Field Day 2008, wherein even a near-miss with a collapsing antenna can’t spoil the fun

On Saturday this past weekend I did so many ham radio activities I had to split them across two blog posts. Yesterday I wrote about the 17 foot antenna I installed on top of my house. Today, I’ll regale you with tales from Field Day 2008.

Field Day is an annual 24-hour North American amateur radio event running from 2pm on Saturday to 2pm on Sunday. Amateur radio clubs and operators all across the nation set up stations off the grid as an emergency preparedness exercise and public outreach event. Contesting is a large part of it, with the goal being to make confirmed contacts with as many other Field Day stations as possible. So after finishing setting up our own antenna, and after grabbing a quick bite for dinner, my dad and I headed over to Montgomery Amateur Radio Club’s (W3EXP) Field Day location at the Montgomery College campus in Germantown, Maryland.

The Field Day setup was quite impressive. Antennas were everywhere. Many temporary masts, some guyed, some not, filled two different parking lots, a gravel area, and a field. Longwire antennas were strung between trees and in giant inverted-Vs off masts. Altogether the setup had eight separate antenna systems and at least fifteen towers/masts. Two gasoline generators provided electricity for all of the equipment. Three separate rental vans were set up as operating stations, with the radio stations inside of them shielded from the weather (they had a bad experience last year with the weather).

When we arrived, W3TDH was still working on setting up a 20m Yagi on a 50′ crank-up military mast made of aircraft-grade aluminum left over from the Korean War. Unfortunately, we never got that antenna up, because about an hour before dark a vicious thunderstorm blew in. Luckily, being at a ham radio station is about the best place to be when inclement weather is coming in, because everyone was kept apprised with up-to-the-minute weather information using the club’s repeater (it seemed like everyone there had a handheld VHF radio). I was also getting weather reports off the National Weather Service’s channels and the Blumont, Virginia ham radio repeater (147.300), which runs a SkyWarn net during inclement weather. As the storm came in, we shut off the transceivers and most of us headed into the nearest building on Montgomery College’s campus.

However, before I started to go inside, I had the immense “pleasure” of watching two guyed masts come down in the gale-force winds just forty feet away from me. Apparently they had been put up with only two guyed tiers (against W3TDH’s recommendation to use all three), and they came down quite quickly in the high-speed winds. It was a sight to see. The bottom sections of the masts, which were not secured to the ground, blew sideways, either coming undone from their locking joints or snapping right off. Then the entire masts toppled over sideways, straining against their guy anchors, many of which came ripping right out of the ground. Guy wires flew menacingly across the darkening sky. I was very fortunate not to be downwind of the masts when they blew over, because I was closer to them than they were tall. After this, I dithered no further outside.

After weathering out the storm inside the Science Building at Montgomery College until it was merely raining, we emerged to survey the extent of the damage. Those two masts were the only things that were damaged by the storm. Everything else survived just fine. Unfortunately in the meantime darkness had descended, and making progress on putting up that 20m Yagi became nearly impossible.

I then watched some of the ham radio operators work their Field Day stations for awhile. It’s a very intense activity. One guy was continuously calling CQ on 40 meters, logging all contacts on his own, while another pair was working through the 80 meters band, one of them calling stations and the other logging. I didn’t really get a chance to talk to these guys because they were so focused on what they were doing and the contacts were streaming in continuously.

After watching for a bit, I had a chance to get on the “Get On The Air” station, and operating that was a real pleasure. Although I have a General class license, which gives me nearly complete privileges on the HF bands, I’d never operated on any HF bands before due to a simple lack of equipment (those rigs are expensive!). So after a brief tutorial on HF, I was operating on 15, 20, and 40 meters, trying to make as many contacts as possible.

I quickly discovered that simply tuning across the band is a surprisingly pleasurable experience, as the super-high-pitched whines gradually resolve into normal speaking voices as you dial in on the actual frequency of the transmission correctly. I had some hilarious moments where I thought I had tuned in to a woman, only to eventually realize I was tuned about an octave too high and that it was actually a man speaking. It had me all paranoid to the point that when I did hear a fair number of actual women later on in the night, I tried tuned down just to make sure I wasn’t tricking myself again.

In the course of about two hours of operation (with some breaks in-between where I logged for my newfound mentor Aaron) I made a dozen confirmed contacts. Those aren’t particularly great numbers for Field Day, but I was operating on the weakest antenna system at the site. The two other stations were using better antennas, and racked up around 400 total contacts by the time I left. I spent many frustrating minutes buried in a pile-up to some California stations that I could never get to the front of.

To make up for that, I had a very satisfying contact with a 23-transmitter Field Day station (I didn’t realize Field Day operations could even get so large!) just a few counties away in Maryland. I listened to the huge pile-up for about ten contacts working out of all the details of the station, then jumped into the fray. I was immediately recognized after calling for the first time, even though many stations calling them undoubtedly had a much better setup than I did. I merely had the advantage of being really close. Take that, pile-up! I didn’t feel so bad about the California stations after that, because I had just jumped in front of a line of untold dozens of other stations all across the United States.

I eventually headed out at 1am. I was growing tired and my dad had already been asleep in the car for two hours. I said good-bye and departed, taking a few last minutes to make the acquaintances of people I had hitherto only known by their callsigns on the club’s repeater. As I was driving home, I continued chatting for a little while on the club repeater using my car’s mobile transceiver. The core group of the amateur radio club was drinking lots of coffee and planning on operating all throughout the night, morning, and afternoon. Hats off to them; I wouldn’t have made it.

Stay tuned for Field Day next year if this sounds like something you’re interested in. It’s always the third full weekend of June. Many Field Day sites run a “Get On The Air” station where even unlicensed individuals can try their hand at ham radio. Whether you’re making contacts with California stations or fleeing collapsing antenna masts, it’s a blast!

2 Responses to “Field Day 2008, wherein even a near-miss with a collapsing antenna can’t spoil the fun”

  1. Cyde Weys Says:

    I wish I had brought my digicam so I’d have some pictures to put up here on the blog, but I’ve never been good about bringing my camera anywhere (or anticipating a need for it, for that matter).

    One little thing I forgot to mention in the post: we tried the PSk31 band on 20 metes but couldn’t get anywhere with it. The entire band was packed full of loud signals, and we couldn’t break through. The sound of all of those PSK31 signals coming in at once was a sound out of this world. It reminded me of the alien harmonies from the movie Close Encounters of a Third Kind.

  2. Wintermute Says:

    If you want to talk near-miss by an antenna… A co-worker and I were doing work on the ground at a tower site (we were working for an ISP who was branching into fixed-wireless) while a hired tower crew were hanging our antennas at 175′. They hauled up a tie-back pole on a “Chinese finger-cuff,” which was over black electrical tape and then let it dangle in the sun for several hours until they needed it. The sun heated the tape, causing it to melt. In turn, the ten-foot-long tie-back pole slipped out of the cuff and made its very rapid decent, hitting the ground well within arm’s reach. I nearly took up smoking that day…