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