160m is cool.

“Top band,” “the Gentleman’s Band,” “MF” or whatever you call it, 160 meters is a blast. And it’s surging in popularity, much thanks to Joe Taylor and his weak signal modes. You may have opinions on those modes counting as real radio or not, but your opinion doesn’t really matter. The fact is that more operators than ever are finding 160 and most of them are doing it from city lots!

The true beauty of 160 is that the playing field is pretty level; even the most extensive arrays are still very much compromise systems. Consider for a moment that a true 1/4-wave vertical made out of tower sections is only as effective as it’s radial network. Consider for an additional moment that your wire inverted-L over a more extensive radial field might just smoke that first example.

Nick, K1NZ runs an inverted-L with a single radial, no RX antenna nor amplifier, and works EU on demand with the new FT8 mode. At my current QTH, I’ve worked at least 100 countries with a simple half sloper and a 250′ beverage-on-ground (BOG), primarily on CW. Neither of us are particularly skilled with antenna modeling and both of us face space restrictions.

There’s a lot of information online for anyone looking to get on topband, and plenty of misinformation. Here’s what I’ve learned as it applies to this QTH only (your mileage may vary):

  • Verticals crush dipoles on 160. Crush is the strongest responsible word I can find to use.
  • Elevated radials are better. I found 6-8 played nice with inverted-L type antennas here over the years.
  • Buried radials are less efficient, so you’ll have to use more. The point of diminishing returns at my QTH was 30 evenly-spaced radials slightly buried or on the ground. This agrees with the consensus among various mailing list geniuses.
  • Use an amp. Absorption is very high on 160; the extra dB’s help.
  • Nobody really understands propagation this low, and the best openings may only last a few minutes — VOAcap and similar programs are critical for the serious operator.
  • Immediately at grayline (and ONLY then), my low dipoles outperform my beverages for RX and my verticals for TX. There is no good explanation for it, but ON4UN notes a similar phenomenon.
  • Beverages are cheap; build one if you have the real estate. If you don’t, you should try a BOG. If you don’t have space for that, try a Shared Apex Loop or a K9AY loop. There’s no excuse for being an alligator!
  • Learn CW. Try the JT weak signal modes. Do something new.

See you on topband!



2018: a Good Year for DX

HNY all! Now that we’re on the second day of 2018, let’s look ahead. We have a number of announced major DXpeditions and many, many holiday-style operations planned. Here’s what has me excited so far:

3Y0Z, Bouvet Island (Jan 25 – Mar 14). The team includes K9CT, WB9Z, EY8MM, and others. The island itself has been called the most remote island on earth and lies nearly equidistant South America and South Africa, but is only about 1000mi north of Antarctica. There won’t be too many operations here in our lifetime, so be sure to chase this one.

9M0W, Spratly Island (Mar 10 – 20). The dates are still uncertain, but YT1AD’s team looks to activate Spratly on CW, SSB, and digital. The group also includes K1LZ and K1ZM (known to contesters as VY2ZM).

KH1/KH7Z, Baker Island (June). N1DG and the Dateline DX Association are leading a group to this Pacific atoll located midway between Hawaii and Australia. Although a US territory, the island is uninhabited and a very rare activation. You’ll find them on 160 thru 6 meters on SSB, CW, and digital.

CY9C, St. Paul Island (Aug 1 – 9). W2RE, WW2DX, and others are headed to this island just off Nova Scotia. This operation is unique in that they will pursue EME, just as they did in 2016 when their array was destroyed by wind.

VP6D, Ducie Island (Oct 20 – Nov 3). It’s been a while since we’ve heard Ducie! K6NRJ’s Braveheart will bring a large team to this atoll in the Pitcairn Islands group. They plan to have seven operating positions and will be active on CW, SSB, and digital — including FT8!

We’ve got an exciting year ahead. Be sure to trim those antennas, break-in those tubes, and practice your split technique. I’ll hear you in the pileups!


Sources: NG3K, DXnews.com, team press releases


The trough of this solar cycle continues to produce interesting (albeit frustrating) effects. You may remember our struggles during the SPDX contest. This past weekend, amidst the WAE contest, we were treated to an X-class flare and an ensuing three-hour total HF blackout. And I do mean total.

Nick, K1NZ and I headed up to our familiar haunt, the superstation QTH of Dave, K1TTT. For those of you new to this blog (or new to ham radio), Dave is a legend in these parts for building a top-notch contest station but letting others use it. Unfortunately for us, it didn’t matter how big the station was; the conditions were truly awful.

“Oh yeah, I’ve seen conditions this bad before, just never during a contest weekend.” – Dave, K1TTT

Nick and I managed some uneventful runs on Friday night. The money band was 20 right from the get-go, but 40 did manage a gentle opening the first night. We were working only DL’s, something analogous to WAE, but almost all of them had very low serial numbers. So we knew the conditions were global after all.

K1LOL’s screencap of a headphone-less K1NZ summarized the contest. Note the beer.

Dave was experimenting with the new waterfall display in N1MM. Using a separate SDR, we were able to see the band and find holes to run more quickly. Well, we could have probably run anywhere in this one, but I imagine that’s what it would be useful for on a busy weekend. Cool nonetheless!

Jeff, NT1K came up Saturday and stayed into Sunday morning. The overnight was awful; at times we went 30 minutes or more without a single QSO. I sat down and fought KC4AAA’s pileup just to stay awake. At some point, we all went to bed — it was like the antennas were unplugged.

Jeff grabbed the early morning 20 run and had probably the best few hours of the entire contest. I relieved him and was treated to a decent five hours of strong Europeans. When I finally needed relief, Nick sat down and continued. But it wouldn’t last much longer…

Guess what happened on Sunday!

A massive X-class solar flare struck just as things were finally rolling. Nick stopped operating — there was no use. Total HF blackout! The flare was so tremendous that the ensuing proton storm hasn’t yet died down (and it’s Tuesday as I write this). Conditions remained in M-class until the end of the contest, although we did manage another few paltry runs of Europeans.

Sometimes contests are feast-or-famine. This time, it was just famine-or-famine. Join me in a quick prayer for the next sunspot peak.


Call: WA1J
Operator(s): K1NZ N1TA NT1K
Station: K1TTT

Class: M/S HP
Operating Time (hrs): 26
Location: USA

Summary:   Compare Scores
Band QSOs QTCs Mults
80: 9 6 36
40: 130 121 90
20: 813 809 94
15: 3 0 6
Total: 955 920 226 Total Score 422,846

Club: Yankee Clipper Contest Club



Remote Operation: an editorial

There’s a debate raging on the CQ-Contest list at the moment centered on remote operation. Both as a contest administrator and a participant, I’ve been familiar with the practice and even tried it once or twice. My station is, at the moment, capable of it (albeit with some amplifier limitations).

There are two sides to the argument:

  • “It’s internet.” The control of the station relies on the internet; that is to say, without internet, the QSO wouldn’t occur (even though it is strictly RF between the physical radios).
  • “It’s the same as a long mic cord.” The internet is not replacing any of the RF; it simply replaces the mic (or key) cord and other control devices.

I was pretty neutral about the whole thing until I read EI5DI’s piece, which is probably the ugliest, most petty opinion piece on the subject today. Now I’m convinced there is an entire class of operators who have chosen their decade and refuse to leave it. Let me save you the agony of reading that and paraphrase: remote operation is bad because it involves the internet in some way.

FACT: the internet replaces the control, NOT the RF. So EI5DI (and his ilk, whoever and wherever they may be) are really asking for a rule that says I must be mechanically connected to the controls of my station at all times. So for those of you who use wireless switchboxes or filter networks (like me): you’re out. Sorry.

Personally, I don’t care how long your mic cord (or any other control interface) is. I don’t care if you’re in the next room or the next continent. Like EI5DI says: facts are facts, so here’s a fact: remote operators are sending an exchange based on the physical location of the transmitter — the location of the operator is therefore immaterial. I’m not even sure how EI5DI can reach the conclusion that the location of the operator’s butt has anything to do with a radio contest.

Is it because we’ve made it too easy to win? Is it because this allows some of us to build far remote stations with great capabilities in advantageous locations? Sure. But that doesn’t stop EI5DI from doing that too. There’s realtors around the globe happy to help you find that dream location deep in a jungle and there’s airlines willing to fly you back and forth to operate it. To say that the difficulties of doing it for each major contest somehow discredits those operating remote stations is just blatant jealousy, especially when you consider the prevalence of rare zones in recent contests brought to us by remote stations.

This just becomes more embarrassing the longer I think about it. If anything, remote stations that rely on an internet or other data link for control actually have a disadvantage, as that link could go down at any time.

The hobby is always changing. If you want to sit in a room full of radios and use low dipoles in CQWW, that’s great — it’s about having fun. If you want to use cutting-edge technology and hand out a rare zone, that’s great too. But either way, for the love of Hiram, can we just let others do what they want and stop pretending they are lesser operators because they’re doing something we can’t?


Selecting a call sign

This post is a response to several Facebook group posts I’ve recently seen related to vanity call signs, and one asking for my specific opinion on them.

N1TA is a vanity. I selected it back when the vanity calls cost extra money (they are currently free) and it is my third one. Interestingly, I’ve applied for exactly three vanity calls in my entire life, only requesting a single call on the preference table each time. In all three cases, I got the call — even for N1TA, when there were several competing applications.

The process today is not so simple. Since applying is free, there are many more applicants. Getting the call you want is not easy anymore. There are plenty of resources, however. If you’re thinking of getting a vanity call, head to AE7Q’s website and read the entire site. Read every single page. Then read the forums. Then read everything a second time. Applications are rejected every day because the applicants were too lazy to first understand the process. Once you’ve read all there is on the subject, come back here.

But what makes a good call sign?

First and foremost: probably not your initials. I see these “initial call signs” all over the place. Most are 1×3’s, but the lucky few are 1×2’s. Very few of us have initials conducive to good suffixes. I’ve never been a fan of my initials, MD, in CW (although it’s OK on phone).

My selection criteria, as a contester, was low weight on CW and phone. TA accomplishes both. To determine this, I used the CW weight calculator from RadioQTH. If a call sign with MD had been available, it still would have been an unwise selection…

Call Sign Weight
TA 14
MD 20

I also prefer the N- prefix as it is shorter than K or W on CW…

Call Sign Weight
N 8
K 12
W 12

…but it lags behind on phone. “November” takes longer to say than “Kilo” or “Whiskey.” I was willing to compromise on that because the suffix was short and, after all, it was available.

I also decided to avoid call signs with characters ending with a single “dit.” For example, G, C, R, or E. Often, that last dit is lost in the noise.

My full set of requirements looked like:

  • Must be 1×2 (I’ve never liked 2×1 — just personal taste)
  • Preferably N, but would accept W or K
  • No trailing dit
  • Very small CW weight (fewer dah’s)

My tip for others is to think ahead. You might be blissfully enjoying repeaters or ragchew nets today, but your interests might change in five or ten years. Short calls work better for everything. Of course, you might be happy with your original sequential; there’s nothing wrong with that either! This is by and large a preference game, but I wanted to give some insight into my process.