With all of the buzz created by our recent Solar Eclipse here in the states, many hams wondered what the effects of such an eclipse would have on propagation. I admit I was mildly curious myself, but did not expect big swings in any direction. Locally the effect was pretty minimal, even with 91% totality. I expected the sky to get much darker than it did here, but in reality, it didn’t even come close to a mildly cloudy day.
But there has been enough written already about the solar eclipse, and much more will be written. My interest here is in how excited hams got about the event, and conversely how uninterested they seem to be in testing/exploring day-to-day propagation.
I became an amateur radio operator in the low part of the sunspot cycle, and from the outset heard people talking about how poor conditions were, and how many years it would be before things turned around. I assumed they were correct, naturally, since I was a newbie and certainly they knew far more than me about such things. However I noticed a very curious thing: whenever there was a contest, propagation seemed to magically get better by orders of magnitude. On a typical contest weekend one could hardly find an open spot in which to operate.
“How could this be,” I wondered, “surely the propagation gods were not likely to show such mercy upon us earth-bound mortals?” I soon realized propagation naysayers were self-fulling prophets. Convince yourself propagation was bad and do not turn on your radio. and sure enough, you make no contacts. Get enough people believing this and the bands become a wasteland. That is, until you turn on your radio for a contest weekend, and suddenly propagation is back!
Now we are back in another solar minimum and people are bemoaning the state of propagation and how as they tune along the bands they hear nothing. They then turn off their radios and find something else to do. Beyond the obvious logical fallacy here that if a band is quiet it does not mean there are not others out there listening for calls, you can’t really know if the band is dead unless you spend some time calling CQ around the band. If we are all listening and no one is calling, the band will appear dead.
Let’s be generous here and say “Perhaps the band conditions are not supporting SSB voice contacts as there is too much atmospheric noise.” I can certainly accept that premise, at least on occasion, so what other options might we have? CW is an obvious choice, since Morse code can get through in times when voice cannot. Also we have various digital modes, which as we all now know, can also get through in times when voice might not. While not quite as easy or as quick as voice contacts, we can ragchew on the keyboard with digital modes such as PSK31 and others.
And then there are the weak-signal modes such as JT65 and FT8 which have made huge strides in the HF world. I doubt there is a propagation condition these signals can’t overcome, except perhaps a total HF blackout from a CME or solar flare. I find it very interesting at times even on the digital modes, how there are those who are waiting for others to make calls instead of putting out a CQ themselves. More than once a friend of mine and I have called each other or spotted each other on a cluster only to find people suddenly coming out of the digital shadows to work us. Suddenly the band starts to come alive and before quick you have made a dozen or more contacts.
While I am concerned for all amateurs buying into the “poor propagation” negativity out there, I am especially concerned for new amateur radio enthusiasts and radio hobbyists in general. The truth is, there is ALWAYS something to hear or to work on the radio 24/7, 365 days a year if you will play your part. Turning on the radio is of course the first step. You can’t hear ’em if the radio is off!! The second step is to become conversant with multiple modes of operation, whether listening or actively contacting folks, so as to give yourself more options. For example, if you are an SW listener, or an utility listener, having software like MultiPSK or other programs opens up many opportunities to explore the shortwave bands.
If you have even a cheap SDR connected to your computer you can record whole segments of bands to explore different transmissions. I have also found it helps to sometimes ignore conventional propagation wisdom and go onto bands normally considered closed, such as 10m, 12m, 15m or related shortwave bands, even when the propagation banners tell you they are closed. I have made many contacts on bands above the “workable” bands just because I tried, and others were trying too.
Third, if you are an amateur radio operator, be the initiator at least occasionally. If a band seems dead, put out some calls, and not just one or two. Remember if people are scanning the band, it may take some time for them to hear you. (This is also where an SDR receiver or panadapter can come in handy as you can scan a large portion of a band to see activity you might otherwise miss.) The simple fact is our modern radios are capable of hearing so much more than the rigs of old, solar conditions mean less and less. Sure, you won’t have FM quality conversations, but HF has never been mistaken for FM, and any conversation can be a good contact to have in the log.
One final thought: while DX conditions may be poor, stateside contacts (or continental contacts if you are in Europe!) are always possible, and in some ways preferable to DX contacts because we get a chance to connect with other hams and share this wonderful hobby. We can get too caught up in DXing and the “get it in the log” mentality, which ultimately robs us of some of the best aspects of amateur radio and making those human connections. Don’t discourage folks from getting on the air when conditions seem poor, quite the opposite! The price of negativity is radio silence. Let’s find enjoyment in getting back to our historical roots in amateur radio by having real conversations with others, whether by voice, CW, or a digital mode. Folks are out there, I promise! With apologies to the writers of “Field of Dreams,” if you call them they will come! 73, Robert AK3Q