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Episode 15: Bring on the world for CQWW CW

Episode 15: Bring on the world for CQWW CW

For my money, the CQ Worldwide DX CW contest is the biggest, best and most fun contest of the year. I look forward to this one like no other, and it’s this coming weekend. If you operate Morse code and want to work a ton of DX in a single weekend, get on the air and join the fun.

CQ Worldwide CW is the subject for Episode 15 of Zone Zero. Let’s dive in!

If you were wondering where Zone Zero has been for the past month, worry not. No self-respecting contest podcast would dare miss the opportunity to preview one of the biggest contests on the annual calendar.

CQ Worldwide CW is a mammoth contest, with more than 8,000 competitors expected to jump in this weekend.

(See the year-over-year entry statistics).

If you think Morse code is on the way out, think again. Last year the CQ Worldwide CW contest had 8,341 logs submitted. The Phone contest a month earlier had just 7,576 entries.

Think about that. There were 765 more entries in the Morse code version than the SSB or Phone version of this contest in 2016. I don’t think most people would have ever expected that, but it is borne out by the CQ Worldwide entry statistics.

Generally, over the past 20 years we’ve seen a steady — and in some years very healthy — increase in the number of entries in this contest near the end of November. To give you an idea of the popularity growth, let’s take a look at 1996 versus 2016.

Two decades ago, 2,885 logs were submitted, and in 2016 a grand total of 8,341 logs came in. That’s 5,456 more competitors. Remarkable.

Curiously, in the CQ WW Phone contest the highest number of entries ever was in 2013, at the peak of Cycle 24, when nearly 8,500 logs were sent in for scoring. But the CW contest had its peak last year – three years after the Phone peak, and well into the decline of the current Solar Cycle. I don’t now why they aren’t in sync, but it is a curious phenomenon.

Why the growth in Morse code contest participation? Well, I think it’s a combination of technology and demographics. Contesting with automated systems – in particular the maturity of logging software like N1MM Logger that works seamlessly with transceivers to make operating so simple even I can do it – is a huge factor. The barrier to entering a high-speed Morse code contest today is far lower than it was two decades ago.

And the other factor, I believe, is demographics. We’re a lot older, and that means more of us are retired or at least able to devote the time it takes to seriously compete. Families are grown, our careers are either well in hand or behind us. And because we’ve been at this for decades, more of us have stations that are more than a radio on a side table. The kids are grown, and more of us have earned the time we spend in leisure.

We may be getting up there in years, but I firmly believe this is a golden age for ham radio contesting. Alas, the bulge of retired hams who enjoy competing will not last forever, and while there are a lot of younger hams getting into contesting, they will never match the numbers of those licensed in the 1960s, ‘70s and ‘80s.

I am determined to enjoy this while it lasts. I dread the days when I am ready to retire in a decade or so (I’m only 52 now and need to keep working forever, it seems). We’re losing so many wonderful hams every year, and it leaves me a bit sad after a contest like the ARRL Sweepstakes earlier this month that reveals how old we’re getting.

But for now, in CQ Worldwide CW, we have more to celebrate than ever before. You’ll make more contacts per hour across the entire 48-hour weekend than at any time in the long history of amateur radio. So let’s get on the air and make hay while the sun shines.

The rules

Depending on where you are in the world, you’ll get one point for contacts with other countries on your continent (the exception is North America, where you get two points for contacts in other North American countries).

If you work a station on another continent, you get three points.

Now, multiply those contact points by the number of CQ Zones and DXCC countries worked on each band.

It’s all pretty simple, and your logging software should be able to keep track of everything for you. I use N1MM Logger. It’s free and I believe the most comprehensive contest software available for CW, Phone and Radio Teletype contesters.

My setup

For this contest, I think I’ll run in the high-power unassisted category. I’ve gone high-power every year since 2007 – because I got my first amplifier in December of 2006.

Because I have been very busy competing in contests each weekend since the last episode (hence the scarcity of episodes this month), I have a good idea of how the bands will be from this corner of the world.

I predict that I’ll have very brief morning openings to Europe on 15M, but should be able to work Europe most of the daylight hours on 20M with the best conditions around 1600z to 1800z. So, I know what bands to be on during the daylight.

The contest begins at 4 p.m. Friday here. From previous years, I know I should start on 15M pointing at Japan. But after 45 minutes, I will want to skip directly to 40M, as most of North America will have gone there from the very beginning.

By 0045z each day, I will want to head to 40M to gather all the Caribbean and South American multipliers I can. 40M has been very long in recent weeks, with the US East Coast very loud from out here near the West Coast. But Europe hasn’t been all that strong. I know I will need every European country I can get into the log on 40M to be competitive.

For antennas on 40M I have a rotary dipole that will work nicely for most of North America, and a 2-element wire quad that points at Europe. It’s very low, with the bottom corner of the diamond-shaped elements just five feet off the ground. But it’s still a few dB better than the low rotary dipole, and when conditions favor it, the quad will be heard in Europe.

After a few hours on 40M, I’ll have to go down to 80M. There, I have just one antenna, but it is a doozy – an array of three full-sized ¼-wave verticals in a triangle pattern that allows me to fire my signal in any of six directions. It’s not perfect, being entirely homebrewed and of my own design, but it does work. Especially across North America and into the Caribbean and South America. Again, I’ll have to rake in every available multiplier on 80M to be competitive.

This year, for the first time, I expect to make more than a handful of contacts on 160M. That’s because I will be using the new AL-80B amplifier making about 500 watts more than the 100 watts I’ve been able to muster before now.

The Top Band antenna is an inverted-L using a folded counterpoise. It’s not the best configuration (it needs to be re-hung next spring) but I expect to add a hundred more US and Canadian contacts on 160M than ever before, and perhaps add to my 160M DXCC total, which sits at just 19 right now.

Because the low bands are the only place to be for about half of the contest weekend, you have to dredge all you can from those bands.

Secrets from the past

If you’ve listened to previous episodes, you know I make a big deal out of my contest notes. I keep a diary of my contest experiences, for future reference. And it could pay off this weekend.

In the2015 running of this contest, I discovered an unexpected 20M opening to Europe in the hour after my local midnight (beginning around 0830z). That opening produced steady runs — from Israel to Ireland — all the way to 1000z.

Will the solar cycle’s decline since 2015 still support that midnight opening to Europe on 20M? I don’t know. If it happens I can’t expect it to be a massive opening, but you can bet an Easter donkey that I’ll be there watching for it.

Trying new things

There was a time, a few years ago, when I could enter a contest and try hard and I’d earn a certificate for my section. I have quite a stack of those, but running a single radio is no longer competitive. Many of the stations I want to compete with now operate SO2R – that’s single-operator two-radio. I just don’t have the mental horsepower to do that very well, but the station is equipped to run two bands at the same time.

So, this year I will give it a serious try. SO2R on CW will take some practice. My intention is to give it a try on 40M and 80M, running the amp on 80M and 100W on 40M with the rotary dipole to keep working domestic stations.

I’ll do this because my 80M array and the 40M dipole are physically about 150 feet apart, providing a bit more separation to keep the receivers happy. I can put a 40M bandpass filter on the low-power radio to help, too. Sadly, I burned out my 80M bandpass filter a few years go by mistake, and haven’t tried SO2R much since then.

I figure if I can make 20 extra contacts per hour on the second radio, through the wee hours of the night I can boost my score quire handily. The simple exchange in CQWW – 599 and a zone – won’t overly tax my brain. Famous last words, right?

Okay. I am totally psyched for this weekend’s contest. I’ve booked off work a couple of hours early Friday afternoon, and if that pans out I will have some daylight before the start to do a quick antenna walkaround.

As I’m preparing this episode, on November 21, there are no sunspots, 10.7-cm solar flux is at a miserly 74, the A-index is at a whopping 19, and the aurora is crackling overhead at 8.1 or 48 gigawatts of power in the ionosphere. That doesn’t look good for the coming weekend, but things can change in the space of a few days. Fingers are crossed.

That’s it for this episode of Zone Zero. Check back next week and I’ll have a post-contest report. I predict I’ll end up with about 1,400 contacts and 150 multipliers for a score of about 500,000 points. That’s a lot less than the 1.75 million points I had in 2015, but about as good as I can hope for with conditions in the shape I am expecting for CQ Worldwide CW 2017.

Sunspots or not, I can hardly wait.

Thanks for listening. Let’s go get ‘em. I’ll see you out there.

Episode 14: Fall 2017 contest season

Episode 14: Fall 2017 contest season

We’re into contest season, with some major events coming up in late October and November. What can we learn from recent conditions to help earn better scores?

That’s our subject for Episode 14 of Zone Zero. Let’s get started.

Thanks for joining in for Episode 14. Time sure does fly. When we started Zone Zero, spring hadn’t even arrived properly, and now here we are staring winter in the face. Boomer, the VA7ST Border Collie is still out there going crazy for his Frisbee but it won’t be long before Boomer is stepping through snow instead of green grass.

Over the summer I added a new radio to the shack – one that provides 2M all-mode capability – and a new amplifier, which adds high-power on 160M, which I’ve never had before. I did some antenna work, spray-painting the Steppir 3-element yagi with hunter green Krylon paint, and putting up an 8-element cross-polarized yagi for 2M.

I got hooked on meteor scatter modes on 6M, and I spent a lot of time poking around inside an old but wonderful amplifier looking for trouble I never did quite track down. But now the tools are put away, the lawns are being prepped for winter, and we put behind us those bright warm days that seemed to stretch out ahead of us forever just a few months ago.

Weekend contesting is back on the front burner here, and even with depressed radio conditions I’m still having a lot of fun making contacts in as many events as I can manage.

Over the past weekend, October 14 and 15, we had the international teletype contest known as the Makrothen – it’s a favorite of mine, because you get one point for every kilometer between you and the other stations you contact.

Scores go up quickly, especially if you can work DX stations.

But if you can only work domestic stations in your own continent – for me, that would be North America – the Makrothen can be a long slog, with low points per contact. I mention this because this time out, that’s precisely what we saw with conditions from the West Coast.

I could hear stations from the East Coast working European stations at will on Sunday morning, when I could barely hear the Midwest well enough to work them. That’s really frustrating – I knew my paltry score of 500,000 points wouldn’t be even close to competitive this year.

I’ve finished in the Top 20 worldwide in previous years, so the station itself isn’t the problem. It’s the HF bands themselves. They favor anyone who doesn’t rely on a path over the North Pole to reach Europe, and that’s going to dictate performance in the major contests coming up over the next few weeks.

The CQ Worldwide Phone contest is Oct. 27 and 28, and then a month after that is the CQ Worldwide CW contest on Nov. 25 and 26.

If you’re in the West, being competitive will require two things: wringing everything you can out of 15 meters if it opens at all, and working Asia across the Pacific to help make up for what you will miss looking a Europe.

It would be so rose-colored-glasses of me to say access to Japan and the rest of Asia without a polar path makes up in any way for being able to work Europe cleanly, but it doesn’t even come close. The fact is, Europeans won’t likely hit California and vice versa unless there’s a little flurry of sunspot activity in the days before the big contests.

I mentioned 15M because at this point in the solar cycle that band is just about dead most of the time. But through late September and the first half of October this year, there has been some life on 21 Mhz. Not a lot of life, but I expect that in the CQ Worldwide contests – Phone later in October and CW in late November – we will at least have openings across North America.

This will be important to watch for, because 20M is going to be the money band where you’ll work the most stations, but you’ll want to work as many of those stations again on 15M while that band is open.

Getting your QSO count as high as possible is a good strategy in years when the number of multipliers will be depressed due to missing bands like 10M.

If multipliers are scarce, at least go for the highest rate you can find.

Experienced contesters will know this intuitively, but if you’re just starting out or haven’t been through a solar cycle minimum before, this information could be useful as we head into the big worldwide contests.

As always, geography is a major factor in contest performance. If the polar path is closed, it’s closed and nothing can make up for that. All you can do is maximize local or domestic contacts in places you can reach. For me, that will be the US, Caribbean and South American countries.

Years ago, I would have also added Japan to that list, but the number of active contesters in Japan has plummeted over the past decade. These wonderful operators have diminished to the point where the once-powerful Japan advantage for North American West Coast operators like me just isn’t there. We can never compete with the East Coast and Midwest access to Europe.

Tough beans, I guess.

The polar path doesn’t handcuff everyone, of course. On the West Coast, the further south you go, the less of an impediment it becomes – to Europe and to Asia. This weekend, I read the following report from Mark, K6UFO operating at NN7SS in Washington State not far south of me.

Mark noted he had some remote station trouble in the Makrothen, but “When it was working, there were some good QSOs, lots of JAs, South Americans and plenty of USA.”

I can concur with the US and South American propagation, but Mark’s remote station is located on Vashon Island near Seattle. That’s a couple of hundred miles south of me, and way out on the Pacific coast – obviously a great salt-water shot to Japan. I don’t have that, and Japan was all but invisible to me during the past weekend’s conditions.

For a bit more about what we can expect in CQ Worldwide contests, listen to Episode 13 – Chasing the action. We looked at the solar conditions during the September running of the CQ Worldwide RTTY contest as a predictor of conditions in late October and again in late November.

That’s it for Zone Zero. Thanks for listening. Let’s go get ‘em in the contests. I’ll see you out there.

Episode 13: Chasing the action

Episode 13: Chasing the action

The fall contest season has begun. We got out of the gate in a hurry with CQ Worldwide RTTY – the granddaddy of radio teletype contests – and now we start a staccato rhythm of major contest weekends.

How are you plotting your course for the upcoming months to the holiday season? I’ll walk through my plan for fall 2017 activity on the contest calendar. Here’s a hint: It’s a very busy season.

That’s the focus for Episode 13 of Zone Zero.

Welcome to Zone Zero – the ham radio contesting podcast. This is Bud, VA7ST.

I have been very ambivalent about this fall and winter — as a radio contester I look forward to it like no other time of year, and yet this year I dread the conditions.

It’s going to be a tough grind through the very bottom of the solar cycle, and if you’ve been on the radio bands at all through the summer of 2017 you already know things aren’t what they used to be.

At this time two years ago, we were still in the hey-days of great radio propagation – things were only just beginning to drop off, but on any given weekend you could still fire up the radio on 10 meters and work big swaths of the world.

Not so much any more. Here in 2017, as we enter the always highly anticipated fall contest season, most weekends we will find 15M the highest workable band and 10M is merely a happy memory.

If you aren’t familiar with the 11-year solar sunspot cycle and how it affects ham radio, I encourage you to listen to several previous episodes of Zone Zero (Episode 1.1 – When things go horribly wrong — is probably a good starting point). I talk about the solar cycle a lot – because it is the most influential factor in determining whether the high-frequency radio spectrum will be usable at any given time.

For now, let me just acknowledge that we are nearly at the bottom of Solar Cycle 24. Sunspots are very rare these days, and it will be a couple of years now before we begin to see their numbers increase as we rise up into Cycle 25 and conditions start to improve.

The lower bands are less affected by low sunspot numbers – in fact, you may find 80M and 40M less noisy and long-distance or DX contacts could even be more frequent. Particularly in the winter months, during those long hours of darkness free from summer thunderstorms and atmospheric discharge noise.

But we will definitely miss the high bands – 10M and 15M. We probably will only see very sporadic domestic openings on 10M from now on, and 15M will produce fewer and fewer contacts even just in our own continent. From North America’s west coast, openings to Europe are now almost impossible on 15M, though I understand some brief magical openings have happened in recent days.

Generally, however, contesters will tend to gravitate to 20M during the daylight, and quickly move to 40M as late afternoon and evening arrive.

Overall, contest scores will plummet – in part because we will have fewer stations to work on a weekend, but we will also have dramatically fewer multipliers to work because entire bands are now out of the running.

Take 15M, for example. When sunspots are plentiful and conditions are strong, from the Canadian west I will work 60 or 70 countries with ease. But take Europe and Africa out of the mix because the trans-Atlantic and polar paths are closed, and I’m left with a smattering of Japan, Australia and New Zealand contacts to fill up the log beyond the work-them-anytime South American and Caribbean contest stations.

Well, that’s my reality for the next few years. But I won’t let it get me down. I know most of my competitors from this side of North America suffer the same fate – though the farther south you go, to California, for example, the better angle you have to work Europe without going through the heart of the auroral oval – which is the direct bearing from where I live.

I guess if it were easy, everyone would be doing this.

I have to remind myself that, no matter how bad conditions will be, we can’t change them by griping about them. We just get on the air and make the best of a lousy situation.

And I’m happy to report that there are a LOT of opportunities to make the best of this lousy situation from now through the end of December.

Looking ahead

I said we’d take a tour through the upcoming fall contest season, and that’s what we’ll do now.

First, the 2017 contest season really opened with last weekend’s running of the CQ Worldwide Radio Teletype (RTTY) contest. I didn’t expect much. In fact, I started the contest in low-power mode because I figured I wouldn’t put in much time anyway. Well, Friday night started out pretty good and I stayed in it through to the wee hours of Saturday morning, still running 100 watts.

But after a nice sleep, on Saturday morning when I got back on, I realized 20M was open to Europe but I’d need some power to punch through over the pole.

On went  the amplifier, and starting at hour 18 – 1800Z – I began running stations. By the time I was done at 5 p.m. on Sunday – that’s the end of the contest – I had more than 700 contacts in the log, with more than 360 contacts and 44 countries on 20M, and more than 100 contacts on 15M – stunning for me at this point in the solar cycle. It showed me that there’s stll some useful life in 15M, but you have to be up there to find it.

Here’s my 3830 post-contest report

That was the CQ Worldwide RTTY. One month later, near the end of October, we’ll run the CQ Worldwide Phone contest (Oct. 27 and 28), and then a month after that, the CQ Worldwide CW contest (Nov. 25 and 26) – and that is my favorite contest of the entire year.

That one-month interval is important to note, because the very precise duration of solar rotation means conditions last weekend are an indication of what we can expect next time the same portion of the solar disc rotates into view one month later, and again the month after that. These days, the sunspots don’t change much from month to month, so the predictive nature of this phenomenon is pretty reliable. We can fairly confidently predict there won’t be many sunspots and band conditions will be soft, at best.

But with CQWW RTTY being pretty reasonable, I wold suggest things will also be pretty reasonable for the other two world-wide contests in October and November this year.

Now, CQ Worldwide contests are just three of the season’s highlights. There are a lot more.

I always enjoy the California QSO Party in October (that‘s Oct. 7 and 8). Whether you’re in North America or elsewhere, you’ll have fun chasing stations from all over the Golden State.

On October 15 and 16, there’s the JARTS RTTY – a world-wide (everyone works everyone) contest sponsored by the Japan Amateur Radio Teleprinter Society.

The ARRL Sweepstakes in November are fantastic – both the CW (Nov. 4 to 6) an Phone (Nov. 18 to 20) weekends are well worth getting on for. They offer massive participation and exceptional fun, though the long exchanges can be daunting for first-timers. Just stick iwth it, and after a few contacts, it will seem like second nature. I promise, it’s not as hard as it might look at first.

And another of my favorites on the annual calendar runs almost at the end of the year – The RAC Canada Winter contest is 24 hours of Great White noise on Dec. 30.

For those who like to get on for single-band operation, there are the ARRL 160M contest (Dec. 1 to 3) and the wonderful Stew Perry Top Band Distance Challenge closing out 2017 (Dec. 30 to 31).

That’s just a quick and incomplete sampler of what’s coming this fall and winter – and only up until the end of 2017. I didn’t even get into the Makrothen RTTY (Oct. 14 and 15),  Worked All Europe RTTY (Nov. 11 and 12), and the Japan International DX contest that same weekend.

A whole host of activities also await us in January and the spring months, too.

Check them all out on the WA7BNM 12-month contest calendar.

Don’t let the solar cycle get you down. Keep your chin – and antennas – up and get on the air. There is so much fun to be had any given weekend, and I know you won’t regret a minute of the time you spend on the air with all of us.

That’s it for Episode 13 of Zone Zero.

Let your club know about Zone Zero, or jot a note about your contest experiences and leave a comment.

Thanks for listening. Now, let’s go get ‚em! I’ll see you out there.

Episode 11: Gearing up for fall

Episode 11: Gearing up for fall

It’s a slow time for contesting but building your station is a great way to while away the summer. In fact, come September, October and November, you’ll be thankful for every little improvement you made over the summer months.

It’s no fun climbing a tower or working on antennas when it’s snowing and minus 20 degrees outside. So get it done now and be ready for the fall contest season.

We’ll talk about summer projects and more in episode 11 of Zone Zero…

Welcome to Zone Zero, the ham radio contesting podcast.

This is Bud, VA7ST, looking ahead to the North American QSO Party CW contest, on August 5 and 6 this year.

It’s 12 hours of intensive Morse code action on all bands from 10 through 160 meters, running a maximum of 100 watts.

For my money, the NAQP contests are about as enjoyable as it gets — casual, without a lot of over-powered signals jamming up the bands. It’s a very friendly outing with a bunch of mates — all the regulars you run into many weekends a year and lots of drop-ins and others new to contesting. In fact, the exchange between stations is your name and state or province, rather than an impersonal serial number.

You can only operate for 10 or the 12 hours, and off-times must be 30 minutes or longer. How you spread out your breaks is up to you, but remember some stations might run the first 10 hours straight and won’t be on the lower bands in the final two hours. While others will be there, and the more states and provinces you can land on 80M and 160M, the higher and more competitive your score will be.

My advice is to leave yourself time to get on for the final hour, at least, and pick up the multipliers just waiting for you to show up on 80M and 160M.

As always with the NAQP, you’ll need to decide what’s most important to you: racking up the most contacts by calling CQ and letting stations come to you, or searching for as many multipliers as you can. I usually try to strike a balance between these strategies.

I am always aware of the rarity of the VE7 or British Columbia multiplier, if few of my fellow Orca DXCC operators are on the air. If BC is rare in the NAQP, I will spend a lot more time running stations – eventually, even the rarest states will want BC in the log and chances are they will find me.

That’s my theory for NAQP, anyway. Doesn’t always work out, but that is part of the fun of contesting – you never get the same thing twice, and there’s always something new to challenge your skills and strategies.

Upgrading the station

Over the past few weeks, I have been working through a bunch of projects in preparation for the fall contest season. The key projects are:

Cabling for second radio: My old second radio is an FT-920, which I love, but it is now an older rig. I’ve put it into third-radio backup position now that I have a new the new Icom IC-7100 in the shack – it’s a cute but capable little friend for the FT-920 and my primary radio, an FT-2000.

I have the I C-7100 running 6M and 2M digital audio-based modes including the new and remarkable FT8 mode and meteor scatter using MSK144 mode. Now I need to get things going for CW, Phone and RTTY.

I am slowly working away at getting the CW and RTTY cabling set up between the contesting computer and radio, which meant building an FSK and CW keying circuit into a DB9 connector, and soldering up the correct connectors for the radio end of the cabling. It’s more complicated than it sounds, but one more evening ought to do it.

6M yagi upgrade: The other project is also a VHF radio improvement. I have a three-element Steppir yagi on the tower outside, and it has a fourth element – a passive, fixed aluminum director – making four elements on 6M. But, this four-element Steppir yagi on 6M is not optimal because the stock distance between the driven element and reflector is 8 feet.

With guidance from an article by GM3SEK, there is a modification to improve the Steppir’s performance on 6M.

I have been planning to add a new fixed reflector a bit closer in, which will make the yagi perform like a long-boom four element should, with about 10.4 dBi — that equates to about 8 dBd gain over a dipole. Currently, I suspect it has about 5 dBd gain, which is okay but doesn’t squeeze everything it can out of four elements.

SB-221 troubleshooting: I also have one of my Heathkit amplifiers open on the workbench. It operates just fine, with the exception of about one second upon startup, when I see slight negative grid and plate current on the meter. That shouldn’t happen, so I need to trace the cause and fix it. Fortunately, I have another SB221 amp and the new Ameritron AL-80B to keep me company while I made the repairs.

As an active contester, I find there’s always something else that needs to be done — whether it’s antenna improvements, figuring out how to make the station layout more efficient, or just making up new cables for better reliability in the connections between pieces of equipment.

Antenna selection: In my shack, one of the long-standing challenges has been antenna switching. I have single-band dedicated antennas for 160M, 80M and 40M, but I also have multi-band Steppir yagi for 40M through 6M, plus an 8-element 2M crossed yagi.

With three transceivers, and a choice of two amplifiers for the HF bands, that makes for a lot of selection options. I have made radio operation pretty simple using a DX Doubler SO2R box to run two radios from one computer – automatically switching mic, CW, RTTY and Push-to-Talk (PTT) lines.

But that doesn’t handle antenna switching, so if I want to switch from my 40M two-element quad to the 40M rotatable dipole, I need both antennas connected to my big 3000-watt tuner and use that tuner’s antenna switch – or I manually change cables at the back of the radio or amplifiers I’m using.

It is clunky and time-consuming, and wide open to operator error at three in the morning.

So what could I do to make it all a little less complicated?

I could spend a thousand dollars I don’t have to automate things with band-tracking controllers, or I could use what I have on hand or buy a few lower-cost components – four-position antenna switches. That’s what I think I’ll do.

I have a few four-position antenna switches, designed for high isolation between ports, and so I will use one to select the transceiver/amplifier combo, going into another four-position switch to select any of the antenna options.

Well, I won’t have enough switched ports for every antenna, but fortunately the IC-7100 has a dedicated jack for the 2M and 70cm bands so the 8-element yagi can stay connected right there.

Now, a back-to-back set of antenna switches will work for single-radio contesting. If I want to operate two radios at the same time, I’ll have to continue to manually connect the second radio to whichever antenna I want it to run on. But for general operating, with the switches, I’ll have a little more immediate agility to change radios and antennas without a lot of digging behind boxes to change antenna connectors.

On the horizon

Beyond the upcoming NAQP CW contest, we can look ahead to a fun but challenging contest in mid-August. The Worked All Europe CW test has a lot of action, and many operators look forward to the traffic-handling simulation it offers.

WAE contests feature QTCs, which is the Q-code for messages or “traffic” – in this case, if a station requests “QTC?” you can send them up to 10 reports of previous contacts – each line of your QTC contains the time, callsign and exchange number of a previous contact.

Each of your QTCs counts just the same as an additional contact, so use up all the opportunities you have to swap QTCs with stations – but remember, you can only exchange QTCs with a station on another continent, not on your own continent. If conditions are poor, that makes things even more challenging.

WAE CW is all bands from 160M all the way to 6M, and it runs 24 hours starting at 1200 UTC on August 12.

So that’s it for episode 11 of Zone Zero. Get on for the North American QSO Party this weekend, or the Worked All Europe CW contest mid-August and have fun.

If you don’t want to miss future shows, be sure to subscribe to Zone Zero on iTunes, Stitcher, Google Play or your favorite podcast platform. Tell your friends, and come back often for more.

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

Episode 10: IARU recap and 6M meteor scatter

Episode 10: IARU recap and 6M meteor scatter

Our long, hot summer rolls along with plenty to do. Thanks for listening to Episode 10 of Zone Zero. This week we’ll have a post-contest report on the IARU HF World Championships held over the past weekend, and a look ahead at the next fun contests on the summer calendar.

Welcome to Zone Zero, the ham radio contesting podcast.

This is Bud, VA7ST, just recovering from the International Amateur Radio Union’s IARU HF World Championship.

Here at the ham shack, about 711 contacts are in the log from the big worldwide event on July 8, and the bands were in remarkably good shape – far better than most of us would have predicted.

I operated in CW-only mode, with the amplifier turned on for a little help. I ended up beating my scores from three of the previous four years, which tells me there’s still life left in the ham radio bands despite nearing the bottom of the solar cycle.

In particular, 20M was pretty solid to Europe from western North America for much of Saturday, and I made as much as I could of the opportunity.

Multipliers are ITU zones and IARU headquarters stations in each country. I found a lot more of them this year than last year, and finished with 237,000 points – up from 48,000 last year and 82,000 in 2015.

15M even coughed up a few contacts (no Europe, though) when there haven’t been many on 15M in IARU over the past couple of years.

I enjoyed some great runs on 40M including a brisk 150 in a row from about 0300 to 0500z, and also a nice steady run of 74 on 80M just after 0600z.

All in all, it was a fun day and I put in about 13 hours on the air, taking some nap breaks and going to bed at 1 a.m. local on Sunday morning, only to get up for the final hour of the contest from 4 to 5 a.m. local. I managed to add another 40 contacts on 80M and 40M, including attracting some loud Japan stations on 40M before the final buzzer went off at 5 a.m.

I sure hope you got on, and that you had as much fun as I did.

Three for the heat

Now we look ahead to mid-July’s trio of contests – the Digital Modes Club (DMC) RTTY, the North American RTTY QSO Party, and the CQ World Wide VHF contest.

As I mentioned last time, I am a bit more excited than usual about the DMC RTTY and the CQ World Wide VHF contest.

Digital Modes Club (DMC) RTTY

This one is restricted to speedy 75-baud RTTY and PSK63 modes. Now that I have an Icom IC-7100 radio with built-in sound card, I look forward to taking it for a spin using PSK-63 and also seeing how it works on high-speed teletype using an FSK connection.

Multipliers in the DMC RTTY are every unique callsign prefix, but just once per prefix even if you work them again on another band. Things get underway at 1200 UTC on July 15 and go for 24 hours.

North American RTTY QSO Party

If you like a bit more rate than the DMC offers, there’s the NAQP RTTY, which runs for 12 hours on Saturday – but you have to take off at least two hours, leaving only 10 hours of operating time available.

The breaks must be 30 minutes or longer, so you can take two hours all at once, or a couple of one-hour breaks, or four half-hour breaks – lots of ways to slice and dice your off-time.

I will usually take the off-time in late afternoon and preserve as much evening time as I can for the lower bands.Multipliers in the NAQP are each state, province and North American DXCC country you work on each band. And don’t forget – this is a low-power contest to don’t use more than 100 watts.

Things get going at 1800 UTC on Saturday, July 15, and continue for 12 hours until 0600 UTC (which is 11 p.m. Saturday evening at this location).

CQ World Wide VHF contest

The VHF contest is made for 6M and 2M operation on CW, phone and digital modes.

I have an 8-element cross-polarized 2M yagi – (that’s actually 16 elements, with 8 horizontal elements for the SSB/CW end of 2M and 8 vertical elements for the FM portion of the band) — but it is not in the air yet, so I will stick to 6M this time out, using the 4-element 6M yagi that is part of my Steppir antenna on the tower.

CQ WW VHF gets started at 1800 UTC Saturday, July 15, and goes until 2100 UTC on Sunday. You’ll be looking for as many maidenhead grid locator squares as you can work.

6M meteor scatter

I am going to probably focus on 6M meteor scatter, using MSK144 mode on 50.260 Mhz as a calling frequency.

If you’ve never tried high-speed meteor scatter on 6M, give it a try. Just Google WSJT-X for the software and follow the directions for operating the MSK144 mode, most useful for high-speed meteor scatter contacts.

Listening on a calling frequency like 50.260 will allow you to hear signals pop up from nowhere as meteor trails allow signals from far over the horizon to be heard momentarily. It’s an addictive pursuit, though, so be prepared to get into it more seriously once you’ve tried it out.

There is a lot to operate this coming weekend, and I’m looking forward to finding time in each of the events we’ve looked at this week in episode 10.

If you don’t want to miss future shows, be sure to subscribe to Zone Zero on iTunes, Stitcher, Google Play or your favorite podcast platform. Tell your friends, and come back often for more.

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

Episode 5: All modes in one weekend

Episode 5: All modes in one weekend

On the horizon we have a royal weekend, with His Majesty the King of Spain CW contest, and something for fans of every other major contesting mode.

Let’s get to it – a look ahead at the May 20th and 21st weekend.

Thanks for joining us for Episode 5 of the Zone Zero podcast. This is Bud, VA7ST, fresh off the Volta RTTY DX contest over the past weekend.

Last week, I said 20 million points would be possible in the Volta without even trying very hard. Well, I spent nine hours and finished with a claimed score of 60 million points. That’s triple what I thought I would end up with, and four times my 2016 score. And that’s despite taking off four hours in mid-morning to grocery shopping with my wife. Missed what is often a big part of the day on 20M.

Maybe the bands aren’t as flat as I thought.

The big help this year was a path to Europe on 20M. It wasn’t super strong but it was open, and it stayed open almost the full 24 hours. I made contacts with European stations — at 26 to 29 points per contact — all morning, in the afternoon and well after midnight.

Volta RTTY gives you big scores in a hurry, and even with conditions half-baked as they were this weekend, the Italian-sponsored Volta RTTY did not disappoint.

Coming up on May 20, we have a veritable bounty of smaller but very enjoyable contests to consider – whether you like Phone, CW, RTTY or PSK modes. There’s something for all of us this time out.

His Majesty the King of Spain CW

So much depends on the radio conditions at this part of the solar cycle – we’re often on the knife-edge between not having any useful DX propagation on the higher bands or having workable signals where we need them.

On Saturday, starting at 1200 UTC, we will see the 24-hour Spanish contest – His Majesty the King of Spain CW test – which will be a fun even for most of North America and certainly Europe, as it doesn’t require a totally polar path to work the most valuable multipliers – which are EA stations in Spain.

Having said that, I can report that last year from the North American west coast, I only managed to work 38 stations in 11 Spanish provinces.

You don’t have to restrict yourself to working EA stations, though. You’ll get one point for statins outside Spain, but three points for Spanish stations – and that includes EA6 in the Balearic Islands, and EA8 in the Canary Islands.

Just 38 QSOs more me last year, but the year before it was 216 Qs, which is more like it. There’s a fair amount of activity and lots of stations to work for CW operators.

One of the cool features of this contest is the possibility of working the special station of His Majesty the King of Spain, which will use the callsign EA0.

I worked the royal station last year, and no matter how laid back you think you are, it will give you a real kick to know you’ve made contact with the King of Spain station. I think I bragged about it to my wife for about a week after the contest.

You can check out the rules on the URE website – there’s a link in the show notes for Episode 5 at ZONE.VA7ST.CA.

EU PSK DX and the Aegean RTTY

If you’re not a Morse code operator, you have other options, starting at 1200 UCT Saturday. Both are 24-hour contests as well.

The EU PSK DX contest is for PSK operators – phase-shift keying is a digital mode that many find exciting because it uses such a narrow bandwidth. You will find literally dozens of PSK signals within a couple of kilohertz on 20M for example. Just tune your receiver to 14.070 and watch for the narrow-band signals in your waterfall display.

I won’t go into too much detail right now on how to operate PSK, but a quick pointer to some software is in order.

I use  a few different software packages for PSK operation – MMTTY can handle it, and I like that because MTTY interfaces with my contest logging program, N1MM Logger.

Another option that integrates with N1MM Logger is FLDigi, which is great for AFSK teletype or PSK modes.

For a good tutorial on operating PSK or RTTY, check out the Milton Keynes Amateur Radio Society’s Getting Started page — again, there’s a link to that great resource in the show notes for this episode.

Most PSK rag-chewing and a lot of contest activity is done using PSK-31 – which is a 31-bits-per-second mode and admittedly kind of pokey in terms of data speed.

But the EU PSK DX Contest is run using PSK-63 – twice the speed of “normal” PSK operation.

You’ll make exchanges a lot faster, which means more QSOs per minute, and more points in the log for a given number of hours operating.

Check it out and see if PSK contests are for you.

While you’re at it, take a look around the bands for the Aegean RTTY contest – also starting at 1200 UTC Saturday.

This is the eighth year for the Aegean RTTY contest, sponsored by the Aegean Radioamateurs Association. You’ll be looking for any station anywhere – on 20M through 10M, each is worth one point on your own continent, or two points outside your own continent. On 40M and 80M you’ll triple those contact points.

Again, if you aren’t a CW hound like I am, the EU PSK or the Aegean RTTY will give you hours of fun on a spring weekend. IU might even get on myself for a little digital mode action – I really do enjoy the gentler pace, and being able to check Sports Central or watch an NHL playoff game on TV while I’m in the contest.

But hey, Bud, you said all the contest modes were on this weekend. What about Phone or Single Sideband?

And right you are. There is one of those, too.

UN DX (CW and Phone)

Our friends in Kazakhstan offer the annual UN DX contest for CW and phone operators.

It actually gets going before the contests I’ve already mentioned – starting at 0600 UTC on Saturday and continuing until 2100 UTC.

You can work anyone no matter where they are, for two points in your own country, three points in a different country, and five points if they’re on a different continent. But if you work a station in Kazakhstan you get 10 points.

The multipliers are Kazakhstan districts plus the number of DXCC countries worked on each band.

I have a little secret at my station. Due to a convenient situation when I am beaming due north, where the distant horizon is at zero degrees elevation, I often have a pipeline into Kazakhstan from British Columbia.

I can’t say it gives me great scores in the UN DX – I usually manage to make 50 or so contacts each year – but those UN stations are usually the loudest signals coming over the pole into my antenna.

There – as promised: CW with the King of Spain, RTTY with the Aegean hams in Greece, PSK with the European PSK Club, and CW or phone with Kazakhstan. All the major modes in one weekend.

Which will you work?

Before we go, I’ll give you a preview of next week’s podcast – we’re going to take a look at the CQ WPX CW contest, coming up May 27 and 28.

This is one of the biggest Morse code contests on the calendar, and thousands of us look forward to it every May.

Over 48 hours, we’re going to be hunting for “weird prefixes” – that’s what WPX stands for– trying to land as many different callsign prefixes as we can put in the log. But we’ll be doing that in a contest where sustained rate – making as many contacts as you possibly can every minute – is the most important factor.

Some will go after the multipliers, which are all the prefixes you work, while others will simply run as fast as they can and let all those multipliers come to them.

It’s a strategy game unlike most other contests, and it’s a frantic, fantastic time on the air.

But that’s for next week’s episode.

Thanks for listening – I’d sure appreciate a review on iTunes to help get the word out. Tell your friends if you like what we’re doing here.

You can also email me at [email protected] — tell me a bit about contesting from your corner of the world.

Let’s go get ‘em… I’ll see you out there!

Episode 4: Volta RTTY DX and the CQ-M International

Episode 4: Volta RTTY DX and the CQ-M International

This week, we’ll take a peek at one of the great RTTY events on the annual calendar – the Volta RTTY DX contest coming up this weekend. If you want to score 100 million points in a weekend, then this one is for you.

We’ll also look at the CQ-M International DX contest for CW and phone operators. So let’s get started….

100 million points in a single contest?

That’s entirely achievable in the Volta RTTY test, sponsored by the  SSB and RTTY Club of COMO and A.R.I. (Associazione Radioamatori Italiani).

This year it’s the 51st running of the Volta RTTY, honoring the Italian discoverer of electricity, Alessandro Volta.

I’ve been in this one every year since 2003. Now, that year I earned 81,000 points and finished 144th overall. Over the years, I have managed to reach the top 25 pack a couple of times, and in 2013 when conditions were at their peak for solar cycle 24, the score I submitted was 299 million.

What a blast this one is, folks.

How do scores get so high? It’s simple. Every contact you make earns points based on a table that gives you more points for contacts in zones farther away from you.

So, if I am in California (in CQ Zone 3) and I work a station in Germany (in Zone 14) we both get 26 points for the contact.

Volta RTTY points table

What countries are in which CQ zones?

That alone can make the contest a whole lot of fun, and encourages the effort it takes to make those DX or long-distance QSOs.

But there’s a whole lot more.

Now, you get to multiply all those contact points times the number of DXCC countries and call areas in Australia, Canada, Japan, New Zealand and the USA. Now, that makes your score rocket up the charts. But then it gets really interesting.

In Volta RTTY, you then multiply that calculation times the number of contacts you have made. Boom – into the stratosphere.

Last year, even with conditions that were mediocre at best, I managed 155 contacts in 55 countries and call areas – a pitiful performance really – and my claimed score was 16 million points. I put in six hours, which works out to 2.7 million points per hour.

The year before, when propagation was still pretty good, I had 261 contacts and 106 multipliers, and finished with almost 153 million points in 8 hours. That’s more than 19 million points per hour.

It’s pretty neat to see a seven-digit score.

If you go by recent conditions, I think we’re currently experiencing propagation similar to what we saw back in 2008.

That year for Volta RTTY, the solar flux was 67 – lower than it is right now – but the A-index was just 3 with quiet geomagnetic conditions. We might get a bit lucky and have a more flux than that to keep the bands open longer this weekend.

Anyway, in our comparator year of 2008 I landed 16 million points with 180 contacts and 48 countries and call areas – a rather piddly amount, and over the nine years since then participation in RTTY contests has increased dramatically.

Keep in mind that if you work all 10 call areas in the US, Canada and Japan, that’s 30 multipliers – on just one band. You can work ‘em all on each band, too.

If there’s any opening to Europe from where you are (or to North America if you’re in Europe), this weekend could produce 20 million points or more in just a few hours, without even trying too hard.

A quick tip for North American stations – let’s get on 80M during the evening. In most years, there are very few stations running Volta RTTY on 80M and that’s a huge lost opportunity.

It’s entirely possible to work all 10 US call areas there, and another half-dozen Canadian call areas. But only if we get on to hand out those multipliers. Help one another out and go to 80 – and watch your scores leap.

Volta RTTY takes to the air at 1200 UTC this Saturday, May 13, and goes 24 hours. It’s a straight-up 45-baud RTTY contest, so get out there and give it a try. I’ll be listening for you.

CQ-M International

CQ-M rules

The P-150-C country list (multipliers in CQ-M)

Now, I know teletype isn’t everybody’s cup of bourbon, but this weekend has something for everyone.

The CQ-M contest is an international event sponsored by Russian hams in the name of peaceful coexistence and mutual understanding.

It’s been going for 61 years now, and provides an outlet for either r CW or Phone contesting starting at 1200 UTC on Saturday, May 13 and going for 24 hours.

You’ll be looking for contacts with anyone, anywhere, with contact points varying depending on where the other station is located.

Multipliers are the P-150 country list, and there are links to that list in the show notes for Episode 4.

I’m going to be honest, every year this weekend I enter the Volta RTTY, and stick with that one pretty intensely. So, I’ve never entered the CQ-M contest – but if I wasn’t such a RTTY hound, I would and I’d encourage you to give CQ-M a whirl if you’re not doing the teletype thing this weekend. I have listened around in previous years, and there’s activity to be had.

Or maybe you can do both – interleaving your time between the two events.

Peaceful coexistence. After all, that’s kind of the message, right?

That’s it for Episode 4. Thanks for listening – I’d sure appreciate a review on iTunes to help get the word out. Tell your friends if you like what we’re doing here.

You can email me at [email protected]  — tell me a bit about contesting from your corner of the world.

Let’s go get ‘em… I’ll see you out there!

Episode 3.1: Recapping the 7QP, Indiana and New England QSO Parties

Episode 3.1: Recapping the 7QP, Indiana and New England QSO Parties

Welcome to another post-contest episode of Zone Zero, the podcast for casual but avid ham radio contesters.

It’s late Sunday afternoon, and I’m taking a break from NHL viewing to file my report for the weekend’s contest activity here at VA7ST.

Keep listening for a recap of the 7QP, Indiana QSO Party and New England QSPO Party – and here’s a hint… May 6 and 7 was a pretty darn good weekend to be on the air.

Welcome to episode 3.1, a recap of this weekend’s contest action. This is Bud, VA7ST.

On Saturday and Sunday, we saw three major state QSO parties on the air, offering as many as 421 counties up for grabs across New England states, Indiana, and the entire US Pacific Northwest.

I decided to run low-power this weekend, and it worked out just fine – better than I could have hoped, in fact, as conditions were surprisingly good for a domestic contest weekend.

7QP recap

The 7QP – or the 7th Call Area QSO Party — was a total hoot on Saturday. What a blast I had on all the bands from 20M down to 160M, ending at midnight my local Pacific time.

On 15M, I landed four Qs and four counties across NV, UT and WY which is four more than I figured I’d get by going up there.

I was surprised to so readily work the close-in states on 20M — most years it is tough to work WA, MT and ID until I go to 40M, but no trouble this time.

80M was pretty solid with the triangular array of verticals pointed SE or SW to cover the 7th call area pretty well. The band was strong even to New England, where I kept working stations until the New England QSO Party’s first of two sessions ended at 0500z.

Top band didn’t see much action, though I was there bleating out CQs to get whomever strayed down there in the final hour. Got 8 additional Qs by going to 160M and sure appreciated the calls.

I didn’t really miss running high power with the bands open no nicely, and assume noise wasn’t a big problem at the other end on 80M and 40M.

Managed to beat my previous best score from 2011 (31,374) by a healthy margin, finishing with 173 contacts and 81 counties in the log, for a total claimed score of 42,039 points, which should land me in the top five for out-of-state low-power CW scores.

View the 3830 Scores page for the 7QP

Love the 7QP — thanks to everyone who got on for the day!

Indiana QSO Party

Then there was the Indiana QSO Party, on Satuday as well. This one had some good activity but it wasn’t nearly the rate-fest that the 7th Call Area states mustered up.

With the distance to the midwest not an issue for most bands, the real challenge for Indiana was just being on when the active stations were on.

I ended up with 17 contacts and 10 Indiana counties – most on 20M but two were on 40M before the contest ended at 0300z on Saturday (which is technically on Sunday UTC).

Final claimed score was 340 points.

New England QSO Party

And then there was Sunday.

The New England QSO Party had good activity on the bands Saturday, but my focus on Saturday was the 7QP – you want to max ut your time in thtatone, because it ends at midnight Pacitiv Saturday night, while the New England contest continues all day Sunday, starting its second session at 1300z – or 6 a.m. where I am.

So, at around 7 a.m. I was back on he radio, hunting for New England counties. At first, it was easy to find the active stations, but after about an hour, things got real slow – as I expected.

While New England stations get on in good measure, they just aren’t there in the kinds of numbers that you’ll find in the Florida, 7th Call Area or the biggest of them all, the California QSO Party.

Still, it’s a great state event with plenty to work. At first. Then things thin out, at least on the CW end of the bands which is where I as operating this time out.

Through Sunday, from 7 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. or so Pacific time – about half an hour before the end – I put in four hours and managed to add about eight New England counties and about 60 stations to the total. That’s not a great payoff for four hours of hard work sifting through the bands, but it is worth it if you’re trying for a competitive score.

Remember, no matter where they are – near New England or far from the eastern seaboard as I am —  most of the other guys are having the same rotten luck with the bands.

The problem isn’t so much the radio conditions, but the lack of activity as Sunday has church and all kinds of other callings that pull otherwise active competitors off the air.

It’s just slim pickins. The only way through it is to barge through it – stay in the chair, keep sifting through the stations already worked, keep an ear out for any mobile rovers who might possibly be activating new counties, and don’t let the Sunday doldrums get you down.

This weekend, 20M was either great to New England or really bad. Some stations just couldn’t hear me, while others got me first call. The difference? Antenna direction, mostly.

Those who wanted W7 states and VE7 in the log turned their beams away from the south and southwest — the W4 and W5 masses — once in a while, and were rewarded with multipliers frm the northwest.

Over the years, since 2006, I’ve been in the NEQP 11 times. My best score was in 2011 as solar cycle 24 was in its ascent, and I had 96 contacts in 31 counties for 5,950 points or so.

Flash forward to 2017, and this weekend. I ended up with exactly the same contact total —  96 – but six more counties – 37 – and a claimed score of 7,100 points.

Considering that 100 watts doesn’t go as far at the very bottom of the solar cycle, having a personal best in the New England QSO Party this year feels pretty good. But it was hard work. Just not as hard as digging in the garden, which was the alternative.

I didn’t get into the Delaware QSO Party, though I handed out one contact when asked, and I entirely skipped the ARI International DX contest. I heard Europeans working it on Saturday on 20M but that was during the same hours that 7th call area stations were swarming like bees all over 20M and the attraction south of me was just too strong.

So, there we have it. Three of the QSO parties this weekend in the bag.

Up next, we will look ahead at one of the great teletype contests of the year – Volta RTTY coming up next weekend. That’s in Episode 4 due out shortly.

Thanks for checking in after the contests. You can find all the episodes on our website – that’s ZONE.VA7ST.CA. Be sure to subscrbe if you don’t want to miss an episode. And please, consider adding a review of Zone Zero on iTunes to help get the word out.

I’ll see you out there, now let’s go get ‘em.

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 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.

If you like the Zone Zero podcast, tell your contesting friends about it. You can subscribe on iTunes, and please consider leaving a review so others know you’re listening and why.

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