Due to my travel schedule, I was unable to operate the contest from central Texas, so I looked around for a station in the Oklahoma, Missouri, or Arkansas area from which to operate on my way home. Mark N5OT was very generous in offering me the use of his station in Osage county, Oklahoma, even though he himself was not going to be around that weekend.
Mark's station is on a ridge line in the grassland hills southwest of Bartlesville, about 35 kilometers south of the border with Kansas. It seems to have a really excellent horizon, with good clearance over the nearby terrain. Mark has four towers, although most of the antennas are on just two of the towers. Each of the two 140' towers had a 40 meter monobander, a 20 meter monobander, a 15 meter monobander, and two (phased) 10 meter monobanders. The antennas on one tower all face northeast, the antennas on the other tower all face northwest. The week before the contest, Mark put up a tribander (10-15-20) pointed south, and there was a single wire antenna each for 80 meters and 160 meters. All of the antennas were in fixed position - there were no rotors involved.
The station building is a 30' x 50' metal barn that Mark has been finishing out inside. The interior rooms have been framed, most of the drywall and sheet rock looks to be in place (taped and spackled, but not yet painted,) and the electric wiring, outlets, and switches are all done (albeit without covers, yet.) There was a small room with a working toilet (minus a door,) but no working sinks or shower (yet.) The station did have a bed for me to use the night before the contest, a working air conditioner, a microwave, and a small refrigerator.
The radio was an Icom IC-746PRO connected to an ETO Alpha 86 amplifier. A WX0B SixPak switched between the six bands of antennas. Each band had a heavy-duty antenna tuner on it between the amplifier and the antennas. Mark has a second Icom IC-746PRO he plans to use for SO2R CW contesting (along with the WX0B SixPak,) but only connected one radio for the IARU contest, as neither of us had the appropriate audio switching equipment for phone SO2R. The second radio sat on another desk and was never plugged in. The only antenna switching was a simple A/B switch that let me choose between the tribander pointed south and all the other antennas (the northeast and northwest monobanders are always fed in phase so as to "spray" the RF in both directions.) There were no receive-only antennas for the low bands.
Mark doesn't own a DVK, so I brought along my W9XT Contest Card and an Icom cable for it that my wife soldered up for me. I installed the DVK in an empty ISA slot in the logging machine, and it worked, but I discovered that it did have just a little tiny bit of hum on the audio. A couple of stations I worked Friday night said it sounded good enough and they could only notice the hum if they really listened for it, but I did notice it and noticed that it was much more obvious at high power. I've had this problem before in another station, and finally solved it by using audio isolation transformers and grounding all the radio gear together. It's not RFI - I think it has something to do with the computer and radio grounds being at different potentials, and/or the computer ground having some AC ripple on it. It wasn't a problem I was going to solve Friday night, so I decided that if it wasn't too terrible, I'd just try to ignore it and see how it went. I wasn't completely squared away with the station setup until past 0430 UTC, less than eight hours before the contest start. I wish I had gotten more sleep, but such is the peril of guest operating at a far-away station and traveling all day just to get there.
I got off to a very bad start. Right away, I noticed a problem with the DVK that I had not noticed the night before - a problem for which I had not even thought to check. I could record a new voice message just fine, and play it back once just fine, but to repeat the message, I had to hit ESC some random number of times between each DVK CQ. Sometimes two ESCs would do it. sometimes it would take three, sometimes four. It was incredibly frustrating. I restarted TR and that didn't fix it. I rebooted the computer and that didn't fix it. I noticed that the version number (6.71b) was several versions out of date, so I thought I would install the latest version (brought with me on a floppy) in case this was some quirky bug unique to 6.71b. Unfortunately, the only unzipping software on the machine was WinZIP, and I could not get past it's stupid splash screen without a mouse (I don't think Mark has one at the station.) In the process of all this, and getting run off my frequency by a station in Colorado who could not hear me, I kept working stations, and logged at least a dozen QSOs on paper. I finally got a bad audio report, though, and decided (reluctantly) that the voice keyer had to go, so I unplugged it around 1230 UTC and used my voice for the rest of the contest. I'm sure that I probably didn't CQ as often or as consistently without the keyer as I would have with it, and it did make eating a real hassle later on.
It took me a while to get back into a good rhythm, and I finished with only 50 QSOs in the first hour. The QSO totals for the next four hours were all in the 80s, which wasn't as good as I was hoping for, but a whole lot better than a 50. I made my first 15 meter QSO at 1456 UTC, and my first 10 meter QSO at 1544 UTC. My last 10 meter QSO was at 1645 UTC. I had a pretty bad 1600 UTC hour, with only 64 QSOs, as I was trying to eke out 10 meter and 15 meter multipliers. I ended up on 20 meters for all of the 1700 UTC hour, as I found my best rate of the contest there (the TR rate meter peaked at 194,) and the only clock hour where I would work over 100 QSOs. In retrospect, I probably should have been on 15 meters during at least part of this time. The rest of the afternoon was pretty slow with hours of 50, 51, 44, 40, 55, and 54 QSOs. Things had begun to slow down a lot on 20 meters by 0100 UTC, and after I worked a really difficult ZK1/s QSO on 20 meters (I had no antennas that could point that way) I decided to go to 40 meters even though it was still very much daylight outside.
Something wasn't right with the 40 meter antenna system when I first tried to transmit there. I was seeing around 150 watts reflected power for 250 watts output. I checked all the connections, even went out to the towers to see if anything was loose, etc. None of the tuner adjustments seemed to make the least bit of difference. Eventually, something I did (I have no idea what it was) fixed the problem, and I was able to tune up OK. In all, I lost 29 minutes of operating time. By then, it was starting to get dark outside, and I quickly started logging European HQ stations. I tried running split on 40 meters to Europe several times during the night, but never had a single European caller. I didn't even hear one try to call me.
All night long, I found that 20 meters was far more productive and fun than the lower bands. I'm really quite a novice at low band operating, though, so I mostly just tried to make sure I would visit each band a little every hour so as not to miss anyone too obvious. I wish I could have done so without leaving 20 meters. There were many hours when I couldn't find anyone new to work on 160 meters or even 80 meters. I was able to get JA stations to answer my 40 meter split CQs, though, which is always satisfying. I never heard Japan or Europe on 80 meters, though. The only DX stations I worked (or heard) on 80 meters were in North America and worked simplex. On 160 meters, I worked no DX stations at all (unless you count Ontario,) and I never heard a zone 6 station or NU1AW.
We had excellent weather during the weekend, and there was never even a threat of a storm that might have necessitated a station shutdown.
This was the first time I've ever used an Icom radio in an HF contest. There were some things about it that I really liked - the automatic notch filter, for example, was truly excellent. I tended to leave it on all the time, as I couldn't hear any difference in the audio when there were no jammers on my frequency, and it worked really, really well when there were. You could hear it kick in right when you released PTT, and after those first few microseconds, the carrier would be truly gone. It didn't work quite as well against two jamming carriers, but it still did a really good job. It was an amazingly cool feature for high power phone contesting - I've never done a high power phone contest effort where I wasn't jammed by carriers. The noise reduction feature also worked pretty well when I tried it - and it was very noisy that weekend. I also found the tuning speed of the main tuning knob to be perfect for phone contesting - a little detail that you never think about until you use a radio (like the Ten-Tec Orion or the Elecraft K2) that gets it wrong.
One serious flaw with the IC-746PRO, though, is the placement of the XFC button (equivalent to Kenwood's TF-SET button) on the front panel. Trying to use it to work split on 40 meters, there was no way to push it without having that hand either interfere with my sight line to the display or with my other hand on the tuning knob. I'm sure that CW DXers who never operate with a split greater than 2 kHz can develop the coordination to use the XFC button one-handed, but when you're trying to rapidly tune to some QRX frequency arbitrarily chosen from a 150 kHz range, or looking for a new listening frequency for your own CQing, it's an ergonomic nightmare. It would probably be ten times worse if you were left-handed.
I didn't do any A/B receiver comparisons with another rig, of course, but the receiver sounded generally OK to me. I played with the variable filter bandwidths, the passband tuning, and even the transmit bandwidth settings. I'm not sure I thought the continuously adjustable bandwidth setting was any better than a few discrete filter bandwidths, and changing it took way too many button presses and knob turns in a sequence that was complicated enough to screw up once in a while when I was trying to do other things at the same time (like concentrate on a caller's signal.) So, mostly I gave up on adjusting the filter and just switched between the 2.4 kHz and 2.1 kHz filters. Having the display show me the bandwidth shape relative to the center frequency as I adjusted the PBT was pretty cool. I have no idea if changing the transmit bandwidth settings really did anything good for me or not. Mostly, I kept it at the MID setting. There were some more complicated transmit setting involving treble and bass and whatnot that I was not about to mess with during a contest. I am also sort of suspicious of the Icom microphone system, as it's really designed for electret mic elements, instead of real mic elements, and I felt like I really had to have the mic gain way up. I have no real evidence that this was ever a problem, but it sure felt alien.
I heard two established, competitive stations in the contest asking others to spot them on the packet cluster system. One was in the Ukraine, the other in north Texas. In both cases, I noted frequency, time, and other details to pass on to N1ND.
This was my first HF contest effort from outside of the state of Texas.
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Contest Logging was done with TR LOG contest logging software. The following reports and log were created using TR LOG's post-contest processor.
Last Updated 1 August 2018