The Amateur Amateur: The HF Chronicles--EC-001 and Contacting NTS

By Gary Hoffman, KB0H
Contributing Editor
December 10, 2002

Gary on roof

"We unbolted the same bolts we'd struggled with before. We lowered the unwieldy mast that we'd lowered and raised on so many occasions."

My wife, Nancy, N0NJ, and I once again found ourselves on the roof of our house. We unbolted the same bolts we'd struggled with before. We lowered the unwieldy mast that we'd lowered and raised on so many occasions. We carefully handled the awkward but delicate antennas that had jabbed, stabbed, and cut us so many times in the past. Yes, it was time to try something new. Here's why.

Nancy and I had enrolled in one of the ARRL's Emergency Communications course--taken on-line under the League's Certification and Continuing Education (C-CE) program. Going in, we did not realize that our homework assignments (yes, there's homework!) would be quite so demanding. That wasn't necessarily a bad thing. It showed that the course was serious and that we were really expected to learn something. In fact, the only assignment that almost stumped us was contacting a National Traffic System (NTS) net.

NTS is an ARRL organization run. I don't know the history of the NTS. I suspect that it goes way back to when most ham communications were fairly short range, and the "Relay" in "American Radio Relay League" actually meant something. The NTS still relays telegram-like messages all around the country.

NTS icon

One of the key things we learned in the emergency communications course was "service." During emergencies, we would not be flying helicopters, directing traffic, giving instructions to firefighters, or talking to the press. We would most likely be sitting in a cramped corner shooing away spiders and passing messages from one agency to another. Working with the NTS, it seemed, was excellent preparation for the task of handling such messages.

Initially, the homework assignment didn't seem too difficult. We had to write a message, properly format it for transmission, then check into an NTS net and ask to have the message relayed. Right away I discovered that there was no NTS net in the St Louis area. There is a Missouri NTS net on the 80-meter band, but, unfortunately, none of its operators could hear me. Here's kind of how it went.

NTS Net Control: Does anyone else wish to check in?

Me: "KB0H in St. Louis."

NTS Net Control: Nothing heard, we'll move on to announcements.

Second NTS Operator: "Wait, Bill, there was someone calling. All I caught was 'KB' something."

NTS Net Control: "Station calling, go ahead."

Me: "KB0H in St. Louis. I have traffic."

NTS Net Control: "Can anyone hear him?"

Second NTS Operator: "I can tell that he's there, that's all."

I was not able to reach anyone in Missouri. My high-frequency (HF) setup was not just less-than-optimal; it was absolutely abysmal. I checked everything in my shack to see if anything was poorly connected or had an incorrect setting. I found nothing obvious. I sat and pondered my operating procedures. One thing did come to mind. I should have talked louder.

That's not as stupid as it might sound. During an FM transmission the power level of the transmission is essentially constant--since you're not modulating the carrier. During single-sideband (SSB) operation--which is just a form of amplitude modulation--your output is directly related to how loudly you speak (or, in corollary fashion--how high you have the audio gain control set on your transceiver).

I had been speaking with my "FM voice" when I had tried to contact the Missouri NTS net!

I called the net again the next night and used my best racetrack-announcer voice. This time the net control station could hear me, but not well enough to copy my message. Back to the La-Z-Boy for another bag of pretzels and more pondering.

I phoned my Elmer (my brother, Chris) and explained my difficulties to him. He asked a lot of questions about my radio, antenna configuration, and operating procedures. He did not care for my bird-house-over-a-canister-style antennas. He tried to describe radiation patterns to me, but since he was not there in person to draw cartoons figures on a blackboard, he quickly lost me. I did, however, get the main idea: Six antennas at the top of one mast was a really bad idea.

A bunch of Bilals

Antenna clutter. It seemed like a good idea at the time.

So, there we were up on the roof. Our rooftop visits were becoming such a regular occurrence that I was thinking of building a permanent tool shed up there. Anyway, we removed three of the six antennas. Two of the remaining antennas were supposed to be able to tolerate each other's presence, and the third, I hoped, would be far enough above them that it wouldn't cause any problems. We also decided to add another five feet to the mast.

Half an hour later it became obvious that the universal mast section we were trying to install wasn't universal. We made the necessary adjustments, got down from the roof, apologized to the neighbors for all the cursing and banging, then went inside to bandage our injuries.

That night I tried again to contact the Missouri NTS net. Success! Most of the net operators heard me, although they gave me strange signal reports such as "15." One of them was able to copy me well enough to accept my message. Mission accomplished. The homework assignment was done!

Nancy and I completed and passed the emergency communications course. It was clear to me, however, that my HF station was close to useless and needed some serious modifications. I had some very long talks with my brother (still without benefit of cartoon figures on a blackboard). I decided that I would have to take his advice and put up something that "grabbed the sky" a lot better than my current oddball antennas. I started making a list. I needed more parts, better grounding, another conduit from the basement to the attic, more coaxial cable, and <sigh> more visits to the roof.

Now I just had to figure out how to break the news to Nancy.

(Author's note: Don't despair. I finally did get my HF act together and will describe how in a future column.)

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 email.

© 2002 American Radio Relay League

E-mail Gary Ross Hoffman

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