ON5ZO – OQ5M

SFI > 250 or bust!

I can’t believe it’s been almost five years already that I homebrewed a solution for my main K3, the one that drives the Big Amp (tube amp). Read about it here.

But recently I have been heavily using the second K3, the one that drives the sMALL aMP (Elecraft solid state). I think that outside of the contests 500W is enough and I like the no tune approach of the solid state amp technology. It really feels like using a 500W transceiver. And its fans make little noise compared to the jet engine sound levels of the OM-Power.

The project got built with leftovers and junkbox treasures (except the reed relay of course).

This second rig doesn’t have the second RX option installed but it has the AUX RX input. I recently made a 30m antenna that is too close to the RX loop so when using the receive antenna on the 10.1 MHz band, the rig starts rattling all over as soon as I key it. Problem is known, solution is known, it’s just a matter of building it. And so I did. After all, the parts have been collecting dust since late 2013.

I use the microHAM MK2R+ PAPTT output to actuate the reed relay when the rig is in TX. It then opens the RX path from the antenna and shorts the transceiver’s RX input to ground. Simple yet effective.

The resistor R actually is three 100Ω series resistors making 300 Ω. This is to make a voltage divider. The reed relay is energized with 5V so from 13.8V (the rig’s PSU) down to 13.8 V * (200 / 500) = 5.52V. With the little current this relay draws, I get away with it.

Long live Electronics 101 and Ohm’s Law.

The only thing left to do is change the jumpers inside the MK2R+ so that the PA PTT is keyed with solid state (transistor) and not with the electromechanical relay. This way there isn’t the clicking of the relay when it is engaged or disengaged. The noise kinda bothers me because in contesting there is a lot of RX-TX switchover action.

For years I have been looking for a way to have my cake and eat it too when it comes to antennas but there absolutely is no free lunch. So much for the culinary idioms. Having all bands from 7 MHz up to 50 MHz on one antenna first of all is a very expensive thing and second: it’s a dangerous solution as it boils down to a dynamic antenna with a lot of electronics and moving parts. Yikes!

I wrote about all that before and an update is long overdue. In the mean time I decided to put up a 30m GP to get on the air on my favorite band when the tower is down. It needed to be made of wire and a fiberglass pole.

I was about to cut three wires as it dawned on me: I could use my 30m dipole and add a third leg to function as a second radial. I took one stretch of copper wire and made it as long as the other two legs. The wire that is connected to the coax’ center conductor went up. The ‘cold’ wire got an extra length of copper. So I had a vertical wire with an elevated feed point and two radials sloping down almost 45° from horizontal. I hooked up the antenna analyzer and *drumroll* the SWR dip was right where it was supposed to be.

This is nowhere near a two or three element yagi more than half lambda up in the air. Because that is what I’m dreaming of but don’t dare to install. This however is a simple and cheap antenna that can be deployed or taken down in half a minute.

Initial test: JA, VK, PY, USA came back to my CQ in under half an hour. That’s all directions on the compass. So seems to work. Which I didn’t doubt. I’ve made and used many of these for various bands and they always work. But never like a yagi way up there…

PS in reality the antenna is not as skewed as the images suggest…

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A little history first.

2006: OT1A and I did out first field day under the moniker Belgian HF Devils. With no experience, this could only end well. After all, we had no reference and no experience.

2011: Finally everything fell in place for a second effort. A struggle with antennas (naivety). Hardware problems (stupidity). Everything straightened out before the start (ingenuity).

Something put together in a short time: the FD CW 2011 QSL card for ON5ZO/P

Something put together in a short time: the FD CW 2011 QSL card for ON5ZO/P

2014: Alone in my backyard. Now I had made a primitive mast support system with a winch. That worked great. I also bought a SGC-239 smart-tuner, took ladder line and one simple dipole as long as I could fit in the garden. Setting up in boiling heat. As a result of this tropical situation I got forced off the air in the evening by major thunderstorms with huge hail balls. I quit somewhere half way after a three hour mandatory break. Disappointed.

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The 2014 shack /P setup

2015: Back at and with OT1A. For antennas we took the easy way: dipole, ladder line, MFJ-998RT smart-tuner. Setting up was uneventful and faster than ever (done by lunchtime)  and we took our first victory home.

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This sort of thing can win Field Days in Belgium. It did in 2015…

2016: At home and alone, second time. I had reworked the mast support system to make it higher and stronger. This started to look more like it. I cursed while setting up in my garden: field-day stuff always getting stuck between the permanent stuff. Around midnight: thunderstorms and rain. I had to go QRT again and this broke my spirit. I gave up half way. I swore: never again alone and in my garden.

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Actually I don’t like tents all that much…

2017: Too much going on, not enough energy and no courage. No field-day this year.

2018: Maybe it’s time again?

The present – 2018

Preparations started in February with a simple e-mail. Yes OT1A was on board. I also invited K7GK/PA who was also glad to join us. And we also asked new kid on the block ON7GLF. Young people who know and like CW, we have to cherish them!

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Bike: ON5ZO – Joke: ON7GLF ☺

I had access to my neighbor’s recently acquired terrain in front of my house. He had it mowed two weeks before field day and given the relative drought and warmth of the recent weeks, the terrain was very accessible. I provided antenna stuff, tent and furniture while Koen OT1A provided smart-tuner, 200W rig to make max use of the power limit and a beefy UPS to keep everything powered. I would put my old classic generator in place as back-up but we would power the station with Koen’s modern inverter type alternator. Less acoustic noise, probably more stable under varying CW load and more fuel efficient. My dad recently bought a laptop and he gave me his old desktop PC. Old is relative: a potent I7 CPU with 6GB of RAM. I tried a few install procedures but this machine dates from the Win7 era and it doesn’t like Windows 10. In the end I made a clean Win7/64 install which runs just fine. It got N1MMLogger+ and the microHAM USB driver program installed to make use of OT1A’s microHAM USB interface. Antenna wise we agreed to use the winning 2015 dipole + smart-tuner combo, fed with open line. It lead us to victory then so why not now?

 

New rule this year: cluster access is allowed again. Reasoning: what can’t be enforced or verified on site, is allowed. True: with 4G access you can access online DX clusters and many people will be tempted. We decided not to invest time and resources in this as it’s not really an asset for field day and indeed some of the ops on our team have 4G access. I don’t.

This was the plan we had laid out.

Shopping for more junk

Leading up to June I bought two twelve meter high Spiderbeam poles to keep the dipole ends up. And some extra plastic screw-in ground anchors for more supports. And a forty meter stretch of 7 mm medium-loss coax. It’s light yet has quite low loss below 10 MHz. Some extra ground rods. And plastic poles used by normal people for temporary sheep fencing, but us ham nuts use it to keep RX loops and beverages above the ground. More on that later.

Side note

For the OT70 operation in May I asked if I could use Koen’s MFJ tuner to make up something ‘all bandish’ that accepts 500W. I cannot do WARC and 80/160 at the same time with my current antenna setup so I thought the smart-tuner would get me on 160+80+30+17 and even on 60m, where I have never been. To accomplish this I used the 2015 dipole fed with open line through the MFJ-998RT. This was exactly what worked then, and what we would use now for field day. Only: it didn’t work now. The tuner would not provide a match on any band. Strange: it was exactly this wire and feedline that worked at OT1A’s in 2015. I just took it from my field day storage crate. But now it did not work at all. At a given point I feared I had broken the ‘998RT. Koen told me he always uses this device with coax. So I hung up my 17m dipole fed with 20m of coax. The MFJ-998RT matched this from 10 MHz up to 28 MHz without a problem. So fed with coax, it worked. Must be something with the open line that this device doesn’t like. I can believe that and come to terms with it, except: why did it work for field day 2015 using exactly this setup?

I still believe in matched antennas so I made a ‘simple’ triband fan dipole Monday before field day. I spent a day outside in the boiling heat. I more or less got it resonant on all three bands. I mean SWR < 2:1. It wasn’t easy because this thing is too long to fit in my garden so I couldn’t get the legs apart properly. Final tuning would need to be done on the field day terrain.

Unfortunately this antenna really is a heavy beast. Three half waves (160+80+40m band) makes for 140 meter 2.5mm² cable. Add spreaders and center insulator. Attach the 40m thin coax I mentioned above. This is one heavy antenna. My tilt-over mast will handle this when it’s guyed. But the spider poles to keep the dipole legs up in the air would bend over hard by the sheer weight. So I decided not to deploy this one and stick to the proven concept with the smart-tuner and one dipole.

Friday: preparation day

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Two generations of Honda generators. Both did a fine job.

Field day rules say: setup no more than 24h in advance. After days of sunshine and drought, it rained the whole day until well after sunset. So I didn’t do much on Friday except put everything ready, load my trailer and make up a schedule in my head. I also drained the old fuel from the generator. It hasn’t been started since June 2016 so the fuel might be a bit fishy. I have a little pump with a reservoir to empty gas tanks and oil carters. About 2.5 liters of old fuel came out. I put in some new gas and the generator started after two or three yanks of the cord. Great!

Friday evening I still had some last minute jobs to do that I didn’t think of before. Like make a stand for the MFJ-998RT. I think it has a stupid design when it comes to mounting it and keeping the connections dry. You cannot simply hang it up, it needs to be with the plastic case up. It’s big and heavy. So I ad-hoc engineered a system to accomplish this. I also had to print up the signs to point possible visitors to the field day site. Mandatory by the rules!

 

Saturday: all systems go!

DSCF2297WX was supposed to be with us this time. No significant rain, no showers, no thunderstorms. Saturday started grey and cloudy and around 7.30 AM local time I hooked up the trailer and accompanied by my youngest son, I drove to the terrain. Which is just across the street but I have to make a tour because there is a corn field in between. It was bumpy where the farmer had ploughed a bit too far into the driving path but the terrain itself was no problem. I unloaded the mast support system and my field day crate and started assembling the mast and the tilting system. OT1A and ON7GLF were supposed to arrive around 10.30 so I had a few hours on my own with two little helping hands.

Putting up the tent was outsourced. The XYL does a great job. I’ve seen her do this twice (2014+2016) and no way I could ever pull this off like she does. I think it took her ten minutes this time. Must be an easy tent to set up then, right?  ☺

I drove the trailer to get a second batch of stuff: PC hardware and furniture. OT1A and ON7GLF arrived as I prepared a 2.5mm² extension cord. Most extension cords are only 1.5mm². Then we could finish assembling the mast and put it up. I designed it to be run as a one man show and I deployed it as such in 2014 and 2016 but it’s much easier when you have two or even three guys doing it. And so we did. Then we also drained the old fuel from Koen’s generator. This gas dates from 2015 when it was last used. We added new fuel and the generator kicked in immediately. No problems with the generators so far!

When we were about to raise the dipole’s ends on the Spider-poles, Denis K7GK arrived. It has been over ten years since I first and last saw him in person but the socializing had to be kept brief. Four hours before the start! We made up for that later on.

IMG_20180602_203808Driving in the ground anchors was actually hard. The ground was extremely hard. In my garden the anchors screw in like a hot knife through butter. Here I had three broken anchors in no time! I cheaped out and bought the plastic models. I only have three aluminum ones as they cost almost three times as much. But the aluminum anchors held up in places where the plastic version broke. I would have to dig out the broken halves that were stuck in the ground. Long story cut short: soon the dipole was in place. The poles weren’t really straight but the antenna’s ends were up almost 10m in the air. It’s an RF game, not a construction contest.

In the meantime the shack got installed. The microHAM device immediately worked on the clean Win7 machine and it worked with the N1MM software. Now hook up the smart-tuner and do on air testing. There it went wrong. The MFJ-998RT didn’t want to tune or find a match. Just like I experienced a few weeks ago in my garden. We tried a few things. Koen even opened it up. We found one loose screw for a ground connection but it was not the solution. Not to waste more time, I got my SGC-239 which worked right away. This one is rated 200 W and not 1500 W like the MFJ. But we were in business. Can’t remember what time it was though.

I have become a fan of RX antennas ever since I made my K9AY loops. With the QRN and noise on 80 and 160 in mind, I decided we needed to have this. OT1A bought stuff for Beverage on Ground (BoG) that needed testing and evaluating so this was the ideal time to do so. I rolled out a terminated length of wire and hooked up the BoG to my antenna switch. It was deaf. Completely deaf. It didn’t hear a thing. Did we do something wrong? Was the commercially bought transformer bogus? Does a BoG simply not work? No time to think about all this. I went to get my fiber glass pole and the RX stuff and put up my loop. This actually heard stuff and improved S/N.

It was now about 4.30 PM local time. CW Field day starts at 5 PM. I had been sweating and developed a nasty smell from all the work in the hot temperatures. OT1A briefly returned home to get something done. K7GK and ON7GLF went to get a snack and I decided to go home across the street to change clothes and take a shower. At 4.57 PM or so my phone rang. The OT1A generator had quit and didn’t want to start. |#$è%*§| More wet than dry I jumped in my clothes and shoes and went to the site. We swapped power plugs and started my generator. This worked. Gert-Jan ON7GLF and I fueled up my generator and K7GK made the first QSO at 1503z. So we lost three minutes. Could have been worse. I tried starting the stubborn generator again and it kicked in right away. I turned it off and yanked the starter again and once more it worked. But how long? I decided to keep my generator running for now.

We are running!

Denis K7GK manned the station but soon ran into problems with the antenna. My SGC smart-tuner was unstable on 7 MHz. The SWR jumped up and down. After a few QSY / retune cycles it would resume to work but this is not a desired situation for the coming 24 hours. When the tuner lost its match, the TX would fold back power because of high SWR, resulting in many question marks to repeat the serial number. This problem could be contained by cranking down the TX power from 200W to below 150 W. So be it. I have never had this problem as my rigs always have been 100W max. K7GK is probably right that this thing is not designed and rated for high duty cycle contesting for hours on end. The problem only occurred on 40 and not on 80 or 160. Again K7GK might be right that the dipole length is a problem on 7 MHz and that adding wire might make it easier on the tuner to find and keep a match.

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Wi-Fi bi-quad homebrewezd by ON5ZO. Double sided PCB and some copper wire means gain on 2.4 GHz.

Suddenly I had an idea to give us Wi-Fi after all. The PC has a PCI wireless interface with an external antenna. Ten years ago I made two bi-quad Wi-Fi antennas with an SMA jumper attached. I had troubles with the signal in the living room and wanted to boost the levels from the access point. What if I hooked up this antenna and put it outside the tent? I went to get the bi-quad and a SMA-to-N jumper. I held it up outside pointing at my access point 100m away while ON7GLF checked the Wi-Fi interface on the PC. Sure enough: SSID found, signal strength was two bars and the PC got connected. We took a cable tie and zipped it to one of the tent ropes. We had achieved clusterification! If the competitors use it, we might as well.

Then ON7GLF and I studied the BoG problem. Now this was useless so we decided to take another approach. We converted it to a plain beverage up in the air. This slightly improved the situation but still the loop was the better receiving antenna. Yay!

 

As darkness set we poured some more fuel into my generator and then OT1A and ON7GLF went home to sleep while K7GK and ON5ZO would pilot the station through the night. Actually it was Denis who ran relentlessly. I was listening along. K7GK is a true contester. Good ears, accurate logging, timely band changes. As the night progressed the score built, multipliers were worked and the temperature dropped. We tried to move a few Americans from 80 to 160 for the country multiplier but they each declined. ‘SRI’ or ‘QRN’ or whatever. Before I had predicted that our only hope for USA on 160 would be K3ZO. When Fred called us on 80, Denis proposed a QSY but even K3ZO thought it would not work.

Around 3AM local time, so after almost twelve hours of which Denis had been operating a solid ten hours, he indicated he wanted to take a nap. I had to take over and much to my surprise I rather would have been listening along while he operated. I just wasn’t in a QSO making mood. Go figure! But it’s only fair that I take over and let him get some sleep. So I started operating and got called by K1ZZ on 80. Finally someone who agreed to make the move! I started calling CQ on the agreed 160m QRG but no one answered. Sunrise was nothing on 160 and the band got empty. After a minute or so I resumed the 80m run. K1ZZ came back to tell me he hadn’t heard me: ‘NIL on 160’. Thanks for trying anyway Dave!

Soon after I saw some car lights turning into view. The fresh relief crew! And just in time: my generator got a few short hiccups and then died all along. It ran out of fuel after almost eight hours. We started the other generator and let that one power the station.

I made some more QSO, even worked a ZL4 on 40m but then it was my turn to be tired. OT1A and ON7GLF took over. I went home to make coffee and provide hot water for tea. After bringing it to my fellows in the tent I walked back home to take a nap. It was 6.30 AM or so and I got greeted by the neighbor who’s up early. I briefly explained why we were there and what was happening. Then she wished me goodnight (after sunrise!) as I told her I needed a nap after a long day and night. Two hours later I was between sleeping and waking up when a roaring sound got my attention. The farmer of the adjacent field came to spray his crops. Good that we didn’t run wires or ropes on his terrain. I got up, put on some fresh clothes and went over to the tent. That crop spraying thing sure smells nasty.

Sunday slow day

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Front: RX loop – – Back: tilt-over mast

You know from experience it’s about to come. Those boring six even seven hours that the whole thing slows down. Nearly a stand-still at times. Less than 20 QSO per hour. The best is behind us. K7GK was sleeping, OT1A was operating and ON7GLF, my youngest boy and I already took down the beverage antenna. A little later they rounded up their shift and I took over. ON7GLF had to return home and OT1A was the driver. Things were slow and boring. My neighbor ON4KV came along to say hello and we had a chat that I only had to interrupt now and then when someone answered my endless stream of CQ. Denis woke up, had some tea and something to eat and then he took over. He tried moving each and every caller to 80 and some even to 160. Sometimes with success. Sometimes ‘PSE QSY 160?’ yields ‘RR 5NN 002’.

Around 2.30 PM local time Denis had to head back home. Just when we were saying goodbye, another visitor arrived. ON4IT – long time no see but I was glad to have a chat with him. OT1A arrived for the final stretch. It was slow and boring and it was boiling hot in the tent. I decided to wear my sun hat and apply sunscreen rather than sitting in that hot tent. About 150 meter away another neighbor has a refrigerated trailer for rent. I was staring at the sign on the side: ‘rent me – refrigerated trailer’. Sweet coldness!

I started tearing down the RX loop. I gathered some smaller bits and pieces that I took home already. Then it was counting down the minutes until the end of the contest. It’s a relief when the clock strikes 1500 z.

I called for the XYL who took down the tent in a record tempo. Koen took everything from the operating position into his trunk. The teardown had begun. It was hot and the sun was out in full force. The spider poles could not be taken down. The thermal expansion from being exposed to the heat made the joints jam. This was a job for later when it cooled down. We took down the wires and guy ropes and lowered the mast. Then dismantle it into lengths of tubing again. And disassemble the tilt-over construction. I would need two round trips with the trailer to haul it back home but I decided to do that on my own so Koen could drive home.

Around 1630z I heard my dog bark – his ‘intruder alert bark’. I saw an unidentified vehicle on my driveway. The XYL opened the front door and I saw here pointing towards me. The car left and drove to the field day site. It was UBA official ON6HI who was darn late to come and check the setup! We had a chat and after half an hour or so Marc ON6HI left. I loaded up a first batch that I took home and retuned for the final. The sun was slowly losing force as it lowered towards the horizon. Another attempt to get the spider poles down was now successful.

I just threw everything into the garage and pushed the trailer through the gate into the garden. The plan was to put everything back where it belongs on Monday. A shower and sleep were the priority.

Biggest question left: how did the competition at ON6CK/P do?

Yes all good things must come to an end. So now the 49 OT70 stations are QRT. The operation was a big success. I had a blast and made 5500 QSO of which 150 are dupes. Apart from pretty crappy propagation I could have made more QSO if I didn’t have to compromise between WARC bands and low bands and if the weather wouldn’t have been serving thunderstorms for the last week.

It’s obvious that I would not have made a single QSO in May apart from the WPX contest (which was compromised – see link) if it weren’t for the UBA’s excellent idea and me being able to join the fun. I could call CQ all that I want with the same setup and from the same location but who would ever answer an omnipresent Belgian on any band? And who would hear my signals with such lousy conditions? I just wouldn’t bother. I can’t force myself anymore to do stuff that doesn’t yield a decent return. Not only in ham radio but in all aspects of my life. Time is too valuable, life is too short.

Not that I needed confirmation but this event with a special callsign that gets at least some response, is yet another proof that this is exactly the sort of thing that I’m looking for in the hobby: be QRV on HF, call CQ, work many stations and log many contacts. Preferably in CW. Enjoy the odd DX calling me on a seemingly dead band. Be surprised when a rare one makes it into the log.

Another lesson learned: the bands aren’t dead. In a coma perhaps, hibernating if you will. But not bead. The Reverse Beacon Network shows it. There is nothing heard between 21000 and 21450 (apart from the digital stuff that I can’t be bothered with). Yet the RBN picks up my call in VU, 9M, V5, ET, VK4, 3B8 etc. However no one answers. And then we think: “the band must be dead”.

Knowing all this, it’s only obvious that I like contesting so much…

Planned: serious SB40 effort. Executed: not much…

First problem: a meeting got scheduled on Saturday morning. I had to attend that and I needed to be sharp. This meant I could not spend the night from Friday to Saturday in the shack. Exit SB40. The meeting lasted until after lunch and I didn’t feel like listening to weak signals on the higher bands Saturday during daylight. So I prepared and sorted out some stuff for next week’s field day. Yes FD: it’s that time of the year.

I accepted an offer to visit a friend in the evening. By the time we got home it was about midnight, it was still hot and I left my cables unplugged. Unplugged because we had a few thunderstorms the previous days. This also killed the OT70 fun during the week. It helps that I made 5000 QSO in 20 days with the OT70-calls. The thirst for CW contacts was quenched. So I didn’t feel bad about not being part of the contest.

Sunday morning 4 AM local time. I wake up but sleep was victorious over contest. 6 AM: contesting wins. I get up, go to the garage to attach coaxes and control cables and I start running. The rate was good on 40. Even with the tower only up to 15m and the little 500 W amp. Even without a spot on the DX cluster! I’m high up in the band and the rate is +100. After a spot the rate jumps up but above 7060 is too high in the band for people who start tuning the band hopping spots from 7000 upwards.

Later on I find a clear spot around 7010 and being low in the band helps. Rate goes up again and the DX finds me. Stuff like HR, P4, VP5 and z3 Americans… After 0600z (8 AM local) the QRN builds and I check the lightning maps. Sure enough a few strikes about 30 km S-W of me. I decided to bring the QSO count up to 300 and call it a day. I closed down and went outside to unplug cables and wires again. I really hate that. Not so much the unplugging but the constant threat of thunderstorms. This time it was a brief shower with some roaring in the background. But the spirit got broken and I didn’t return to the shack. Apart from a short but intense shower around lunchtime, it remained calm and dry.

In the afternoon we went to attend an event in the kids’ school. I’d have dodged that for a serious contest effort but given the situation I just went along. It was boiling hot! The refreshment booth was selling like… Actually no one was in the mood for hot cakes. Around 6 PM local time we got home and had dinner on the terrace. Dark eerie clouds were roaring and we finished just in time for the rain and the mandatory lightning.

My plan was to do a few more casual hours for fun but I’m surrounded by thunderstorms so even without an actual threat here, the QRN will be strong… Around 01900z the immediate threat around my QTH seemed gone so I figured: why not? But the lightning map showed thunderstorms in a 50 km range and all over Europe. I just didn’t bother anymore. I made a little more than 300 contacts in just under three hours.

Today, Monday early morning I had an hour to spare. It was the same time I has working DX one day earlier. Only this time my CQ remained unanswered apart from some EU and a lonely but loud HK7, a weak VK and a ZL2 giving S5 on the meter. With propagation numbers (SFI and K) slightly better than the day before, the band was just empty on this weekday. Even on phone. Contesting indeed brings out the mass activity…

Next up: Fielday IARU Region 1. Lots of stuff to be done…

Updated 21/05 – see below.

Truth n°1: If it ain’t broken, don’t try to fix it.
Truth n°2: Don’t do silly stuff late in the evening.

I dared both truths last night a little after 10 PM. I was having decent success on the lower bands but for the last few days a nasty problem has developed. My 2.4 GHz wireless keyboard suddenly stops responding. It just plays dead for a couple of seconds.Very annoying when trying to make contacts. I still can’t type blind so I look at the keyboard while typing but when looking up, nothing is there. Or in CW you hit enter but it just doesn’t start sending CW. Lid factor increasing! I tried changing batteries but this didn’t help.

I was about to change bands and -don’t ask me why- out of the blue I got the idea to update the microHAM USB driver software, and the MK2R+ firmware. Was it broken? NO. Was it late in the evening? YES. Still I went along with the procedure that I had delayed for a few months now. Delayed because I know I should’n be fixing things late in the evening while they’re not even broken. I have performed this procedure numerous times since 2006 and everything went OK thisd time until I fired up the MK2R+ and N1MMLogger. I kept getting the message that the internal winkey chip didn’t respond and even worse: the PTT got stuck resulting in errors on the K3’s display. Oh no – not now! NOT NOW!!!

I could do a downgrade of the MK2R+ firmware as these files are stored on the local PC. But the microHAM website only shows the link for the latest version of the USB router. CRAP! Long shot: copy the HTTP link to the file and edit it to a lower number in the hope the older files were still stored in the folder of the microHAM web server. YES! Bingo! I now was about to downgrade both firmware and USB drivers in the hope the problem would go away.

Which of course it didn’t. How on earth could a winkey chip go dead like this? Like I said: I have done a dozen upgrades for this device. I had tried reloading the router software, did a few power off/on cycles but the problem persisted. So I sent a mail to the support address hoping they would come up with an answer and preferably a solution. Google only talked about RFI issues destroying the chip. But I have used this chip over twelve years with +1kW while I now had been running only 400-500W fot the last two weeks. I was starting to look for solutions to keep the station going without the SO2R controller. I’m not about to do SO2R soon and voice keying is not needed the coming months.

Before abandoning the shack I decided to remove the drivers from the Windows device manager had had it reinstalled, then power everything off, drain the capacitors of the power supply, shut off the PC and reboot and restart everything once again. And suddenly the error was gone, the PTT didn’t hang and I could send CW again. This last measure seemed to cure the problem and I could have some more fun on the bands.

I must admit I wasn’t really at ease when I started everything this morning but everything is still working. I wonder what the answer will be from Tech Support. I haven’t notified them yet that the problem solved itself…

UPDATE 21/05: as expected I got a reply from microHAM’s Jozef OM7ZZ. He and W4TV have always been helpful in the past. Not that I have needed much help because M/H stuff is top quality.

Anyway there was not much tech support could tell without some further questions. Jozef immediately reassured me: “If everything was working just minute before you upgraded, there shouldn’t be any hardware error”. Yet there was one and by uninstalling the drivers and letting Windows do the driver install again and a solid power off / on and PC reboot, the problem luckily went away by itself.

It did cause a spike in heartbeat for a solid forty minutes. That’s why I hate these upgrades. I haven’t upgraded my K3’s in a long time either.

The lure of the bands has gotten me into the shack lately more than Lorelei attracted ships on the Rhine. Actually it’s not the bands, it’s the special OT70 callsigns that generate at least some interest. Without these I would simply not be active when there is no contest going on. Band conditions (propagation) has been terrible. A simple Belgian would not get many replies to a CQ today.

And still. Sometimes a band can surprise me. After slowly working five very weak Europeans on 17m, you might conclude the band is dead and then there is this JA coming in 5 on the S-meter. Or yesterday: another pathetic attempt to work at least a handful of EU on 10 meters with the antenna pointing at 50° (between JA and UA). Suddenly TI8II calls in. Not loud but ‘armchair copy’. So there usually is some form of propagation. Sometimes…

The main problem is: PEOPLE JUST DON’T TUNE THE BANDS ANYMORE. That’s an antiquated thing of the past. If you’re not on the cluster, you’re not making contacts. Period. And so I have decided to abandon my disgust for self-spotting during this month’s Special Event Station marathon. I won’t be doing that in a contest, but this time I decided it’s the way to go if you want to make some contacts instead of anxiously waiting for a replying station that puts you on the cluster. Asking – nay: begging to be spotted is a bridge too far. Sometimes I have called CQ for a few minutes without answer. Yet the Reverse Beacon Network picks me up way outside EU. I put myself on the DX cluster and the fun starts right away. I have worked +100 stations in an hour a few times after such a spot. The train keeps rolling at a steady pace when someone spots you again so your call remains in the bandmaps.

SSB. Yes SSB. I have been doing that too. Not much – I limit myself to 100 contacts per phone session or so. It’s a problem on 40 and 80 because the EUs are so loud, so zero beat and so many idiots. You ask for a DL2, you get a YO4. You ask for UX7, you get a IW7. WHY OH WHY? They keep calling on top of each other, they start calling in the middle of a QSO in progress. If it’s this bad for a ubiquitous Belgian station of which there are almost 50 around during 31 days, I can only imagine what it would be like from a real rare DX location. No thanks! I can handle that mess in CW to a certain extent within my limited pile-up experience but I hate it on phone. This stupidity and selfishness makes me mad. Don’t they listen? Many don’t. Do they understand plain English guidelines? Some don’t. I suspect they only understand their callsign and not words like ‘please wait’ or ‘QRX’ or ‘NO Europe please only DX only DX’. Or ‘Foxtrot Four shut up’. I easily get carried away when some moron displays hillbilly behavior.

And finally a bold statement: contest operators are better operators. Snappy, to the point, calling slightly up to avoid the zero-beat mess, no confusing interjections, perfect timing. Just the way I like it baby!

This OT70 business really has been fun so far. I’m almost at 3500 contacts for the two callsigns I am allowed to activate. I hope it’ll last twelve more days. Now outside to put up an ad hoc 17m antenna. That band is heavily unexploited so far. Stay tuned – or should I say: stay clusterized?

This month (May 2018) Belgium’s IARU member society UBA celebrates its 70th birthday. To commemorate this, every local club is assigned an OT70 call. Such an event is of course tailor made for yours truly. Just get on and call CQ and rake up contacts. And that is what I have been doing for the last twelve days. Sweet. I made almost 2500 contacts, mostly CW spread over two calls: OT70NNV for my club (town of NiNoVe) and OT70UBA, as a member of the UBA HF commission (contest management with ON7SS).

It has been a blast, not only for myself but the total QSO count for the event is now well over 100k already. I must admit I had never thought this was possible. Usually Belgian radio amateurs aren’t really keen on such things. But there you go. Massive participation from all over the country. There are even a few clubs who seem to be active close to 24/7.

HF conditions have been poor to terrible. Not only because cycle 24 is dead but also the K-index was 5 or 6 on sever occasions. And yet some DX comes through. Like an isolated JA on 17m or so. On the other hand there have been days that the RBN picks up my CQ but no one comes back. True: it’s not really smart to spend much time on 28 MHz right now but sometimes there are loud stations that come through. Not antipodal DX but well into a 3000 km range.

I have limited myself to the small amp (500 W) and the tower is only up 2/3. That means I can’t deploy the 160/80 verticals. I had sought a solution for this but the initial plan failed. Plan B (C? D?) was a working compromise. More on this later on in a dedicated story.

In the mean time I hope to enjoy some more runs. Big fun!

I recently saw that the CQ WPX site now also shows the best 60 minutes QSO rate. Being a lover of trivia I headed down there and looked up the highest numbers for Belgium.

I was quite surprised to see OQ5M listed in eight out of twenty slots for CW. Only two times in the SSB charts but I never do the SSB part for real.

In the greater scheme of things this does not mean anything. To me it’s not as much a sign of achievement but rather the prove of me being an active CW contester. Not that anyone still needs proof of that…

Shocker: my last participation in the phone part of the WPX dates from 2014. Actually I didn’t plan to play WPX SSB this year either. For the obvious reasons. Do I need to repeat those? For the hard headed: it’s SSB. And propagation sucks. On the other hand: it is a contest! I have the time. The Tower of Power is up. And that elusive OQ5 prefix isn’t going to hand itself out. And so I settled for SB20 just for fun and no goals. Again: for obvious reasons. It has been many years since I did the five-out-of-six routine: ARRL CW, UBA CW, ARRL SSB, RDXC and WPX SSB: five contests in six weekends. This means that my contesting dip is dead and buried and furthermore there are no (thunder)storms so the tower and low band wires are deployed.

Saturday I started around 0830z. The band wasn’t really open so I did a lot of S&P. Later on I managed a run that netted 100 QSO in an hour. I was in and out of the shack and after lunch I had 250 QSO. The weather was just too nice and the band just too lame so the family made a long walk. I got back around 1600z and thanks to the American contesters I had a nice 119 hour. The band died early and I scraped the bottom to finish day one with 500 QSO. So in theory, with much optimism and naivety this could lead to 1000 QSO. Yeah right.

Sunday morning started slow and I can skip the rest of the contest for this write-up: it would remain slow. The logger tells me I was active over eight hours on Sunday alone for a measly 200 QSO. I have called CQ for minutes on end without a single answer. Eight hours – 200 QSO. Compare that to this. I am grinning as I do the comparison myself.

Max rates in CQ WW CW

Sunday afternoon I ended up in a nasty frequency fight with EN4U. He had a S9+40dB signal and was as wide as a barn door. He just landed upon me. I asked him to QSY which he did. 500 Hz or so. Since there was no other fun to be had I engaged in a dog fight. I ignored him but QSY’ed along with him. If he went 500 Hz up, I followed him. Agreed: I should have been the bigger man. Which I probably am anyway. But I wasn’t this time. During this atrocity I remembered something from my analog electronics classes twenty years ago. A dirty signal over-amplified becomes a very big and very dirty signal. I forgot the math behind it but the principle stuck.

Now I usually don’t do this stuff. But I had been frustrated earlier on by a few dirty signals ruining that little fun there was to be had. RW3XZ occupied 8 kHz. UF1F: what was that? Elbow room is one thing but this was the equivalent of stretched arms. And UA3KW wasn’t much better. As if someone was slowly pulling apart twenty meters of Velcro-strip. But ten kHz away.

Things became too slow. I went out in the garden to see how nature starts to wake up with the first rays of light and temperatures with two digits (and positive). There were bees coming out of my bee hotels. And an early butterfly. One thing lead to another and soon I was handling my spade like a pro and working in the garden. I have been looking forward to this for months! One hour and one obligatory shower later I was back in the shack.

The sun had set in the east so many were moving there splattery business to 40m. I had a short run into USA but the signals were weak and there wasn’t much to be done. Then strangely the band went ‘super long’. Nothing anymore from the east coast but a dozen W6 came booming in. Propagation then shifted to WA / OR with another loud batch of W7. Sweet. There were also some weak W7 in there which weren’t easy to get in the log. Then I worked a batch of loud PY. They have more special prefixes than anyone else! And to close the day some southern EU stations were loud and easily worked. Stations that had been unworkable during the day. Along with stations from the Caribbean and central America. PJ2T was probably the hardest to work ever. Usually they are loud and easily worked on all bands. Today they were S6 and I had to try a few times in the course of the last hour. Propagation: never the same and it can be surprising any given day.

I can’t say that this was much fun apart from the two modest high speed runs and the W6/7 opening at the end. Next one is WPX CW?

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