Eye in the Sky – Storm Spotting Ida At a Safe Distance

I was on HF last night, working a little 40m FT8 when I occurred to me I might want to look at the radar overlay in Grid Tracker (One of the programs I run alongside WSJT-X for additional information about where my signals are going.)

My neighbor and I had been chatting earlier in the day about the behavior I was seeing with signals rapidly fading and coming back around both sides of the greyline on 40m and she asked me if I’d ever looked at the radar at the same time as my signal reports.

Well.. no! Smacking my forehead! Doh!

So I looked to see if Grid Tracker had that function, and yes it does!

Click!

This is what I saw:

I was initially interested in the small spots of thunderstorm activity directly over Phoenix, but then said.. WHAT is THAT down in the bottom right…?!

If ever there was a perfect picture of an “Eye in the Sky”, that is it! Hurricane Ida, there you are in all your fury.

And I didn’t have to risk being hit by a flying cow or bus to see it!

Just wow. Ham radio tools today are amazing.

2AM Tokyo Takeout (Holy Leaping Hams, Batman!)

I’ve been at a bit of an impass on 40m lately. All of the states that it was easy for me to get I already have claimed towards Worked All States on that band, and while I can often hear a variety of juicy stations in the DX-Sphere, I just couldn’t hit most of them.

In the evenings, say around 7-9PM local time, my signal floats on the west, and southern ends of the United States and not much else.

The few stations that I can hear from other parts of the country I’m still trying to get confirmed seem to be the same ones night after night, and I’ve chased those stations fruitlessly over and over without making any gains.

So it’s been a little bit frustrating to get on and work several hours FT8 digital for a single needed contact. Or sometimes none!

But a sleepless night last evening had me getting up at 2am, and turning on the radio while I waited to get sleepy.

Holy Leaping Japanese Hams, Batman!!

The first signals decoded on FT8 at 2AM were a literal WALL of solid Japanese stations busily working digital from end to end of their tiny island country!

I really have never seen so many “J” prefix callsigns in one place, ever.

Even better, they could actually hear me.

I know Japan has a very high density of amateur radio operators for such a small country. I heard one estimate that there were a couple million hams in Japan, and that their antennas are quite close to one another.

But seeing the 2AM 40m band activity wall to wall standing room only with Japanese stations really drives that home.

I made four contacts to Japan, while I was up, in spite of the propagation fluctuations being fairly rowdy.

Entertainingly, when one Japanese station sees you making a contact with another Japanese station, they pile on you rapidly one after another. It was Glorious!

I also encountered stations from South Korea, the Philippines, Australia, Venezuela, Columbia, Malaysia, Indonesia, Asiatic Russia, Panama, Belize to name a few.

East Coast 40m Alive and Answering

As an added bonus, the half of the country that can’t hear me at a more civilized time of night was copying me loud and clear. I was able to grab THREE needed states in that short window before the approach of daylight on the east coast seemed to perturb the band till it fell off.

Temperature Fluctuations and Band Fading/Disruption

I have a theory that changes in the temperature of the atmosphere ahead of the approach of sunlight, or the ebbing of sunlight create significant churn in the ionosphere, that make the signals fluctuate wildly till a new equilibrium is reached and the layer is re-established and settled.

At least that’s what it looks like to me, as I see a margin of no signal reports on both side of the grayline which seems to move with the grayline. This has seemed more influential and obvious on 40m than other bands I’ve worked.

I went back to bed at 4am, happy, and having learned something new about 40m.

So if you’re having trouble making specific state or DX contacts at one time of day, try a different time slot. You might have to get up in the middle of the night a few times to do it, but for me at least, it was worth it.

Now I’m off for a nap 🙂

73, and see you on the air!

Shack RFI Adventures Part 3 – 40m

Every time I think I have the RFI problem ironed out, I move to another band, and have to chase it all over again.

Sauntering my way over to 40m recently gave me a repeat of the RFI gremlins vexing my laptop, and thwarting my rig control and laptop USB communications, similar to the chase I already had with 20m and 30m. I guess this is where it really gets driven home that radio frequencies are electrical creatures that behave differently as the frequencies change.

On 20m, I was able to suppress these issues using ferrite beads on all the cables to the radio, and from the radio to laptop and my SignaLink.

On 30m, I had to play with radials, and switch USB cables among other things on top of the 20m “interventions”.

On 40m I started with adding a commercial choke by LDG just inside the feedthrough panel, and a longer radial wire.

But that still wasn’t enough.

I could only get about 10-12watts forward power out of the radio before the RFI backlash started to wreak havoc on the rig control!

I started wondering if this could be a side effect of my lack of grounding connections on the radio.

Since I live in an apartment on the third floor, I don’t have a way to get a cable and grounding rod all the way down to the ground along the outer wall. And no, I don’t have a metal water pipe close enough to make the connection.

So I’ve been running without a ground connection.

That seemed to work okay with a lower power radio. The G90’s 20watts was pretty easy to handle without one.

But using a radio with a lot more wattage like the Icom 7300 really seems to need the RF ground.

So what’s a ham to do?

On a forum I found a feasible suggestion that I was able to implement this evening.

And the answer is……

Add another 1/4wl radial– but connect it to the radio’s ground lug, instead of to the antenna, and run it down the back of the desk, down the table leg, and from there around the baseboards in the room.

TaDa!!!

Now I can push the radio up to about 40watts digital on 40m.

It still freezes the laptop trackpad during transmission, but doesn’t wreak havoc on the rig control anymore, requiring a reboot of laptop or radio to get back on the air.

Forty meters is a lot more fun when you can actually use enough power to be heard!

I love the Night Life (Ode to 40m)

Different wavelengths of radio propagate much differently from each other and that means that some times of day are better for one band than another.

Daytime Bands

20m is generally a daytime band, but dissolves into just noise as the sun goes down. You can watch your signals just stop going anywhere following the grayline on the PSK reporter map. There’s a short after dark burst of signal propagation, but generally you can see a distinct pattern change and then it dies abruptly.

The reason for this is that one of the layers of the ionosphere that bounces 20m waves just quits being formed after the sun is not directly blasting the earth during daylight.

30m is another daytime band, where you’ll find a lot of hams making contacts. It tends to die off a little later in the evening, and sometimes I’ve been still making contacts at 9:30pm, but usually the pickings get slim by then.

“Night Clubbing” on 40m

And then there is 40m. Yesterday was my first day (or night) working digital on the 40m band and it was a lot of fun!

40m is really where the “night life” of ham radio takes place. My friend with the wall and boxes full of QSL cards tells me that you can usually find someone to make contact with on 40m even at 4am if you can’t sleep.

I had not previously been working 40m because when I got my hamsticks for the window installation experiment, every single ham radio outlet from here to the moon was out of stock on the 40m sticks. (Could we stop with the Covid hysteria now, please? I’m getting tired of this being the excuse for every problem that occurs into the next decade– and the excuse for not fixing it.)

Yesterday I got the bright idea to remove one of my hamsticks from it’s installation plank, and replace it with a Wolf River Coil Mini Bullet– one of two I own as part of an Otophone. I tuned it for 20m first, as proof of concept since that band is fairly easy to get going, and made a bunch of contacts during the day.

Wolf River Coil Mini-Bullet antenna installed in the window. It’s a bit taller than a hamstick with the whip extended.
The Mini-Bullet coil is just short enough to allow out of the window tuning.

40m Antenna Setup

Then in the evening, I tuned the mini-bullet for 40m. I had to make some changes to get an acceptable SWR, including adding a longer radial wire. The one I’m using for 20m wouldn’t get me any closer to the 1:1 SWR ratio we shoot for than 3:1. My radio’s tuner is good, but not that good!

I ended up raiding my larger wolf river coal for a precut radial, and just unwound it partway, threaded it around behind my bookcases and tossed it, still on it’s spool on my bed. That worked better than I expected.

Acceptable SWR after fiddling with a longer radial wire

Once I had it tuned up on 40m I started transmitting. I discovered a couple of other little glitches.

I find the RFI problem that wreaks havoc on my rig control over USB on my laptop is WORSE, MUCH WORSE at 40m than at 20m.

Initially I wasn’t able to set the radio for more than 12watts without the USB port going wacky and WSJTX shutting down.

On 30m, I start seeing this behavior at around 40watts, including messing with my laptop trackpad while transmitting at even lower levels.

At 20m I was able to resolve it for the most part with ferrite beads place on every cord and cable I own. But that just doesn’t work on 40m.

After being frustrated with no one being able to copy me, even on digital at 10watts, I installed a LDG choke on the line, and was then able to work with a more reasonable 25watts before the USB started going crazy again.

The 40m Contact “Booty”

I made about 20 contacts on 40m while I was working last evening, and have confirmed 7 states so far. Not bad for a first experiment with a new antenna setup and rolling with the punches to resolve issues the first time.

I had to jump off as it got later and a big weather-alert-generating storm rolled in about 10:30pm. (Hurry up and Haul in the antennas to keep them dry, and to keep lightening from frying my shack! Arizona monsoon storms can be pretty electrifying!)

Overall, it’s been fun to sample the ham radio “night life” so far and I’ll definitely be working more 40 digital after dark.

Fun with Statistical Digging (Or all my X’s are Still in Texas)

Statistics can be a bunch of fun, as dry as that sounds.

The more contacts I’ve made on digital HF modes, the more interesting the stats get which I can see in my QRZ logbook.

I browse my logbook stats regularly not only to see what awards I can get certificates for, and to see what I still need to get, but to entertain myself with the numbers.

Here are a few I find interesting or amusing.

Most Worked State:

Hands down it’s TEXAS, with a whopping 84 QSO’s between 20m and 30m as of this morning.

Yeah, I know– for those of you with 45,931-and-counting contacts logged, that sounds miniscule.

But when you consider that the totality of my logged contacts when I started doing HF in late May is just 736 that comes out to 11.413 percent of my time on the radio has been spent communicating with hams in just one state.

It’s a big state I know, but come on now… that’s good odds that my next contact anytime I sit down at the radio will be with a Texan!

Blue, and Feeling like no one can hear me? Let’s just see who in Texas is around for a little QSO instant gratification! 🙂 Lol.

Most Worked Grid

What is it? The Maidenhead Grid system is a series of arbitrary, standardized rectangular areas, mapped out around the entire globe and given 2-Letter+4Number designations. But in radio for logging purposes, you usually just cut it to the first 4 characters. So something like DM43 is a grid name you’d track your contacts to.

Now with all the contacts I make in Texas, you’d expect my most worked grid to be somewhere over there among the huge oil fields and gigantic wind farms and Texas sized everything else.

But you’d be wrong.

The most worked grid for me according to QRZ stats is CN87, with 23 QSOs conducted in just that one small patch of Terra Firma.

Where the heck is CN87 for those of you who don’t speak grid-geek? It’s in King County, Washington.

And those industrious Washingtonian hams also have a very high confirmation rate. 19 of those 23 QSO’s have been confirmed via QRZ. I love you guys for uploading your logs!

I’ll be polite and not name the grid or state with the worst track record of making contacts but never confirming. Speculate all you like. But I always know I’m going to need five or six contacts before I’ll get a confirmation for one or two particular places. You’re either busy mush-mushing, or country clubbing 🙂

Most Worked US County

This one surprises me, but there is a specific culprit responsible for this– we’ll get to that in a minute. (wink). The award for most worked COUNTY is right here in Arizona… Maricopa county, where I live.

If we were talking about ‘groundwave” radio, the UHF and VHF bands, that would be pretty standard. Using repeaters I can talk all over the valley and sometimes all the way to the next county, or with simplex, just a few miles.

But “skywave” (bouncing signals off the ionosphere, instead of in a straight line from point to point along the earth’s surface) is a lot different and it’s generally harder to make contacts in your own backyard.

Usually I see about a 400-500 mile “crater” around my transmit position where the signals are sailing right over the head of hams in those areas. What goes up must come down… but with skywave, it comes down Waaaaaaaaaay over there most of the time and skips everything in between. Unless you have an antenna setup for NVIS (Near Vertical Incidence Skywave)

All of my weird little window antennas in suboptimal installations seem to have a little bit of NVIS propagation going on. Perhaps it’s some crazy reflection off the building. So I’ve been able to hit locations 4-5 miles away, 15 miles away, and even Tucson when conditions are just right.

But that isn’t the culprit of the Maricopa County Most Worked phenomenon. No… that award goes to my ham friend nearby with the sly sense of humor who just delights in ambush QSO-ing me on the bands any time he sees me 😉 His gorgeous antennas and mine seem to have a “quantum entanglement” of sorts and they can talk to each other pretty easily. Lol. You know who you are.

Statistics can be fun!

Chasing Teapots, Lighthouses and other Special Event Stations

I admit that I was not sure how long that digital mode communications were going to be able to hold my interest after a few awards were achieved. The communications are very short and functional. Literally 14 or so characters per message. On FT8/FT4 It goes something like this ( With my translations =) ):

  • CQ KJ7DJR DM43 (Hey, helloooOoooo, anyone out there? I’m KJ7DJR in grid square DM43 Can anyone hear me? Call me back!)
  • KJ7DJR N9XXX DM55 (Hey, I hear you KJ7DJR! I’m N9XXX and I’m in grid square DM55. Can you hear me?)
  • N9XXX KJ7DJR -08 (I hear you N9XXX and your signal is reaching me at -08dB below the noise floor)
  • KJ7DJR N9XXX R-11 (I heard your signal report and you are reaching me at -11dB below the noise floor)
  • N9XXX KJ7DJR RR73 (I heard your signal report back to me, thanks for the contact N9XXX! Bye-bye, See ya later!)
  • KJ7DJR N9XXX 73 (Thanks KJ7DJR! Goodbye! N9XXX out!)

As you can see, there’s not a lot of personalization or small talk! The most personal it gets is those thrilling foot chases of wiley stations from locations that are difficult to get.

But enter the Special Event Station (SES).

Special Event Stations are call signs that are assigned temporarily to a person or group for a specific event, celebration, or public service cause.

Most of them are visually noticeable in the band activity because they are very short– shorter than the call signs you could get permanently, for example three characters. (The shortest you can get as your permanent call sign is 4 characters)

When I see a three letter call sign zip by when I’m working digital, I usually go look them up at QRZ to find out what the special event is to see if I should “give chase”.

Since special events are of limited duration– a couple of days to a couple of weeks– they make for interesting pursuits.

The thirteen colonies special event stations that I wrote about earlier are an example of a short “contest” to contact as many of them as possible. It was a lot of fun trying to find them on the different bands and modes, and actually make contact!

This week, there are several special events going on that are a little bit entertaining, including a chase of “teapot” stations, attached to a teapot festival in Chester, West Virginia.

The claim to fame for the town holding the event is that they have the world’s largest teapot! (I just can’t shake the entertaining image in my head of beauty and the beast and the animated singing, dancing teapots! Lol.)

World’s largest teapot in Chester, WV

Other fun events this week that I’ve seen special event stations for:

Lighthouse activations, of stations around the country set up or broadcasting near lighthouses. For example W8L, which calls itself the worlds loneliest lighthouse.

A special event station attached to a historic church in Mexico ( call sign 4A2MAX ).

A bicentennial celebration for the anniversary of the state of Missouri becoming the 24th state in the United States. (Call Sign W0M)

An event for Ham Radio Village called Defcon 29 (apparently some sort of hacker convention! Call sign K3K)

Sometimes there are certificates you can get for participating, or you can get interesting QSL cards from these events. Usually there is a small cost of a few dollars to cover the costs of mailing and supplies, but it’s a fun way to get new awards and certificates for your shack walls 🙂

QSL Adventures

Before the internet was woven into every aspect of our lives, a majority of amateur radio operators would send out little post card sized QSL cards– basically a confirmation of date, time, frequency, equipment used, and a thank you for a QSO.

This was doable because a lot of contacts were on voice modes (so called phone or SSB modes.) Because there were fewer contacts in a given day than you can get in a day working modern digital modes, you might spend time just rag chewing with the person at the other end of the connection, and really get to know a little about them.

However with current band conditions being sort of terrible (The sun has been in a very low sun spot cycle for the last decade or so, and thus not producing much atmospheric ionization for the radio signals to bounce off of) much of the possible contacts are on digital modes like FT8, and FT4. This means you hit the contact with tiny preset messages and quit it, and immediately move on to the next. Using FT8/FT4 I’ve made more than 30 contacts in a single day. And some hams are doing much more than that!

This has increased both the volume of contacts, and made keeping up with the old practice of sending out physical cards harder, and many have gone to strictly online QSLs at places like QRZ, LOTW, eQSL, or Club Log. But there are still a few ‘paper chasers” who like to send and receive physical cards.

Last week I joined that group with a batch of about 30 cards sent to hand selected ham contacts who indicated in their profiles that they like to collect the cards.

And last night I received back four reply QSL cards for my own little card wall.

First four reply QSLs

These are not the actual first QSL cards ever– I received three from a very kind fellow in Florida who seemed quite eager to get one back from me and asked about my in the window antenna setup, which started me off wanting to get some cards so I could reply. And my good friend and Elmer, Norm also sent me his QSL card after our QSO while I was in Utah.

Humorously, this post wouldn’t be complete without the QSL mis-adventure — apparently I had a dyslexic moment and sent a ham I never contacted a card after reversing two letters of a call sign. I got a confused email about my card relating to me that he was sure the QSL was wrong because according to his logs, he was on 6m that day. Ooops!

Update! More Cards!

Finally Worked All States!

After a multi-day “foot chase” and hide and go seek of wily Alaska ham stations (meep meep!) I finally managed to run down and snag a “confirmer” this evening.

Thank you NL7S for your completed QSO all the way to the final 73, and especially for uploading your log before my license expires in 2029 😉 Your hard copy QSL card is on the way soon!

My New QSL Cards Received today– now I get to spend time going through 400+ past contacts to find the stations that like to get cards. (Yeah, I know there’s not an antenna brag photo in sight on my cards, but my little “hamstick-that-could” isn’t much to look at like all the big 100ft tower arrays)

At least on QRZ, that gives me all 50 states in only about 2 months time since the installation of my out the window antennas.

I’ve had a number of other brushes with Alaskan stations, including one club call sign that did, but now doesn’t log to QRZ, and a couple who QSL’d without actually making the full set of signal exchanges to the RR73 but marked me as a contact anyway. One after another of those always a bridesmaid never a bride moments! It’s enough to make you want to stamp up and down on your bouquet! 😉 (Yes I’m being facetious, and maybe a bit giddy)

I guess the next logical step is to add another band to my setup. I plan on building a second plank and bracket like the first one where I’ll put a 30m hamstick.

Then there are the other modes to play with– Olivia, PSK31, WSPR, RTTY. And I have 10m, 17m, and 6m hamsticks to work with later, but there’s only so many I can fit out the window at one time.

Not to mention that we’re still in the throes of the summer monsoon and I have to bring all the antennas inside every time it rains, rumbles about possibly raining, smells like rain, or flashes lightening. So I’m scampering to bring them in constantly really.

After the last full 24 hours of rain in a day, when I went to put them back out I actually had to empty the window slide channel 3/4″ of water first!

Naked, unpainted wood planks would swell and warp pretty quick if I stuck their feet into a water filled channel. I might not even be able to get them out again till they dried out.

Anyway, the install has it’s problems with the weather, but still pretty amazing to be able to get across and even off continent on such a sub-optimal setup in a noisy QTH, with about 18watts.

First the USA, now it’s time to work the rest of the world!

Those Last Stubborn States…

In the beginning of working digital modes, when I still was using a smaller, much more compromised antenna than my current 20m hamstick, getting contacts was pretty difficult. I treasured every last one like it was a prize… because it was.

Then I updated my antenna to the “fishing pole” mount hamstick, and once I got that tuned up correctly, I started having an easier time making contacts. It seemed as if the first 35 states practically jumped onto my radio like hungry fish biting. The next ten were only a little harder.

But when I got down to just 6 states left to confirm it got really really hard.

Not only did I have to make the contact successfully, then I’d have to wonder if the ham on the other end of the line was “a confirmer” (My own word meaning they actually upload their logs! I guess it gets boring after you’ve won most of your awards, but it seems a lot of the very long time hams have sort of quit doing that.

I had to scratch and claw, and stalk like a bloodhound for Wyoming, New York, South Carolina, Michigan, and South Dakota.

I’ve contacted Alaska once, and Montana three times without a confirmation. Just two more for Worked all States. I guess I get to roll the dice again tonight!

You guy are on notice… I’m coming for you! =)

All My X’s are in Texas, or I Left My Heart in Amarillo…

Funny song references to Texas aside, Texas is a really big place.

I know that’s obvious, but it becomes even more obvious when you start working for HF radio awards involving US counties and you discover that Texas has TWO HUNDRED and FIFTY FOUR counties!

That’s enough to get both of the first two endorsements (100 counties and 250 counties) on the QRZ Us Counties award without ever working another state.

I have no idea how many people ever actually work every county in the whole state of Texas, but I bet it takes a long time. Propagation is such a weird thing, and you can never be sure where, and for how long your signals will touch down, and then whether the target will be able to get one back the other way.

But I’ll be hailing Texans a lot in the future just for the fun of seeing how many counties I can get.

See you on the air!