Monday, June 27, 2016

First Field Day as a CW operator

Field Day 2016 with the Knightlites QRP club

I had the privilege to be part of the Knightlites WQ4RP 2016 Field Day event.  They are a great bunch of folks dedicated to QRP radio.  They operated CW and SSB on 80m, 40m, 20m, 15m, 6m, 2m and 440.

After listening to CW for nearly 19 hours straight; my brain is turning even normal sounds into morse code...  I may have had a psychotic break.  

Gary, N3GO, operating 80m straight through the night without leaving the oh-so-comfortable lawn chair

My 80m/15m station

This is my first year operating CW and my first full, field day event.  I've dabbled in field day (FD) in the past but did not work it as part of a club.

For this FD I was responsible for supplying the equipment to get a station on the air for 80m and 15m.  The WQ4RP club operates QRP only using battery power, so anything associated with transmitting was to be battery powered including the computer.  My Elecraft KX3 was powered by a 12 year old 50ah UPS battery and the laptop was powered using an inverter with a large deep cycle battery.  Following 20 hours of operation the UPS battery had only dropped to 12.2v  The Elecraft KX3 is frugal with power even after hundreds of contacts.

My antenna was the one we'd previously installed at Excalibur during the spring.  Paul brought it down for us to use at the FD site.  We cut the 40m part of the fan dipole to work for 15m. Tall trees on either side of the tent provided the antenna supports and the tent was positioned to be close to the feed point of the ladder line.

80m - 15m Fan dipole with home brew ladder line

Honda generators powered the lights in the evening and fans/AC during the heat of the day. Honda generators are quiet in both the audio and radio spectrums.  Three Knightlite stations used Honda generators to power equipment not related to transceivers.

Power was supplied to all stations by Honda i-series generators

Operating CW during Field Day

Unfortunately for FD operations I'm the opposite end of a CW contester.  Since starting my CW/Morse Code journey last year I've just worked at getting my ragchew (conversations in CW) skills improved.  I practice listening to the most common 500 words and listening to e-books sent as Morse Code.  I'm not good at copying calls, when they are sent at 25wpm.  Compounding my new(ish) operator struggle is that FD uses an abbreviated exchange, so it was tough going for me when operations kicked off at 2PM local time Saturday and the exchanges began flying by...

A Field Day CW exchange

Calling Station sends an abbreviated CQ, sometimes the CQ and the ending FD were omitted:
Answering Station sends call by itself, repeating as necessary:
WQ4RP (repeat call after a brief pause if no response)
Calling Station sends my call back to me then his station class and section:
Answering Station sends station class and section:
Calling Station sends thank you and that's it, you're done:
Since we were operating QRP we often had to repeat our call and our class and sections.  I don't have much experience at copying calls at speeds above 20wpm.  The 15m band was weak and most signals were no better than S2 or S3. I was trying to copy calls sent at speeds higher than my norm with QSB (fading) and I was getting frustrated.  Paul came and sat beside me to coach and provide some encouragement.  He is a patient tutor.

I was advised to operate "search and pounce" rather than sending CQ myself because I needed to hear a caller complete a QSO once or twice to copy their call and their response but even then copying the section was often harder for me than the call.  Many of the sections are 3 letter designations that I was unfamiliar with (i.e. California has 10 sections abbreviations).  Between QSOs Paul would explain where each of the sections were located. I should have studied up on this stuff prior to FD.

I'd hear the station class (a number and a letter) and then while my brain was chewing on that I'd miss the section.  So I was sending a lot of AGN? to get the stations to repeat their response. Sometimes I'd finish a contact and realize I'd mistyped part of the response so I would wait and listen for the caller to go through another contact to hear what they sent to copy it correctly for the log. I wasn't really racking up the contacts.

This type of operating is very challenging for me.  While I can understand why contesters enjoy honing these skills, for me, it was stressful and wore me down mentally.  I took breaks at least every hour and asked other, more seasoned operators to take the helm (errr. key) while my brain cooled down.

80m magic

When dusk arrived 15m contacts were few and far between and I switched to 80m.  Gone were the weak signals and speed demons on 15m.  The 80m band was surprisingly QRN free and stations sending FD calls were stacked like firewood throughout the CW portion of the band.  Our QRP station was also heard better by the callers with fewer needs to repeat the call or the response.  I had more enjoyable time working 80m.  Paul still sat with me and offered advice which I greatly appreciated.

Gary N3GO, loves the 80m band and he is the Knightlites anchor man for running 80m through the night.  Gary sat down at 10PM to begin his shift on 80m and he didn't get out of that chair until 5AM.  I was dozing on and off (more off than on) in the tent and doing my best to head copy what he was working.  Seven straight non-stop hours of CW later Gary needed a break and I spelled him for a while.  After a bit of rest he was back for more and operated until the band gave out in the morning.

N3GO is the anchor man for 80m through the night shift

WQ4RP Knightlites

The Knightlites operate using the club call WQ4RP.  Here are some of the participants from the 2016 FD.
Left to right: AA4OO, WA4GIR, WF4I, (visiting ham in red ????), KD4PBJ, KC4PHJ, AA4XX, AB4PP
Thanks to W4MPS for taking the photo


"JP" AB4PP -- 20m Band captain

 Kurt N4KJK - assisted with 15m CW

6m / 2m / 440 stack - Thanks Alex!

Alex KC4PHJ -- Band captain for 6m / 2m / 440

Joe WA4GIR - 40m band captain

40m Station

40m Loop

Derek WF4I - working 40m at dawn

Sunday daybreak and the 80m station is still cranking

Lots of weed eater support lines tied off at the base of this tree


My first FD as a CW operator was challenging but fun,  The WQ4RP club has some patient and talented operators, many of whom have rarely missed operating a FD since becoming hams.  I enjoyed getting to learn from them.

Next year I will make the effort to practice copying FD exchanges prior to the event so that I'm not so overwhelmed.  It also turned out I'd made a poor choice for logging software.  The RumNLog software for my Mac laptop didn't have a preset for the FD contest.  I had to use a general contest setting and now will have to programmatically manipulate the resulting ADIF output to have the necessary fields for submission.

The Elecraft KX3 is unsurprisingly a good QRP field day radio.  It's small size, low power consumption and phenomenal internal auto tuner made it a pleasure to work with.  It has a knob, button or display element for everything you could want.  For instance, the dedicated knob for changing internal keyer speed was very useful to fit each station we worked during an exchange.  I also used the secondary frequency display area to check on the power supply voltage throughout the event.  The KX3 truly does have the kitchen sink.

Update 7-11-2016

Paul sent me the Knightlites field day results. Lists below.  I'm interested to see how our group fared .

Call Used: WQ4RP     GOTA Station Call: (none)     ARRL/RAC Section: NC     Class: 3A

Participants: 10     Club/Group Name: KnightLites QRP Society

Power Source(s): Battery

Power Multiplier: 5X

Bonus Points:
  100% Emergency power                            300
  W1AW Field Day Message                          100
  Submitted via the Web                            50
Total Bonus Points                                450

Score Summary:
                  CW  Digital  Phone  Total
   Total QSOs    539      0      58
 Total Points   1078      0      58   1136   Claimed Score = 5,680

That's all for now

So lower your power and raise your expectations

Richard, AA4OO

Sunday, June 12, 2016

Rub-a-dub-dub, three men in a tub

Talk to a submarine using Morse Code

The NAQCC sent out an announcement about activating the station on the submarine USS  Requin (SS-481) as NY3EC. 

USN photo courtesy of Scott Koen &

The team was operating QRP CW and I made my contact with them at 14:16 today on 7041 kHz .

What a cool hobby that let's us communicate with an old sub in its original language? 

That's all for now.

Richard, AA4OO

Friday, May 27, 2016

Let your fingers do the talking...

Let them play different instruments

Keys left to right
Nye Viking, Kent Hand key, Vibroplex Original Bug, N3ZN ZN-QRP paddle, Palm Single paddle
My collection of keys has grown over the past few months and I find that I like each for their particular qualities.

Keys from left to right

The Nye Viking is somewhere between a traditional J-38 low style American key and a tall European style.  At first I couldn't get any sort of coordination with it even after a couple hours of practice and it stayed in the closet for a few months.  Eventually I wanted to leave a key hooked up to the old Century/21 so I didn't have to move the output of my external keyer so the Viking came back out.  I've finally become accustomed to it and am even beginning to enjoy it as much as the Kent.  I'm amazed at how different two straight keys can be.

The Kent Hand key continues to be my favorite key for straight key operation.  The Kent is operated using your entire arm off the desk and when I send using it above 15wpm I get the entire desk shaking with the motion.  My desk light starts casting dancing shadows across the equipment from the vibration and with the clacking of the key and the blare of the sidetone the world of CW becomes visceral.

The Vibroplex Bug remains at the center of the collection because I have some strange affinity for the quirky bug.  I use it on every QSO where I hear another bug operator or with SKCC operators that are sending faster than 17wpm.  It has a non-cosmetic, yet effective, weight added from an old steel spacer to slow it down to a range of 21wpm to 16wpm and some dental floss around the DIT contact spring to reduce the potential bounce which results in scratchy sounding DITS.

The N3ZN ZN-QRP paddle is a work of art and when I'm working higher speed CW it's my go-to key.  The carbon fiber finger pieces and lightweight clickety action always puts a smile on my face.  I keep it connected to the external Ham Keyer which has a handy knob to for quickly adjusting keyer speed.

The Palm Single to the right is magnetically mounted to a steel base a friend made for me. I pull it off the base when I go portable as it's my go-to key for all my portable operations.  But when I'm at the home station I leave it hooked up to the keyer input on the Ten-Tec Eagle because the Eagle's keyer is only Iambic-B mode and I just can't get used to "B-Mode".  Using a single, non-iambic paddle eliminates the weird timing of the B iambic mode.  I really should learn mode-B since it seems to be standard on Ten-Tec and Kenwood radios. 

The 3 stars in the center are the Kent Hand key, Vibroplex Original Bug and the N3ZN paddle

The 3 keys in the middle (Kent Hand key, Vibroplex Bug and N3ZN paddle) remain hooked up to the Ham Keyer and I move the output of that keyer to whichever rig I'm primarily using at the time.  That keyer uses Iambic-Mode-A which I'm comfortable with and it debounces the scratchiness of the Bug.  I hook the output of the keyer up to either the PTT line on the Eagle or the secondary key input on the KX3.  When using the C21 I just use the Nye straight key.

Debouncing a Vibroplex Bug

Side story on the Bug... If you get a Vibroplex bug and hook it up to the PTT line of your radio you may find that you're missing DITS or that the output sounds broken or scratchy.  The PTT line of many radios is not "buffered" meaning it is reacting to every contact closure.  On a bug, the DIT contact is actually bouncing potentially hundreds of times a second since the contact force is so light and doesn't make a clean closure.  Many keyers will filter out those multiple contacts or bounces.  My old HAM KEYER weight control actually serves as a DIT weight control for the manual keys as well so it's ideal for use with the bug.

KE6EE offered me this nice explanation of what was going on:
The more usual term for the process of dealing with problems of contact closure is "debouncing." Google and you will find lots of interesting visuals and explanations.

The actual start and finish of contact closures and openings in switches, relays and keys, is not a simple off-and-on process but a series of "bounces." Dit contact closures on a bug are likely to be very bouncy. 

Bug dit contact design and bug maintenance and adjustment are critical for minimizing bounce. Ops with Vibroplex-style dit contacts often put a piece of rubber or plastic foam in the U-shaped dit contact spring. The Begali bug uses a unique pointed and spring-loaded dit contact. Many bug ops, from my observations on the air, do not adjust their dit weight properly to minimize a scratchy sound.

Transmitter keying circuits are usually "debounced" in various ways, the simplest perhaps being to put a capacitor across the key contact circuit. A PTT circuit doesn't need to be debounced so it isn't. Keyers often have debounce circuits designed to be used with straight keys and bugs.

Try different keys

So if you are getting into CW try some different keys.  I think you'll be surprised by the differences and find that your mood or situation will dictate the use of one key over another.   Morse keys on the used market aren't expensive if you shop carefully so you can build quite a collection.  They also tend to hold their value if you find that you've obtained a key or two that you just can't grok.

My ever changing station sporting a spiffy new chair

 That's all for now

So lower your power and raise your expectations

Richard, AA4OO

Thursday, May 19, 2016

Peanut whistle

The Elecraft KX2

Steve (WG0AT) published a video demonstrating Elecraft's newest QRP radio.  

The tiny KX2.

I'm sure there will be more news about this new wonder-rig from Elecraft announced at Hamvention this week.


That's all for now

So lower your power and raise your expectations

Richard, AA4OO

Sunday, May 15, 2016

Listen to the music

Comparing CW audio 

The Elecraft KX3 and the Ten-Tec Eagle

The bands were very poor today from my home and finding stations to operate were few and far between, especially at QRP power.  So I thought I'd take a break from operating and create a brief video demonstrating the CW audio differences between the Ten-Tec Eagle and the Elecraft KX3.

The radios

The Elecraft KX3 and Ten-Tec Eagle don't have much in common apart from having DSP architectures and both being from American radio manufacturers.  The Eagle is devoid of bells, whistles and has no-menus.  On the Eagle, what you see is all you get, as opposed to the KX3 which has multiple kitchen sinks stuffed into it's tiny enclosure. 


Both radios have their pre-amps off and DSP bandwidth set to 500 Hz.  I have the RF gain reduced by about 15dB on each radio since turning up the RF gain on a noisy day like today just makes for white noise.  

During the video I operated the NR (noise reduction) button on the Eagle to demonstrate how it makes a signal pop and in the same manner operate the APF (audio peaking filter) on the KX3.  I end the demonstration by reducing the DSP bandwidth down to about 100 Hz on each radio.  The Eagle has both 600 Hz and a 300 Hz IF filters so it gets a bit of insertion loss when I pass through the 300 Hz setting.  There were no adjacent signals so the IF filtering wasn't doing anything for either radio in this case.

The audio from the Eagle is coming from its built-in speaker, while on the KX3 I'm using an iHome external, self-powered, speaker.  The KX3 has an abysmal internal speaker and there's little point in trying to listen to it compared to a radio with a real speaker.  In my opinion that speaker is one of the few serious flaws in the KX3.  

After I shot the video I realized that there was a bit of a bias against the Eagle's audio because the microphone in the camera was below the top of the Eagle's case and thus wasn't directly hearing the cabinet speaker, whereas it was in direct view of the external speaker connected to the KX3.  The Eagle's audio sounds crisper than this in person when your ears have a straight shot to the speaker.

Subjective listening

Audio is a very subjective thing because people can hear the same thing very differently so I won't comment on my opinion on which I prefer.

I would however be curious to hear other's opinions.

That's all for now

So lower your power and raise your expectations

Rich, AA4OO

Tuesday, May 10, 2016

Twisted dummy

Improving the ugly dummy load

A few months back I built an ugly dummy load using the simplest method I could...

I soldered 20 2watt 1k ohm resistors across two pieces of romex wire and soldered it to a UHF connector.  Voila, had a 50ohm dummy load effective for extended QRP use and brief bursts of QRO power.  But as I analyzed the balun and noted in the previous post, some capacitance due to the simplistic design made it less than perfect at higher frequencies.

I got to thinking that the capacitance might be lessened by making those two antenna looking pieces of wire used in the balun into a different shape.

Croissant Balun

Twist and shout

So I twisted the parallel wires of the balun into a concentric loop  like a croissant and the result was promising.  Reactance is a bit less from 20m through 15m resulting in the SWR remaining as flat as my MFJ commercial balun.

Think like a Thermian - Never Give up, Never Surrender
Yes, I have an odd choice in favorite movies

So when you have a project that doesn't work quite as expected keep the little grey cells churning.  You'll likely come up with some alternatives. If someone who understands RF can explain to me why this helped I'd like to know. 

This ugly balun is going fellow Ham who is getting back into the hobby following a hiatus and is in need of a balun.  This balun is still not ideal but it's become more useable and the parts cost less than $10.

That's all for now

So lower your power and raise your expectations

Richard, AA4OO

Monday, May 9, 2016

Not all things are QRP

This is not a QRP antenna rotor

Another Saturday morning working at the Excalibur antenna site...  Dick (N4HAY) and I were doing more maintenance on the tower. Part of that effort was to determine why the mast rotor had stopped working.

Paul (AA4XX) and Dick had cranked the tower down and lowered it to ground the previous weekend to remove the beam and gain access to the rotor.  

Mast rotor is a prop-pitch motor from a WW2 aircraft

The rotor is an old prop pitch motor from a WW2 aircraft so it's both heavy and heavy duty but it wasn't turning the mast. The motor was firmly attached via a number of rusted and inaccessible bolts. At first we weren't sure we'd be able to free it from the tower but after an hour of copious application of WD40 and slowly working the blots back and forth we were able to liberate it to freedom.

Once the motor was free we saw that the thrust bearing for the mast was seized.  That will be addressed in a coming weekend.  Until then Dick tested the rotor on the bench and found it still functioning so that was good news.  

Dick recorded a brief video showing that the rotor was alive albeit moving a bit slowly with only 12v powering it.


Taking turns with QRPp

Dick and I took turns fighting the bolts holding the rotor while the other worked 40m using the 1Watter I built.   Band conditions weren't the best and we had the feed line to the doublet crossing some elevated counterpoise wires installed for the 160m antenna so antenna access to the 40m/80m Doublet wasn't ideal as we still focus our work on the shack and tower.

There was considerable DX chasing going on which made finding an opening in the narrow tuning range of the 1Watter a challenge.  I did managed a 559 report from a station in WV.  I managed some ?? responses from a few stations but didn't work anyone else.  I need to work on the feed line situation before using the 1Watter there next time.

That's all for now

So lower your power and raise your expectations


Richard, AA4OO