I’ve wanted to give a VHF contest a go for awhile, it never seemed like I could have a workable station for real weak signal VHF being an apartment dweller. With all my travel plans canceled this summer due to COVID-19 and plenty of time to experiment, I figured I might as well clear a few weekends to test a portable VHF setup and then work the ARRL June VHF Contest. I decided I’d largely use equipment I already had which meant entering the contest as Single Operator Portable (SOP) with only 5w.
Continuing my mission to activate all Kansas State Parks, I decided to take the Friday before Memorial Day (5/22/2020) off from work to travel down to Crawford State Park in southeast Kansas. This park is nicely situated around a lake and offers camping, boating, and fishing. At first arrival, I drove around the park looking for a good spot to activate from with a clear view of a the sky and away from campers who probably did not want to hear my yelling into my radio. As I started to loop around the lake, I encountered the spillway which also serves as part of the road. Since it had been raining all morning, the lake was high, and the spillway was, well, spilling over. Although I saw several SUVs and trucks drive through the moving water, I decided my Honda Accord may not be up to the task and took the long way around the lake. I ended up coming back near the park entrance for the satellite passes, but I did get to see the numerous campgrounds and lake access points during my initial exploration. As it was Memorial Day weekend, the campsites were mostly full.
I decided to operate in the parking lot that butts up to the beach and playground area, both of which were closed for the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. This spot provided a decent view of the sky in most directions. I planned for three satellite passes from this location, all FM birds. Although this location is fairly far from my apartment up near KC, it was just within my VUCC circle, so I was able to tack on some new grids as well. This was especially lucky as Mitch, AD0HJ, was roving through North Dakota at the time, and I got him on the DN76/77 grid line!
The passes I attempted were:
- AO-91 (1627z) – max 17 degree pass: 0 QSOs
- AO-92 (1655z) – max 86 degree pass: 9 QSOs
- AO-91 (1802z) – max 43 degree pass: 6 QSOs
Unfortunately the first pass didn’t yield any QSOs. It was a lowish pass to the east but also busy which made it difficult to get into the bird. I’m not sure if I heard myself at all on the downlink during that pass. The next two passes went very well despite being busy as usual.
After activating the park, I decided to drive over to the Wah’Kon-Tah Prairie about an hour and a half away to work the EM27/37 grid line. Although the grid line was not quite that far away directly, I prefer to use public parks/land for my roving as not to attract attention or worry locals who may see me pulled over on the side of the road. The prairie area just so happened to have a small gravel parking lot that perfectly straddles the grid line and afforded me a good place to hang out for an hour or so. From that location I worked two passes, PO-101 (a brand new satellite for me) at 2055z, and SO-50 (my least favorite) at 2122z. Both passes were successful with many QSOs, although PO-101 was fairly quiet and I even got to chat a bit, which is rare in my experience on the FM birds. In the end, I made six QSOs on PO-101 and 12 QSOs on SO-50 from the grid line.
As a relatively active rover for satellite operations, I’m often looking to check whether a new location will be within my “VUCC circle” and be eligible to count for my home station VUCC certificate. Rule six of the ARRL’s VHF/UHF Century Club (VUCC) Award Rules states:
For VUCC awards on 50 through 1296 MHz and Satellite, all contacts must be made from locations no more than 200 km apart. For SHF awards, contacts must be made from a single location, defined as within a 300-meter diameter circle.
This means that I can use many operation positions, including those from different grids and parks from my Kansas State Parks POTA mission, and effectively double dip on these contacts as long as no two locations are more than 200km apart. Although it’s easy enough to manually measure distance between locations using the ruler tool on Google Maps, as your list of locations grows, that gets difficult. I decided to write a quick and dirty Python script that checks every combination of locations against one another to see if any are more than 200km apart.
Although technically a Kansas State Park entity, the Prairie Spirit Trail State Park is actually a 51 mile trail that connects Ottawa and Iola, Kansas and replaces the old railroad that used to link the cities. Along the way, this trail brushes up against several city parks which makes for several convenient access points. I chose to base my activation at Kanza Park in Ottawa, located less than two miles from the trailhead, as it has a parking lot near the trail and gave me some room to activate within 100 feet of the trail without being up on the trail itself. The park was quiet for a Saturday morning (5/9/2020), but I saw several people walking and biking down the trail. It was an easy park to get to being in the middle of Ottawa near a lot of shops and restaurants.
I planned for three satellite passes throughout the early afternoon. After the first one, I was a little concerned as to whether I’d get to 10 QSOs after those three passes, but I was able to get well above the threshold and ended up with 20 (19 unique) contacts total:
- AO-91 (1639z) – max 25 degree pass: 1 QSO
- AO-92 (1655z) – max 87 degree pass: 8 QSOs (including a dupe from the previous pass)
- AO-91 (1815z) – max 37 degree pass: 11 QSOs
This park was again within my VUCC circle (and my home grid EM28), so I was able to count these contacts towards my home VUCC. As of 5/11/2020, I am up to 116 grids with three new grids from this trip.
- As I arrived to the park a bit early, I was able to listen into an RS-44 pass before my first AO-91. While I didn’t attempt any QSOs, it was neat to hear all the activity people are talking about.
- I tested my new headset (Koss SB-45) with my FT-817ND and TH-D74 on two of the passes, and it worked fairly well. I’m planning a more thorough review in a future blog post, but I think this is a decent headset for ham radio. My only gripe so far is that the boom mic is a bit loose so it flops around a bit if you’re moving your head. Audio quality seems fine, though.
As the first step on my mission to activate all Kansas State Parks for Parks on the Air, I decided to visit the park nearest to my home in the suburbs of Kansas City – Hillsdale State Park. This park has numerous RV and tent campsites as well as a few day areas spread around Hillsdale Reservoir. I arrived fairly early in the day on April 25, 2020, and it wasn’t hard to find some space away from other people (keeping in mind the COVID-19 social distancing restrictions). I eventually found the archery range which was empty and had a wooden tower in front of a few targets which seemed like a perfect place to operate satellites from with a bit of a height boost. I was able to work two passes from this location before having to move elsewhere in the park since some other people arrived who wanted to use the area. The second location was near a day-use shelter, and I worked from the trunk of my car.
My plan was to be on three satellite passes throughout the afternoon, although in the end I stuck around for a fourth pass. As this park is in my home grid of EM28 and within my “VUCC circle,” these contacts also counted towards VUCC from my home location. As of the time of writing, I’ve confirmed five new grids from this activation, bringing my VUCC total to 113 grids. While at the park, I made 23 contacts in total which broke down accordingly for each pass:
- AO-91 (1631z) – max 22 degree pass: 9 QSOs
- AO-92 (1717z) – max 45 degree pass: 8 QSOs
- AO-91 (1806z) – max 48 degree pass: 5 QSOs
- CAS-4A (1826z) – max 46 degree pass: 1 QSO
A couple other interesting notes for this activation:
- I worked my brother, Andy, KK4LWR, on AO-91 at 1631z.
- The last CAS-4A pass was meant to be for practice with my brother. We’re both fairly new to the linear transponder satellites, so we planned to try to work each other. Prior to this contact, the only linear bird I’ve worked was FO-29 some time ago. Although my brother and I couldn’t make the contact, as soon as I tuned up, I heard Patrick, WD9EWK, on frequency and was quickly able to make the contact with him.
Being a relatively recent transplant to Kansas (back in the fall of 2018), I’ve realized there is still much of the state I haven’t seen. I’ve ventured down to Wichita and Topeka, but for the most part, I’ve only explored the Kansas City area. Since Kansas has 27 state parks spread out across the state, visiting each one and activating them for Parks on the Air (POTA) seems like a cool way to see the state and play with radio at the same time.
I’d also like to complete each of the POTA activations on satellites, which means 10 unique satellite QSOs per park visit. This may be a challenge depending on timing of satellite passes and the typical weekend pass antics, so I’ll have to plan carefully. I may bring an HF setup as backup, but my initial goal is to cross the threshold on satellites alone. Since some of these parks are a fair distance from the KC area, I might be doing some multi-day camping at the parks along the way.
I haven’t set a goal in terms of completion date for all 27 parks, but I’m hoping to make significant progress by the end of this summer. As of April 19, 2020, all of the state parks remain open despite the COVID-19 situation. I plan to do all of my operations alone, so I will be abiding by the social distancing requirements.
At the top of this post, I’ve created a map to show all of the parks on my list. Reg flags denote parks yet to be visited while green flags mark activated parts. Click on the flags for details on an individual park and my associated activation report which I will be posting as individual blog posts as I continue this effort. I will also link to the activation reports below.
Check my Twitter (@kd8rtt) for spots and details on planned activations before they happen!
- K-2340: Hillsdale State Park (4/25/2020)
- K-2350: Prairie Spirit Trail State Park (5/9/2020)
- K-2333: Crawford State Park (5/22/2020)
- K-2337: Elk City State Park (6/27-6/28/2020)
- K-2343: Lovewell State Park (7/2/2020)
- K-2339: Glen Elder State Park (7/2/2020)
- K-2354: Webster State Park (7/3/2020)
- K-2349: Prairie Dog State Park (7/4/2020)
To track things over time, I thought I’d do an overview of my satellite gear as of February 2020. I actually have two different setups for satellite operations: one for the FM/APRS sats and one for the linear transponder sats. Since I do FM sats much more often, I’ve tried to slim that setup down so I can quickly run out to catch a pass.
In both setups, my Kenwood TH-D74A serves as the receiving radio and APRS transceiver. This radio, while not full duplex like its brother the TH-D72A, it is a great option for satellite operations in a two-radio configuration. My favorite feature is the built-in audio recording function. This makes recording audio from satellite passes for later transcription a snap without a mess of additionally cabling and a dangling audio recorder. This radio also contains an APRS function which can be used with the ISS and other APRS satellites with just a couple configuration changes. Finally, this radio has a wideband all-mode receiver which lets it work for SSB on linear satellites. Of course, tuning is a bit tricky without a big knob, but it is doable. For FM sats, I simply hang it from a lanyard around my neck and use a 2.5mm mono to 3.5mm stereo audio adapter cable to connect it to earbuds. I also have all the FM sat frequencies programmed into memory so there is little preparation required for a particular pass.
For FM sats, my transmitting radio is typically the Ailunce HD1. This radio is dual band DMR/FM radio, which makes it versatile outside of sat operations and a way for me to keep my ham radio equipment list to a minimum (blasphemy, right?). There is nothing special about it other than it rated for 10W RF output which can be a nice extra boost when needed (like when using my Shorty Arrow).
For linear sats, my transmitting radio is the venerable Yaesu FT-817ND. It serves double duty as my QRP HF radio, so it is easy to bring my HF and sat setups together on trips. In order to make it a bit more user friendly for satellites, I’ve added a computer headset with a couple adapters and a handheld button for PTT. I also have made a chest rig made from dual-shoulder camera straps and two MOLLE pouches which hold the 817 and D74 at an angle for easy viewing. This works fine but I’d like something a bit more secure to hold the D74.
The antenna I use is either my standard Arrow Antenna (modified into a LidStick) or my Shorty Arrow (also LidStickified). In 2019, the Mini Circuits BLP-200+ popped into my Twitter feed as Mike, W8LID (also the creator of the LidStick), found that it worked well to prevent desense that is sometimes experienced on certain satellites and radio combinations. This filter is put on the 2m driven element BNC connector, and in my experience, it has completely removed the desense issues I had. You may notice it has a 1/2W rating; Mike got in touch with Mini Circuits and learned that this is really only an issue for out of band signals. Many of us have consistently put 5-10W or more of 2m signals through the filter without any issues.
To travel with my Arrow Antenna, I use a telescopic plastic tube which is commonly used to transport real arrows or posters. It is fairly lightweight, but strong enough that I’ve put it in my checked bag many times and it has kept my antenna protected. It is large enough to fit the full size Arrow Antenna, my Shorty Arrow mast, and even my rubber duck antenna for my HT. For the price, this is an excellent option for transport and storage.
For coax cables, I currently use RG-58/U and LMR-240 UF jumpers with BNC connectors. I recommend staying away from cheap RG-58/U (I’m using it temporarily), but the LMR-240 UF is high quality stuff.
The last part of my setup is my iPhone 11. Nothing special about it, but it runs GoSatWatch as my main satellite tracking app. The app costs $9.99 on the App Store, but it is well worth it for any sat op. I really like that it uses the IMU in your phone so that you can hold your phone up to the sky and physically orient yourself to where the pass will be in augmented reality. It has a simple but nice user interface and can support more than just ham radio satellites.
The other app I use occasionally is Theodolite. Photos from this app are often posted to Twitter, leading many to ask “what app is that?” It is useful to see your exact position and error of the GPS and record that for those gridline and corners that require evidence. It is $5.99 but again, well worth it as it has many other features that you may find useful.
After seeing a few people on Twitter with a a shortened Arrow Antenna for satellite operations (colloquially called a “Shorty Arrow”), I decided to try to build my own. Rather than three elements on 2m and seven elements on 70cm as with the regular Arrow Antenna, the shorty arrow has two elements on 2m and four elements on 70cm. This results in a more compact and lightweight antenna at the expense of gain, particularly on 70cm. In my experience, this limits the antennas use down near the horizon especially if you have foliage in the way, and it is definitely a bit more of a challenge to get into some sats. Still, I’ve made plenty of FM contacts using 5w radios and this antenna even on weekend passes. I particularly like using this setup when I travel somewhere via airplane as this is small enough to fit in a carry-on bag.
Since you’ll need the antenna elements anyway, I suggest you buy a full size Arrow if you don’t have one already and just share the elements between them. It also saves you having to bother with measuring and centering the holes you drill; just clamp the full sized Arrow to the shorty to drill like I describe below.
What you’ll need:
-2m driven element
-2m reflector element
-70cm driven element
-70cm reflector element
-70cm 1st director element
-70cm 2nd director element
–approximately 2 feet of 3/4″ square aluminum tubing – I found four feet of this at Menards for around $10
-handgrip of some sort. I used a foam grip from a garden trowel I found at the dollar store
–11/64″ drill bit
-a couple clamps
The build process is actually really simple and doesn’t require any measuring:
- Remove all the antenna elements and the hand grip from the full size Arrow Antenna.
- Take the square aluminum tubing and clamp it flush against the Arrow Antenna. Make sure you don’t place the clamps over any holes.
- Use the Arrow Antenna as a drill guide by drilling through its element holes and into the square aluminum tubing with the 11/64″ drill bit. This allows you to easily drill with the same spacing as the original Arrow Antenna without have to measure and center the holes. Do not drill through the holes that are usually hidden behind the hand grip on the Arrow Antenna – these are tapped for a 1/4-20 tripod mount.
- Remove the clamps, rotate the tubing and Arrow Antenna so the blank side of the tubing aligns with the other band’s element holes on the Arrow Antenna, re-clamp, and drill the holes for the other band in the same way.
- Using the hacksaw, cut the excess length off the aluminum tubing.
- Use a metal file to round off the ends of the tubing and remove any burs around the holes.
- Slide the hand grip on your new Shorty Arrow Antenna and install the elements.
- Go work some sats!
Back in September, I took a trip to Peru with some college buddies. Although none of these friends are hams, it seemed obvious to me that this trip had to include some ham radio, so I decided to bring along my satellite gear.
I started with visiting the ARRL website that provides details on getting a reciprocal license in Peru. Their instructions were to write to Radio Club Peruano (RCP), the national Peruvian amateur radio organization, with a bunch of information at least 40 days before arriving in Peru. I actually first sent a message using the contact form on the Radio Club Peruano website about three months before my trip, but never received a reply. I then decided to send a physical mailing with all the requested information to Radio Club Peruano about 60 days before my trip. A couple weeks later, I followed up with an email copied to every RCP official’s email address I could find. I never received a response to any of these messages which was very disappointing.
Finally, I realized after some more digging that as a US ham I did not need a formal reciprocal license but instead could apply for an International Amateur Radio Permit (IARP) through the ARRL. By this point, I was less than a month from departure day, so I was pleased when I got a prompt response from Amanda at the League who was able to quickly process and turn around my IARP. Within about a week or so, I got my permit in the mail. Awesome!
The next hurdle was the customs regulations. Peru actually has fairly strict rules for what items you can bring in without paying a duty. They specifically call out that only one broadcast radio can be brought in, and although it does not mention ham radios in particular, I did not feel it was worthwhile to argue with a customs agent. This prevented me from using the Ailunce HD-1/Kenwood TH-D74 combination I typically like to use for FM satellites. I decided to bring along my Shorty Arrow and an Alinco DJ-G7 HT which is a full-duplex radio. I also brought some cabling so I could use my iPhone as an audio recorder. The G7 is known to be only a mediocre radio for VHF/UHF full-duplex, but I was hoping it would be good enough for this trip.
Interestingly, in hindsight, I could have easily gotten away with my preferred setup due to the customs process at Lima’s airport. After collecting your luggage, you could either walk towards the green sign which means you had nothing to declare or the red sign which meant you were declaring something and had to go up to a desk. However, the green sign simply led you outside with no check by anyone; I suppose you could be randomly searched, but the crowd was so big that this would practically have not been an issue. Still, I do not recommend you try to lie in this process since the fines can be pretty big.
Although I planned to operate in Puno, Cusco, and Lima, time and altitude sickness prevented me from doing so except in Lima. We were staying at the Hilton Lima Miraflores (which is a fantastic hotel, by the way) which had a rooftop pool that was closed for renovation. This seemed promising at first though since they left the doors unlocked and it was totally empty up there. I attempted a decent AO-92 pass out over the ocean, but it was a total bust. The noise floor was so high that I couldn’t hear a thing despite having perfect line of sight for much of the pass. Oh well, I tried.
In the end, it was frustrating to not get a single grid in the log from this once-in-a-lifetime trip. However, it was still a lot of fun and very memorable overall. I got to go out on Lake Titicaca, see Machu Picchu, and explore Lima with a few college friends. Oh, and I also nearly got stuck in Lima due to American Airlines canceling my flight and almost leaving me stranded for three more days. Exciting to say the least!