Portable for a Good Cause

The QRP to the Field (QTTF) contest is one that I look forward to every year.  This year, however, it coincided with a long-standing commitment to take part in a public service event.

For many years, I’ve been coordinating my local ARES-RACES group’s support for the March of Dimes’ annual March for Babies event in Valley Forge, Pennsylvania.  In addition to enhancing the safety of the participants, events like this also provide a low-stress environment to hone our emergency communications skills.

The event got off to an unpleasant start.  Paul, KB3ZOH, and I arrived early to set up a crossband repeater at the Net Control location.  We wound up having to set things up in a steady downpour.  Fortunately, the rain let up by the time the walkers set out on the course.

Paul KB3ZOH assuming the Net Control duties
Paul KB3ZOH assuming the Net Control duties

From an ARES-RACES standpoint, it was an uneventful event.  We had solid communications around the course and there were no incidents or issues to handle.  In addition to KB3ZOH and me, The Chester County ARES-RACES team included Leslie KC3EOR, Joe W3JY, Will K3WIL, and Rob W3OWM.

Walkers passing by my position. The weather was dreary but, at least, it was raining.
Walkers passing by my position. The weather was dreary but, at least, it was raining.

Since the March for Babies course was located about 100 yards from Valley Forge National Historical Park, my original plan was to head over there after the event for some QTTF action.  With another obligation later in the day, however, QTTF was clearly not in the cards for me.

So, I look forward to next year’s contest.  At least I was able to do some portable operating for a good cause this morning.

72, Craig WB3GCK

Three Birds, One Stone

I was on a mission today and there were three things I wanted to accomplish.  With one trip to a local park, I was able to check them all off of my list.

First, I submitted a write-up on my homebrew, drive-on antenna mount for the Ideas Exchange column in the QRP Quarterly publication.  Mike WA8MCQ, the column’s editor, asked for some more pictures.  So, I needed to get out and set up somewhere to take a few shots.

Next, I wanted to field test my little American Morse MS2 straight key and the homebrew magnetic mount I built for it.  I had used it at home but I was anxious to see how it works out in a portable setting.

Finally, I wanted to get out and make some Straight Key Century Club (SKCC) QSOs using a real antenna (as opposed to using my downspout at home).  I only had an hour, so I needed to move quick.

I headed out for Black Rock Sanctuary, which is just outside Phoenixville, PA.  On arrival, I set up the drive-on mount and took some pictures before and after deploying my 31-foot Jackite pole.  I used a 29.5-foot vertical wire with one counterpoise wire fed through a 4:1 unun.  My rig today was my trusty YouKits HB-1B powered from a small gel cell battery.

Drive-on antenna support
Drive-on antenna support

I started on 40M and posted my frequency on the SKCC Sked Page.  Almost immediately, I got a call from KB1WOD in Vermont.  He gave me a decent signal report, despite some less-than-optimal band conditions.  A few minutes later, I had a 2-way QRP QSO with KD3CA here in Pennsylvania.  I finished out my brief session with a 2-way QRP QSO on 20 meters with AA4MX in Florida.

As for the MS2 straight key, I have to say it worked pretty well.  My homebrew magnetic mount held the key firmly to my clipboard.   I was pleased with that.  Using a straight key in the confines of my pickup truck’s cab was a little challenging, though.  I also found the feel of the key a little loose, so I’ll need to tighten up the spring tension a bit.

MS2 miniature straight key and magnetic mount in use.
MS2 miniature straight key and magnetic mount in use.

So, in about an hour, I accomplished my mission.  I got the pictures I needed, tested my little straight key/clipboard setup, and made a few SKCC QSOs to boot.

72, Craig WB3GCK

Good Week for SKCC Activity

Straight Key Century Club (SKCC) logoLife-in-general made this a somewhat slow ham radio week for me.  It did, however, get off to a great start for my Straight Key Century Club (SKCC) activities.

Having reached the Centurion level (100 SKCC member QSOs) back in mid-March, I set my sights on reaching the Tribune level (50 QSOs with Centurion or higher members).  Thanks to the many SKCC members who were eager to add me to their logs with my new “C” designation, I made great progress over the following 2 weeks.

So, by last Monday (March 28th), I needed just 3 more QSOs to reach the Tribune level.  Despite some rough band conditions, it only took about 30 minutes to reach my goal.  The QSO that put me over the top was a nice chat on 20 meters with Pablo KP4SJ in Puerto Rico.  Pablo’s QSO helped me reach Tribune on the 2-month anniversary of my SKCC membership.  It was especially gratifying doing it with 5 watts into my rainspout antenna.  SKCC members, apparently, have very good ears!

Now begins the long climb towards the Senator level.  That entails 350 more contacts with Centurion or higher members and 200 more contacts with Tribune or Senator level members.  That, for sure, is going to take quite a while.

I made a number of 2-way QRP SKCC QSOs during the week, as well.  I worked K8FAC in Ohio, NC4RT in North Carolina, N0HYD (portable) in Kansas, AH6AX in Maryland, and NF1U in Connecticut.

I’m hoping that “Life-in-General” settles down a bit next week and lets me get out for some portable operating.

72, Craig WB3GCK

Hopewell Furnace NPOTA Activation

ARRL National Parks on the Air logoOn Good Friday, I found myself with a free afternoon.  I decided to take advantage of the great Spring weather and make a spur-of-the-moment trip to activate the Hopewell Furnace National Historic Site (NS37).  I hastily threw some equipment into my truck and headed out.

About 45 minutes later, I was on site and ready to get started.  But first, I  had to resolve some antenna issues.  For some reason, my SWR was higher than normal and not very stable.  I found a loose BNC connector on my 4:1 unun that I think was the culprit.  I eventually managed to get things stabilized enough to operate.  I was using my FT-817 at 5 watts into a 29.5-foot vertical wire antenna with two counterpoise wires.  I operated all CW.

The somewhat cramped operating position in my truck.
The somewhat cramped operating position in my truck.

I couldn’t spot myself due to lack of a cell signal, so I just started calling, “CQ NPOTA.”  After about 35 minutes with no takers, I was pretty close to packing up and heading home.  Finally, I worked a Wisconsin station on 20 meters.  I tuned down the band a bit and heard N4CD activating a park in Texas.  I got him on the first call.  So, at least, I was getting out to somewhere.

I moved down to 40 meters a worked stations in New York and Michigan.  One of them must have spotted me because things picked up quickly after that.  I spent the rest of my time on 40 meters and wound up with 30 contacts in the log (including 2 park-to-park QSOs) after an hour and forty-five minutes.

My 31-ft Jackite pole supported with a drive-on mount
My 31-ft Jackite pole supported with a drive-on mount

After I packed up, I stopped by the visitor center and chatted a bit with the park rangers.  They were very welcoming and happy to have their park activated again.  They were curious about how many contacts I made and how far I was able to get out.  As I was leaving they thanked me for putting their park on the air.

Hopewell Furnace visitor's center
Hopewell Furnace visitor’s center

I have some repair work to do on my antenna but it was a nice afternoon for an NPOTA activation.

72, Craig WB3GCK

Rediscovering the Straight Key

Back in January, I decided I wanted to add a new facet to this hobby that I’ve enjoyed for more than 42 years now.  I have always heard a lot of Straight Key Century Club (SKCC) activity on the bands and it sounded like fun.  So, I signed up for an SKCC number, dusted off my trusty J-38 key and jumped into the fray.

More than 20 years had passed since I made the switch to paddles and Iambic Mode B keying.  Needless to say, my straight key fist was very rusty.  After some off-air practice, I heard NN9K near Chicago calling, “CQ SKCC,” on 30 meters one day.  I grabbed the J-38 and a few minutes later, Peter had given me my first official SKCC contact.

I bought this J-38 from a military surplus store around 1975. Nothing special but I love the feel of it. It reminds me of my Navy days, I guess.
I bought this J-38 from a military surplus store around 1975. Nothing special but I love the feel of it. It reminds me of my Navy days, I guess.

A few days later, it was time for the February SKCC Weekend Sprintathon (WES).  The monthly, weekend-long WES contests are like most other CW contests except they are friendlier and run at a slower pace.  After a fun weekend operating on and off, I ended up with 38 more SKCC contacts in the log.  One particular highlight was working Bert F6HKA on two bands with my meager 5 watts and rainspout antenna.  (Full disclosure:  Bert’s awesome station gets most of the credit for these contacts.  He was louder than most stateside stations.) After my first WES, I was hooked.

Even though SKCC promotes the use of manual keying methods, i.e., straight key, bug, cootie key; they have some pretty sophisticated, computer-based tools that can help you reach the various award levels.  There are a few SKCC-specific logging programs.  I use AC2C’s SKCC Logger for logging during WES contests and keeping track of all of my SKCC contacts.   The K3UK SKCC Sked Page is an online gathering place for members looking for contacts.  Another slick tool is the SKCC Skimmer.  This software tells me who is online on the Sked Page and which SKCC members have been spotted on the Reverse Beacon Network (RBN).  Most importantly, it lets me know if they have SKCC numbers I need for award levels I’m pursuing.

The thing I like most about SKCC is the friendly attitude of the members.  They are particularly helpful to newbies and will always slow down to match the sending speeds of slower operators.  Many times, operators would recognize my new SKCC number and take the time to welcome me to the club — even during contest exchanges.

This is my first key as a ham. I bought this at a Radio Shack store in 1974. It still sees occasional use.
This is my first key as a ham. I bought this at a Radio Shack store in 1974. It still sees occasional use.

After a month and a half of general operating and two WES contests, I found myself with 99 SKCC contacts.  I needed just one more to reach the SKCC Centurion level.  With some sort of geomagnetic disturbance going on, I resorted to the SKCC Sked Page for help.  Within minutes, there were several stations trying to work me to put me over the top.  Werner, N8BB in Michigan, was finally able to get me there.  I applied for my Centurion award and received it later that day.  I’m now in the process of trying to work 50 Centurion, Tribune, or Senator level members for the Tribune level.

I’m pleased to report that my old straight key fist is back in shape and I have rediscovered the elegant simplicity of the straight key.  Many thanks for the good folks who run the SKCC organization.  It’s easy to see why the SKCC is one of the fastest growing clubs in ham radio.

72, Craig WB3GCK

Measuring Audio Frequencies with a Guitar Tuner

Here’s a little hack that serves no real purpose.  I’ll tell you about it anyway.

I recently built the T-Tone Code Practice Oscillator (CPO) kit from Morse Express.   It’s a handy little addition to the shack for adjusting straight keys or testing keyers.  After building it, I just adjusted the audio frequency for a pleasing tone.  Most people would have just left it alone at that point.  I’m not most people.

I started to do some thinking, which is a dangerous practice that can sometimes lead to unexpected consequences.  I wondered how the frequency of CPO compared to the sidetone of my FT-817.  There was no particular point to this mental exercise other than idle curiosity.

Now, I certainly could have keyed both the CPO and the FT-817 and done a comparison by ear.  I could have just adjusted the CPO by ear to match the FT-817.  But what fun would that be?  I was curious about the exact audio frequency of the FT-817’s sidetone, so I opted to do some experimenting.

Having been playing guitar for more than 50 years, I have acquired a gadget or two over the years.  One of those gadgets is a clip-on guitar tuner.  I can clip this clever device on the headstock of my guitar and, by sensing vibrations, it will tell me what note I’m playing and whether the pitch is sharp or flat.  I figured I could use this thing as an audio frequency meter of sorts.

First, I laid the guitar tuner on top of the FT-817’s speaker and keyed up.  That indicated that the pitch of the sidetone was an F note.  Consulting a conversion chart I found on the Internet, that equates to 699Hz.  I seemed to recall that the FT-817’s sidetone was somewhere around 700Hz, so that seemed about right.  I was sure I was in the right octave.

Guitar tuner on top of the FT-817
Guitar tuner on top of the FT-817

Next I took the lid off of the CPO and clipped the guitar tuner on it.  It initially indicated that the CPO was tuned to F#.  That equates to a frequency of 740Hz.  I tweaked the CPO’s frequency adjustment pot to F, matching the FT-817.  A side-by-side comparison of the CPO and the FT-817 showed that I was successful.

Guitar tuner clamped onto the lid of the code practice oscillator
Guitar tuner clamped onto the lid of the code practice oscillator

So, what’s the point of all this?  None really.  Is there a practical use for this?  Probably not.  Does it really matter that my CPO matches the sidetone of my radio?  Nope.  I just had one of those “I wonder what would happen if…” moments.  Now I know.

72, Craig WB3GCK

MS2 Straight Key Magnetic Mount

As I mentioned in an earlier post, I bought the little American Morse MS2 straight key intending to somehow magnetically attach it to the clipboard I use for portable operating.  It took some thinking but I came up with a workable solution.  I might come up with a better solution in the future but, for now, it should suffice.

What I set out to do was build a wooden mount that could attach the MS2 that held two magnets that lined up with the steel washers on the clipboard.  I had a couple of “super magnets” that I planned to use.  The problem I ran into is that the magnets are almost too strong to attach directly to the washers.  My solution was to enclose the magnets within the wood base.

Super magnets used for the MS2 straight key magnetic mount. Boy, these things are powerful!
Super magnets. Boy, these things are powerful!

I cut a 1×3.25-inch piece of 1/8-inch plywood.  Then I drilled two 3/4-inch holes just deep enough to fit the magnets.  After placing the magnets in the holes, I glued on a thin wood veneer.  This puts some extra spacing between the magnets and the washers on the clipboard.  After drilling a mounting hole for the MS2, I sprayed on a couple of coats of paint.

MS2 straight key magnet mount wood pieces prior to assembly
Wood pieces prior to assembly

After letting the paint dry, I went to attach the key to the base.  Oops!  I drilled the mounting hole from the wrong side of the mount.  My first inclination was to putty it in and repaint.  However, I decided to leave it there as a constant reminder to always measure twice and drill once!

MS2 straight key attached to the magnetic base
MS2 attached to the magnetic base. Don’t look too closely or you might see the drilling mistake I made.

The mount actually works well.  The concealed super magnets hold the key firmly to the clipboard without the need for excessive force to remove it.  Once I free up some time, I’ll give it a thorough test out in the field.

MS2 straight key mount attached to the clipboard
The finished product

72, Craig WB3GCK