11 December 2018

AT-984 Antenna

I love eBay. I buy a lot of stuff off of eBay. (Although strangely, I've never sold anything through eBay. Does that make me a hoarder?) I also often turn to eBay for some laughs. Lately the eBay thing that makes me laugh are the prices folks are asking - and sadly getting - for an AT-984 long wire antenna for the PRC-25 or 77.

In the early 60's the Army recognized the need to extend the range of the PRC-25 beyond the (optimistic) five or six kilometers the radio was capable of when using the long (3 meter) whip antenna. The simplest way turned out to be the most effective - wrap some wire around the threads on the AB-591 long whip antenna base, screw it into the radio, pay out 150' or so of wire and you can easily double the range of the radio. The use of the AB-591 base was key, because there's an extra long 'nub' on the end of the base. As it screws into the radio that 'nub' contacts a switch deep in the antenna mount, indicating to the radio that a longer, more resonant antenna is in use. The Army wasn't content with telling RTOs to just carry an extra 150' or so of wire. Noooo - they needed to come up with an approved, type classified antenna system. Their solution was actually pretty neat (and cheap) - get some inexpensive commercial fishing reels (it looks like the Army selected the Pflueger Medalist fly fishing reel) and paint them olive drab, wind about 150' of thin but tough phosphor bronze wire on them, provide a crimped-on spade plug at one end of the wire to slip between the antenna mount and the antenna body, stick some simple user instructions on the reel, put it in a small canvas bag and name it the AT-984/G antenna. It worked great!

These things could not have cost Uncle Sam more than $15 each back in 1968. By all reports they were widely issued, so they were not rarities. But since they were not repairable I'm guessing a lot were broken or lost during combat and just written off. Surprisingly, I never saw one in the flesh in my 23 years in the Army (starting back in 1979), but I do remember seeing them in component listings for the PRC-77 radios. Our own field expedient manuals told us to just use a single 150' strand of WD-1 commo wire. A simple and effective substitution.

But I'm a military radio collector and dammit, I want a real, gen-u-ine AT-984 antenna for my collection! So this started me on the quest for a good example of an AT-984. I was surprised to find that there's usually one or two for sale on eBay. Great! But after a few weeks of tracking auctions (or buy-it-now sales) for these things it became apparent that everyone who owns an AT-984 thinks it's rare and valuable enough to contribute significantly to their retirement account. A hundred bucks seems to be the median value for these things right now, with the lower priced 'buy-it-now' ones moving quickly, the higher priced ones hanging around a bit longer but eventually selling for the asking price or racking up quite a few bids on auction. And condition is no impediment to a sale - I've seen beat-to-snot examples that were missing pieces and all bent up like they had been run over by a jeep sell for just as much as pristine, still in the wrapper examples.

Here's one currently on offer on eBay with a bent frame. It's in otherwise OK shape, and seems to be complete, but $104 plus $13.50 shipping for a damaged item? I guess because someone wrote 'B-1-135' (Bravo Company, 1st Battalion, 135th Infantry? Armor? Aviation? Who knows) on it in red paint it's collectible. But remember, this is not an unusual sale - and by comparison with some of the others recently sold on eBay this one is in pristine shape.

So I wait and watch, ready to pounce whenever someone financially solvent enough decides to put an AT-984 up for sale at a reasonable price. Or the current sellers come to their senses.

W8BYH out

01 December 2018

AM/FM Radio In The Shack?

Do you keep a consumer grade AM & FM radio in your shack?

Tecsun PL-310ET atop my Yaesu FT-991 - small but packed with features

Many of you will say, "Why bother? My all-mode rig does just fine."

True enough, but what happens in an emergency when you need to monitor both broadcast radio (say, for weather updates) and you are also working an HF disaster net? Some may say, "I'll just use my HT." OK, that may work. Lots of new(er) HTs  have the ability to pull in AM & FM broadcast bands. But what if you need to use the HT to monitor the local repeaters? Of course you could set up a scan memory group and roll the broadcast bands into a scan setup... at some point the issue over-complicates itself. The best approach? Get a good AM/FM receiver and incorporate it as part of your shack setup.

There are a lot of really good, and inexpensive, AM/FM/SW radios on the market. Sadly, many of the old-line makers of top-notch receivers like Sony, Panasonic, Grundig and Drake have either left the market, have been sold off to holding companies and are little more than badge names on second-tier electronics, or have gone under altogether. The good news is that several Chinese manufacturers have stepped into the market in a big way. You see, in most of the developing world (that would be what we call the 'third world') broadcast radio is still big, and it's a primary means of information and entertainment dissemination. Not everyone has gigabit internet service and a MacBook Pro. So Chinese manufacturers like Tecsun have moved into the portable AM/FM/SW receiver market in a big way, bringing great performing DSP-based radios to market at very low prices. Then there is a last holdout American firm, CC Crane, that still takes portable AM, FM & SW listening seriously, and makes an outstanding line of high performance, reasonably priced radios.

So what qualities does a good portable radio need to have to be considered for inclusion in a ham shack for emergency purposes? Well, for starters, good AM & FM reception. Next, the ability to run on common battery types (AAA, AA or D-cells). And last, the ability to accommodate an external long wire antenna, either a clip-on or plug-in design, for improved reception.

Down through the years I've collected (really, more like accumulated) a lot of portable AM/FM radios:

  • Several classic (and very fussy) GE SuperRadios - a very good design that was a favorite of AM DXers for decades. Too bad GE/RCA didn't give a damn about quality control
  • C Crane CC Radio EP - a product improved SuperRadio. Discontinued, but replaced by a better performing DSP model, the CC Radio EP Pro
  • A classic old Panasonic RF-505 - amazing FM sound quality. It shows what the old-line Japanese makers were capable of when they were at the top of their game
  • Tecsun PL-310ET  - a diminutive little radio (about the size of a large brick of sharp cheddar cheese) that probably offers the best bang-to-buck ratio
  • C Crane CC Solar Observer - a seemingly awkward mash-up of AM/FM radio, weather radio, an LED flashlight and a solar and hand-cranked dynamo charger. But guess what - it works, and works quite well!
  • Tecsun PL-880 - a simply amazing AM/FM/SW (USB/LSB) receiver that uses a hard-to-find battery
  • C Crane Skywave - another diminutive top performer, but a bit pricey. Proof that C Crane knows how to design & build radios. This radio was recently updated to a full USB/LSB version
  • Tecsun PL-365 - a revision of a design made for CountyComm by Tecsun for a US 'three letter agency' looking for  a small general coverage receiver that could fit in a bug-out bag. A remarkably good radio with an unusual (but very effective) external AM antenna. 
  • Freeplay FPR2 wind-up and solar powered AM/FM radio. This is the radio, along with some sort of goofy wind-up laptop running Linux, that was going to save the third world from itself. The thing is heavy, flimsy and makes a gawd-awful racket while the wind-up dynamo is running. But it has decent AM & FM reception, and is quirky enough to cause me to hang onto it as an example of the precursor to the current generation of 'wind-up' radios.

You can see a pattern here - I like Tecsun and C Crane radios.

But which one would I run in my shack during an emergency to monitor local broadcast stations? Remember, my criteria are good AM & FM reception, the ability to run on commonly available batteries and the ability to accept an external antenna to improve reception.

My first reaction is to reach, almost reflexively, for the Tecsun PL-880. It is an outstanding receiver in all respects. But it has one huge failure - it uses non-standard and hard to find lithium-ion 3.7 volt batteries that can only recharge via USB while in the radio. Sorry, but I have enough to worry about without wondering if I've got the right kind of batteries on hand for my radio.

Next I'd reach for the C Crane Skywave. Excellent AM & FM reception, and really nice stereo FM reception with earphones. But for normal listening the speaker is too small and 'tinny'. A great bug-out radio though.

So what does this selection really come down to? The plain-jane AM/FM only C Crane CC Radio EP. It offers excellent AM & FM performance (FM sounds really good out of the big main speaker), runs on D-cells, offers precise tuning with good selectivity, has a very effective FM whip antenna, a 'tunable' AM antenna and the ability to accept a simple long wire antenna to improve reception. This isn't just a good radio to have around for emergencies, it's an enjoyable radio to listen to at any time.

CC Radio EP  - a truly great AM/FM portable

So what do you have on-hand for AM/FM reception? Remember, the day before the ice storm is a lousy time to decide you need a broadcast band radio. And Amazon doesn't deliver on ice skates.

W8BYH out

23 November 2018

Backlit Buttons

I'm a huge fan of the IC-7300, and I unhesitatingly recommend it to anyone that asks me my opinion. I've been running mine for almost a year now and I'm convinced that it is the best HF radio in its market segment. Icom hit it out of the ballpark with this one.

If the IC-7300 has a serious shortcoming (not a flaw - just something big that Icom left out), it is the lack of backlit function buttons. I've brought this issue up on a number of forums. Some folks have said that my gripe about the buttons is overblown. I don't think so, particularly if you operate in a low-light environment.

I enjoy working in my shack with the lights out. I believe it helps me focus on the task at hand, and it's a bit more relaxing. Plus, every light is a potential source of RFI. Turn off the lights, lessen the potential RFI. Here's a shot of my IC-7300 (lower) and my FT-991A (upper) taken in my shack with the lights out. There is a bit of ambient light in the room, but this is pretty close to what I see (minus the computer monitor) when working under low-light conditions.

Yaesu FT-991A (upper), Icom IC-7300 (lower)

Some have commented that backlit buttons on the 7300 are unnecessary because everything important is done from the touchscreen. This is only about 80% true. There are still important functions (like switching between memory & VFO mode, activating a tuning cycle, locking or unlocking the VFO, stepping through memory channels, turning on and off noise reduction & blanking, etc) that are executed via unlit buttons.

Frankly, the the slightly less well performing FT-991A is easier to work with under low light conditions.

Is this a deal breaker when it comes to the IC-7300? No, of course not. The IC-7300 is a better radio on HF than the FT-991A. The IC-7300 also has a much better display (far better resolution & contrast). And of course the SDR-based signal processing in the IC-7300 is a good bit better - and has more upgrade potential - than the conventional triple-conversion signal processing of the FT-991A.

But for just a couple more bucks per unit Icom could have easily included a backlit front panel. Sheesh...

W8BYH out

21 October 2018

The Radio As A System

A few days ago I was updating my Christmas wish list and decided I'd ask Santa for an AN/PRC-160 manpack radio - better known as the Harris Falcon III wide-band HF manpack radio. In concept this is a direct descendant of the PRC-77, so why wouldn't I want one?

Falcon III wide-band HF radio

I managed to find a copy of the GSA price sheet for the Falcon III and its components and two things struck me. First, this radio is jaw droppingly expensive. A well outfitted 20 watt configuration costs about as much as a new sub-compact sedan. Second, Harris offers one heck of a lot of components for the Falcon III. The component list is 8 1/2 pages long, and it's in small type. In fact, the Falcon III really isn't a radio, it's a system of components that make up various radio configurations. You buy the basic transceiver and then select the components needed to fit the intended use or mission. Going to use it as a manpack radio? Order the battery case, whip antenna and carrying pack. Going to use it mounted in your HMMWV? Order the vehicle installation kit, vehicle antenna mounting kit, antenna tuner and amplifier. Not sure exactly how you will use it? Then order the whole shebang and pray your Powerball numbers hit.

The same approach applies to Amateur Radio. An Amateur Radio transceiver should be thought of as a component of a system. The radio may be the key component, but by itself isn't much use. Only when you mate the radio with carefully selected components does it live up to its full potential. YouTube is full of radio fanboys appearing in silly and useless videos of themselves unboxing their new toys, showing the radio, the accessories, the manuals. What few do is go on to describe all the components that are necessary to make their new toy work: power supplies, antennas, headsets, cables, programming software, rig control software, the computers to run it all on. Minor stuff like that.

The FT-991A HF, VHF, UHF multi-mode radio.
It provides a wide variety of operating bands and modes and incorporates
an internal antenna tuner, and a sound card modem for digital operations
on the HF bands

I recently purchased a Yaesu FT-991A to use as the centerpiece of an all-mode portable station. I wanted something that was highly capable on both voice and digital modes yet is a small and easily transported package. The 991A seems to fit the bill nicely, but for for even the most basic operations it needs to be connected to a power source and an antenna. That's just to get a voice signal out. Taking advantage of the 991A's full potential requires a wide range of additional components that extend the radio's capabilities and add flexibility to its operating modes.

The rear panel of the FT-991A highlights why it is so versatile.
It offers connections for separate HF & VHF/UHF antennas, USB, serial (for GPS input)
external tuner and amplifier connections and external speaker connections

But what components to buy? To determine that we first start with what I call 'deployment scenarios' - how do you intend to use the radio? My deployment scenarios focus on what I refer to as communications dominance in an austere environment. That is, in an emergency situation, the ability to get a signal through regardless of band conditions and using all available frequencies and modes. This implies the ability to use voice and digital communications on HF, VHF and UHF on the allocated Amateur and MARS frequencies, and the ability to receive across a broad spectrum to monitor commercial and government broadcast systems.

The FT-991A is not best-in-class when it comes to pure transmit and receive performance but it is very near the top of its class, and its all-mode versatility is unmatched. This makes it an ideal radio around which I can build a very capable system. But what additional components do I need? Let's look at the basic requirements that need to be met to achieve communications dominance:
  • I need to power the radio using both commercial power and batteries
  • I need to effectively operate the radio in high noise environments 
  • I need to connect the radio to antennas - HF, VHF and UHF
  • I need to be able to match the impedance of those antennas across all operating frequencies
  • I need a TNC to enable digital comms on VHF frequencies
  • I need digital mode and radio programming software
  • I need a dedicated computer to run all this software
  • I need cables to hook everything up
  • I need a way to safely and securely transport all this equipment

Let's translate this into real world system components:
Power: a lightweight 20 amp or better power supply and a capable battery power supply to provide back-up power
Operating in high noise environments: a headset/boom mic combo and hand switch. I find operating VOX to be annoying, and it can be hard to adjust in noisy environments, so I depend on a hand switch
Antennas: antenna systems need to be versatile, easy to transport and offer good performance. For HF I've settled on a combination of  both a ground mounted vertical and and end-fed wire, and for VHF/UHF a simple but extremely effective weather proof j-pole. Antennas are useless without coax cable to hook them to the radio, so I have 2 x 100' lengths of RG-8X coax. There will also be scenarios where you need to hoist these antenna components into trees or other supporting structures, so I've added 200' of 550 parachute cord and line-launching slingshot
Antenna tuner: the FT-991A comes with a very capable internal tuner, but it is designed to find matches for 'fairly resonant' antennas within the Amateur Radio bands. I need the ability to tune outside the Amateur Radio bands, on the allocated MARS frequencies. This means bypassing the internal tuner and using a more capable external tuner when necessary
TNC: the FT-991A comes with a built-in sound card modem for use on digital modes on HF, but lacks a TNC capability for Winlink or packet digital modes on VHF. This means a separate external TNC
Digital mode and programming software: Digital mode software implies two software packages - Fldigi and Winlink. For programming all my radios I use RT Systems radio-specific software packages
Computer: in this 'communications dominance' scenario the computer must be as rugged/survivable as the radio itself. Because of software requirements it also needs to be a Windows system. Fldigi and Winlink are low system demand applications; they can run just fine on a fairly pedestrian Intel i5 system. Any $300 Wal-Mart laptop could work, but this scenario calls for a computer with above average survivability - something that can take some bumps, knocks and a bit of water. I've actually addressed this issue in a previous post, so check there for more info
Cables: cables are the circulatory system of any radio setup. They make sure the electrons go where they need to go. Coax cables for the antennas, a coax jumper to hook up the tuner, a USB cable to connect the computer to the radio, power cable to connect the radio to the power source, a cable to connect the the TNC to the radio, etc.
Transport: cardboard boxes are a lousy way to transport sensitive electronics gear, even if it is ruggedized. The goal is safe, secure and watertight transport for all system components. It is unreasonable to expect every component to fit into a single case, so what I've done is separated components out by function. The FT-991A and it's key components (power cables, power supply, coax jumpers, headset/boom mic, manuals, etc.) go in one case, antennas and accessories go into another case. Outsized components like vertical antenna sections go in their own custom built transport tubes. Long lengths of coax go into a heavy duty canvas carry tote
One of the great things about being a long-time ham is that I've got most of this stuff already laying around. The only thing I needed to purchase new was a TNC (I went with a Coastal Chipworks TNC-X) and programming software from RT Systems. I'm not sure if this indicates I'm very well prepared, or if I spend too much money on radio gear. Or both.

So what does this component list look like when all detailed out? Here's a look at my packing list:

I know a number of folks will scoff at this - "You are clearly too anal (or self important) and you are just showing off your toys. This is little more than a super-sized version of the unboxing videos you mock in the opening of this blog post." 

I don't see it that way. I spent decades in the US Army managing systems - from simple truck tool kits at the squad level to the fielding of complex information analysis systems across the entire European theater of operations. I have deep experience in building out system components to meet specific mission requirements. If this mission is communications dominance across a variety of operating modes and conditions on the Amateur Radio bands then this system equipment list is the minimum  you will need.

So if you are involved at any level with ARES, SHARES, SATERN, or any of the other Amateur Radio groups that provide emergency communications support start thinking of your radio(s) as part of a system, then build out the system to meet your most likely deployment scenario. Remember, when you deploy don't deploy with a radio, deploy with a system.

W8BYH  out

22 September 2018

Farewell To The Icom IC-7200

With no official announcement from Icom, this week US distributors quietly began marking the Icom IC-7200 as 'discontinued' on their websites

IC-7200 with the optional grab handles

This is a darned shame. The IC-7200 had something of a cult following; it was rugged, military like in it's design and it just looked cool. But it was no slouch - it offered great HF performance and incorporated a sound card interface that made using it on digital modes like PSK-31 or for Winlink a snap.

The IC-7200 was declared dead once before back in 2016, but a year later customer demand spurred Icom to put it back into production. One dealer, Gigaparts, capitalized on the radio's rugged appeal and offered the radio in several custom colors done up by an after-market paint shop. Some of the designs were a bit outlandish, but the 'Vietnam olive drab' option was an attention grabber.

I've owned my IC-7200 for about a year and was so impressed with its performance and rugged build that I was planning to buy a second as a back-up. Alas, it looks like I'll be looking for a used one if I don't move fast.

I'm also scratching my head wondering just why Icom killed off this radio but keeps the very long in the tooth IC-718 in production. The IC-718 went into production almost 5 years before the IC-7200 first came to market. It's a good radio, and Icom has sold truckloads of them, but it's an archaic design by today's standards and other than a low(er) price and the Icom name badge it really doesn't offer any thing that would make it competitive. In fact it's direct competitor in the Yaesu lineup - the FT-450D is a much better radio. The IC-7200 could hold its own against the FT-450D, but not the IC-718.

My guess is that Icom figured out that the IC-7200's sales were eating into sales of the IC-7100 'shack in the box'. Just speculation. Or maybe Icom's got a nifty IC-7200 replacement waiting in the wings. Maybe a ruggedized manpack HF rig, 20 watts out, internal battery pack, takes a whip antenna for operations on 10 and 6 meters, fully integrated handset. Hey c'mon Icom, make Daddy happy!

But in the meantime my IC-7200 will soldier on. I recently had the MARS/CAP mod done on it and it gets dragged to the field now and again for some fun.

IC-7200 running Fldigi from the back of my truck

It's a workhorse for sure. I'm keeping mine.

W8BYH out

20 September 2018

A Flurry of Development

A bunch of things have pulled me away from blogging over the past few months - some house repair issues, Army MARS training, my wife's knee replacement surgery (she's doing fine, thanks) and most recently, a flurry of development to bring our local ARES (Amateur Radio Emergency Service) group website into the modern age.

I got ambushed on this one. A few weeks ago I got an email from our county ARES emergency coordinator (EC) asking if I'd like to serve as the assistant emergency coordinator for digital activities. Since I can barely spell 'digital' I asked him what was up - why the sudden interest in digital stuff. After all, this ARES group has existed for decades blissfully ignorant of most digital mode operations and developments.

As it turns out, there's a new emphasis on the use of Winlink in the emergency communications community (EMCOMM). He wanted to get our ARES group up-to snuff on the basics of Winlink and how to use it to support a served agency. Since I had already given a few talks on Winlink, shamelessly stealing material from others to cobble together presentations, I guess he figured I knew what I was talking about.

I told the EC that I'd take the job, but from a digital perspective our ARES group has other issues that we need to address. First, we can't just stop at Winlink. We also need to get everyone up and running on Fldigi with some level of proficiency. Second, our ARES group web presence was... well, we really didn't have a web presence. We had an old website that held ARES info for our county and the adjoining county that we work very closely with, and we had an email reflector that had been run for almost 15 years on Yahoo Groups. Yeah I know, you're not the only one who's surprised Yahoo's still around.

The EC gave me carte blanche to get our web presence up to snuff, but it had to be done on the cheap. Real cheap, since our local ARES group has no budget. This meant free stuff, or as close to free as I could find. The first thing to tackle was the email reflector issue. Yahoo is one investor fire sale away from going under forever. That means its vast email reflector service is in danger of either going dark or, more likely, being folded into something like Google Groups. We needed to move off of Yahoo's increasingly ageing reflector technology and move to something more up-to-date. The reflector service offered by Groups.io was a natural choice, and a lot of Amateur Radio groups have moved to Groups.io over the past few years. In setting up our Groups.io account we made the decision to not migrate the old Yahoo Groups member list and content over to the new Groups.io environment. There were a lot of 'dead' email addresses in the Yahoo Groups account and we figured it was better to start with a clean slate and have currently interested members make the deliberate choice to sign up.

Next, I had to tackle the website and information portal issue. I do some web development for personal use, blogs, websites and the like, and I manage a good bit of commercial web development at work. I've got a good idea of the costs involved in website development, maintenance and hosting. Good web development isn't cheap, and cheap web development usually isn't very good. But again, our ARES group had zero budget - zip, nada - so I HAD to find something that wouldn't break the bank (ha, ha).

What I turned to was Google's G-Suite environment. G-Suite is Google's business focused upgrade to the free GMail/Google Docs environment. A single G-Suite account costs $60/year and includes features and capabilities not available in the free Google Docs environment. One of those features is Google Sites, a fast and easy website development environment designed for building lightweight internal work group and project websites. But with a few clicks of a button you can publish a Google Sites site on the public web. I use a personal G-Suite account to do web tool development for work so I was fairly confident that Google Sites could fit the need. The configuration options are few. You essentially have a single web template to develop against and you have very limited layout, graphics and text style options. You are also tightly locked into Google's ecosystem. If Google doesn't offer a function or feature it's not going to be available in Google Sites. But the trade off makes Google Sites ideal for our ARES needs - easy development, easy maintenance, fast performance, good integration with the Google Docs suite of tools (word processing, spreadsheet, photos) and dedicated data storage (Google Drive) that can serve as single information portal for all types of records.

Plus you can't beat the price. Really, you can't. Sixty bucks a year (that's $5/month) for use of an environment like this is dirt cheap when you consider all that it offers - website development and hosting, office automation tools, data storage. Since I'm already paying for my G-Suite environment I was able to provide use of this service free to Fayette ARES. All I had to do was go out and reserve a domain name to tie this new site to. After 10 days of development, testing, getting feedback, making changes and developing a how-to video, it's done.

So here it is: www.fayettegaares.org

Fayette ARES is now ready to be dragged into the 21st century! (Yes, I just said that 😄)

W8BYH out

15 July 2018

Ready, Fire, Aim

Amateur (ham) Radio has a problem. The number of active hams has been on a steady decline for at least 20 years. The ARRL knows it but continues to claim that the number of new hams - those who have passed their Technican exam - either rises or holds steady year-to-year so the picture is rosy, in an odd sort of way. No, what Amateur Radio has is a participation problem. The ARRL knows this and puts programs in-place to attract and retain new hams, things like satellites, digital modes, Moon bounce, Summits On the Air, EMCOMM and more. It's all good stuff - there's nothing really bad in Amateur Radio. But it just isn't working. The retention rate, based on my purely anecdotal evidence, can't be more than 20% at the most.

We've all heard the stories of why the millennial and post-millennials are not interested in ham radio - the internet, smartphones, the lack of immediate gratification, the perception that it's for old fuddy-duddies. There's a bit of truth in all of this; in the world of ubiquitous internet connectivity, instantaneous communications modes like Twitter and Snapchat, the 'there's an app for that' mentality and an always-on 24 hour news cycle very few kids today see the relevance of ham radio. Plus when a 16 year-old walks into a ham radio club meeting and sees that everyone else there is collecting Social Security you begin to understand their point.

This is why I think we're targeting the wrong group. The ARRL and other organizations shout that we've got to "get 'em while they're young". Why? It's impossible to compete for the post-millennial's attention and two decades of trying have shown it really doesn't work. Instead I say "get 'em when they're ready".

My feeling is that most kids today do not have the requisite maturity and life experience to understand just why Amateur Radio is important. We've spent too much time emphasizing the 'doing' and not enough time explaining the 'why'. Of course its fun to talk with another ham via an Amateur Radio satellite, but why is ham radio communication via satellite important? We recruit thousands of hams every year to support charity events like fundraising walks or bike rides, but we don't spend much time talking about why it's important we support them. Most clubs hold weekly nets, but we never stop to really discuss why it's important to participate.

Amateur Radio is all about communicating, and in many instances the why comes when the ham radio operator can put it all in perspective. The why is the 9/11 attacks taking out a single point of communications failure atop the World Trade Center, crippling regional communications for months. The why is Hurricane Katrina wiping southern Mississippi and much of Louisiana off the map as ham radio operators crouched on hospital rooftops trying desperately to reach out for assistance in a region without power or communications. The why is the captain of the replica sailing ship HMS Bounty, sinking in the raging ocean waters caused by Super Storm Sandy, contacting the Coast Guard using Winlink on an Amateur Radio frequency to report her last position, this after all other communications systems on the boat had failed. The why is Puerto Rico, flattened by Hurricane Irma and almost entirely dependent on Amateur Radio communications for health and welfare traffic for months after the storm.

To understand the why you must first have the life experience necessary to understand the impacts of each of these events to put them in perspective and understand the role Amateur Radio played. A post-millennial 16 or 17 year old does not have the necessary life experience.

But the Florida homeowner who's ridden out three hurricanes in one season does have the experience and perspective to understand why the ability to communicate is important. So does the Soldier who spent a year in Afghanistan running tactical communications nets supporting military convoys. So does the firefighter who relied on his Motorola handheld to call for assistance while fighting a wildfire. It's precisely these individuals Amateur Radio should be targeting, people who are old enough to understand the importance of communication and have the experience and perspective that allows them to intuitively understand why Amateur Radio is important.

Reaching out to kids is important if for no other reason than let them know that Amateur Radio exists and it's there for them if they have the interest. However, I feel the real target market needs to be generation-x crowd, those born in the 1970's and 80's. These folks have been around the block a few times and are better able to grasp the relevance of Amateur Radio in the real world. The good thing about this age demographic is that it's self-replenishing. Everybody grows older, gains life experience and is better able to put things in perspective. We need to adjust our aim to specifically target the 30 - 50 year old crowd. If we do I'm sure our recruiting and retention rates will improve. We certainly can't do any worse than we have in trying to keep the millennials on-board.

W8BYH out

07 July 2018

Got Batteries?

This afternoon, just out of curiosity, I decided to inventory my battery stash. One of my fears is being caught in an emergency without batteries. Irrational? Ever try to buy common battery types when a hurricane is approaching? Batteries are one of the first commodities to disappear in the panic buying just before a storm, any storm. People who live their lives in a mind-meld with their smartphones never seem to think about how they will power the things when the lights go out. I think most plan to just sit in their cars with the engine running so they can recharge their phone. Until the gas runs out.


I'm not saying you can recharge an iPhone 7 with a handful of AA cells. What I am getting at is that most folks don't plan for disasters. They just react as events unfold, and that reaction is usually fear - fear of being without. That's why you find folks who claim to live a gluten-free lifestyle snatching loaves of Wonder Bread off the store shelves right along with the guy that eats three PB&J sandwiches a day.

The same for batteries. A few years back, the day before an ice storm was scheduled to hit the Atlanta area, I watched a guy in the local Wal-Mart buy the last three 6-volt lantern batteries they had in stock. I asked him what he was planning to run with them and he told me he had no idea, he just wanted to make sure he had batteries - any batteries, I guess. Of course I was the one with two Coleman battery powered fluorescent lanterns that needed those batteries. It was at that moment I realized I needed to:

  1. Switch my battery powered devices such as radios and flashlights to models that used common battery types
  2. Make sure I always had enough batteries on hand to meet clearly planned out emergency power requirements
  3. Find the cheapest and most reliable source of quality batteries

One of the technological advancements of the last decade that made this feasible is the LED (light emitting diode). The LED has revolutionized the portable lighting industry. This means a two AA-cell LED flashlight can put out more light than an old 2 D-cell unit powering an incandescent bulb. The LED is also more energy efficient so batteries last longer and the quality of the light put out by an LED is much better - it's a cleaner, whiter light that does a much better job of penetrating the darkness.

LED technology has also made its way over to portable lanterns. When I got home after my Wal-Mart battery encounter I went on-line and ordered a Streamlight Siege LED lantern to test against my old Coleman fluorescent lanterns. It took about 10 minutes of testing to convince me that the LED lantern was the way to go. The Coleman lanterns got chucked in the trash that night (I didn't have batteries for them anyway) and I've been using the Streamlights ever since.

The Siege lantern comes in a 3 D-cell
or smaller 3 AA-cell version
So over the course of the last few years I've swapped virtually all of my emergency gear over to devices that take common batteries - all my flashlights, lanterns, AM/FM/Weather radios, even most of my handheld Amateur radios and one HF/VHF/UHF radio (Yaesu FT-817) is set up to run on AA or D-cells.

But what about devices like smartphones and tablets that don't take standard batteries? For those I've taken a different approach. Rather than try to keep various power sources on-hand for each type I just have a small bank of 12 volt 32 amp hour golf cart batteries I can hook up to a USB adapter. One of these batteries is capable of charging an iPad at least twice, and a smartphone perhaps half a dozen times before needing to be recharged itself. With several of these golf cart batteries on-hand I feel certain I can keep the phones and tablets running for several days or power other critical devices like higher power Amateur radios.

But do I have enough batteries? That answer requires planning for a likely emergency scenario over a clearly defined span of time. I plan for a weather related disaster of up to 72 hours in duration. If my local government can't get things back up and working even to minimal levels in 72 hours then I'm taking the bug-out option. So knowing all the devices I want to keep working for 72 hours - all my lights and radios - how many batteries do I need to keep on-hand to meet the minimum stockage requirement? I think the number will surprise you. I plugged it all into a spreadsheet and came up with 76 (seventy six!) AA-cells and 22 D-cells. This is the minimum number I need to keep on-hand in the event of a 'surprise' weather event. Think I'm being overly dramatic? Every week during spring and summer someone in the central US comes home from work and in the time it takes to prepare dinner their house is either destroyed or severely damaged by a tornado. It can and does happen on a regular basis. Just ask the folks who live in Tornado Alley. When a tornado is bearing down on your part of town it's a lousy time to run to the store to look for batteries.

Live anywhere near a colored square?
Mother Nature has a something in store for you.
Maybe not this week, or even this year, but soon...

Next, let's look at source. If the bunny on TV - the one with the drum - is to be believed the only good battery is the more expensive battery. The bunny sells a lot of batteries, but what he's banging his drum about isn't necessarily the truth. A number of studies have shown that generic alkaline batteries tend to last just as long in average consumer devices as the more expensive name brand versions. The term 'average consumer device' means things like radios, flashlights, game consoles, etc. There are valid reasons for going with more expensive batteries for high drain electronics like digital cameras, but then you are talking about moving away from alkaline and over to the far more expensive lithium technologies. For the types of devices I'm talking about powering, good old generic alkaline batteries are just fine, thanks. I've found the best source, and the easiest to deal with, is Amazon and their house brand Amazon Basics batteries. The Amazon Basics AA batteries sell for $0.23/cell when bought in quantities of 100 or more. Compare that to $0.40/cell for 100 of the bunny's batteries when bought from Amazon. The same economics apply for AAA-cells, D-cells and other sizes. Some folks bring up the bogey man of 'shelf life'; in fact, the bunny bases an entire ad campaign around the freshness of his (or her? I'm not sure) batteries. The truth is, common battery types like AA's get used for a lot of things around the average household - in clocks, remote controls, alarms, toys, musical devices, etc. Your battery stock will get rotated through regular usage. Just buy the cheaper generics, use 'em, and when your stockage level drops below your minimum, replace 'em.

So there you have it. When it comes to batteries my philosophy is you can never have enough but it's easy to have too little. If you are serious about preparing for likely disaster scenarios take a hard look at the emergency devices in your house and how you plan to use them, then calculate out the number of batteries you will need for a scenario that lasts 48 or 72 hours. That way you won't find yourself at Wal-Mart battling half the town for the last blister pack of the bunny's batteries.


04 July 2018

New Mobile Comms Suite

This week I updated the UHF/VHF comms suite in my CEV*, HQ-6. OK, it's actually my F-150 but hey, I can dream can't I?

The radios I've been using in my truck for the past two years were either an Icom 880H or an Icom ID-440. Both are very good radios but I wanted improved capabilities. I wanted the ability to do cross-band repeat from my truck, I wanted a larger screen that presented more information, I wanted dual receive and I also wanted D-STAR. That narrows the choice down to just one radio - the Icom ID-5100. I've been using the ID-5100 for the past 6 months in my shack and I've come to appreciate it as one of the best dual band mobile radios on the market today. So I sold off a few things (these days in my house ham radio must be a zero sum gain) and picked up a second ID-5100.

I also bit the bullet and bought a Ram X-grip mount for the radio head. If the F-150 has a drawback it's that the dashboard provides zero clean, smooth and level spaces for mounting accessories. Shame on you Ford. Not everything must be an exercise in eclectic styling and swoopy angles. It's a truck, fer' christ sake. The X-grip mount has a big suction cup that, so far, is sticking tenaciously to my windshield with the ID-5100 control head attached. I wouldn't take it off-roading, but for normal road travel it seems to work just fine.

The antenna remains the same old tried-and-true Comet SBB-5 on a mag mount stuck in the middle of the truck roof. I've used this antenna for more years than I can count on a variety of vehicles and recommend it highly. It's a single piece of stainless steel and it presents a reasonable SWR on both 2 meters and 70 centimeters. When you get it mounted it'll require a little tweaking with a tuner to get it optimized, but once you do that you can pretty much forget about it for the next decade or so. With the matching Comet mag mount base this antenna stays in place even when cruising at 85 mph up Interstate 75 (don't ask me how I know...).

One of the big things I like about the ID-5100 is how Icom implemented cross-band repeat. I've got other mobile units that can do cross-band, but getting to the cross band feature set requires some funky button pushing and a fair amount of biting your tongue. With the ID-5100 cross-band repeat is just a few taps away from the main screen and everything is clearly indicated on the display. Another great 'sneaky-pete' feature of the ID-5100 is that once you have all the settings in place you can disconnect the remote head and hide it away in your vehicle - the base unit will continue to operate. So I can be roaming a local park with a low power UHF hand-held and work my local VHF repeater on cross-band repeat with the radio completely hidden from view.

Cross-band repeat using a small UHF handheld
 is a great tool for mobile work

But it's not just cross-band repeat and D-STAR that make this radio great. As I type this I'm listening live to the Atlanta Radio Club radio traffic supporting the annual Peachtree Road Race in Atlanta. The repeater, W4DOC, is located in downtown Atlanta is right on the edge of my ability to receive signals from its location. Although race radio traffic is barely registering 1 or 2 bars on the ID-5100, received audio is excellent. If I didn't know better based on the radio's display I'd say I was hearing net control at full strength and full quieting. The receiver in this radio is outstanding.

So the UHF/VHF comms upgrade is done. What's next? Maybe a prefabricated HF operating position for the back of the truck. But first, I gotta' go get the ribs done for the 4th of July dinner.

W8BYH out

*Combat Engineer Vehicle (CEV) - I used to be a combat engineer. The CEV was a true 'MacGyver' piece of gear used by combat engineer units in the US Army. It was a 'do-all' vehicle based on the M60 tank that sported plow, a crane and a 165mm demolition gun. In short, the perfect commuting vehicle for Atlanta traffic. Sadly, my wife won't let me have one, so I have to make do.

31 May 2018

The Russians Are Watching

And so are the Chinese, the Iranians, the North Koreans, and very likely the eeevil Canadians (just joking about the Canadians).

A few days ago the ARRL posted a news item about how Army MARS will require their operators to use computers that are completely disconnected from the internet while running the Data Modem Terminal software during MARS operations. This comment is telling:
"Despite a stand-alone environment, we assume that all computer systems in private citizens' hands are infected with hostile software code of some sort and are not secured," he said. "No amount of virus and malware scanning software changes that assumption. We can, however, isolate computers by disconnecting them from the intentional network in which hostile software will report and receive instruction."
We are in an era where real-time monitoring of your digital radio communications activity is not just possible, but probable given the software you are using and the activity you are supporting.

Think it can't happen to you? Did you ever wonder why the Geek Squad at Best Buy was all but giving Kaspersky anti-virus software away?

We're watching, Comrade!

 W8BYH out

28 May 2018

On Prepping

'Prepping', or preparing for the next disaster or the ultimate apocalypse, is an activity that a lot of Amateur Radio operators (gleefully) participate in. Actually, it's more like the Preppers are participating in Amateur Radio. Either way, there's a huge overlap between ham radio and prepping. I hang out on the margins of this activity because I understand the importance of being prepared for likely disaster situations (note the emphasis on likely). Also, if 23 years in the Army teaches you anything it's to be prepared. And there's no organization better at prepping than the United States Army. It's an obsession with them. Lastly, there's a bit of perverse pleasure that comes from facing a disaster, even a small one like a power outage, with all the supplies and systems in place that allows you to look around your small castle and say, "I've got this".

I read a lot about prepping, follow a few forums devoted to prepping, watch a lot of YouTube videos on prepping and even participate in disaster prepping exercises through my local ARES group. Too much of what you read or see on-line is focused in the wrong direction for the average citizen. It seems most of the 'fantasy' preppers talk about bugging out to some remote retreat where they've tunneled into the side of a mountain, installed biological and radiological filters and blast-proof doors, laid in a 20 year supply of food and water, run hydroponic gardens and have a wonderful time riding out the apocalypse. They actually made a how-to movie about it:

But let's get real. Most of the likely disasters we face will be triggered by Mother Nature - either weather or earthquake. Hurricanes, tornadoes, wildfires, lightning strikes, snow storms or just run-of-the-mill flooding routinely impacts millions each year. Those of you (un)lucky enough to live in southern California face annual wildfire risks, plus every time San Andreas burps you're running into the streets hoping it isn't The Big One.

And then there's the impact of poorly maintained infrastructure. In August 2003 drooping power lines on a residential street in Ohio shorted out on tree branches, causing a generating station in East Lake, Ohio, to go off-line. A cascading series of events ended up shutting down power to huge sections of  New York, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan, New Jersey, Connecticut, Rhode Island and the province of Ontario. Think about it. Some poorly maintained power lines on a residential street ended up cutting power to millions of people across the northeastern US and Canada.

While these are not full apocalypse situations, it shows that the S*** does Hit The Fan more than most people realize, and that it can happen without warning.

So how do you prepare for the most likely scenario you may face? Well rather than blather on and on I'm just going to let Scott Conover, AC2FV from Long Island tell you how it should be done. In May 2016 Scott posted an excellent, easy to watch and easy to follow video on just what it takes to survive a 'likely scenario' event. Using Super Storm Sandy as the defining example, Scott goes through the impact the storm had on Long Island, the survival scenarios it generated and how he mitigated them.

I strongly recommend this video to everyone concerned about prepping, even if you have zero interest in communications or ham radio. It is the most level-headed discussion of the topic of real-world prepping and response that I've seen. Watch and learn:

W8BYH out

26 May 2018

2018 Hurricane Season

Mother Nature's getting an early start. Better batten down the hatches.

To open this interactive web map in a new tab you can click here. The developer, ESRI, is the leading provider of geospatial-based web mapping and they provide this map as a part of their emergency and situational awareness services. It's good stuff. I'd bookmark it... just saying.

W8BYH out

Ham Radio Deluxe

For the past 4 months I've been 'struggling' to figure out Ham Radio Deluxe (HRD). I put 'struggling' into quotes because the struggle always came in 15 or 30 minute blocks when I had time to play with it. But inevitably I'd get frustrated because I always thought that HRD was getting in the way of my operating. I'd rather be on the radio than fiddling with the radio.

But in the past week I found myself with a lot of extra time off from work as I was playing nursemaid to my lovely XYL who had knee replacement surgery (she's doing fine, thank you). I became determined to figure out this program and make a decision to either keep using it or turn to something else.

Ham Radio Deluxe logging window

My motivation for learning HRD ended up being digital modes. I've been an SSB guy since I first got my General ticket over 15 years ago, but I really wanted to give digital modes a try. This was spurred by my interest in emergency communications. As much as I like voice communications I realize that passing messages by voice is a highly error prone process. Some level of expertise in digital communications is necessary if you expect to communicate effectively in times of emergency.

So, I thought I'd start with PSK31 and work up from there. PSK31 is extremely popular, allows keyboard-to-keyboard chats and there's usually someone hanging around the pre-determined frequencies on 80, 40 and 20 meters looking for a contact.

There's a lot of good digital mode software out there, the most famous being Fldigi (for 'fast, light digital'). Fldigi is free software that is maintained by a very talented development group and is something of the standard in digital communications. It is excellent software and is my #1 recommendation for someone looking for a digital mode package. But because Fldigi's focus is just on digital it leaves out a lot of features to support other modes of operation like SSB. I was looking for something more broad-based, something that could support all the modes I was interested in using - SSB, AM, digital and, perhaps some day, CW. I was also looking for an integrated logging program.

By process of elimination I settled on HRD and ponied up the money for an annual subscription. I manage application development for a living so I'm not afraid to pay for good software. I understand the costs involved in the development and maintenance of good software. But on the flip side I also expect a certain level of development and maintenance activity that you don't often find with 'freeware'. The management team at HRD seem to understand this, and they maintain steady progress on bug fixes, feature requests and bringing on new capabilities.

(Time for an aside here, because I know someone is going to bring this up. Several years ago HRD got a bad rap for how it was treating its paying customers. Things came to a head when, out of spite, one of its support staff turned off  several customers access to the software in retaliation for bad reviews. Soon after HRD management was reorganized and the new management team has been working hard at both improving the HRD software and doing damage control. The new HRD is not the old HRD, both from a software and management perspective. Yet reviewers on forums like eHam and QRZ.com continue to bitch about this incident as though it happened yesterday, using it as a tool to bludgeon HRD. To those I say, give it up. It's unwarranted and grossly unfair to the current management team, who are bending over backwards to provide a quality product and support.)

HRD is a program so chock full of variables that it can take days to get it all figured out. But the #1 variable, the one that seems to bedevil most users, is making the proper connection to the radio. This is where HRD excels compared to other programs. The guys who built the rig interface module knew what they were doing. After a few frustrating tries at manually configuring the connection parameters I threw up my hands and tried the 'auto-connect' feature. BINGO - instant connection. The module polls the radio, grabs the necessary connection settings and does the software configuration for you. But this is just to get the radio to talk to the software to control things like frequency and mode settings. Further configurations for digital modes can be a whole other level of frustration, even if your radio (like my IC-7300) has an integrated sound card. This is because proper configuration is a balancing act between your radio, the software and your computer hardware settings. If you use an external soundcard interface like the excellent Signalink things can be even more painfully complex. Only Rube Goldberg could have dreamed up something more twisted.

Why design something simple when it's far more fun to make it overly complex?

But things are not all peachy-keen on the HRD side. The HRD suite reflects its development origins where new modules were 'bolted-on' to a core product. This type of development is very common and is used across the software industry, but if the modules are not integrated from both a function and look and feel perspective the performance and user experience can be a bit rough. We see this in HRD with things like inconsistent menu structures, differences in icon & type styles, etc. as you move from module to module. We also see this as different modules try to compete for the same computer resources like serial ports. It can take developers several software versions to get new functionality fully integrated and matured and the hiccups smoothed out. Here's a hint - it took Microsoft well over a decade to get all the bits and pieces of what we know as Microsoft Office to work together seamlessly and share the same look and feel. The Microsoft Office development team members can be counted in the hundreds. HRD likely has less than a dozen. Given the overall complexity of HRD, the clean-up effort required to bring legacy code up to snuff and the work needed to develop, test and integrate new features I'm willing to give the HRD team time to smooth things out.

OK, back to PSK31. After several hours of tweaking I was finally rewarded with settings on both the radio side and the HRD side that allowed me to transmit a clean PSK31 signal. I happened to get it running just before a busy digital mode contest weekend, so I had lots of opportunities to hone my settings and set up my macros. Once I got things figured out it was like shooting fish in a barrel - see a PSK31 CQ call signal stream in the waterfall, click on it, throw your callsign back and the odds were better than 50/50 that the other station would acknowledge you. Easy peasy. The log filled up fast. But I'm sure for most of you reading this, PSK31 is old news.

A bit of  keyboard chat with KG4ZQY in Brunswick, GA.
I find that the PSK31 baud rate closely matches my touch typing speed, so keyboard-to-keyboard
is actually a lot of fun

But it was while playing with PSK31 that I found perhaps the biggest benefits of HRD:
  • The data mode module talks to the radio configuration module which talks to the rig control module which talks to the logbook module which talks to the callsign lookup module which talks to the DX cluster module which... well, you get it. Everything talks to everything else, fairly seamlessly and quickly. The developers have done a good job integrating the various modules that make up HRD.
  • HRD is stable. It has not frozen or hiccuped even once on the three Windows 10 laptops I've tested it on. Now that's an accomplishment. In the software world stability trumps features every time. I'm glad HRD has focused on stability, even if it's at the expense of bringing on new features.
I now have HRD running on a Panasonic Toughbook with an i5 dual core processor, 16 GB of system memory and plain-jane Intel graphics - good but not great specs for a laptop today. The software just loafs along, gobbling up less than 2% of system resources and plays well with other software packages like Winlink 2000 that demand access to serial ports and other resources.

I can't say if HRD is the best thing going for an integrated ham radio software package. I can say that it works and works well for me. I'll continue to train up on Fldigi simply because that's the standard within the ARES groups I support, but for general use, HRD - and the IC-7300 - makes for a crackerjack setup.

W8BYH out

04 May 2018

Ground Mounted Vertical

For the past two years or so I've been using a vertical HF antenna set manufactured by Chameleon Antenna out of Sparks, Nevada. Chameleon is known for producing well made portable antennas and components and the customer service is outstanding.

The HF antenna I use isn't a single product. Chameleon sells a variety of components that you can use to build an antenna 'system', and what I've cobbled together consists of the the Chameleon Hybrid base - a 5:1 matching transformer - and two vertical whip sections. I normally use a jaw clamp to secure the antenna to a tripod supported mast. This arrangement requires counterpoise wires, and I run three or four counterpoises set out between 40 & 60 feet to help tuning on the lower bands. Chameleon is honest in its literature by stating that most antenna setups will require a tuner or matching unit, but the 5:1 matching transformer should provide a low enough VSWR on all bands that your tuner should have no trouble finding a match. I also find it helpful to place a common mode choke right at the feedpoint to help tame the SWR.

When clamped to the tripod mast and hoisted 8' or so in the air the antenna is a great performer. Chameleon will tell you that with a vertical antenna, height is everything, so the higher you get it in the air the better the performance. As long as the bands cooperate I've had no trouble making contacts all over the eastern US and into the Caribbean. It's not a DX antenna, but for regional communications it works just fine.

The Chameleon in its normal setup, clamped to a tripod mounted mast

Setup can take a little time, and if there's any wind the antenna needs to be guyed for support, but once it's up it is a great performer

The Chameleon vertical makes for a great 'tailgate portable' setup

Recently I was operating at a local park and broke my tripod center pole. This is simply an inexpensive painters pole that slides into the tripod center socket so I wasn't too upset. But I didn't have a spare so it left me without a way to stand up the antenna.

Then I remember that I had a Chameleon ground spike with me. The Chameleon spike is a simple stainless steel spike with a socket threaded to accept the standard 3/8 x 24 mounting bolts used on most portable ham radio antenna bases. The spike is designed specifically to support Chameleon's vertical antenna components but in reality can be used with just about any vertical antenna with a 3/8 x 24 base.

I had purchased the spike over a year ago, looked it over and tossed it into my antenna bag thinking it might come in handy one day. Well, that day had arrived. With a broken tripod there was no other way for me to support this vertical antenna. A few whacks with a mallet and the spike was in the ground. I screwed in the antenna sections, attached the counterpoises, hooked up the coax and hoped for the best.

The spike supporting the Chameleon 5:1 matching unit and vertical sections

I need not have worried - even in this era of lousy band conditions this setup got me in to NW Ohio and Maryland up near Baltimore on 40 meters. In fact, it was 'Ohio NVIS Test Day' and I was talking to folks around Columbus and Dayton on their NVIS setups with no problem - from well south of Atlanta.

The antenna setup using the Chameleon capacitance hat, which isn't a true 'cap-hat',
but it makes the antenna a little more broad-banded on the lower frequencies

I was also able to make connections to Winlink nodes on 40 meters up to 490 miles away. Overall I was quite pleased with the setup. Yes, I'm sure it would have performed better mounted to the tripod and hoisted up 8 feet or so, but you have to work with what you have, and this was all I had, and it worked!

Making connections to Winlink nodes as far away as Pennsylvania was no problem. Notice the vertical antenna
peeking up just over the Signalink unit

Chameleon vertical on the right, radio on the left. A beautiful, cool day. A great location. Radios.
What more can you ask for?

Would I ever deliberately choose this ground spike setup over a tripod mounted setup? No, but it does provide a means to get on the air quickly. With practice I'm sure I could have this antenna combination set up and and on the air in under 10 minutes. If you are working an emergency communications scenario where you need to get a minimal communications capability on the air fast to buy time to set up a more robust antenna configuration, this spike/vertical combo is ideal.

W8BYH out