Monday, June 29, 2009

NE3R 1B MDC : ARRL Field Day 2009

ARRL Field Day 2009 was much different for me this year than it has been in the past. It is the first time I operated as a single operator five watt portable station and handled everything myself. I didn’t do a ton of preparation either, mainly just analyzing the bonus points that I thought I would be able to earn during my operation and making a quick list of the things I needed to bring with me.

Before setting out on my own Field Day operation, I answered a call to help set up one of the largest Field Day operations in the country, W3AO in Howard County, Maryland run by the Columbia Amateur Radio Association, and the Potomac Valley Radio Club. I should have taken the time to count all of the towers, but there were at least nine, probably more. Their operation uses over one mile of coax, and not the cheap stuff either, the thick low loss coax, which is probably a little overkill, but I guess you can say that about a Field Day operation with a class of 20A, which means they’ll have up to 20 transmitters operating at the same time.

Saturday morning, I started packing for my Field Day operation. I did forget a few things, like the antenna analyzer, which I didn’t really have time to use anyway. It took me about 3 hours to setup, which consisted of getting the HF antenna strung between two tall trees, putting the VHF antenna on a mast, erecting the large operating tent, and setting up the batteries, radios, and computer. I would have had things setup much faster if I hadn’t messed up my first two attempts of getting the line in the tree. I used a bow and arrow to fire a fishing line over a tree, then pull the antenna support line over. The first time, I had a perfect shot over the tree, but my knot slipped and the second time, I pulled the antenna support line too far and I couldn’t reach it. Then I couldn’t get a good shot over the tree for a while, but eventually, I got one that worked out OK. Getting the line over the second tree was a breeze, first shot and all was well.

I got a little bit of a late start operating, and I found that operating 5 watts was going to be a little harder than I’m used to as many stations I tried to contact didn’t seem to hear me. I was using CW (Morse code) most of the time, which is a good low power mode, but my code skills are not what they should be as I have to search the band for a signal, listen to them for a while, getting bits and pieces of what they are sending until I am sure I have it all, then I call them. This has worked out well in past field days running 100 watts, because just about everyone would come back after one or two calls, but with 5 watts, I’d go to four, five, six, or more calls before giving up and searching for a new station. I made a few contacts using the digital mode PSK31, which was interesting. I suspect that many stations operating PSK31 were not experienced contesters (not that I am either) but they seemed to be a little slow, especially compared to the CW operators. I also made a few voice contacts near the end. CW and digital contacts were worth two points each, while voice contacts are only worth one. I guess the big question is would I have made at least two voice contacts for every CW and digital contact I made. Since I was only operating 5 watts, I’m thinking no. My antenna was a multi-band parallel dipole which was oriented to have most of the signal going north and south, so I worked a lot of stations in Florida, the South, New England, and Canada, but fewer from the west. If I had more than one antenna or could have changed the direction of the one I had, I probably would have done a little better. My 193 contacts were worth 360 points multiplied by 5 based on my operating class for 1800!

I did OK with bonus points, but I could have done better. I got one hundred points each for: operating 1 transmitter on emergency power, sending NTS message to the section emergency coordinator, handling ten NTS messages, alternate power contacts, and copying the special W1AW Field Day bulletin, plus fifty because I’ll submit the score via the web form. I’m sure I could have made a satellite contact for 100 points if I would have remembered, but I missed two good opportunities, and the media publicity 100 point bonus is easy, you only have to write a press release and send it out, it doesn’t actually have to get published! My QSO points added to my bonus points put my overall score to 2350.

I was tired, but when it all ended at two o’clock on Sunday, I had to take everything down and pack, which took about two hours. Taking everything down by myself, I had time to reflect on my operation, and how I enjoyed it, but definitely felt that something was missing from previous years, the people. Amy and the children had been with me for at least part of the last few Field Days, as well as an entire club of other ham radio operators. I also thought about some of the other aspects of Field Day, but mostly about the ability to set up a radio station anywhere and contact stations across the country. Also on my mind was weather the NTS traffic was a realistic part of the emergency communications aspect, especially with the method I used to send it called a book. Basically, I sent the same message to ten people, so I only had to give the common parts of the message once, then give a different message number and addressee. After some thought, I figured that that actually might be pretty common. For example, if you have ten shelters in the field and the command center wants to give them all the same message or many folks in the shelter wanting to send a welfare message to family saying that they are OK and where they are.

That was Field Day, in a nutshell. Since I was operating by myself, I didn’t think to bring the camera. I should have, because my setup was pretty neat, looking a little like the Field Day logo this year, without the tower and large yagi antenna.

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