Back On The Bands Part 2: Portable Operation

Back on my first trip to Dayton in 2011, I was about to escape without spending a lot of cash when I found myself taking a long, hard look at the Buddipole system. This portable offset dipole looked well made, and it seemed to have a bit of a cult following with QRP operators. I was getting up the nerve to pick one up when one of my friends discouraged me from buying one. ‘They just don’t work that well’ is what he told me, and I ended up walking away.

Fast forward to March of 2019, also known as the third month of January here in the Midwest. And even though I’d just spent a bunch of money on parts for an inverted L antenna that were still sitting in the box, I decided today was the day, and I placed my order for a new Deluxe Buddipole. Within a few days I was out in front of my house, getting ready to go tailgate portable with the Buddipole from my driveway.

Getting Started

A close up of the ‘cold side’ coil.

Antenna assembly is pretty simple with easy to follow instructions. I didn’t time myself, I’d guess my first attempt at getting it up an on the air took me about 20 minutes tops, but I’d say I’m closer to the ten minute mark now. I was also impressed with the build quality as well. All of the threads on the coils, antenna arms, and whips seemed to be well made. No binding or stripping reported here. That same quality and enginuity can be found throughout the entire design. Even the guy rope connector seemed well thought out, but none of that means a thing if it doesn’t work.

The center tee. Notice the banana plugs used to feed each side. It can’t get much simpler than this.

After dealing with an uncooperative 12v battery (another casualty of the long, cold winter) and digging out an old power supply, I was finally ready to connect the coax and burn up some clouds. My first stop was where I always go first: the Maritime net on 14300. The net controller was in seven land, but I managed to work him on the first call. Nice! I told him what I was up to, and he gave me a signal report of a 5/7. Not too shabby for a coil shortened dipole! I was ready to work some more stations but it was starting to get cold, and 20m was already shutting down for the night, but I was still pretty happy. A trip from Iowa to the Oregon coast with a portable antenna is always a good thing, but I still had my doubts. could this antenna perform on a regular basis, or was this just a fluke?

Fire, a very important ingredient for all outside adventures in the early spring. Brrrrr!

Since then, I’ve spent quite a few nights out on my patio with the Buddipole and a newly acquired FT-891, and I’ve had excellent results, much better than I would have expected. I’ve checked in with several operators on the Maritime net, had QSOs with stations in California, Canada and elsewhere on 20 meters. Better than that, the antenna seems to work pretty well on 40 as well. I ended up working stations in Montana, Maryland, and even managed to have a quick QSO with Roberto, I2VRN, near Milan. Sure he was doing all of the heavy lifting, but still. Considering how bad the band conditions have been recently, I am very pleased with the results.

Getting ready to burn off some clouds in the back yard

One of the things that’s always intrigued me about radio is the ability to take it with you. Whether it’s just a night out on the patio with a portable or a full fledged DXpedition, I’ve always loved the idea of setting up at a remote location and seeing what I could hear. Now, thanks to the Buddipole, I have a portable 40 thru 6m antenna that seems to work pretty well. I don’t know how much exotic DX I’ll be working with it, but I guarantee I will have a lot of fun.

If I had to do it all over again, I probably would have bought the long version, with the taller mast and the longer whip sections, but those can be purchased separately, and will probably happen sooner than later. Most importantly though, I wouldn’t have waited so long to add this gem to the antenna arsenal.

Back On The Bands, Part 1: The Base Station

The eagle has landed

So there I was, enjoying another mind numbingly boring day at my office when I get an instant message from a friend of mine who lives in Arkansas.

“Dude, it turns out I’m not going to Dayton after all. How about I come up to Iowa and help you get an antenna put up?”
“You wanna drive from Arkansas to Iowa to help me put up an antenna? Are you high??”
“Well, yeah! But I’ll still ready to make the drive up. What do you say?”
“Yeah, OK. Sounds good to me.”

At this point, I figured it was just the weed talking and didn’t think much of it. Well, at least until Thursday that is, when my friend sent me another message that morning.

“I’m getting kind of a late start on things, but I’m leaving here now. I should be at your place this evening!”

I guess it wasn’t just the weed talking after all.

It’s been a few years since I was active on the ham bands. The base station got put into storage, the sloping long wire fell victim to a terrible hedge clipping incident, and the mobile antenna was taken off of the 4Runner and never installed on the new Tacoma. I did manage to check in with the Maritime net on 14300 a couple of times while using a portable magnetic loop, but those check ins were few in far between.

A Comtek 9:1 balun feeds the antenna. The ground radials will have to wait until a major excavation project happens later this summer.

Earlier this year though, I found the plans for a sloping inverted L that would fit inside the confines of my yard pretty well. I could use a walnut tree at the end of the driveway to hang the elbow of the L from, and run it over the driveway and across the width of my lot to a post on the other side. This should give me great coverage on 80, and it just might even give me some capabilities on 160, a band I’ve never used.

Excited by my plan to finally get back on the air, I called up the good folks at DX Engineering and soon had a box of coax and parts on its way. Soon I would be back on the bands, burning up the clouds with my FT-2000 and AL-811H amp, and I couldn’t wait.

And then it got cold.

Ridiculously cold. So cold that you could scrape the frozen RF off of the big loop’s antenna wires cold. Well ok, maybe not that cold, but if you live in the Midwest, you know what I mean. Needless to say I didn’t get my antenna up before the ground froze solid, and my plans came to a grinding halt. The box of antenna goodies sat in the corner unopened, and waiting for better days ahead.

Finally, with my friend’s truck in my driveway, a break in the never ending rain, and three whole days cleared off on my calendar, the time to put a bunch of metal up in the air had finally arrived. I drug out the box of antenna parts, rope, fishing line, sinker, and all the other stuff needed for the project and we got to work.

As you can see, we aren’t exactly breaking any new technological ground with this one. It is, as another friend would call it, “just a wire in a tree”, or as I like to call it, my 100% organic, bio-degradable tower. It’s definitely not fancy, but that’s the beauty of radio: it doesn’t have to be fancy to work. The question still remained though: would this antenna do what I hoped it would do? I mean, I was pretty confident this antenna would give me 80, but I ran out of yard before I hit the magic 120 feet mark. Would this thing work at all on 160?

So far, i would have to say the answer is yes. As I expected, the antenna seems to work on 20 through 80 with no problems, and that’s with our currently awful band conditions. As for 160? Well, I managed to make contacts with a few locals on Sunday afternoon. Ankeny and Altoona aren’t exactly exotic DX, but they sounded like music to my ears! We’ll see how it goes this winter, but I am pretty optimistic. All in all, I’d have to say I am very pleased. I still want to add a hex beam for 20 thru 10, but until that happens, this will work out fine.

My friend made it back to Arkansas Sunday night, where we had a brief 5/7 QSO on 80m. It turns out his radio is getting into his father in law’s microphone when he transmits. Maybe I’ll have to return the favor, and drive down there to help him get his radio back on the air.

Boris remains unimpressed.

Radio Silence

Testing, testing. Is this thing on?

In retrospect, maybe it wasn’t my best decision to start airing commercials for HF Radio Review on The Mighty KBC the same week I tried to switch to a new web hosting company. In fact it was a terrible idea, but it just sort of happened that way anyways. I should know very well that these things are never quick and painless, but it would be different with my own website right? Right?? Wrong!

The good news is that, after a lot of hard work, HF Radio Review is back up, and open for business once again.

Now if I could only say the same for my SAL-20.

About two weeks ago, the unthinkable happened when my neighbor’s dog (who would make a fine rug by the way) took off after a squirrel and brought down the SAL-20 antenna. While that is annoying in itself, he also managed to crack several sections of mast AND ripped one of the loops completely out of the guy ring. This wasn’t going to be a simple put it back up kind of operation, this was going to need a complete rebuild.

And since I was going to have to rebuild it, I decided to take this opportunity to upgrade it as well. Ten days after making the call to Array Solutions, the Big Brown Truck delivered all of the parts I will need to rebuild the SAL-20 as its big brother, the SAL-30. I was very eager to get this beast up and running this weekend, but the weatherman has other ideas, as we can expect a soaking rain to move in tonight and stay all weekend. Should I have expected anything different? Expect a blog about hilarity that is sure to ensue.

By the way, if you have the recources, I’d like to encourage you to give what you can to the Mighty KBC. Dave Mason and Uncle Eric Van Willegen are truly trying to keep music on shortwave alive, and I hope you’ll help them in the fight. Every Euro counts, so please, give what you can to keep the farts blasting into the stratosphere.

It’s good to be back.

#WEFAXWednesday

As you all should know by now, I have a,  *AHEM*, thing for weather faxes. I decided to celebrate this little obsession of mine by creating Weather Fax Wednesday, also known as #WEFAXWednesday on Twitter. If you decode a cool looking weather fax, post it to Twitter using this tag so others can check it out. While it would help if you post them on a Wednesday, I’m sure no one will mind if you post them on another day of the week.

Here’s a few I posted to the @hfradio1 Twitter feed today. All decodes were done using fldigi and a Microtelecom Perseus.

wefax_20160120_152337_0_gui
Port Reyes, CA shows a storm rolling in from the Pacific. 

wefax_20160120_141119_0_ok
Another infrared satellite photo. This one is from New Orleans. 

wefax_20160120_153647_0_ok
A composite of the Eastern and Western Pacific charts as transmitted out of Point Reyes, CA

wefax_20160120_160142_0_gui
Another IR satellite (I like those) photo as transmitted out of Boston. 

wefax_20160120_171910_0_nocorr
A weather chart from Valparaiso Playa Ancha, Chile.

wefax_20160120_173809_0_gui
An IR sat photo from Chile, and probably the best decode I’ve ever gotten from there. 

Happy #WEFAXWednesday everyone!

Decoding Multiple Weather Faxes at a Time

A screen shot of the Elad FDM-S2 receiver receiving three weather fax stations at one time.
A screen shot of the Elad FDM-S2 receiver receiving three weather fax stations at one time.

Recently, I’ve been having some fun decoding High Frequency Data Links (HFDL), a protocol that is used to track aircraft as they fly around the world. While doing some research on how this is done, I stumbled across a great article by Nils Schiffhauer, DK8OK, on how to decode multiple HFDL signals at one time using the 4 sub receivers of the Elad FDM-S2. By following his tutorial, I was able to set up my Elad to decode three HFDL signals at one time, and plot them all on Google Earth. While this is pretty cool, and I encourage everyone reading this to give it a try, it got me to thinking about how I could apply Neil’s efforts to something a little closer to my own heart: weather faxes.

As you probably know, I have a, ahem, thing for weather faxes, especially the infrared satellite photos. If you haven’t tried to decode them before, I strongly encourage you to read this first. For those of you who have been doing this a while, keep in mind that this quick tutorial is written from the point of view of an Elad FDM-S2 user. I’m sure you can take the same general principles and apply to any SDR that allows multiple sub-receivers though. You may have to adapt the virtual audio cable (VAC) settings to whatever program you’re using as well, but again the underlying logic is the same.

VACs
Make sure you have enough VACs to go around.

Step 1: Make sure you have enough virtual audio cables. Usually, all of my projects come to a screeching halt when I realize I am a cable short. Fortunately for me, this one requires cables that you can create on the fly. You can see in this image that I have created five virtual audio cables: for are for our project, while the extra one is for the Perseus. That way I can use both SDRs without them getting each other’s way.

Elad vac config
Pair up each cable with a receiver.

Step 2: Go to the Audio setup of the Elad. This is where we will put our VACs to good use. As you can see from the picture, I have assigned each of the Elad’s virtual receivers it’s own VAC, starting with cable two and going through cable five. Remember, I have one cable (cable 1) set aside for the Perseus, but you can change this to fit your needs.

Step 3: Set up the receivers and decoders.  Starting with the first sub receiver, set it up to receive your weather fax station of choice. In my case, that’s Point Reyes on 12786. Next, I open up Fldigi and go to the sound card under the configure tab. There, change the capture pull down box to select Line 2 and hit close. fldigi configGo ahead and make whatever fine tuning adjustments you need to make to either Fldigi or the Elad until you start to see a decode come through. Once you’re seeing something come through on the display, go ahead and hit save on the decode, and send it to whatever directory you’d like. In my case, I set up individual directories for Point Reyes, Kodiak, Boston, and New Orleans. Not only will it keep things organized, you’ll also avoid the unlikely risk of accidentally overwriting an existing file.

Step 4: Repeat step 3 for each of your virtual receivers. Go ahead and set up the second Elad receiver for your target station, and then open up a separate instance of Fldigi. Once it’s open, go to the sound card configuration and set it up for the corresponding audio cable. In my setup, the second receiver is paired up with cable 3, so I’d pull down the capture box and set it for cable 3. Once that’s done, make your fine tuning adjustments as needed, and save whatever’s come through on the decoder to the directory of your choice, just like you did with the first receiver. Then you can finish up by configuring receivers three and four the same way. Keep in mind that every instance of Fldigi will need to be paired up with a different receiver and VAC for this to work properly. I chose these four stations because they are close enough together to fit inside the bandwidth of the Elad. I would’ve loved to have chosen Honolulu over Kodiak, but I can’t grab their signal and Point Reyes/New Orleans at the same time. Depending upon your flavor of SDR, your mileage may vary.

Putting It All Together.

A couple of notes about getting this all to work. While I am sure other decoders besides Fldigi are capable of doing this, I haven’t ran across any just yet. Sorcerer, my go to for WEFAX decodes these days, and will allow you to open multiple sessions, but it will not allow you to set a different VAC feed for each of these sessions.  If anyone knows of a work around for this, or a different decoder that will let me do this, I’d like to hear from you.

EDIT: Since I wrote this, I have come to realize that, when I am using Fldigi as my decoder, I seem to spend a lot less time in Photoshop piecing these things back together again. They always just seem to line up correctly in Fldigi, which is more than I can say for most of the other decoders out there. The only problem I have with Fldigi is that it tends to turn a single weather fax decode into several files that then have to be combined later. Not a huge deal, but sometimes there will be a gap between the two that cannot be filled. If the Fldigi team can get that worked out, your choice of decoder becomes a no brainer.

Also, since these signals are probably coming to you from different directions, you’re also going to want an antenna that is fairly omni-directional. I went ahead and connected the Elad directly to my long wire, which is far less directional than the SAL-20, for this very reason. It also lets me switch directional patterns without messing up any decodes that may be in progress, giving me the freedom to chase other things with the Perseus without messing up any decodes in progress on the Elad. How slick is that?

Here’s a couple of decodes taken simultaneously from New Orleans and Point Reyes:

wefax_20151027_091126_10000_nocorr
The 1400 UTC WEFAX transmission out of New Orleans, LA on October 27th, 2015.

The 1403 WEFAX transmission out of Point Reyes, California from October 27th, 2015.
The 1403 UTC WEFAX transmission out of Point Reyes, CA on October 27th, 2015.

The 1414 UTC WEFAX transmission out of Point Reyes, CA on October 27th, 2015.
The 1414 UTC WEFAX transmission out of Point Reyes, CA on October 27th, 2015.

As you can see, it’s working pretty well!

Again, many thanks to DK8OK for giving me the idea to try this out. Thanks to him I’ll never have to choose between the Boston sat photo at 1400 and the Point Reyes sat photo at 1403 ever again. Now if you’ll excuse me, I need to go buy a larger hard drive.

Howard

Back when I was a poor college student, my roommate and I went into a local DC liquor store to do some competitive price checking. While we didn’t find the prices to be all that good, I was shocked to find something else: radios. One of the guys who ran the store, a ham by the name of Howard, fixed up and sold old radios out of the back, so the shelves were full of wine, liquor, and shortwave sets. I quickly became friends with Howard, and ended up buying a couple of radios from him before I graduated, including an old Delmonico and a Hallicrafters S-77.

Fast forward to the spring of 93, when I am now a poor college grad working at a shitty job in Baltimore. I didn’t have a lot of money, but I couldn’t resist making the trip down to DC to see Howard and his radios. What I found there on that Saturday was the most amazing radio I’d ever seen: a Hallicrafters SX-73. The mother of an Ex would describe it later as a ‘big, ugly box’ (and believe me, this woman knew all about being big and ugly), but it was beyond beautiful to my eyes. I didn’t know much about it, but I knew it would be going home with me if I could afford it. When Howard told me he wanted $75 for it, we made the deal and I started the process of lugging it back home. I got some funny looks on the train that day, but I didn’t care. I was a very happy man.

My SX-73 in my basement apartment. The HQ-140XA was also acquired from Howard as well.
My SX-73 in my basement apartment. The HQ-140XA was also acquired from Howard as well.

Of course, that radio became my go to receiver, and I made a lot of catches with that beast, including my first pirate on 7415 (WKIK). One thing I didn’t expect though was the reaction I got from people when I told them I had an SX-73 at home. Dealers at hamfests or on the phone would fall all over themselves trying to get me to sell or trade it to them. I never took them up on their offer, but it made me start to wonder just what I had here. This was in the days before the internet (yes, there was a time when the internet didn’t exist), so I just kept politely declining their offers, and I kept listening to the bands on my “Big Hal”.

It wasn’t until a few years later that I found out the back story to this radio, and why everyone was so interested in it. After making a post to a news group about the rig, a man replied and filled me in. It turns out these radios were only made between 1952 and 1954, and cost a whopping $975 bucks new. Needless to say they didn’t make a lot of them, and were considered to be the second most rare of all the Hallicrafters. He ad vised me that, if I were to sell it, I could probably walk out of the deal with about $750.

Wow, that’s a lot of money for a broke 25 year old. That could buy a lot of computer parts, ore even a new radio. But the more I thought about it, the more I came to realize that Howard knew very well that radio was worth a lot more than $75. Rather than getting full value for it though, he was willing to practically give it away to a kid who loved radio, and who would put it to good use. Yeah, I could sell it and make a handsome profit, but it just didn’t feel right. Now I know that this is what Elmers do, they hook up those just getting into the hobby, and give them a way in.

Today, that liquor store is a Domino’s pizza place, and I’ve long since lost touch with Howard, but I still have that old SX-73, and she still works. She doesn’t get used much anymore, but it’s still one of my prized possessions.

So here’s to you, Howard. Thanks for giving the 23 year old me a break.

DXing Season Is Finally Here!

After a summer full of poor band conditions, geomagnetic storms, and ear piercing static crashes, the bands finally sound like, well, fall. The sun is still doing its thing, but the static crashes of summer storms have begun to dissipate here in the Northern hemisphere. Here’s a few new videos of stations I’ve heard over the last couple of weeks.

Radio Fana, Ethiopia.
Just a short clip, but a nice signal from Radio Fana out of Ethiopia on 6110.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KnKT3hxz55

Papua New Guinea, New Ireland
This is a pretty noisy clip of what I presume to be Papua, New Guinea out of New Ireland.

Mystery Signal, 5050 kHz
This is a very weak signal, but still pretty interesting. It could possibly be Beibu Radio out of Vietnam, but it sounds strongest with the antenna pointed towards New Zealand. Anyone have any ideas?

The Mystery Signal on 720 kHz

On January 8th this year (already January 9th UTC),  I found myself on the road between my home QTH and the small town of Story City, Iowa. My Mom was convalescing there after some surgery, and I decided I would drive up there and say hello at least, even if it was getting on the road after 8 PM local (0200 UTC). On the way up, I turn on the trusty Yaesu FT-857D I have in the truck and try to tune in 720 AM. The Chicago Blackhawks are getting ready to play, and I figure I’ll be able to catch most of the first period during my drive, but what I heard was definitely not the hockey game.

While WGN was in there some of the time, they were never very strong, and occasionally not there at all. What I did hear though was rock music. Instead of the familiar voices of John Wiedeman and Troy Murray, I heard a hard rock cover of Bob Seeger’s Turn the Page, probably by Metallica. Later on, as I was driving into Story City, I heard the Scorpion’s No One Like You before I arrived at my destination. I never heard any station ID, and I had other family business to deal with on the trip home, but this should be easy to identify. Hey, it can only be one of so many stations, right?

The Likely Suspects

A night time pattern map of stations on 720 kHz.
A night time pattern map of stations on 720 kHz.

Thanks to the excellent Radio Time Traveller blog, I managed to track down this night time pattern map for 720 kHz. Let’s take a look at each of these stations and what we know about them:

WGN, Chicago. This is the station I was trying to listen to, and I can vouch for the fact that they were carrying the Blackhawks game that night.
KSAH, San Antonio. I have heard this station before, usually underneath the more dominant WGN, but occasionally even stronger. They have a Spanish sports talk format though, so I think they can be ruled out.
WRZN, Hernando, FL. Their news-talk format doesn’t fit the profile of the station I’m looking for.
KDWN, Las Vegas. Another station that doesn’t fit the format I’m looking for. In this case, they’re a news, traffic, and weather station.
KFIR, Sweet Home, OR. A news-talk station licensed to broadcast with 184 watts at night.

This leaves us with a handful of other possibilities, namely KUAI out of Hawaii, which is a classic country station, and another long shot shot: KOTZ.

The gray line map for January 10th, 0220 UTC.
The gray line map for January 10th, 0220 UTC.

KOTZ 720 is a small public radio station, broadcasting with 10 kw of power out of Kotzebue, Alaska. Unlike our other stations, its format is simply listed as “variety” on Wikipedia, which certainly doesn’t rule it out as a candidate. What’s also interesting about this possibility is the sunrise map, which puts the gray line squarely over the coast of Alaska at 0220 UTC, which coincides perfectly with when I heard this station. Was it KOTZ I heard that night? Well, maybe. It is a longshot at best, but it’s my best hope without having to leave North America.

I have contacted KOTZ about this, but I haven’t received a reply yet. I will keep you posted. Until then, I’d be happy to hear some feedback from other mediumwave DXers out there about any other possibilities I’m overlooking.

Radio Symban

Sometimes, real world events tend to get in the way of one’s radio listening. Such has been the case with me for the last few months as other things demand more and more of my radio time. Fortunately, I managed to be in front of the radios last week for one of the best catches I’ve ever made in my lifetime.

For years now, whenever I could hear the VL8 stations out of Australia, I have checked for Radio Symban on 2368.5, but I’ve never heard them. I’ve caught a carrier wave a couple of times, but nothing more than that. I did know that, for me at least, the best time to catch them would be in the early morning hours of March and September at around sunrise. March seems to bring the best propagation for me, as the spring thunderstorm season hasn’t gotten started yet, and daylight savings time makes my schedule a little more ‘radio friendly’.

I sat down in front of my computer just before local sunrise on March 10th and found this posted to Facebook from Tim Tromp:

2368.47 low powered Radio Symban (Australia) being heard right now in Michigan and 2325 kHz & 2485 kHz both have crushing signals right now! Never heard these two so loud. Go get ’em!

I fired up the Perseus and found a very weak signal from Radio Symban on 2368.5

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ImboHSEbF_

Needless to say I probably should’ve played the lottery on March 10th. This recording isn’t much, but it is by far and away the best I’ve ever heard them. I remember talking to another DXer from here in Iowa who never seemed to pull this one in, and he’d been trying for a lot longer than I have. Hopefully there’s a little more excellent propagation left in this spring.

What I’ve Been Hearing Lately

Other than a lot of Christmas decorations, not much has been happening here lately at my QTH. Unfortunately, that includes blog posts. While I have something sort of EPIC (or is that foolhardy?) in the works for this blog, I figured I’d end the radio silence with a quick rundown of what I’ve been hearing lately.

Radio Candip – November 9th, 2014.
This low power transmitter out of the Congo is a new one for me. Thanks again to Tim Tromp for the head’s up.

A Mystery Signal on 9420 – December 4th, 2014.
While I presume this to be RTN out of Greece on 9420, I have no idea why it would be strongest when the SAL is pointing to the Southwest. Also note the multipath echo when I point the antenna to the Northwest.

Radio Rwanda, December 7th, 2014.
This is a new one as well, sandwiched in between Radio Havana Cuba and HCJB.

Radio Bangladesh, Betar – December 9th, 2014.

Keep in mind that almost all of our loggings make it to our Twitter feed before they hit the blog, so be sure to follow hfradioreview on Twitter today! Not on Twitter? No problem. Just follow us on Facebook instead.

So what have you been hearing lately?