Operating CW is More than Just Communicating with Code

In response to my post on American Morse, a ham e-mailed me:

Interesting. With all you’ve written on ham radio, with all you seem to be involved in, and with all the help you’ve given me over the last several months, I expected you were a CW pro.

Now that I’ve passed Tech, and will be taking (and passing) my General exam in a little over a week, I, too, have decided to learn code. In fact, I bought a couple of keyer kits to “build my own” and resurrect the fun I had as a kid who built all sorts of Heathkits.

Nonetheless, I’m not sure whether I want to learn Morse, or just be able to “use it.” By the latter I mean there is, as you know, a bunch of hardware and software that will translate received Morse into text, and convert keyboard-entered text into sendable CW. So far my main stumbling block is that most of the devices and programs require a PC with a serial port, and I’m a die-hard Mac user.

Operating CW is about more than just communicating with Morse Code, though. Here’s  how I replied:

Take it from me, you really want to learn code and not just be able to use it with computer decoders.  There are several reasons for this.

The first is that even the best CW decoders aren’t very good when the signal being received is weak or when the operator on the other end isn’t sending perfect code. And even when the signal is strong, the character spacing has to be just so, or the decoding program will insert spaces between letters.

The second reason that you want to learn it rather than just use it is that it’s just more fun. If you’re going to use a computer to send and receive code, you might as well skip CW and operate PSK31 or one of the other digital modes. Seriously. For me, one of the real joys of working CW is using and developing the skill.




French Handbook: Gratuit!

The 2011 Big ‘French Handbook’ by F6BCU is now free to download


According to Jean-Nicolas, F6BCU, it contains numerous technical articles, including many home-brew projects.

A Google translation of the handbook description reads:

Better than a handbook on the issue and receiving amateur radio, which always reminds own grand theories and basic principles of radio -electricity, this compilation (2100 A4 pages, 225 articles) building radio already published, to be published and unpublished, is the essential traveling more than 45 years (1966-2011) of activities and technical achievements of OM F6BCU.This new CD to download (exclusively on Onlineradio) includes all editions radio techniques of the Blue Line, consisting mostly of original articles constructions of the author of historical articles reconstituted according to existing assembly … This new CD does not stop there because the building “Home-made” continuous for future constructions book is already full for the future. The Handbook of the Blue Line is must-have, and that’s good, because Download it free here! Author’s website: http://f6bcu.monsite-orange.fr/ Any reproduction in part of the CD is prohibited without the express permission of the author (F6BCU) or Onlineradio.fr


A Downsized Field Day

It seems like everyone (except for maybe Google) is downsizing these days. With that in mind, I thought that I’d downsize my Field Day. Instead of participating in the large 5A ARROW Field Day operation, the guys that hang around WA2HOM, our club station at the Hands-On Museum, decided to set up a much smaller operation.

Our first idea was to set up outside the museum. That seemed like it was going to work out until Quentin, KD8IPF, informed me that he couldn’t attend, as his wife was going to be out of town, and he needed to take care of his kids. I was concerned that without Quentin that we wouldn’t have enough operators to have two people there at all times.

Then, Quentin volunteered his backyard. This turned out to be a great venue. He has a fairly large, with a couple of big trees. Not only that, he lives next door to his mother-in-law, and she’s volunteered her trees as antenna supports. You gotta love a mother-in-law like that!

One of the advantages of downsizing is that you don’t have to spend so much time setting up. Instead of setting up antennas for five HF stations, a GOTA station, and a VHF/UHF station, all we had to do was set up antennas for our two HF stations. And, since we planned on using Quentin’s already-installed, multi-band dipole, we only really had one antenna to worry about.

That being the case, we decided that we really didn’t need to start setting up until noon on Saturday. Jim, K8ELR, and I actually arrived about 11:30 am, and that proved to be more than enough time. Jim brought with him a 40m dipole and a 30m, end-fed half-wave antenna, while I brought my BuddiStick. We quickly decided to put up the 40m dipole, and by 1pm, we were already on the air.

A Tale of Two Antennas
Of course, it wasn’t really as simple as all that. When we started operating, the two stations interfered with one another something terrible. So much so that my KX-1 was even causing Quentin’s LDG autotuner to retune itself when I transmitted.

The problem was that the 40m dipole and the multi-band dipole were running nearly parallel to one another. I should have known that this would occur, having been involved with more than a few Field Days by now, but it never even crossed my mind.

Fortunately, the solution was relatively simple. All we had to do was to take down the multi-band dipole and hang it from two different trees, one of them in the adjoining yard. After we did this, the two antennas were nearly perpendicular to one another, and the interference just went away. The phone station could not hear my little peanut whistle signal at all, and while I could hear the phone station transmit, it really didn’t affect my ability to make contacts.

I really didn’t think that this was going to work, but Ovide, K8EV, was quite confident that it would. I was the one that ate crow.

Did You Really Use a KX-1?
So, I can hear a lot of you asking, “Did you really use a KX-1 for Field Day?” Yes, I did. Our original idea was to run all QRP. The thinking behind this is that if you run all QRP, then you get 5 points for each QSO.

The other reason for doing this is so that we could run off batteries. Quentin had access to two, 66 Ahr batteries, and we’d planned to use these two batteries as our power source. I figured that with the 12V gel cell that I have for my KX-1, that would be plenty of power.

Unfortunately, that didn’t work out. Quentin and Ovide were just not having any luck making any contact at 5W—and consequently not having much fun—so they decided to increase power. That blew our QRP multiplier, but what the heck, it multiplied our fun factor.

Plenty of Power
As it turned out, just one battery provided plenty of power for the phone station, even at 100W. Granted the station was off the air from about midnight Saturday through 9 am Sunday morning, but there was apparently plenty of juice to power that station throughout the entire 24 hours.

Likewise, my little gel cell provided enough power for the KX-1 over the 12 hours that I had it on the air, and I’d guess that the charge would have been good for the entire 24 hours. I have yet to run down that battery so low that it failed to power the radio.

What Did We Learn?
We learned several things from this Field Day:

  1. A downsized Field Day can be as much or more fun than a full-blown operation. Without a big crowd vying for just a few positions, everyone got a chance to operate. Plus, setup and teardown times were a lot shorter.
  2. You still have to pay attention to your antennas. If we’d done a little more planning and thinking about our antennas, we would have avoided the interference we experienced and possibly even been able to run QRP on phone.
    How, you might ask? Well, if I’d thought about rigging up some kind of wire beam or a Moxon beam for the phone station, they may have been able to run QRP and still make contacts. This is certainly something to think about for next year.
  3. The batteries worked great. Not only did they provide enough power for a 100W rig for more than 12  hours, they were quiet. The noise of a gas-powered generator can really get on your nerves over the course of a Field Day.
  4. While I probably wouldn’t want to run the KX-1 in a big DX contest, it worked pretty well for Field Day. I made more than 160 QSOs with it in about 12 hours of contesting.

So, What About Next Year?
Since it’s never too early to plan for next year’s Field Day, we’re already kicking around a few ideas:

  1. Find a campground to have Field Day at next year. The upside is that the scenery might be nicer. The downside is that we might not have the nice antenna supports, errrr trees, that Quentin has in his backyard.
  2. Be more competitive. Joe, N8OY, came by late Saturday evening, and racked up a bunch of points for us on 20m CW. He suggested that we organize some of the local hot-shot CW operators around here and set up a real competitive operation. The upside is that scoring a lot of points is fun. The downside is that being competitive excludes the less-experienced operators.

One thing is for sure. Running a smaller Field Day event in no way diminishes it as the “quintessential” amateur radio event. We still enjoyed all the camaraderie as well as all the technical aspects of  Field Day. Now, I can’t wait until next year.

American Morse Code Chart

For some strange reason, I’ve decided to learn American Morse. One problem with doing this is that  there seems to be only one chart on the Web that shows the dots and dashes for Amercian Morse. This low-resolution scan is small and hard to read.

Yesterday, I decided to start practicing again, but I couldn’t find the printout I’d made of that chart. Since it was hard to read, I decided to make my own chart instead of just printing another copy of the old one.

At right is my chart. Click on the image and you’ll get the full-sized chart. If you want a PDF version, click here.  If you want to make changes to it, e-mail me, and I’ll send you a Mac Pages or Microsoft Word version of the chart.

Happy Morsing!


Are You in Control?

With Field Day just two days away, I thought it might be a good idea to review the concept of the control operator. It seems to me that there’s some misconceptions out there about this topic, and a lot of amateur radio clubs get a little loosey-goosey with the concept of the control operator on Field Day.

So, the question is what constitutes a control point? How close does a control operator need to be?

I liked the reply of Tim, N9PUZ. He wrote:

I can provide one opinion.

I am the trustee for W9SPI, the call sign for our local ARES group. One of our board members is a volunteer ARRL legal counsel, and his opinion is that since ultimately I am responsible for operations carried out under that call sign, I and I alone have the final decision on how to interpret what constitutes a “control operator.”

It is my position that a control operator needs to be able to monitor/observe first hand how the particular station is being operated and be close enough that he/she can immediately take it off the air if there is a problem with either equipment or the person physically operating. As for “how close?”, I like to see the CO close enough that they can reach across the table, walk across the room or tent, reach down and disconnect the power, etc. If they need to go to the porta-potties, head out to their car, go to the food tent, etc. then someone else with the appropriate level of license needs to become the CO for a while.

I think it’s perfectly okay for there to be a lot of control operators and just note who is in charge if it changes a lot.

I’ve seen some pretty loose interpretations of “control operator” at some Field Day events. I have heard some clubs say that as long as there is one Extra class operator within the circle (1,000 ft?) that everyone on site can operate with Extra class privileges. Not on my watch.

Another ham expressed a more practical viewpoint:

Many control operators trust the operators that are operating stations under their supervision. If I’m trustee, and I know that I’ve got a bunch of people that I trust either operating or watching over other operators, I feel that I’ve fulfilled the requirements of the regulations. Do I feel that I can adequately stop transmissions if I’m a half mile away in an adequate time? Sure.

There’s not that much difference in the control of an HF station and the control of a repeater station. As long as everyone is operating within the designated parameters, the FCC stays happy.

This has been discussed and fought over thousands of times for many years, and I’ve yet to hear a control operator or trustee chastised by the FCC for any reason, except for flagrant and repeated violation of the rules.

He’s quite right to say that no one’s been cited for a rules violation, at least I can’t think of anyone who’s been cited, but I’m not sure that make it “right.”

The relevant rules are 97.103(a) and (b). They read:

Station licensee responsibilities. -
(a) The station licensee [In the case of a club callsign, the licensee is the trustee...Dan] is responsible for the proper operation of the station in accordance with the FCC Rules. When the control operator is a different amateur operator than the station licensee, both persons are equally responsible for proper operation of the station.
(b) The station licensee must designate the station control operator. The FCC will presume that the station licensee is also the control operator, unless documentation to the contrary is in the station records.

So, in the end, from a practical point of view, if you are the trustee of a club call sign being used during Field Day, I think it’s a matter of how much you trust the operators that will be using the call sign. In none of the Field Day operations that I’ve been part of has the trustee designated specific control operators, nor have the control operators been recorded anywhere.

That being the case, the full responsibility falls on the trustee. Should something bad happen, he or she would be completely responsible. That’s something to consider if, like me, you’re the trustee of a call sign being used on Field Day.

Tube or Rod or Wire?

One of my newest Elmerees is now intensely interested in antenna making. He’s making a series of J-poles and dipoles and who knows what else. On Saturday, down at the museum, we got into a discussion about the different types of materials he could use to build antennas. I repeated to him the old chestnut, “The larger the diameter of the material uses to make the antenna, the wider the bandwidth will be.”

Now, I’m not sure exactly where this bit of advice comes from and what the theory is behind it. Can anyone point me towards a discussion of why this is so?

After having said all this, I got an e-mail from my Elmeree this afternoon. He asked, “So, which is better for a vertical antenna, a solid rod or a tube?”

My answer, “Whichever material you have on hand or whichever is cheaper.”

Device Tests PowerPole Outlets

PowerPole Voltage and Polarity CheckerI just found a link to this unique little device and had to blog about it right away.  The PowerPole Polarity and Voltage Tester is similar to one of those little devices that you plug into an AC outlet that tells you if the outlet is wired correctly. Except that you plug this device into an unknown PowerPole outlet.

What  surprised me is that this little device actually uses a microcontroller to measure the voltage. I guess that I really shouldn’t be surprised, though. Microcontrollers come in very small packages now, and programming them is very simple to do .

Because microcontroller are programmable, you could extend the functionality of this device. For example, you could add a small alpha-numeric display or more LEDs to indicate different voltage ranges.

While the circuit is very simple, and is easily fabricated on some perfboard, the author of this Instructables project, has indicated that he intends to make a PC board and kit available. I’ve e-mailed him about this, and will report on what he has to say about price and availability.

Another thought that occurs to me is that I could make one of these with the Arduino that’s been languishing beneath my workbench for the last year or so. Basically, I’d just take the front end circuitry from this project and connect it up to my Arduino. I’d have to do some programming, but I think I can handle that. :)


New General Class Study Guide Now Available for Kindle and Nook

The new No-Nonsense, General Class License Study Guide is now available as an e-book:

They aren’t free, but I’ve reduced the price from $9.99 to $7.99.

I’m Going Buggy

Last year at Dayton, I bought a used Vibroplex Original bug for $50. The stainless steel plating wasn’t in the greatest shape, and the silver contacts needed cleaning, but I thought I’d gotten a pretty good deal.

Well, I never could get it to work quite right. I thought it was just that I didn’t know how to adjust it properly. Whatever the reason, it just didn’t work quite right, so while I played around with it from time to time, it mostly just sat on the bench.

About a month and a half ago, I decided to once and for all to figure out what was going on. I played with the adjustments, but again didn’t get good results. I did notice, though, that the contacts were in really bad condition. It looked as though someone had taken a file to them. That’s a real no-no for key contacts.

Fortunately, Vibroplex has a relatively low-cost service for contact replacement. For $40, they’ll send you a complete set of new contacts. There are a couple of caveats, though:

  1. You have to send in two contact posts so that they can replace the contact point on them.
  2. The order form on their website has the wrong address on it.

Both of these issues caused a delay. I first sent the order to the wrong address, and it took a week for the Post Office to return the letter to me. Then, I didn’t understand that I had to send in the posts, so that delayed my order.  The second issue was my fault, but the first is Vibroplex’s fault.

I finally got that all straightened out, and the parts arrived on Wednesday. I put the bug back together yesterday, and now it works like a charm.

The only problem is that the dits are very fast. I’m going to have to experiment with ways to slow that down. Vibroplex makes a thing called the Vari-Speed that does this, but it costs another $35, and I’m not sure I want to spend that much more. In any case, I’ll be practicing with the bug and hope to “get buggy” on the air soon.

A Good Idea

Here’s a good idea that recently passed through the HamRadioHelpGroup mailing list

One ham wrote:

I heard a few new young hams talking on a 2 meter repeater.  They said they had listened to the HF Bands and did not think that they would upgrade just to get on HF because it was just a bunch of old hams talking about about their high blood pressure and other medical conditions.

Well, one of the old hams was listening. He came on frequency and told the new ones, “Well, just wait another 40 years. You’ll be talking like that too.” You could of heard a pin drop.

To which, George, K0NGO, replied:

Uh … you really think that encouraged them?? Too bad he didn’t tell them of the other wonderful things they could do on HF.

This is a really great idea. Let’s not dwell on the negatives, but rather point all of the fun and interesting things about HF.