The 2010 SEPTEMBER ARRL VHF CONTEST
from a Maine Perspective
The September 2010 ARRL VHF Contest is all wrapped up and it presented an interesting challenge for our small group. First and foremost it entailed a lot of hard work and preparation. We tried to mount a competitive effort from my home location in Maine in the multi multi category. This is the same grouping that has attracted the huge mountaintop efforts over the years. These mountaintop stations typically amass huge totals on all the bands and require huge efforts from legions of helpers in the process. Lately the competition has been from W2SZ on Mt Greylock in Massachusetts, and K8GP on Spruce Knob in West Virginia. In 2010, K8GP did not go to Spruce Knob. It looked like W2SZ would be the top dog and the station that had to be beat if we were to have a chance at winning. If you have never been to Mt. Greylock, you are missing a treat. The location is an awesome combination of a high mountain, (3500 ft high) that is within within line of sight of the Boston skyline, Hartford, CT. and almost New York City as well! Here are some mileages from the summit: Boston suburbs 100 miles, Hartford, CT 65 miles; Albany, NY, 30 miles; New York City 130 miles, Philadelphia 200 miles. From my 870 ft hill in Maine, distances to those same cities are: Boston 75 miles; Hartford, CT 140 miles; Albany, NY 150 miles; New York City 230 miles; and Philadelphia 325 miles. It is very obvious that any operation from Maine puts you at a serious disadvantage, but I can't afford to move closer to New York, so we are stuck with what we have!
THE VIEW FROM FN43MJ, K1WHS in LEBANON, MAINE vs. THE VIEW FROM MT. GREYLOCK, FN32, IN WESTERN MA.
Looking at the population centers, we figured that whatever we could not do with sheer number of QSOs, we would try to make up with extra grids. How do you get more grids than a large multi op station located on a 3500 ft. mountain? That is a good question. I figured that the bottom four bands needed smart antennas optimized for contesting. The higher bands needed just raw gain and accurate aiming. (Almost all contacts on the higher bands are passed up from 50 or 144 MHz typically. We know where the station is as a rule.) All bands need excellent gear for receiving and transmitting. That goes without saying. We also needed to make sure all of the nearby grids were activated. The state of Maine, New Brunswick and Nova Scotia are not hotbeds of VHF activity. In fact, it is almost totally devoid of vhf and microwave activity. We had to send rover stations there to work these grids in most cases. The ARRL rules allow you to contact your own operators on 2.3 GHz and above, so we collected as many retired rigs, IF rigs, antennas, Gunnplexers, etc and made sure that we had enough complete stations to maximize our score. Each QSO required a separate complete station and antenna. When you are looking for as many contacts as possible, it is im perative that all the operators bring extra microwave stuff to add to the totals!
The planning really started late last fall. I spent the winter upgrading some of the VHF gear. My HB six meter amplifier was working OK, but not great. Gain was a little low. I reworked the PI network, and changed out some RF blocking capacitors. I added a better vacuum variable loading capacitor. The net result was a bit more than 1 dB extra gain, and better tuning. I also built a new high voltage power supply to power the amplifier. The new supply is huge. Since the generator that powers the shack is a 208 3 phase unit, I built up a 3 phase high voltage supply. The old supply had very poor regulation as the transformer was an old design with high internal resistance. The new supply used modern components. The regulation on the new supply is awesome. The high voltage stays within about 100 volts whether full keydown or in standby! Some of the other fellows spent the winter working on new stuff as well. N2CEI refitted all of our second microwave station with phase locked LOs. We also built up a 10 MHz reference and distribution amplifier . As warm weather arrived, we fleshed out a plan. We had to find a few operators and help them put rover stations together. N2CEI was the rover coordinator. K1CA and K1OR were all set to travel to Nova Scotia to activate some new grids. They found out early on that the high speed ferry from Portland had stopped running and the only way to get there was a 1000 mile drive through Maine and New Brunswick then down through Nova Scotia to Yarmouth. The old rover vehicle was just not in that good a shape to make the trip, so an entirely new plan was hatched. Larry and John decided to build a station on a flat bed trailer, and pull it with a more modern vehicle. W2RG, who recently moved here from the midwest, recruited us so he could get some Maine contacts on the higher bands. He wanted to rove in the Cape Cod and Southern MA and RI grids. He had most of the gear and we all scrounged around to get him whatever else was needed for a 10 band effort. He was to cover FN51, FN41, FN42, and FN31. Maine has a number of empty grids, and we planned to have two rovers cover those grids. WW1M was to cover FN43, FN44, FN53, FN54, FN45, and FN55. K1DY covered FN64, FN65, FN56, FN66, FN57, and FN67. K2GE covers some grids down South that may not be active on all bands. He was to hit FN11, FN10, FN20, FN21, FN30, FM29, and maybe FM28.
WW1M/R Bruce on the Left. K1DY/R Bill and John on the right.
K1DY/R FN56 The rover rig attracted a lot of attention up in the "County". The"visitors" thought it was udderly fascinating!
K1CA and K1OR spent all summer working on their new rover trailer, complete with metal walled ham shack, and electric operated extendable mast. It was a welding project and much rectangular and tubular thin walled steel product went into the design. John and Larry ended up building a metal ham shack on the trailer as well, complete with a motorized offset fed dish for 5 and 10 GHz. As September approached it was a mad scramble to finish the project and get the equipment installed. John, K1OR, likes to do things up right, and much thought and sweat went into the project. They finished literally the day before departure time and quickly installed the gear and made a quick check working the K1WHS station on Thursday evening on all the bands. We were very shocked to not be able to contact them on 5 and 10 GHz. They were shooting through lots of foliage, but the 50 mile path had been done easily before. After some head scratching they decided to make some quick checks on the gear to find any possible problems. They left for Nova Scotia early Friday morning.
The Nova Scotia Rover trailer nearing completion in late Summer. The mast is a chain driven, electrical winch operated, commercial mast. Larry and John built a metal hamshack right on the trailer. They wanted to keep dry as best they could. The whole project was a marvel of welding prowess. The inside of the shack was gorgeous. The mast failed on their trip and caused much trouble.
Here is K1CA trying out the radio operating position inside the mobile rover-mobile trailer. Note the map of Nova Scotia with the custom logo "The DeckShoe Boys". Somehow Larry and John picked up that nick name along the way and it stuck. There is gear available for 50 thru 24 GHz on the trailer.
The station on our little hill in southwest Maine is about 870 ft above sea level. Not very high, but it has a nice shot to the south and southwest, with negative horizon angles. It is pretty good in the other directions, but horizon angles are higher and in positive territory. The worst direction is actually northwest with Mt. Washington 64 miles away towering at 6288 Ft. The horizon angle is about + 0.4 degrees or so there. Mt Greylock on the other hand has negative horizons of better than -0.7 degrees in every direction.
As the contest drew nearer, during the summer months, each antenna system was tested and checked for any water or moisture in connectors or feeds. Water can be a huge problem. On 10 GHz, for example, we found that a short run of 1/4" heliax from the feed had very high loss even though the VSWR was not bad at all. The tip off was that the VSWR was just a different number! Replacing the cable improved the loss drastically. An autopsy of the old cable produced no clues as to why the loss was high. Based on our 10 GHz findings, we figured it would be prudent to rip into all the microwave systems, and replace anything that looked suspect. 3456 has always seemed to have problems as it seemed to not work as well as the 2304 system even though the antennas were the same size. This year, there was no choice with the 3456 system. It had been trashed by a late winter storm. That storm had also uprooted many trees in the area last March. My neighbor had about 50 white pines toppled over. I had a large grove of white pines missing the top 30 ft of their trunks. I was not surprised that one of the 3456 loop yagis had broken apart, and was hanging by a thread! The whole array was rebuilt with new semi rigid phasing lines, and each antenna was tested for VSWR and adjusted. Some of the loops had been damaged by falling ice. Straightening out the bent loops, dipoles and bent boom on one yagi made everything look back to normal. The final VSWR test of the whole array looked quite good with return loss of 25 dB across the band around 3456 MHz. That is better than I see on 144!!
Take a look up on top of the tower. That piece of metal hanging out at a weird angle is actually the bent boom of a 3456 MHz loop yagi that was ripped apart by high winds and ice during a winter storm. As luck would have it The broken antenna was at the very top of the mast.
I kept working down the tower, with 1296 next followed by 2304, The 2304 system looked OK, but had a piece of 1/2" LDF coax from the preamp box going to the antenna 4 way power divider that looked a bit sick. Someone (most likely me, K1WHS) had stepped on the coax and flattened it a bit. After checking each loop yagi and putting a new feed cable in place, we saw better than 25 dB return loss on that band as well. A quick check of 902/903 MHz showed a fine match up on the tower, so I did not bother to take that band apart. Along the way, I rebuilt the 2304 preamp box with a high power N relay to replace the small SMA relay in use before. In the past we have run 110 watts on 2.3 GHz but wanted to up the power to 300-400 watts. The SMA relay had to go. It was maxed out with the 75 watts that was making it to the top of the tower. The new 2304 amplifier never got installed in the shack, but at least the relay is ready for the higher power.
The NEW 2304 solid state PA. Good for an easy 500 watts output. We plan to run it at about 300-400 watts It never managed to get hooked up for the contest. Better luck next year.
A few words about testing UHF and microwave antennas in place on a large tower. Just how do you accomplish that? Most methods require two people to run tests. In addition, you cannot use simple vswr meters much above 500 MHz. My old test method was to use a scalar analyzer in the shack, and look at the antenna through 140 ft of large heliax. If there was a problem, you had to substitute and test again. It was hard to line up a helper. It was even harder to get a helper who could interpret the scalar analyzer screen. Any work took a lot of time before a solution was found. The best remedy for that situation turned out to be a handheld antenna analyzer that could be used on the tower. Such tools are available, but not cheap. I was drawn to a neat family of handheld gear first sold by Wiltron. Wiltron was eventually bought by Anritsu, and are sold under the "Sitemaster" name. Other companies such as Rhode & Schwartz and Agilent sell similar items. My interest was piqued when I saw that distance to fault measurements could be made. The Sitemaster is a very versatile instrument. I can stand on top of a 130 ft tower and find a bad connector down inside the shack without moving an inch! Finding a problem in a 4 X loop yagi or 4 X yagi array is simple. The highest range possible on my unit is 4 GHz. I can cover every band from 50 MHz through 3456!
Two views of the 50 MHz antenna system, 4 X 7 elements on 31 ft booms. 101, 77, 53, and 29 ft above ground. This array really seems to work well. It has the capability of beam steering, and the yagis can be rotated independently of each other.
The 50 MHz antenna system had a small problem as well. There was a dirty coax relay in the phasing matrix inside the shack. I think K9PW addressed that on Friday before the contest. In addition (and more seriously) the second of four 7 element yagis had poor performance for some unknown reason. The problem and the solution was simple to find and to fix once I climbed the tower. The flexible feedline was getting chewed up as the yagi rotated around the tower. Water was getting inside the braid where the outer plastic sheath was getting cut open! Again, the VSWR did not look really bad even though you could see the corroded braid inside the coax! . The antenna just had less gain with the bad piece of coax. When I replaced the cable, things looked back to normal. The second antenna was working as well as the others again. The last repairs were completed by the first week in September. This 50 MHz antenna system is quite a performer. The combination of four computer optimized 31 ft yagis and the hilltop location with a gradual dropoff to the west, produces an exceedingly low angle of radiation. How do we know this? In running an EME sked with 3D2LR in Fiji, the array produced very strong echoes heard in Fiji, at minus 1/2 degree of elevation!! At higher angles, the signals were not as strong. The ground gain was huge! Anyway, after the repairs, The six meter station was ready! The other bands were all in good shape as well. The plan was coming together!
Typical work party view of repairing the top antenna array (3456) on the microwave tower. K1WHS (top) N2CEI (bottom)
Steve and Sandra, N2CEI and K4SME showed up on Wednesday. They almost went into shock when they heard there was no antenna work to be done. Our only task was reconnecting our auxilliary microwave station. Steve had modified the 903 thru 3456 transverters for 10 MHz phase locked LO operation over the winter. We spent much time trying to connect everything, and managed to destroy the automatic band switching unit in the process. We had to jury rig a manual band switch, but did get the phase locked transverters all running. K9PW showed up on Thursday, and we spent time making sure all the networked laptops worked fine and our logging software was up to date etc. Pete K9PW, drove from Chicago and brought along his 2.3 through 24 GHz low power station in his car. Joel, W5ZN was the next arrival, and we were so caught up with everything, that we went out to dinner that night at the local Mexican restaurant. It was so good there, that we started ordering pitchers of Margaritas, and managed to drain about seven pitchers worth. I thought the management might throw us out we were having so much fun. What a way to start a contest.
The two "Early Birds" Pancake Pete, K9PW and Joel-Zilla W5ZN. Pete is setting up the 144 station "just right", while Joel seems to be liking the 222 operating position just like it is! Both Pete and Joel arrived early and were a big help getting the station ready for action.
Saturday was pretty nice, weatherwise, but there was some sort of weather front not far to our west. The local beacons were normal at 9 AM, but by noontime, they had all disappeared. Conditions to the west and southwest had descended into bad territory. The W3CCX beacons were gone for the most part. As the contest started, we were met with horrible conditions with poor signals from stations that were normally easy copy. To make matters worse, many of our rover team were late or missing at the start. K1OR was in Nova Scotia, and we ran them up the bands from FN74, but had a rough time on 2.3 and 3.4 with weak signals. We could not make any contact on 5 or 10 GHz at all. It seemed apparent that the rig was possibly not working up to what we had hoped. We also had all sorts of trouble working K2GE/R in FN11 as well. Signals were just awful, and we could not work above 432. We were all frustrated and disappointed. To make matters worse, The motorized mast on the K1OR rover broke after the first stop, and they were out of commission as the antennas had to remain nested in the travelling/stowed position. They were more frustrated than we were on the hill.
The "Deck Shoe Boys" (K1OR and K1CA) in Nova Scotia. This was after the mast failed and we had to try to QSO with the antennas nested as shown here. The 5 & 10 GHz dish could not be used, and it blocked the microwave loopers just above the black shelter roof. At least the weather was nice!
The 50 and 144 stations were slogging away, but the starting rates were lower than normal. I think I saw 60 Qs in the first hour on 144. K9PW was on 144, while K1BX was at the 50 MHz position. Art worked 70 stations on six meters that first hour, and it rapidly went downhill from there. Hour 2 was in the 15-20's while hour three produced totals of 33 and 34 respectively. It was obvious that the band was in bad shape and activity was down. The Saturday evening rates hovered in the teens typically up until about 11 PM. On Sunday morning, Six meters was more active than 144. Art had rates back in the teens, while the 144 station was in single digits! Sunday afternoon we were working rates in the teens again. The last few hours of the contest were really bad with rates dropping again averaging in single digits again. Such rates indicate that many casual operators did not stick around. I am sure operating was not much fun as there was little DX to work for most everyone. I can think of very little unusual propagation heard, at least on my part. It was simply a matter of slugging it out and digging out very weak QSOs. One interesting phenomenon happened a bit after 0100UT on Saturday evening. I was the 903 thru 3456 operator and had nothing to do at the moment, so tuned to 903.100 and was surprised to hear someone talking on SSB exchanging grids and saying "FM19", FM19 is in Maryland about 450 miles away. I started calling and soon the station heard me. It was K1RZ. We exchanged reports and quickly QSYed up as fast as we could. Dave had been running with K1TEO, but dropped him like a hot potato and we went immediately to 1296 and worked easily. A quick QSY to 2304 netted a fine contact there, but K1RZ dropped down right at the end of the contact into the noise. Our try on 3456 netted nothing on either end. The short propagation peak was gone. I am not sure if it was the troposphere, or possibly aircraft scatter, but K1RZ was so strong that we heard him on 2304 even on our auxillairy microwave setup which consisted of a single 76 element loop yagi at 50 ft.
The kitchen area, L to R, K0DI, WZ1V, Sandra K4SME, N1DPM, N1JFU
Another shot of our kitchen, complete with coffee maker, grill, microwave oven, and portable microwave ham rig!
By 0300 UT on Saturday night, we had about 36 grids on 144 MHz, and about 30 grids on 50 MHz. (222 and 432 were at about 30 grids as well) We had planned to run the digital scatter modes late at night on both six and two meters, and our first efforts started about 0330 or so. That is a great way to build up grid totals. Unfortunately it is a big antenna mode, and requires antennas designed for meteor scatter and not laser pointing! A broad beamwidth pays dividends. On 50 MHz, the antennas are stacked vertically to preserve a wide main lobe. On 144 MHz we use the LVA or Large Vertical Array, and it really performs on long haul meteors. By 1200 UT the next morning, the six meter station was at 49 grids while 144 was at 48 grids. There was some SSB scatter to work on six Sunday morning, and Art kept hammering away there. By 1400 UT he had 60 grids in the log. Some were not scatter, but the overnight scatter tally was high, about 25 or 26 grids total for the band. The 144 station picked up 12 grids overnight.
The higher bands were plodding along working rovers primarily. WA2IID/R was around along with KC2PLJ, K2QO, KB1EKZ, W2RG, N1JEZ, K2GE, K1DY, and K1OR still in Nova Scotia. By 11 AM, 222 and 432 were at 36 grids. The totals were slowly climbing on all the bands.There was no joy from VE1 on 5 and 10 GHz though. We never heard any signals either way. That was very discouraging, and we really missed those grids. We still worked them on bands up to 3456 however, even with their antennas nested all the way down. It was also nice to fill in those empty grids in Maine and northern Vermont too. Except for a few glitches we were working the grids up to 10 GHz in most of the Maine grids. K2GE/R put FN30 and a few other grids to our southwest on the higher bands as well.
The microwave dishes! 0.9 meter 10 GHz on top, 0.9 meter 5760 in the middle, with 24 GHz on the bottom. The view is towards 220 degrees and New York City.
EME is becoming a serious tool during the VHF contests lately. There is quite a lot of activity on 144 MHz, and if the moon is well positioned, an EME array is now a requirement for a winning score. This contest, the moon was not very useable. It was up during major activity parts of the day, and not up late at night. It would be counter productive for us to stay working the moon for long periods. Still we figured we could try the EME route on six and two with our contest arrays. In fact the 50, 144, 222, and 432 stations are capable of hearing CW echoes on the rising and setting moon, if Faraday rotation obliges. The Moon was going to rise around 1530 UT on Sunday. That is close to noon time on the East Coast. Pete, K9PW and Fred, N1DPM, aimed the sharp 4 yagi tropo array at the rising moon and immediately started working stations using JT-65. For about an hour, they did quite well, working IK3MAC, RK3FG, I2FAK, DK7KF, DK3EE, WB0SIP,, EB5EEO, and DK3BU. That was another eight grids on 144 and brought the two bottom band grid totals a bit closer together. By 1800 UT, 50 and 144 were both at 65 grids worked. 222 & 432 were at 38. 903 and 1296 were both in the high 20's. 2.3 and 3.4 GHz were at about 20 grids. With the lousy conditions we were taking advantage of everything we could to build up our grid and contact totals. We tried a setting moon sked with W7GJ in Montana on 50 MHz! Lance wanted to QRT early for an evening engagement, so Fred put some uptilt into the array and worked Lance with the moon still elevated on our end! We got a new grid in Montana on six meters as a result! We even tried some FM on 146, 223.5 and 446 MHz. We did not make a lot of FM QSOs, but the few we made were welcome, and added to our score.
Left: WZ1V on 432, and W5ZN on 222 MHz. Right: From the looks on Steve and Al's faces, I suspect Joel W5ZN did something bad!
Fred, N1DPM, in addition to his duties as the "night baker" on 50 MHz (running the night time digital mode work shift) he also was responsible for collecting all of our extra 2.3 GHz and above equipment and divide it all up and test it to make sure it works. He then set it up and various operators used the gear to contact our own station. All of the gear was capable of real communications across many miles. An old 2304 450 milliwatt transverter, several of my old 10 GHz SSB rigs, K1OR's old 24 GHz gunnplexers, etc. It was a long list. We scrounged up a number of IF rigs and antennas to make each station a stand alone unit not to be used by anyone else for a contact. Fred had to make sure it all worked, and whip it all into shape. This effort netted almost 50K points! It helps when you have almost 2900 QSO points and 409 grids worked. Adding a 4 point MW QSO adds 1636 points each time. We even got a new grid from using several laser light communication rigs above 300,000 MHz. It was a bunch of work to do, but to compete at the highest level, all avenues must be addressed. This time around in 2010, we only had a small core group directly working on the hill, or building equipment for the hill, of K1WHS, N2CEI, K1CA, K1OR, N1DPM, and WW1M. WA1T showed up one day and we fixed the six meter antenna. Al had moved away to Annapolis, MD, but was back in New Hampshire one weekend, and lent me some much needed help with the six meter repairs. This small group had to deal with the normal 11 band station, the auxilliary 4 band microwave station, the various FM stations, the excess microwave stations above 2.3 GHz, and the computer logging systems and network. We also had to deal with creature comforts as well. We had to set up a kitchen, toilet facilities, and sleeping quarters for off duty operators.Much of the latter tasks were done in the days just before the contest by some of the operators who flew or drove long distances to get here. Having K9PW and W5ZN here early was a big help. Needless to say, we were spread a little thin when you consider the complexity of mounting such a big effort. We had some more folks operating on their rover systems too. K1OR/ K1CA, WB2ONA, W2PED, K1DY/WA3ETD, WW1M, and W2RG put in big efforts to get their rovers operational. KB3XG and N1JEZ also went out to cover a few grids as well. There was much coordination and planning with rover coverage and itenerary planning. There was much swapping and building of gear.
As Sunday evening progressed, the activity never built up as the night wore on. Some contests get really hectic as 11 PM gets close. This time was not like that! The contest was basically over for us by 9 PM. Fred had arranged for his buddy Frank, NC1I to go over to Fred's house and activate all the bands to get FN32 on all the bands up to 10 GHz. Fred had fun working his own station on 10 GHz. We wanted to work FN32 on the higher bands, because it is usually difficult to get a sked with W2SZ in that grid on the microwaves. They are always very busy. We have missed that grid in the past! The last two hours were very slow. We snagged VE2XX in FN25 on a bunch of bands up to 3456 for just about the only excitement in those last two hours. Stu gave us an extra 4 grids on the higher bands. When 11 PM rolled around, it was an easy decision to switch off the gear. The bands were flat. There was almost no activity. The time in the chair had taken its' toll on all of us. We adjourned down to the house and savored a few Polish and Lithuanian beers courtesy of Ron, WZ1V. Both Ron and Al, WA1T have Lithuanian lineage. We were tired, but happy in that the crew operated well all weekend. After our Lithuanian beer party we crashed for the night. We felt pretty good with our effort. The contact passing up the bands was efficient. Our manual switching arrangement on the aux microwave system did not confuse anyone. Nothing blew up or got damaged. All of the equipment operated flawlessly. All the antenna systems seemed to be at maximum efficiency. No bands seemed weak or problematic. In short we did about as well as could be expected given the poor conditions. There were a few rover problems, but nothing really serious.
The next morning, our traditional breakfast is at the "Remember When Diner". This place has the biggest pancakes I have ever witnessed. K9PW is a growing boy and can't seem to get enough pancakes. They don't call him Pancake Pete for nothing.
This year, though, Pete cut way back and ordered only a short stack along with 30 lbs of strawberries, and a cubic yard of Reddi-Whip while N1JFU smiles in amazement! On the right, Fred is enjoying his meal, while Dave, K0DI is wondering how to finish off his manhole cover sized pancake.
So how did we do? With the bad conditions we still collected the most grids on 903, 3.4, and 10 GHz that we have ever done. Our 144 grid total was the second best we ever did. Not bad when you consider all the complaining about conditions heard in New England! All other bands with the exception of possibly 5.7 GHz, were way up there as well and near the best ever. Such results are only obtained by staying in the chair and having operators who are poised and effective at detecting subtle changes in propagation. Our crew of operators were the best. You can say all you want about having good equipment, but the secret ingredient is really the people who operate that equipment.
Our final raw score was 1,171,376 points. How will that place when the results are published? Did we win? Time will tell. Putting on a competitive multi-multi VHF contest effort is quite involved. I tried to convey some of the time and effort involved in such undertakings in this writeup. I did not mention much about the less glamorous aspects of the effort. We had to supply all of our own electricity. There are no commercial power outlets in the middle of the woods. I also have to maintain a road to get all the gear and operators through the forest and up the hill in one piece. In 2007, 2008, and 2009 we had devastating rains that washed out the road in several places. Filling in washouts on a woods road is not much fun. Still, it sure is nice when a plan comes together!!
Our fine sanitation facilities on the left, with WA1T installing our top of the line "Modesty Shield" in the right photo.
Our illustrious and saavy leader and some old slacker in a rusty colored jacket.