Sunday, November 20, 2005

New (non-blog) ham page for K2DBK

Just a very quick update (despite the fact that I "owe" an update anyway): I've moved my ham radio home page to That should be much faster to access, and I may start updating it a bit more frequently.

Friday, October 07, 2005

The Doldrums at The Bottom of The Cycle

There may be some people out there who have read this blog in the past and have wondered why I haven't posted anything since after the Outer Banks trips (other than the VE session story). Well, unfortunately, there just hasn't been a whole lot to write about. At this point in the 11-year solar cycle, things are just not all that good as far as HF propagation is concerned. Over the last month or so, pretty much all I've done has been to work some stations on 6 meters (during some occasional Sporadic E openings and during the September VHF contest), and worked a bunch of stations during the California QSO Party.

I did do a bit of mobile 6m while driving home from work, which was fun, when the bands were open. My setup is pretty simple: I have an Icom 706MkIIG (which normally acts as my home 2m/440 station). I put that in the car, usually sitting it the backpack with the head separated and sitting on the seat next to me. I use a tri-magnet mount from Lakeview (the "hamstick" folks) with a 6m stick on the roof, and that's about it. That all sits on top of my truck, and I think that I get a pretty decent groundplane from the roof of the truck (2004 Chevy Trailblazer), so it seems to get out. I actually have sticks for most HF bands, but I've always been nervous about driving home with the longer sticks on top of the truck, because for for any bands lower than 20m, the combined length of the stick, truck, and mount makes it over 14' (I think), and there are a few underpasses that I go through every day that are only at 13' 6" (which I think is the state minimum required height). I've been told that if I go through those at any kind of speed at all, the top ("stinger") part of the antenna will A) probably be bent back anyway, and B) is supposed to withstand being whacked into concrete anyway...but I haven't gotten brave enough to try. For now, I'll stick with 6m when it's open.

Other than that, I did participate in the 2005 California QSO Party, though I didn't have as much time nor make as many contacts as I would have liked to. I like to at least break 100 QSOs, but things just didn't work out for that this year. This is one of the contests that I really like to work because while there's plenty of activity to keep things busy (no calling CQ for 20 minutes or searching around to find a station to work for 30 minutes at a time), there isn't so much that a "little pistol" (meaning a station that's running a fairly low amount of power, 100 watts, in my case, with pretty low-end antennas, a G5RV, for me) can't make contacts. Plus, for the most part, even the really big stations just seem friendlier here than for some of the other big contests. I know that with my station I'm not going to win any awards, but I like to "play" in these contests, and I know that I'm actually helping out the other guys (a point is a point is a point). This is the kind of contest that I'd recommend for someone who hasn't really done any contests but would like to see what it's like.

Friday, August 19, 2005

An out-of-this-world (by proxy) VE session

One of the things that I decided to do when I became a ham was to find ways to give back to the ham community. I've done some public service work, and even served for a while as the District Emergency Coordinator for Bergen County ARES. But one of the most rewarding things that I've done is to become a Volunteer Examiner (VE).

If you're a ham, you probably already know this, but for those who might not know: The way ham licensing works is that the FCC has delegated the responsibility for testing for new and upgraded ham licenses to hams themselves. This isn't quite the same as the wolf guarding the henhouse, as there are numerous safeguards built into the program, and an individual ham can't just pass a buddy through. In a nutshell, in order to give an exam, a ham has to pass a test to become a VE that's given by a Volunteer Examiner Coordinator, and the FCC deals with the VEC's, not the individual VEs. I am a VE for the ARRL VEC having taken their open-book exam a few years ago, after I upgraded my license class to Amateur Extra. A team of 3 or more VEs is required to order to give an exam session (commonly referred to as a "VE Session"), and there are other requirements as well. (The link to the ARRL VEC above gives lots and lots of details about this, if you're interested.)

Anyway, the VE team that I work with when I help test consists of members from, and is sponsored by, the 10-70 Repeater Association, a radio club that I belong to. Normally, they run a session once a month or so, which works out fine to test most folks who are ready to get a new or upgraded license. On occasion, the team goes "on the road" to accomodate groups or individuals who, for various reasons, can't attend a "regular" session. In the past, the team has done "road" sessions for the US Power Squadron, helped test a group of new hams at the end of a series of radio classes at Montclair State University, and even went to a "senior living" center to test a great group of guys who'd taken up ham radio as a hobby after (in some cases, many, many years after) retirement.

Recently, we got to do a "road show" for a very special candidate. Dr. Gregory Olsen, as of this writing, is scheduled to be launched into space aboard a Soyuz rocket on October 1 as the world's third "space tourist" through an arrangement with Space Adventures, Inc. The Soyuz capsule will dock with the International Space Station (ISS), and Greg will spend eight days on the ISS before returning to earth. One of the things that NASA and the Russian space agency like to have their astronauts (including "space tourists") do while at the ISS is to make ham radio contacts with schools (as part of the ARISS program) as well as individuals, as time permits. Since the "space tourist" doesn't have any official duties, they tend to have a bit more free time than the "regular" astronauts and try to accomodate when possible. Of course, you need to have a license to operate the radio station, even in space. Most of the career NASA astronauts and Russian cosmonauts already have their license, but it turned out that Greg did not have a license. This is where I, along with fellow VE Paul Elder, W2PWE, and VE Team Coordinator, Joyce Birmingham, KA2ANF, come in.

Joyce has been doing VE session for many years (I think she told me it was 12 years?), and is well-known by the folks at ARRL Headquarters, so when NASA asked the ARRL VEC folks if there was a VE team in New Jersey in the Princeton, NJ area (Greg lives in Princeton), they thought of her immediately. (As an aside, in case you're not familiar with New Jersey's geography, River Vale, where I live, isn't exactly "near" Princeton, but it was close enough. More on that shortly.) Joyce contacted me and asked if I'd be willing to take a trip down to Princeton to do the testing, and when I heard a bit of the background, I jumped at the chance. I've been a fan of the space program for as long as I can remember, and the chance to meet an astronaut (or cosmonaut) was something that I just couldn't pass up.

It turned out that Greg was going to be in NJ for just a few days, getting a little time off from his training in Russia. There were a lot of calls back and forth between Joyce, the ARRL guys, some NASA folks, and Greg, and finally a session was set up for Friday afternoon at 5 PM. I checked the directions, and figured that I'd just hop on the turnpike (which is about 2 miles from where I work), take it down to exit 9, then jump on Route 1. I figured it'd take maybe 90 minutes, but to make sure that I was there on time, I figured I'd leave at about 3:15. Amazingly, nothing major happened in the office, and by 3:15 I was actually in my car driving out of the parking lot.

I was on the turnpike heading south when I heard the bad news: There was apparently a very serious accident around exit 8A (well south of where I was going), and traffic was starting to back up. Well, I figured that as long as it didn't back up as far as exit 9, I'd be OK. Driving south, the traffic was moving surprisingly well for a Friday in August, but then I heard more bad news on the radio: The accident was so bad that they'd closed the turnpike in both directions at exit 8A, and the traffic was really starting to build up. I got past exit 11 with no trouble, and was coming up on exit 10 when I heard on the radio that southbound traffic was backed up past exit 10. Being just about there, I figured I'd jump off at exit 10 and work my way south if it was backed up, but as I came up to the exit, it looked fine, so I kept going. Oops.

Right after a slight curve, traffic came to an almost dead halt. At that point, I think I was under a sign that said that it was about 2 miles to exit 9, so I figured it'd take me 15 or 20 minutes to get to the exit, then I'd be ok. Wrong. It took about an hour, I think, to get to the exit. After I finally got off, it was still a nightmare, because lots of other folks had decided to get off at exit 9 as well. If you've ever taken that exit, you know that it's one of those toll plazas that's a mess with traffic coming in from multiple directions and spreading out to several highways on the other side. Naturally, it seems like about 95% of the people there are in the wrong toll both lane and have to cross 8 lanes of traffic to get to the road they want. Now imagine what it's like with multiple times the normal traiffc, with most of them having never been through the mess before and winding up crossing all eight lanes of traffic multiple times. The most amazing thing was that I didn't see any accidents, though moving at some fraction of a mile per hour any accident would have been little more than a fender bender. I finally got of the merge from hell, and made it onto Route 18, which then goes into Route 1. That was slightly better than the turnpike, but not by much.

I'd finally made some progress on Route 1 and had actually starting moving at highway speed when Joyce called my cell phone. They were even farther back than I was, having taken the Garden State Parkway and gotten off at Route 1 directly. (On a Friday? In August? I don't know what they were thinking.) She'd spoken to Greg who figured that (given that it was now about 5:15) he'd meet us part of the way up Route 1, so that we'd have less distance to drive. That was fine, except that it turns out that I was already past where we were supposed to meet. I jumped of Route 1 at some relatively small road just north of Princeton, and figured I'd just pull into a driveway, turn around, and make a left back onto the highway and head back north. Another mistake.

What I didn't realize when I exited the highway was that apparently this road was some kind of major outlet from somewhere (maybe folks who work in Princeton?) and there was a mile (at least) of traffic trying to get on to Route 1. I told Joyce this, and fortunately, she was pretty familiar with the area. We started loosing cell phone coverage, but we were able to find a local repeater, and Joyce managed to talk me through Princeton (the town) and Princeton (the University) and back to the highway another way. Whew.

I finally arrived at the hotel at about 5:45, making my travel time there about 2 1/2 hours. As I pulled in, wondering if I'd recognize Greg, I saw a bright red Mercedes with the license plate "SENSORS" (he founded Sensors Unlimited, Inc.) and as I was heading inside, I saw a guy wearing a Sensors Unlimited golf shirt. Using my keen powers of deduction, I went up and introduced myself and have him an update on where the rest of the team was.

I then spent the next 40 minutes or so talking with Greg, answering some questions about how the exam process works, telling him when he should expect his license, talking about ham radio in general, and chatting about the space program. It was a lot of fun for me, and while I felt bad for him, having to cool his heels while waiting to take the test (which makes a lot of folks nervous; I know that I was), it was a great chance for me to get to chat with him, something that I wouldn't ordinarly have been able to do.

About 40 minutes after I arrived, Joyce and Paul got there, along with George, KC2GLG, who'd was acting as our official photographer. We got to business pretty quickly, setting up shop in a back corner of the hotel lobby. Normally, we test in quieter and more private surroundings, but since Greg was our only candidate and he didn't mind, we found a spot, had Greg fill out the required paperwork, gave him his test, and basically stood around for 10 or 15 minutes as he went through the test.

I somehow wound up doing the first grading "pass" over his paper (each of three VEs are required to make sure that we all get the same score), and while I was pretty sure that he would pass, as I put the scoring template over the answer sheet, I was pleased to see that there were few incorrect answers. (Because of privacy concerns, I can't say how many he got right and how many were wrong, but suffice it to say that he passed.) I breathed a sigh of relief as I finished, passed the answer sheet and scoring template to Paul, who confirmed my results, as did Joyce. Whew.

After we gave him his results, we asked him if he'd like to take any other of the elements (there is 1 element for morse code, at least for now, and 3 written elements), and he (unsurprisingly) declined. We finished filling out his paperwork and then George took a bunch of pictures. We were just about to send Greg on his way when Joyce realized that in our haste to get things under way, we'd forgotten to collect the required testing fee ($14), so we asked him for that, and, finally, he was able to leave.

We had a bit of post-session paperwork to do, then we headed back to the cards (Paul drove back up with me so I'd have some company for the trip back). Fortunately, the trip back was very smooth, and I wound up getting home at around 9:30 or so.

The ARRL wrote up a nice article on what we did which as of this writing, they have up on their website along with a couple of photos, including one that includes yours truly. While this wasn't quite the same as "playing radio", I really did enjoy the unique opportunity that I had.

Sunday, July 17, 2005

Operating from a rare grid (FM26)

Last week, I was on vacation with Sharon and 3 other couples. We went down the to the Outer Banks in North Carolina (Corolla, to be specific) and rented a house there for the week. When we started planning the trip back in December, I figured I'd bring along my 706MkIIG and maybe spend a little bit of time operating. Since this was a vacation, not a DXpedition (which is, roughly, a trip to some location, typically somewhat off the beaten path, with the primary purpose being to operate ham radio), I figured that I would just get on the air whenever I had a little bit of spare time. At some point over the months that followed, Larry, N4VA, pointed out to me that the location that we were staying in was considered a rare grid for VUCC award purposes. (Basically, the goal of the VUCC award is to "collect" as many grid squares as possible by making contacts with stations in those grid squares using frequencies at 50Mhz [6 meters] and higher. A grid square is a 1 degree latitude x 2 degrees longitude rectangle; the entire planet is divided into these grid squares, which are further subdivided. The grid square page at the ARRL's website gives more detail about this. The official rules from the ARRL for the VUCC award are here.)

I decided that although I'd bring some hamsticks that I could use on a tripod (with radials) and a bunch of wire (in case I really wanted to build a simple dipole) for operating HF, I though that it would be fun to spend most of my time operating on 6m "giving out" the rare FM26 grid. (It's considered rare since most of the grid is over water, and there only seem to be one or two hams who actually have a residence in that grid; I don't know if they get on the air much but it seemed like one more wouldn't hurt.) As luck would have it, I was down at N4VA's place a few weeks before leaving (see the the "Ham's Field of Dreams" story), and he lent me a spare 6m loop antenna to use. (The loop happens to be identical to what's on my roof at home, a loop from KB6KQ that has worked very well for me.)

When I got down to the house, I was originally going to put the mast (3 x 5' sections of Radio Shack mast) up on the dunes, but I realized that I could easily secure it to the upper-level deck of the house where we were staying, which A) Was a LOT easier to set up and take down and B) Was actually higher than it would have been on the dunes anyway. You can see the loop on the mast in the picture above.

It turns out that the loop worked reasonably well from up there, and while the proximity to water (maybe 150 yards to the ocean from the loop) might not have made a huge difference, I'm sure it didn't hurt. The bad news was that unfortunately, 6m didn't feel like being very cooperative during my stay (though things improved a bit during the drive home). I had some brief band openings to the midwest and to Florida which accounted for about half of my contacts, the other half were groundwave contacts to folks in NC, VA, MD, and DE for the most part. It was nice having some folks thank me for getting on the air to give out that rare grid, and I did have one card waiting for me when I got home (and another has come in since). I'm going to make up a special card just for the operation which I'll send to anyone who needs confirmation.

Tuesday, June 28, 2005

A Ham's Field Of Dreams

The ham version of "Field of Dreams" Posted by Hello
A couple of weekends ago, I went to Virginia along with Justin to visit my friends Larry, N4VA and Coleman, K4RZ. Visiting them is always fun, but the reason behind this trip was to attend the annual open house at W3LPL's contest superstation. Frank's antenna farm is located on what used to be ten acres of cornfield. He was the first person in there, and he put up his tower before the neighbors moved in, so I guess they knew what they were in for. (One of his neighbors is Bernie, W3UR, who apparently has an arrangement where he can use one or two of W3LPL's towers when they aren't in use for contests.) Pretty much like the movie "Field Of Dreams", Frank cut down a cornfield and built something somewhat unusual. I didn't have a chance to ask him if he heard a voice telling him "If you build it, they will come", but contesters (and lots of wanna-be's like me!) certainly do come.

I've uploaded a bunch of pictures for your viewing pleasure. The pictures really don't do the place justice. The big problem is that the place is just so darn big that it's hard to get back far enough to take a single picture that gives a good perspective. The picture on this page was taken from about as far back as I could get while still on W3LPL's property, and it only shows a few of the towers. By the way, it's not at all obvious from the picture here, but that house on the left of this image is a pretty large house (3 car garage and all), it only looks small in the picture.

I figure that if nothing else, these pictures are good for showing to Sharon to explain that I'd never wind up with anything even 1/10th as large as this.

Here's an interesting tidbit: None of the towers is taller than 199' 6". (None seemed to be much shorter than that either.) The reason for that is that apparently after you get to 200', all kinds of of regulations regarding FAA notification, tower lighting, etc. come into play, so they've "settled" (hah!) for the current height.

Monday, June 27, 2005

Getting started in ham radio

As I mentioned previously, I was encouraged to start a blog by a friend (Jim) who, along with his daughter, are looking to get their ham licenses. (Jim previously had a license but let it lapse.) He and I corresponded a bit as he asked me for suggestions about study aids, test information, and so on. This posting will contain an edited version of the email thread between us. Perhaps someday I'll feel inspired enough to really clean this but, but for now, this will have to do. Everything in this post below this point not in italics is part of that thread, I've inserted a bit of explanation here and there in italics to help clarify stuff that was edited out. [28-June-05: I corrected the speed currently used on ARRL code tests, which is still 5 wpm, but sent at 15 wpm character speeds, not 18 wpm.]

Jim had asked me for a recommendation of a program to learn morse code.

I found this link in an article in QST (the ARRL magazine) and took a look. While it doesn't simulate the QSOs you'd need for the actual Morse Code test, it does seem to do a nice job of teaching you the individual letters. (In fact, I might play with it a bit to see if I can get my own speed improved a bit.) The speed is adjustable, and you certainly don't need to run very fast. Although the test is given at 5 words per minute, I recommend a speed of around 7.5 wpm to help smooth out any test-day jitters that you (or your daughter) might run into.

Good luck!

This was a discussion about the idiosyncracies of that particular program and about how to learn CW. The text in bold were Jim's comments to me.

The bars seem to move up and down as you make mistakes or get it right, not certain. And it adds additional letters at some point.

Yes, that is correct. I've used other programs similar to this. Basically, what happens is that as the ratio of correct to incorrect tries at a particular letter increases, the bar gets smaller and smaller, eventually almost vanishing. Then, when the program "senses" that you've made "progress", it will add new letters. I guess I'm good enough (at least at the speed that I was running at) that I was able to make some progress. On the other hand, I certainly wasn't good enough to finish the whole thing.

I did read the web page again, and they seem to want to make it more about dahdahdahdahdah and dahditdahdit rather then - - - - - or zero.

Right, that's one of the key things that almost every CW training book, program, etc. says. Don't learn "dots and dashes", learn that a certain sound represents a certain character. What eventually happens is that you'll actually recognize entire words (I didn't believe that when I was told, but there are a few common things that I can "hear" at speeds that I even find surprising.) If you have to "translate" you'll learn well enough to pass a test (and if that's the only goal, then that's fine), but you won't be able to go much faster.

I should probably plan on a test date for tech for her and I, and a date for general. We need a date in the sand to set a goal against.

That's more or less what I did for each of my tests. For the tech and General, I didn't need a lot of lead time (well, I needed more for the CW), but the Extra took me a while, but once I felt that I was getting "close", I picked a test date and worked towards that. Seems to work out well for lots of folks. You can find a list of upcoming tests here:

You know, now comes the other part – can you recommend any of the testing trainers? Be it software or audio? Ha-ha – you had to see this coming.

Of course. :-)

I used 2 programs to learn. The one for learning letters wasn't as good as the one you've been using, (and I can't remember which one it was anyway), but the one I used for doing practice tests was called "NuMorse". I took a look at their website and they still seem to have the original version (NuMorse) as well as some newer stuff. I could have sworn that it was freeware when I used it, looks it's a "try it and send in $$$ to get a software key to unlock". I'm not sure what the restrictions are without the key, but it's work looking at. The software design of at least NuMorse isn't the greatest, but it does do a good job of generating sample tests that are very close to the actual tests you'll eventually be taking.

One thing that I do want to mention are the tests are given at 5 words per minute, but each character is sent at 1815 wpm, with the spacing between characters increased so that the "net throughput" is still 5WPM. This is known as Farnsworth speeds, and NuMorse (and probably most other trainers) support that. (You'll see 2 sliders, one for character speed and one for word speed; you'll want to adjust for 18WPM characters and at least 5wpm word speed.) If my description isn't clear, play around a bit with the sliders in NuMorse, you'll see what I'm talking about.

Jim asked if I felt that the Nu-ware tests programs were good to use.

I used the ARRL books to study from, and I took practice tests at I'd give you my books, but the question pools have changed and while they'd be a good starting point, you'd be better off investing in your own copy of the books. I recommend "Now You're Talking" for the Technician written, and "The General Class License Manual" for General. As much a fan as I am of free and/or online stuff, I think the books are worthwhile. You can order these books online at the ARRL online store

For taking tests, in addition to the link above, is very good in that the test there is more like the actual tests. (The ones give you immediate feedback, which is fine, but the one is more like the real test in that you have to take the whole test first. I think it makes you work a bit harder.)

There are also tests at which at a quick glance looks pretty good too, but I've never really gone though it much.

K2DBK's ham radio blog

Recently, I was exchanging emails with a friend about some things related to helping him (and his daughter) get their ham (amateur) radio licenses. After an number of emails back and forth, he suggest that some of the information might be useful to others, and that I publish it in the form of a blog. After a little thought, I thought that perhaps he was right (and if not, then the only loss was a bit of my own time spent posting), so I thought I'd go ahead and start posting.

As a prelude to posting the information we were discussing, I wanted to just provide a few tidbits of information about ham radio in general, in case someone happens to randomly stumble upon this and wonder what this is all about.

Many of you might remember hearing that your parents or grandparents (realistically more like "father or grandfather"; hams are predominantly, though not exclusively, male) used to use their ham radio to talk all over the world. This is that same ham radio, and although hams still use morse code (we call it CW, which means Continuous Wave) and "phone" (voice), hams continue to innovate and there's some pretty sophisticated digital technologies being used which allow us to communicate when signals are so weak that they can't be heard by a human).

Anyway, there are plenty of places to learn more about ham radio, but I think the best is the American Radio Relay League's site at If you don't find what you're looking for there, drop me a line at k2dbk [At] and I'll do what I can to help.