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).
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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
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!
WX 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.
Driving 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.
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
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?