Wednesday, June 27, 2012

20 Years as a "Ham" Coming Up

It's amazing how time flies when you're an Amateur Radio operator. On October 6, 2012, I will reach another milestone: 20 years as an Amateur Radio operator.

I've come a long way from my first Technician Class license in 1992, when I did all my activity on a handheld transceiver. My first one was a Realistic HTX-202, since I only had privileges above 50 MHz. I got my first exposure to emergency communications during the Flood of 1993, helping out with communications duty in St. Charles County. It made me realize the value of Amateur Radio in emergencies. I added a five-eighths wave ground plane after the flood. I took part in my first Field Day in 1994 with the Suburban Radio Club (now St. Louis and Suburban Radio Club). While my Amateur Radio activity tailed off in the 1998-2002 time period, I still renewed my license when it expired in 2002. As I was a radio announcer, I thought it would be a great idea to promote Amateur Radio on the air, especially Field Day. The first time I did an interview for Field Day was in 1998 at WFUN-FM 95.5, when I interviewed SRC's then-President, Ed Kimble. In 2000, while I was at WSIE, I interviewed Mike Moore the day before Field Day. From 2002 to 2009, I interviewed numerous people involved with the hobby, including Steve Schmitz, another past SLSRC President, along with Bill Coby, a past President of the Egyptian Radio Club, Rich Morgan from the Lewis and Clark Radio Club, and Steve Wooten, the Emergency Coordinator for St. Louis County (an EC heads up the local Amateur Radio Emergency Service, or ARES, group).

I have to admit, I did struggle to learn the Morse Code. I made an effort to learn the Morse Code during the Fall semester of 2006, with the help of a professor at the SIUE School of Engineering, Dr. Andy Lozowski. I mastered twelve Morse Code characters before the FCC did away with the Morse Code requirements for General and Extra Class licenses in 2007.

As I recall, it took two tries to pass the Technician Class exam. I passed Element 2 of the exam at the Zero Beaters Hamfest in Washington, MO in July 1992, but failed the Element 3B. I passed that element the following month at the St. Charles Hamfest, taking the exam in an auditorium at St. Joseph Hospital. After the Morse Code requirement was dropped for General and Extra, I decided to study for the written General Class exam. It took me two tries in June 2007. I failed on the first attempt at the Cliff Cave branch of the St. Louis County Library in Oakville, MO. The following week, after some extra study, I passed on the second attempt. I decided to make it a priority to get my General Class ticket before the question pool changed on July 1, 2007.

I did something different to study for my Extra Class exam...take a crash course. This was offered through the St. Louis and Suburban Radio club at the National Office of Boys Hope-Girls Hope in Bridgeton, MO. I spent one weekend in May 2012 with the Extra crash course after doing plenty of studying. I studied for one more week after wrapping up the crash course before taking the Extra Class exam on May 22, 2012. Unlike with the first two times, I passed on the first try. Again, I took the exam at the Cliff Cave branch of the St. Louis County Library in Oakville.

The equipment has changed over the years; I used a handheld transceiver exclusively as my main station equipment until 2005, first with a Realistic HTX-202, switching to an ICOM IC-2TH Sport when the HTX-202 blew its transmitter. In 2005, I added an MFJ-9402 2 meter SSB transceiver (which blew in 2009), and worked several new states with the rig (driving a Mirage B-34-G linear amp, which I originally purchased for the ICOM HT in 2003, along with a Diamond five-elemebt beam, vertically polarized) and a second Diamond five-element beam (horizontally polarized). The following year, I added a 6 meter station, with a Kenwood TS-60 (which is NOT for sale!) and a halo (which I later donated to the St. Louis and Suburban Radio Club for Field Day operations). The six-meter station was purchased from a fellow Ham in Kirkwood. In January 2007, I added a Cushcraft three-element beam for 6 meters in time for the ARRL January VHF Sweepstakes. I added an HF rig, an ICOM IC-745 purchased at the Winterfest (sponsored by SLSRC) in January 2010. The antenna I use for HF is an MFJ-1778 G5RV antenna, which I purchased new at Winterfest in January 1997 for shortwave listening applications. I built a dipole for SWL use to replace the G5RV in February 2010.

My experience as a shortwave listener, AM and FM broadcast band DXer and TV DXer prepared me for the experiences I have had as an Amateur Radio operator. If anyone asked me who my influences were for Amateur Radio, I would have to credit two people. One is Vern Jackson (WAØRCR) of Wentzville, MO. When he was living in Florissant, he ran the Gateway 160 Meter Net in AM mode from a shack in back of his mother's house. I could hear his station on the image frequency of 950 kHz. After I got the Realistic DX-200 in October 1982, I could also hear Vern on his regular frequency of 1860 kHz. The signal became somewhat weaker after he moved the station to Wentzville. My other influence is on my mother's side of the family. When I was younger, I would occasionally go with my family to the Springfield/Branson area. A second cousin on my mother's side, Jim Marshall (WAØQEV), had an excellent setup when he was living in Rogersville, MO. He even got me hooked on Ctizens' Band radio (his handle was Alligator Man...I was Alligator Boy at first, but after experimenting with several others, I settled on Alligator Junior) back in the 1970s while visiting him in Hollister (near Branson). On a trip to Red Top Mountain State Park, GA in the spring of 1992, I witnessed him operating a Heathkit HF rig with a mobile antenna and a small antenna tuner calling CQ on 75 meters. I've also talked to a few of my fellow DXers on the Amateur bands, such as FM DXer Fred Laun (K3ZO), FM/TV DXer Pat Dyer (WA5IYX), VHF/UHF DXer Peter Baskind (N4LI) and noted AM broadcast band DXer Wayne Heinen (NØPOH).

I'm very fortunate (and proud) to be part of a fraternity that includes country singer Ronnie Milsap, former Oakland Athletics player Joe Rudi (from the World Series champion teams in the early 1970s), rock guitarist Joe Walsh, and audio guru Bob Heil. A radio-related hobby is also a great way to keep a teenager out of did in my case. 

Thursday, June 7, 2012

E-Layer Skip Propagation

This form of propagation of VHF signals is most common in the summer months, but can happen at any time of the year. This is where signals bounce off this particular layer of the atmosphere, and land up to 1,500 miles away on a single hop. This form of propagation is called E-layer skip, or what's more commonly known to the Amateur Radio and TV/FM DX communities as "E-skip".

From my location near St. Louis, I most commonly get FM signals via this mode from Florida and New England. When the U.S. broadcast television in analog format, I most commonly got areas to the west (such as the Rocky Mountain states), as well as the East Coast. There are times when I can also hear Canadian and Mexican FM signals. With more Canadian stations converting to digital, opportunities to log new Canadian stations are getting fewer. So, I've been monitoring the lowest open FM frequency for skip conditions (in my area, it's 88.5 MHz, since local KDHX 88.1 is blocking 88.3 with their wasteful "HD" service). With Mexico taking it's time with digital TV, it has made it possible for me to log TV stations from outside the U.S., Canada and Mexico. Since U.S. full-power TV stations converted to digital in 2009, I've been able to add two new countries to my TV DX logbook via double-hop E-skip (Venezuela and Nicaragua). I've noted only a few openings reaching as high as VHF television channel 7; the last opening above 108 MHz I noted was in 2004, when I logged KHB38 Atlantic City, NJ on 162.400 MHz.

It takes just as much (if not more) patience to get a video capture on an analog E-skip signal than on a digital TV signal via the same mode of propagation or even tropo. Recently, I noted openings into Canada and Mexico on analog TV. This video capture was noted on May 29, 2012 from CKND2 (VHF Channel 2) from Minnedosa, Manitoba, Canada. The station it relays, CKND in Winnipeg, has already converted to digital. Note the small "Global Winnipeg" ID in the bottom right hand corner of the screen.

The next afternoon, I was able to get this video capture from XEFB-TV (VHF Channel 2) from Monterrey, Nuevo Leon, Mexico. What gives this one away is the abbreviation "Mty." That abbreviation stands for Monterrey. This is from an infomercial.

The same afternoon, I got this video capture from XEFE-TV (VHF Channel 2) from Nuevo Laredo, Tamaulipas, Mexico. This is across the river from Laredo, TX. The ID is clearly seen on this newscast.

With the conversion of U.S. television to digital, receiving the few VHF-low band DTV stations via E-skip is even more of a challenge. Very few can hold a signal for a long enough period of time to allow me to identify the station, forcing me to rely more often on the PSIP info on the digital channel. The only digital TV station received by E-layer skip that held its signal long enough to allow me to identify the station was WRGB (VHF Channel 6) Schenectady, NY. This was received in July 2009.

Receiving digital TV signals via E-skip is perhaps the most challenging part of TV DXing in the digital age. All of these video captures used a Hauppauge Win-TV-Go video card, which I installed in my computer in 2005 (since the Win-TV-D card for digital TV had been discontinued). A Zenith DTT-901 was used to receive the digital TV DX.

On the FM band, I have been recording more of my E-skip DX on a computer, especially since I added MP3 recording to my Magix Music Maker program. I have stored most of my FM DX on a Box account I added last year. I'm still using a cassette deck to record other FM DX. I don't own an "HD" receiver (and don't really care to own such a receiver, since I have Sirius-XM Satellite Radio), and being 20 miles from the nearest 100 kW FM stations, I can sometimes pull in DX over the digital sidebands of my locals.

My first experience with this type of propagation was in the summer of 1983. I had just added an Archer (Radio Shack) VU-110 to my setup. The antenna was pointed east and in the attic at my original QTH on Lamplight Lane; I pulled in WFSB (VHF Channel 3) Hartford, CT with their 11:00 p.m. newscast. What gave it away was the weather radar centered on the Hartford (CT)/Springfield (MA) area. Later, I was watching "The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson" on the same channel, and found a commercial mentioning Fayetteville; I thought I was pulling in KYTV in Springfield, MO (which is 91 miles, as the regional jet flies, from Fayetteville, AR). Imagine my surprise when the station IDed as WSTM Syracuse, NY! I would also get such diverse stations as KENW Portales, NM, WEDU Tampa, FL and KIDK Idaho Falls, ID on Channel 3 in the coming years. When I lived in Woodstock and Marietta, GA from 1988 to 1992, I also would get WFSB and WSTM on channel 3. In the Atlanta area, Channel 4 was an open channel. On E-skip, I would get such Channel 4 stations as KGBT-TV Harlingen, TX, KDUH Scottsbluff, NE and even WNBC-TV New York. The last E-skip opening I noted from Georgia, in June of 1992, was quite an experience. Bill Alisauskas in Douglasville tipped me that he was getting KGAN Channel 2 from Cedar Rapids, IA through local WSB-TV. Not only did I pull in KGAN that night, but also KFYR-TV on Channel 5 from Bismarck, ND through local WAGA. I did pull in KGAN one more time from my current QTH in 2008, through local KTVI.

On the FM side, I have had just as diverse of experience with E-skip. I started out with a pair of FM rabbit ears in 1983; the Archer (Radio Shack) Stereo Supreme. One E-skip opening into New England in 1985 gave me one memorable catch: WRDO-FM 92.3 Augusta, ME (with local WIL-FM off). I still have the QSL letter from that reception. I found the address only because the station had an AM affiliate on 1400 kHz. Today, that station is known as WMME (Moose). During the move from Woodstock to Marietta in the summer of 1991, I pulled in a station on 99.1 MHz with Colorado ads. On this frequency back then, I could count on either hearing Macon, GA or Huntsville, AL. The station turned out to be KUAD Windsor, CO. Even Chicago made it in via E-skip while I was in Georgia (WLIT 93.9...even with a local on 94.1). Since returning to Hazelwood in 1992 (it'll be 20 years on June 29), I've even been able to null out my locals to pull in E-skip. For example, I have been able to null out KDHX 88.1 to pull in WJIS Bradenton, FL (June 28, 1994) and KGNZ Abilene, TX (June 27, 1994). More recently, I was able to null out KPNT 105.7 to pull in CIGL Laval, PQ (July 29, 2009). One country I didn't log while I was in Georgia that I've logged in Missouri: Canada. The only other English-speaking country I logged from Georgia was Belize on 88.9 in 1991 (through semi-local WMBW Chattanooga, TN). My having taken one year of college level Spanish and one semester of college level French have helped me tremendously in identifying the Mexican and French Canadian stations.

I began operating on 6 Meters in 2006, after being a 2 meter operator exclusively since I was first licensed in 1992. So far, I've worked some 170 grid squares (2 degrees longitude by one degree latitude wide) on 6 Meters, mainly in single sideband. I've also worked several stations in AM mode, and one grid square each in FM and CW modes. I've worked the U.S., Canada, Mexico, Cuba, Antigua, Puerto Rico, the Turks and Caicos Islands, the Cayman Islands, the Bahamas and the Dominican Republic on 6 meters.

This is one of the most interesting forms of VHF signal propagation, in my honest opinion.