Category Archives: Amateur Radio

Qualifying a summit – making 4 interstate contacts – using the 500 milliwatt Pixie morse transceiver

I built up the Pixie kit, having bought it a year ago or more, just to see how it worked and intended to try it out on a SOTA activation.

Being invited to accompany Andrew VK1AD to Mt Marulan for a return visit, having done the same in December 2018, I decided to take the Pixie along to see if it could make even one contact with 40m conditions as dicey as they are at present.

I set up the station to use the Pixie, with the ZS6BKW doublet fed through an Elecraft T1 tuner and the choke balun recently built. (Did I write about that? Maybe not.)

I listened for a minute or two on the Pixie’s 7023 khz and could hear VK2ARZ calling CQ with a very high offset frequency, my guess was that he was on 7025 so would not hear me operating on 7023. The Pixie’s receiver is a direct conversion receiver without any inherent selectivity so if my ears had 10 khz frequency response I would have heard stations out to that offset in both directions, ie. higher and lower in actual frequency, eg. A signal on 7013 would produce a 10 khz frequency difference so the 10 khz would be coming through the receiver, as would a 7033 khz signal also produce a 10 khz audio frequency. My 69 year old ears don’t have that bandwidth any more, they have an inbuilt low pass filter.  ūüôā

So I spotted myself on Sotawatch using the vk port-a-log software on the android tablet, called CQ using the little blue hand key, listened, then called again. A big signal loomed in the earbuds and it sounded like a bug being used. Was it Steve VK7CW, yes, it certainly was, after the call letters marched across my ears and I logged the contact using the tablet. What strength was he? I didn’t know, sounded pretty good so I gave him 579. Received 559 in reply, not bad for half a watt. Steve said he was running an FT817 at 5 watts out. Monster power.

Three more contacts, regulars John VK4TJ in Toowoomba, Peter VK3PF in Churchill Victoria, and finally Paul VK3HN from Melbourne made it into the Pixie log and I’d qualified the summit in 11 minutes using a Pixie half watt, two transistor + one IC transceiver, that had cost me $9 for the kit.

In between the contacts I could hear some weak signals and I wondered how strong they were, perhaps they were others who I wasn’t hearing well enough to copy. So after completing the 4th contact and calling another CQ just to be sure I had worked all who were there, I transferred the antenna to the KX3 and had a better listen to the weak signals. They were weak on that radio too, and I think they were dx stations, probably US operators in a contest of some kind.

Pixie 500 mw transceiver as built above, and as used, below
L-R: Elecraft T1 tuner top left, Pixie PCB, 3S LIPO battery, hand key. The Pixie board is about 2″ x 2″ or 50mm sq. 

The rest of the activation was fairly straightforward using the KX3 and the same doublet antenna, some contacts on 80m, most on 40m, the Shires contest was running so I had to look up my shire, I quoted GM2 (Goulburn Mulwaree) so I hoped that was correct.

WIA AGM weekend in Sydney 25-27 May

The Wireless Institute of Australia’s Annual General Meeting (AGM) was scheduled for the weekend of 25-27 May and I offered to give a short presentation about SOTA as one of the technical presentations on the Saturday afternoon.¬† ARNSW which operates from its site at Dural in north-west Sydney was also scheduling a morning of exhibitions in association with the WIA AGM events and coinciding with its monthly trash n treasure event.¬† So we were invited to exhibit there and explain SOTA to interested people.

The initial contact for the exhibition was Compton VK2HRX and we collaborated on the nature of the exhibit to be set up.

On my way to Sydney I called in at Mt Gibraltar, sota reference VK/IL-001 to make at least 4 contacts and qualify for the 4 points available from that summit.¬† I found that a short time earlier, Peter VK3PF had been at that site.¬† During my operation I heard Peter at good strength, activating another summit nearby, Mt Alexandra VK2/IL-005.¬† We made our S2S contact of course and while I would have liked to follow Peter to that summit, I wasn’t sure I had enough time (actually I would have).

I reached Parramatta in western Sydney at about 3pm and checked into my hotel, reorganised my back pack, changed my clothes and then took the train into Sydney, stopping at Town Hall station, very convenient as the evening event was located at the Town Hall in the Marconi room.¬† ¬†After some announcements and speeches by various officials of the Waverley Amateur Radio Club, which was celebrating its own 100th anniversary, a fascinating presentation was given about the achievements of Australia’s signals intelligence network during the 1940s.¬† The presenter was David Dufty, the author of The Secret Code-Breakers of Central Bureau: how Australia‚Äôs signals-intelligence network helped win the Pacific War.¬† His enthusiasm and knowledge of the subject and how he came to learn of the details was very interesting as it followed my visit to Bletchley Park in the UK three years ago.¬† So many details had been kept secret until relatively recently, it seems.

On the Saturday morning the formal AGM was run and as has been the norm recently, this went fairly quickly and was over within an hour.  In the open forum session following the formal phases, a lot of questions were asked about the outcome of the recent ACMA review of the examination and callsign allocation contract.  It seems there are still a lot of fine details yet to be clarified.

During the afternoon session of technical presentations I presented on the subject of SOTA, explaining how the award works, how summits are verified and approved and gave some statistics on the number of activators and chasers, contacts made, etc.

I ended my presentation with a short personal history of involvement in SOTA and how it relates to my health, which I am sure is much better than it would otherwise be.  I suggested that activities that involve you getting out of the shack and out into nature are not only fun from a radio perspective but are approved by our partners, so what more could you want?

At the dinner on Saturday evening the group heard a great presentation on the Apollo program and what we have gained from it, from Prof Fred Watson, Astronomer at Large for the Australian Government.¬† I found his presentation highly entertaining and informative, he is a very good speaker and if you ever get a chance to hear him speak I recommend it (he has a weekly spot on ABC local radio’s evening program).

On the Sunday morning we went to Dural and set up our exhibit promoting SOTA.  A number of clubs from the Sydney area also exhibited, also ALARA, the WICEN group and CREST had stands.

Here are a few photos from our stand and others:

We handed out about 30 copies of our SOTA brochure and had some good chats with various people who wanted to know more.

Overall we thought the exercise was well worth while.

After I left Dural I headed up to Mt Tomah VK2/CT-043 in the Blue Mountains.  I operated until just about sunset near 5pm local time, after which I closed down and packed up the gear in the rapidly cooling evening air.

The next morning I drove up to Mt Bindo a little earlier than planned as there was a forecast of low temperatures and a high probability of rain.

I did qualify the summit, with 5 CW contacts and 4 SSB contacts, during which my pole collapsed three times.¬† After the third collapse in a very strong gust of wind, I decided to pack and go, as the clouds to the west were looking dark and I wasn’t really sure of my way down the mountain.

Only a short time later, I was 20km away enjoying a hot coffee at Oberon, it started to snow and I was really glad I didn’t get caught in that on the hilltop with radio gear at risk.

On the way from Oberon southwards to Goulburn, there was quite a lot of snow on the roadside and in the countryside.¬† So glad I wasn’t still on a mountain in that.¬† A big change from the weather I had enjoyed three days earlier on the way up to Sydney.



SOTA activation at South Black Range VK2/ST-006 to complete the MG award

Leaving Canberra at 7am and heading out via Hoskinstown to the South Black Range summit, I was ready by 8:30 am to make contact with a group of SOTA enthusiasts back in Canberra.  The plan was to first use 146.5 fm to make local contacts with whoever was there.  Then go to 1296 MHz ssb to make a few contacts there, and then go to the HF bands.

Right on time, Andrew Vk1AD spotted himself on showing he was set up and ready for the morning’s contacts with a group of SOTA trainees at Mt Stromlo.

Also Matt VK1MA, Al VK1RX and Ian VK1DI were on other summits.  These four operators were on air on the first day of SOTA in VK1, 1st Feb 2013 and we were all on air when each of us have qualified for the 1000 point Mountain Goat award.

We made our contacts and after the 4th contact, several goat bleats were heard on my radio.

Rock, cairn and Trig at South Black Range
The unique shape of the VK2/ST-006 hilltop. The cairn and trig are on top of a huge rock.

I then moved to 1296 and made contacts with Andrew VK1AD and Bill VK1MCW.  The contact with Bill was made on CW as a first for 1296 SOTA in vk1.

After that it was 80m and 40m.  Conditions were favouring longer distances on 40m and it was necessary to use 80m to make contacts into Sydney or into the Melbourne area or any points closer in.

After spending several hours on the summit and getting colder all the time, it being only just above freezing point, I was suddenly surprised by hearing a voice.  There was Matt VK1MA walking towards me grinning and offering me a Mountain Goat ale.  We are lucky in Australia to have a boutique brewery that has produced this very aptly named ale.

After completing the activation and packing away, Matt helped me carry all the equipment back to the car down the hill a bit, then I headed off to Mt Cowangerong to make it a double activation for the day.

Looking happy having completed the Mountain Goat summit

the operating position at South Black Range. tripod for 1296 antenna at rear.

Guyed mast at Cowangerong
Setup at Mt Cowangerong. 2m halfwave on the left attached to a tree, the guyed pole on the right supporting the HF wire antenna.
The doublet wire used for HF contacts at Cowangerong can just be seen here, at the top of the telescopic mast

Two SOTA summits activated for VHF/UHF winter field day

I thought it would be interesting to be within reach of the Sydney and Blue Mountains areas  for this contest.  The Illawarra and Central Tablelands regions are the obvious choices.  I decided to go to Mt Wanganderry, Mt Alexandra and Mt Gibraltar and I optimistically planned to spend about an hour on each, which with travel time would probably consume 6 hours, assuming I was on site for the first summit at the start of the contest at 11 am local time, 0100 UTC.

The bands I could use in my FT817 were 50, 144 and 432 MHz.  Adding a SGLAB transverter I could extend that to 1296 MHz.  Antennas were

  • for 50 MHz, a half wave centre fed vertical in the configuration of a coaxial dipole, with a choke at the half wave point and another a quarter wave lower than the first choke.
  • for 144 and 432 MHz I used a horizontal wire dipole attached to two fibreglass spreaders, mounted onto the fibreglass mast using a hub
  • for 1296 MHz the antenna was a 4 element yagi, with the transverter mounted as close as possible to minimise losses in the RG58 coaxial cable.
    the 6m vertical above the 2m/70cm dipole mounted on the pole
    More detail of the 2m dipole with a CATV BNC/wire terminal adaptor at the feedpoint
    More detail of the 2m dipole with a CATV BNC/wire terminal adaptor at the feedpoint

    1296 transverter and antenna mounted on the camera tripod

I logged my contacts using the VK Port-a-log software on a Lenovo 7 inch tablet computer.  I had the option of trying the latest contest version of this package but the designer Peter VK3ZPF was concerned that the 2 hour repeat contact rule for this contest would not be accepted by the nearest contest option in the contest version.  So I decided to use the standard parks and peaks version of the package.  This worked but required a bit of scrolling up and down to find the gridsquare field when logging the details of each contact made.

The 6m/2m/70cm equipment, an FT817
The 6m/2m/70cm equipment, another FT817

After reaching the site later than ideal, around 12:30 local time, I set up the antennas and equipment.  To comply with SOTA rules my gear was powered by batteries and the entire station was portable and independent of the car.

The second FT817 was used for 1296 mhz contacts via the transverter
The FT817 used for 1296 mhz contacts

I made some initial contacts on the lower bands followed by some attempted contacts with Tim VK2XAX on 1296 MHz SSB.¬† I could hear Tim but my 2.5w apparently wasn’t enough for him to hear me.¬† Then there was a good contact with Mike Vk2FLR close to the Sydney CBD, 96km away.

I was about to close the site and move to the next one when I noticed one of my tyres was flat and I needed to change it before I could move.  After changing the tyre I was able to make repeat contacts with several of the stations I had worked earlier, so I had been there at least 2 hours by that time.  (Not keeping to plan too well.)

But finally by 3:15pm I set off for the next summit, Mt Alexandra, about 20km away.  It is located directly to the north of the residental streets of Mittagong with a parking area at the end of a bush track leading up past the houses.  After packing the bag and hefting the antenna poles, tripod and 2nd FT817, I walked over to the start of the climb up the hill only to find a sign advising that the track was under repair and would not reopen until late July.  So I returned to the car, unpacked it all and set off for Mt Gibraltar, which was now my second and final summit for the day, arriving at about 4pm local time.

Setting up to the east of the first cyclone fenced compound, I was able to replicate my earlier setup fairly quickly and get onto the lower three bands. Connecting up the 1296 transverter and antenna, I found a very strong signal again from the VK2RSY beacon on 1296.420, then made a good contact with Mike VK2FLR albeit at lower signal levels than from the first location.¬† I don’t know whether I had changed something significant, or there was a connector problem, but signals were not as good as they had been.¬† There were trees obstructing the view towards Sydney so perhaps they were attenuating signals on 1296.¬† The distance was slightly shorter than the earlier contact, about 91km.

After uploading my log to the home computer, I found I had made 27 contacts but it is possible one of my contacts was made too early for a valid repeat.

On balance I think this operation confirmed that even a low power radio (5W) can be used effectively from a good location in these events.  I hope others who own similar radios and can make similar (very) simple antennas will be encouraged by these results and participate in future.  I think hearing strong signals on the VHF and higher bands is still fascinating to me and far more interesting than a totally predictable and reliable contact via a repeater.

Restoring memory settings in FT817

After getting my FT817 final stage replaced, and all power settings reset to meet spec, I started to use the radio again and quickly realised that all the memory settings (frequency and mode) had been wiped.

This made it necessary to change bands using the band switch (!) and manually change between SSB and CW mode, or occasionally FM, dialing up and down the band as necessary.  With the frequency settings in memories, I only needed to move between memory channels to go from SSB on 7090 to CW on 7032, for example.  And on higher bands, I had several beacon frequencies stored in some memories, allowing me to quickly move between the various 10m and 6m beacon frequencies to get a quick impression of band conditions.

So today I dug out the details of the FT817 memory manager software, retrieved the file of frequency settings stored on the computer, added a few new ones and saved the lot in the 817.   Then repeated the process for  my second FT817.  So they now have an identical set of frequencies in their memories.  Makes them somewhat interchangeable.

All the second radio is missing is a cw filter.  I have plans to sort that out soon.

The details of the memory manager and how to interface it with the radio from a windows box are all in a previous post to this blog.  I actually read the post to remind myself of how it worked!

The previous post on this topic is here.

The blog documents it all.


Sotagoat app on iOS – workaround for “alert” time error

The SOTAGOAT app is a well presented and popular app for iOS and works well on my iPhone 5s and the iPad.

Its features include displays for alerts and spots, just like the website, configuration options allowing you to choose between UTC and local time for displays and posts, an option to produce a goat bleat when each new spot is received from sotawatch, a filter option to specify which modes you want to be informed about and the time periods in which you want the notifications and bleats to occur. It uses an internal list of summits which can be updated from a sotawatch site and can display a list of summits near to your current location, which it gets from the GPS info in the phone or tablet.

However, the current (2016) version of the app has an error in the time calculations for new alerts. Sotawatch uses UTC dates and times. I have sotagoat set to display and post in UTC.  But the times posted and seen on sotawatch were always incorrect and I observed that they were incorrect by the UTC offset. The app was adding my UTC offset to the UTC times I wanted and then posting the adjusted time to sotawatch.  I have found the error can be worked around by adjusting the alert time as follows.

When posting an alert I subtract my UTC offset from the alert time.

For example to post an alert for 2300 UTC I subtract 11 hours (in DST periods) or 10 hours (in standard time) and post the alert for the adjusted time, namely 1200 UTC.

This is easy for UTC times after 1100 but for earlier times, the date must be adjusted back too. It’s simple arithmetic you can do in your head. For say 0400, subtract 11 hours: I do that by one of these two methods:

  • First subtracting 4 hours to get back to 0000, then subtracting the remaining 7 hours (because 4+7=11) from 2400 to get 1700.
  • Add 24 hours to 0400 (2800) and subtract 11 hours from that (1700).

In each case, because the time is in the previous day, subtract one day from the date too.

What if I was in a time zone that is behind UTC instead of ahead?

I don’t know whether the software error treats both time offsets similarly. It is possible that it is correct for negative offsets.

The error has been notified to the author of the software but as it can take a while for new versions to be released via the iTunes Store, I will use this workaround until it is fixed. The utility of the application is too good in all other ways to stop using it.

SOTA QSO Party 22nd October 2016 at Bobbara hill

My station setup for this event was later than planned.¬† My original summit was to be VK2/ST-042 and to get access a phone call to the owner of the access road is usually all that’s required.¬† However after two phone calls getting a voicemail response and no callback, I¬†decided to go to Bobbara Hill, just west of Binalong, although that required a longer walk time as well as an extra 20 minutes of travel time.
Once I left the car, opened and closed the gate and starting to walk along the track leading to the hilltop, I was surprised by the wind strength even on the valley floor.  As I climbed further I found the wind was even stronger on the hilltop.
I started setting up in the eastern side of the hill which happily allowed me to avoid the wind, but when I lifted the antenna pole up into the wind it was being blown around so vigorously in the turbulence that I decided it had no chance of surviving in that position and I moved everything further around to the east side of the mountain.  More delay.
Finally I got on the band and called cq on cw, then worked 12 contacts, many being S2S.¬† I tuned around for ssb activators but apart from Don M0HCU didn’t hear many.¬† I did call some but lost out to Europeans.¬† Looked for Ed DD8LP lower in the band where he was spotted but nothing there.¬† Twice the pole collapsed mid-contact.¬† Very difficult especially on a slope and in that wind.
I forgot to spot myself but while the contacts are coming you don’t need more qrm.¬† I have a 250 hz filter in the 703 but that wasn’t narrow enough to sort through the signals at one stage. ¬†Have to say my sending was affected by the unseasonably cold temperatures, not sure exactly what the temp was, but less than 10C, possibly down to 6C or so by the time I finished.¬† Others were making mistakes too.
Found the tablet was ok for logging but on cw it is tricky to log an incoming call as it happens.¬† Pencil and paper are easier for that…
Bobbara Hill looking west
Bobbara Hill looking west
Bobbara Hill SOTA setup
Bobbara Hill SOTA setup
I worked 12 contacts, DL3TU, VK4BJS, HB9FVF, OK2PDT, DL3HXX, DL4CW, HB9DQM, OE5AUL, CT7AGR, HB9AFI, JP3DGT and M1EYP just after sunset. Thanks to all.
The surprise was to finally work Tom M1EYP as my last contact and then I looked up and realised the light was fading fast so I packed up.  Walking back down the hill, I was in near darkness as I approached the car half an hour later.
The next morning I received an email from CT7AGR, Portugal, a very nice message thanking me for the contact.  I was just relieved to make the 12 contacts I did including 8 as Summit to Summit (s2s).
 Update: received another email re the S2S contacts.  S2S are the most desirable of all the sota contacts.