Winter Field Day 2021: Failure…and Success!

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Audio version of this post

About a month ago, I decided I was ready to try my hand at a contest. Winter Field Day was coming up and seemed like a simple enough one to get in to. For my location, I decided to set up at my girlfriend’s parents’ house out in rural Wisconsin. They have some land which I will happily use for antennas this summer, but for WFD, I thought their back yard would be easier and warmer since I could operate from indoors. The weather was projected to be around 0° Fahrenheit at night, so I figured I’d run class 1I (single op, inside) QRP with non-commercial power.

Power:

I researched nearly every way to power my rig off the grid, reading the specs of every solar panel and generator I could afford. I resigned myself to buying a small 2-cycle generator, since I realized I’d be operating mostly at night. After reading through the rules more carefully, I noticed it was acceptable to recharge batteries off of house power, and I was good to go! I used my 166Wh Beaudens Portable Power Station, and as it turned out, I never even needed to charge it. I had a back-up battery on the charger just in case, but it wasn’t necessary.

Radio/Computer Rig:

I brought along my Xiegu G90, which has been my main radio since before I even got my General License. It has a Raspberry Pi nearly always hooked up to it, but for the contest, I wanted something with more power and a better screen. I love the Pi, but I felt for contesting I needed something that could run a little smoother. I brought my 2020 MacBook Pro with Bootcamp/Windows 10 on it. Software was JS8 Call, FLDigi, FLRig, and N3FJP for logging.

Antennas:

A month or so before WFD, I started planning my antenna needs. I wanted to utilize multi-band antennas that didn’t require me to go outside for adjustment. I could have just ordered up something in an adjustable loading coil and whip, but that’s not my style–I need to go overboard and overthink everything. After learning MMANA (check out M0MCX’s YouTube playlist on antenna modeling), I modeled everything I could think of. I ended up settling on my trusty 9:1 Unun random wire (except super long) and a smaller version of M0MCX’s Mega-loop. The idea is that it’s a horizontal loop in a triangle cut for a full wave on 40 meters with the intention of it kicking butt on 20 meters. With these two antennas, I could cover 160-15 Meters with overlap on 40M all without having to leave the radio.

Set up:

I had extensively planned out the setup with Google Maps and figured I had exactly enough room for my loop. When I got there, it seems I had forgotten that trees have branches and branches have twigs. I spent several hours with my DIY sling shot antenna launcher trying to get the corners of the loop up to a decent height. After running out of time, I gave up and went with a lower height on one side. I was using a fiberglass pole for the feed-line corner, but since there were lots of twigs in the way, I wasn’t able to get it as high as I would have liked. Much was learned in that particular deployment. I’ll be ordering a couple more masts so I won’t have to rely on trees again!

The random wire deployment was much easier. I picked a direction that was 90 degrees from where the loop was “pointed”, and got the line clear over a tall pine tree on the first shot. The whole deployment took about 10 minutes!

At this point I was late starting, so I rushed inside to get going.

WFD operating:

I got the fire stoked up and the antenna analyzer out and hooked it up first to the loop. The SWR curve was way off from my model, which was very disappointing. I figured it was due to it being so low to the ground, but I knew the G90’s tuner could handle nearly anything, so I didn’t worry too much. I tried the random wire next and was surprised to see the SWR between 1-2 over the entire HF band. That didn’t seem right at all, but there was nothing I could do but plug them in and get going!

I had both antennas on a switch so I could easily go from one to the other. I started on the loop and tuned to the bottom of the general phone portion of the 40M band. WFD was fully underway! At that point, the loop was sounding great compared to the random wire. I found a station calling “CQ Field Day” and settled in to find my place to call back. For the first station I heard, I couldn’t figure out their call sign because it sounded way too familiar…I must have been hearing it wrong: N3FJP. Nah, that can’t be right– that’s the name of my logging software. But yep, it was Glenn Davis, the writer of the software I was using for logging! What are the chances? I wanted him first in my log for sure! I tried calling back a few times and he finally heard part of my call but I couldn’t get the whole call through to him. Fail.

The rest of the afternoon went on in a similar way. I just couldn’t get through to anyone. Finally, I gave up on my QRP multiplier and turned up to 20W, the max the G90 will do. Now I was able to be heard, and started racking up the contacts. I made a handful of SSB contacts and switched over to JS8Call to do some digi. I tried for half an hour to get JS8 working but couldn’t get any responses to my heartbeats. I just couldn’t get the time synced up right without internet. Had I been using my Pi, its GPS dongle probably would have synced up right, but after the day of set-up failures, I just didn’t have it in me to switch computers. Plus, I wanted N3FJP to automatically log my digi contacts, and was also unable to link the two together.

I had done my homework on PSK-31 with the idea that it might be better for WFD than JS8Call. I fired up FLDigi and started tuning around. Fairly quickly, I started to make contacts. Much easier that JS8 and not tied to a strict clock. After a few rounds of awkward QSOs, I had my macros set and I was knocking ’em out. I operated that way for the rest of the evening, bouncing between SSB and PSK-31.

After the sun went down, I was exclusively on the random wire and 160-80 meters. There was a ton of CW activity between 1.8 and 1.9MHz. I’m working on learning CW, but no luck that day. I heard a little SSB activity close to 1.9MHz, but it was just people complaining about how WFD had taken over the other bands. 160 clearly wasn’t going to happen, so I focused on 80 and finished out the night there. Around 10:00 PM, I was fully beat, and called it a night with thirty or so total contacts on 80, 40, and 20. I didn’t have any digi on 20, so I’d have to pick that up the next morning after a good night’s sleep.

I woke early, suddenly realizing that I had completely failed to hook up part of the loop. I had made it in three sections with the idea of making it easier to deploy. Well, I had forgotten to hook the corners together, so what I was actually using was a very out-of-tune dipole with the legs angled 33 degrees rather than straight across, and a 4:1 balun. I’m amazed I got anything on it at all! So, I pulled it down, hooked them up, and went back to check it on the analyzer. Boom! Now it looked like the MMANA model did! A little long, but resonant — nearly where it should be. I hooked it back up to the radio and WOW! On 20 meters it was dead quiet. I could hear everything. There were strong signals with WFD activity, and below them were layers of faint DX activity. Absolutely incredible. No noise to speak of at all. The rest of the morning was spent busting pileups on the first try and just generally kicking ass everywhere. I fine tuned my FLDigi macros more and ran some digi pileups. Super fun!

I was out of coffee pretty quickly, and considering I had accomplished my goals, I decided to call it a day a little early. I packed it all up and headed home, stoked over my success. All in all, I consider the venture a full success. I doubt I scored many points, but I did accomplish the goals of designing an antenna from the ground up, building said antenna, deploying it in the field, learning a new digital mode and making contacts using it, and operating on 3 out of the 5 bands I designed the antennas to work on. 160 and 15 would have been icing on the cake, but I didn’t really expect any contacts there. I now know what I need to work on and improve, and isn’t that the whole point? Always gonna do better next time!

73, KF0ARE