Isn’t it strange that things you plan and think over months in advance can take a total different direction when it’s time to execute these plans? There are two things you can’t take into account: Murphy and the weather…

Months of planning make for a lot of typing and reading…

Normally I can’t do Region 1 CW Field day because of a yearly returning event at work. Once every so many years it falls on a different weekend. Usually it’s the WPX CW weekend so that’s even worse. When I learned that I was able to do CW FD this year, I immediately contacted OT1A to see if he wanted to try it again. We came in second in 2006 and 2011. It’s not a contest, but it is a contest. Unfortunately he had a family event this weekend. I had always wanted to carry out an experiment, being a ‘one man field day’ so now was the time to do it. Just to see what can be done as one man alone. So over the past months, my plans were hatching.

Location?

Not too far from home. Preferably at home. With the expansion of the garden last year, this was possible. Room enough if you adjust the setup to the available space. Since I would be using many improvised and ‘prototypish’ things, at home would be the best since all my parts and tools are only a few footsteps away.

Shelter?

We don’t really own a tent. I’m not a tent guy. I’m not a camper. I’d pay big bucks for a clean toilet. And a clean shower. And my own comfortable bed!

I thought some things over. Easiest would be to use the garage. Which in my case is a metal sheet construction apart from the house. But the rules don’t allow that. What about operating outdoors on the terrace, out in the open? That would be my preferred way to tackle this item. I’m not afraid of having cold. Just add some layers of clothing. But what with rain? See my intro: you can’t predict the weather. Not longer than one or two days ahead at least.

I talked this over with the XYL. She’s an adventurous outdoor type. Opposites attract right? She wanted to buy a tent. Her idea: the kids will love it and we can use it to go camping. Oh boy; please honey: remember my toilet-shower-bed fetish? I found a tent for a mere 100 euro that fits four persons and that’s high enough for me to stand up straight in. My loving wife was so kind to set it up for me yesterday morning. Thank you dear. The process went pretty smooth and I think this tent is all we need. In fact for field day purposes, it’s perfect. I just wonder how on earth we’re going to fit all parts back into the carrying bag. It now only has the ground cloth (not used) and the empty bag that stores the pegs, and it’s full already! I guess this job will need a pair of patient female hands to straighten and fold the tent.

Generator?

I don’t own a generator but I have one on permanent loan. I offered to store the generator. It’s still property of my wife’s family but it has been here for a few years now. I provided a basic maintenance for our 2011 field day but it hadn’t been serviced since forever. At OT1A’s place after running for twenty hours straight, there was oil spilling from the air filter. That can’t be good. So after that I decided to have it serviced by a professional maintenance tech. There was a slight glitch however.

Since I don’t own the generator, sometimes people come to use it. Last year someone came to pick it up because my wife’s uncle had offered him to use this generator. I told him about the air filter / oil problem and that it wasn’t a good idea to use the generator before this got fixed. This guy told me he knew someone who knows how to work on these things and he said he’d arrange for some maintenance. So I thought I could delete this from the to do list. In February this year, when my field day plans ripened, I rang the alarm: the generator didn’t make it back yet after almost a full year. It took a few phone calls and a few strings had to be pulled but in the end the generator came back. The guy said he didn’t use it in the end because he got to use a bigger one so he didn’t get it taken care of. Behold: yet another item on the to do list pops up!

I took the machine to the service shop a good month ago. I explained the problem and asked to call me before buying expensive parts. After all, it isn’t my machine and I’m not going to pay hundreds of euro for an old machine. With nothing heard after a few weeks, I called them. After all, no use continuing the preparations when I wasn’t going to have the generator available. I was told that the special air filter was put in back order by their supplier, but the machine would be ready early last week. That is, a few days before field day weekend. They’d call me to pick it up when it was done.

Again I didn’t hear a thing so last Thursday I paid them a visit after work. Apparently it got fixed a few days earlier but they didn’t bother to call me. They changed the spark plug, cleaned the carburetor, put in new oil and a new air filter. The bill was almost a bargain with more than half of the invoice being labour.

So the generator issue got solved. In fact, and this might seem strange, it would have been very comfortable for me if it hadn’t been ready. That way I could bail out of field day without having to make the decision myself. Why? Read on!

Mast?

Another hot issue. Are there any other when it comes to field day? I’m not too keen on fiber glass thingies. I’ve used my share of those over the past decade but they’re so brittle and collapse easily. And don’t quite support other things than verticals. In 2001 a coworker of mine made three aluminum push-up masts and I took one over. It’s made of seven telescopic tubes with a ten centimeter long slit cut in the top. We put a collar there that is to be tightened when you have pushed the smaller section up. The total useful height is about twelve meter. This has worked for me in the past but there are a few hurdles to overcome. First of all, you need a small ladder or a scaffold to stand on as the biggest section at the bottom is two meters high. Then, as you move along and push up section after section, things get heavy to hold in one hand while tightening the bolt with the other hand. And of course if you leave this thing unguyed, it bounces in the wind. And sometimes it collapses under weight when the collars aren’t tight enough. It has served me very well yet I was glad to retire it a few years ago.

We used this system as described in 2006 as OT1A/P in the CW field day. In 2011 the mast collapsed under its own weight while pushing it up. We tried assembling it horizontally while it was on the ground. My plan was to walk it up. Both dipoles (80/160 and 40 with coaxes) were attached but it turned out to be too heavy to get it straight. This resulted in the top bending back to the ground as I walked it up, forming a giant arc above and behind me. Furthermore the base would always moving around. In the end we settled for the proven system and relied on some luck: the ladder and brute force method.

This however got me thinking: wouldn’t it be nice if I could make a heavy base to keep the bottom pipe in place and have it pivot as I walk it up? The top load could be replaced by a pulley and get things up once this mast is vertical. That way it wouldn’t bend over backwards. I bought a 10 mm thick plate measuring 40×40 centimeter. Last summer I drilled some holes, bolted on some 90° angle iron and put a bolt through those as well as through the bottom section tube. One summer evening I secured this plate, walked the darn thing up and realized this is not quite what it should be. This won’t work when the top section is actually loaded with an antenna. The plan was to put up a 6m yagi there and have it up when I’m home and when there should be things to work on 6m. “So you have a 6m yagi” you ask? Yes it has been on the garage roof since that same evening, assembled but it has yet to make it’s maiden QSO. As with many of my bold plans and ambitious projects, the work is stopped and the parts were stored ‘for future use’.

Mast tilt over system

The test with the heavy base plate and the pivoting are the fundamentals of something that I have been thinking about for a long time. That is: make me a simple mobile and portable setup that fits on my small trailer and that can be deployed by one man, yours truly. It’s with this in mind that I decided to learn to weld. However putting together two pieces of metal is one thing, but making a rock solid construction is another. I wouldn’t want the pivot block welds to break while the mast is half way up. Somewhere in December I went to buy metal to make myself a welding table.

I also salvaged some leftovers from the scrap container including a two meter stretch of wide U-shaped channel. This was ideal to weld to the base plate I already had. I practiced and practiced my inside corner welds but with field day approaching, it was time to actually make it happen.

In short, it’s a U-shaped channel iron welded on a base plate. I used some gusset plates to make it more stable. I bolted a small hand winch to the straight channel and welded some blocks on the base plate to put the pivot bolt through. On top of the U channel there is an assembly that has a wheel to guide the cable. I already wrote one year ago: “Ertalon wheel with groove to guide stainless steel cable. For use in telescopic and tilt-over installations.” There you go. The bottom plate has some angles bolted to it too. Not welded to keep the /P factor high so that it fits on the trailer lying down. These angles widen the base for extra stability. I drilled a 14.25 mm hole through the outer corners facing ground. Through this I hammer a 14 mm thick rod into the ground, in a slight angle. Hence the 0.25 extra space. I learned that rod doesn’t always have an 100% round and exact diameter. When these rods are in place through the four corners, it’s pretty solid. I could also replace the four bars into the ground by four heavy concrete blocks on the ground. If it needs to come on concrete in stead of in the grass. I still have these blocks from the old ground mounted support I used in the past. Another salvage action. But at 50 kg each they’re pretty heavy.

In short: this thing works great in my one man show. I won’t win any prizes with it in a welding contest. There clearly is a learning process to be seen in this prototype welding project. The second part of a symmetrical left-right assembly always looks better. Live and learn.

However it is very stable and strong and probably overkill for the current application. Mission accomplished: the mast can be raised by one man, without any effort or risk, even with the light loading of a dipole and some guy wires. And it disassembles into smaller parts that fit on my small trailer. There is the future option of putting another section between the U-channel and the cable guide assembly. That way I can attach the cable and ‘grab’ the mast higher up from the base, should there ever be the need for a longer or heavier loaded mast to be erected.

Of course, if I could do it again, it would turn out better looking. But I’m quite proud that I pulled this one off all by myself. The welding and even the lathe machined wheel.

Keep in mind that I had a higher education in RF electronics and before that in languages and economy / bookkeeping in secondary school. I always knew that welding is the key to nice homebrewed stuff but this is the proof of my thesis. Once again my mitre saw (SJ2W tip) proved to be key to nice angled cutting of all iron parts up to 5 mm thickness. Amazing how that blade cuts through metal. I also retired my dad’s drill press and bought me a professional model that has no problem with 10mm diameter or more through 10mm flat stock or more.

I also welded some heavy duty rings on some leftover T-irons I recycled from the old fencing. I can jam these into the ground and hook up the guy wires with a carabiner through this ring. That solves the guying issue. I used ratchet rope spanners so tighten and loosen the guy ropes easily. And to say I bought a pack of small tent pegs to achieve this in 2011. Even a gentle breeze pulled these out of the ground. What was I thinking? Anyway the guying system passed the test in a real live gusty situation. Yes the WX plays a role in this one too. Read along!

Antennas?

In 2006 we used a 40m dipole and some random length dipole for 80/160 fed with homebrew ladder line and a SGC SG-230 antenna coupler. This worked great but by 2011 I had sold the coupler and we settled for resonant dipoles. One for 40 and a parallel dipole for 80/160 with loading coils in the 160m antenna. This worked but you need more room for this than I have available. To stick to my ‘keep it simple’ philosophy, I decided to use the ladder line with dipole option. For that I needed to buy… another antenna coupler. I have this thing with tuners – enough stuff for a future story. Furthermore I learned that this is what G3TXF/ G3WVG use for their field day setup (link & link). Since my savings account costs me more than what the bank pays in interest, I bought a new tuner. Or ‘automatic antenna coupler’ to be precise. I put it in an old plastic enclosure that I bought years ago who knows for what abandoned project. I covered up the holes with aluminum blind panels.

I measured the longest stretch I could span within the garden limits and oriented N-S for maximum E/W coverage. Most FD contacts are G (G, GW, GM, GI…) and DL on the other side. That length turns out to be about 24m for each leg. For quick feedpoint assembly, cut of a piece of decommissioned kitchen cutting board. I didn’t put that hot frying pan on top of that board on purpose. But I knew I had to keep it in my huge stock of parts after replacing it. The pancakes were delicious that day, and the molten plastic came right off of the bottom of the pan once it got solidified after cooling. But the cutting board was wasted.

By now I got the antenna covered, I got the mast covered, and both could be raised and lowered without any hassle nor much muscle. Much to the amusement of my oldest son who strongly believes that it should be down on the grass and not up in the air. We agreed to disagree on that one.

That dreaded weather!

Of course my ham radio plans are dominated by the weather. More so than ever for the last eight months. Numerous contests had to be cancelled due to storm, lighting or both at the same time. Global climate change? It never happened this frequently in my thirteen years in contesting. So I kept my eye on the forecasts. Two weeks ago they predicted rain for this weekend. Two weeks is way too long for a predictable forecast. I know that. Then it was sunny weather, no wind, no rain, not too hot. Nice. Then the predicted temperatures rose. Then it was 30° C or more. Hold your horses please! Then rain to boot. As the FD weekend came closer, it was tropically hot which of course inevitably results in severe thunderstorms.

Three days before Saturday, it was clear that is was going to be very hot on Saturday resulting in severe thunderstorms, with another round of thunder and lightning on Sunday. Mostly western Belgium on Saturday. And eastern Belgium on Sunday. I consider myself in central Belgium. Which is relative in a country that measures only 250 km across.

Now what? Cancel my operations or take my chances? I have spent hours and hours over the last weeks getting ready. We even bought a tent for this! Remember I would have found it convenient if the generator wasn’t ready for FD? This is why: I then could blame the repair shop for my cancellation and I would not have to decide myself. But no, it was ready to use.

I decided to participate after all and rely on the thunderstorms passing a few miles to the left or the right. Should they occur. But reliable forecasts warned for severe weather all weekend long. Possibly on Friday too. So I made an emergency procedure in my head that I drilled over and over again should a sudden T-storm pop up.

  1. Turn off rig
  2. unscrew coax
  3. close laptop
  4. run to generator and stop it
  5. run deeper into the garden and loosen back dipole leg and guy wire
  6. run back to the centre of the garden and lower mast
  7. take shelter, curse, and cross fingers

I was going to put a big plastic crate with cover next to the table in the tent. Should the wind during the thunderstorm blow hard with the risk of the tent getting blown away, I could put the K3 and the laptop and the power supply quickly in that box and seal it.

Field Day Weekend is here!

Finally something about the actual field day activities  :o)

On Friday it was time to put the pieces of the puzzle together. In the afternoon I still had some engineering and constructing to do. I found another piece of small aluminum tubing that I could use to gain about two meters in height. I attached the cutting board assembly there and provided a set of holes to run the wires of the dipole and the ladder line through. These holes are used to weave the wires through and act as strain relief. As the wire tensions it braces itself against the piece of plastic. The drill press once again got a workout. It sure is handy to drill straight through a pipe! In the late afternoon everything was ready and I had assembled all the parts. The sun was shining and it was warm but not too hot.

The rules say that you can’t assemble the station before 1500 utc but with all the fiddling I had done to finish the construction, it was even later. So I set everything up that had to do with the antennas. No generator yet and no tent. When I pulled up the northern dipole leg, it touched one of the yagi elements on the tower. I went into the shack to turn the yagi for more clearance but the wire was still too high and got jammed into the yagi element. Turn antenna back again, run outside, loosen leg, run upstairs to move the yagi. Got interrupted by a crying youngest who can’t sleep because he needs a new diaper. Can’t you drop the load before we put you to sleep? And where is that wife when you need one? Quickly handle that situation before he wakes up the oldest. Then he asks for another bottle! I’ve got a FD to prepare kiddo! While he takes his time to drink the bottle, I start bringing smaller parts from the shack to the living room. After all I need to test some CW and CAT stuff. My stone age version of WinKey (vintage 2002?), two USB-to-Serial devices, one K3, a dummy load… The plan is to test that this evening after sunset (which is almost now). I put the youngest back in bed and hope the empty diaper – full stomach combination will send him off to dreamland soon. The XYL gets home and I hand over the parental control to her.

I run or rather stroll outside to finish the antenna business, feed the tuner from the 230V grid and connect it straight to the rig in the shack bypassing all switching that has been disconnected because of the continuous lightning alert as of lately. The antenna and tuner work on the three lowest bands (40-80-160). Hooray.

By now my body odor attracts flies so a shower is appropriate. After that I decide to test the setup consisting of K3 + winkey + Vista + N1MMLoggerPlus interconnected on RS-232 level by USB devices. Plenty of unknowns in this equation! There was a bug in the FD code and a small problem with WinKey but a quick N1MM signature fix made it all work. Time to go to bed. Plenty of work to do on Saturday. Forecasts don’t look to good on the lighting front.

Saturday morning. Watch WX forecast. Problems predicted mainly out west late afternoon / early evening. Possibly here too at night. Oh well. I still need to do a ton of things. To start I take all my jerry cans and go fill them with fuel for the generator, good for 25 liters. That should be OK because I just filled the generator’s tank to the brim. That’s about 5 liters. Then it’s time to take out the generator itself. Afterwards I assisted the XYL who was so kind to set up the tent. She’s done that before, that’s clear. Unlike the tent n00b that I am. Once this is done I can route power and coax cables into the tent. Install the table. Look for a comfortable garden chair. Honey, can you dig out the pillow that fits this chair? Thank you dear. It’s getting hot outside!

Once I hauled everything from inside to the tent and connected it, I discovered that it is very hot in the tent, and that I can’t see a darn thing on the screen as the sunlight is too bright. I come up with the idea of putting the laptop in a carton box with the open side facing me. I can use the flaps to ban the light from the screen. That works great but the laptop needs to go deeper for more darkening. To achieve this, I need to cut away some of the carton so the box slides over the protruding USB connectors. While doing all this there is a steady stream of sweat dripping off my face. It’s hot outside but this tent is a real sauna!

I mark where to cut the box to let the USB plugs pass. Up to now, my field day experience has been a success. Let’s cut. Make sure you don’t hit the cable. Uh oh, what’s this then? A USB cable with no connector attached. #§@%#$!!! Did I really cut the USB keyboard cable in half? Oh yes I did. #§@%#$!!! Now what? Use the laptop keyboard itself. Impossible when it sits in a box. I run upstairs but my stock of keyboards only has old PS/2 models. Only one thing to do: rush to the nearest computer store and buy a USB keyboard. Where is the nearest computer store anyway? I always buy online… It’s 1500 local time and there are two hours to go before the start. I decide I can’t go into the outside world without a shower first. Then I hope my memory serves me right. There is a computer store two villages away from here. But is this guy (still) open now? And will he have a USB keyboard? And a simple cheap model, not a fancy expensive one. Problem: beggars can’t be choosers. Note to self: next time operate from the airco cooled car! There it is. There are people inside so it must be open. Do you have a simple USB keyboard? The store owner looks around but he nor I spot wired external keyboards. Why not a wireless model, he asks. RFI and horror stories come to mind but I just emphasize I like wired stuff. No, no USB keyboards on the shelves. DRAT. Then he says he’ll take a look in the back. He disappears and I keep looking at my watch and thinking where to try next. Then he comes back with a USB keyboard. Success! Is it AZERTY? ‘Let me see’, he says ‘the picture on the box shows QWERTY’. QWERTY does not help me. I’m conditioned to AZERTY and I can’t type blind. Lucky me: it’s USB and it’s AZERTY. He scans the barcode to give me a price quote. Drum roll! Fourteen euro. I’m sure I can find way cheaper especially online but now is not the time to do so. I swipe my card and off I go.

The keyboard works and the box over the laptop helps a lot. Rejoice! There were still a lot of details to fix and by the time the actual FD began, I started the generator and started logging. Things were very slow, even for a field day. I was soaking wet, must have been 40° or so in the tent. Soon my headphone’s ear pads were wet too. Many CQs were broadcast, few contacts were logged. Around 1630 utc I got a surprise visit. Mobile UBA official ON6HI paid me a visit. I was one stop on his FD visit tour. Since I was operating alone I wasn’t a great host but in between contacts we managed to do some talking. After he left, things went on slowly and it was still very hot.

I had it coming. Around 1800 utc I thought I heard thunder. Or was it the generator? Or my imagination? Nope, there it is again. Thunder. I left the tent and looked up. The sky was changing its look and some thunder was heard. Better safe than sorry. Switch off the rig and the generator. Unplug coaxes. Threatening clouds were coming in. Now lightning too. And it started raining, a light drizzle. Then more rain and then dry again. Time is ticking! More thunder and lighting. A shower! Dry again. Dark clouds moving fast below slow moving white clouds. Weird. Then a tick. More ticks. Hail! We got lucky, not much hail and not too big. Then another shower this time with wind gusts. Let’s hope the tent is waterproof and it can stand this wind. I didn’t execute the electronics-in-sealed-box emergency plan. It didn’t look that bad at first. But things can turn around pretty fast in this extreme weather. The mast didn’t move in the gusts so the guying is OK. Granted, it wasn’t tornado material but still.

Then the thunderstorm moved over just like it had come. While the last thunderclaps faded I went inside to check my WX forecast and radar websites. Wow, the west of Belgium got hit by a ‘ginormous’ hail storm with hail like golf balls. About the same region as the January 25 storm during the UBA SSB contest. And apparently there was some other brutal hail storm to the east of me too.

By this time the weather had returned to calm and I resumed my operation. The good thing was that it was cooler now. But still warm enough in the tent. And still not much rate. After three hours the counter showed 126… After the thunderstorm things remained slow. Positive note: it was getting cool! The storm blew the heat away. Even inside the tent the temperature got bearable. In anticipation of a chilly night I went inside to trade T-shirt and shorts for long trousers and a sweater. A quick glimpse on the WX sites: oh my, horror stories about destructive thunderstorms all over the place. Hail as big as golf balls everywhere. And more rubbish announced…

Around 2300 utc I started seeing the occasional flash. Since it was pretty low on the horizon and right above the roof of the house I figured at first it was fireworks held in the same village I went to buy the keyboard earlier. After all this weekend was their yearly fair. After another few flashes it dawned on me. That village is not there, it’s more to the west. I went outside and looked up to the sky. I did not like what the moonlight showed me. Huge cauliflower shaped clouds lit by lightning. Not again? Time to evaluate.

  • Am I having fun? Not by far. There is no rate whatsoever: 289 QSO in 7 hours of operating. That’s an average of 40/hr during prime time.
  • I’m tired and am fighting to stay awake with two to three minutes of unanswered CQing.
  • The sound of the generator is driving me crazy but it is the best place to minimize engine noise for the neighbors.
  • Normally there is someone to talk to during a field day. That makes the slow rate bearable. Now I only feed the frustration myself.
  • I’m a bit worried about the continuous threat for thunderstorms. Suppose I need to shut down yet another couple of times? What’s the fun in that, let alone the danger?
  • The thought of having to spend a whole Sunday in this warm tent, with the risk of yet another round of thunderstorms and possibly hardly any contacts? Not tempting.
  • Let’s face it: with any other contest like this run from the shack, I’d just flip the switch and go to bed.

And that’s what I did: switched off the generator. Then I brought all electronics inside the house. Lower mast and put it on the lawn. Put rain cover over generator. Then go to bed. My boys will be glad to have a normal father’s day with daddy present at the breakfast table and not doing something silly in a tent outside.

In retrospect…

I’m not prone to regretting decisions. I evaluate, pick an option and don’t look back. Although there wasn’t any thunderstorm anymore between the time I threw the towel and the time field day ended, I don’t regret my decision to quit. I was taking everything out of the tent on Sunday morning and it was hot already. I know from experience that Sunday is very slow, slower than Saturday evening. That wasn’t an appealing thought. Conclusion: I wasn’t really motivated on an operational level. I’m spoiled because of the rates I usually achieve. I know, apples and oranges and FD is not WW CW. So I learned that the social aspect of FD is not to be neglected. Either it’s a single operator contest with some rate, or a FD with company.

On the other hand, logistical and technical I’m quite happy. I now have a complete /P setup that can be handled by one man. I have no clue what I’m going to do with it. Should the urge arise for another field day and the schedule allows for it, things should now be much easier to set up. Note to Ken OT1A: the things we have struggled with should now be the least of our concerns.

I know that the XYL reads along (perhaps she gave up after the first paragraph?) but I’m going to say it anyway. I like the way Nigel G3TXF and his friends handle things. Rent a big van to move the FD stuff and use it as a shack. I’d see myself doing this for say an IOTA contest or so. Or a 50 MHz contest on a hilltop location, but what are the odds of making any contacts on that band? But it’s good to know that logistically I’m covered. And it was fun to build and put it together.

Finally

A lot of text here. Most of it got typed overnight from Sunday to Monday. The dog was getting crazy because of the weather. I didn’t hear thunder but there was a lot of ‘heat lightning’. Dogs hear and feel that much better. So I took him inside. In the mean time the west and east of Belgium got hit by severe hailstorms again with a lot of damage on houses and cars. Farmers seeing their greenhouses and crops ruined in a few minutes. That’s the second time in two nights. And that’s only a level 2 warning (Estofex). For today (Monday) a level 3 warning was issued for Northern France and the Benelux. Let’s hope the crunched numbers were exaggerated by the weather models and predictions turn out to be overrated.

4 Responses to The field day that wasn’t

  • Ot1a says:

    Antenna support system looks super fb ! Combined with the new 200w rule, the fd-future looks bright…
    73 !

  • N2IC says:

    I have done 41 previous FD’s in the field. Since moving to the NM QTH, my enthusiasm wanes each year. It’s the hottest time of year here (35 C). I already live in the forest (unlike my Colorado QTH, out on the prairie, where doing FD in the forest was a big treat). Few other hams around here willing to do it. My plan for FD this year (in 2 weeks) is to shake out the WRTC-2014 station with FD partner (but not WRTC partner) WD5COV. Indoors. Existing antennas.

  • N2IC says:

    And your writeup provides even less motivation for me.

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