Thursday, July 24, 2014

Working Amateur Satellites: My Adventure, Part 3

Day 3:

Success!  There was a nice high SO-50 pass today at 13:59 local time.  8 minutes over the horizon with an elevation of 78 degrees at mid-pass.  Picked up the bird in the middle of the pass and heard Pete, W2JV on the air.  Threw my call and he came back to me for my first Satellite QSO.  Before the pass was over I was able to make another contact with WB2SIH who was operating up at Lake George, NY in grid FN33.

OK, now I'm bored... :-)

73, Kevin AB2ZI

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Working Amateur Satellites: My Adventure, Part 2

Day 2 continued...

Decided to work on that VX-7R programming cable.  Got my soldering iron and magnifying headset out and laid out the cable.  Here's what it looked like:
I cleaned off the old solder from the center conductor that the red wire had broken off of from the twisting and put just a touch of flux on the exposed red wire and carefully soldered it back on:

Next I tried to figure out where they had soldered on the ground lead, but there was no obvious spot which means it was poorly soldered in the first place.  I picked a clean spot, added a drop of flux, then heated up the body and attached the ground to it:

Before doing anything else I let it cool off then attached it to the VX-7 and first read the radio.  The software downloaded the programming without a hitch so it was time for the big test -- writing to the VX-7!  I opened up the file I had gotten by downloading the radio the day before, put the VX-7 into receiving clone mode and hit the "OK" button on the software.  It worked like a champ!  The VX-7 updated perfectly.  Now I just had to add the shrink wrap and I'd be all done.
I made it back outside for the next low pass of the afternoon, this one in front of my house (still a ton of trees).  I got a lot more audio from stations working the "bird" but wasn't able to make a QSO.  At least I've got things set up for success, now all I need to do is work on my technique.

More to come as I keep trying for my first satellite "Q."  There's a really high pass tomorrow afternoon around 2 p.m. that I'm hoping will do the trick.  Until then...

73, Kevin AB2ZI

Working Amateur Satellites: My Adventure, Part 1

Day 1:

So, after Pete, W2JV's great presentation at the ARRL Centennial last weekend, I decided to finally put together the Arrow 2m/440 Satellite Antenna that had been sitting next to my operating position for about a year now and take a crack at some satellite QSO'ing.

I checked the SO-50 schedule (this was Tuesday, July 22nd) and saw there were a couple of 80 degree plus passes in a couple of hours.  I figured putting the antenna together (very fast) and programming SO-50's uplink and downlink frequencies with several plus and minus shifts to account for doppler into my Yaesu VX-7R wouldn't take too long and I'd probably have time to relax before the passes.

Well, the antenna went together extremely quickly, but I encountered some unexpected problems with the HT.  Having bought the radio back in 2008--before all the USB to radio cables were available--I had been using a Belkin USB to serial adapter with the Yaesu pigtail that screws into the mic jack for programming.  I'd never had any trouble before and so wasn't expecting any now.   The software read the radio just fine, but when I went to write (clone) to the HT I got an error.  Not only did it give me an error, it also erased the radio and all my settings.

I proceeded to try all manner of fixes for the problem.  Removing and reinstalling the cable on the HT (about 30 times), trying different ports and a couple of other computers, all to no avail.  By now I'd missed the passes and had to get ready for the evening's class, so I sat down and patiently programmed 9 memories with cross-band frequencies (aka "odd split"), PL tones (TX only) and turned off the squelch (set to zero as so often stressed by Pete and others who operate satellites -- you have to hear the squelch 'quiet' when the HT starts receiving the satellite).

I saw there were a pair of 30 degree passes, short ones, on the sked for tomorrow (July 23rd) so I'd give them a try before messing with the radio programming any more.  In the mean time I'd check out my programming cable(s) for problems.  I also went on and ordered a straight USB to Yaesu programming cable with a supposedly guaranteed FTDI chipset that wouldn't give me any problems like most of the pirated Chinese cables.

Day 2:

My programming pigtail never fully locked into the HT.  Upon further examination I noticed the plug on the HT end was able to be rotated independently of the cable.  That's not good!  I had to cut off the plastic covering the plug and found one solder connection (a ground I believe) broken off and one of the other wires also fell off during the exploratory surgery.  OK, have to get out the soldering iron and fix that later.

Today's first pass was a low one, 30 degrees, and also brief.  It was an 8 minute window staring at 174 degrees, rising to 30 degrees at azimuth 113, then falling off at about 54 degrees.

I had my digital recorder hanging from the HT on its strap and the radio on with the volume turned up.  A couple of minutes into the pass I figured the doppler wasn't going to be as much of an issue with such an oblique pass and went through the frequencies until I had some audio coming through.  It was very weak (I'm covered in trees here and trying to work the satellite through them) and I could barely make out any of what was being said, but it was exciting and I knew I was at least on the right track.  My next opportunity today, for another low pass is at 3:13 PM.  This one will be 9 minutes and get up to 32 degrees (whoo hoo).  In the meantime I'm going to see if I can repair this cable and get the programmer working... I'm living dangerously because if I try to program the radio and wipe it again I'm probably not going to want to reprogram it by hand until I get over the disappointment. be continued.

Kevin AB2ZI

Sunday, July 20, 2014

ARRL Centennial Convention

I was lucky enough to be able to attend the ARRL 100 Centennial Convention on Friday and Saturday July 18th and 19th (I couldn't get accommodations for Thursday so I missed out on the first day).

What a great time I had!  I drove up with Bob, K2TV early Thursday morning (4:30 a.m. early) and arrived in Hartford, CT. at 7 a.m. in time to check in to the Marriott and head over to Dunkin' Donuts for coffee and a bagel.  As soon as the convention center opened we got our passes and started schmoozing with all the great friends and soon-to-be friends inside.

I have the say that the ARRL did a fantastic job organizing this event.  There were tons of vendors and speakers giving forums all throughout the day.  I'm only sorry I had to miss the RFI training track on Thursday, it was something I really wanted to attend.

Friday Bob and I attended the NCVEC forum first.  There are new rules for expired licensee credits that go into effect on Monday, July 21st and with our next VE session on the 26th we needed to know how to handle the paperwork.  We learned a lot about what goes in to the making of the exam pools.

Next on our agenda was a forum on collecting Morse keys.  Wow!  Some really amazing history at play and some really high prices fetched for some of these keys.  We're talking over $15,000 for some rare ones.

After the key collecting forum we took some time off to look at the vendor's offerings and at some of the exhibits on display, get lunch, and hang out with some of the other Great South Bay members who'd come up.

3 p.m. was Pete, W2JV (formerly WB2OQQ) with his super professional AMSAT presentation on working amateur satellites with your HT.  I've seen Pete do this talk probably 8 or 9 times now and each time it gets better.  I don't know how it's possible because every one of them has been top notch!

After Pete's talk we hung out for a bit then headed up to our room to get changed for the President's Banquet.

After the banquet some people wanted to go out for a while and others wanted to see how much trouble they could get in flying their quad-copters around the square.  Bob and I opted for an early night and headed back to the room to unwind and get some rest.  We also figured someone had to be available to bail out Pres, W2PW when Homeland Security had him taken into custody for flying a "drone" in U.S. airspace!

Saturday morning we were up early with a quick shower and I met up with John, W2HCB to pick up coffee and bagels.  We took the 6 minute walk (the hotel's Starbuck's wasn't yet open at 6 a.m.) over to Dunkin' Donuts only to find out that they were closed on Saturday and Sunday.  What?!  How can Dunkin' Donuts be closed on a weekend???  Oh well, back to Starbucks which was just finally opening and I was able to get Bob and myself our breakfast.

Once the convention hall was again open we were already outside the forum room for the 9 a.m. talk by our friend and fellow club member NN6JA, John Amodeo (producer of ABC's Last Man Standing) for his talk on Presenting Amateur Radio to the Media which was just fantastic!  Great job John.

We took an hour off to walk around the vendor tables again then headed over to Dean Straw, N6BV's talk on Blowing up Baluns and other antenna stuff.  I'm a big fan of Dean's as he used to edit the ARRL Antenna Book and is also co-author of "Simple and Fun Antennas for Hams" which is just a great book for everyone.

The last forum I attended with Walter, KA2CAQ was called "Hamshack in a Backpack – Lightweight
DXpeditioning" with Scott Andersen, NE1RD (yes, nerd!).  Walter and I have been talking about SOTA (summits on the air) operating and wanted to pick up some tips.

Bob and I finally said our goodbyes and got on the road home around 3:30 p.m. and only hit minor delays on the way home (yes, even the LIE wasn't too bad!) and we got back to Bob's house at 5:45 and I was home just after 6 p.m.

We all agreed that we wish the league would try to hold a convention like this more often at this location.  If not every year (it's really a lot of work!) maybe every 2 or 5 maybe?

If you didn't go, you really missed a great time.

73, Kevin AB2ZI

Monday, July 14, 2014

Why I say ham radio is stupid

In all fairness probably should have been my first post, but I like to stir up shit so I'm doing it now.

My statement that ham radio is stupid is really my way of telling people not to take themselves too seriously.  There's way too much of that in ham radio, especially when it comes to the ARES/RACES types.  Oh you've seen these guys (and some gals) at hamfests and marathons, they're the ones with all the patches and pseudo military gear adorning their bodies.

Crossed bandoliers loaded with extra batteries for their HT's, special portable antenna systems on tripods, and speaking of HT's, they probably have 6 or 7 of them turned up to maximum volume on several frequencies at one time all clipped to their pants, held in each hand and possibly on the epaulettes of their shirt.

These are the people who always wanted to be a cop (or a fireman, or member of Seal Team 6) but either never pursued those careers or weren't mentally stable enough to get accepted.

They love rules and regulations and can usually quote from FCC Part 97 and the Patriot Act when necessary to try and make a point.  Basically they really, really miss being in charge of the film strip/movie projector duty they had in Jr. High School (and don't get me started on the ones who were also in School Safety Patrol).

Well guess what.  We play with radios.  I like to ask them "what's the difference between CB and ham radio?" and tell them 1495 watts!  This really makes them mad.  They are MUCH more important than CB'ers, they have a license!

That said I do have to say that hams play a very important role in emergency and public service communications.  When power goes out and there's no cell service local ARES and RACES groups provide much needed communications infrastructure support to many agencies.  Many marathons and other events aren't able to implement the type of nets we can provide with such a large pool of trained communicators who all have their own equipment and provide their services for FREE!

So, ham radio really isn't stupid, just some of the people.  :-)

73, Kevin AB2ZI

Saturday, July 12, 2014

Your first radio

This is a question I hear a lot from newly licensed hams: "What do you recommend as a first radio?"

This is usually asked by newly licensed Technicians either right after passing their license exam.  I usually will begin the answer with, "well, it depends."  It depends on what you are interested in doing with amateur radio and how far you plan on going in the hobby.

For most new hams I recommend a cheap Chinese HT which they can purchase from a number of retailers for around $35.  While the menu system is a bit confusing and programming can be a nightmare because of pirated USB to Serial chips in the computer cables usually available for a few dollars with them on the same sites.  They are a very inexpensive entry into FM simplex and repeater operation, especially given that only a few years ago you would have had to spend well over $150 to $500 depending on how many bands you wanted and extra features.

Repeaters are a great way for new hams to get their feet wet and avoid getting into trouble operating out of band.  So many people have these cheap radios and the programming software that having them programmed for you is a simple matter.  Once they are programmed with a bunch of local repeaters and a some useful simplex frequencies, you can start talking to other hams and gain some operating experience.

Another recommendation usually involves a mobile or base rig.  For several reasons I usually try to steer new hams away from operating mobile on an HT.  First, with all the new laws regarding cell phone use the interpretation for using a radio in a vehicle can be sketchy at best.  The quote I hear most often is concerning something called permanently mounted devices.  If you have a permanently mounted radio in your vehicle you can most likely get out of a ticket by explaining to the officer you are a federally licensed amateur operating a two-way radio exempted under the hands-free law (carrying your license and a copy of the law is good too).

Another reason not to use an HT inside the vehicle (besides the poor quality of your signal inside a metal box) is the duty cycle of the HT.  HT's are not meant for long extended conversations like the ones we often have while operating during a commute.  Your HT will get HOT!

When looking for a mobile rig there are a lot of different options to consider:

  1. What band(s) will you want to operate on?  E.g. 2 meters, 220 MHz, 440 MHz, etc.
  2. What brand/features do you want/need?
  3. Do you mostly drive at night?
  4. Can you operate the rig from the microphone and by touch alone?
  5. Do you like the way the unit looks (really, I'm serious).
  6. Can you mount it safely in your vehicle?
  7. Are you planning on using it in your home also?
Many of these questions are a matter of experience or personal taste.  You might thing something as silly as what the rig looks like shouldn't be part of the decision process, but whether you realize it or not, style and looks play a big part in influencing our decisions.

For context, here's my experience with buying and using just FM mobile rigs:

For my first mobile rig purchase I decided on a Japanese quad-band FM unit (notice I don't mention brands anywhere in this post--I am not recommending or endorsing any particular brand).  My plan was to use this rig in my car and take it out every day and use it also as my base rig.  Smart, right?  2 rigs for the price of one plus the power supply for the house.  I did this once!  Taking the rig out of the car (disconnecting the power and coax) then installing it in the house was too much of a hassle and I've talked to many other hams who've had the same idea and also abandoned it.  So you need 2 rigs.  One for the mobile and one for the house (or 'home QTH' as hams are fond of saying).

Because it was a 4 band unit, there was only a single antenna recommended for it and that antenna also required a lip-mount to the hatch back (or trunk/hood).  Mag mounts were specifically discouraged for this model.  Once I got the unit the antenna required tuning.  This was a pretty simple process for 2 M and 440, the 6- and 10 meter bands were a nightmare!  Plus the 6 and 10 meter repeaters weren't that useful or active.  Oh, and did I mention the antenna was $100 without the mount?  (This antenna actually got stolen off my car while I was on a hike and I had to replace it.)

Now that the radio was installed and I was using it I discovered some other drawbacks.  I worked nights and so was mostly driving at night.  The radio had very tiny buttons on the faceplate and they were not illuminated.  Also, they were separated by plastic ridges and so were impossible to identify by feel.  This got old real fast and so I ended up buying a different model from the same manufacturer that had nice large buttons I could read that also lit up.  I took the quad-bander and put it in my house, though I didn't have a base antenna that would allow me to use the 6 and 10 meter bands and so was relegated to just using the 2 meter and 440 bands.

Eventually our club added a digital mode repeater (again, notice I'm not mentioning brands here you can probably guess which one from context) and there was only one manufacturer that made rigs for this mode so I sold my quad-bander and bought one of their single VFO models for the house.  I picked up a dual VFO model for my car after deciding that the single VFO rig was insufficient for my use (I wanted to be able to monitor the 'regular' FM repeaters in addition to the digital ones).  I eventually sold the single VFO FM/digital rig and now have that single VFO FM rig that lights up nice in the house.  As for the dual VFO rig in the car, I am not in love with it.  I find a lot of things wrong with it that I really liked on the other manufacturer's unit, but they're the only game in town so for now I'm stuck with it.

So, if you want to get a first rig for your car or home, talk to a LOT of other hams.  Ask them what they have and what they like or dislike about them.  Ask to see their installations, you'll get more ideas for what will work for you that way.  There are a lot of manufacturer's out there and rigs aren't cheap!  So do your research and try to learn from other people's experiences.

73, Kevin AB2ZI

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Do the Math

One of the things I've enjoyed most about teaching the licensing classes down at Great South Bay ARC is that it stimulated in me an interest to get deeper into mathematics.  This happened when I realized I had forgotten something as basic as solving an equation like Ohm's Law, R = E / I, for one of the other variables like "I" for instance.  Now don't get me wrong, I knew the 3 transcriptions of Ohm's Law, but I couldn't remember how to do it algebraically and this bothered me, so I took out my Schaum's College Algebra study guide and went to it.

Eventually I found some good free online resources like, and inside of Apple's iTunes you'll find a tab for iTunes U (iTunes University).

One result of all this study is that the more familiar I became with working with the math, the better I was able to understand the electronics.  Not only that, but the math lead me to gain deeper insights into what was going on in the circuits and to understand how changes made to various components would affect the circuit's operation.

The math has also helped me in developing better analogies for describing many of the electrical phenomena that we deal with in amateur radio.  Concepts like wavelength, frequency, resonance, reactance, current flow, differences of potential (i.e. voltage drops) and impedance vs. resistance, suddenly became easier to relate to people not familiar with that much science.

It also became easier to teach the math to people in a way that was more student friendly than the way it is often taught in the books.  I found I could now teach the concept of decibels to new and old hams alike who had been confused by the math (dB power = 10 log (Pmeas/Pref)).   I could explain the why of it, not just tell them to memorize the math questions for the test.  I wanted my students to understand what they were learning!

The problem most people have with math is that they fear it because of the view that math is hard.  Well, that's not a lie, math is hard!  But math is not something that only geniuses can understand.  You don't need any special aptitude for math, you just have to be willing to persist until you get through the wall that's blocking your understanding of a problem or concept.  Once you get past that wall you won't be able to remember what was so hard about it in the first place!  The bad news is that if you keep studying there's going to be another wall, and another, and yet another.  One of the hardest things is to keep persevering through the hard times to get that breakthrough.

The good news is that nowadays with the internet and all of its resources, theres really no excuse for not being able to learn as much as you want.  It may take you months or years of study to get where you want, and like me, you may need to repeat courses you've never taken before like pre-calculus, calculus, trigonometry and geometry, the payoff is well worth it.  You will think better and understand more things more clearly.  There's no downside!  So go do the math!