Back In The Day

I'm originally from Hickory, North Carolina.  WB4RFQ was my dad's call sign.  John Brock, the original WB4RFQ, was an active Advanced class ham when I was a little kid.  He had a bunch of Kenwood rigs, a Yagi, tower -- the whole deal. 

Me at my dad's station WAY before I got my license.

Dad stopped operating radio and sold his gear about ten years after this photo of me was taken.   I was lucky to have my dad as an enthusiastic and patient teacher of all things tech, although I never spent much time with him playing radio.  Computers and networking turned out to be my passion as a kid, and later became my career.  Ham radio didn't come up as an interest until much later. 

Getting My Ticket

My dad passed away in late 2013.  I was living in small town Central Oregon at the time, and in an effort to reconnect with his memory, I decided to study up and get my amateur radio license.  I took the test in April 2014 at a VE session run by HiDARG in Bend, Oregon.  A week later, I received my license as KG7JTD.  Pretty soon after, I applied for and received my dad's old call sign, WB4RFQ.

Passing the Technician exam (that's me in the lower right corner).

Like a lot of new hams these days, my first radio was a Baofeng HT dual bander.  That got me on the local repeaters and checking into the weekly ARES/RACES net, and that was fun for a while.  I slapped a 146.52 sticker on the rear window of my car, installed a Kenwood TM-V71A mobile dual bander and a magmount whip, and waited for the contacts to roll in.  

I don't know if that approach works in more densely populated areas, but it didn't net me many contacts in Prineville, Oregon.  I decided to move the radio indoors and use it as a base station.  I got the excellent Arrow Antennas 2M/440 J-Pole antenna and asked my coworker Will, KI6NCV, for help installing it.  Using the TM-V71A and J-Pole, I was able to make simplex contacts 50 miles away, and hit repeaters as far as Mount Hood (100+ miles away).

After we finished installing the J-Pole on my roof, Will unpacked his Yaesu FT-857D and set up a portable vertical outside my house.  As we tuned across the bands, I recognized the characteristic sound of single sideband voice modulation from my childhood.  My first HF contact was with the infamous ten meter icon Kilo Charlie Four Tango Victor Zulu in the US state of Georgia.  Contrary to others' experience, he was conversational and friendly with me.

With that first cross-country contact, I was hooked!  I ordered my first HF rig and antenna shortly thereafter.  I went with the Swiss Army Knife of base rigs, the Kenwood TS-2000, plus a Buckmaster 7-band off center fed dipole.  But how to get the wire in the air?  Once again, KI6NCV was happy to help out by giving me an old portable tower.  It was a sectional crank-up model, but the cranking mechanism was nonexistent.  It was a challenge to manually extend the heavy sections and brace them in place, but we got the job done and I was finally on the air with HF.

First HF antenna installed!

This was a major motivator to upgrade my license so I could access the bulk of the HF spectrum.  I went back to studying for my next license upgrade.  Will and I attended the Sea-Pac hamfest in June 2014, and I passed the General exam.  Damn near passed the Extra as well -- missed it by two questions.  

OMs at Sea-Pac handing me my CSCE for my General class license.

With my General license in hand and a serviceable HF setup at home, I was off to the races.  Although I'd never turn down a QSO of any kind, I found DX contacts to be the most exciting.  I found myself spending pretty much all my free time chasing DX and fine-tuning my station.

Getting Serious About Antennas

In hindsight, my place in Oregon would have been ideal for some sort of rotatable beam antenna.  I wasn't willing to shell out the time and money for a full-on tower and beam, so I focused on improving the OCF dipole and started thinking about a second antenna.

A few weeks after KI6NCV and I initially installed the tower, a couple of sections of it telescoped in on themselves.  The pins holding the sections together were a bit bent and couldn't support the weight.  We came up with a hacky but effective solution of inserting bolts in between the sections to prevent this, and taped the bolts in place.  We also installed a six foot fiberglass extension pole at the top of the tower to raise the feed point that much higher.

This tower and OCF dipole served me well for many months.  However, I wasn't totally satisfied with its performance on all bands.  Like all inverted V dipoles at a relatively low height (35 feet), it didn't have great low angle radiation on most bands.  I could certainly work most DX I was hearing, but breaking through pileups was a challenge, and I just wanted something more.

I selected the Butternut HF9V as my second HF antenna because it had an excellent reputation in the amateur radio community, it covered nine bands, and felt like a realistic build-and-install project for me as a new ham.  Winter was coming, so I went ahead and purchased the antenna, a radial plate, and about a quarter mile of wire to build a radial field.

First, though, I had to dig a hole in the hard, rocky Central Oregon soil.  It needed to be about two feet deep to hold a solid concrete pour and the mounting post for the HF9V.  My friend Rob happened to be in town, and unlike me, he had experience swinging a pickaxe.  He made short work of the digging.

Once the digging was done, building the antenna was easy.  Getting it adjusted and tuned on all bands was a challenge.  Having an antenna analyzer was a huge help as I shortened or lengthened sections, squeezed or pulled out coils, and built the radial system.  After a couple of weekends working on the project, I finally had two multiband HF antennas that let me talk around the world, day and night.

It's a good thing I got the vertical up when I did.  A few months later, we had a few days in Central Oregon where the winds whipped up to 50-60 MPH gusts.  Unfortunately, my tower with the dipole didn't survive.  Lesson learned: if you have a heavy tower, guy it.  Mine wasn't guyed -- just ratchet-strapped to my deck -- and so it came down with the winds.

Anyone have some Viagra?

For the rest of the time I lived in Oregon, the HF9V was my only HF antenna.  As I found myself using VHF & UHF less, I sold the TS-2000 and purchased a Kenwood TS-590SG, and why not, an amp (the Ameritron ALS-1306) as well.  I couldn't believe what a difference the amp made.  Nabbing DX and breaking pileups was like shooting fish in a barrel!  You still have to have good technique working split, but the TS-590SG makes that really easy as well.

Final QRO station at my former Prineville, OR QTH.  I miss this setup.

Going QRP

In June 2015, my job moved me to San Francisco, CA.  The new apartment would be much smaller, and there was no chance of installing antennas on the roof of my building.  I decided to sell almost all of my QRO gear and enter the world of QRP portable.  I also got serious about studying CW.  It's a lot harder to work DX at very low power levels, but doing it on CW gives you a huge advantage.  I'll explore the whole process of how I learned CW in a blog post.

From time to time, I jump on RemoteHamRadio.com if there is some juicy DX that I would just never be able to get with my QRP rig and portable antennas in the city.  It's a great service, and I highly recommend it.  I still prefer to make my contacts the old fashioned way, but in a pinch, it's as good as having your own QRO station.

After several iterations, I've found a few rigs and antennas that I really like for portable work.  My go-to rig for CW, SSB, and digital modes is the Elecraft KX3.  There's nothing I can say about this rig that hasn't already been said -- it's fine business.  I usually use either the SuperAntenna MP-1B portable vertical or a plain end-fed wire up in a tree.  I keep an entire QRP kit at work in a backpack so that if I have time on a break, I can run outside and make a few CW contacts every now and then.

This hobby has so much to offer.  I've been quite consumed by it in the short time I've been licensed.  The people are very welcoming, and I've already made a lot of new friends.  My goal is to become an excellent CW operator and learn as much as I can about the technical side of amateur radio.

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