The Amateur Amateur

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The Amateur Amateur is a column about my experiences in ham radio. Since I have little technical expertise and not much knowledge of electronics, I make a lot of mistakes. I consider myself to be just an amateur amateur radio operator, but I keep pressing on and trying new things. This column details my triumphs - and foibles - and I try not to take myself too seriously. Whether you are an experienced ham or new to the hobby, I hope you find these chronicles of my efforts to be entertaining.

Gary Ross Hoffman, KB0H

May 2016

The Amateur Amateur: Plan G from Outer Space

By Gary Ross Hoffman, KB0H

Plan A

Plan A

Plan B

Plan B

Plan C

Plan C

Plan D

Plan D

Plan E

Plan E

Plan F

Plan F

Plan G

Plan G

"What's Plan B?" "Plan B was for Plan A to work." - Unknown author

I've said it before and I'll probably say it again: Propagation-wise, I picked the worst place in St. Louis County to live. Basically, I live on the north side of a hill in north county. Most of the rest of the ham community lives south of the hill. As you've probably figured out, communicating with them doesn't work too well.

My wife Nancy and I weren't Amateur Radio operators when we first moved here, so you might forgive our lack of foresight in picking this place to live. Although I wasn't a ham back then, I was a police scanner enthusiast, so I started putting iron (well, aluminum) on the roof right away. And for the most part, I could easily pick up any station I wanted to monitor.

I guess that gave me a false sense of security.

Once we got our Amateur Radio tickets, I re-purposed one of my rooftop scanner antennas and used it as a 2 meter / 70 centimeter transmit-and-receive antenna. Yeah, I did that sort of thing in those days, with predictable results. So, "Communications Plan A" got shot down pretty early in the game.

Plan B involved putting up an actual dual-band Amateur Radio antenna, and using decent coaxial cable. The results were better, but erratic. It took me a while to figure out that I was at the mercy of random reflections, bounces, and so forth. It worked some of the time, but I was into emergency communications and needed something much more reliable.

I finally succeeded after putting a monstrous 28 feet of heavy-duty aluminum on the roof (without guy-wires, of course). It wasn't just heavy-duty, it was heavy-weight. It nicely supported three antennas, and the top one, at least, could actually sneak a signal over the top of the hill. Yay! I did, however, worry that all that weight might cause the roof to collapse some day, heh heh.

Eventually, it did.

Okay, it didn't crash through the roof, but a severe windstorm did bring it down, and it took a chunk of the roof with it.

So Plan C ended in total disaster and grave doubts among my neighbors about my supposedly safe hobby.

Plan D had to wait until a new roof was installed. That consisted of putting up two new masts, both much lighter and much shorter than the previous one. The antennas I installed on them worked, but I was essentially back where I had been with Plan B. My propagation pattern looked like a pie chart with a rather hefty slice removed from the south end of it.

I limped along under Plan D for a while, but I was never happy about it. I would look longingly at houses built on higher terrain and wish that I could talk the owner into letting me install a repeater in his attic. I'd stare at the hilltop to my south and pretend that my eyes were lasers and that I could drill holes in it. And every time I saw a tall tower with radio antennas on it, I'd drool.

Then things got just plain intolerable when our local ARES group decided to get heavily into Winlink.

Winlink is a system for sending email via digital Amateur Radio. Any operator can register, download and install the software, and use it. Ah, but the catch is that you have to be able to reach another station, one that is set up to receive and relay your transmissions into the Internet. This station is called a RMS (Remote Mail Server).

Have you guessed where this is heading? If you said, "All of the RMS stations are to the south of you", give yourself 100 points! To be totally accurate, though, I should note that one is to the west of me. Way west. I used to be able to reach it about 9 times out of 10, but that was when I had the aluminum monster on the roof. My lower antennas simply didn't have the range.

In summary, the antennas I now had on my roof were okay, but just couldn't penetrate that accursed hill. That still left me with quite a few people that I could contact, but as an ARES officer I lamented being unable to reach many more. As for Winlink, I was totally out of the game. I spent a lot of time staring at the roof of my house, wishing that it were two stories high (or three!) instead of just one.

And then I had an epiphany.

"You can't get there from here. You have to go somewhere else to start." - Unknown author

At the south end of my roof there is a single mast with a lonely television antenna on it. The antenna is pointed roughly south-southwest, about 150 degrees from due north. You see, all of the HDTV stations in the area are (all together now!) due south of me. But at about 150 degrees lies the famous Gateway Arch. The stainless steel Gateway Arch. I can't see it, but I know it's there, because if I aim my TV antenna in that direction, I pick up the HTDV stations. That national monument is a splendid radio wave reflector.

Hooray! I had a Plan E! I asked my wife Nancy, N0NJ, if should would (pretty please) get me a 2 meter Yagi-Uda directional antenna for my birthday.

And bless her, she did.

On the first reasonably mild day after my birthday I climbed onto the roof and attached my new 2 meter directional antenna to the lower portion of one of my masts (it would've been a major operation to put it higher). I aimed it toward the Arch, connected feed line to it, scampered down the ladder, down the basement stairs (puff-puff), and into my shack. I started up the Winlink software, made sure that the transceiver was ready and that all of the program settings were right, and...

...completely failed to reach any of the RMS stations to my south.

After a few hours of brooding I stopped thinking about it. (My brain was getting hot.) And as soon as I stopped concentrating on the problem, I thought: Aha! I need to tune the Yagi antenna!

So I disconnected my transceiver and attached an SWR meter. I dialed in the frequency I was using and got a reading of 1:1. Well, there was no way to improve on that! Clearly the antenna was already perfectly tuned.

I guess a 50 watt Amateur Radio signal just doesn't have the same oomph that a megawatt HDTV signal has.

I gave up and went to scarf down some comfort food.

By the next day I had formulated Plan F. (For some reason some of my best ideas come to me while I'm sleeping.) Instead of trying to catch signals bouncing off of the Arch, I would try aiming my directional antenna west toward the RMS station that I'd been able to reach in the past.

Back on the roof, I oiled squeaky nuts and bolts and rotated the Yagi westward at about 275 degrees. (I don't have a protractor, but I'm pretty good at guesstimating from Google Maps.) Down the ladder, down the stairs, etcetera.

Arrrgh! No joy!

Sigh.

Clearly, what I really need is the one thing I can't have: Altitude.

I haven't come up with a Plan G yet. Every night when I go to bed I hope that something will come to me, some new inspiration from, who knows... maybe outer space.

Glitches in the System
A series of cartoons about what really happens when your radio breaks down

Earlier columns and other stories

Visit
Stan Horzepa's "Surfin'"
blog.

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