Working the Lower 48
Mike A. King
KMØT – EN13vc
Original Article Published in CQ-VHF
Summer of 2003 Issue
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FT-1000MP and DEMI Transverter
I got on 2 meters and into weak signal work in early 1999. Prior to that, I had been on HF and some FM on repeaters, but that was many years ago. I had been away from ham radio for nearly 18 years.
The thing that got me all tweaked up about VHF was going to ham fest in St. Paul and listening to a talk about weak signal communications by Jon, WØZQ and Rich, NØHJZ. They explained the basics of VHF/UHF without FM. I was intrigued but totally confused. The concepts were fine, I understood all that coming from an engineering background, but all the new jargon to learn, propagation modes and operating procedures, I knew I had to be asking a few questions to get going in the right direction.
At the end of the talk, both Jon and Rich indicated that there was a club called the NLRS. The Northern Lights Radio Society was a group of weak signal type operators, based mainly out of the larger portion of Minnesota and some parts of surrounding states. They indicated that there was an email reflector and that anyone could “post” to, as well as be on the receiving end. I knew that this was where I would tailor my questions in order to get going.
Someone let the cat out of the bag!
As I began to post various technical questions to the NLRS reflector, I began learning about the types of coax available, their loss figures, etc. Also, antennas, rotors and rigs were good discussion points. One particular email that was responded to was by Ed, WØOHU. Ed indicated in an informal fashion, “Ya know, you can work all 48 states from there without EME. There are a few others that have done it from that area.” “Hmmm,” I thought, seemed like a neat idea, guess I better get some antennas and radios going!” Now if Ed had never said anything, I probably would have just been destined and satisfied to chase grids, but the state thing intrigued me. “Heck,” I thought. “Can’t be that tough, I think I will do it in a year”. Now that I look back, how little did I know!
My First Aurora Contacts:
At the beginning, February of 1999, I was running a homebrew Quagi on 2 Meters. It had about a 12' wooden boom and it was up around 65 feet. The rig I was running at the time was a FT-847 and 50 watts. At this point, I had just a few 2 meter SSB QSOs under my belt. On February 17th I fired up my rig and pointed the antenna at EN34. I called CQ and never thought anyone would come back. Well, I heard a weak station and finally got where he was. It was Jerry, WBØAUS in EN11, Nebraska. My jaw dropped in amazement that I could work that far away on 2 meters. My state count was beginning with my first 2 meter QSO!
Wood Boom Quagis for 144 and 432 MHz - Early 1999
The only time I had heard Aurora type CW was back when I listened to a tape of the raspy CW at the talk put on by WØZQ and NØHJZ. Just a few days later after my first QSO, I remember leaving the rig on for the weekend, squelched so I did not have to listen to the white noise. I came strolling by the ham shack on a Sunday afternoon and heard the raspy notes. I ran to tell my wife excitedly about the Aurora propagation and to say I was going to give it a go. A "that’s nice honey" was all I needed to start chasing some real DX!
I worked a number of stations, albeit shaky and quite nerve racking. I could not figure out right away what 59A was as I was sending 599. That’s how green I was. Also, getting the grid exchange and sequences down took a bit of getting used too. It had been years since I had been on CW. All in all, I muddled through it and had my first real 2 meter DX under my belt!
I recall that the rest of the winter and spring around the equinox held many Aurora openings and I was getting the hang of how to predict and guess when to be on the air. So between the Aurora openings and the weak winter tropo conditions, I had my first batch of states under my belt, the easy ones.
Now that I look back at my old logs of those first openings, I see the calls that I have come to know and hear on a regular basis. I appreciate those guys working my shaky CW so that I could cut my teeth on Aurora!
Getting some on Eskip - almost the most fun a guy can have!
Springtime came and along with that some station improvements. I put up two M-Squared 2M9SSB yagis, stacked 9.5' apart. The top one was mounted around 70 feet. I had also upgraded the power to a Teletec brick, good for about 175 watts.
I studied all the books and articles I could about how to predict Sporadic E Propagation. The book "Beyond the Line of Sight", edited by Emil Pocock and published by the ARRL seemed to be the best one to read. Also, I learned about the "propagation loggers" and regularly checked in to see what was going on the 2 meter band. The 144 MHz Propagation logger sure was a good tool.
I recall reading how some folks monitored the FM broadcast band for Eskip conditions with hopes that the “MUF”, maximum usable frequency, would make it to the 2 meter band. On Friday, 6/18/99, I saw postings on the logger that Larry, NØLL and others were receiving Los Angeles FM broadcast stations in the Kansas area. It was about quitting time at the office so I ran home to see what was brewing.
I checked the geometry of LA to NØLL’s QTH in EM09. I quickly checked and figured on a rough midpoint between the two locations and pointed the yagis that direction. This looked to me like the path was to the southwest, just a bit north of Phoenix, Arizona. Within a few minutes, I believe I was hearing a weak station calling CQ on SSB. I started calling CQ myself. Within a few more minutes, I realized that I was hearing a station by the call of AA7A. "Wow!" I thought, “I think that guy is in Arizona!” His signal was just above the noise and I believe I got his attention a few times, but that was about it at the time.
I then realized that the AA7A station was chatting with someone else local, but still very weak. All of a sudden, the signals jumped to 59+20 and the two were still talking! I was completely blown away that they were clear as a bell and I could hardly stand it! I recall them discussing that the band had died and it "looked like it was all over." As soon as they let up on the microphone, I basically yelled in my excitement “QRZ KMØT in EN13!” AA7A replied quite surprised and we worked right away. I then worked his partner W7RV. I continued to call CQ a bunch and raised a few other stations. It would seem that no one was there, then all of a sudden a station would come back out of the blue, 59++. I also heard plenty of "bursts" of SSB indicating that just brief moments of propagation were coming through. I thought the band was dead myself when a station in California came through loud and clear, K6DV. What can I say? It was a grand experience! Arizona and California on 2 Meters, this just keeps getting better!
The really neat thing was that I worked AA7A, Ned, a few days later on 6 Meters. We got to talk about the opening and I quizzed him on all he could tell me about 2 Meter Eskip.
Just days later on 7/7/99, I managed to work some Eskip to the Southeast. K4QI was worked among others to get a few states down there. As if that was not enough excitement, on 7/10/99 I was chatting with some guys to the east on 6 meters. The conditions were particularly weird, and I was hearing lots of weak signals from areas other than the main skip area. I discussed this with AI3W on 6 meters and he indicated the "short skip" conditions may be an indicator for 2 meters and that he was going up there to have a look around.
I took his advice and went to monitor 2 meters as well.. I heard some strange bursts of noise on the calling frequency I had never heard before. I figured it could be some audio just barely coming through on Eskip. Two quick CQs produced stations coming back to me 59++. Ed, W3EKT, K1RZ and Russ, K2TXB were quick to answer the calls. I also worked Rick, AI3W! Guess his advice paid off! Just like that, I had 3 more states!
My First Big Tropos!
Throughout July, in-between the exciting Eskip openings, the local conditions were improving and I was finding out that I could work out quite a distance. I managed to get all the local states and a bunch farther to the east and southeast. Kentucky, Tennessee and Ohio, states missed on Aurora and passed over on Eskip were easy pickins! These "Training Tropos", as I call them now, were great opportunities to learn how to get a feel for tropo conditions. I worked the weak signals as the far edge of the tropo openings were taken advantage of. I managed to make a number of higher band contacts as well.
August however brought some tropo conditions that were pretty darn good. Many of the southern to southeastern tier states were worked. Texas, OK, AL, MS, LA, GA, AR, etc. These openings got me all tired out as I could see the state totals rise. I had a hard time going to bed with signals out of the SE still 5x9++. These great tropo openings gave lots of opportunity to rag chew a bit as well, thus learning a lot from the experienced guys that were on the band.
2M9SSBs stacked with a 6M5 in-between - 432-9WL on top
My Wife Begins to Lose Me to Meteor Scatter……
I was counting up the states to date and was seeing that I had some huge holes in certain parts of the country, mainly the New England and the Pacific Northwest. I came across Dick Hart, K0MQS one evening on 2 meters and he laid it all out for me on the ins and outs of Meteor Scatter propagation. I enjoyed listening to him tell me about how he did the lower 48, I believe the first to ever do it! (No internet too I might add!)
Dick explained some background information and also the various meteor shower data. He also explained the sequencing and the importance of making schedules and having accurate clocks and frequency control. I took all this in and got very excited as he told amazing stories from the Leonids Shower in 1963. He even mentioned that shortly after being on and working stations during the Leonids of 1963, he received a SWL card from the USSR. It was that he was received on 144 Mhz way over there during the shower. Dick indicated that he thought it was a fake and has really never mentioned it to anyone. I told him that the story should at least be told, what if it was true!!
With all that information in hand, the September Persieds meteor shower was at hand and I was going to see what all the hoopla was about! In addition, I was going on a bunch of information that Chris, N0UK had explained to me on how to do HSCW. I had just finished working on a HSCW interface and was going to give High Speed Meteor Scatter a try as well. I then completed a HSCW contact with Shelby, W8WN to test the entire system out.
Between 8-12 and 8-13 during the shower, my wife heard all kinds of commotion from the ham shack Strange sounds of HSCW pings and blips along with 15 second spurts of my shouting "S2 S2 S2" and "Roger Roger Roger" over and over again. She really knew I was hooked when I shouted out of the ham shack…"Hey, I just caught a huge ‘blue wizzer’ and worked DN13 on a 12 second monster burn!"
I finished the Persieds by up having a SSB contact with WA1OUB (Now K1SIX) for New Hampshire. Boy, was that some good 2 meter DX! Random on 144.200 as well!
More States via Long Haul Aurora!
Some more sunspots popped up in late September of 1999, causing some good six meter conditions, as well as 2 meter aurora. K1UHF came out of the noise 55A one afternoon for a new state. I also picked up some more states to the west via AU. That evening I was treated to a VK opening on 6M. I know its not related to working the lower 48, but it's a significant event that was AU generated in conjunction with the SFI and current state of the sunspot cycle.
Leonids 1999 - the big show?
The 1999 Leonids was to be the big show for meteor scatter and ping jockeys. I was told that the 1998 Leonids was very good and most were predicting that the 1999 event was to be the storm! This was all based on a 33 year period of the comet that causes the Leonids, from 1963 to 1999. People were getting very exciting and were eagerly waiting for the fireworks to begin!
Well, the predictions were a bit oversold and lots of operators said it was better in 1998. I really had nothing to compare it with. I did not make very many contacts, but the ones I did were douseys! A few of the five contacts I made were for new states! In fact, one QSO on HSCW was made with Joe, K9KNW in south Florida. That was the HSCW distance record for some time until John, KØPW squashed it a year later during the next Leonids shower. Oh well……J
Meteors to End the Year:
The Geminids shower produced a new state. I worked a SSB meteor scatter QSO with K1WHS, David in the state of Maine on 12/14/99. That was the farthest New England state I needed to work. A few weeks later, the Quads meteor shower came in and I managed to work both K0XP, Steve in Massachusetts and Maarten, W1FIG in Rhode Island on HSCW. These were great contacts, took about and hour each, but well worth the long efforts. These were the only gentlemen that I was aware of in these states doing this type of weak signal work.
End of the First Year:
A bleak picture began to emerge as I ended my first year of weak signal work on 2 meters. It appeared that I would not make my goal of working the lower 48 without EME in a year. Not for a lack of trying, but it became apparent that on the minor showers, the SSB mode was not the mode to use if a contact was desired. However, if operators in the states I was missing had been running HSCW, I would have completed my goal. I also noted that most of the showers seemed to favor more north-south paths, not in the directions I needed the most.
My count at this time was at 40 and had DE, MT, NM, NV, OR, VT, VA and WV to go.
The Next Six Months:
A combination of tropo, AU and meteor scatter produced 6 more states by the middle of September 2000. These seem to fall into place fairly well. I Picked up Virginia on some long haul Aurora. I Worked Shep W7HAH, on some fairly rare Aurora to the west. Meteors accounted for New Mexico on SSB with David, N5JHV and Oregon on HSCW with Barry KA7V. West Virginia came in on some late season tropo. I picked up Nevada on HSCW during the June contest.
I had also been running schedules for Vermont, but with no success with K1LPS. I could not find any operators in Delaware that were willing to run.
Depression Sets in:
So by the end of a year and a half, I was at 46 states. The next year plus contained many schedules to Vermont with K1LPS. Larry and I tried a number of times during different showers, but only heard each other a few times here and there on SSB. I still had no luck with Delaware, as folks there on 2 meters were pretty sparse. I was beginning to wonder if getting the last two states would ever happen. There was very little activity in these regions, and no HSCW.
WSJT came out and bred some new life and activity into meteor scatter. HSCW became a mode virtually forgotten overnight. I discussed WSJT with Larry, K1LPS and he was working on his setup but it was taking some time. He mentioned that he had a friend that may be getting on WSJT and he would let me know.
States Above 50 Mhz for CSVHF:
Over time, other goals took over due to the fact it seemed the VT and DE would never fall. I began getting into the Central States VHF Society “States above 50 Mhz” operating event and submitted scores for the 2000-2001 event. In that year from 7-1-00 to 6-30-01, I posted a 144 Mhz state count of 34, all without EME.
Having a real good outcome for the operating event that year, I decided to really go after it again for the 2001 to 2002 event year. With 7-1-01 marking the state counts back down to zero and starting over again, good tropo conditions right away in July started the 2M count to increase quite quickly, all with thinking of how I was to get VT and DE.
By the time the Persieds rolled around on 8-10-01, my state count was at 15 on 144 Mhz. All were on tropo except one, a fantastic Sporadic E contact to Florida. With WSJT taking hold of many folks and breeding new activity, I jumped in head on to the Persieds with full force.
By the end of the Persieds, I had 30 more QSOs on meteor scatter and the state count was now at 33! 11 states were picked up on WSJT, one on HSCW and three on traditional SSB. The Persieds proved out to be the shower that really favored WSJT.
The next few months brought in 7 more states via tropo and Aurora and I was sitting at 40 states for the year by the time the Leonids rolled around. I was still looking for DE and VT as well for the overall 48.
Leonids 2001 Fireworks:
Lots of table talk had been traversing the Internet as well as the airways, all in the determination and speculation if this was the year the Leonids would be the "storm". Certain astronomy figures had good predictions for the USA mainland. Going on that information, I began a steady attempt to get VT and DE on the air. The state count for CSVHF was "good enough" and I was going to concentrate on looking for the two states I needed for the lower 48.
The previous couple months had been spent discussing via email with K1LPS about his coming onboard with WSJT. He did not think he was going to be ready but indicated that his neighbor, Mike - N1JEZ, was going to be getting on WSJT. With that, Mike and I corresponded and set up scheds for the Leonids. He had a few 6 meter QSOs on WSJT, but to my knowledge, none on 2M.
In addition, right before the Leonids, I got a flurry of emails of operators in DE that just were not gong to be on the air. That really took me down a notch. However, I thought I would take a chance and bug "Brian the Rover”, ND3F to see if he would make a little trip to DE. Brian and I had emailed back and forth over the last year, but with schedules and equipment / car problems, he was never able to make the trip for me. Well, as luck would finally be in my favor, he emailed back and said he would take a little trip "just across the border" for me!
Mike, N1JEZ and I decided to run early Saturday morning. At 1145 UTC, November 17th on WSJT, we completed with little effort due to the pre-Leonids rocks being fairly good. Wow, what a deal that was! I had finally nailed VT for state #47 overall and #41 for the year! It was neat running with him early, that way I could concentrate on “Brian the Rover” and his stacked yagis. I could just imagine Brian cruising with the rover, seeing the borderline and finding an operation spot where he could swing the yagis east!
Things got better after that. I had some time to burn until my SSB schedule with Brian, so I hung out at the radio most of the day just to monitor the action. 6 Meters was buzzing that day as well, I worked a bunch of DX including JA, KH2 and V73, so it was a good day to be around the shack.
At one point towards the evening of the 18th, I was listening on 144.200, just minding my own business when Charlie, KK4TE in Alabama came barreling through on a good long burn, 0645 UTC. I quickly jumped on the microphone and we completed without any trouble. We even had time to say "nice to work you again!" Charlie and I worked on a Sporadic E opening the year before on 2M. I was using a single HO loop and 25 watts from the truck mobile that day, so it was a pretty special contact. Anyway, that put me at #42 for year. After that I began to pay a bit more attention as the calling frequency started to buzz with good action.
Brian was hopefully in DE and our schedule was successful. He was weaker than some of the other stations I had been hearing, but I was not complaining! It was a 15-minute schedule we setup and we got finished up right at the end. What a feeling to have it finally all come together. I had finally worked all 48 states without EME on 2 meters. It took longer than I predicted, but I certainly did not know what I was talking about 2 years and 9 months earlier!
Why not try to work a few more for the States thing?
I leaned back in my chair and thought for a minute…now what? With Brian’s contact, I was sitting at 43 for the year, could this get any better?? I thought I might as well chase a few more states to see if I could get "just a few more" for the year. I scrambled back to the calling frequency on 2 Meters and could tell things were starting to really pick up.
At this point I had no idea what was about to happen, but "Lady Luck" was apparently in the house that night, and my wife was not kicking her out! Things just started to fall into place.
The calling frequency became a madhouse around 0900 and the rocks appeared to be very intense to the southwest. I pointed out that way and tried to make a few contacts, but the QRM was pretty bad. So I jumped down a few KC and started calling CQ Scatter. Much to my surprise NW7O came in clear as a bell! Viva Las Vegas. Nevada for number #44! (0947 UTC)
I called a bit more where I was with no takers, so I ran up to 144.200 and decided to slug it out for a bit. Through the QRM I manage to work N6RMJ in California for #45! (1030 UTC) I thought, "Holy smokes, all the states to the west are done for the year!"
I was starting to wonder, “could it be possible to work all 48 in a year for the CSVHF States above 50 Mhz?” I shrugged it off and continued to pursue the bands. Chances were pretty slim I figured with Massachusetts, Tennessee and South Carolina left to work. I figured that Tennessee would be probable, but the others were a long shot.
When you’re Hot, you’re Hot!
Well, as luck would have it, at 1045 UTC I saw a posting by K1MS in Massachusetts that he was calling on 144.125. I quickly swung the antennas around and spun the dial. Almost immediately I heard him on a solid burn. I dumped my call and grid and we completed without any effort! I thought I would never work that state again on 2 meters!
I worked a few more stations as the band was still filled with signals and Gary, KE8FD popped up on the propagation logger. He posted that he wanted to meet on 144.220. “It would be nice to work Gary again” I thought, since I knew he had recently moved and not been on the air much lately. I decided to look up where he was located and believe it or not, he was in South Carolina. I had not realized or did not remember that’s where he had moved. I again repositioned the antennas and heard him right away, we completed within a few minutes on SSB with little effort at 1112 UTC.
Knowing that I only needed Tennessee, I posted to the logger that I was looking for stations there. Right away W4HP came back and we met on 144.225. We managed to work with a bit more difficulty at 1116 UTC. The reflections were quite weak at the shorter distance, sounding mostly like backscatter from the meteor burns.
So there I sat, completely amazed at the round of luck that had just transpired. I had worked the lower 48 states on 2 meters without EME from July 1 to November 18th, in less than 6 months for the CSVHF event!
Now that I look back, it seems like technology really had the upper hand in all this. There are many factors here that make things much easier than they had been in the past.
The Internet is a wonderful tool for coordinating schedules on the fly and email makes it very easy to get things set up in advance. In addition, the information available for tropo propagation events, meteor predictions, aurora openings, sporadic E indicators are right at your fingertips if you wish to use them. Also, call sign lookups of station QTHs on the fly via the call book servers is a necessary tool. The Internet, as well as Amateur Radio, sure makes the world a smaller place, all at the touch of a button or the spin of a VFO. They both work well together!
2 meter CW/SSB hardware is pretty readily available now with the HF/VHF multimode rigs, making the numbers of operators greater and the chances of catching someone much better. Brick amplifiers are also affordable; you don’t need a KW if you work at it.
Then software, such as MSDSP for HSCW and WSJT makes it now possible to take advantage of meteor scatter propagation almost any time of the year. New modes like JT44 will make this even better on tropo type of propagation and is already making big headlines.
All these factors, combined with being at the right place at the right time, makes it possible to do things that were much more difficult as they were in the past. I give all the credit to the guys who did it the hard way and paved the path to see that it was at all possible in the first place. I also want to give credit to all the guys I worked and took time out of their schedules to find me and put up with my schedules.
Oh, and I give a lot of credit to my wife, who put up with all my ranting and ravings about all this business, she is the true hero and supporter for my operations!
Thanks for reading and 73 from KMØT – EN13vc
KMØT Station in 2001-2002
During the timeframe of about 3 years, I had made a number of station changes. I first started with a Yaesu FT-847 and ran barefoot 50 watts with a homebrew Quagi.
About 6 months after that, I upgraded to a Teletec Brick that gave about 175 watts and changed the antennas to two stacked M-Squared 2M9SSB antennas. The vertical stacking distance was 9.5 feet with the top one around 70 feet. These antennas work real well and give good gain for their boom length. The pattern is not too sharp either which has aided in meteor scatter work, tropo and contests. I am able to hear stuff off the side so I can catch folks that are not right on the beam path.
Note that these antennas are spaced fairly close with 222 MHz and 6 meter yagis in-between, they still play very good with this non-optimal configuration. Sometime you have to work with what mast length you have, and I have been lucky to find a configuration that works.
I also ran a mast mounted preamp from SSB electronics for some time.
About 6 months after the antenna upgrade, I switched to a Yaesu FT-1000MP as the IF rig and a Down East Microwave transverter. I ran that for awhile and then came across a SSB Electronics LT2S transverter. When I switched to the LT2S, I eliminated the mast preamp (found I did not need it) and upgraded my power to 300 watts with a TE Systems amplifier. This has been the station configuration for the last year or so. Feed line is LMR-600 with LMR-400 up the mast and for the phasing harness.
The HSCW / WSJT interface is a Rig blaster from West Mountain Radio.
For other station equipment on the rest of the bands, 50 Mhz and up through 24 GHz, see other parts of this website!