Category: Propagation

Episode 6: Psyching up for CQ WPX CW

Episode 6: Psyching up for CQ WPX CW

On May 27 and 28, the world will be alive with CW operators vying in CQ Magazine’s WPX – or Weird Prefix – CW contest. It’s one of the biggest radio events of the year, with many thousands of hams competing from hundreds of DXCC entities.

(See some of the DX that will be active this weekend).

That’s the focus of this week’s Zone Zero ham radio contesting podcast.

This is Bud, VA7ST, and I’ll gearing up for my 14th consecutive entry in WPX CW starting at 0000 UTC May 27th – that 5 p.m. Pacific time this Friday. I can hardly wait, no matter what is in store for us.

So let’s dive right in with Episode 6 of Zone Zero.


When NASA trains astronauts, they fly them in big planes along a parabolic trajectory. As they fly up they’re under about 1.8 times normal gravity, but near the peak of that parabola, they are at zero gravity for about 40 seconds before returning to 1.8 times the Earths gravity as the plane descends.

That parabolic path is what our propagation is like over the course of an 11-year solar cycle. And we had a pretty good time of things when we were up near the top – goofing about as we played in weightlessness, the bands wide open around the world at all hours of the day.

But now we pay the price. You have to come back down some time, and boy, are we ever coming down to Earth as 2017 rolls along.

Over the past weekend, for the King of Spain CW contest, conditions were about as bad as they can get.

Not from solar flares or big geomagnetic storms, mind you. Rather, we just lack oomph in the ionosphere. Sure, we saw active geomagnetic conditions, a pretty strong aurora absorbing signals over the pole, and an A-index that hit 21 instead of a nice low 2, which is what it was during CQ WPX CW last year.

But the poor conditions we’re seeing now have less to do with momentary space weather events, and more to do with the natural long-term rhythm of the 11-year solar sunspot cycle.

The sunspots are all but gone, so solar flux is in the 72 range now and it doesn’t go much lower than that in the bottom of a solar sunspot cycle. When flux is low, so are our spirits because the bands just don’t carry our signals like they do in the years of peak sunspot activity.

While 20M is often abuzz with activity on any given Saturday, over the past weekend I didn’t hear much at all. In fact, in the King of Spain contest, during my hours of operation Saturday I managed to make just 22 contact through the day. One was with the King of Spain station, EF0F. And two other European stations made it into the log, but they were the only non-North American signals heard all day. 20M was plain dead – and I’m sure people stayed off the air in droves as a result.

We can be sure they’ll be on the air this coming weekend, though, because CQ WPX CW can pull contesters out of the woodwork like few other events on the calendar.

Still, don’t expect too much from the bands this coming weekend.

Last year’s WPX performance

The solar cycle has diminished so quickly over the past year that we can’t put too much stock in looking at 2016’s results as an indicator of what to expect on the final weekend in May this year.

With that caveat, let’s quickly look at last year, as a recent benchmark.

Checking the official results for 2016, I had just shy of 1.8 million points – with 1,164 contacts and 555 multipliers. The bands were not particularly good, but 15M was still useful. I don’t expect much out of 15M this time out.

My 2016 score was good enough for second place in my ARRL section – which is British Columbia – and there’s nothing wrong with being second to a firecracker of an operator like Lee Sawkins, VE7CC at the VE7SV mountain-top station. Lee beat me by 600 contacts, 142 prefixes, and two million points, so I’d really have some work to do to keep up with him in WPX CW.

Activity last year was strong with more than 4,200 logs submitted, and new world records were set for multi-two and the low power all-band and single-band categories. So despite the fact that conditions were in decline last year, things were actually still crackling hot for WPX CW in 2016.

The popular entry categories last year were, as usual, single operator high power (about 2,200 entries)  followed by single op low power (about 1,300) plus 302 QRP stations. While participation from high power and QRP operators was down a bit from the previous year, the low-power category saw a jump – and that’s a great sign as it hints that more casual operators are getting on the air to try it out.

No two solar cycles are the same. What happened during this point in the last cycle won’t be mimicked this time, but trends are bankable.

2008 as our comparable

We can look at the last time solar and geomagnetic conditions were in the same ballpark we are now in. And that would be 2008.

Fortunately, I kept pretty good records from that year – and most years – so I can look back and get a sense of where to be and what to expect on each band.

What I’m looking at will apply to my own situation – running high-power, which is about 600 or 700 watts, into a modest three-element yagi for the high bands, and wire antennas on the lower bands.

So what can we predict for the WPX CW this weekend? It looks like we’ll have solar flux of about 75 and few, if any, sunspots.

Looking back nine years to 2008, we had flux of 68 – which compares nicely with what we have this spring.

That year I finished with 1.7 million points, 492 multipliers, and 1,171 contacts. Actually, that’s not far off my 2016 numbers.

Generally, in the low-sunspot years from 2007 to 2010, I was in the 400 to 500 prefix range, and that’s what I’ll expect this time out.

So, in setting my expectations based on these data points, I think I can get 1.5 million points, 1,100 contacts and about 400 prefixes in the log.

In practical terms, the level of productivity means I will need to average 37 contacts per hour for 30 hours. I know some hours will produce 100 or more contacts, and in the wee hours of the morning I might only make 20 an hour. But it should be entirely possible to average 37 per hour over the span of the weekend.

Strategy and intel

Earlier in May, during the Volta RTTY two weekends ago, I put in more hours on 20M during the night than I usually do – it was a research investment in the upcoming WPX CW. There are lots of things contesters should do ahead of a contest, and high on that list is to simply get on the radio and listen.

I remember as a new contester decades ago contesting all night working tons of 20M DX in the wee hours, and not finding much to work in daylight. But those years are long behind us.

For the past decade 20M has been a daylight band mostly, at least here in the North American west. But that’s not a truism to live by. During the Volta RTTY earlier this month, I worked European stations in the morning, through the afternoon and evening, and some of the clearest signals from Eastern Europe were worked after my midnight, or 0700Z.

I wouldn’t have that intel if I hadn’t got on the air at various times over the past weeks, and made notes about what was workable.

I have been fretting because this year, during WPX CW, I have to take a four-hour break to go into the nearby city and pull a city bus In a United Way fund-raiser. I’ll be off the air during what I know is primetime for Europe from here – about 9:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m.

For a competitive score, that’s an almost fatal blow – but now that I know Europe may still be workable later in the day and through the evening, I’ll still have a shot at all those European prefix multipliers. What I will miss is the highest rate of the valuable DX points Europe offers during primetime here. But again, I’ll do what I can to make up the losses later in the day.

To hit my goals this year, a few things will have to happen:

15M will need to cough up 100 or so contacts, and 20M will need to provide some European access from the West Coast of North America.

I haven’t had much luck on 15M for a few months, but a CQ Worldwide contest has a way of breathing life into an otherwise dead band, and WPX will almost certainly light up 15M for domestic contacts.

From here, those contacts will be in Florida and the other southeastern states. If they’re not pointed away from us up here near Washington State.

There will also be some South American action on 15M – there almost always is in this contest.

But I think one of the keys for me will be to max out performance on 40M and 80M. Seeing as I will be away for part of the 20M daylight situation, I’ll have to be up much of both nights hammering 40M and 80M for as long as there are stations to call.

For the past two years straight, I’ve had 240 or so contacts on 40M – which tells me it’s definitely worthwhile pouring time into 40M activity.

In 2016, I had 80 QSOs on 80M, and the year before just 22 QSOs. What that tells me is 80M simply isn’t popular for a lot of casual CQ WPX contesters. I will be there, but I have a feeling I will be bouncing back and forth between 40M and 80M, or running duelling-CQ with a radio on each band once the runs get a little slower late in the night.

It’s a complete blast running stations on 80M with the big steerable array of three full-sized verticals tucked into the Ponderosa pine forest here.

Remember, it’s important to work as many unique prefixes as you can, but you really need as many QSO points as you can get. For those of us in North America, each contact on 40, 80 and 160M is worth four points, but only two points on 20M and up.

Remember that I got beaten handily by VE7CC last year? The biggest difference in our scores was on 40M and 80M – on 40M Lee had 238 more contacts than me, and on 80M he had 118 more than I did. At four points per contact, those extra QSOs on the low bands add up quickly – and with Lee’s additional 140 prefixes, it’s no wonder VE7SV finished with two million more points by the end of the weekend.

Translation: it’s worth making as many low-band contacts as you can but those bands typically won’t produce at the rate you’ll get on 20M.

If you’re a single operator, you can only work 36 hours over the weekend, with off-times of at least one hour.

Picking when your 36 hours will be is a really important strategic decision. I suspect most semi-serious operators look for six hours of sleep both nights – say from local midnight to 6 a.m. – giving them the 12 hours of off-time they have to take.

For me, because I will have to take four hours off on Saturday for the fund-raiser, I’ll trim my sleep time to four hours each night, which is enough to wake up relatively okay to begin another long day at the radio.

Instead of packing it in at midnight local, I’ll stay on 80M and 40M until about 2 a.m. both nights – or mornings, as the case may be.

This all assumes I am going to be pushing for a full 36-hour effort, which I probably won’t.

Over the past few years, 30 hours has been about my max – and more often than not I end up with 25 or 26 hours of air time.

WPX CW – it’s fast, fun and fantastic. Whether you are gunning for the Top Ten box, or are comfortable being in there with the rest of us, get on the air and join the action.

As I often say, there are a lot of stations far bigger than mine, and many operators much better than I am, but nobody has more fun in this contest than I do. I’ll happily hand out the Victor Alpha Seven multiplier for as long as people want it this weekend.

Be sure to come back next week for a full post-contest report.

Subscribe to Zone Zero on iTunes, Stitcher, Google Play or your favorite podcast platform. Tell your friends, and come back often for more.

Until then, let’s go get ‘em. I’ll see you out there!

Episode 1.1: When conditions go horribly bad

Episode 1.1: When conditions go horribly bad

 

This is a special post-contest update on April 23, 2017.

Oh my goodness, what a terrible weekend on the radio!

Feels like I wasted a couple of days there in the SP International DX teletype and the BARTG 75 RTTY contests.

Didn’t make many contacts in either one of them.

In the previous podcast I mentioned the importance of working all 6 continents. Well, I managed to end up with 3 continents in the log. I did get one European station — an EA station in Spain on 20M by pointing south of the aurora — but that was it from east of the Atlantic ocean.

I found a couple of South American stations and the rest were all North America. I did not hear any KH6 Hawaiian stations or any of the South Pacific ZL/VK stations in New Zealand or Australia, so I was shut out for 3 continents and had only 3 in the log.

It’s about the worst performance I’ve had in the SP DX RTTY contest in many years. That speaks to the conditions of the solar cycle.

We are definitely in the bottom of the trough of solar cycle 24, so that means the next year — perhaps two years — are going to be similar to what we saw this weekend.

There will be moments of happiness and smiles and sunshine, as conditions aren’t always this terrible, but we sure had a look at what the future holds for the next while.

Seeing the numbers

I thought I might give you some indication visually of what the conditions looked like over the weekend, so I went to the orcaDXCC.org website and took some snapshots of the propagation dashboard. By taking a look at the two screen shots from the morning and the afternoon of Saturday, April 23, you get a visual indication of how the solar and geomagnetic numbers changed across the day.

Propagation conditions about 10 hours later — at 0140Z on Sunday
Propagation conditions at 1520Z on Saturday

The dashboard, which has been in use since 2010 and compares favorably with real-world conditions, indicates in real-time what the band conditions should be, based on solar flux, sunspot levels, the A-index and K-index, as well as geomagnetic conditions.

At 1520 UTC on Saturday morning, April 22, we were enduring a geomagnetic storm at a minor storm level. The solar flux was 82, driven by 39 sunspots. However the K-index was 6.

Now, it’s nice when the K-index is at 1 or 2, because that means the A-index will be low.

The A-index is a cumulative number that’s based on the K-index over several hours. When the K-index is elevated the A-index will rise and it will rise dramatically if the K-index is elevated to a level like 6, as it was on Saturday.

So conditions really did get worse as the day went on. The aurora level was actually falling during the day, as you’ll see in the screenshots that I’ve included in the show notes for this special episode 1.1.

The aurora had fallen from 8.4 in the morning to 6.7 in the afternoon. That means it had fallen from about 55 gigawatts of power in the ionosphere to about 25 gigawatts of power in the ionosphere.

The big difference through morning to the afternoon – the obvious clue to why the bands got even worse as the day went on — was the soaring A-index.

Remember, the K-index in the morning was 6 and in the afternoon the K-index had fallen to 4.

Now, 4 or 6 are both high numbers for the K-index. And because of the number of hours that K had been elevated, the cumulative A-index went up – from 47 in the morning to 51 in the afternoon.

That really does mean that bands are completely wiped out.

You will get some reasonably useful conditions on short hops across the continent on 20 meters, for example, and that’s what I saw. I was hearing signals — they weren’t strong and there was some fading on the signals between me and Florida and the US southeast; however, on the lower bands conditions were quite bleak, especially as darkness fell here in western North America.

Now we look ahead to a series of QSO parties while we await CQ WPX CW in late May. That one will be a real trial of patience if this weekend’s conditions repeat a month from now.


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Thanks for taking an extra few minutes this week for the Episode 1.1 post-contest update.