Saturday, February 28, 2015

West Mountain Radio TARGETuner

West Mountain Radio TARGETuner and RigRunner 4004U
Took my first visit to the Orlando HamCation on Saturday 14-Feb and got to check out a few things on my wish list. I also scratched a couple of things off the list: a memory controller for the Tarheel screwdriver, and a PowerPole distribution box for better management of my DC power cabling.

I'd been considering the MFJ controllers ever since I bought the Tarheel. Never pulled the trigger on one, though; my track record with MFJ products has been disappointing and another dice roll wasn't going to happen. The Tarheel's standard rocker switch and the MFJ SWR analyzer (one of their products that actually works well for me) was sufficient despite being a pain to switch from the K3 to the analyzer every time I wanted to QSY to a new band. So I dealt with it for the past six years, but I kept thinking I needed a little more automation in the process of changing bands.

I first heard about the West Mountain Radio TARGETuner a few months ago and it looked like a possibility, so it was one of the first things I sought out at Orlando. After seeing it demonstrated and having my questions asked, I bought one through one of WMR's dealers at the show, Ham World, for $235 -- a fair bit more than a comparable MFJ-1927 controller. The TARGETuner is a two-box deal: a compact controller box and a remote SWR sensor that samples the RF. The two units connect together via Cat 5 ethernet cable. The controller also includes a USB port for connecting to a radio's serial port to read frequency data directly and tune the antenna without transmitting.

Four methods of tuning the antenna are available:
  • Auto SWR Tuning -- Samples transmitted RF and adjusts the antenna for lowest SWR match.
  • Auto Memory -- Samples RF and tunes the antenna to the nearest frequency stored in memory.
  • Manual Memory -- Manually recall and pick a frequency in memory and the antenna is tuned to that frequency.
  • Manual Control -- Up and Down buttons raise or lower the antenna, just like in the old rocker switch days.
Hooking everything up is a fairly simple process. The initial settings require the fully extended and fully collapsed positions to be memorized to establish the range of the antenna. I then used the MFJ-259 SWR analyzer to tune the Tarheel on every band from 12m down to 80m, storing the settings into memories.

Setup complete, I began testing. The initial results were mixed. Returning to a stored memory setting would yield wildly different SWR measurements. It seems as though it loses its count, so I reduced both Auto and User Motor Speed settings to Medium-Slow; Motor Ramping was left on. It seemed to work better for a while but would eventually lose the turn count, requiring me to manually tune the antenna after every QSY.

The tuning weirdness continued for about a week as I recalibrated and tried different settings... and suddenly it just started working with all the motor speed settings to Slowest, and the Motor Ramping turned off; I also have the low and high frequency limits set to just below the 40m band rather and just above 15m. I figured the antenna is pretty much a dummy load on 80m, and when I want to work 12m (or 10m with the amp off and ATU on) I just bring the antenna down to Pos:0101 (as low a turn count as I can get) and get a good SWR match. I suspect the really long coil travel between 12m and 80m might be one of the things messing up the turn count. With the 40m-15m configuration it behaved admirably throughout the ARRL International DX CW contest weekend as I bounced around between bands, and a week later and it's still going strong, it is still accurate when returning to stored memory positions.

I've not tried the serial connection to the K3 yet but it is one of the supported transceivers. The instructions are not clear but it seems that the TARGETuner requires a connection to the serial port,. The shack PC is connected already to the K3's RS-232 port, so this is not an option. A support person I spoke with at WMR didn't think it could read band data from the ACC port. No big deal, selecting a memory manually is easy, and the Auto Memory tuning mode works well enough if I really need hands-off band switching -- just tap the key and wait until the controller signals the all clear. Ideally the controller would be able to connect to a second serial port on the PC and read the frequency from Ham Radio Deluxe, N1MM, or whatever logging program is controlling the rig. Maybe a firmware upgrade will address this. Meanwhile, it's working as advertised and making my life a little bit easier when chasing DX all over creation.

Thursday, February 26, 2015

K1N Interview for MDXC by W0GJ

The best comedy in ham radio can usually be found on the DX clusters during large (and small, for that matter) DXpeditions: the incessant whining and moaning from European ops who think they're being neglected. In an interview by the Mediterranean DX Club (h/t M0OXO) Glenn W0GJ was asked about this very thing, and he knocked it out of the ballpark:
Q: European stations complained a lot for the short time you applied during the best openings towards Europe. It has been your strategy or what?
This is a MOST interesting point of discussion!
If you look at our logs, we spent MORE time working Europe than working North America. Our ClubLog statistics however show that North America had 58% of the contacts, Europe 32% and Asia 6%.
WHY, then, if MORE time was spent working EU, was EU about half the number of NA contacts???
Simple answer: RATE.   Period.
When you listened to us working NA, we could cruise right along at 300-350 Q’s/hour.   When working EU, we would be extremely lucky to see rates of 125 Q’s/hour. EU signals are as strong, if not stronger than NA signals, in the Caribbean. The west coast U.S. is much harder to work than EU.
Here is a quote I received after I returned home.   It is from a well-known DXer in Europe:
“I listened to XXX working US pile-up on 80m. Fantastic, at least 10 QSO’s minute and when he turned to listen for Europe, the rate was only 10 % of that.   Same on the other bands and modes.”
The problem is THROUGHPUT.   Rate. Efficiency. Cooperation. Whatever you want to call it.
For the time we spent working Europe, we should have MORE contacts than with North America, but that did not happen.   I COULD have happened!
No one more than me would like to have seen the EU Q’s outnumber NA Q’s.   For the “next one” I have some helpful suggestions to help those in EU to be more successful.
Here is what I see are the issues: 
  1. Not listening to the DX operator
  2. LISTEN to and LEARN the rate and rhythm of the operator
  3. LISTEN to WHERE the operator is listening and his PATTERN of moving his VFO, know where he will listen next!
  4. Learn to use your radio (split/simplex, etc)
  5. Do NOT jump to and call on the frequency of the last station worked. The DX station will NOT hear you because the din is total unintelligible chaos.   Move UP or DOWN from that frequency, as we on our end were continuously tuning up or down after each Q, so if one jumps onto the last-worked frequency, we will not hear you, even if you were the only one there, as we have tuned off.
  6. TURN OFF ALL SPEECH PROCESSORS AND COMPRESSION! Do NOT overdrive ALC.   There is a night and day difference in listening to NA/AS and EU pileups.   The horrible distortion makes it impossible to copy many, if not most EU callsigns.   There were MANY loud stations that we did not work, simply because we could NOT understand their terribly distorted callsign.   Have you ever listened to yourself in a pileup?   We gave many stations a “19” signal report.   Very loud, but extremely unintelligible!   You want to have INTELLIGABILITY, not distortion!
  7. Give your callsign ONCE and ONLY ONCE!   DO NOT KEEP CALLING! We would tune on by those who did not stop calling.   We are looking for RATE and getting stations into the log.   You should be, too!!!
  8. If the DX station comes back with your callsign, DO NOT REPEAT YOUR CALLSIGN, AS WE ALREADY KNOW IT or we would not have answered you.   Many stations (in all modes) would repeat their callsign two, three and even four times!   We only want to hear “5NN” or “59” from you.   Anything else is a total waste of time and CHEATS others out of a chance to get into the log.   Only repeat your callsign if it needs correction, and then let us know it is a correction.   Anything else is cheating others out of a contact, as our propagation windows and time on the island are limited and we need to maximize the opportunity for everyone.   SPEED.
  9. Take some time to listen to the next DXpedition working NA and listen to the rate and rhythm of the operator.   It is fast, quick and efficient, and more people get into the log! Then listen to him work EU.   The wise operator will catch on quickly to what it takes to get into the log!
  10. SPREAD OUT!   Our highest rates (for any continent) were working the edges of the pileup where there was less QRM and weak stations were much easier to work than loud stations in the middle of the pileup.   If we say, “Listening 200 – 210,” 70% of the pileup sits exactly on 200 in an unintelligible din, 25% of the pileup sits on 210 and is almost as bad.   5% of the pileup will be spread out somewhere between 201 and 209, making them very quickly put into the log.   S P R E A D   O U T ! ! ! !
  11. LOUD is NOT better!   MORE AUDIO/COMPRESSION is NOT better!   Finding the spot to be HEARD is the MOST important thing you can do to get into the log. My biggest thrill (and I’m sure on both ends) is finding the lone weak station and getting him into the log quickly.
  12. LISTEN to the DX operator INSTRUCTIONS!   As we would constantly tune our VFO, if we find a clear spot, we would often say, “33” (meaning for YOU to transmit on 14033, 28433, etc) and a few would listen and get into the log very quickly.   You cannot hear these hints if you keep calling calling calling calling………   Many times I would say, “listening 200-210” and after a while would say, “listening 240-250”.   Often 30-45 minutes, even and HOUR later, I would find MANY still calling on the original “200-210”…..of course, they would never show up in our log, as I was not listening there.   LISTEN LISTEN LISTEN and LISTEN SOME MORE.   The less you transmit, the better chance you have of getting into the log.
  13. LISTEN
  14. If you don’t want to get into the DX log, just ignore the above suggestions.
This advice should be taken by all, not just EU ops.

Monday, February 23, 2015

2015 ARRL International DX Contest (CW)

Total DXCC: 96
New DXCC: 2
New Band Slots: 30
Category: SOAB-H Unlimited
A fairly productive DX weekend despite being out of the shack through most of it. Put in about 15 hours working 40/20/15/10m only. The great band conditions on all bands plus the low noise level here on Cedar Key made contest conditions the most enjoyable I've ever experienced. I beat last years score (156,600) by a wee bit despite having fewer QSOs -- 42 extra multipliers did that.

Ended up four short of DXCC, with two ATNOs (UA2F Kaliningrad and Z81X Southern Sudan), a big jump in 10m countries worked (from 71 to 94), and my year-to-date DXCC worked count (from 127 to 145). Fourteen different countries were worked on all four bands.

I thought Z81X was just a special contest call for a common country, only realized it was Southern Sudan just after the contest as I was importing the contest log into HRD for award tracking. N1MM had UA2F as European Russia. It wasn't until I uploaded to ClubLog and got email notification that I learned it was Kaliningrad. So two post-test surprises for me!

I tried to focus on 10m this time since that's where I need the new ones most. Unable to use the amp on 10, I did what I could with 100w to work 22 new ones. Another 2 new ones on 20m, and 6 on 15m for a total of 30 new band slots. Fingers crossed that a lot of them use LOTW. I've got 6 in so far as I write this in the wee hours of Monday morning, bringing my DXCC Challenge score on LOTW up to 580 and counting.

Most of the business was conducted with Europe and the Caribbean; surprisingly not a lot of strong JAs and VKs heard, but that might be because I slept through the Asia/Pacific openings on the higher bands. Or maybe it's just because conditions are that much different in Florida than they were in Texas.

QSOs by continent:
AF: 7
AN: 1
AS: 5
EU: 43
NA: 22
OC: 4
SA: 14
The TARGETuner worked quite well, setting the Tarheel on band changes with just a few button presses. Even at the slowest motor speed, jumping from 10m to 40m wasn't too long a wait. The turn count drifted eventually but not by that much, so I was was able to touch up the SWR as needed without much to do. Far better way of tuning the antenna than switching the analyzer in line.
Next big contest for me will likely be CQ WW WPX CW the last weekend in May, but possibly also the CQ-M DX CW on the second weekend. I'll try to work a few of the SKCC sprints with the KX1 in the interim. 

Friday, February 20, 2015

5T0JL Mauritania and the Art of CW

I happened upon Jean 5T0JL on 12m last Friday (13-Feb) and hung in through the QSB to get him in the log for #210 worked. A pleasant email exchange followed in which Jean told me to look for a couple of special 5T activations: 5T0ITU will be QRV on 25-Feb and 26-Feb, and 5T3MM during the third week of April.

Jean's QRZ page states his belief that CW QSOs should be more than "5NN" exchanges:
"As from this 7th december 2014 a confirmed QSO with 5T0JL will require a full exchange of names with a polite salute to enhance and complete a better human relationship among CW fans!!! ... if you want to pursue with a dry 599 by Law you will be in the Log but without a QSL, no need for you to send a card as it will remain unanswered! We all have the responsability to elevate our friendship and stop the machine intrusion into our life or quit CW and go digital!"
Harsh? Perhaps. But though I am barely qualified to call myself a CW newbie and 100% guilty of many quick hit-and-run QSOs made with the press of a couple of CW memory buttons, I embrace Jean's sentiment completely. Whenever I work someone, I always try to respond in kind -- a "WW2PT 5NN" gets a "TU 5NN" via the CW memory keyer. But if the op tells me his name, QTH, rig, blood type, and favorite childhood pet, I always do my best to send that info back. And why wouldn't I? I would do the same when operating phone or digital.

So Jean's comments got me thinking about this. Phone and digital communications can be easily taken for granted since using our voices and a keyboards to communicate with someone thousands of miles away is what most of us do all day at work and at home. CW, however, is fundamentally different, More than just another way for us to communicate information between ourselves, CW is our hobby's oldest and most enduring tradition. It's an art for which there is no comparison in the phone and digital realms, inside or outside of ham radio. Everybody talks. Everybody uses a computer. But Morse code is something that very few people use outside the ham shack. It was until recently a rite of passage for all radio amateurs. Even though it's no longer a condition for obtaining an amateur license, we are the last to carry the CW torch and are solely responsible for its survival. If it fades away, we are all guilty of letting it happen. For this reason we need groups like SKCC, CWops, and FISTS, as well as ops like 5T0JL, to be our evangelists and torch-bearers.

Chasing DX is a sport to those who do it, and the goal is simply to get into the other guy's log, and you surely don't want to have a little chit-chat with K1N about the weather on Navassa while a bloodthirsty barbarian horde is behind you waiting for their shot of working an ATNO, regardless of mode. So "5NN 73" it is. This is fine, both sides of the QSO are playing the same game and the rules are clear. It is also fine for any ham to wish to have his QSL earned by having a dialog rather than a dismissive and impersonal "Hi! Bye!" contact. If a QSL has to be earned by carrying on a basic exchange of civilities, then earn it. Or not. It's up to you. It shouldn't be easy all the time.

And trust me, it's not easy, not for me anyway. In fact I sometimes find it super-difficult to carry on a long CW QSO at speeds above 20-22 WPM where I'm most comfortable sending and receiving. Sometimes my brain clicks into gear and I can copy around 25 WPM fairly easily, while other times I can barely do 20 WPM without missing large chunks. For this reason I've tuned past a few stations who were carrying on short QSOs; I won't just send a "5NN 73" to someone who likes to chat while I'm out of the zone and not up to the task. Fortunately the more I do it the easier it gets -- I still do a little happy dance after a good CW QSO -- and it now feels completely natural for me to reach for the straight key any time I need to leave the "5NN 73" box and be a real CW op for a change.

Thursday, February 12, 2015

DXCC #209: TJ3SN Cameroon

Back in my SWL days, my favorite time of the year was fall. At that time of the year, as the days got shorter and sunsets came earlier the 60m tropical broadcast band would be hopping with West African stations from Gabon, Nigeria, Burkina Faso, Ghana, Senegal, Cameroon, and many others.

Sunset in New Jersey roughly coincided with midnight over there, and most of these broadcasters would sign off around their local midnight. I'm sure there were some low-band grey line propagation enhancements, too, although I didn't fully understand much about that at the time.

These days, whenever I work a station from Zone 35 my mind hearkens back to those times when I would rush home from school, fire up the DX-160, throw the headphones on, and slowly tune down from WWV at 5 MHz and tick off the stations I would hear regularly while keeping a careful ear out  for ones that weren't there yesterday (or the day before, or ever).  Soon after sunset, the beautiful African music would disappear and be replaced by equally beautiful Latin music from South and Central America.

I've logged and confirmed several of these West African countries on the amateur bands while some of them still elude me. One of the latter was Cameroon, until yesterday. TJ3SN was fairly strong on 10m at 2130 UTC and I was able to get him in the log at 2141. This morning I was greeted with a pleasant surprise: LOTW confirmation! Many thanks, Nicolas!

DXCC Mixed #209 / CW #197 / 10m #71

Monday, February 9, 2015

DXCC #208: S79AC Seychelles

Quiet bands of late but things are starting to pick up. Lots of EU stations, they seem to be getting louder each night. But early this UTC morning around 0020 it was a weak station that caught my ear: S79AC in the Seychelles, an ATNO for me. Op Eric was just above the noise on 10105.0 kHz working simplex with a small pile of callers. He came back to me as WA2PT but I lost him to QRM and he moved on before I could correct him and send an exchange. I kept trying, though, and eventually made the contact at 0044 UTC. By then his signal had come up a bit, though still only S3-S4 with the attenuator off. S79AC has been operating for the past few weeks and is scheduled to QRT tomorrow (10-Feb). Lucky to have found  him when I did!

ClubLog was uploaded quickly, too. Tnx Eric!

Sunday, February 8, 2015

K1N: 80m CW

Nice sigs into FL this morning at around 0615 UTC.

Friday, February 6, 2015

K1N: Navassa 2015

02-Feb: Game On
K1N went QRV and the expected bedlam ensued. Big Brother KB2YAN called me to gloat about working them on 40m CW; I told him I was going to wait a few days for things to calm down. 

But no... around 1130 or so local time (0430 UTC) I succumbed to the lure of an all-time new one and went down to the shack and found K1N on 7023 listening up. By "up" the barbarian horde took to mean from 7024 all the way up to, and probably past, 7050. I had no luck at all finding where John W2GD (who I believe was at the key for the initial 40m CW stint) was listening so I hopped around switching from XIT to RIT in hopes of hearing a "TU 599" from someone. No luck with that. Cluster spots were announcing QSX frequencies all over the place. 

Finally after about 20 minutes of calling blind I found a cluster of callers around 7030, tuned a bit past the lower edge and sat there for a few calls. At 0459, just one minute before local midnight, K1N sent the magic call: "WW2PT 599". I dropped my call again twice just to make sure, and John came back "WW2PT WW2PT 599". The Happy Dance  commenced, DXCC #207 worked and in the log! My QSX was up 6.4 on 7029.4.

So the pressure of working an ATNO is over. Now for 30-10m.

03-Feb: 30m Done!
Almost the same as last night: came into shack around 11:20pm (0420 UTC), checked 30m and found K1N fairly strong on 10109.5 kHz. After some 20 minutes of searching I put them in the log at 0441 UTC, QSX 10126.2 (up 16.7).

04-Feb: 20m, 17m, and First Upload to ClubLog
Put 20m in the log on the first call at 1211 UTC, wkg 14023.0 (QSX 14027.4, up 4.4). This happened with FT5ZM on 20m -- dropped my call once and got an instant reply. Maybe 20m is my lucky band.

Not quite so lucky on 17m. Took three separate shots at it during the day, each no more than 30 minutes long. Very frustrating. Then a fourth shot after returning from a run into town and got 'em after only a dozen or so calls. Four bands down.

QSOs through 03-Feb, 1631 UTC have been uploaded to ClubLog; no LOTW yet.

05-Feb: Second K1N Upload to ClubLog is in!

WHOOP! There it is!!!

06-Feb: VOACAP Predictions for K1N
I know I've used the VOACAP Online site before but I forgot how excellent it is. According to the results my best shot at working K1N on 10m and 12m all be late afternoon/early evening; 15m should be workable anytime during the day from 1400-2300 UTC.

I decided to give 80m a try around 0715 and found K1N on 3523 kHz. I spotted his QSX frequency about 4 kHz up and guessed moving down. He was. The next call was a bit lower, and the one after than. I parked 3 up on 3526 and sent my call about a half dozen times until I got a "WW2?" A few more calls and got the rest. Band #5 in the log.

At 1945 I broke down and dug out the hand mic to get 'em on 15m for Band #6. The CW Gods may frown upon me but hey,  ya gotta do what ya gotta do. Very easy contact, just two calls. K1N was on 21206.5 listening on 21350.0 with practically no bedlam.