What is discussed in this month’s story has been covered before but it’s a recurring issue that Charlie and other older hams deal with regularly. It warrants being repeated for the newer readers and newer hams.
One of the club’s newer hams had been whining on the club repeater for the last few weeks. “Band conditions are terrible“, he would say. Charlie and others know quite well that the bands are relatively poor with sun spots asleep as they are, but he manages to make several DX contacts every day. “My radio isn’t any good. You guys all have a better radio than I have. That‘s why you work more stuff”, he would say. When Charlie hears this sort of whining, his reaction is completely predictable. “Rubbish!” is usually Charlie’s reaction .
This difference of belief between friends took place before dozens of others during a coffee break at the last club meeting and Charlie issued the new ham making the statements a challenge. He bravely suggested, “Let me come to your shack, sit in your chair in front of your station and I won’t get up until I work a dozen DX stations.” The new fellow replied, “Well Charlie, I appreciate that offer but I don’t want to embarrass you or take advantage of you. My station is junk compared to yours.” Charlie asked him what he was using and he replied, “I only have an IC-718 transceiver and an MFJ tuner to a Gap vertical antenna. All I hear is noise.”
Charlie grinned and said, “OK. You need a better antenna. Please let me adjust my challenge. Let me put up a fan dipole for 40, 20 and 17 meters at your place. I’ll use your radio without your tuner and leave the antenna with you when I go home.” The new ham smiled broadly and said, “You’re on, but I still think that I’m taking advantage of you. You won’t contact anyone on these dead bands.” Charlie politely replied, “Thank you for being so considerate. But, this isn’t my first trip to the rodeo. I know what I’m doing. I’ll take your help in installing the fan dipole at your place, though. Do you have a few lengths of light Dacron line?” He replied that he didn’t and Charlie said, “OK, I’ll make up the antenna. You go to the hardware and buy some Dacron line. Can we do it next Saturday? The reply was that they could. They agreed on starting at 9 AM and get the antenna up, make the contacts and breaking for lunch.
The club meeting took place on a Monday and on Tuesday morning, right after Charlie performed his ritual of opening the 40 meter band at sunrise, he went out to his storage shed and pulled out a roll of single conductor insulated wire along with his small tool box that he uses when he is on his tower. The box normally contains a small pair of side cutters, wire stripper, pliers, knife, file and an adjustable wrench. It’s light enough to hook to Charlie’s climbing belt when he climbs his tower.
He measured out six lengths of wire; two that were 33 feet, two that were 17.5 feet and two that were 13 feet long. He rummaged through his “junque” (high value junk) and pulled out a couple of lengths of half inch PVC tubing. He knew that he had some short pieces also and dug down into his box of odds and ends. Sure enough, he found several short lengths of PVC and, with the PVC in hand, headed for his small work bench in the basement. There, he cut several 5 inches lengths of PVC and drilled holes
In the ends of each of them. He then cut the two five foot lengths in half. Then, he headed back outdoors and laid out the two 33 ft lengths of wire on the ground. He slipped each wire through holes drilled in one end of the 2 ½ ft lengths of PVC and slid the tube half way down the wire and placed it on the ground. He then laid out each of the 17.5 ft lengths under the longer wires and slipped the ends of the wire through another piece of PVC and slid it down a few feet down each piece of wire. He then secured the ends of the shorter wire to the end of the first PVC piece which is hanging from the 33 ft piece of wire. Finally, Charlie laid out the two shortest pieces, only 13 ft each. He secured the outer ends of each of these lengths to the end of the PVC which is hanging just above. Finally, he wrapped the three inner stripped ends of each of the two sets of spread out wires together. He had a 1:1 balanced to unbalanced transformer (a balun) that was made like a center insulator. Charlie carefully soldered each end of wire to one of the eyelets. Voila! A four band fan dipole is born.
Here is a drawing below of what Charlie put together. He used PVC spreaders instead of Nylon rope.
It took Charlie about two and a half hours to fabricate this antenna. He attached the ends of the longest section, 33 ft each side, to a 5 inch piece of PVC to serve as an end insulator.
On Saturday morning, they will likely have to shorten each antenna section because Charlie intentionally calculated the dimensions on the long side. When finished tuning the antenna to the desired frequency, Charlie will dab some hot glue from an ordinary hot glue gun to each end of wire and where the wire threads through a PVC spreader to keep everything in its place. He wrapped up the antenna and found a hundred foot roll of RG-8X in the shed that he won at one of the flea market raffles. Everything went into Charlie’s truck to be ready for Saturday. He installed PL-259 connectors on each end of the coax to speed things up on Saturday.
Well, Saturday arrived right on schedule and Charlie drove over to the new ham’s home, following the directions provided by his GPS unit. He arrived at 9 and other friends were there, mostly club members. The new ham, whose name is Ken, came to greet Charlie with a hot cup of coffee. “Good Morning, Charlie”, he said, extending the coffee to him. Charlie smiled, accepted the coffee which smelled fantastic, and thanked Ken very much. Ken explained that a few of his friends wanted to see you try to work DX from my puny station. Charlie exclaimed that was a good thing that these extra hands showed up because we need some hands to get your new antenna tuned.
Charlie checked his compass to determine where north was and then mentally lined up the broad side to face Europe. That defined where to hang the wire. So, they strung the fan dipole between a tall tree at one end and something strange at the other end. Actually, Ken had nothing in his yard that was even close to where Charlie wanted the antenna to hang. So, what he did was tie a long length of Dacron between trees at opposite sides of the yard, 90 degrees from the spot the fan should hang from and use the middle of the line as an antenna tie point.
The Dacron line was about 150 feet long but very high up into a tall oak tree on one end and a neighbor’s weather station and bird feeder pole on the other end. Of course, the line was slanted but the where Charlie tied a knot through the line was near 50 feet above the ground. The line splayed toward the fan dipole, of course, because of its weight but at least it was up for the test.
They finished the antenna work after being at it for more than two hours and headed to Ken’s house. Ken laid out the coax toward a side window where one of his boys pulled it into the ham shack and connected it to dad‘s radio. Then Ken led the way into the back door of the house and found that Ken’s wife Patty had prepared lunch for everyone. She said, “You boys can’t play with the radio on an empty stomach. Sit and have a little lunch. Who wants coffee?” The crew wanted to wash hands before sitting and Ken directed them to the kitchen sink and pulled out a couple of clean towels from the cupboard.
Patty had made little sandwiches of chicken salad, ham salad, tuna and all veggie. There was a large bowl of potato salad and garden salad as well as another full of potato chips. Ken passed out cans of soft drinks and Patty poured coffee for those who wanted some. It was just what they needed after their work. It hit the spot. Ken was also impressed, as a new ham, that a seasoned old time expert like Charlie and a half dozen total strangers would give up their time to come to his house to help, not expecting anything in return. That’s ham spirit. We all help one another. None of us can possibly do everything alone. But, together there’s very little that we cannot do.
Everyone enjoyed lunch and thanked Patty very sincerely. She was happy that the boys appreciated her work. Charlie told Patty that he would tell his wife Mary about her ability. Mary is quite a cook and baker also. They probably have lots in common.
Charlie sat in the chair in front of the little IC-718 radio. Everyone crowded around to see something take place that they probably wouldn’t believe if they were told about it.
The 718 surely is a simple radio to operate, but it has the basic tools necessary to make contacts. It was set up on 40 meter phone. Charlie quickly switched the radio to 17 meters, turned the power control all the way down and hit the tune button. He found that the antenna resonant point was just about 18 MHz. He switched to 20 and did the same. Resonance was at 14.020 MHz, He switched to 40 and found the sweet spot at 7.030 MHz. Since the 40 meter portion of the antenna presents three half waves on 15 meters, it will present a resonant and quite usable antenna on that band. Charlie switched to 15 meters and found that the best SWR occurred at 21 MHz exactly. All were too low for Ken. He had made the antenna segments long intentionally. You can always trim wire off but adding more wire gets a little difficult. He told Ken that after he leaves, he might want to drop the antenna down and simply pull about 5-6 inches more through the end insulators and rewrap the ends of the three antenna fan. He doesn’t need to cut any wire, simply pull more wire through the insulator and wrap it back on itself, making it electrically shorter. That way, you may easily lengthen the antenna later if you wish to lower its resonant frequency.
Charlie was pleased that the antenna was long because it favored CW. He started on the low end of 17 meters. He brought his bug because he figured that Ken wouldn’t have one. A loud signal appeared from a DL7 who was calling CQ. Charlie called him once using Ken’s call. He came right back and gave a 579 report. Charlie gave him the same and told him that they were doing antenna testing. The DL wished us good luck and said 73. Charlie then heard a small pileup on a TL8. He found the offset calling frequency and set up the radio to do split. He called a few times without luck. The TL sent QRZ JA only. Again, QRZ JA. There was no response. He called QRZ again and Charlie called quickly with a single sharp call. That got the TL8 who gave a 599 report. Charlie knew that the 599 was not meaningful but replied with the same and thanks and good luck. Moving up the band, Charlie worked a ZS5, an SM, OE, HB9 and CN8.
Then, he went to 15 meters and found only a few stations. They weren’t strong. He found a hole and parked the rig there. He called CQ and got no reply. He called again
And snagged a W4 who gave a 579 report. Of course, Charlie wanted DX. He called CQ DX and snagged a DJ8 in Germany. Signals were only S5 at best. So, he went to the money band, 20 meters.
Tuning around 14.020, he found several signals to copy. He tuned carefully up the band and found HV0A in the Vatican calling a slow CQ. Charlie waited and called him slowly. Others called also. HV0A didn’t reply to anyone. Charlie quickly called again. There was a pause and then he came back sending Ken’s call very nicely and slowly. After sending a 599 report, he turned it over. Charlie gave him a 599 report and wished him 73. Tuning up the band, he found CQs from many European and African stations.
Calling each one resulted in a QSO logged in the book. Then, Charlie’s great ear for DX heard a VK6 calling CQ LP. No one answered him and he called again. Charlie called him and got him. He gave a 579 report and gave his name as Ian. Charlie returned with the same report, giving his name as Charlie. They bid one another cheers and 73. The VK6 attracted business and created a small pile-up. A long path contact to Australia is when our signal travels east over the Atlantic, over the Med and Africa, over the entire Indian Ocean, a large distance, and finally into Australia. The long path distance is probably 2-3 thousand miles further than the short or conventional path to VK land, going west over the US and the huge Pacific Ocean.
Charlie tuned up to the phone band and found a CQ up around 14.265. He answered and engaged a very nice fellow in Texas. The path was good and gave each station a good report, about S9 with some fading. So the 100 watt radio was working quite well. Charlie turned to Ken and asked, “Well, do I win the bet?” Ken laughed and said, “Oh man! You surely do. But you used CW. It’s easy on CW.”
Charlie acknowledged that CW has advantages and he should use it. He then asked Ken to connect his regular antenna that he used before we put up the fan for him. He wanted to compare the antennas. Ken reached in back of the IC-718 and made the change. Signals on 20 meter phone dropped at least four S units. Charlie tuned the band and it sounded like the radio was connected to a dummy load. Charlie looked at Ken and said, “There’s your problem, my friend. The old Gap isn’t doing its job. I don’t want to know anything about it. Just take it down and use the fan dipole.” Ken agreed. They quickly reconnected the fan dipole.
The guests who came to help and see how Ken was going to make a dozen DX contacts were genuinely impressed and told Charlie that they were. They asked if they could attain the same results with a fan dipole. Of course, Charlie told them that they probably could and offered his help if they needed it. That’s an easy and inexpensive solution, on limited space property when you want to get a signal out. The darned things really do work and don’t cost much at all, even if you don’t have someone like Charlie around to pull “junque” from his surplus material to make the antenna and personally direct its installation.
The other thing that Charlie always recommends is that each element of the antenna must be cut to the resonant frequency that the operator uses most of the time. You will transmit and receive with maximum efficiency if you use resonant antennas for the band and frequency you are using rather than an all band miracle thing, forced to load your transceiver by your tuner. That is NOT the way to put out a good signal and hear more stations. You are simply kidding yourself, making you think that you have a good all band antenna.
In a discussion with the group, Charlie gathered from them that many placed great importance on getting a high performance radio. But Charlie realized that the radios wanted were quite likely above their comfortable budget as well as beyond their knowledge of how to use that equipment. Charlie asked them if they saw what he had just done this morning with a simple basic radio? They all nodded that they saw and it was a good show. “OK”, Charlie replied. “Now Ken is going to sit in the chair and make as many contacts in the same amount of time”. Ken looked as though he had just seen a ghost. “What? I can’t use CW! I am not the operator that you are!” Charlie calmly said, “Now just sit down and tune the phone bands. Go look for an opening to make a call or someone calling CQ.”
Ken tuned in an EI station in Ireland calling CQ and he looked up at Charlie, waiting to be told what to do. “Call him”, said Charlie in a firm voice. He called him with one single soft spoken quick call. The DX station called, “QRZ, who was that?”. Charlie told Ken to speak slowly and more firmly and say his call twice. That did the trick and Ken worked the fellow. They made a few more contacts before switching back to 17 meters. There, Ken made some more contacts on SSB and was quite happy. Charlie was coaching Ken to speak more assertively and not sound like he wasn’t afraid of being there.
After he worked a dozen stations in just a little more time than Charlie, the group moved to the kitchen and sat down around the kitchen table with a cup of fresh coffee that Patty had made for the boys. Charlie then asked one of his favorite questions, “What is more important in your ability to work DX stations?” There was some talking among the group and one fellow shouted out, “a good radio”. Then someone else said, “a good antenna”. Then another fellow said “Good band conditions and some luck.”
Charlie smiled and said, “Well those are all good answers but you missed the primary and most important factor in working DX. He was quiet and looked over the blank faces. “No ideas, guys? ………Think….I’ll give you a hint. Who works the station?”
Ken replied, “A good operator.” Charlie reached over and patted Ken on the back.
“Bingo, my lad. The most important element by far, in being successful as a DX station on either end, is the operator. Second is the antenna as this fellow said and third is the radio as this other fellow said.” Charlie looked over the faces as this settled in.
Charlie said, “The radio is third most important and I might add, a distant third, not first as so many people believe. A fancy radio in the hands pf a marginal or poor operator is not anything special at all. But yes, a good antenna is vital. A good operator is absolutely critical and essential. Let me say that again…..a good operator is essential to having a competitive DX station. We all must improve our operating skills and learn and use the tricks that top operators use. Emulate them when you are operating your stations.”
Charlie again looked over the crowd. They were silent. Charlie broke the silence by asking, “Do you believe this?” Nearly everyone nodded. Charlie picked one fellow who didn’t nod and asked, “Do you disagree”. The fellow, squirmed and said, “Well ya, sorta. Someone with an FT-1000D will beat out a fellow with a radio like Ken, an IC-718 any time.” Charlie asked him, “So the guy on the other end will always pick out the FT-1000 over the 718? How can he know what radio he‘s hearing? There’s very little difference in signal produced between any 200 watt transmitter and any 100 watter. They‘ll essentially sound the same on the other end”
The fellow didn’t challenge but wasn’t going to believe Charlie just yet. “That’s OK“, Charlie would say. “He needs to learn it for himself but at least, he heard it here and will test it out. One fellow suggested that good band conditions and a measure of luck would help. Well, yes indeed. You are so correct but it doesn’t make the top three. But, that’s a darned good one, young man. Thank you for pointing it out.”
Charlie summarized what the group had seen today. “In the hands of a good operator, using a good resonant antenna, you will be effective in working DX using a simple radio. You absolutely do not need to have a four, five or more thousand dollar radio that will be difficult to use and actually slow you down. New hams should consider purchasing something basic and easy to use with minimum menus and controls, that are well marked and simple to use intuitively. Eventually, as they gain experience, these same hams can and will appreciate more complex radios and may consider moving up to them. But their early radios should be basic, something like the IC-718 here.”
Merry Christmas, Happy Holidays from the staff of Charlie’s Whistle.