[amsat-bb] ND9M Road Trip - Final

claryco@aol.com claryco at aol.com
Mon Mar 15 14:34:39 PDT 2010

Cori and I arrived at home this past Wednesday and found everything at home in good order. (That doesn't include having so much mail waiting for us at the post office that we overloaded up a hand truck to get it to the car!)

Thanks to everyone we worked during our road trip and especailly to the AO51 Operations and Command Teams for their support throughout!
Cori drove most of the time while I navigated. She's not a ham, but she's been with me on a lot of ham radio related trips. I really appreciated her willingness not only to meet every satellite pass, but also to move the vehicle back and forth to nail down the exact GPS coords for a grid line.

After I climbed back into the car after many of the passes, her first response was "when's the next pass?" That's what makes a successful road trip!

Thanks also go to everyone who provided information along the way, especially to WA4NVM, K8YSE, WB3JFS, and WB3JFS for the regular updates by phone and e-mail throughout the trip.

QSL Info.
Pse send me an e-mail off list indicating the grid squares you need confirmed. QSO data is helpful but won't be needed as I'll simply do a search on the Excel log and find the contacts. I'll mail the QSLs to you at the address on your QRZ.com page; if your mailing address is different, pse advise accordingly.

QSLs are very welcome and appreciated but not necessary. Also there's no need to send an SASE or postage.

For those who like 'em, here are a few to summarize the trip.

Driveway to driveway, we drove 10,022 miles through 13 states during the seven weeks we were "out there". The planned route included operating from 85 different grid squares; we made it to all 85 of the originally scheduled grids plus two more for a total of 87 or 18% of the grids in the continental US.

In all, 1076 contacts were made during 92 passes. Of those passes, 51 were from two-grid lines and one more from a four-grid point.

A total of 177 different stations were worked. Of those, 44 worked me in 10 or more grids. K8YSE led the pack by working me in 78 of the 87 grids! WA4NVM was next with 64 grids, and KB0RZD, N5UXT, and WA5KBH with 50 or more!

Trip updates were sent regularly to the AMSAT-BB as well as to my distribution list containing more than 70 e-mail addresses. Hopefully the 20 or so updates were enough to keep everyone informed and interested but not feeling inundated.

Two grids were the main focus for this trip: DL88 and El15. For the 6M buffs, DL88 is on the Most Wanted List for the 6M world. I had 6M with me - tks to WA4NVM for providing the antenna! - but unfortunately there were no band openings while we were there. EL15 at Brownsville, Texas, isn't hard to get to; there's just not much activity from there.

Using simple rounding, a grid square measures 60 miles by 120 miles which comes up to an area of 7200 square miles. Multiply that area by 87 different grids and Cori and I were able to operate from enough territory representing more than 600,000 square miles. That's a lot of turf! 

(K8YSE plotted all the grids we covered on a GCMwin graphic and made it available on his web server. The address is "www.papays.com/nd9m.jpg"; check it out if you haven't already.)

We would have loved to have spent a full day or more operating from each grid square to maximize the availability, but that wasn't possible. Still, several grids were available during multiple passes. 

DL88 came in first with being on during 9 passes during which 98 contacts were made. Second was DM72 at 6 passes and 59 contacts. The EL15/EL16 grid line was on for 5 passes that netted 37 contacts. Grids DM82, EL07, and EL08 were on four times; eight grids were on during three passes, and 14 others were on twice.


The gear used for this trip included an FT-897D for TX, and an FT-817ND was velcroed to the top of the 897 and did the RX work. An Arrow-2 was the antenna for all contacts. 

But we were on guard for Murphy's Law, so I had a spare FT-817ND still in the box as a back up, plus just in case the Law really kicked in, I brought my trusty TH-F6A HT. An Elk antenna rode shotgun for the duration, but it never came out of the trunk until we got home.

I took out the Arrow's diplexer and fed the antenna with separate RG-58 coaxes. Before the purists scream about how lossy 58 cable is, the length of each cable was about 10 feet; the loss tables show that even at 70cm, that length would cost me 
a bit more than a dB of signal. 

Certainly that's nothing to disregard, but the flexibility of RG58 easily made up for the loss. Also less lossy cable types like RG-8, -213, and 9913 would still have introduced about a quarter to a half dB of loss themselves, so the benefit of using it really wasn't justifiable.

A bag of silver teflon connectors, a 100-foot roll of spare coax, a butane soldering gun (with a can of refill gas), a couple rolls of wire, lots of spade connectors of both genders, a toolbox, and a portable table vice were among the back up supplies.

Surprisingly, one of the most valuable accessories turned out to be a small portion of common kitchen shelf lining. Nearly all of my operating was done with the station set up on the hood of the SUV. The FT897D had its own rubber lining on its rail stand, but other things such as the laptop, GPS, digital recorder, headphones and other items often slid around on the sloping hood. The shelf lining was cheap as dirt and did the trick wonderfully.

Hardware Failures.
As with any lengthy project, there will be equipment issues. This trip was no different.

The first 817 failed at Big Bend; it simply didn't power up at the start of a pass. It's under warranty and will be off to Yaesu this week.

The original Arrow-2 had a hard day near the end of the trip when I was loading the SUV as we prepared to leave town and forgot that I'd put the antenna on top of the car's roof. I saw a glint of reflected sunlight in the rear view mirror as we joined the interstate traffic in Dallas.

We stopped quickly, but by the time the antenna had been retrieved, it had been run over by two vehicles. The boom was bent somewhat and several of the 70cm elements were made of hollow aluminum arrow stock - hence the name "Arrow" - and were easily crushed. (I take off the 2M elements and store them separately inside a door well.)

But as you know, crushed metal is still metal, and the elements performed as they should for the rest of the trip; they just weren't nice and pretty!
Most of the EL15/EL16 operating was done at a highway interchange that was being constructed in Brownsville. The day before had been warm and sunny; this particular day was 30 degrees or more colder, overcast, and windy. Several ops commented on the air that they heard the wind howling across my microphone. What they didn't see was me leaning several degrees into the wind and still controlling the antenna!

Did you know that an Acer Aspire One netbook will fly 30 feet if the right gust of wind catches it? I didn't, but I sure do now...

The most embarrassing thing to occur during the trip was caused by Operator Headspace Syndrome. I was sitting in the motel room near Denver and knocked a nearly full commuter cup (top heavy by design) of coffee on to my laptop; most of the contents spilled directly onto the keyboard. 

The laptop worked fine after my stepson (whom we were visiting and has an IT service company nearby) performed emergency surgery on it. Everything had already been backed up, so it was just my pride that was in jeopardy.

Although January and February are not the best months to plan outdoor activities in states know for heavy snow, we were very fortunate to have sensational weather for nearly the entire trip. A bit of snow here, some wind there, and a few frozen fingers to keep me wondering about the overall purpose, but overall we had very good luck.

We were faced with the likely prospect of a borderline blizzard in Dodge City, Kansas. We did the usual tourist type stuff, but when the snow started falling and had already been predicted to be upwards of a foot, we really did have to "get the hell out of Dodge"...

Later on in the trip, we "met" a new, if snowy, friend just after I operated from the DM86/DM87 line in southeastern Colorado. Now if only our friend, Gridley Square, would get his license...

Big Bend / DL88.
The majority of DL88 is located within Mexico. Since I don't have an XE recip permit, my only choice was to get to the very small sliver of the grid that's inside the US.

That sliver lies within Big Bend National Park, which is mostly desert with very few roads. One of those roads, Talley Road, conveniently 
runs south across the 29-degree latitude into DL88. The only problem is that all roads in that part of the park require four-wheel drive vehicles, and in most cases high clearance is necessary as well.

We discussed our plans with park authorities several times and were assured that there would be numerous ridges and gullies caused by previous flooding to deal with but that as long as we were careful while enroute, we would have no significant problems getting to our campsite. We took the shortest path, Black Gap Road, and were soon dealing with the road conditions as described. 

But one spot that surprised us was a section of the road that forced us to climb a two-foot high mini-cliff. Someone who'd been there before us had moved a lot of rocks to make a rock ramp. The ramp wouldn't get us over this thing, so I had to move a lot more to rebuild it. While I acted as a road spotter, Cori got the SUV up and over that cliff, but it was a huge challenge.

The drive from the park office to our campsite was about 25 miles; the Black Gap Road portion was only 8 miles but took four hours to drive! (Our SUV's undercarriage took a major beating, and the muffler looks like a baseball bat went to town on it, but otherwise there was no sustained damage.)

A few days later when it was time to leave, we decided to take River Road back even though it was more than 10 miles longer than Black Gap Road; our feeling was that it really couldn't be much worse. As it turned out, River Road was a breeze in comparison; there were still lots of wash outs and gullies, but no cliffs. Even with the additional mileage, we made our escape in a bit more than two hours, and that includes taking care of a flat tire!

When we got back to the registration office a few days later, we were told that taking Black Gap Road was definitely not advised and that another less brutal road is recommended; we would have appreciated getting that info before we ventured out.

Nasty road conditions and ham radio aside, this stay was incredibly quiet and relaxing. There were no other people or cars; the only critters we saw for several days were a couple hawks and a road runner. There was also no no cell signal, electricity, or water. We had to bring in all supplies, but we had everything we needed.

By the way, as an indication of just how far out we were when camping in DL88, no park rangers drove out to patrol; they sent a surveillance plane to verify that we'd survived our trip and arrived at our campsite!

If you want to go somewhere out of the way, this is a great place to consider. But if you come out there, don't forget your shovel...

Grid Lines vs State Lines.
One of the many interesting things learned during the trip was that all state lines are not created equal. Looking at a grid line map, a number of grid lines appear to run concurrently with state lines. 

For example, part of the Texas / Oklahoma line looks to be at the 100-degree west longitude line, which separates the DM and EM fields. We followed Oklahoma State Route 9 to the state line that was marked with a cement cornerstone alongside the road. 

My Garmin 60CSX GPS showed that the state line was actually at 100-00.025W or about 125 feet west of the DM94 / EM04 line. (The GPS was indicating +/- 11 feet accuracy at the time.) 

Our theory was that when the state lines were surveyed, they were identified using equipment that was state of the art at the time but hardly with the accuracy of GPS. Adjusting state lines (and probably municipal and county as well for that matter) much later after the fact would not only serve no productive or beneficial purpose and only rack up enormous costs.

>From then on, we were no longer surprised to see state and grid lines look to be the same in the atlas but then find them to be as much as a couple miles apart. Since more than half of my operations were from grid lines, the GPS was used every time to decide the location of the gear.

Arrow Factory.
Since we were in the Cheyenne area, we stopped off at the Arrow shop. The owners, Matt (N0IMW) and Dot (N0JFW), gave us a great tour of the facility. We spent most of the afternoon being shown every detail of how they turn all the stock materials into the various antennas they make.

A lot of the equipment used is commonly found at Home Depot or Lowes but We were surprised to learn that Matt fabricated many of the modifications to make a simple power drill or something else into production line assembly items. He interfaced programmable logic controllers (PLCs) to effect precision cuts and hole boring. He's also replacing many of the motor-driven tools with pneumatic systems using his own designs.
Dot is the primary worker bee in the shop, and she clearly takes pride in the job she does. While we were there, she saw the Arrow-2 antenna that I'd been using, shook her head when she saw how battle tested it was, and refurbished it on the spot.

And while we there, I operated an AO27 pass from outside their shop door. The building is all steel, which would have blocked the satellite's signal, but fortunately the bird's path cleared the building easily.

It was a fascinating visit, and Cori and I enjoyed every minute.

As the trip was winding down, I got word that the Greater Houston Hamfest was to be held a couple days later. We were a little behind schedule, a couple hundred miles away, and going another direction, but when I mentioned to Cori that there would be an AMSAT presence there, she said "let's go!"

It was a welcome opportunity to meet so many of the sat ops from the Houston area and especially fun to help out as a receiving station during the W5H satellite demos during the 'fest.

Wrap Up.
There were many, many other events and things that went on during the seven weeks on the road, but these that I've described will have to suffice. Tks again for all the contacts and support.

Now to the QSLs!


Jim, ND9M / VQ9JC
Panama City Beach, FL / Em70

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