I feel compelled to put down a few notes on how to integrate a credible six-metre effort in a major, predominantly HF-oriented DXpedition. I am an avid VHF DXer and I am captivated by the thought of catching new DXCC entities on Six with every expedition that is announced. However, in reflecting over 35 years of DXing on six metres, outside of efforts by Joel N6AMG-SK, Jimmy W6JKV and Mike K6MYC, I don’t have many six metre cards from DXpeditions. So, why is it not common to work six metre activity from DXpedition efforts? Well, I think I know why and I would like to tell you how to get more cards in the box from them.
In December 1998 I was approached by Frank Smith, AHØW to join his team on an expedition to Rodrigues Island. I had worked with Frank in preparing for many of his other expeditions but due to work and family issues had never been able to participate. He described the island and his basic plan for the trip and it took me only a few milliseconds to decide to join this particular effort. He asked me to consider adding VHF activity to the expedition for some added spice, and asked me to make a suggestion. He reminded me that some of the critical concerns with the trip to 3B9 would be customs, complex shipping constraints and that our DXpedition team would be separated into three sites on opposing edges of this sparsely populated, rugged island.
I surveyed the options for VHF activities:
1) Two-metre EME
2) AO-10 satellite and
3) Six metres.
This was my thinking in coming up with my recommendation:
Being an EME advocate, I considered that option fairly thoroughly but quickly discovered that the moon is only simultaneously in view between 3B9 and the States for a few days every month - and not at all while the trip was planned to take place. I was not enthralled with the idea of lugging hundreds of pounds of gear to make eight to ten QSOs and not having the chance to work anyone Stateside. Thus, EME was ruled out due to the imbalance between the shipping cost and station complexity and the net number of QSOs in return.
I am also an avid satellite DXer, holding Satellite DXCC # 38. However, low-earth-orbit birds would connect me to nobody (3B9R is a long way from anywhere) and AO-10, being the only long-range option, was a bit unpredictable. The Heard Island expedition managed to make many QSOs on AO-10, but mostly with Europe and using a very large collection of antennas, small towers and multiple operators. The situation I was looking at assembling would have only three operators available to operate the satellite station. The satellite passes would never provide a window to stateside, which again was a disappointment. In looking at the cost to ship satellite antennas, towers, radios, amplifiers, preamps and multiple pieces of low-loss coax over 12,000 miles to make 300 QSOs, it again seemed out of whack with the potential return to the team. So, I ruled out satellite activity.
This left six metres as the only option. Now, I have operated six metres for 35 years and have studied the propagation patterns on that band for over three solar cycles. I had really no clue as to what could be done from 3B9 on that band. There is no history of six-metre propagation since 50 MHz activity is not permitted in many areas of the Indian Ocean around 3B9. I noted that there were a number of reports of openings to FR and VQ9 that happened with some regularity in March 1998 but no real indication that 3B9 would in the openings.
So, I put together a story for Frank Smith that basically inflated the situation only slightly. I claimed that I could put together a decent six-metre station that would double as a backup HF station and that all my antennas would fit into a single box about the size of our other HF antennas. This seemed to satisfy the team leader and nobody on the team objected to the added cost for shipping for the unique six-metre luggage.
So, I was going on my first six-metre expedition on a big-time team to an island that has never had six-metre activity before. It doesn’t get a whole bunch better than that. Secretly, I expected to only make about a dozen contacts given my years and years of experience eking out DX contacts from the American Southwest desert region of Arizona. Boy, was I wrong.
The 3B9R expedition used a rather extreme method if reducing co-site interference between stations. Previous efforts by Frank Smith in XU had soured him on co-locating all transmitters at the same site. So, he decided to break our team of nine expeditioners into three groups of three and locate each group of three at a separate ‘resort’ on a different side of the island. Thinking back, this was a harsh way to solve the RFI problem. Imagine planning and executing Field Day, only you assemble three different station set-ups, three teams (using team members that had never met each other before) and travelling 12,000 miles before setting up each Field Day site. The likelihood of forgetting a critical component is incredibly high.
I negotiated with the team to be at the site in Port Matherin that would permit me to have visibility to the horizon from NE (Japan) through north to the NW (Northern Africa). However, this same station was to be active on the WARC bands, 80 metres and other HF bands when available. So, in planning my six-metre activity, I had to also activate the station on HF whenever it was open. I assembled the necessary equipment to run my six-metre radio in beacon mode.
However, I would be operating a nearby station wearing headphones, so the only idea I had was to put the six metre radio on its internal speaker and flood the operating room with the CW beacon side tone sound interspersed with the usual hissing of a dead band. Not a terribly pleasant ordeal, but I figured that I could hear CW of a cadence other than the beacon if anyone were to ever call back. So, I had a plan and shipped all my gear with everyone else’s gear off to Africa. I’m not sure when I’m ever going to do that again.
Well, after a million details were worked out and seemingly insurmountable problems overcome at customs in 3B8 (and unbelievably irritating problems after missing our boat to 3B9, missed as a result of delays with 3B8 customs), some of us arrived at 3B9 with a six metre station and little else. In fact, the six-metre station was the first station on the air on the 3B9R expedition. The station was deployed in the operating room in minutes. The antenna went up a few minutes later. Everything worked beautifully. I was impressed. The rest of the team was unaware that anything significant had even been done. We went back to erecting the rest of the stations and antennas while the beacon went blazing away on the previously established frequency.
The first few days of the expedition were not quite what everyone had expected. Two days in, 75 percent of our gear was not on site and half of our team was still in 3B8 pushing crates of gear into every single flight of the only little airplane that flew out to 3B9. It took days before we were fully assembled on 3B9 with the full team. It is amazing what hurdles can be thrown in the path of even the most well planned expedition. One of the important things to do as part of a team of people attempting to conduct such an endeavour is to stay alert, stay calm and always do your part to help.
Those of us who were on 3B9 and already operating were having slightly more fun than those who were stationed at the airport on Mauritius dealing with a slowly diminishing pile of crates. The only thing keeping them from going home in total disgust was that the team on 3B9 was churning out the QSOs at a steady clip and were readying themselves to complete the assembly of the balance of the stations when the last of the team arrived.
So, I listened to the six metre beaconing radio in the background, while logging approximately 1,500 QSOs on the first day on the WARC bands. I turned off the six-metre beacon four hours after sunset and then performed my first of many all-nighters working 80 meters until an hour after dawn.
At that time, I relinquished the station to a slightly rested operator while I lay on the bed with the six-metre radio playing in the headphones while I tried to sleep. Imagine my surprise to hear my first reply to the beacon. I managed to bolt out of bed and render the beacon keyer silent in time to log a dozen QSOs on the 2nd day of operation from 3B9. The opening was to Italy, Malta, Cyprus, Sardinia and Greece. I was absolutely stunned that in ten minutes time, I had exceeded my wildest expectations for the six-metre band. Everyone on the team was very happy to hear about the event and activity continued through the day and for days to come.
What started to happen at the six metre setup at 3B9R was quite interesting. As I got a moment here and there to take a look around the low-VHF spectrum, I noticed that the TV offsets that I had programmed in to the memory locations in the IC-706 were surprisingly loud for even more surprisingly long periods of time. In fact, I started plotting the amplitude of the TV signals to see if I could later correlate them to openings to various areas of the world.
In the days that followed, I started to catch more and more openings on Six. The openings were always discovered by stations hearing the beacon and responding on the listening frequency. The other 3B9R operators, at first, would run to wake me up or drag me off the other station in another room to work the opening. They were becoming quite excited at the number and magnitudes of the openings we were experiencing. Later in the expedition, they would let me sleep and they would pick up the mike or keyer and log a few themselves.
When it was over, we had logged 760 QSOs on six metres in our ten day stay on 3B9. That quantity exceeded the number of contacts on 160 and on RTTY. This fact absolutely dumbfounded the team. I was in that group myself.
What worked on this expedition and should work on any other are the following things:
· The six-metre effort must fit within the framework of the rest of the expedition. It must fit the team budget. It must fit into the operating schedule. And, it must fit in the prime directives of the team.
· There were no dedicated six-metre operators… everyone worked the HF piles until the six-metre band was detected to be open and then the team adapted to cover the six-metre opening.
· The beacon was run whenever there was an operator available to work the station.
· Propagation beacons were used to find times of openings. Nobody had ever operated six metres anywhere near 3B9 and no history was available. The operators must use every tool in their belt to find the way to make contacts.
Here are some things never to do on an expedition involving six metres:
· Do not run the beacon if nobody is there to operate the six-metre radio. I got word after the fact that the 3B9R beacon was being heard in CT3 and EA8 but I was not available at that time. I imagine there are some voodoo dolls with 3B9R pins already in place for tantalising them with a once in a lifetime opportunity for a memorable QSO and then denying them the chance. I guess it’s just best not to know that the band is open to a place you cannot work.
· Do not ever think that the band might not be open. 3B9 is located in the geomagnetic equatorial belt. It lies on magic ground. I experienced propagation on Six and the HF bands like I had never experienced before. I wish now that I had located the six-metre station at another island site, Point Cotton. That site would have permitted line of site to the horizon on long paths to SA in addition to JA/EU/AF.
One of the truly exciting things to do in ham radio is to participate in a DXpedition. On one hand, you are at the focus of attention of thousands of people at times that can be an overwhelming sensation. However, it is also an opportunity to make lifelong friends based on common experiences shared on the journey. As our team broke up, I was afraid that I would lose contact with some of the most intriguing and compatible people I had ever met in my life.
Based upon the absolute, undeniable success of the operation on Rodrigues Island, it didn’t take long before I started to plan on my next adventure. My thinking was to plan to be somewhere rare around the peak of Cycle 23 and be on six metres in a big way. It was about then when my phone rang.
Garry Shapiro, NI6T called me. Garry was one of the operators at 3B9R. He was sounding me out to see if I was interested in another adventure in the fall of 2000. I looked in my appointment book and noticed that I had nothing booked and immediately agreed. I then asked him "where are we going?" He said "Kingman Reef".
I am part of a large team planning on invading Kingman Reef on approximately 19th October 2000. The team will consist of 16 operators and will provide around the clock coverage on 160 through 2 meters. We will occupy this desolate DXCC entity for approximately 11 days. Naturally, I have been asked to plan the six-metre activity on this trip. In fact, I have been asked to determine the station layouts for all of the bands. As the architect for this somewhat complicated activity, I am integrating the six-metre station into the expedition to a degree not quite done before. Here are some concepts currently in the plan:
Redundant six metre station parts. The two most recent prior expeditions to KH5K had six metres. The first with six-metre capability had a failure in their only antenna. The second had a failure in their only radio. We will have 8 radios with six-metre capability, and two antennas.
Around the clock six-metre beacon. A dedicated beacon radio (my trusty IC-706 from 3B9R) and omni-directional beacon antenna (M-squared HO loop) will be run around the clock on 50.105 MHz (QSX 50.115 MHz).
Six metre pilot. I will soon announce the six metre pilot station through which all six-metre prop information will be funnelled out to the expedition team. This pilot station will not be burdened with HF prop information… just six metres. It will be handled by an individual with significant six-metre propagation experience.
28.885 dedicated monitoring. As the architect of the station layout, the six-metre station will be located in the same tent as the 10-metre station. The ten-metre operator will monitor the 28.885 liaison frequency while working 10 metre pileups. Six metre propagation to KH5K from anywhere can be determined either by hearing in-band responses to the beacon on the calling frequency, spot reports heard on the 28.885 liaison frequency or from information passed through the pilot station and then passed on to the team on the reef.
Six metre opening action plan. When Six is determined to be open or potentially open, the operator at the HF station in the shared tent will cease HF activity and pursue the six metre opening. If significant numbers of openings are found on our stay, there is sufficient tent space available to build a dedicated six-metre station, if necessary.
I have no doubt that this effort will make a few contacts on six metres. The path to VK/ZL is ideal. There are a number of propagation modes to JA/HL/BV that make it likely to add a few log entries from that part of the world. I am betting that the first QSO will be with PY5CC and some of his neighbours, but time will tell. I truly hope to work a few of my fellow ‘whiskies’ and make up for the fact that I didn’t work any of them from 3B9. And Europe…well, there are possibilities and long path openings might be found when running the beacon station around the clock.
Cycle 23 may not be stacking up well to the past few cycles. However, I doubt whether I will have the energy to pull off a trick like this in the peak of the next cycle. KH5K has never been on the six metres before. It may never again. It will certainly be memorable to return from an adventure like this knowing that you have made a large number of six metre nuts deliriously happy. Here’s hoping.
73 and I hope to see you all in the logbook (or, *.bin file, rather).
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