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.
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.
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!