The Amateur Amateur: Plan G from Outer Space
By Gary Ross Hoffman, KB0H
"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
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,
Arrrgh! No joy!
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.