Don't be surprised to see another article about 6 meters. It is my current focus and therefore it's what I am most likely to want to talk about. Actually, the topic of this article is not solely applicable to 6 meters, as you will see. Human nature being what it is the lessons are universal.
May 19 delivered an extraordinary opening between North America and Europe. With my improved station I exceeded my best ever day working Europe. Not a simple percentage increase, but 4× more QSOs. I also worked 5 new countries, bringing ever so close to 6 meter FT8 DXCC.
It was a busy day and I enjoyed every minute. From the few emails received afterwards there are quite a few Europeans who have yet to work Canada, or North America for that matter. One thanked me for being the "big gun" that made it possible for him. I was pleased to make it happen.
Here are my mode statistics for May 19. Please note that these are all on 6 meters, and all the QSOs are with Europe:
- FT8: 202
- FT4: 13
- CW: 23
- SSB: 0
I did not attempt to work Europe on SSB, which explains the zero. Signals at times were so strong I could have done so despite the 10:1 SNR challenge versus CW. This is important since those numbers are a rough indicator of what could be done and not what was possible. Momentum, activity level, QSO duration and SNR all figure into the statistics.
By momentum I mean that while the pile up is ongoing it is difficult to pull back and switch modes, abandoning all those callers, or to switch modes when the spectrogram is enticingly lit up by countless DX signals.
Momentum can be temporary or it can be a regular characteristic of our on air preferences or beliefs. Why are there so few FT4 and CW QSOs listed? The signals were not there to be worked. By running and by calling others I soon ran out of stations to work on those modes. I would go back later to work a few more, who because of their own activity or propagation shifts were not there before.
When momentum becomes a habitual feature of our operating we are in danger of living in a rut of our own making. We dig the rut, jump in, like it and stay there. Hate digital? You stay in the SSB rut. You have a small station and can't work DX on SSB, and you don't know or like CW? You operate FT8. Repetition and time dig the rut, and soon our choices become habit. In time we forget that it was a choice and we rationalize our preference as the "best" mode.
Ruts are not only for modes. Far too many will not stray from 50.313 MHz. The 50.323 MHz intercontinental window is there for the taking. When the QRM is fierce on 313 it makes sense for the little pistols to try 323 so that their signals are not buried under others. The likelihood of success is higher on 323. However, most don't QSY, or they won't QSY. Humans are curious creatures.
I made a point of moving around during the opening. To me there was a price to sitting on 313: I might miss a new country. Let's say I'm having a good run on 313. While I'm doing that I worry that there might be a new country on 323, FT4 or CW. I tried not to deny any callers so I would delay moving until I had no callers. It doesn't take long to check the activity elsewhere and to call CQ a few times. There were a few pleasant surprises by doing so.
Since there is less activity outside the primary FT8 watering hole I was never away for long. I doubt I missed anything on 313 due to my frequent QSYs and mode changes. From the paucity of activity on FT4 in particular, and 323 to a lesser degree, too few are moving around. Why is it that so many find it easy to spin the VFO on HF and few will do the same on 6 meters? From the many recognizable call signs I know that they, like me, are active on both digital and traditional modes and know the value of a VFO.
FT8 is slow. It is so slow I can do other things while running a pile up. At least one ham I know has operated 6 meter FT8 while putting in a serious effort in an HF contest! Above is a picture of me working FT8 on 6 meters while adjusting my almost-complete switchable BPF (band pass filters) for HF contests. Being fleet of foot I have successfully operated FT8 while cooking meals, answering email, and doing a variety of tasks. You don't have time to do that on CW, SSB or FT4.
That's another thing that amazes me: why don't more use FT4? It's twice the speed of FT8 and only a little less sensitive. FT4 is fast enough that it almost feels like running stations on CW. So why don't more try it? During big 6 meter openings I can repeatedly call CQ on 50.318 MHz and have not one reply. Why not? It's those ruts we allow ourselves to fall into.
Can our tendency to fall into ruts be changed? Should it be changed? If hams are comfortable sitting full time on 50.313 MHz operating FT8, who am I to suggest they do otherwise? All I can do is point out the advantages of FT4 and jumping among the channels to improve the chance of success.
For me, one forceful fact is the rapid QSB of sporadic E. I hate it when I fail to complete an FT8 QSO with a needed DX station because the opening is shorter than the time needed to complete the contact. By halving QSO duration with FT4 the 3 db sensitivity difference is near irrelevant. Compared to QSB of 10, 20 or more db it is clear that time is of the essence.
It is easy to QSY to 318: click FT4 in WSJT-X and there I am. I do so periodically in the hope that others will do the same. So far I've had few takers. Give it a try and we'll both have one more station to work. What was an amazing 200 Europe QSOs in the big opening could have been 300 or more using the much faster FT4.
|Typical FT4 activity level on 6 meters
Had there not been enough stations to make that possible (there were!) there would have been more time to monitor and react quickly when a rare one appeared. Instead I was more often locked into a slow FT8 QSO. It would have been rude to call some one else midstream. FT4 would allow me to both run the pile up and react quickly to call the rare ones between QSOs.
I'll end the article here. It seems a little curmudgeonly to complain when activity on the magic band is higher than ever. Now that sporadic E season is well underway there are signals to be found any time of day. Mostly these are tiny bursts of propagation -- whether by meteor reflection or E-layer scatter -- that are not workable on FT8 or FT4. Nevertheless it is comforting to see so many watching, waiting and calling.
Between openings I am keeping busy with various projects that I will be talking about in the coming months. One you can see in the picture above. You can also expect more 6 meter articles, inevitably.
Off air, I am waiting for local outlets to reopen from the latest lock down to order aluminum for antennas, doing tower maintenance and dragging my winter projects into the spring season. I might operate in the upcoming CQ WPX CW contest, and I've delayed rolling up the radials of my 160 meter antenna just in case I do get on.
The warm weather is also drawing me outside to partake in non-ham activities. That is, when 6 meters isn't open and keeping me busy in the shack.