The Amateur Amateur: The HF Chronicles - - The Sweet Sound of Success

By Gary Hoffman, KB0H
Contributing Editor
March 2, 2003

"A true ham never quits. He just tries something else!"

If you are a regular reader of this column you know that I had rather poor luck working the HF bands. I described having only minimal luck contacting my brother in Georgia and even worse luck making local contacts. But, a true ham never quits. He just tries something else!

I had a pretty good idea where my problems lay. They were in my antenna system. (An antenna system is defined as not just the antenna but everything between it and the transceiver.) Oh, I'd read books and knew exactly what sort of antenna system I needed. But there was a vast difference between what the books told me to do and what was actually feasible. Half-wave dipoles? Not enough space. Mounting the antenna so many wavelengths above ground? Impossible. Clearly, whatever antenna system I used was going to be less than ideal.

I started with an oddball multi-band vertical and later switched to a collection of even more oddball Isotron antennas. Both had their strengths and weaknesses, and I've already covered these in other columns. I'll just summarize by saying that practically no one could hear my transmissions, and those few operators who did hear me gave me poor signal reports. I just wasn't "getting out."

Gary mounting SG-230

All it took was a wire running from one end of the roof...

I needed to try yet another antenna system. But gosh, the choices! The variety! The advertising claims! What did it all mean? How could I cut through the hyperbole and get the facts? Well, I admit being an amateur amateur. I just didn't know how antennas worked. I talked to my brother Chris a lot, since he understands many aspects of radio that completely elude me. Hours of conversation with Chris left me feeling that I almost knew what he was talking about and almost grasped the concepts he was trying to explain. But not quite!

Chris and I were on close, but not identical wavelengths (no pun intended there, of course). The only thing he got across to me clearly was, "You need a bigger antenna." I'd say, "Impossible" and he'd counter, "Compromise." It would go back and forth, with Chris talking about inverted Vs in the trees and chicken wire in the yard and my responses including the phrases "power lines" and "irate wife."

We eventually agreed that it might be possible for me to string a wire from a pole at one end of my roof to a pole at the other end of my roof. I did have a TV antenna mast at the south end of the house and a police scanner antenna mast at the north end. (I had, at one time, run a small gauge wire between the poles and used it as a shortwave receiving antenna. It worked quite nicely.) Chris said that such a wire and a device called an antenna tuner, might do the trick. In fact, he believed that he had an unused antenna tuner somewhere in his shack. If he could find it, he would send it to me.

Time passed, and we didn't discuss antennas again, except in general terms. Chris was rebuilding his own shack and needed to concentrate on his own antenna problems. Then, out of the blue, I received an unexpected package. It was a brand new SG-230 antenna tuner. Chris had bought it and had it shipped to me. I was overwhelmed.

Gary at other end of the wire the other end of the roof.

Yes, Chris is a generous person (and no, if you write to him, he probably won't send you an antenna tuner), but it was more than just generosity. This was his way of forcing my hand. Now I had to put up a new HF antenna.

Well, I had a lot of excuses. I couldn't put up a new antenna until I had run additional feed line. I couldn't run additional feed line, because I needed to run a new conduit from the basement to the attic. I couldn't work in the attic because it was too cold, or too hot, or it was just too nice a day. But I eventually ran out of excuses and got all of the preparatory work done. After that, mounting the SG-230 antenna tuner and running a wire from one end of the house to the other was a breeze.

I didn't use the new antenna right away, though, because it wasn't complete. It needed something called a "counterpoise" (an RF "ground"--Ed), and frankly, I didn't really understand what a counterpoise was supposed to do. Chris and I talked some more about antenna theory, and again we were just slightly out of sync, but I eventually grasped the basic idea and got the counterpoise installed. (I may go into a bit more detail in a future column.)

I went through the check-out procedure and made sure that the antenna tuner was functioning. When I started listening to the HF bands it seemed like I could hear more activity, but I wasn't absolutely sure. I kept on listening and eventually convinced myself that reception was better.

But what about transmitting? This was my third HF antenna. I'd had very poor luck getting out with the first two. Was the new antenna really going to improve things? Quite honestly I was scared to try.

QSL card from Spain

The result was an international contact!

As fate would have it, though, I heard someone calling CQ on 17 meters. Just on impulse I grabbed my microphone and answered. The caller replied! I'd finally gotten a signal into the atmosphere! The caller gave me his call sign (which I missed the first time) and said, "My name is Joan, J-O-A-N, I'm in Barcelona, Spain. Your signal is 57."

Have you seen the cartoons where the Road Runner puts on a sudden burst of speed, leaving just a bird-shaped puff of smoke, then Wile E. Coyote's mouth falls completely open and his lower jaw hits the ground with a 'clank!'? That was me.

Somehow I got my jaw re-hinged and managed to tell Joan where I was and that his signals occasionally faded to 24, but were mostly 59. He thanked me and went on to look for another coyote. I made a quick entry in my logbook (mainly "Eureka!"), then ran upstairs to tell my wife.

"Transmitted... 17 meters... heard me... Spain!" I gasped, waving my arms madly.

"I guess that means your new antenna works," she said.

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].

© 2003 American Radio Relay League

E-mail Gary Ross Hoffman

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