the RUN button - no software to download and results typically in 3 to 5 minutes.

Propagation predictions the easy way!




K6TU WetWare Neural Processor for FlexRadio 6700

Wow!  Wicked!

I'm not usually at a loss for words (as those who know me will quickly attest!) but I am blown away with my experience using my Flex6700 in the ARRL Phone Sweepstakes this past weekend.

I was cooking along - rate was great, I was well ahead of my previous best performance in the contest when PG&E (Pacific Gas & Electric - our local power utility company) struck...  the noise floor on 10m jumped to about S4 with the familiar growl of power line noise.  Not a surprise...  we're just into the start of our "wet season" here in Northern California and arcing/leaking insulators are an annual pre-Thanksgiving visitor at my QTH.


The noise was strong enough to make copying many of the weaker callers much harder.  A real rate killer at 1pm on a Sunday afternoon in Sweepstakes.

SOP (Standard Operating Practice) - change bands - down to 15m I went. Oh... bother!  Same noise, about the same signal strength...  No, I am not going to fight for a run frequency on 20m or put up with the lower rate of S&P on that band.

Wait a minute!  A couple of weeks ago I finally installed the Inlogis PixelLoop that I had purchased at Visalia and which had kept my car company in the garage ever since...  I had purchased the PixelLoop as a receive antenna for the low bands - primarily to help on 160m.  The PixelLoop is good at rejecting local noise sources... wonder how it works on 10m?

A quick selection of the RX-B antenna port for the receive antenna and bingo!  Not bad considering I haven't finished the remote control rotor system to change the (currently fixed 70 degree) azimuth of the loop.

Wait another minute!  What if I run the SteppIR DB18E (the transmit antenna of course) and the PixelLoop in diversity mode on the 6700?  Hmmm.... past experiences with the Flex5000RX2 in diversity were pretty mixed and I'd eventually passed on that experiment even though it was one of the reasons I'd purchased the second RX in the 5000.  All my reading on diversity had suggested that two similar antennas were needed with physical separation... can't get much more "dis-similar" than a loop and a yagi!

[ADDED CLARIFICATION]  Several folks asked my about the Flex5000 results I mentioned above... to be clear, when I did those first experiments with my 5000RX2 it was with two closely spaced and medicore antennas.  The two receivers in the 5000 are phase synchronous - just like the two SCUs in the 6700 - with well separated and similar antennas I would expect similar results from the 5000RX2 as I get on the 6700.  [\ADDED CLARIFICATION]

I punched up diversity mode, set the second slice to use the RX-B input (and therefore the second SCU in the 6700) with the primary slice using ANT1 and the DB18E.

Like many people, I have "bucket" hearing loss in one ear - in my case, likely environmental exposure to too many shotgun blasts when I shot skeet competitively (20K targets in a typical year)... so the default configuration in DIV mode putting one slice full on the left channel and the other full on the right didn't feel quite right especially with the gain differences between the two antennas...  The adjustment didn't take long - equal left/right allocation for the primary antenna, loop full on the right and a slight audio level adjustment to compensate for the bucket hearing in my right ear.

OMG! Wow!  Wicked!  (and my pet peeve despite my British origin) Brilliant!

I had just discovered a way of plugging my brain into two antennas.  Direct high speed bus connection to a neural processor with millions of years of development!  The K6TU WetWare Neural Processor was now directly bus connected to the radio.

In my installation, there is about 600 feet separation between the loop and the DB18E on my tower.  I'm lucky (very lucky!) to have the space and also the distance it provides from my neighbors (most of whom I like ;-) to space out the antennas.

On 10m, this equates to around 20 wavelengths while on 160m, I have about 4 wavelengths between the vertical and the loop.  This gives good spatial separation between the two antennas which helps with selective fading, shifting paths in the ionosphere and different angles of arrival from geographically separated stations.

Its really hard to describe the result and in the heat of the contest, I wasn't about to reach for the audio recorder to grab samples.

Our brain has an amazing audio processor as part of its configuration - some folks are really good at not turning it on (they are the one's who don't listen very well)... but the rest of us have a lifetime of experience in leveraging its controls.

Single signal experience

Strong or weak, using the two antennas in diversity mode sounded like the station was bouncing around inside my head!  When one channel would fade, the other would typically get stronger with the sensation that the station was walking around in front of me.  It made it much (and I mean MUCH) easier to pull out the weaker stations especially with the power line noise issue.

Pile up experience

This was freaky!  In a typical pile up with multiple callers, often the best technique is to get a fragment of a call and focus - "Whiskey Nine - again?" - instead, it was like the calling stations were all around the room - spread out spatially inside my head.  Rather than pulling out a fragment of a callsign, I'd find I could clearly hear a full callsign and go right back to one of the callers.


Maximizing score in a contest is about time management...  writing my post on the 2014 Sweepstakes yesterday showed this in spades.  Taking breaks, efficiency in sending and receiveing the contest exchange all contribute minutes per break or seconds per contact.  In the course of 24 hours and 1000+ Q's, seconds turn into HOURS.  My average rate in the Phone Sweepstakes was around 65 Q's/hour - my best hour was over 100 Q's...  gaining another couple of effective HOURS translates in several hundred more Q's.

I ran the entire rest of the contest in diversity mode - my rate was significantly improved, my motivation was higher and the fun factor was off the charts.

I think this is my new closing tag line...

If you aren't using a Flex 6000 6700 radio, you aren't using the best tool for the job.



K6TU - ARRL Sweepstakes 2014

There are certain contests I enter each year - ARRL Sweepstakes is one such contest despite its long exhange and the Sunday afternoon doldurms that result from a combination of being able to work a station only once and NFL football!

Each year I set out to do better - for me, this means attempting to beat my personal best in the contest and generate a better score.  Usually I sit down in early October and attempt to think about what went well the previous year and what I thought I could do better.  Time clouds the memory and I wonder what I forgot - Sweepstakes started as "taking one for the team" for me especially the CW event (more on that below) but I'm beginning to see the finer parts of strategy and preparation required for the event.

Rather than cast my mind back 11 months, I figured I'd document my experiences in Sweepstakes and other contests as I go through the year.  This way, I can capture things while they are fresh in my mind.

CW Weekend

Like any triathlete, I have a weaker event that detracts from my overall performance. For me, I love Phone and RTTY but struggle with CW.  My original license in the UK was a VHF only class B license back in 1973 - no code required.  It was only when I immigrated/emigrated to California that I had to learn CW.  

Time pressures being what they were at the time, I didn't take CW classes or ask for much mentoring (a bad mistake) so learned CW the wrong way - its not about dots and dashes - its about pattern recognition.  I got my US Techncian license by passing the 5 WPM requirement and then started working on the 13 WPM required for the General.  I squeeked past the 13 WPM test on the first shot and then put CW on the back shelf - the prospect of 20 WPM required for the Extra was like Mt Everest - nice to look at but a killer to climb.  I emerged from that test session as an Advanced licnese holder - even though I hadn't prepared for the Advanced written test.  Enough basic theory and regulations stuck in my head that I passed that Element the same day.

I upgraded to Extra when the FCC reduced the CW requirement to 13 WPM and thought I was done.

My fellow contesters here in California encouraged me to support the local club in CW events.  Truth be told, that club is full of excellent CW operators who really dislike Phone contesting.  So I brushed up my CW and jumped into the deepend aided with the excellent multi-channel CW reader built into Writelog - I survived, I wasn't a great CW op but I could generate a decent number of contacts plugging away at 20 WPM or so - barely entry stakes for serious CW contesting.

I'd stuck with Writelog for a long time - its a great logger and well worth the $30 yearly subscription.  I'd tried N1MM but really hadn't liked it and had difficulties getting its voice keyer working with PowerSDR that ran my Flex5000 based station.  Writelog just worked out of the box and so I'd stuck with it.

Then came N1MM+... after operating W1AW/6 for a couple of sessions during the ARRL Centential using it as a logger, I was impressed.  The work flow just seemed more natural and I especially liked some of the additional tools that had been added.

One problem - N1MM+ doesn't have a built in code reader - instead it supports either fldigi or CWGet.  I tired both but they are not as polished as the multi-channel reader in Writelog.

As a result, my CW score this year was down over last year - fewer contacts.  I have since resolved to dispose of the CW reader as a crutch and am trying to spend 30-45 minutes a day using Morse Runner from VE3NEA with the speed set to at least 30 WPM...

Although yet to be proven out, my CW score last year suffered from a number of errors which I think resulted from using a pre-fill file.  Some see pre-fill files as evil (I'm not wasting time on any debate) and deliberatly change things like their Check exchange from year to year.  Looking at my Log Checking Result from 2013, it was clear I'd got dinged for errors in the exchange - usually a single field.  This led me to suspect that I "heard" what I saw from the pre-fill rather than what I really heard.

This year, I threw the pre-fill file under the bus...  down one crutch and now determined to get rid of the other...

My result for 2014 CW was:

Station worked great, my score was limited by my CW skills, not propagation, strategy or anything resembling a good excuse :-)


Phone Weekend 

Different story by a long shot.  I had been very pleased with my score last year in the Phone event:

  • Checked score 191,730
  • Raw QSO's 1184
  • Final QSO's 1155
  • Error rate (score adjustment) - 1.7%
  • Operated 22:50 minutes BUT lots of short breaks
  • Sunday afternoon doldrums was dreadful and a real demotivator...

Source of errors?  

  • Pre-fill file likely bit me a couple of times
  • Busted callsigns

So how to do better?

Maximize Butt-in-Chair time

  • Take fewer breaks by preparing light snacks and stocking the operating position with plently of water
  • Operating posture - keep back straight, feet on floor, look down at the logger entry window to minimize fatigue.
  • Keep ergonomic breaks shorter and aim for a full 24 hours in the chair.

Pay attention to sources or errors

  • Eliminate the pre-fill file, log what you hear and ask for repeats where there is doubt due to QRM etc.
  • Use SuperCheckPartial (heck, I am it's maintainer!) and doubly check any callsign not in the database.
  • Watch fat-fingering effects on the keyboard
  • Ask for repeats or verify the information received if I have any doubts at all about its accuracy.

Increase number of QSO's

  • ARRL stats over the years show that there is always more activity on Saturday than Sunday - so maximize the amount of operating time on Saturday and sleep later on Sunday morning.  Reivew of the 2013 logs show that early morning Sunday activity level was weak before about an hour before dawn on the West Coast.  So I planned to operate until at least midnight on Saturday night or later as long as the rate supported it.
  • Set a rate target and when the rate falls, do something different!  Consider changing band, change from Running to Search & Pounce
  • After looking at the propagation predictions from K6TU.NET, it was clear that from the West Coast, hitting the population centers was a high band job.  Time spent on 80m should focus on getting close in sections but there was no margin in spending time trying to work weak stations.  Also, 20m is always crowded and difficult to find a run frequency so the money bands would be 40, 15 and Old Sol permitting, 10m.
  • Remember that most multipliers will come to you - use spot assistance and run Unlimited to take advantage of nailing a full sweep early on in the contest.  Then just go for rate.
  • Embrace the Sunday doldrums and accept the rate will be lower.  Use spotting, band changes and just keep tuning across the bands for S&P.  
  • In S&P, tune high to low.  Most people seem to tune the other way and its not infrequent to find that you are following the same guy doing the same thing you are!
  • In S&P, if you can't get the station in two calls, mark him on the logger bandmap and move on - come back to him later.
  • Spend the time to learn the logger functions ahead of time - RTFM and learn what can help.
  • Minimize the words used in the exchange...  avoid "Please copy", don't spell out my callsign in the Sweepstakes exchange phonetically unless the other guy is weak and I want to make doubly sure he had my call correctly.  As Dragnet's Sgt. Joe Friday said... "The facts ma'am - just the facts".

These were my thoughts going in...

I finished last night with the following:

  • Claimed score 225,096 points
  • 1356 QSO's
  • Clean Sweep!
  • 23:15 hours of operating
  • Much better time utilization with smaller breaks


There is still plenty of optimization to be done in break time.  I took fewer and smaller breaks as the attenton to ergonomics paid off.  I had no neck or back pain during or after the contest.  More comfort during the contest.

Rather than taking a break to cook dinner, prepare dinner ahead of time and maybe even eat while operating.  This was a Homer moment... doh!

I operated non-stop except for a dinner break from the opening bell until 12:30 Sunday morning by which time the rate was beginning to drop off.  I went off to sleep about 150 Q's more in the log than last year and needing only NL as the remaining multiplier for a sweep.

Band breakdwon shows that I executed on the strategy I laid out band wise:

Band      QSOs      Pts      Sec

80m       41        82       1

40m      471       942      14

20m       94       188       1

15m      433       866      67

10m      317       634       0

I started operating on 15m and had excellent rate - 90+ Q/Hour for the first three hours and well into the fourth.  It was only after 4 hours of non-stop operation - all Running CQ.  Then I dropped down to 20m for about an hour then took 30 minute to eat dinner about 630pm PST.  I started up after dinner on 40m.  I was late getting to 40m and as a result struggled to find a run frequency - I had to suffer S&P for a couple of hours.  The rate wasn't bad but could have been better.  

Around 9pm I dropped down to 80m but activity was meager here in California so eventually went back to 40m - found a run frequency and just kept running CQ alternated with some S&P whenever the rate fell below my minimum target of 50 Q's per 10 minute rate.  I went off to sleep with about 150 more Q's in the log than last year and needing only NL as my last multiplier for the Clean Sweep.  I had chased only one other multiplier - VI (Virgin Islands) as I saw one spotted and never had one call me.  I made very certain he was in the log and that I was in his!

N1MM+ has a great tool for rate information that I used - it shows the current rolling 10 minute rate plus bars for the last 100 minutes, the previous and current hours.


I had this in front of me the whole contest and as the 10 minute bar sank below 60, it was my kick in the butt to do something about it!  Writelog has a similar set of rate counters but they are text based and updated on time periods that vary.  This graphic was great as a motivational tool!

Sunday morning I got up and was back on the air by 6am.  I started out on 20m and the first conttact was with my last needed multiplier - NL on 20m.  There was a pile up (of course) and I was having to contend with all the East Coast folks calling him.  Took a few minutes but I nailed it!

Then I found a run frequency on 20m - not so hard early in the morning and then ran until about 730am PST when I grabbed another cup of coffee and then moved to 15m.  After an hour on 15m, I moved to 10m and started running CQ.  The rate held up really well until about 2pm - then started to drop off.  Between 2 and 5pm, I alternated between running CQ's on 15 and 10, coupled with S&P across both those bands and 20m.  It was pointeless trying to find a run freuqency on 20m - the panafall on SmartSDR showed overlapping stations from 14.150 to the top of the band.

At 5pm, I dropped down to 40m an started looking for a run frequency - hard going but eventually parked myself just down from 7.300 and held the frequency until the closing bell.  The last 90 minutes were a lot of fun - the rate picked up dramatically and I had lots of pileups!

Lessons learnt

Early in the afternoon on Sunday I started suffering from power line noise that was on both 15 and 10.  Not very strong but enough to make reception of the weaker stations a challenge and really slowed things down.

Some weeks ago I had installed a Pixel Loop shielded loop antenna - the primary reason for the purchase was as a low band RX antenna.  However, it worked well even on 10m.  In the end, I wound up using the Pixel Loop in diversity with the SteppIR DB18E (primary antenna) - this warrants a separate post as the experience was amazing.  Enough to say here that the diversity helped deal with the noise problem, really helped with weaker callers and helped pick out a full callsign from a pileup in a way that was almost ESP!

I do need to now spend the time to re-program the band segments on my Alpha 9500 for 80m.  There were a couple of segments where the antenna selection jumped to my 160m vertical rather than staying on the 80m broadband dipole.  This is a hang over from past programming and something I'd forgotten to deal with.  Now its on the to-do list.

Not all DX clusters are right for getting the best spots.  My local cluster I've used for a long time was having some reliabily challenges over the weekend so I wound up using VE7CC's own cluster.  The quantity and quality of the spots was much improved!  It really helped make great use of the N1MM+ bandmap and the skip to spot keys.

On interesting thing about spots... when I was spotted, I could instantly see the rate go up.  Even more intersting with a lot of stations signing precedence of A and B that aren't supposed to be assisted. Coincidence?  I don't think so - a couple of my fellow PL259 members saw the same thing even when one of them was spotted 200 HZ off...  guess where the caller was zero beat?  I'm beginning to believe that the solution is to eliminate unassisted - policing this adequately is impractical.  Perhaps the ones abusing assistance are the one's that object to the elimination of "un" assisted?  Food for thought!

The Flex 6700 and the Alpha 9500 operated flawlessly - full legal limit, many reports of great audio and the gratifying - "Wow! you are loud!".

I really like N1MM+ and I think I'm a convert from Writelog - nothing to do with free, I think the $30 for Writelog per year is very reasonable.  But N1MM+ has benefited from all the learning lessons with N1MM and I think Tom (Mr N1MM) and his team have done a good job getting a stable logger out so early in its field exposure.  Kudos to them - this isn't easy.  The UI looks a little funky in places, some of the features need polishing but overall, a joy to use.

Yes I'm biased, but the Flex 6700 is amazing.  The receiver is excellent with much lower fatigue factor than any other radio I've used.  The ability to handle a 20 over signal one call and then an S4 the next while dealing with congested bands is without par.  

If you aren't using a Flex 6000 radio, you aren't using the best tool for the job.



  • Still room for improvement in time management.  Really focus next year on keeping the butt in the chair.
  • I need a second transmit antenna for 20, 15 and 10.  Then learn how to run SO2V (which is already supported in one radio using the 6700 and N1MM+.  Being able to multiplex attention across two bands at once would really help during the Sunday doldrums.
  • Personal best in the Phone event!  Really a great experience!
  • Having a gain antenna on 40m gives a west coast station a competitive advantage.  It doesn't offset the population density benefit the East Coast folks gain on 80m but its a great start.
  • Diversity looks very promising - need to make this a standard operating practice.
  • Move down to 40 earlier to get a run frequency established and then dont move!




Why "Unlimited" is boring...


noun \ˈkän-ˌtest\

: an event in which people try to win by doing something better than others

: a struggle or effort to win or get something

Love it or hate it, ARRL Sweepstakes (SS) is less than a month away...  For serious Contest Clubs, SS is a "must" event as it is one of the ARRL Affiliated Club Gavel contests.

The rules of the Club Gavel Competition provide for three different categories that clubs may enter:

  • Local (10 entries or less, 35 mile diameter club territory)
  • Medium (50 entries or less, 175 mile diameter club territory)
  • Unlimited (> 50 entries, 175 mile diameter club territory)

For SS, an entry is defined as a log submitted for EITHER the CW weekend OR the PHONE weekend.  That's right... if you operate in BOTH weekends and submit your logs from both events, you have made TWO entries.

If you are a small or medium category club (and you don't have exactly 5 or 25 members!) there is a serious element of skill and commitment to be applied if you want to win.  It's in the club's best interest to pick the members who have the best skills and can make an all out effort in EACH event.

In other words, pick those members who have the best CW skills for the CW event and have the commitment to make an all out effort.  THEN, do the same for the PHONE event. 

But, if you are a large club and you want to enter the Unlimited category, you need to have lots of people show up.  It's not about skill or commitment, the Unlimited category Gavel's are like Pony Club participation ribbons - you get one for showing up and taking part.

For sure, all out commitments by great operators from well equipped stations help, but the real stars of the Unlimited category competition are all the little pistols who get on, make whatever contacts they can and then remember to submit their log!

No skill, no commitment - just show up and then send in your log.

Ironically, the really big contest clubs see this as a serious mano a mano contest and encourage their members to participate.  Some even go as far as offering special awards (plaques, coffee mugs...) for acheving a specific number of QSO's - often as few as 100 to 200.  Other's offer a tee-shirt or a baseball cap for their logs.  Since the Gavel rules require a member to "be in good standing", the larger contest clubs generally don't require annual membership dues so that doesn't deter folks from sending in their logs.

In the end, if you want to win the Unlimited Category Gavel, its all a matter of size...

The club with the most members who show up and submit their logs, wins.


At least for me as a competitive contester, the real thrill of SS lies in the Local and Medium categories.

SKILL & COMMITMENT - that's what drives me as a contester and provides the challenge, motivation and fun to try to do better!


10 GHz roving - Rover Buddy 1.1

One of the things on my Ham Radio bucket list was to get on 10 GHz.  Microwave operation is very different from HF or even VHF - and at least on 10 GHz, a lot more interesting than just "line of sight".

In the course of the last few months, I built myself a rover station for 10 GHz.  "Rover" means that I can fit the entire station into the back of my SUV and drive around (roving) different sites making contacts in the the microwave contests.  I'll document the process I went through in some future blog posts - it was much easier than I expected and doesn't require a room full of test equipment.  Here's a picture of me and the station after making my first 10 GHz contact.


Operating on 10 GHz requires the ability to point the antenna with reasonable accuracy as the antenna beamwidth is quite narrow.  My 2 foot dish as an example has ~ 34 dBi of gain and a 3 dB beamwidth of 3 degrees - put another way,  1.5 degrees either side of peak!

All antenna headings are measured as TRUE bearings, not MAGNETIC - particularly if you calculate the bearing from a pair of Maidenhead locators (yours and the other guy's).  Like everything else, there is an "App" for that - plug in the other guy's grid, your's is calculated from the GPS in the phone and up comes the bearing.  The compass in my iPhone is also accurate enough to get me within a degree or so of the correct heading but does require some fiddling around with calibration and matching the heading of the antenna to the phone.

My "ah-ha" moment came from watching this video of Goran AD6IW making an 80 GHz world-record contact (289.5 Km).


If you watch closely, you will see a small box at the end of a tube sitting above the dish - curious minds were rewarded with an explanation - its a combined magnetometer and accelerometer to provide heading and a digital level.

With this inspiration, I set out to build Rover Buddy (tm) - a small Arduino based system with an OLED display (great in strong sunlight) to provide sensor data for my rover station.

2014-08-05 16.21.10

Arduino open source hardware and software made this project very easy.  With an Arduino Uno, OLED display and combined magnetometer/accelerometer sensor from AdaFruit the project was off to a flying start.  All the heavy lifting software wise was done by the libraries available either from Adafruit or from  The libraries provide the code (already debuuged of course) to drive the display and the sensor.

I added a couple of switches for menu selection/navigation plus a reference voltage for the analog/digital converter in the Arduino on a prototyping shield plugged into the Uno.  This also provides a convenient place to attach the wires for the sensor (twisted pair for the I2C bus) and the display.

The sensor is mounted on a small board in the Aluminum box - since Aluminum has the same permeability as air (1), the metal has no impact on the sensor readings.  Nylon screws secure the board and the lid of the box.

Rover Buddy gives me heading (adjusted for magnetic declination), pitch and roll so I can level the tripod holding the station and RF power output from the 10 watt amplifier feeding the dish.  The amplifier has a diode RF power sensor on its output - the voltage from the detector (roughly 0 to 2.5v) is fed to one of the ADC pins on the Arduino via a phono socket on the case.  A look up table converts and scales the voltage to a power reading on the display. 

I'm not too thrilled with the case (also from Adafruit) so post the first weekend of the 10 GHz contest, I'll likely re-box everything but otherwise everything works great.

My final step is to secure the sensor to my rover station and then I'm done!

SmartSDR & FlexRadio 6X00 - Retraining the operator

FlexRadio Systems truly hit a home run with the 6000 series radios and SmartSDR.  Over the last year I've made close to 10,000 QSOs in contesting, DXing and general operating, spend hundreds of hours listening to the bands and integrating the radio into my station.

Count me as a very satisifed Flex-6700 owner!

But even with the experience of the last year, I have only scratched the surface of putting the full capabilities of the radio to work.  Utilizing the full capabilities of SmartSDR and the Flex-6000 series requires RETRAINING THE OPERATOR.  

The last week has seen some excellent conditions on 6m - the band has been open from California to stations across the US and into Asia with Japan and Taiwan appearing on the DXclusters.

So yesterday when I got home from the office, still needing to respond to the email backlog from my vacaction, I fired up SmartSDR and started monitoring 6m from my QTH in Woodside, California.

With a single panadaptor displayed by SmartSDR, I was watching 6m from about 50.025 MHz up to around 50.175 MHz allowing me to monitor the beacon, CW and Phone sections of the band.  Returning to my email, I tuned the  slice from time to time with the FlexControl as I saw stations appear on the band.

I also had SpotCollector running (the spot analyzer incorporated in DXLab) and began to see a number of new spots show up on JT65, much higher up in the band at 50.276 Mhz.  JT65 seemed like a perfect way of monitoring activity while I plowed through email.  Easily done - retune the radio, fire up WSJT and keep a eye open on both spots and WSJT.

About 30 minutes later I saw a JA station spotted by a station in the far north of California.  Email was promptly disregarded as I reached for my headset.  I started to reach for the mouse to retune the radio when a thought struck me...

There's plenty of JT65 activity and I'm going to lose my monitoring capability if I retune the "radio" to chase the JA.  But wait! I don't need to retune the "radio"!

Instead, I used the mouse to pull up a new panadaptor, create a slice and click on the spot - only to find slice A instantly retuned away from the JT65 frequency.  Doh!  SpotCollector and DXLab aren't FlexRadio 6000 aware and so retuned "VFO A" just as I'd instructed.

I quickly retuned slice A to 50.276 MHz,  manually tuned slice B to the reported frequency of the JA spot and set the mode to CW.  I muted slice A  (still sending audio as data via DAX to WSJT) and turned my attention to slice B.  I couldn't hear the JA - I could hear stations working him from a couple of hundred miles away - spotlight propagation (not uncommon on 6m).

With the headset on and monitoring the JA's frequency, I returned to email.  My hope was that propagation might begin to drop further south and west as the solar terminator approached.

A few emails later, I saw some SSB signals on the panadaptor and wondered whether these signals might be from Asia.  I reached for the FlexControl to tune the slice away from the JA, only to realize again, I don't need to retune the "radio"!

A couple of mouse clicks brought up a third slice, selected SSB mode, made the newly created slice C active and adjust the audio pan controls so that I could listen to one slice on each ear.

My 6m Radio

Now I was set!  I never heard the JA but I realized I was beginning to re-train myself to think about the Flex-6000 not as a "radio" but as the server it is!

I could never have begun to do all this with a conventional radio!

We have great hardware (the Flex-6000 series radios), great software (SmartSDR), but getting the best out of the radio requires upgrading and retraining the wetware - a.k.a. THE OPERATOR.

And this is just the beginning...


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Intense Brit, lived in Silicon Valley since 1984. Avid pilot, like digital photography, ham radio and a bunch of other stuff. Official Geek.

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