Thoughts on CW Academy advancement by students

I am starting my fifth year as an advisor and will soon start my third year as one of the CW Academy managers and have seen a lot of things through those experiences.  What I offer here is my experience and not necessarily what other advisors have experienced.  I have discussed  my observations with some other advisors and they have helped to form my thinking.  So here goes…

The CW Academy effectively has two major groups: the fundamental group — beginner and basic students — and the upper group — intermediate and advanced students.  Years ago, we had Levels 1, 2 and 3, which are now called beginner, intermediate and advanced.  Many advisors recognized that there was a significant gap between Levels 1 and 2 and many students had difficulty bridging that gap.  The Level 2 Prep class was formed and became our basic class after all the levels were renamed.  The hope was that there would be an easier transition to the intermediate level.

A couple of years ago, I faced the challenge of not having enough basic advisors because of the high demand by students for that class.  For 2021, we are seeing at least as many, if not more, students signing up for a basic class compared to the beginner class.  Back then, my fear was that we would be swamped with students at the intermediate level with nowhere near enough advisors to handle the demand.  Then a short time later, the same thing would happen at the advanced level.

Plenty of time has gone by for that scenario to play out, but… it has not happened.  I am mystified by why this is and, apparently, I am not the only one wondering about that.  After discussing this with some wise advisors — they probably are all wiser than me — and thinking about the students I have had, a few conclusions have been formed.

First, the CW Academy is not easy — there is a lot to learn and do in eight weeks.  The Long Island CW Club has come along and developed a very popular CW learning environment that is more relaxed than ours.  Many people contrast them to us and put the CWops CW Academy as the elite learning option requiring a higher degree of commitment.  Whether that is all true is debatable but perceptions can be hard to overcome.  Another situation is what the students are trying to accomplish.

I was surprised that most of my students have no interest at all in contesting.  In fact, contesters seem to turn off many rookie CW operators from even considering it.  Our own Wednesday CWTs are a good example: everybody flying along at 35 WPM or faster.  When a major CW contest takes over a weekend, same thing.  People listen to those events and conclude that they will never be able to handle those incredible speeds.  Sounds like me a few years ago.  So strike one: “there is no need to go faster than 15 WPM since I have no desire to be a contester.”

Many people are just curious about CW and want to add CW skills to their toolbox so that if FT8 is boring some day, then they will see if they can make a CW contact.  If CW is not high on their list some day, then they will do voice.  Maybe they go out to a park, which many do.  With primitive equipment and antennas, high-speed CW operating is not possible.  Anyway, most of the people they contact will not be able to handle more than 20 WPM, with most way slower than that, so why bother trying to go faster?  Strike two.

Building CW skills takes time.  It also takes constant commitment which is hard for many people to do.  They are fine with an occasional CW contact, if one can be found, but there are so many other competing interests.  Somebody in North America can pick up their DMR-equipped handheld and talk to somebody else in Europe.  That might be more exciting than tuning around 40 meters and hearing just static and calling CQ for ten minutes with no responses.  Or, somebody does respond but insists on sending too fast.  In fact, how does amateur radio in general compare on the interest scale to YouTube videos?  Strike three.

The commitment level of students must increase as they go through the CW Academy.  The students who do tend to be ones who enjoy a challenge and there is also a significant group of students who enjoy the comradery of fellow students.  Frequently, a group of students will form a tight bond with each other, usually because one of them becomes a leader, and the whole group decides advancing through the CW Academy is what they must do.  There are students who see or know somebody, perhaps a former student, who makes CW seem so effortless and who seem to have so much fun with it.  That is infectious and some students want to experience that as well.  We are definitely here for those students.

For the less inclined students, it is a challenge to overcome some of the strikes against them and us as far as advancing goes.  Many will simply not decide to go any further than the fundamental group because they see no point.  One could probably ask a guitar instructor how many students learn enough to be somewhat competent on a guitar but never go further.  He or she might notice the same things we do.  Same thing with many other endeavors that do not involve getting paid.  Reaching higher levels in almost anything requires serious commitment and time and some people will not want to, or be able to, do that.  But, one might ask, why do so many people go out to golf courses and spend so much time and money on something that will never get them to the Pro circuit?  Is there something about golf that we are missing?

As advisors, we should recognize these things and try to encourage students to enjoy the challenge and help them to see the fun possibilities.  Even though the bands are dead much of the time and high-speed CW erupts at various intervals, students can be told that fun is out there and that they should enjoy learning something new and being proud of whatever achievements they make.  Keeping a positive attitude going is probably the most important thing an advisor can do.

CW Academy Advisor Awards

CW Academy advisors volunteer their time to help their students learn Morse code or to improve their CW proficiency. For me, the best reward is watching a student getting excited about their success and wanting to do more. This is a very heady feeling and is difficult to express. When our students are happy, I think many of us advisors are just as happy if not more.

CWops provides awards to advisors as a token of their appreciation for what they do. These are based on the number of classes that the advisor has led.

For advising six classes:

Six class advisor award.

For advising 12 classes:

For advising 24 classes:

For 36 classes advised, an engraved iPad is awarded.

For 48 classes advised, the advisor has a choice of either a Begali “Pearl” paddle or a N3ZN model ZN-9RZ paddle.

Certificates and Awards

A collection of the various certificates and awards that I have received.

Tip: turn your logs in to the contest organizers. You might be surprised later on.

ARRL DXCC Award, Mixed, W8JPF
ARRL Triple Play
ARRL WAS, Digital
IARU HF World Championship, 2016
ARRL 10 Meter Contest, 2014
ARRL 10 Meter Contest, 2016
State QSO Party, 2021, Worked All QSO Party Award
State QSP Party Challenge, 2020
Arkansas QSO Party, 2015
Arkansas QSO Party, 2017
Carolina Spelling Bee, 2018
Colorado QSO Party, 2016
Idaho QSO Party, 2016
Idaho QSO Party, 2020
Indiana QSO Party, 2017
Maine QSO Party, 2019
Montana QSO Party, 2016

Nebraska QSO Party, 2017
New England QSO Party, 2019
RAC Canada Winter Contest, 2018
Washington State Salmon Run, 2016
Washington State Salmon Run, 2018
Washington State Salmon Run, 2019
Tennessee QSO Party, 2015
Virginia QSO Party, 2016
Virginia QSO Party, 2018
Virginia QSO Party, 2019
Virginia QSO Party, 2020
13 Colonies Special Event, 2014
13 Colonies Special Event, 2015
13 Colonies Special Event, 2016
13 Colonies Special Event, 2017
13 Colonies Special Event, 2019
Pluto Special Event, 2015
FISTS Century Club Award
FISTS Fall Sprint, 2015
FISTS Summer Sprint, 2016
FISTS Millionaire Award
FISTS Perpetual Prefix Award
FISTS QLF Certificate
FISTS Spectrum Award

My 6-meter halo antenna

(The following was written for my local club’s newsletter in the summer of 2016.)

The ARRL June VHF Contest was approaching so I decided to see if I could load my GAP Titan on 6 meters.  It matched pretty well though probably not very efficiently.  I managed to work 13 stations covering Texas, Florida, Louisiana, and Ohio, all on CW.  Woo hoo! Only 46 states to go for 6 meter WAS.

Subsequent to that, I took the Titan down and re-tuned it from 75 meters to 80 meters.  For the CQ July VHF Contest, the SWR on 6 meters was not very good, the transmitter folded back and the tuner was necessary.  Only worked three stations, all in Ohio.  I think propagation had more to do with those results than the antenna.

So I started thinking about a real 6-meter antenna.  Given my cramped space, I thought a halo antenna might work.  A halo is a half-wave dipole formed into a circular shape and fed with a gamma match.  I found a QST construction article on a halo and tried it out.  Mechanically, it was kind of flimsy and I could not get a decent match below 53 MHz.  So that idea was scrapped and I found another article written by Carol Milazzo, KP4MD, and Version 2 was started.

This version uses 112 inches of ¼ inch soft copper tubing for the dipole, ½ inch PVC tubing for the support structure, an 18-inch piece of #10-gauge wire for the gamma match and a 200 pF, 1 kV ceramic disk capacitor to feed the matching rod.

This picture shows the initial construction.  The halo is more ellipsoidal instead of circular.  I should have done a test fitting before gluing the PVC parts together.  Oh well, hope it isn’t too directional.

I temporarily attached the far ends of the dipole to the support structure using tie-wraps for tuning later on.  Next we see the small plastic box that holds the SO-239 connector, the 200 pF capacitor and one end of the matching rod.

After putting it together, we end up with this.  There is a shorting clip 12 inches out along the matching rod.  For tuning purposes, the shorting rod is actually two alligator clips connected together which will subsequently be replaced with a piece of copper wire.  Yea, it’s none too pretty but, then, neither am I.

Tuning consists of adjusting the gap between the far ends of the copper tubing for lowest SWR at the desired frequency then adjusting the position of the shorting bar and the value of the coupling capacitor to try to get to 1:1.  Without an antenna analyzer, I had to rely on my rig’s SWR meter and my forward/reverse power meter.  After about 30 trips in and out of the house, I got the SWR down to about 1.2:1 from 50.2 MHz to around 50.5 MHz.  It’s under 1.5:1 from 50 MHz to over 51 MHz.  Good enough for me.  Before putting it up, I took a couple of inches out of the cross pieces to make the loop more circular.

Here we see the final product mounted on our gazebo.

So how does it work?  Any time I putter around with antennas, I always make a few CQs on CW and see where I get picked up – and how well – by the Reverse Beacon Network (RBN).  On this particular day, there were only two RBN monitors on-line, one in Germany and the other in Spain – rats!  6-meters was as dead as my grass before a recent bout of rain and no beacons were heard either.  Did hear some strange signals which I wondered were some kind of birdies from something.  Later on, I did hear a beacon from near Hamilton, Ohio, although it was weak.  But, there was the ARRL September VHF Contest coming up.

In the September 6-meter contest, I made all of two – TWO! – contacts; both in Franklin County.  I also found out that this thing doesn’t like rain – when it is wet, the SWR is dreadful.

Total cost: about $20 for the tubing, PVC, plastic box and other miscellaneous items.  I ran about 60 feet of RG-8/U cable into the shack along with a bulkhead connector, a surge protector and a handful of connectors (seems I’m always out of PL-259s).  The cable cost far more than the antenna.

Well, it’s no beam but I’m on 6 meters.

Update: Since I put up this halo, I have confirmed 21 states, including Colorado, South Dakota, Texas and some of the east coast area. I have also gotten as far as the Bahamas. Sometimes, the band opens up quite well and sometimes it is hard to get much further than about 30 miles.

The current wisdom is that the introduction of the FT digital modes has sucked the CW and SSB life out of 6 meters. I’m not very active on the Magic Band but there was a recent VHF contest where things were pretty good at times. I can only imagine what a higher antenna would do.

My third HF antenna

Continuing on from my post about the GAP Titan; it did a decent job of putting out a signal out on 40 meters, at least as far as the Reverse Beacon Network was concerned.  Several times I would call CQ and notice that I was getting into Europe quite well but I was not getting any replies.  Or, I finally would get a response, but the other op was so hard to copy that I spent more time fiddling with various controls on the radio trying to get a copiable signal than trying to comprehend what he is saying.  Frustrating: I had to keep turning the power on the transmitter down so that I would cover a smaller area increasing my chances of actually hearing responses.  On 20 meters, I could not seem to hear much and didn’t light up the RBN much either.

Yes, I could frequently work what I heard but that is saying very little.  My inefficiency is terrible.  This had me contemplating replacing the vertical with an non-resonant doublet.  With the sunspot cycle the way it is, I need longer wires to pick up those faint signals.  The problem is going to be that most of the wire will be way too low to the ground meaning ground losses will be huge.  I guess the earthworms will be happy if they like warm environments.  If I could determine my back yard’s electrical parameters, I could probably accurately model how things will be.  Trying various parameters is interesting and it is probably just as well that I do not know the accurate values; I would probably be very disappointed.

According to the ARRL Antenna Book, a non-resonant dipole of 88-feet length can be effective.  They also say that placing it high in the air is important.  Guess that is not going to happen.  I made some measurements and found that 88 feet between a chimney and the back corner of our backyard would just fit.  Let’s take a look at a model estimating the height above ground it will be.

Whoa! Feedpoint impedance is unbelievable.  Frequencies in other bands are not much better.  What to do?

In a moment of madness, I decided to do it.  I started rounding up the various pieces that I would need.  The main thing was a tuner to try to deal with that monstrous mismatch; my poor Kenwood certainly cannot deal with that.

Working slowly away all afternoon, this eventually appears.

This is looking toward the back corner of our yard.  The feedline was about 80 feet of 450-ohm ladder line that was, at first, threaded around the gazebo, over to near the back outer wall of the house, down through the foundation plate and over to the tuner near my radio.  Gee, I just can’t wait to pull in those stations!

The moment of truth finally arrived and I started to get used to working the tuner (never had to do that before).  The few signals I heard were watery and tuning is very touchy.  I was able to get a match but calling CQ on 40-meters gets no spots.  There were a couple of contests and other events going on and calls to several stations at max power (100 watts) yields no answers.  Oh no – what is wrong?  What I have done?  This thing is useless!

It was a sleepless night, more so than usual.  How could this be?  Getting the Titan back up would be a huge undertaking.  It was a mess; partially damaged in a big wind-storm several years ago and needing much clean up and re-building.  I do not have the stomach for that.

The next day, I thought about taking my current balun from inside to outside and take out a section of the ladder line.  Fortunately, I still had the coax to the Titan to connect to the new location of the balun.  With wire cutters in hand, I closed my eyes and lopped off about half of the ladder line and put the balun in place.  Wow, what a difference!  That works!  Unfortunately, the balun is not outdoor rated but I was able to trade it for one that is.

So how are we looking?  Here is a look for the Reverse Beacon Network:

This shows me running in a CWops Mini Test (CWT) on 40 meters, 80 meters (morning session) and 20 meters (afternoon session).  S/N ratios of 7 to 49 dB are looking pretty good.  I have a lot more RBN data from many other days and times also looking good.  I used to get out almost nothing on 20 meters.

How about that matching?  Before it was looking pretty bad.  Here is a SWR plot from an antenna analyzer.

Not great, but it is non-resonant.  At the lower end of 40 meters, things measure 25.6 +j61 ohms; inductive, but that makes sense.  That’s a lot different than the model showed – wonder why?

Let’s try fiddling with the model a bit.  Here is a revised model taking into account the ladder line:

This is modeling program called cocoaNec for Apple Macs.  I use an NEC 4.2 engine with this (which I had to compile from Fortran).  Now the impedance parameters show:

So we are getting closer.  I cannot account for the metal chain link fence around the yard, the house and other stuff going on.  My 6-meter halo is uncomfortably close underneath the dipole.  The stuff one has to live with.

But, so far, so good.  I still need to tune the model and see if something can be done moving the feedline around to shift the resonant dips.  But this is fun!

My second HF antenna

My first HF antenna, an off-center fed dipole for 40 meters, lasted about 6 months until September, 2014. At that time, I decided to go to a GAP Titan, a multi-band vertical. Here it is after a day of assembly.

I also ordered an aluminum tilt-over assembly, which is attached to the gazebo behind our house. I found out later that I could get by without using the tilt-over feature but that was OK.

The 40 meter radial hoop was about 25 feet above the ground. As for performance, I expected a low take-off angle which I was hoping for for DX. That is pretty much the way it worked out and I quickly got a lot of the Caribbean area and Europe.

80 meter performance was not so good, as expected for a compromised vertical. But I was generally OK with how it did, especially since I could not get anything longer or higher.

I was concerned about the aluminum tubes supporting the horizontal hoop so I stuck dowel rods in them to stiffen them up. I also bought a guying kit from GAP and used Dacron line to guy the Titan around the gazebo. Later on, I used fishing line to add further support to the ground hoop.

The Titan had not been up for very long before disaster struck.

This was around Thanksgiving, 2014, after a nasty blast of wind roared through. The constant gusting of wind had caused one of the guy lines to loosen up from the vertical part of the Titan and the center part bent over. Clearly shows how important guying is.

I lowered the Titan to ground and managed to mostly straighten the center part and re-raised it. After that, I noticed that SWR on 12 meters was rather poor so I climbed up to add a short length of #14 wire to one of the tuning rods which helped. It might have been when the Titan was down that I added the fishing line.

After another year, I became a full-time CW operator and had a great deal of difficulty tuning the CW part of 80 meters. There is a tuning capacitor at the very top of the Titan that is set at the factory to the higher end of 75 meters. I ordered a different capacitor from GAP and swapped it for the existing one.

That necessitated taking the Titan down again and this time I also further straightened the center mast.

The Titan did work on all bands from 80 meters to 10 meters without a tuner, although 12 meters always had SWR over 2:1. I could even use it on 6 meters and managed to get into some 2 meter repeaters with it.

The Titan always seemed to really rock on 40 meters. It was OK on 80 meters but I seemed to struggle much of the time on 20 meters. Eventually, the sunspot cycle that I enjoyed so much in 2014 and 2015 started to wind down and the higher bands were not as easy to use any longer. It got to the point that 40 meters was about all I used.

One data point was operating in the Ohio QSO Party: in this, picking up Ohio counties as multipliers is pretty important to getting a decent score. I noticed that picking up Ohio counties on 80 meters was not easy; getting out to Wisconsin was. Similarly, on 40 meters, getting to the mid part of the country was easy but picking up more local contacts was a challenge.

Whenever we got a storm roar through or the winds got somewhat violent, which happens a few times a year, I would watch from our kitchen window as the Titan got battered around. I was always so afraid of a repeat of what happened in 2014 where a guy line would loosen up and the already weakened Titan would droop over the neighbor’s fence. I was also concerned about a big ice storm causing damage. Fortunately, those did not happen.

Eventually, I grew frustrated with the lack of ears on 20 meters and thought that, maybe, better performance could be obtained with wires. Another factor was the thinking that we are not going to be at this house much longer and taking the Titan down would be a chore, especially with me getting older and less physically able to mess around with it. This led to a decision that was executed in June, 2020, to retire the Titan and go with a non-resonant doublet.

More on that later.

Some fun CW Academy statistics

Over the last few years, the CW Academy has had two different ways of tracking students, advisors and classes. I recently went through an exercise to consolidate some of this information into a relational database in order to help answer several questions I get along the lines of “how many students…”

There are some inaccuracies to this data mainly going back a few years where determining the exact status of a student could not be quickly done, especially using scripting tools. Hopefully, the data is accurate to within several percentage points.

The data below starts with the year 2015. You will see years in the horizontal axis for the semesters along with a two-digit number. These codes mean: 01 = January-February; 04 = April-May and 09 = September-October. Even though the CW Academy was running prior to 2015, the statistics are not available.

The data include students who were placed into a class. Some withdrew during the class; students who withdrew before classes were selected were not included. There are some other students who were not placed in a class, usually because of a lack of advisors, and these students were also not counted.

From January, 2015, through May, 2020, 6,926 students were placed in a class. Over that time span, 158 different advisors have led at least one class.

The following chart shows the number of students enrolled in each semester.

This shows a significant spike in the number of students in September, 2019. Since then, the numbers have gone down for unknown reasons.

Since 2015, 3,439 students have completed a class; many students completed more than one class (Beginner and Intermediate, for example) and are counted for each class they completed. 1,747 students completed a Beginner class, 162 students completed a Basic class (a fairly new class), 852 students completed an Intermediate class and 372 students completed an Advanced class.

The statistics in the last paragraph is summarized in the following chart.

For advisors, the following chart summarizes the number of advisor-classes per level per semester. Several advisors lead more than one class in a semester so they are counted more than once.

For the September-October, 2020, semester, we have 608 students signed up to take a class and 54 advisors signed up to lead at least one class. Every time zone in the world, except four, have at least one student signed up. There are 242 students signed up for a Beginner class, 158 Basic students, 135 Intermediate students and 73 Advanced students. As usual, North America is where most of the students are with 461 signups. There are 54 signups in Europe and the rest scattered around other parts of the world including over 25 signups in Asia.

My first HF antenna

After over 35 years, I finally got back into amateur radio early in 2014. This represented my first experience with HF. My first antenna was an off-center fed dipole, about 20 feet or so above the ground. It was about 65 feet long, started at a chimney on our house and ran down to a post at the back part of our lawn. The feed point was attached to a PVC pipe attached to the side of our gazebo.

Off-center fed dipole.

It tuned without and external tuner on 40, 20, 17, 12 , 10 and 6 meters. I don’t remember if it worked on 30 meters. I don’t think I ever used the internal tuner on my radio. It definitely would not tune on 15 meters.

Since 2014 was around the last solar maximum, I put another off-center fed dipole cut for 15 meters under the longer wire. I don’t remember how that was connected at each end but the two dipoles shared a common feed point.

Coax was used as the main feed line. A commercial choke, consisting of a short length of coax with ferrite beads surrounding it, was used.

Performance was not great, it was fairly good for local contacts, as expected with it being so close to the ground. I was able to work some DX although nothing sticks out. I was active on phone and digital, mostly JT65 and JT9.