The Amateur Amateur: Short-Lived Success with Shortwave

By Gary Hoffman, KB0H
Contributing Editor
October 15, 2002

The Amateur Amateur's HF adventures continue. Eventually the time came to make a contact. "Left alone, I would probably still be just listening," he says.

Gary puzzling out the meaning of '64'

He kept repeating "64, 64, 64." What could it possibly mean?

You've read all about my efforts to get a HF (high frequency) station up and running. I described how my wife Nancy and I struggled to get the antenna up. I admitted my confusion over the HF transceiver's features. And in my last column I wrote about the peculiarities and novelties of the HF bands. Now, at last, I will tell you about finally getting on and using the HF bands.

I did a lot of listening on the HF bands before I did any talking. I listened to various individuals chatting. I listened to assorted contests (there seemed to be a lot of them). I listened to special event stations (there seemed to be a lot of those, too). I listened to nets (there were an unbelievable number of those). I even listened to a beacon that simply repeated the letter "V" over and over. And I occasionally listened to Morse code traffic.

Let me take a moment to explain that I am not proficient enough at Morse code to simply translate it in my head. Like most beginners, I have to write it down as I hear it, then read what I have written. Please keep this in mind, and forgive me, because I heard a bona fide distress call and didn't realize it.

I was reading the instruction manual for my radio and wasn't paying any attention to the Morse code message coming from the radio's speaker. Finally, the distinctive pattern of "SOS" made its way into my conscious mind. I dropped the manual, grabbed a pencil, and wrote down ". . . SOS SOS SOS . . . AX . . . UXILO . . ." before the signal faded into the background noise, never to return. I pray that a more experienced operator was listening to the same frequency and copied the message.

Gary on both the radio and the telephone

We used HF on our transceivers and UHF on our portable phones. Did that constitute some sort of weird crossband operation?

Eventually the time came for me to try to make a contact. It wasn't my idea. Left alone, I would probably still just be listening. What happened was that my brother, Chris, K1KC, prodded me into getting on the air. He lives in Georgia, and I live in Missouri, so my first attempt at a HF contact was going to be long-distance. Chris phoned me and set up a schedule of frequencies and times. At 9 PM local time I called Chris on the first frequency. I heard a very, very faint reply. He tried a few more times, but because of the background noise, I could not quite make out what he was saying. If I turned up the volume, the background noise also increased.

Chris telephoned me, and we agreed to switch to another, less-noisy, frequency. Again all I could make out was a very, very faint voice, with only our call signs being discernable. We kept this up for 45 minutes. We did, at some point, manage to get a message and a reply across, so it did constitute my first "official" HF contact. It consisted of, "Can you hear me?!" and the reply, "Not very well!"

We made another attempt a few weeks later. Chris again set up a schedule of specific frequencies and times, only this time he decided to try two bands. We tried 20 meters for 15 minutes without success, but upon switching to 40 meters, I could hear Chris calling me. I replied, but he didn't hear me. At the designated time, I switched to another frequency. This time I heard Chris clearer, but much stronger stations on nearby frequencies were overwhelming his signal. I kept calling and saying "What? What?" and he kept replying ". . . 64 . . . 64 . . ." I couldn't make out anything else he was saying, just " . . .64 . . ."

This went on for a long time. What in the world could "64" mean? While I was pondering the possible cosmic significance of this number, a stray brain cell finally kicked in. I grabbed my microphone and transmitted: "Do you want me to switch to 7.264 MHz?" A faint, but clearly relieved ". . . affirmative! . . . affirmative!" came back.

I switched frequencies and, amazingly, we made contact and could hear each other. Chris told me that he had heard me fine all across the band, although I'd had difficulty hearing him. Just as our conversation started in earnest, the clock struck 10 PM, and a Russian broadcast station dumped millions of watts onto the 40-meter band and blew us both off the air.

Gary on the roof with the HF antenna

Our antennas were vertically polarized. They may have heard me fine down in the Cayman Islands, but my signals shot right over Chris's QTH.

Chris and I made contact three more times over the coming weeks, the final time being the longest and clearest. We actually worked on 17 and 20 meters and only stopped when propagation deteriorated. Most of our conversations, the truth be known, were on UHF bands rather than HF bands. While trying to break through static, foreign broadcast stations and a wobbly ionosphere, we communicated by cell and cordless phones. "Try 40 meters now!" "Okay." Even then the laughing sky gods would occasionally break up our phone connections. No doubt that constitutes high humor up in the ionosphere.

Later I had lengthy discussions with Chris about our successes and failures. We had both transmitted using 100 W. Actually, since we were using SSB, 100 W of power only went into our antenna systems when we spoke loudly. I'm sure that the inefficiency of my antenna system meant that a fraction of that power was actually radiated into the ether. I told Chris that, given such low power, it was amazing that we'd heard each other at all.

Chris's response flabbergasted me. He said that power wasn't the issue. In fact, he said, most of my signal had gone completely over his head. Likewise, most of his signals had zoomed above mine! This was because our antennas were vertically polarized. That meant that most our radiated energy headed out at a low angle, left Earth and kept on going. Eventually the signals hit the ionosphere and bounced back to Earth far beyond each other's stations! He said that Cayman Islands stations had probably heard me just fine, and his part of the conversation had probably been clear as a bell in Canada.

So, what have we done since then? Mostly we have talked about designs for horizontally polarized antennas. Chris has some property on which he can experiment, but I have a suburban home and am severely limited in what I can erect. Frustrated, I told Chris I should just knock my vertical antenna over on its side.

"Well, you know," he said, "that could work."

Editor's note: ARRL member Gary Hoffman, KB0H, lives in Florissant, Missouri. He's been a ham since 1995. Hoffman says his column's name -- "The Amateur Amateur" -- suggests the explorations of a rank amateur, not those of an experienced or knowledgeable ham. His wife, Nancy, is N0NJ. Hoffman has a ham-related Web page. Readers are invited to contact the author via e-mail, [email protected].

© 2002 American Radio Relay League

E-mail Gary Ross Hoffman

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