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2005 Field Day Fun on the Satellites ( l o n g )

Well, the 2005 Field Day exercise has come and gone.  I participated 
with the Twin Cities Repeater Club out of Burnsville, MN (Twin Cities 
refers to Minneapolis and St. Paul, for those of you who don't know much 
about Minnesota geography).  We were operating as W0BU, 3A, MN, with a 
GOTA station and a VHF/UHF/Satellite station (which I was in charge of 
again this year).  It was a whole lot of fun, and I thought I'd share a 
few thoughts with this group on how we made it fun.

1) Plan, plan, and plan some more.  Then check your plans, fix the 
mistakes, and plan some more.  Ok, Field Day is, in some respects, 
supposed to mimic the spontaneous erection of an emergency 
communications network with no prior warning after a disaster strikes.  
But that doesn't mean that advance planning is not appropriate.  For 
example, shortly after Field Day a few years ago, a series of tornadoes 
passed through the town of Comfrey, MN, south of the Twin Cities 
metropolitan area, and quite a few hams from our area drove down there 
and applied what they had learned from their participation in Field Day 
to set up a highly effective communications center to relay emergency 
traffic from the disaster site to the metro area where most of the 
assistance was coming from.  All of the traditional communications in 
Comfrey were knocked out except for what the hams provided, for several 
days.  So, even though it is a bit "artificial" to plan in advance 
because disasters usually have little warning, it is still appropriate 
to go through the exercise with a lot of thought, so if/when the real 
thing happens, you will actually know what to to and how to do it!  
Besides, have you ever had a fire drill at your place of work or 
school?  They didn't have to set the building on fire first to make it a 
useful exercise!

2) KISS (Keep It Simple, Stupid!).  Don't overextend your plans to an 
exorbitant degree.  Simplify.  Concentrate on the essentials.  Plan to 
do something manageable, rather than attempting the impossible and 
finding out that, indeed, it WAS impossible.  Sure, challenging yourself 
to do "a little more or a little better than last year" can be an 
exercise in personal growth, but that's a far cry from setting yourself 
up for certain failure, which seldom causes much personal growth.

3) Be as prepared as you reasonably can, but don't lose sight of the 
concept that Field Day is all about operating under "less than optimal 
conditions".  In other words, don't expect perfection, be prepared to 
compromise and be prepared to improvise.

4) Decide on your goals, and design your plans accordingly.  If you are 
a hard-core contester and the only thing you care about is running up 
the highest score possible, then arrange for as few distractions as 
possible, get the best operators possible, and keep out the "newbies" 
and the currently unlicensed "wannabees".  You don't have time to teach 
them, or answer their questions, or build their interest.  If, on the 
other hand, you want Field Day to be a preparedness exercise that is 
also the premier social event of the year for your radio club, with an 
emphasis on getting inactive folks on the air and attracting newcomers, 
and educating existing hams to move beyond their present operational 
horizons, then you must be prepared to accept a lower score.  (In case 
you haven't guessed, our approach in TCRC is the latter, not the former, 
though we still manage to post a respectable score each year.)

Ok, so that's a lot of generality.  What did we do specifically to 
follow those ideals?

In the planning stage, I first reviewed what had been done in the past.  
I was licensed in late 1996, so my first opportunity to participate in 
Field Day was June of 1997.  However, because there hadn't been enough 
pre-event chatter in the club, I was totally oblivious to the upcoming 
event, and scheduled an out-of-town family vacation that included that 
weekend.  Oops.  Ever since 1998, I not only have participated, I have 
also been selected to be the manager of one of the stations.  In 2003 
and 2004, I managed the 20 meter phone station, but in all the other 
years, I was in charge of the VHF/UHF/Satellite station.  My first year, 
1998, I got my first taste of satellite operation as I watched N0BEL 
knock out a few satellite contacts on his Icom 820.  I was bitten by the 
satellite bug then and there.  It wasn't long before I started 
accumulating better home station gear, including a Yaesu FT-847.  In any 
case, in the years from 1998 to 2004, the VHF station ranged from as 
little as a 6M, 2M, and 70cm station in which no one bothered to try 
satellite ops (and in one year, almost no one spent any time operating 
the station at all), to a station with all bands from 50 to 1296 MHz 
plus 10 GHz.  I learned several lessons that year:  (a) the incredible 
amount of work it was for me to haul out basically everything except a 
tower, generator, and shelter for such a complex station, set it up, 
operate it, tear it down, and bring it home; (b) how easy it is to break 
a mast in half if it is too long, and has too many antennas on it; and 
(c) what it feels like to see over a thousand dollars' worth of high-end 
antennas accelerate towards the ground...  So, my first decision was to 
concentrate on 6M, 2M, and 70cm for terrestrial operations, and consider 
adding L band uplink and S band downlink for satellite ops.  Looking 
over the wonderful amsat.org web page on satellite status (thanks a 
million, Emily!), it occurred to me that no voice satellites would be 
using L band uplinks on the Field Day weekend, and the only one 
operating on S band down was AO-51, in FM mode.   Hmmm, considering what 
a mess FM satellite operations would be during the frantic "feeding 
frenzy" of Field Day, if I decided to forego FM mode, I could also drop 
L and S bands with no extra penalty.  That means 3 antennas instead of 
5, one radio instead of a radio plus a receive converter plus a transmit 
converter, a simpler antenna array support structure, etc.  Very 
appealing.  So I promptly decided that would be my plan:  concentrate on 
AO-7, FO-29, and VO-52, and forget the rest.  (Don't get me wrong, I am 
proud to say that my credit card and I supported the "Give Echo a Boost" 
program, but I just didn't want to fight for a slot in a one-channel FM 
bird on Field Day.)  The next thing that crossed my mind as I reviewed 
the prior years' satellite ops was that we had never had antenna 
elevation capability, so we were restricted to satellite passes close to 
the horizon, and we always had a lot of interference between our uplink 
and downlink on the 2M and 70cm bands (because the antennas were stacked 
above one another, much closer than they should have been, especially 
after the fiasco with the broken mast!).  The satellite QSO's were a 
struggle, and we seldom got more than a couple.  This year, I decided 
that I would bring out the elevation rotor, mount the 2M and 70cm 
antennas on a 6-foot long wooden cross-boom side-by-side, and mount that 
assembly far enough below the 6M antenna that I could elevate them 
without mechanical interference.  Since the antennas radiate much less 
signal at 90 degrees away from where they are pointed, having them 
side-by-side and 6 feet apart was much better than having one over the 
other, and only 1-2 feet apart.

This is where the planning really paid off:  I gathered up all the bits 
and pieces of the antennas and support structures, and started laying 
them out on my lawn.  I quickly realized that I had underestimated 
(forgotten) the length of the 2M-12 and 432-9WL antennas that I was 
going to use.  I thought that they were "only" 18 feet long, so that a 9 
foot separation between the elevation rotor and the top of the mast 
would be enough to keep them from hitting the 6M-5X antenna at the top.  
WRONG!  They are more like 20 and 21 feet long, and I didn't have enough 
mast to make that work.  If Mike Stahl from M-Squared is reading this, I 
can only apologize in advance to him for how I dealt with this.  Mike, I 
took your beautifully engineered, highly optimized antennas and removed 
the front couple of boom sections from them to shorten them up so they 
would fit!  I know, it's a crime, but if it's any consolation, all I can 
say is that you guys designed such superb antennas (in their full 
length) that they still gave more than adequate performance after my 
temporary butchering of them.  :)  Besides, I promise to put them back 
together properly before I install them on my home tower.

More planning:  satellite passes.  In the past, I had used either 
Predict or STS-Plus for real-time tracking on my old Pentium laptop 
running Windows 95.  That laptop is history, my current laptop is a 
Pentium III running Windows 2000, and I could not get either program to 
run on it!  Ouch.  Though I haven't given up on them yet, I didn't have 
time to figure out the solution to the problems by Field Day.  
Fortunately, my Palm Tungsten C came to the rescue, courtesy of Jim 
Berry's PocketSat+ program.  This software ran annoyingly slowly on my 
old Palm IIIc, but on the Tungsten C, it cranks through the calculations 
in the blink of an eye and is a pleasure to use.  I pointed it in the 
general direction of the 802.11b wireless access point in my home 
network, used the built-in web browser to download keps from amsat.org 
(thanks again to Emily, Paul, or whomever arranged for the keps to be 
available in PDB format, ready-to-go), and I was in business.  I ran 
pass predictions for the three linear birds of interest to me, starting 
a few days before Field Day (in case I had time for some practice runs) 
and running to the end of the Field Day period.  I set alarms so that 
the Palm device, even if turned "off", would "wake up" and warn me every 
time a pass was about to begin.  What a blessing to have!  I could now 
bang away on the VHF/UHF station in terrestrial mode all I wanted, and 
when a good pass was about to start, I could decide if it would be 
better to keep going (such as when the 6M sporadic E event was underway) 
or to switch over to satellite mode for awhile (when the VHF and UHF 
bands were "dead").  And I could still get real-time tracking with 
continuously-updated azimuth and elevation information during each pass.

More planning in keeping with KISS:  Not only did I limit myself to one 
radio (the FT-847) and no transverters, I also decided to leave the 
amplifiers at home.  I certainly didn't need 150 watts on 2M or 100 
watts on 70cm for satellite work, and if the terrestrial stations 
couldn't hear me at the "barefoot" 50 watts of the FT-847 on those two 
bands, would they really hear me much better with less than 1 S-unit of 
additional power?  Not only could I bring less gear, I also 
automatically avoided the problem of an operator unfamiliar with my 
equipment accidentally over-driving the amps and blowing them up.  I 
bought the amps used, from an estate sale of a Silent Key, and while 
they give me very good service, they aren't the best match to my radio.  
The 2M amp wants only 10 watts of drive for full output, and the 70cm 
amp wants only 30 watts of drive for full output. I think you can guess 
what happens if the power level was turned up to 100% for operation on 
6M at 100 watts, and you forget to turn the power back down when you 
switch to 2M.  Well, it can't happen if they are home on the shelf!

More planning:  I made sure I had two working sets of headphones (and 
one of them needed a little bit of repair work, which was quickly done 
after testing revealed a problem), and all the needed audio cables and 
adapters to route the signal from the radio to both of them, or to an 
external powered speaker.  I also discovered that my planning/testing 
was still not as good as it should have been -- although everything 
seemed to work audio-wise in testing at home, at the Field Day site I 
discovered that the speakers were not shielded well enough, and they 
howled from RF entering them when we operated on 6M with the antenna 
turned to anywhere within 45 degrees of the direction between the tower 
and the operation trailer.  Oh well, we could do without the speakers 
and use the headphones 100% of the time, and so that's what we did.

Yet more planning:  I made sure I had a set of CW paddles, so as to not 
miss the opportunity to make a 1-point SSB QSO into a 1+2 point SSB+CW 
QSO pair, as has happened in years gone by.  And yet more inadequate 
planning:  my MFJ memory keyer had been malfunctioning ever since the 
June VHF contest 2 weeks earlier.  I worked on it for awhile, and 
thought I had everything fixed, but when I got out to the Field Day site 
and plugged the radio into the keyer, the radio went into sustained 
transmit mode, as if the keyer output was shorted.  Grrr!  Fortunately, 
the FT-847 has a very usable built-in keyer that worked just fine with 
the CW paddles plugged directly into the radio, but of course, no option 
to store a string in a memory location and send a CW sequence with the 
touch of a function button, nor the ability to send "perfect" CW by 
typing on a computer keyboard instead of actually working the paddles.  
(In case you haven't guessed, my CW skills leave a lot to be desired, 
but I think I probably made about 5x to 10x as many CW contacts this 
year than I have in any previous year, in spite of the lack of 
computerized assistance, so at least I'm getting a little better.  One 
look at this message will tell you whether or not I am any good at 
typing on a computer keyboard, by comparison.)

So how did we do?

I was modestly successful on AO-7, but there were a number of Mode A 
passes, and I had no 10M antenna to work those with.  I seemed to 
struggle a bit to match my uplink and downlink frequencies, but there 
were usually plenty of stations that I could hear clearly in the 
passband on the Mode B passes.

I was not at all successful on FO-29.  This was a bit of a surprise to 
me, since I have worked it quite a few times from home, with the same 
radio, plus preamps and power amps as needed, plus un-butchered antennas 
that do not elevate.  Passband activity seemed light, signals to me were 
weak, and I never managed to hear my own echoes during any of the 
passes.  It does seem to be true that mode V/U is harder to operate than 
mode U/V, at least with my limited experience.

I was absolutely astounded by VO-52.  This was my first chance to try 
working it.  (I have a horrible work schedule that really cuts into my 
personal time.)  On the first pass, I realized that I was not prepared 
for VO-52.  (Oops, another planning/preparation failure!)  I hadn't 
programmed its frequencies into any of the FT-847 memories, but before 
the first pass had been underway for even 2 minutes, I quickly looked up 
the uplink and downlink frequencies in my Palm Pilot (of course!), and 
punched them into the radio, and hit the memory-store button.  I heard a 
lot of incredibly strong signals in the passband, my own echoes were 
crystal clear and easily found, even when I turned the power level way 
down, but much to my surprise on the first two passes, I could not work 
anyone.  Although there were obviously a lot of strong signals in the 
passband, I could not hear any of them clearly except for my own echoes, 
and it was obvious that no one was hearing me.  By the third pass, it 
finally dawned on me that I had programmed the sidebands backwards -- 
instead of LSB transmit/USB receive, I had them set to the opposite 
values.  No wonder I could not understand anyone except myself, and no 
one could understand me!  As soon as I realized the mistake, I quickly 
hit the necessary buttons to flip the sidebands and store the new 
configuration, and I was in business!  These QSO's were the easiest 
satellite QSO's I have ever made.  All I can say is Bravo to the VO-52 
team, this satellite is a real winner!

I can't give you actual numbers of QSO's at this point.  We used 
WriteLog for logging all 5 radio stations, with all stations connected 
to a wireless network, and the overall Field Day site manager grabbed 
all the log files and took them with him for processing.  But I do know 
that we made far more satellite QSO's this year than at any time since I 
have been coming to Field Day with the Twin Cities Repeater Club.  It 
was a great deal of fun.

And what about the other aspects of Field Day?

Our group really does treat it as the main Ham Radio social event of the 
year, and we lived up to that intention this year again.  Lots of folks 
came out, lots of socializing occurred, lots of inactive hams got 
active, lots of "newbies" got on the air for the first time in a contest 
situation or for the first time on HF.  And a LOT of folks were 
fascinated by the sight of the VHF antennas moving up and down as I 
tracked satellites, as well as the idea of rock-solid signals stretching 
between Minnesota and Texas or Florida on the 2M and 70cm bands.  I had 
a lot of folks stop by the VHF station and most of their questions were 
about the satellite stuff, not about the general VHF/UHF terrestrial 
stuff.  So, I know that our Field Day was a big success this year, even 
though I don't yet know the point total.  And that's the way we planned 
it, right from the start.

73 de W0JT
AMSAT-NA Life Member #2292
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