NQ4S McLean, Virginia, USA
Fairfax County
ITU Zone: 8 - CQ Zone: 5 - Grid: FM18jw

NQ4S Amateur Radio Diary

Here is a log of my activities involving getting Amateur Radio services up and running. Originally, this was going to be only Linux related work and act as a companion the the information links page. However, as things progressed, I started working with much more than just Linux on Amateur Radio. This page tries to keep a running log of what has been going on.

15 Apr 2001:

This is only an approximate date. Started research on application of Linux to Amateur radio. It looked like an interesting area where the technology was still developing. This was also about the time I found out it was now possible to get an Amateur Radio license without learning Morse Code.

18 Apr 2001:

Ordered the ARRL book Now You're Talking from Amazon.com. This book contains all the information needed to pass the test for a Technican class license.

19 Apr 2001:

Ordered parts to build a new computer which will free up my old one to be dedicated to radio applications.

23 Apr 2001:

Started work on the Linux / Amateur Radio page. My collection of topic related links is getting big enough now that it seems a good time to share the fruits of this research.

24 Apr 2001:

Both the computer parts and the study book, Now You're Talking, showed up today. Lot's of packages and lots of mess around the house.

28 Apr 2001:

Switched over daily activities to the new computer (AMD Athlon 1.333Ghz w/ 512MB RAM & dual 40GB HDD). Wiped old computer computer (Intel P-II 450Mhz w/ 256MB RAM & 14GB and 10GB HDDs), named Chronos, and loaded both Linux (RedHat 7.1) and Windows 98 on it. The Chronos is now slated for use with the radio system. Windows 98 is there primarily for application testing and any radio programming software that doesn't run under Linux.

12 May 2001:

Took (and passed) Technician class exam. On a whim, I took a crack at the General class written exam even though I hadn't started studies for it yet. To my amusement, I managed to pass that one as well. This now starts a one year clock for passing the Morse Code test to get my General class license before the test credit expires. Out of gratitude for the free testing, and as a way of setting up possible future contacts, joined the Mount Vernon Amateur Radio Club (MVARC).

Went to HRO in Woodbridge, Virgnia to start shopping for equipment. Ended up buying a Cushcraft AR-270 antenna (5/8-wavelength ground plane dual band) and 100' of RG-8X coax. Also picked up a copy of the ARRL General Class License Manual to come up to speed on the material I'd just passed a test for. Decided to hold off on radio purchase until next weekend to give me a chance to do some more product comparison.

Cut the cable in half and then made first attempt and running the two sections from the attic to the basement of my townhouse. This first attempt was a dismal failure due to obstructions in the vent and pipe chaseway running from the attic to the basement. After two hours cramped in my attic breathing dust and suffering heat exaustion, I gave up for the day.

14 May 2001:

Mounted antenna in the attic of my townhouse. Constructed mount out of a 2' long section of 1x6 planking, two 2" diameter 2' long dowel pieces, and two 3" right angle brackets. One dowel was secured to the antenna base. The other dowel was screwed to the plank and reinforced with the two angle brackets. This assembly was then screwed to the ceiling joists in the attic. The base and antenna assembly were then secured together using a pair of hose clamps. By using two dowels instead of one, I have height adjustment to fix the roof clearance without doing any cutting. Pictures to follow eventually.

15 May 2001:

Success with the antenna cables! I tried a new approach that I should have thought of before. One of the things in the chaseway from the attic to the basement is a cold air return for my furnace / air conditioner. I tried dropping the cables down this duct before but couldn't make it down due to a jog about half way down.

This time I used a method usually employed for getting pull strings through conduits. I tied a flag (just a piece of duct tape folded over) on a string. After popping off the top of the duct, and blocking another cold air return, I turned the furnace on for fan only. This created enough suction to pull the string and flag right down the duct all the way to the basement. Some careful measurement ahead of time made sure the string did not go all the way to the furnace fan.

Once the string was in place I used it to pull through a larger rope and then used that rope to pull through the two antenna cables. Those cables are now secured and ready to go.

A safety note here. This is not something you could do in a commerical building unless you used plenum rated cable. PVC jacketed cable (the black stuff) gives off a toxic gas when it burns than thus must not be used in air circulation systems. Fortunately, this is not a requirement for a private residence.

16 May 2001:

Just found out through the ARRL system that my license was issued yesterday. I'm now known as "KG4NMC".

18 May 2001:

Just for the heck of it, I built a web page that will calculate the distance to the MVARC repeater. This is done using JavaScript and a rather elegant little formula for calulating the distance between two lattitude and longitude pairs.

19 May 2001:

Purchased a Kenwood TH-D7A(G) handheld radio (HT) with built in TNC at HRO. Took it home and started charging it up. Realized that I forgot to purchase the needed adapters to hook this radio up to the attic antenna, so I had to make a return trip. HRO did not have the needed PC interface cable in stock. One is now on order being that I want the better cable, but to start I went ahead and built one. After two trips to Radio Shack, and a soldering iron burn, I have what looks like a workable cable.

While at HRO, I also picked up some books to flush out my library and increase my knowledge on radio operations. These books were:

I also took a look at Stealth Amateur Radio but decided to hold off on it for now being that it mostly deals with HF antennas.

20 May 2001:

The radio finished charging so I powered it up this morning. Wow! It does more than I really expected. In addition to scanning the voice channels, it can be set to listen to packet traffic with the TNC at the same time. I downloaded the WinAPRS software, hooked up the data cable, set the radio to listen to the national APRS frequency (144.39 MHz), and sat there watching positions indications pop up while also listening to voice traffic on various local repeaters. This thing is doing the job of two radios at once.

Just to prove it could be done, I also managed to use the radio with my old upgraded Palm Pro running the PocketAPRS software. Since I don't have a data cable for the Palm, I hooked up it's docking cradle to the cable I built yesterday. It's ugly (black and white diplay), but it worked. The palm displayed position indications for stations that were transmitting. Using a newer, color Palm IIIc or better could make this a nice portable packet station.

21 May 2001:

Made some updates to the MVARC repeater distance page. It turned out there was a major math error (using degrees rather than radians). I'm honestly not sure why it worked as well as it did. Also added in a new capability to tell you what direction the repeater lies in. This works close to the repeater, but as you get far away (over 100 miles or so) the algorithm starts to break down and the direction starts to skew. The problem even shows up when moving due north or south of the repeater. If anyone can give me a better algorithm, I'd be very grateful.

22 May 2001:

I can't put it off any longer. I need to get started on learning Morse Code. The standard ARRL training material for code is Your Introduction to Morse Code. Unfortunately, Amazon, where I usually buy books and music, only had the audio cassette version. I wanted the CD version in order to use it from the computer. Ended up surrendering and ordering it from ARRL.

I've been less than happy with both the small whip antenna on my radio and the screw on SMA connector it uses. Connecting up the attic antenaa through the screw on connector worries me due to possible cross threading and general wear and tear. Also, many of the better quality whip antennas come with a BNC connector. Having my current adapter hooked up to a BNC whip antenna could put some real bad strain on the radio's connector.

Some research turned up a possible fix for this. I ran across a page describing a reinforced SMA to BNC adapter. This adapter has a rubber bushing around it which fits tight against the radio body. This will relieve the strain a whip antenna could put on the connector. I now have one on order and hope to have it within a week.

24 May 2001:

The web administrator for the MVARC web site liked the distance calculator, and has put it up with a link from the repeater page.

26 May 2001:

Made my weekly trip down to HRO. The shopping list for this week included a Samlex SEC-1223 switching power supply, a Kenwood PG-2W DC power cable, and a Kenwood SMC-34 speaker-microphone. The power supply and DC cable are so I can operate without running down the radio battery all the time. The speaker-microphone is to make the radio a little easier to operate with the collection of cables (antenna, data, and power) that are hooked up to it.

Odds are, I'll be making my fourth in a row weekly trip next weekend to get a better whip antenna for the radio. I'm holding off on that item for now being that the reinforced SMA to BNC adapter hasn't showed up yet.

27 May 2001:

Well, it's not ISS, but it is space. At about 11:22 this morning I picked up about a minute of good voice traffic off of the OSCAR-14 satellite when it was about 55° above the horizon. I picked it up again at 9:08 PM when it was 22° above the horizon. It was quite a rush to hear a few broken voices in the static and then to suddenly have it clear up to reveal several people reading off their call signs. I chose not to transmit at this point being that there was too much traffic there already. It's amazing to think you are hearing a box about 1' x 1' x 2' from over 200 miles away.

Unfortunately, the ISS passes are currently in the middle of the night, so I haven't been able to experiment there yet.

Later on in the morning I spent some time talking to someone via the Bluemont repeater in NW Virginia. That repeater is about 45 miles away from me, so reaching it with only 5W of power proved that I can talk to most places in this area without putting an amp on the handheld.

BIG NEWS!

Shortly after 11:00 PM here I picked up traffic off of the ISS!! I saw packets from five distinct stations in Annapolis, Maryland; Gainesville, Florida; Racine, Wisconsin, Swartz Creek, Michigan; and Kings Park, New York. The fact that the pass was to the SE of my location (near Alexandria, Virginia) explains how I could hear Florida. It shows just how far line-of-sight is from 200 miles up. The pass was only 21 degrees above the horizon, but it still came in clear. No luck sending packets up to the station, but with only 5W of power it will need to be a really high pass for me to have any chance without an directional antenna. Still, all in all, it's been a VERY good day.

Shortly after midnight there was another pass. This time I saw stations in Waukesha, Wisconsin; Dallas, Texas; Racine, Wisconsin; Pfafftown, North Carolina; Columbia, Maryland; Topsfield, Masachusets; and Taylor, Michigan. Quite a diverse bunch of locations.

28 May 2001:

After picking up ISS traffic on two passes last night, I sent e-mails out to the people who I saw traffic from. This totaled ten different stations. Two of those people wrote me back today thanking me for the notification. One said it was the only way he knew his traffic even went. Over the coming weeks I'll continue to try and get the ISS to bounce my own traffic. Some further research may have finally turned up the proper commands to send to make this work.

Here is what I think is needed:

mycall KG4NMC  Set my callsign
e on  Echo all keyboard typing
au on  Add line feed after any carriage return
mon on  Monitor traffic
mcom on  Monitor connect and disconnect frames
mall on  Monitor connected and disconnected packets
mcon on  Monitor while connected
hbaud 1200  Set radio baud rate to 1200bps
unproto cq via NOCALL  Sent text to anybody via NOCALL
conv  Enter converstation mode
<any text to send> Send some text
^Z  Exit conversation mode

"NOCALL" is used because the TNC on ISS lost it's configuration a while back and the astronauts haven't had time to reprogram it yet. Fortunately, the default mode still left it with digipeating turned on.

In further news, I've rebuilt the MVARC distance calculation page into a more generic multiple repeater distance page. Now, I need good lattitude and longitude pairs for more repeaters.

On less exciting news, I took delivery of the morse code training CDs ordered last week. First task was to make a copy onto tape for the car and to convert the discs over to MP3 format for use on the computer.

29 May 2001:

MUCH BIGGER, BIG NEWS!

It was coming up on 11:30 at night (last night, the 28th) and I hadn't gone to sleep yet due to some heavy duty reading I was involved in. Knowing that a high-inclination (77°) space station pass was coming up in a few minutes, I padded down to the basement to try the new procedure I had developed earlier in the day. Firing up HyperTerm and loading the commands listed above, I waited for the first signals on the downlink. With squelch off, about 11:40 PM I heard the first signs of traffic. This was my key to start the routine I had devised.

The message I wished to send was stored in the clipboard. I would turn the squelch on to allow the radio's TNC to transmit, paste the clipboard, hit enter, and then quickly turn the squelch back off. After four or five tries at this, I saw the following appear on my screen:

KG4NMC>CQ,NOCALL* <UI R>:Hello from KG4NMC@arrl.net in Alexandria, VA

That was it! The ISS had seen my packet and retransmitted it back to the ground. Not only did I get it, but at least two other individuals saw it (who I later exchanged e-mail with) and the APRS tracking site for ISS recorded the downlinked packet. This was what I had been waiting for.

One of the people who recorded my packet is involved with AMSAT. She (yes, she) saw my packets and I saw some of hers. From her understanding, this is enough to qualify me for an ISS QSL card as well as certificates from both AMSAT and SETI. It looks like I'll have some wall hangers sooner than expected. I'm still chasing that elusive voice contact with ISS, but this was quite an accomplishment from my point.

4 June 2001:

Ordered an Arrow Antenna Arrow II satellite antenna. This is a portable dual band Yagi than can be hand held or mounted on a tripod. This came recommended by the AMSAT person mentioned above for doing work on the ISS and sats using a handheld radio.

7 June 2001:

The Arrow II showed up. Put it together, put it in the back yard, and managed to pickup some packet stations I haven't heard before. Made an antempt to work ISS with it, but had worse luck than with the attic antenna. This make take some tinkering.

13 June 2001:

Found out what was wrong with the Arrow II for working ISS. I rotated the antenna 90 degrees to put the 2-meter band elements to a vertical orientation rather than horizontal. This pulled the signal in much better than before. Even managed to see one of my own packets return off of ISS tonight. This was despite having bad atmospheric conditions (hot day, lots of surface ozone) and the pass being right over the NE US where there is a lot of competition.

Later in the evening, I managed to receive 9600 bps packet data from UosatF on 70-centimeter band using the Arrow II. It goes to show just how much better the directional antenna is for this sort of work.

16 June 2001:

Broke down and purchased a 50W amplifier (Maha MH-A201) and SWR meter (Diamond SX-40C) to boost output. This was primarily for doing low passes of the space station and voice comm when I finally get the chance. I also picked up a copy of the ARRL's The Radio Amateur's Satellite Handbook (ARRL description). This book provides some good information about working with the satellites, but it was written in 1997 and doesn't contain good info on some of the newer birds.

After getting this equipment setup, I learned you have to be careful with that much power. It looks like I can transmit better than I can receive now when working off the omni-directional antenna. During the afternoon, there was a station pass coming up. It was raining outside, so I didn't want to put the Arrow antenna out. Working off the attic antenna I did a few transmissions with the amplifier on and listened for the reply. I saw one of my messages come back, which confirmed things were working. Later that day, I saw some traffic on an AMSAT mailing list where an individual posts the packet activity he receives at his site. Wouldn't you know it, but four of my packets showed up in his message. Guess that shows even an omni can reliably hit the station with enough power.

17 June 2001:

Heard Jim Voss talking on the space station radio this afternoon. He was talking to a friend of his and discussing getting together with him eventually. It was obvious he was starting to move out of range of this person (possibly Houston), so I was hoping to hear him call CQ when the converstation was done. The Arrow antenna was outside and I had great reception. The amplifier was primed and ready to compete for a CQ slot when the call was made. Sadly, when he was done, he immediately swtiched the system back over to packet mode. Guess he isn't as chatty as Susan Helms, who has quite a reputation for doing random CQ contacts during her off time. Still, it was interesting to finally hear voice from the station. It was a reasonable elevation pass (about 40 degrees) and voice signal was coming through about S4.

24 June 2001:

Participated in the annual Field Day events over the weekend. It ended up being two days with only three hours of sleep being that I helped with setup, operation, and tear down. Still, it was a good learning experience. I managed to get some hands on HF time and see how a contest situation operates. Most of my time was spent on keyboard doing the logging, but I could still see how the operation was done. The station I spent most of my time at (40/80 meter) logged about 948 contacts over the 24 hours of operation.

This was also a very active weekend for the space station. Had I had all my gear available, a contact would have been very possible. Susan Helms took part in Field Day from the space station. I heard her during passes on both Saturday and Sunday. Sadly, I had no luck myself trying to contact her. If I'd had the 50W amp available, things might have been different.

Also of note was a visitor we had at the MVARC operating site on Sunday. Someone much advanced over me in sat operation showed up. He had a stand setup with a direction and elevation rotator. On this stand was a 2-meter and 70-centimeter boom antenna. Also on it was 2.4Ghz downlink receiver (for the AO-40 beacon, when operating). He also had a separate 10-meter dipole for downlink from some of the RS sats. This was a test and tune trip for him, but it was really interesting to see the gear in action.

6 August 2001:

Ordered The ARRL Extra Class License Manual. My logic was that I've been reading so much about Amateur Radio theory, operations, and antennas that I might as well focus that reading towards a further upgrade in my license.

Practice on the morse code front continues. July was a very unmotivated month for me, as shown by the lack of diary entries. As August dawned I've been getting more dedicated at spending 20 minutes a day at least four days a week working through the practice. The stream of random sound is starting to resolve into letters.

13 August 2001:

Took delivery of the Extra Class manual.

25 August 2001:

Did some construction work today. Added some shelves above the desk with my radio gear to help get things organized. This will hopefully make room for adding a HF rig before too much longer.

I also found an intersting interference problem. When scanning some of the repeaters, the radio would commonly stall on one repeater with a lot of noise. I didn't think much of this until the interference suddenly went away when I clicked on the right mouse button. Left mouse button doesn't do a thing, but right mouse button makes the interference go away. Very strange.

8 September 2001:

Took and passed both the Element 1 (morse code) and Element 4 (extra) license exams at the monthly MVARC testing session. This will jump my license directly from Tech to Amateur Extra! My new call sign should show up within a week. Currently region 4 (the SE US) has so many Extra class operators that 1x2 and 2x1 call signs are exausted. I'll have to make due with a 2x2 call sign. Still, it beats a 2x3 and I might finally get away from having "N" and "M" together.

Afterward, I went down to Home Depot and purchased 30' of 6-gauge bare copper wire to run a ground line from my radio operating station over to the main ground post in the back yard. With all my antennas being indoors, it's probably not absolutely needed, but it still might help to cut down on receiver noise once I buy a HF rig.

11 September 2001:

A day that any American will remember for the rest of their life. I work at the Pentagon from time to time, so this day struck home even more for me. Friends were in the building. Fortunately, all of them were fine. It took hours to track a few of them down being that phone networks were jammed. I happened to be out of town at the time and didn't get to come home until the planes started flying again on Friday.

My local club, MVARC, was very active in the support efforts around the Pentagon. I wish I could have been there to lend a hand.

14 September 2001:

The license upgrade showed up in the FCC computer today. Something was fouled up, and I didn't get a new 2x2 callsign. My callsign was left as KG4NMC. Guess we'll have to do a vanity application.

15 September 2001:

Made a trip to HRO and purchased another 100' run of RG-8X coax. Also picked up a log book being that I'm not going to be ready to move straight into computer logging.

After HRO, I went to Home Depot and purchased a 100' spool of #12 AWG stranded wire and 100' of 4 conductor intercom cable. This will be for a loop antenna and remote tuner control line.

16 September 2001:

After using the excellent resouce at Vanity Callsign HQ do develop a list of 15 acceptable (and soon to be available) 1x2 and 2x1 callsigns, I did an application for a vanity callsign. We'll see which one (if any) comes back.

Cut the coax and intercom cables in half. Taped the resulting four lines together. Drug the whole mess through the cold air return duct the same way as before. Finally, put connectors on the coax cable ends that had been cut. I now have four antenna lines and two four conductor control lines running from the basement to the attic.

17 September 2001:

Placed an order through AES for some HF gear. Before too long, I should be the proud owner of a Kenwood TS-2000 radio and a SGC SG-239 automatic antenna tuner. The order also included a few needed accessories such as a 24 hour clock for UTC time and a FCC Rule Book.

A separate order was placed with HRO for the new ARRL Ham Radio FAQ book and the MFJ-1275 radio to computer interface.

22 September 2001:

Part two of the attic installation work. Crawling through the rafters, I put in eye loops under every single rafter as far out in the attic as possible. After that, I used large zip ties looped through each eye hook as an insulator. Once all that prep work was done, I pulled the stranded cable through all those insulators to form a loop all the way around the attic. The dimensions came out about 17-foot by 12-foot for a 58-foot total loop length. Hopefully, when combined with the SGC SG-239 autotuner, this will make a pretty good antenna.

24 September 2001:

The AES order arrived today. After crawling around in the attic for a while to install the auto tuner and unboxing the radio I was ready to get on the air. To my amazement, the rig had ears. The very first DX station I heard was Kuwait (operating under the 9K2USA special call) on 20-meter. For this first day, all I plan to do is listen and figure out how to adjust the radio for best sound quality.

25 September 2001:

First HF contact! My very first HF contact ended up being someone in England on 10-meter. Turns out the tuned loop can transmit as well as it can hear. It was '59' both directions.

Being that the MFJ-1275 is backordered, I'm going to have to content myself with SSB for a while. The digital modes will have to wait. Still, this will give me a chance to get the operating practices down.

5 October 2001:

My new vanity call sign came back today. Out of 15 choices I put on the list, I received the 10 selection. My call sign is now NQ4S. It's a bit of a tongue twister, but people will remember it over any W4xx or K4xx.

16 October 2001:

Registered with eQSL. Although this service won't be good for awards, it looks like a good resource for prenotifying people and possibly clearing up any mistakes before sending out a postcard.


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