After 52 Years of Field Day, Murphy Still Reigns!

Prologue, June 30, 2022: This story evolved from an email note that I wrote on June 26, 2022, to Eric Anderson at PreppComm after the close of ARRL Field Day 2022. The content of the email note built on a stream of email exchanges Eric and I had in the weeks before Field Day 2022. Eric thought that the after-action report of my Field Day effort, which was the heart of the email, might be of interest to other hams. The MMX had been a central component of my preparations for and participation in Field Day 2022. I have polished that email a little, mainly to insert the background information that Eric already had from our email exchanges prior to the wrap-up note. Bob Lankston, WA7TZP, Graham, WA.

ARRL Field Day 2022, My 52nd Try

I earned my Novice Class Amateur Radio license early in 1971. Like so much of my life with electronics and related technology, there is a story there. My first opportunity for ARRL Field Day participation as a licensed Amateur was, therefore, June 1971. No, I did not put a station on the air or even participate with a club that summer. Yes, there is a story for that, too.

This story, which relates to my 52nd opportunity to participate in the annual ARRL Field Day event, begins with my reading of the product review of the PreppComm DMX-40 in QST a few months ago. In that same issue of QST, I saw an advertisement for the multiband sibling of the DMX-40, i.e., the PreppComm MMX, and I started thinking about how I might use the MMX transceiver for ARRL Field Day 2022. I am not a contest operator, but Field Day has always been a special Amateur Radio event for me. I view it as a chance to dust of equipment, charge batteries, put up a temporary antenna, and so forth just to prove that I could establish an ad hoc station. Of course, another upside is that, in the setup process, I find items that are truly junk, and I dispose of them. The tear-down stage is an opportunity to return a degree of organization to the components that might have become scattered during the previous year. I suppose all of that is a less visible but expected component of the Field Day (FD) program.

Approximately, 30 years ago, my son, Robb, began sitting with me for a while at my FD operating table. In those days, my wife would get take-out from a local bar-be-cue place, and Robb and I would picnic at midday on FD Saturday at the operating table under a plastic tarp sunshade erected in our backyard.

Those were good ham radio days. We lived near the crest of a low hill at the edge of a smallish, mid-continent, almost treeless prairie town where we had a large backyard at the end of a culde-da-sac, and we had no CCR restrictions on antennas.

Jump ahead approximately 10 years when Robb was in high school. Robb studied for and earned the Technician Class license. That added another potential dimension to FD operations. We had moved from the open prairie to suburban Houston, TX, by then, and our FD activity was limited to making cameo appearances at the FD site of a local club, which set up stations in the parking lot adjacent to the local American Red Cross center.

Life marched on. Robb graduated from the University of Montana, he started his own business processing satellite imagery in support of wildland fire studies, he married, and he and his wife moved to suburban Seattle, WA. I retired from my job in Houston and moved to Missoula, MT, during Robb’s undergraduate days. After fifteen years in Missoula, and a number of good backyard FD installations, several of which Robb visited while he was an undergraduate,

my wife and I moved to semi-rural western Washington last fall in order to be closer to Robb and our daughter-in-law, who, like her husband, is a computer scientist in a field of big data processing and analysis. Not unexpectedly, in the relocation, I found myself again in a deed restricted neighborhood.

Robb’s place, however, is in a neighborhood of single-family homes that was developed during the post-WWII years before CCR’s were common. Further, he has a good-sized yard surrounded by tall trees. When I saw the advertisement for the MMX, I thought that the device could provide an opportunity for Robb to leverage his skills at keyboard-to-keyboard internet chatting into making Morse Code contacts on Field Day. The MMX might provide the vehicle for Robb to participate in FD using his own Technician Class privileges on HF with me acting as coach as opposed to me acting as control operator as in previous activations. We could string a 40 m dipole between two of his tall cedar trees. The MMX would bridge our respective weaknesses with CW.

I ordered the MMX with just the 40 m board installed some time before FD hoping that the unit would arrive in time for me to gain some skill with it before FD. This is about the point in the story where my FD Sunday ARRL Field Day 2022 wrap-up email to Eric Anderson begins.

The MMX arrived last Tuesday. I started reading the manual and quickly realized that the antenna connection was SMA. I had no SMA connectors. Fortunately, I was able to get a set of SMA connectors and adapters overnight from Amazon. Wednesday, I set about dusting off the 40 m dipole that I had used for Field Days and Scout demonstrations off and on during the past 30 years and stringing it up in my backyard with the center insulator screwed into the ridge of the patio roof. The antenna was pretty close to the ground, but living in a CCR limited neighborhood, I have to keep antenna things below the HOA radar. I had hoped that 40 m would be open with some regional stations through the afternoon, but, apparently, not.

I set up the MMX, portable battery, and antenna tuning equipment on the island counter in the kitchen of our new house. The island is about the only clear workspace that I could claim for a few days. The island had AC power and was close to the patio door through which I could route the antenna coax.

A little before sunset, I started hearing 40 m code signals through the MMX in its standalone mode. I was not initially paying a lot of attention to the MMX screen, i.e., I was reading the quick start pages and poking here and there on the screen and on the keyboard. At one point, I looked up and exclaimed to my wife that the box was decoding. Later that evening, I was able to decode both sides of a QSO on 40 m. The MMX indicated a speed of 10 WPM, and I was able to check the decoded text with my own mental decoding, or, maybe, it was the other way around. I do not know when I last tried to copy Morse code, but I did okay in that instance. The visual feedback from the MMX screen was nice to have. Buoyed by that success, I planned to spend time on Thursday working on the transmitting side of the MMX-based station.

The next day, (Thursday) I got busy with non-radio things, and by evening, I was too tired to pick up where I had left off with the MMX on Wednesday evening. After my experience of Wednesday and after checking online propagation sites, I was beginning to realize that 40 m would, most likely, be an evening band for Field Day. By this time, it was obvious that using Robb’s place for the FD site was not going to work out. I decided that I should try to set up at my place for a daytime band if Robb were going to join me on FD Saturday afternoon.

With my MMX having only a 40 m board, I would need to build a 10 m antenna and find adapters and patch cables for using the MMX in external mode with my 20-year-old Yaseu FT-817 as the transceiver. Finding odd things like the necessary cables and adapters was terribly frustrating with so much of my radio stuff still disorganized after last fall's move.

After I got the 40 m dipole down from the end of the patio awning and put away and after I got the 10 m dipole built and hung from the ridge of the patio awning in the afternoon, I was surprised that 10 m was “dead”. Conventional wisdom is that 10 m would be open in the middle of the summer, in the middle of the day, and with the solar cycle on the upswing.

No apparent activity on 10 m was disappointing, but I thought that I could splice a little wire onto the 10 m dipole to make it resonate on 15 m, another band on which Technician Class licensees have code privileges. Robb and I could splice on the extra wire quickly enough on Saturday morning after he arrived. However, Robb called around eight o’clock Saturday morning saying that he and his wife were sick and that they would not be coming down here on Saturday after all.

I checked 10 m around noon (Pacific time) on FD Saturday, and the band was dead. I checked again a little later, and the band was still dead. I checked internet propagation sites, and, indeed, the MUF for mid-latitudes was around 18 MHz. Anticipating that I would not see Robb for Field Day 2022, I decided to splice in wire to extend my 10 m dipole for 20 m, not 15 m, i.e., 14 MHz and not 21 MHz. I would attempt to make contacts using my own call. Even 20 m was dead. I do not know what the problem was. Maybe it was entirely ionospheric conditions. Maybe my house is in a topographic hole, and radio reception is further compromised by the tall, rainforest trees throughout my neighborhood. Maybe my antenna tuner or my antenna SWR meter was malfunctioning having been damaged during the move. Maybe I forgot to change the antenna switch from the SWR meter to the transceiver. Whatever the case, I was certainly frustrated in hearing nothing but white noise.

Robb called Saturday evening saying that he and his wife both seemed better and that we might be able to get together on Sunday morning. Robb called again early Sunday morning in the waning hours of the nominal 24-hour Field Day period and said he would arrive around ten o’clock. I flipped on the MMX patched into my Yaseu FT-817, which was still tuned to 20 m, and I heard all sorts of CW signals, nothing like my experience of Saturday afternoon.

Hearing signals was some reassurance that all of my antenna engineering in this new house, including the splices to lengthen the 10 m dipole, was working and that my transceiver and test equipment had survived last fall's move. The MMX was decoding the 20 m signals as expected. Tuning was hard, though. Using the SSB setting on the FT-817, per PreppComm suggestions, and trying to hit the 1300 Hz sweet spot with the short transmissions for the Field Day exchanges was a challenge.

Robb did arrive around ten o’clock. While my daughter-in-law and my wife whipped up a brunch for the four of us, a throwback to the bar-be-cue picnics of 30 years earlier, Robb tuned in signals and watched the decoded text. He was amazed at what was happening in the MMX. He asked many questions about the hardware platform and the software that I could not answer.

The bottom line is that we did not make any Field Day contacts, but with the signals coming in on Sunday morning, Robb was able to see the decoding side of the MMX in action. Of course, at eleven o’clock, the nominal end of the 24-hour Field Day period in Pacific Daylight Time, 20 m went dead.

While not as productive in terms of contacts as some of the Field Days during my 52 opportunities, I count this year’s experience as being encouraging more than being successful. I am encouraged to work on my stealth antenna deployment and to work more with the MMX. Monday, I will be closing out the station on the island in the kitchen and sorting the audio patch cables and adapter plugs and the coax patch cables and their adapters to the SMA port on the MMX into storage places where I can find them again quickly when they are needed.

I am looking forward to gaining proficiency with the MMX and using it for Morse-based chatting, something that I have not done since I was a Novice Class licensee in the early 1970’s.

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