N1AV (x-N1RWY) on the air

Ham radio, hiking, coffee, and other tech talk.

Jan 2020 VHF contest


Greetings all! It has been a while since I have posted – busy upgrading the station.
Here is my recap of the January 2020 VHF contest.

Feel free to sit back and grab a cold one, or a hot one depending on when you are reading this. It might take a while as I go into brain dump mode.

VHF contests in general

Looking at the big three VHF contests from the 9000′ view, the best VHF contest for Arizona stations to do well nationally is the January VHF contest.   
Why do I say that?
Here are a dozen reasons off the top of my head.

1.  We don’t get the tropo and ducting that east/west coast stations do on 6 & 2 during the contest.
2.  We don’t get the extended 6M openings that east/west coast stations do.
3.  We don’t have the population of VHF operators that east/west coast states do.
4.  Hepburn forecast is continually “black” here.

However,
5.  We DO not have to deal with winter storms that produce icing for all stations and poor driving conditions for rovers that limits participation.
6.  We DO have access to 5-6,000′ peaks in the Jan contest by rovers and portable ops.
7.  We DO have great weather in Jan for home, portable, rover and SOTA stations.
8.  WE have combined efforts with many of the local SOTA (Summits on the Air) crowd who all go to local peaks and activate multiple bands from high locations.
9.  We have new enthusiasm with younger hams getting involved, as well as seasoned hams dusting off gear and getting BACK on the air.
10. We have higher terrain allows for low power rovers to work stations from multiple grids
11. We have the AZ Rover SWARM (Patent pending)
11. Local HOAs are pushing more hams to portable or rover stations.  Which as a whole for ham radio isn’t a good thing, but for contests it does means MORE points for everyone as rovers can generate more points for everyone!
12. “Team” mentality.  Everyone I see/hear on the air wants everyone to do well, even those they are competing against.  Super rare for such an individualistic event as radio contesting.  Probably because some stations and grids are so rare and we want to share the thrill in working them. Or maybe we all just LOVE working weak signal and love pushing what we can do.

I started running all of this through my head after the September 2019 contest. In June and September I constantly get beat by stations who have much larger 6 meter stations who flat out just outscore me on Q’s and multipliers. If 6 is dead, their scores are low. If 6 is alive, they have three times the Qs and multis. So, how can I compete with that? I have to work the numbers and find a new strategy.
I knew I wanted a BIG effort for this January. Big like, You will never get all this done- What are you thinking? Stupid big.  This included several goals:

  • Two new towers
  • A new EME band
  • 3 new terrestrial bands (3.4 GHz, 5 GHz and 10 GHz)
  • Plus a pile of shack upgrades, rig changes, feed lines, preamps, building sequencers, (for a total of 11 of them now in my shack), 100’s of feet of rewiring and additions to the loaner rover boxes and supporting the AZ Rover SWARM…. 

All in three months.

Points


The points break down for the contest are such that 6 and 2 meters are worth 1 point a contact.  Any band above and including 2304 MHz is worth 8 points!   It doesn’t take a genius to figure out where I should be spending time.   Four 2.4 GHz Q’s = 32 6m Q’s. (excluding multipliers).   So, as you start adding more higher frequency bands it really becomes a numbers game as to where to spend your time.   If (and ONLY if)  6 meters is dead! If 6m is open, your qso rate should exceed that of the points for the higher bands.
With our real “lack” of 6m activity during the Jan contest and the growing numbers of local ops on 902, 1296 and 2304, this theory would be put to the test.

How was I going to make this all happen?

Starting 12 weeks before the contest I brewed a pot of coffee, sat down and typed up a list of projects that I wanted to complete in the next three months, knowing full well there were three holidays and a bunch of travel away from home during this time.

The items were broken down into two lists:

1. Enhancements to my current station. 

This included fixes,changes and upgrades. 
Examples included:
Changing out ALL of the 48V fans (all 34 of them, yes, thirty four 48v fans – screaming –  all at the same time) on all my LDMOS amplifiers to the same number of quieter 12v fans.  This reducing the in shack noise by an order of almost 50dB.  It was so loud before I had to wear headphones, and was mentally draining.  Now, while still loud compared to many HF operators who complain about the fan noise from the single fan their HF amplifier – It was much quieter and less mentally fatiguing.
OR
Rewiring the IF radio PTT switching system so I only need to push 1 button to switch from 222 to 1299 to 902 to 2304 (all on the same IF rig) but this meant adding about eighteen 10′ long RCA cables to the various sequencers and relays.

You know, all the basic upgrades to make the shack work better.

2. New projects. 

Examples include, obtaining gear for bands, getting new antennas, new feed line,  getting new bands operational, new sequencers, new sequencer wiring, audio channels, headphone switches, virtual audio cables purchase and install, flex software & hardware install digging new holes for towers, planting towers, getting antennas up in the air, updating or fixing several rover boxes, installing computers and monitors (currently at 3 computers and five monitors).

After about 1/2 a pot of coffee I printed out the list that I created.  I ended up with 6 single space pages of tasks that I wanted to complete. 
Oh boy!  Time to get my big boy pants on!  That is a lot.
But who doesn’t love a challenge?

The Plan


So, I would work my normal job (I gotta pay for all these changes right?), change clothes then head out to the shack and antenna area and spend another 6-10 hours each night working on projects.. every.. single.. night.  As Tom (N7GP) can attest, midnight antenna work by headlamp became a common activity. I can only imagine what my neighbors thought with this random headlight flashing all over the place many nights a week in my back yard.

“What he doing over there?  I dunno..he keep shining the light up in the sky..”

Soldering into the wee hours, rewiring this, adding that, changing this.. Swearing because I didn’t take “THAT” into account and removing the last hour of work to redo- which happened more than I want to admit.  Order this, then plan for the 3 days of shipping as to when you can start to work on it, because you had to do that before you could do the next thing.. hell, it was like another full time job full of production deadlines and Gantt charts.

I do want call out specifically AC7FF, N7OW, and KJ7JC who all came over MULTIPLE times to lend a hand or hold a ladder or lift a 10′ dish up on a mount.

1296 EME

One NEW project that I new would provide HUGE gains for the contest was the addition of 1296 EME. I have been using 2m EME for the past several VHF contests and net about 10 – 15 qsos + multis off the moon depending on the contest.   I had been toying with a 1296 EME project for two years. Since 1296 EME is done with a dish, it was a whole new vertical learning curve for me.  H frame yagi array for EME? Easy.  FD ratios and focal depths of the feed, that was a whole new ball game and I was never finding the time to finish it.  Finally, in December 2019 WA7XX and I made a deal.  Let’s spend a day at each others location and get each of our dishes operational.  We are both (currently) running 10′ TVRO dishes with septum feeds on short tower(s). Therefore, the process was very similar to getting both of our stations operational, as they are pretty much identical aside from the AZ/EL drive systems.

About 3 weeks before the contest we were both “on the air” on 1296 EME and ready to be on the air for the contest event.

Side note:   JT65 on 1296 MHz off the moon is cool, a signal on 1.2GHz traveling 500,000 miles and only 7% of what you sent out is reflecting back – and you hear it?   Yeah that is cool.  

Sending CW via the moon is exciting, more hands on for sure. 

But SSB voice contacts off the moon on the dish in your own backyard are MIND BLOWING!  SUPER FUN!

Yet I digress.
So, back to the contest story.   Every night I go out and work well past midnight. Go to work the next day, back to the projects until midnight.. wash, rinse repeat.  Along the way digging two 46×46 holes and filling with over 2400 lbs. of hand mixed concrete, all while dodging some of the weather that we had that would have impacted this progress.

Flash forward to Saturday Jan 18th contest starts at noon.
It’s 3 am in the morning, and I crossed off the last item from my 6 page list.  BOOM. DONE. 
I stumbled into to bed for several hours before I got back up and head to the shack. I cleaned to a point that it was functional where I wasn’t tripping over wires or short circuiting devices from exposed wires. I then rebooted all the computers (three of them) to make sure I was not dealing with any memory leaks or software issues, making sure I DID NOT allow for any updates to run. We all know that certain updates can screw up com port assignments and audio levels and a host of other things – I didn’t have time to deal with that right before the contest.  I Talked to a few rovers on the phone who are having issues and tried to diagnose and help them get it solved.

Looking at the clock it was 11:30 – 30 min before the contest – time to make another pot of coffee, check in with all the other rovers and get ready for the long 30+ hour sit.

Contest: Noon on Saturday

The first thing I noticed about the contest was there appeared to be more single band or dual band stations on the air as compared to last Jan (maybe I could just hear them now due to all the upgrades) but that was GREAT!  I had many comments such as “you are my first contact on 2m or 1296 MHz” which was exciting to see the new participation.  At the same time, I noticed the complete lack of 6m activity beyond some locals on FT8 and running voice.  (There was a very short opening on Saturday to OR,WA and CA) but all in all 6 meters was locals and rovers.  The rovers were making a lot of noise and working lots of stations – great! Points points points!

I run my station so I can monitor 2, 432 and 1296 all at the same time, keeping an eye on 6M FT8 as my early warn signal that the band was going to pop , flipping to 6m voice / 222 MHz and the other microwave bands as needed.  Activity stayed high until about 7 pm, when the typical evening slump happens as folks tend to family needs or other activities.   Around that time I shifted to meteor scatter on 2 and 6m, and worked those modes well into the early hours of now Sunday morning, to where I knew the contest was going to get real interesting.  

Never before in VHF contesting had I thought the hours between 3 and 4 am Sunday would be a critical time to operate.  Usually it is just a hour of time to stay awake and get through. Points are usually very low at this time, and sleeping for an hour is usually a better option that trying to work stations. However, this year with my new 1296 EME system, the next few hours would be a huge boon or bust.

on the moon


I needed to slam as many EME QSOs on 1296 into my log as fast as I could in this time frame as I had a very short EME window to the Eu, where most of the 1296 EME activity resides. (My moon was rising for DM43 at 2:41 AM and closing off to Europe right around 5 AM, and I needed about 12 degrees of moon to start working stations.) Subsequently,  5 AM is when when a most of the early contest meteor scatter starts to take place, where you can grab new multipliers (grids) from California to Texas – roughly a 1000 mile shot for me and quick scatter contacts.  On 1296 EME, the stations on the moon are MUCH louder than 144 MHz, but there are not as many to work and they are NOT NEARLY as content driven as 2m EME stations.  So, on 1296 you gotta work who you can see AS SOON AS you see them!  
While I was working station on 1296 EME I was also monitoring 144 EME, but I was only getting solid signal from the stations I had already worked earlier in the evening on 2m meteor scatter.. go figure –  and at 1 point per qso for 144MHz compared to 4 points for 1296-  it made a lot more sense to stay on 1296 and grab who I could.   I ended up with about a dozen 1296 EME qsos and 11 new multipliers, then the European window closed, and I had to make a full switch to meteor scatter on 6m and 2m and collecting grids and Q’s there.  I did manage to grab one VK off the moon on my moonset as well on 1296 much later in the contest, which was my first ever VK on 1296 EME, so it was extra special.

By now it was around 6 AM on Sunday and I was starting to get messages from the rover stations that they were heading back out to get to and work their Sunday grids, this also meant that it was about the time when the SOTA (Summits on the Air) stations were stating to head up to the peaks, and I needed to be ready for them.   Out of the chair, a quick coffee break.. what?  This pot is empty! Better make more.  Might as well walk around the garage a bit while it brews to clear my head.

SOTA


In years past there would be a few SOTA guys who would operate portable from the local peaks and work 6-2-432 during the contest.  Great to grab them, but limited in the frequencies that they would have access to, as they have to carry all of this stuff up to a mountain peak to operate.  However, here in AZ there has been an explosion of the SOTA folks getting organized for their “Winter madness event” and grabbing the Alinco dual and triple band HTs (FM only), the DJ-G29 and the DJ-7T which means just about every VHF SOTA station now has 144-222-432-902, and 1296 MHz available on two handheld radios! (And 6-2432 SSB with the Yaesu FT-817 if they brought them). This now is something to pay attention to! 
More bands, more points, even possibly a new multiplier.   POINTS POINTS POINTS!

One of the items on my 6 page list of things to do was to print out a list of the active SOTA stations, their grid, my bearing to their grid, the time they were to be active, and the bands that they were running.   This paid off big time.  I worked my way through the SOTA guys jumping from FM frequency to FM frequency running the bands with them as I flipped switches and buttons and they just picked up another HT and pushed the PTT switch. By noon I had worked all but two on my list, one of which I found out later had discovered he forgot his mic at his house and ended up only working CW on 6m, and the other station had a change of plans and didn’t operate their predicted schedule.   How busy was it really with the SOTA crew?   For any of you who have ever worked a FM satellite pass, this is what it sounded like with the SOTA guys.  Eleven stations deep, all of them on the SAME frequency trying to work each other with HTs from different peaks.  Here is where running a KW helped to break up the pile ups.  😉   Single op High Power baby!

Playing with Microwaves


As I stated before, for the Jan contest the points for the microwaves are sky high at 8 points per QSO on every band above 1296.   I wanted to capitalize on this, so for weeks I hounded the rovers who had 10GHz (N7OW and N7GP) to bring it with them.  I think they both agreed not because they wanted to, but because they were tired of me nagging them about it. It was adding a whole other pile of stuff to their already full vehicles running 6-7 bands, but it WAS worth 8 points and a new multiplier, so totally worth it. 

3.4 GHz (Yes, that band that we might be loosing or loosing a large part of) was a band that I recently picked up some gear (before the FCC announced that they want to sell it to the cellphone carriers). I had never operated on 3.4, but with the 8 points each QSO, I new I wanted to snag as many grids as possible on that band.  I knew N7GP had 3.4, so there would be some points and grids and due to some trading and a great deal, I had a spare 2w transverter for 3.4  that had recently come in from SG labs that ordered in back in October. I knew that “extra” transverter was not going to make points sitting on my desk, so I had to find a way to get it out in the field!  So I threw it together with a FT-817 as the IF radio, tested it and determined I was running about 1.5w on 3.4 GHz with this setup into a dummy load.  Cool.  Now an antenna – I didn’t have anything to loan out to the rovers.. let’s ask N7GP!   After a few nights of digging, Tom comes back with a 3.4 GHz 10dB feed horn. (about a foot long and 4-5″ wide). SWEET!! Perfect!

Tom handed me the horn and said “Here, this will work perfect for the rovers. The only caveat being.. “DON’T POINT THIS AT YOUR B*LLS WHEN TRANSMITTING!”  

Copy that Tom – message received.

So, I threw about 6′ of some of the “lowest” low loss coax I had on hand and connect the transverter to the horn.   (I figure the 1.5w is now down to about .9w with the coax loss on 3.4 GHz.)
Next I had to show it all to Dave AC7FF/R who was going to rove with it on Saturday. He didn’t know about 3.4, nor was he planning on taking it with all the other bands.. I basically told him he was.    

The look on his face was priceless.  

The conversation went something like this.

“So,” he said.. “You want me to hold the mic in this hand, (waving his left) and in the other (waving his right) point this at you from my rover spots.. even when I am way down south of Maricopa?” 

Yes. I replied.

“Um.. OK” He replied.

“And it gets better” I replied.  You know that 3.4 GHz loop antenna up on the roof and that that old rotor on the tripod, you know- the one you helped with last week?

Yes..

“Well, I have really no idea where that things is pointing, so you need to make LONG calls to me for a while so I can peak up the antenna on your signal, as I am shooting in the blind.  I mean, I know I am within 40 degrees, but I will need time to peak the antenna…   But I know it will work.”   I replied.

“Ahhh.. OK”

“And” I said, on MY system here in the shack, I have to manually switch between TX and RX lines, as I need to add about 30db of attenuation from my 817 before it goes into the transverter so I don’t overdrive it.  
This means I need about 7 seconds between TX and RX cycles.

“Uhh..So what does that mean?” asked Dave.

“It means when you call me,  after you unkey the PTT on the hand mic with your left hand, holding the feed horn pointing at my location with your right hand, you need to wait about 7 seconds for me to reply.  Then when I do reply, you need to wait ANOTHER 7 second for me to get it on the receive line before you reply BACK to me so I can hear you reply to my reply. If you reply too soon, I will NOT hear you as I will be manually plugging and unplugging coax cables into different ports..”

Seriously?  He replied.

“Dave, it’s gonna work.. trust me.”

“And oh…” I said as I handed him the feed horn,  Tom says “Don’t point this at your b*lls…”

Flash forward to the contest. I now KNOW why the telcom companies want 3.4 GHz. It worked GREAT!  Strong signals S4 to 20 over 9 depending on the grid, with under a watt at the feed horn at the rover station, HAND POINTING.  I worked Dave in each grid he roved.
In fact, I worked more stations on 3.4 GHz than I did on 2.4!  Unreal! 

So with several 3.4 GHz Q’s in the bag I was on a high to work N7OW/R, VE4MA, K0KFC and possibly AD7OI on 10 GHz.   It was coming up on about noon on Sunday when Barry (VE4MA) send me a message that he was ready to operate on 10 (he had been assembling the system the day before) and he could run on 5 GHz as well.   HECK YA!   I had the gear for 5 GHz, but not planned on operating it as N7GP was out of town for the contest.

I ran out to the garage and quickly got my 5 GHz transverter cabled up and zip tied – in complete N1AV fashion- “It will hold for the contest” to the 10 GHz station –  that is nothing more than a shelf on a surveyor’s tripod sitting in my backyard with a 60cm dish attached.  The whole thing is 4′ off the ground.   Found Barry on 10 GHz and easily worked there, then moved to 5 GHz and worked there too! 
WAHOO! NEW BAND, NEW QSO, NEW GRID.. MORE POINTS!
Soon after I ran with K0KFC and snagged him on 10 GHz as well as N7OW/R from one of his grids. POINTS POINTS POINTS!  8 points a whack!

For the next 6 hours it was a long slog of working local stations, chasing rovers and trying to get UT and NV stations to point this way.  Conditions were up and down, when they (NV and UT) were up, those stations to the NW were LOUD.. When they were down, you didn’t even know there were there.  The Lake Havasu boys had a great showing as well down here into the valley.  Ended snagging several on 2 and 222 and one station in Nevada on 2-222-432 and 1296.  Exciting!

In years past, in the last few hours of the contest there has always been a brief 6m opening. I missed it in 2018 by quitting early.  I hit it in 2019 by staying until the end.  I made a point this year to work until the very last minute of the contest, looking for an opening to form.
It was not the case this year.   I ended up rag chewing with WA7XX and N7VD on 2 meters trying to remain coherent after being up for about 34 hours straight with zero sleep time, while blasting away on 6m scatter and 6m FT8 looking for any signs of life.

Was it worth it?

I ended up 7K shy of doubling my score from last year.  I am super excited.   Right now it looks like I am sitting in 3rd place in SOHP, from  “Hepburn black” Arizona.  (According to current 3830 summaries as of 1-23-2020)

In fact it looks like a pile of top 5 and top 10 finishes by many AOCC members this year.  YEAH BUDDY!!

I do want to thank each and every AOCC member who got on and made some noise on the bands.  It was great to hear you and work you.  N7RK was like a beacon calling CQ.  Dave was putting in the effort! Every time my energy started to drag, I would spin the dial and find Dave calling CQ.  Suck it up Jay – get busy making noise!    Special shout out to the rovers who drove HUNDREDS of miles all over this great state Arizona to give points away.   Justin, KJ7JC/R your Mt.Ord site is a keeper.  Bro, you need to keep going there.  

MASSIVE signals from that location.

Ryan, thanks for dragging out the 10G.  Dave, thanks for letting me pile crap in your truck.. and all other rovers, thanks.

POINTS POINTS POINTS!!

My new June VHF list is already a page long.

See you in June!

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