Thursday, April 17, 2014

DXCC #187: FW5JJ Wallis & Futuna Is.

I've heard FW5JJ many times in the past but never seemed to work him until (local) Sunday night (Mon. 14-Apr at 0458 UTC) when I got him on 20m with just a couple of calls. Heard him again Wednesday evening after work (16-Apr at 2306 UTC) and worked him just as easily on 15m. Super strong both times into central Texas.

DXCC #186: T88QX Palau

Worked Bodo DF8DX operating from Palau as T88QX on 17m early Saturday morning (11-Apr at 1217 UTC) with fairly good copy. After that I saw spots every day but never heard him again. Operation ended 15-Apr.

Thursday, April 10, 2014

DXCC #185: A35V Tonga

A35V Tonga on 12m CW, so weak I can barely hear him above the background noise. Send my call, I hear WW2... come back. Send it again, I hear...PT. Send my 5NN and log it. Within seconds, I'm in ClubLog. DXCC #185!

 I love this hobby!

KX1 Returns!

Just when I thought The Walking Dead Season 4 has ended, my KX1 has risen from the grave and walks among us once again. A few months ago when my latest bout of QRP mania struck I dug it out of a box where it had been packed since our last move. Upon opening it up I found that the AA batteries that I'd forgotten to remove had leaked and pretty much ruined one of the battery holders. No other damage was apparent, no corrosion on the circuit board or any components, but when I hooked it up to my 12 volt power supply it refused to play -- nothing on the display, no signals received, no output on key-down... just some hiss when the AF Gain was turned all the way up, and the little lamp on the side still lit up.

I put it aside for a few weeks until I had time to dig into it. When I finally found some time I began poking around inside, hitting any solder joints with the iron that looked suspect, checking voltages per the construction manual. I emailed Don W3FPR for some advice, he confirmed my voltage measurements and gave me a few things to try but no luck. Finally hitting the limits of both my tool and skill sets he suggested I send the KX1 to him so he can look at it with some real test equipment. So off it went.

Upon arrival at Don's place, he plugged it in... and it worked. Perhaps the US Postal Service fixed it en route. I dunno. Whatever made it happen, the thing suddenly sprang to life, and I'll take it. Don did a quick once-over and did a calibration while he had it, changed out the damaged battery holder, and shipped it back to me.

First night back, I fired it up at the desk with the 12 volt supply just to be sure, and sure enough it worked. Took a little while to reacquaint myself with all of the menu settings. It wasn't transmitting at first, until I figured out that the ATU setting was wrong. A few attempts to make some contacts were in vain, but it appears to be working fine.

The KXPD1 paddle is kind of flaky, or maybe its just me. Either way, I'm making more mistakes than I do with the Bencher BY1. Fact is I'm just plain better with a straight key than I ever was with paddles. I'm looking into a mini key for this KX1 and someone suggested the Palm Radio PPK; I also found the KK1 by American Morse Equipment. Both look like they'd work.

Palm Radio PPK
American Morse Equipment KK1
Meanwhile I keep working with the KXPD1. It's not horrible, mind you. The lack of mechanical paddle movement just reminds me of that old Heathkit μMatic keyer I built years ago that used capacitive touch paddles. Just plain weird. I spent about an hour calling W1AW/4 (unsuccessfully) on 40m tonight, sending cleaner as I started getting more used to the KXPD1.

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

March 2014 Wrap-Up

The TX6G DXpedition was the highlight of my month. I worked them on 8 bands CW, with a phone contact thrown in for good measure on 12m! Even got 'em QRP on 15m with the Flex 1500 just for kicks. Consistently excellent signals into Texas, especially on the higher bands, giving me cause to look into the VDA antennas they used. Hats off to the TX6G team for one of the best run operations I've ever worked. I barely had time to wonder if I made it into their log before confirmation appeared on both ClubLog and LOTW. Well done!

My CW is steadily improving. I'm reaching for the straight key more and more and stressing less and less whenever a QSO strays from the standard "TU 599" exchange. A lot of times I'll just have the radio on while doing other stuff in the shack and find myself copying a CW QSO in my head without even realizing it. So I guess all the work I've put into building my CW skills is starting to pay off. I'm still struggling at speeds above 25 WPM, but  it's coming along.

I was looking forward to operating some QRP in March having played for a bit in the SKCC Weekend Sprint on 3/9 and really getting infected with the QRP bug. But alas, I missed the NAQCC Sprint on 3/19 and the SKCC Monthly Sprint on 3/25, so other than the WES and a few quick QRP contacts with W1AW/0, W1AW/4 and TX6G I was QRO the rest of the time.

Speaking of QRP... my KX1 was sent to Don W3FPR for repair (or not, as it turns out -- he can't find anything wrong with it!); as soon as that comes back I plan to put it to use. Might even get around to building and installing the 80m/30m option. At this time I'm considering the possibility of selling both the Flex and the KX1 to help finance a KX3, something I've wanted for a while. But until then, the KX1 will have to do.

Only other thing on the radar at the moment is nGenLog. Been hearing good things about this free logger, and I'm having some serious issues with HRD Logbook on the old Dell desktop -- having to crash out of the program more and more often, especially when waking the computer up from sleep, and 30+ second pauses are making it impossible to use. nGenLog seems to be a little lighter on the processor, so I'll give it a whirl and see how it goes.

On to the box scores...

DXCC - Five new countries worked in March (Mozambique, UAE, Austral Is., Jersey and Fiji), and six newly confirmed (Vanuatu, Tunisia, Montserrat, Austral Is., Easter Is., and Belarus).

Last 10 New DXCC Worked
184FIJI ISLANDS3D2FJ3/28/2014

My QSL stats since January show big jumps on 40m (30 new), 30m (19 new), 15m (20 new) and 10m (19 new) in the first quarter of 2014; in the same period my CW total went from 75 to 117 confirmed (47 new), passing the 100 mark in mid-February, just a couple of weeks after scoring DXCC QSL #100 on phone.

DXCC Totals

WAS - Getting close to Triple Play courtesy of the W1AW Centennial stations. With KY and OH confirmed on LOTW and IA pending on both CW and Phone, I need just three states on CW (ND, WV and WY) and one on Phone (RI).

Worked All States
Basic *5080M2717M24
Digital *5020M4810M23

WPX -- Steadily increasing my prefix totals. Just hoping CQ is still in existence by the time I get around to applying for the awards...


Thursday, March 27, 2014

LOTW #100 on 20m!

A QSO and quick LOTW verification from TZ6BB in Mali on 26-March gives me 100 confirmed on 20m. Along with CW, that now makes two DXCC awards that I can apply for without having to get my cards checked!

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Redefining The Radio (or, Nine Months With The Flex 1500)

Cooler than penguin poop.
I've not written much about the Flex 1500 since I brought it home about nine months ago, just a few mentions here and there. It doesn't get nearly as much use as my K3 but I reckon I've had enough cockpit time to become familiar with all the controls and tweak the software that an update might be in order.

Why the Flex 1500?
I first became interested in the 1500 shortly after it was announced by Flex Radio Systems. I was QRT at that time but I still kept my ear to the ground with respect to new equipment, especially QRP rigs, and this one really grabbed my attention. Around the same time Elecraft announced their KX3. I'm encouraged to see these two companies catering to the "little pistol" QRP op even as they shake up the "big gun" high-end/high-performance transceiver market with their K3 and Flex 5000/6500/6700 models. Especially fascinating is the different approach each of them take with respect to SDR design: the Flex 1500 is a black box device that sites between a antenna and a PC; the KX3 is a self-contained SDR radio that can be used independent of a computer (or an AC outlet, for that matter). Two completely different design philosophies.

Of course I wanted both radios; fiscal restraints, however, forced me to choose one or the other. I opted for the Flex partly because I really wanted to explore their universe a little bit after years of being fully in the Elecraft camp, and partly because of price -- the 1500 costs $699, the KX3 starts at $899, and the extra few hundred bucks really wasn't in my budget at the time. So the 1500 it was.

I envisioned this radio fitting into my current station primarily as a low-power digital-mode radio, and also as a second receiver. Now that I've become more interested in getting involved in QRP activities I can see it getting more use as a CW rig as soon as I work out a way of switching my key and paddles easily between the Flex and the K3.

First Light
My first impressions were mixed -- the initial PowerSDR setup was fairly straightforward but I had some issues getting it configured with the Virtual Audio Cable (VAC) and Virtual Serial Port (VSP) software and was finding some latency issues in CW mode  -- a very short but noticeable delay between key-down and hearing the sidetone that really is disconcerting while trying to send code at anything above Novice speed. It took some experimenting with the audio and DSP buffer settings before everything worked, if not perfectly then well enough. Nothing especially problematic, just a case of needing time to get acquainted with the intricacies of the different applications needed to get the rig working in a usable fashion.  

I eventually got everything working perfectly with both VAC and VSP. This allows a single USB cable between the 1500 and the Dell laptop to be used for the PowerSDR software (which is, for the most part, all of the radio after the RF stage), Ham Radio Deluxe (for additional rig control and logging), and DM780 or JT65-HF (for digital modes). No audio cables required!

The buffer and latency settings took a bit more work. Flex's Knowledge Center and the Flex-Radio email reflector are both great sources of information for dealing with these issues and any others. In particular, I found this post by VE3WMB to be especially helpful as a starting point for getting the 1500 dialed in. I also got some key advice on VAC setup from the Flex Radio SDR community on Google+. While there is still some latency when operating CW, it is useable in that mode, although I am limited to slower sending speeds than I'm comfortable with. The only way I can get around it is to reduce the CW buffer, which in turn limits the minimum bandwidth settings. Since others have reported success in eliminating this CW latency I'm still hoping to find the magic settings someday. 

Operating the Flex 1500
I noted above that the 1500 was purchased mainly for digital modes, and it's worked out extremely well for that purpose. I've been able to dabble with JT65 for the first time and have made some DX contacts running 1.5 watts. PSK operation is quite good, too. Channeling the audio I/O as data via USB seems to deliver a cleaner signal to and from DM780 than I'm getting from the desktop PC/soundcard setup I use with the K3. This is just the impression I get, I have not done any tests to support this hunch. At the very least, the possibility of RFI getting in through audio cables should be a non-issue now.

First, the positive:
  • The cornerstone feature of this rig is it's spectrum display. It makes it easy to spot weak signals that are barely audible -- the kind you would tune right past if you were turning a VFO dial on a conventional rig. See a line on the waterfall, click on it and you're tuned! More on this below.
  • I expected a great receiver from the reviews and receiver tests I'd read before purchasing it but it still took me by surprise. On CW the 1500 is simply amazing. The bandwidth filtering and it's ability to dig out weak signals is a match for the K3 in all but the most extreme cases, at least to my ears. It sounds great on SSB, too, though I haven't done much listening in that mode.
  • MultiRX is super-useful in a pileup situation, when I want to listen to my RX frequency (the DX station) in my left ear and monitor my TX frequency (the pileup) in my right. Unfortunately it's not possible to use different bandwidth settings for each channel. 
On the downside:
  • I find the Noise Blanker (NB) to be a bit disappointing. Perhaps I've been spoiled by the K3's NB, by far the best I've ever experienced. If it's just a simple matter of not having the the parameters set correctly, then I'd say that's one of the problems -- it shouldn't take that much tweaking and effort to work properly. I've spent a lot of time adjusting the 1500's NB settings and I'm unable to find the sweet spot where the background electrical noise that often plagues my QTH is eliminated without causing distortion to the desired signal. No such issues with the K3, where I can just increase the NB level until it distorts, then back it up a little.
  • The DSP Noise Reduction (NR) is OK, but again not nearly as effective or easily adjustable as the K3's NR. I rarely use it.
  • Portability is another issue. "QRP" is often synonymous with "portability," and this rig simply ain't. If field operation is high on your priority list, either look elsewhere or prepare to lug around a bunch of batteries to power both the 1500 and a laptop.

User Interface
Despite it's (relatively few) shortcomings, I love the Flex 1500. Still, the K3 is my go-to rig and the Flex has been getting only occasional use. Why? It's not merely because of the additional output power of the K3 -- that may be part of it, but I'm fairly certain I'd do the same if the Flex were a 100W rig driving an amp. And not because of any performance issue, either -- as I noted above, the Flex is pretty much equal to the K3, and possibly better in terms of audio quality (my K3 is one of the early ones and has none of the revisions that address some audio distortion issues).

More than anything, it's just that I still prefer a conventional button-and-knob rig to a point-and-click rig. When I want to turn the volume down, it's unintuitive for me to fumble with the mouse and drag a slider on a computer monitor. When I want to change bands, it seems so much more natural to push a physical button than click on a virtual one. Is this just a generational thing? Would a younger user, someone who has been exposed to computers from the cradle, be more comfortable with PowerSDR and find a conventional radio to be a quaint relic of the past? I don't know.

Whether I'm "old school" or just stubborn, the K3 suits my operating style. This often includes tuning slowly across the band listening for weak signals with my eyes closed, something that is not easily done with PowerSDR. I ride the RF Gain control, too, and again find it cumbersome to work a slider control with the mouse to do that. I suppose the awkwardness of PowerSDR can be lessened with time as I use it more, but I don't think the point-and-click interface will ever match the tactile feedback I get from an honest-to-God front panel. 

But then there's the panafall display! That is what for me sets this radio apart from anything I've ever experienced before. PSK users know all about waterfall displays which show signals in the audio passband; panadapter spectrum displays have been a mainstay on rigs from Icom since the IC-780 and R-9000 in the 1990s and now feature prominently on rigs from nearly every manufacturer. The panafall display is a combination of the two, showing real-time band activity in both the frequency/amplitude and frequency/time domains.
PowerSDR's Panafall Display
A CW or digital signal too weak to really stand out on the panadapter display will often still leave a faint line on the waterfall. These are the signals that one risks tuning past on a conventional rig. But on the Flex... see a line, point and click, bang. It almost feels like cheating.

Here's an example of a station (HC5AI) I found while doing some A/B tests between the 1500 and the K3. It was so weak that it didn't register at all on the panadapter display (top) but was clearly visible on the waterfall (bottom):

Odds are that I wouldn't have found this signal if I were just tuning the band on my K3 or if I were using just the panadapter display on the 1500. (This was one of those extreme cases in which the K3 beat the 1500 in terms of copying a signal so far down in the background noise that it was barely audible. Not a huge difference in readability, but noticeable.)

So why not use just the waterfall? Why have a panadapter display at all? Maybe the panadapter is just gravy, but I find it to be very useful when there are a lot of signals on the band, especially during a contest or while hunting DX. Observing a pileup of big signals spread out over a 2-3 kHz range just disappear when a weaker signal starts transmitting on a lower frequency -- the telltale sign of a DX operation -- is something that just doesn't come across as well on the waterfall. On the other hand, the waterfall is my tool of choice when monitoring a quiet band, especially the higher bands which open and close intermittently at night. That's when I will just leave the waterfall on and wait for the broken lines to appear.

This panafall method of finding and tuning weak signals is a paradigm shift for me, another one of those things that I could never have imagined when I was a kid listening to hams on a DX-160 receiver with a simple bandspread dial. Back then, a simple digital frequency readout seemed miraculous to me! I'm happy to say it's not unique to Flex radios these days, either. The Elecraft P3 panadapter option for the K3 includes this feature; NaP3, an SDR software program based on the open-source PowerSDR code, brings many of PowerSDR's user interface to the KX3 and, with devices like the LP-Pan, other rigs with suitable IF outputs; most if not all other SDR radios support software with similar functionality; the Kenwood TS-990S has it on its built-in display, and I expect Yaesu and Icom will follow soon enough. Maybe someday a panafall display will be as ubiquitous as digital readouts and computer interfaces are on radios today.
Elecraft P3
Kenwood TS-990S
Just for the hell of it I recently hooked the K3's IF output up to the Flex 1500 and tuned the 1500 to the K3's IF 8 MHz frequency. The results were not great -- the signal level of the IF signal was pretty low so only the strongest signals on the band were showing up in the PowerSDR panafall; tuning the K3 up in frequency moved the waterfall in the opposite direction (i.e., higher frequencies are to the left of the center marker, lower to the right), something that makes perfect sense if you think about it but still less than intuitive when operating; and of course the point-and-click facility was missing. In all, and interesting exercise but a rather useless way to add a spectrum display to the K3.

My Wish List
Two things would make me even happier than I already am with this radio: A Macintosh version of PowerSDR, and an internal ATU option.

The $900 Question
Anyway, these are my random thoughts about the Flex 1500. If I had to do it all over again, would I have gone for the KX3 instead of the Flex 1500? I've been asking myself that question a lot lately and the answer is a definite and resounding "maybe." The appeal of having a stand-alone, fully functional QRP rig that I can use outside the shack wasn't a huge factor for me last June. Today I really wish I had one. I have no complaints with the Flex when it's used as I originally intended -- as a digital-mode rig -- and actually use it more than the K3 these days for PSK. At the same time I wish I had a KX3-type rig that I could use both in the field and in the living room.

That said, I have no regrets. I chose the 1500 knowing what it was and how it worked, and it honestly has met all my expectations. So I don't know if I'd go the other way and get the KX3 instead of the 1500. Hopefully I will own both someday because they each fulfill a particular need for me.

Resources and Links
Monitoring Times review by NT0Z - Part 1 and Part 2 (PDF format)
DL4YHF's Overview of Spectrum Displays
W9XC: Flex 1500 CW Latency Issues

ZL7AAA Chatham Island

The ZL7AAA guys on Chatham Is. were loud as all get-out this morning on 40m CW! This was, I think, the first time I've even heard them since they began operating last week. But alas, I only got to drop my call a couple of times before heading off to work, so ZL7 eludes me still.

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

QSLs: DXCC #150 and #151!

I finally reached the 150 mark for countries confirmed. TX6G (Austral Is.) did the honors, verifying by LOTW mere hours after my 22-March QSOs on 17, 15 and 12 meters. (Got 'em on 20 and 40 the next day, and 10 the day after that).

The next day a card from XRØYY arrived for a phone QSO last November.

My DXCC totals are now 151 Mixed  / 115 CW / 103 SSB.

Sunday, March 2, 2014

ARRL International DX Contest (SSB)

Hunted and pecked for about 7 of the 48 hours for 131 QSOs and 102 mults. Not a great effort on my part -- I'm really starting to dislike SSB.

February 2014 Wrap Up

DXCC -- Three new countries worked in February, and five more confirmed. Finally got #100 on CW
  • Mixed: 145 confirmed (179 worked) - Up from 140 (176)
  • CW: 108 (150) -- Up from 89 (135)
  • Phone: 101 (130) -- No change.
  • Digital: 58 (82) -- No change. 
WAS -- Guess I'll start counting some single-band WAS numbers now, since I'm almost there on a couple of bands. Only counting LOTW for WAS. Triple Play is down to six states needed on CW, two on SSB
  • CW: 44 confirmed (46 worked) -- W1AW/4 (GA) and W1AW/8 (MI) worked; IA, KY, ND, OH, WV and WY remain.
  • Phone: 48 (49) -- Got W1AW/8 (MI); only IA and RI are left.
  • 40m: 49 (50) -- RI still elusive on LOTW.
  • 20m: 48 (50) -- No change; still need MS and OK. 
  • 15m: 37 (40) -- No change; still need CO, DE, IA, KS, LA, MO, MS, MT, ND, NE, NM, RI and WY.
WPX -- Got #400 (mixed) this month, and then some. Closing in on CW.
  • Mixed: 414 confirmed - 59 new
  • CW: 263 (300) - 64 new
  • Phone: 150 (300) - 6 new
  • Digital: 126 (300) - No change

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Telegraph Apparatus

Only $15.95 for a Vibroplex Bug? I'll take two!

From the 1945 Radio Shack catalog.

Thursday, February 20, 2014

WPX Mixed #400!

I just received LOTW confirmation from R5AJ, and with it my 400th prefix to qualify me for the WPX Mixed award. Until very recently I was completely unaware that I was even close; in fact I was unaware of how many prefixes were needed -- I simply never chased after prefixes in the same way I do DXCC countries. But I guess they just accumulate over time.

I doubt I'll apply for the award any time soon; I'll probably wait until I also qualify for the CW and SSB awards plus whatever other endorsements I can get at that time, then do it all at once. Next up: WPX CW -- just 54 needed to reach the needed 300 for that award. I'm already well past the required 160 prefixes required for the WPX Mixed North America endorsement.

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

2014 ARRL International DX Contest (CW)

I managed to squeeze in a few hours here and there over the weekend to make 290 contacts on 40m through 10m for 180 total multipliers and a score of 156,600 points. Since I knew this was just going to be a casual DX-chasing effort for me, I used the DX cluster and submitted as Single Op Unlimited.

Two all-time new countries (3B8VV in Tunisia and YJ0OU in Vanuatu) bring my DXCC Worked total to 179. I started the contest with 73 confirmed on CW; by Monday morning the total was at 98.

Both ionospheric and local conditions were pretty good during the test. There must have been some auroral activity; every signal I was hearing from northern Europe on Saturday morning had a distinct flutter, difficult to copy but at least there were signals making it over from that part of the world for a change. Never did manage to work Svalbard, though. Locally, for once the only noise to plague me this weekend was generated by the neighbor's dog and the infernal train.

Tuesday, February 18, 2014


From 6 confirmed on CW in June 2013 to DXCC eight months later! The 5J0R DXpedition to San Andres Island has the distinct honor of being my 100th confirmed DXCC entity on CW.

Saturday, February 8, 2014

In Which Your Humble Narrator Worked FT5ZM Amsterdam Island Against All Odds.

The FT5ZM DXpedition is without question the biggest operation since I've been back on the air. It stands at Number 5 on DX Magazine's Most Wanted list, so we knew it was going to draw some huge pileups, and with the pileups the flotsam and jetsam of ham radio that we get with every big DXpedition. And right from the start it was chaos. After a few days had yet to even hear FT5ZM, only the pileups and the jammers and tuners. I gave up all hope of working this one.

Almost a week into the operation, KB2YAN texts me that he worked them on 30m CW. This gives me hope. The next night (03-Feb UTC) I work them on 17m CW. I think. Hard to tell, between their weak signal and the lids. Had to wait until the next ClubLog upload to be sure. This happened the next day, and I was in the log for 17m. Band #1 in the book!

The following night (04-Feb UTC), they were a bit stronger on 40m. Dropped my call a few dozen times before I heard it come back to me. I think. Same deal as before -- waiting for ClubLog. The next day... no ClubLog upload. I think they were trying to give me a stroke.

Later that evening (05-Feb) I get them on 30m CW. I think. A pattern here is developing. Work them, lie awake all night wondering if they got my call correct, praying for a quick ClubLog upload.

The afternoon of 05-Feb, ClubLog is updated and I'm in their log for 40m -- Band #2 in the book! -- but the last QSO uploaded was hours before my 30m QSO, so the wait for that one continues.

That evening (06-Feb UTC) around 0230 I decide to give 20m a try. The band is mostly dead... except for FT5ZM on 14023 and a few stations calling him up the dial. I find the lower edge of the pile, wait until I hear "FT5ZM UP NA", drop my call once and right away hear "WW2PT TU 599". No way. I send my call again and get "WW2PT WW2PT 599". Send my report, get a "TU", and sit there for a few minutes in disbelief. I'm running 500w to essentially a dummy load of an antenna and I just worked FT5ZM on the first call. I think. Meanwhile, another ClubLog upload confirms (so to speak) my 30m QSO the night before. Band #3 in the book!

Next afternoon, ClubLog is updated again and I'm in the log for 20m. Four bands in four days. I do the happy dance. At least in my head because I'm at work and they already think I'm strange.

So now (08-Feb @ 1700) I sit on 15m, the last band my antenna can tune well enough to let me use the amp, barely hearing FT5ZM in the noise. I may be too late to work them on a fifth band, but I plan on sitting on 21023 kHz hoping for propagation to improve, allowing one last chance to work Amsterdam Island before they pack it in.

Friday, January 31, 2014

January 2014 Wrap-Up

DXCC -- Five new countries in January: S. Korea (DS5), Namibia (V5), Antarctica (DP1), Moldova (ER4), and Ogasawara (JD1). Of these, only DP1POL has QSL'd so far. I logged sixteen new ones on CW and a couple on SSB in January.
  • Mixed: 140 confirmed (176 worked)
  • CW: 89 (135) -- Marching along to CW DXCC, adding 16 new countries worked (total 135) worked and 16 confirmed (total 89) since the beginning of the month.
  • Phone: 101 (130) -- DXCC Phone reached! Just need to get some cards checked by the ARRL to make it official.
  • Digital: 58 (82) -- No change. Can barely bring myself to work digital these days. Will try to bring myself to work NAQP RTTY in February...
WAS -- Guess I'll start counting some single-band WAS numbers now, since I'm almost there on a couple of bands. Only counting LOTW for WAS.
  • CW: 42 confirmed (45 worked) -- Between NAQP CW and the W1AW/n Centennial special event stations I managed to add CO, MN, NE, NM, RI and SD. Still need GA, IA, KY, MI, ND, OH, WV and WY confirmed on LOTW,
  • Phone: 47 (49) -- Picked up AK, DE and VT in the NAQP contest. IA, MI and RI still needed on LOTW. (Delaware was my first ever (and to date only) 12m QSO, with W1AW/3 on phone. Quickly verified on LOTW allowing me to cross DE off my Triple Play list!)
  • 40m: 49 (50) -- I have all except RI confirmed on LOTW. I do have a card from RI, though, so if I can't find someone who uses LOTW I may cash it in for credit.
  • 20m: 48 (50) -- MS and OK still holding out on me. 
  • 15m: 37 (40) -- Thirteen to go (CO, DE, IA, KS, LA, MO, MS, MT, ND, NE, NM, RI and WY)
WPX -- Hadn't even though much about CQ's WPX award until now, but it turns out I'm closing in on the 400 confirmed prefixes I need for the basic Mixed award and nearly two-thirds of the way there for CW. Again, I'm only counting LOTW for WPX; I probably have a bunch more on paper.
  • Mixed: 355 confirmed (400 needed)
  • CW: 199 (300)
  • Phone: 144 (300)
  • Digital: 126 (300)

Sunday, January 19, 2014

NAQP SSB January 2014

I set a goal for myself to break 20,000 points and I just barely did it -- 20,503 points with 203 QSOs and 101 mults, working the full 10 hours allowed albeit with a ton of short breaks for snacks, smokes, cat herding, phone calls, and the like. The band breakdown went something like this:

  • 1800-1930: 15m (45 QSOs)
  • 1930-2000: 10m (3 QSOs)
  • 2000-2030: 15m (13 QSOs)
  • 2030-2100: OFF (30 min)
  • 2100-2215: 20m (38 QSOs)
  • 2215-2230: 40m (5 QSOs)
  • 2230-2300 15m  (11 QSOs)
  • 2300-0030: 20m (34 QSOs)
  • 0030-0100: 40m (11 QSOs)
  • 0100-0130: 20m (8 QSOs)
  • 0130-0200: OFF (30 min)
  • 0200-0315: 80m: (14 QSOs)
  • 0315-0400: 40m (14 QSOs)
  • 0400-0500: OFF (60 min)
  • 0500-0600: 80m (7 QSOs)

Electrical noise continues to plague me, and it seems like it gets worse on contest weekends, No joke, S9+20dB npose on 40m during the 0030 stint, though it lessened a bit later on. So I was only able to work the strongest signals on the band, and that was only when they could hear me!

Of the six states I need confirmed on LOTW for the Phone portion of Triple play, I only worked AK and VT. Not a trace of the others (DE, IA, MI, or RI). I search-and-pounced the whole ten hours, don't see much point of attempting a run until I get then noise and/or antenna troubles sorted out.

Your humble narrator and big-shot
contester wanabee with his latest
and greatest ham shack layout.
A major tactical error probably cost me a half dozen multipliers on 80m -- I took my last break between 0400 and 0500, and by the time I came back on for the final hour nearly all the stations I was monitoring and flagging in N1MM to work at 0500 were either QRT or lost to QSB. C6AEA who was pounding in here at 0445 was starting to fade out by 0500; he could almost hear me but gave up on me, and he was gone altogether a few minutes later. Same for a bunch of mid-west states that I could have used (for the contest Qs and mults as well as 80m WAS). Need to rethink my strategy next time -- or at least have a strategy to rethink!

The new shack layout (rig and amp off the shelf and down on the desk in front of the keyboard) made a huge difference in fatigue reduction, since my arm no longer has to be elevated for tuning. Everything is right at my fingertips now. Wish I had done this sooner.

Next up: ARRL International DX Contest (CW)  on February 15/16. Valentine's Day weekend. Great.

Thursday, January 16, 2014

K3 Noise Blanker Magic

So many things to love about the K3, but chief among them is the noise blanker. I have an almost constant S7 to S9 noise level (from the power transformer that is about 30 feet away from my antenna, I suspect) and the K3 takes it pretty much in stride.

This example was recorded earlier this morning (UTC; last night local time) listening to IS0HFE in Sardinia calling CQ on 40m. I worked him a few minutes later before I lost him to QSB. I honestly don't know that I'd have even heard him on most other radios I've used in the past -- certainly not the JST-245 which despite being my second favorite rig ever had a noise blanker that was practically useless.

In hindsight I wish I'd done a side-by-side comparison with the Flex 1500. I've had no luck finding a NB setting with the Flex that removes this level of noise without completely distorting the signal. I'll chalk it up to operator incompetence until I know for sure, but I'm pretty sure I've tried every imaginable setting in PowerSDR and it hasn't come close to the K3 yet.

The more pressing question is, how do I get rid of this noise? There are times it goes away all on its own (when it's raining a lot, it seems... unless that's just a coincidence). It was quiet a few weeks ago until (of course) NAQP CW weekend, and I had to deal with this for the entire contest. I've been meaning to head outside with a portable receiver and a loop antenna to see if I can't get a fix on the noise and confirm that it's the transformer but I've had other pressing matters of late. And if it is the transformer, how do I approach the utility company in order to get results?

But for now, I just push the NB button and the noise drops to a level at which I can at least hear some of the weaker signals, though the noise level remains S5-S6 at the best of times.

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

The Last Continent

Antarctica has eluded me for years. I'd see cluster spots for various Antarctic operations but never heard anything other than the pileups of stations calling and working them. Blame it on poor propagation or crappy antennas or both, it just never happened for me. Until last night.

I noticed a lot of spots by stateside ops for DP1POL at Neumayer Station on the web cluster while surfing the web (do people still say that?) in the living room around 0300. He was QRV on 40m CW where I've had a lot of success these past few months working and hearing southern South America in the evenings, so I thought it might be a good idea to check it out.

As soon as I clicked the spot on the shack PC, I heard him 57 to 59. Found where he was listening, tuned the K3's XIT up about 1.4 kHz, got him on my second call, and proceeded to do the happy dance (thank you, Felix!). Eight hours later I woke up to find his QSL in my LOTW account -- DXCC #122 in the books!

ClubLog's Geographic Propagation Wizard suggests I stumbled upon DP1POL at the best possible time:

Neumayer Station II is not quite due south from my QTH, about 155° beam heading (which means little to me as I have no beam). Just interesting that I heard little other DX on the band other than ZS1JX in South Africa after working DP1POL; WWV propagation report for 07-Jan-2014 at 0300 was SFI-204, A=4, K=1,  Minor w/S1 -> Minor w/S1 R1.