Wednesday, February 3, 2016

Just Get on the Air!

I got my ham radio license back in 1970 and let it languish and expire because of the daunting task converting a WW-II surplus radio transceiver to work on amateur frequencies.   Back then, getting a new ham on the air almost always meant building his or her own radio and the newbie was relegated to Morse code, so the hobby was not for those with only a casual interest.

When I retired, I found more time, studied and took my test to get a license again.  As soon as my license number came in, I applied for a vanity license to revive my silent key Dad’s call sign.  It was his enthusiasm that got me started on radio and very likely his troubleshooting techniques that carried me through a successful career in data communications.

Having newly retired, once licensed, I went out and got a good used radio and power supply.  The costs of putting up a big tower, rotator and multi-element beam antenna were daunting to me.

Experienced hams were quick to dismiss my concerns about the high costs of getting on the air.  They all insisted that all I needed was some wire and a high place to string it.  Trouble is, I had no high place and towers were expensive.  There were also a couple of large honey-do projects with my name on them and I would feel guilty erecting a tower or even a push up pole.

I did have a vague idea of wanting to focus on emergency communications which is one reason I wanted a portable system.  Logically that means short distances, so UHF/VHF radios would play a key role here.  I accumulated several handy talkies of various models and manufacture as well as a couple of mobile radios.  I spent some time coming up with ways of quickly throwing up low-cost ad-hoc repeaters in case needed.  That wouldn’t reach outside some disaster areas so I wanted more.

Somewhere along the way I had picked up a couple of “HamStick” antennas.  The manufacturer of the HamStick has been out of business for years, but look-alikes are available from various sources.  These are mobile antennas for vehicle mounting with whip ends that are slid in and out to tune them to best resonate within a specific frequency range.

A big limitation of a HamStick type antenna is that you need a different one for each band.  On the other hand, they are very inexpensive ($14.95ea for the MFJ version).  I had no real wish to transmit while tooling down the highway and being retired, I no longer drove as much, but my goal was for a portable station and this seemed like a pretty portable solution.

I set up the HF rig with the HamSticks (MFJ-1640T and MFJ-1620T) for 40 and 20 meters respectively.  They gave rather dismal results and in fact I made no contacts using either, although I could dimly hear some stations, none of them was loud enough to bump the S meter above the background noise.  Couple that with not really knowing how to use the radio, and I went off the HF airwaves for over a year and a half.  Before you ask, the answer is no.  I didn’t ask anyone for help.

I was reading on a survival forum about the Buddi-Pole antenna system.  This is a family of portable antenna systems with shorter coils than HamSticks and instead of a single whip wire, they have telescoping elements.  Their deluxe system comes with two elements and a hub system so it can be rigged as a dipole antenna.  Like the HamSticks, a different coil is needed for each band, but the Buddi-Pole coils are small and packaged neatly in a carry bag along with a compact tripod and short mast.  This caught my attention and the reviews seemed positive.  

I was already saving up the considerable money involved in owning such a system when I saw an article on doing the same thing with a dipole adapter MFJ-347 Double T Pipe Mount W/SO-239 ($19.95ea).  This connects two HamStick antennas back to back with one being connected to the center conductor and the other being connected to the outer braid of the transmission cable.  

I swung by the local ham radio store and picked up the adapter and a second MFJ-1640T and MFJ-1620T HamSticks.  Unlike the Buddi-Pole, this combination breaks down to about five feet long, but that still fits behind the seat of my pickup.  There are obvious performance issues with an antenna only about 25 feet long that should be 66 feet long, but it does work and at an attractive price.  I got checked into traffic nets as far away as 400 miles that first day on 40 meters.  

That setup got put away and I didn’t think about it again as life got busy.  I had purchased a 40, 20, 10, 6 fan dipole when I found a good deal because it would fit within the limits of my small backyard and just kept thinking I would eventually get a push up pole to erect it.  I got the antenna out for last year’s field day and got a contact with Gordon West which thrilled me to no end, but at home, I still had no HF setup.

This week I set aside a couple of days and set my Yaesu FT-897D with AT-897 auto-tuner bolted to the side and set up my HamStick dipole on an telescoping painters pole 12’ high in my back yard.  I commandeered the step ladder my wife uses to fill bird feeders and used Velcro to strap this makeshift mast and keep it from falling over.   Powering the radio up, it came up in the middle of the morning 7290 traffic net loud and strong.  I brought it off frequency and hit the auto-tuner just to be sure, then went back and waited for my turn to check in.  Got through on the first try and hit more traffic nets that same morning.  Not bad for a portable antenna 12’ off the ground.

Enjoying myself that first day with contact on various traffic nets, I decided to try the fan dipole the next morning.  After all I am mostly interested in regional communications, so NVIS should work pretty well for me.  I strung the antenna up with the peak of my inverted v at the top of my twelve foot painter’s pole and the ends drooping down to about five feet before being secured to the privacy fence at each side of my yard.

My contacts that day were to various traffic nets on 40 and 20 meters and included reports of good signal in Boston and Virginia.  From my location in rural northeast Texas that was a maximum range of more than 1,400 miles.   Granted it was a good day and I couldn’t even hear a station in Dallas (100 miles away).

Taking a look at the antenna system I had run, I saw it was composed of some rather simple components.  A 1:1 balun, which costs under $40, a handful of insulators for securing the ends of the antenna wires.  The antenna wire itself was 14 gauge stranded wire with a Teflon jacket.  

What I am trying to say is just get on the air.  Tinker some.  Invest in an antenna tuner and keep the power down until you know how well matched your antenna is, then get on the air.  The optimal antenna could easily run you millions of dollars, but getting on the air and making some serious contacts is rather easy and cheap.  

Just do it.

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