Category Archives: Amateur Radio

Things related to Amateur Radio, ham radio, the civil service, and similar hobbies and activities.

Backstop

I’ve heard of it being done, but I kinda secretly want to wire my radio and my antenna tuner to a softball backstop fence to see what kind of signal I can get out.

I have no idea if I can match the impedance of a backstop, or if I will be able to deal with the RF coming back down the feedline to my radio. I don’t even know if the fact that the backstop is anchored in the ground with concrete and touching the ground for its entire length will cause it to be its own ground plane. Does it act as a random wire antenna? Is it a longwire antenna? Is it good only for reception? What kind of harmful harmonics does it put out? How does the pair of 45º bends with the 90º straight legs affect the radiation pattern? What’s the optimum frequency band for it?

So what the hell…I gotta try it.

Hey, if someone can make long-distance contacts by wiring their radio, amplifier, and antenna tuner to a cast-iron skillet hanging from a swing set, I can make contacts with a backstop.

Stay tuned.

Improbabilities

Radio continues to be a fickle and rewarding thing.

I spent some time in Brentwood park yesterday. Threw my 20-meter dipole between some trees and tried to make contacts. Due to a national HF contest, there wasn’t much space in the good parts of the band to get a word in edgewise. Eventually, I was run out of the park by some random dude who decided to practice Tai Chi under the same tree I was using for shelter (of all the trees in the park, he picks mine).

So with the heat of the young afternoon and all the confounding factors, I folded up and went home to drink water and not cause a scene.

Due to the excessive heat today, I didn’t get out until near sunset. Lacking any time to do a real setup, I made a last minute scramble and went to Northwest Park which sits in a low-lying area of town (it was a quarry once), where I clamped my poorly-performing vertical antenna to a picnic table, tuned it to 40-meters (because 20-meters was already closed), warmed up my radio, and called CQ.

WIthin a short time, I actually got an answer. I don’t work 40m much, so I’m not used to the higher noise level (especially with the nearby band of thunderstorms). But the one contact I made was with N9LVY in Illinois. We got enough info through the noise to qualify as an actual contact. Worth it.

So the takeaway lesson is that you can make the perfect setup in the perfect location, and you won’t get anywhere. But make a last ditch effort with improbable odds and — by damn — you get a message through.

This affirms to me that radio is exactly like fishing.

Parallax

When I’m playing with my radio in a public park, I try to make sure that I am physically safe by being aware of my surroundings while my headphones are on, and that I’m always presenting the right image that I’m just a guy doing a thing that’s totally natural and nonthreatening. It usually gets me by. But sometimes people walk past and bear inquisitive frowns as they’re trying to figure out just what I’m doing with all that gear. They usually lighten up when I explain that it’s amateur radio, and no it’s not spy gear, no it’s not a police scanner, no it’s not like on CB, and so on.

But a few weeks ago I had an occasion that made me stop what I was doing and examine my appearance a little more closely in an unexplored dimension. A family was walking past me on their way back to their car from spending time in the park. This little girl about 9 or 10 asked her parents what I was doing; they didn’t know and couldn’t answer. I was in the process of throwing a lead weight into a tree and pulling down the rope to work on raising my dipole antenna. As I’m tugging on the loose end under the tree, she walked up to me and, half curious, half apprehensive, she wanted to know what I was doing.

I turned to look at her, and i could see her family behind her already at their car; they were all apprehensively looking too. As I was mid-sentence explaining that I was raising an antenna for my radio, it occurred to me exactly what it looked like; here’s this white guy in a public park stringing a rope in a tree, and there’s this black child and her family wanting to know just what I was doing. I pushed out the rest of the explanation and smiled as warmly as I could until she and her family were satisfied that I was not a threat.

Never in my life would I ever have thought that there could be a racial component in amateur radio. I never would have thought that, if overlooked, it could ever be misconstrued as blatant racism. Never. I go out in order to pursue the hobby and hope to pique the interest of passers-by so they’ll want to know more, but, as in anything else in the public sphere, there are images and interpretations that must be considered so nothing ever escalates to a bad place, especially in these heated times.

Be careful out there, friends. Consider your actions and your appearances; like radio waves, they can transmit farther than you intend. Above all, be sure to mind your manners in public and be friendly — and look friendly — to everyone you can. We are all humans.

A Day In the Field

If anybody’s keeping tabs on my good decisions for this year, you can add another to the list: I participated in the ARRL Field Day exercise this past weekend, and it was time well-spent.

Lighted sign and knife switch, ready to burn like an Olympic flame during the event.

Field Day is a 24-hour contest where amateur radio clubs and ad-hoc groups go into the field (or anywhere that’s not their permanent operating station) to raise their antennas and run their radios on emergency power while making as many contacts as possible for points. The goal of Field Day is to help hams stretch their legs and train to operate in adverse conditions, ostensibly to prepare for emergency communications. One of the benefits of amateur radio is reaching into or out of disaster areas in times of crisis, and Field Day is among the best ways to prove that you’re up to the task before you ever have to need it.

The Austin Amateur Radio Club set up operations in the American Red Cross office near the Mueller district in Austin. We had 3 radios running under the W5KA station callsign, all powered by the Austin Energy solar demo trailer. Overall, we made just over 300 contacts, working almost all 50 states, half of the Canadian provinces, and even some Caribbean countries like the Virgin Islands. It’s not as many contacts as most clubs, but it was a herculean effort considering the modest turnout by club members and visitors alike.

Vertical antenna for CW in white on left, 40M inverted V dipole for digital in black on right.

Primary mast on trailer with 2M Yagi, 6M Yagi, and 40M dipole which carried the bulk of our voice contacts.

Austin Energy solar demo trailer, with voice antenna mast in the background.

On a personal note, the benefit of the weekend was in the effect it had on me. It started by just showing up. I got there Saturday morning to help raise the antennas and set up the radios, and I spent the rest of the day on-site to work a handful of contacts and be with others to share knowledge with my fellow new hams and to learn a massive amount of material from the elmers running the event. I went home for a few hours overnight to sleep off the exhaustion, but came back later the following morning to continue with the group and help break down at the end of the contest.

I’ll go on record to say that the event was transformative. I participated and learned. I volunteered and helped as often as possible. I got my hands dirty and paid in sweat equity. I worked holes into my leather gloves and made use of hard hats and hammers. I got exposure to new antenna designs and learned how to jump into an on-air pileup and get a contact in the noise. I had a great opportunity to work with a body of people that was neither a corporation nor a church camp. This group serves some other purpose, and that’s a refreshing change. It’s new air to breathe.

The lessons I’m learning are paying off. Today I took my radio to the park and worked 6 contacts where usually I’d get only 1. I’m honing the craft. I’m growing. That is its own profit.

I look forward to next year’s Field Day, and hope I can get some of you to join in too.

A big and heartfelt thank you to members Jeff, Lew, Stu, Bob, and everybody else whose names and calls I can’t remember who ran the event and made it work fabulously despite the hardships. Finding creative solutions to difficult problems is the soul of engineering, and you people are filled with that living spirit. Thank you.

First QSO, First DX

So today was a crap day, but what happened when I left work and raised my antenna was a soothing balm that made everything alright. The good news is that today I made my very first HF contact (called a QSO) on the 20-meter band with my good radio. That’s a first. Also, on the very same contact, I made my first international contact (called a DX). On the same call!

Here’s a shout out to Gil VE2MAM from Quebec, Canada, who was calling CQ/DX to collect American counties. His signal was coming in strong and clear with a little bit of fading, so I decided to give it a try. I turned up my amp power, keyed up my mic, and responded with my callsign. He eventually heard me in the noise and we had an exchange of signal reports and a few other things like my location and county. I gave him a “59” signal report, meaning he was readable and had a strong signal. He gave me a “555”, meaning I was readable, my signal was fairly good, but there was some modulation on my signal (these can be dealt with).

I’m just happy that I’m finally learning how to make it happen. As it turns out, the modular vertical antenna I’ve been using (which is ultra-portable) isn’t so good for making anything other than regional contacts. It’s easy to set up and tune, but it’s just not that efficient at putting out a radio signal. What i did tonight was string my 20-meter dipole between two trees in Mueller park. It took me a little bit of trial and error to throw the ropes high enough and get enough distance between trees so the antenna wasn’t in the branches, but I figured it out.

Gil, I certainly hope your log of our QSO doesn’t need me to submit a log from my end for you to get credit, but it was nice talking with you. 73, good sir. Merci!

First QSO, 14.289MHz 20170609 0:00 UTC

20-meter dipole strung between two trees