Sunday, July 31, 2011

A, B, C's of Dx Fundamentals of the Art of DXing I


What is "DX"?

In the early days of communications technology when telegraphy was the only mode of communication, it was useful to use as many abbreviations as possible in order to increase the rate of information transfer. Wireline telegraph operators routinely developed an elaborate set of abbreviations in their work and this technique was carried over into the wireless era, inevitably to be used also by hams. Examples of this are abundant among old CW operators, such as
which translates to "Okay, Old Man, thanks for [the] chat and see you later. Best regards, Joe". Some abbreviations weren't too difficult to understand, such as TNX ('thanks') and CUL ('see you later'); and everyone was called OM ('old man') regardless of age (and sometimes even gender!). The letter 'e' was frequently used in place of an 'o' whenever it was evident as to meaning, as in FER ('for'). More esoteric were 'ES', the telegrapher shorthand for 'and' that was derived by sending only the 'dits' instead of the entire Morse code for 'and' (dit-dah dah-dit dah-dit-dit); and '73', one of the numeric codes for a phrase, in this case, meaning 'Best regards'.
Another very common technique was to abbreviate a word (or phrase) by using the first letter followed by an "x", as in WX, TX and RX for WEATHER, TRANSMITTER and RECEIVER. The abbreviation for "distance" or "a distant location" was DX and the term came to be used to mean a station and/or operator some distance away. Today, hams use the term "DX" as both a noun ("DX", meaning "distant station"; "DXer", meaning "one who pursues contacts with DX" and a verb, "DXing", meaning "the pursuit of DX contacts" (medicos are all-too-familiar with use of the "x"; for them "Hx" is "history" and "Dx" is "diagnosis" - guess they could be called "DXers"! ). In appreciation of the challenge involved in making contacts with DX stations, 70 years ago the ARRL initiated a program called the "DX Century Club Award" (DXCC) to recognize DXing accomplishments - more on this in the Awards chapter and in the Appendix "What's an Entity?", giving a brief history of the program. Right off, it was very eagerly embraced and remains today one of the most popular programs in ham radio.

Back Porch Short Wave Radio: How it all started for me

It was very late on another mild Friday night as I re-adjusted the headphones to ease the cramping of my ears. Sitting on the rear screened porch where I had fashioned a temporary "radio shack", using a small table to hold my new Hallicrafters S-38C receiver, I stared again into the glowing dial as I imagined floating out over the airwaves while I tuned in search of distant stations to hear on the shortwave bands. The wire running from the radio, out through a tiny hole in the screen and into the tree in the back yard, was my lifeline to the world! Europe was of course always to be readily found, as the BBC and Radio Moscow were seemingly everywhere; however, my quest was to find stations in Africa - still wild, untamed, and exciting to a then budding teenager at that time. A notebook log helped to document my finds and let me return again later to the stations heard. The Hallicrafters was a far cry from my early beginnings a few years earlier, first with a homebrew "crystal radio" (oatmeal-box coil, variable capacitor, and diode), followed a little later by my "big" project - a battery-powered regenerative receiver using a single 3S4 tube (with a National Radio vernier tuning dial!) as described in the ARRL publication "How To Become A Radio Amateur". Then came the Hallicrafters. Purchased from savings from my paper route and other odd jobs, it was a huge step into modern radio for me. After tuning awhile and finding nothing new, I returned to my old favorite, Radio Australia, to once again listen for the eerie cry of the Kookaburra. So it was, in the in the Spring of 1954 at the age of 13, waiting for my ham "ticket" to come in, that I continued what was to be my lifelong love of amateur radio and the thrill of finding ever-more-distant stations.
When I first became interested in shortwave radio, I had an able mentor and great schoolteacher, W5YDC, who introduced me, along with childhood friend Bert, (later W5GZR and now W5ZR), to the exciting world of ham radio.
Although they were busy enough raising their own family, Jeff and his XYL, Louise, always welcomed us into the house to "listen on the radio". Not only was he a great teacher and mentor, but also we were to learn later that Jeff was a genuine hero of WWII: highly decorated and a Medal of Honor winner, he was a former Marine Ace fighter-pilot. Shot down behind enemy lines near one of the Solomon Islands, he managed to swim to the island despite serious injuries and, aided by friendly natives, he was able to avoid capture for 15 days before a rescue was arranged by an Australian coast-watcher with a clandestine radio. He remains today one of my true heroes. Watching him operate his station (a National NC-183 receiver and a home-brew transmitter), I soon learned the enjoyment of CW and of meeting and making new friends in distant cities and states via the radio.
After getting my novice license, WN5FKX, I completed my second "big" project from the ARRL's manual on "How To Become A Radio Amateur" - a transmitter using a 6L6 tube. I was thrilled to now be able to "talk" via Morse code (or "CW") to other novice hams, and I did so at every opportune moment. Longing for more operator privileges, I soon upgraded to "General" class and then it was not too long before I experienced the thrill of talking to DX - someone in a "distant" land! My first DX contact was with KZ5GH, who was working somewhere along the Panama Canal - then a territory of the US called the Panama Canal Zone. In short order, this was followed by Cuba, Mexico, and Canada, all on 40 meter CW. Along with my new license, my station equipment had also "upgraded" to a World Radio Labs Globe Scout transmitter providing about 50 watts on CW and 25 watts on AM. The receiver was now a converted military surplus BC-454 (80m) and a BC-455 (40m). I still had my trusty S-38, but I found the war surplus receivers to be much more sensitive and selective for CW. The antenna was a random wire, approximately 22m long, running from my bedroom window, over the peak of the roof, and into a tree in the back yard. I felt that I was now truly a part of the world community! In retrospect, the hobby seemed simpler then, as tuning the bands - the art of listening - was what one did; incivility was virtually unknown; and QSLing meant putting a 2-cent stamp on a card, or sending it via the ARRL Outgoing QSL Bureau. By the time I left home to attend college in 1959, I had an all-band station: Heathkit DX-100B (100w on CW/50w on AM) transmitter, Hallicrafters SX-99 receiver, and a 3-element 20meter beam on a 50 foot tower. I felt then that I was becoming adept at working DX, checking off "new countries" on the official list in the back of my ARRL logbook.
Before leaving for my sophomore year in college, and for what was to become a long period of very limited DX activity, one of my last contacts was with BV1US in Taiwan. Despite a pileup of stations calling, I was able to get him on 20m AM with my modest 50-watts.
As Jeff, W5YDC, would say, I felt " ... hotter than a two-bit cap pistol fired nine times ..."!!
In the years that followed, I was able to maintain my license and enjoy a very limited level of activity, occasionally tuning across the bands to make a few contacts and even work a bit of DX with very limited equipment and antenna. It was more than 25 years - in the late 1980s - before I was able to slowly return to regular schedule of hamming and chasing DX. When I finally did resume a more consistent level of DXing, I soon realized how removed I had been, how much had changed over the years, and how little I knew of the "new" environment on the bands! In addition to a host of new prefixes, terms like "2-meter spotting", "DX net", "list operation", "split", "greenstamps", and "packet clusters" were perplexing, and to an "old-timer", a source of embarrassment at my lack of familiarity. Nevertheless, I was again enjoying the chase and re-building my station, while trying to catch up on the learning curve. In time, I found new books that were of help, new friends of like interests that were supportive, and I learned a few things the hard way - on my own.

Your First Encounter?

Perhaps you have visited a ham radio operator and had the opportunity to tune the radio and to listen to some of the activity on the HF bands, or maybe you have just upgraded your license to HF privileges and you're anxious to try out that new HF transceiver. Tuning around on the 20m 'phone band, you will probably hear all kinds of chatter at most times of the day or early evening. Maybe, a strong station might catch your ear and you pause to listen:
" ... thanks for the 10 over 9 report, Enos. I'm running about 1,500 watts to a 5 element Yagi up about 30 meters high. You have a nice signal into the East coast and quite a few stations are calling you, so you may want to try split. Still need a QSL from Glorioso, so I'd appreciate a card. Is the bureau OK, or would you prefer direct with greenstamp? 73 my friend and thanks for the contact. Fox Romeo 200, this is Whiskey Zulu four zero Alpha Bravo Charlie"
You turn up the volume to hear the faint response, fading up and down into noise, while you wonder:
Glorioso?? Where is that ... what is he going to "split"?? ... and what is this "greenstamp" stuff???
You try hard to ignore the noise, as well as the splatter from another strong signal up the band, listening to the whispery response:
'' Alpha ... this ... Fox Romeo ... OK ... friend Joe, merci ... QSL for you. Please ... manager is Fox 6 ... Xray. You have ... signal into ... . Nice to meet ...Joe ...73. Whiskey ... SQUACK, SNARKLE, SQUACK ..."
Wincing, you quickly turn down the volume control as numerous stations begin calling the weak FR station.
Hmmm! Where is Glorioso? He wasn't very strong, and he had a French accent. Have to look that up in my old Atlas later on. Wonder what a greenstamp is? I know what a QSL is, but what is this greenstamp and manager bit? Oh, well, I certainly don't have 1,500 watts and a beam at 30 meters. Let's see, a meter is about 3.3 feet, so .... wow!! 100 feet? Well, with my 100w and puny dipole, I'd better move along. Maybe I'll try a CQ later this evening if I can find a clear spot. Boy, I sure would have liked to talk to Enos ... wonder why Joe didn't chat with him longer? He must be an interesting guy, with so many stations trying to talk to him. Phew! Who would want to fight that crowd?
And so it is that many have their first encounter with a HF DX pileup - an introduction to new people, fascinating places, marvelous stations, new terminology, strange new operating procedures (that may seem somewhat aggressive on occasion!), geography lessons (... where IS that place???), and other languages - all of which may cause some to feel a bit intimidated. As a result, they may avoid DXing, despite an initial interest. Yet, despite the ubiquitous cell phones, satellite TV, and the Internet, exploring the globe via ham radio is still one of the most exciting, educational, and challenging part of the hobby. Learning and coping with "new" things are what makes hobbies interesting and, as in any hobby, negative feelings are to be banished - otherwise, why pursue a hobby??? In the case of DXing, one of the major misconceptions held by many (old as well as new) hams is that one must have thousands of dollars of equipment and antennas in order to be a DXer. Hogwash!!! There is absolutely no need for grandiose equipment or sky-piercing towers to begin to enjoy "chasing DX". Re-read the opening comments above - no expensive equipment there - no way that I could afford it then! The primary attributes needed to be a DXer are P.E.P.S.I. - Patience, Energy, Persistence, Skill, Information! The purpose of this tutorial is to give you some background in the fundamentals of DXing so that, if you are truly interested (i.e., willing to invest the P, E, and P), you will be able to develop the Skill and find the Information to enjoy DXing.


What may be distant to a person who is scanning the FM radio dial is not the same as that for one who is listening to AM radio. FM stations operate in the VHF region of the spectrum, and have a range of generally no more than 50 KM (30 mi). AM stations, especially on the "shortwave" HF bands, may be heard far beyond the coverage range of FM stations. For this reason, in ham radio the term DX is usually applied in relation to the frequency of operation: at HF, DX most often means outside of one's own geopolitical boundaries; at VHF and UHF, it usually means beyond one's immediate vicinity or grid square; and at microwave frequencies, it can mean beyond a few hundred feet! In this discussion, we will be primarily interested in HF (and to some extent, VHF/UHF). Intuitively, one should have no problem in understanding what a DX station is - someone operating in a country or geopolitical region remote from your own. However, there are places in the world that are not actual "countries" in the formal sense, but are extensions of a parent country. An example of this is the French island of Reunion in the Indian Ocean. While it is not a country, it is considered DX and is approved for credit towards DXing awards (see the chapter on Awards). For this reason, one should not refer to "DX countries"; rather, the term "DX Entity" is preferred. However, for the time being, it is best to just use your intuitive sense of understanding what a DX station is - another "country" or geopolitical region - you will be correct most of the time. Later, after you've gotten the feel of DXing (usually about the time you've gotten your DXCC award!), you will probably become more interested in learning the relatively complex definition of a "DXCC Entity". A brief history of the development of the concept of a "DXCC Entity" and an edited, hopefully more readily understandable version of the definition, with references to the official ARRL definition, is included in the Appendix on "What's an Entity?".
The enthusiasm with which we DXers pursue our hobby is exemplified by the creation of another term, DXpedition, referring to a trip to a "DX location", in which one or more operators travel to a near or distant corner of the globe that may be uninhabited, lacking ham radio activity (or just an interesting place to go!) for the primary purpose of providing others with the opportunity to make radio contact with that spot. Some of these are true expeditions in the classical sense, in which the participants must carry their own equipment, shelters, generators, and supplies at great personal financial cost and risk. To what places have these many intrepid hams gone? The answer is that there is no region on Earth in which Hams have not operated. One example of this was the DXpedition to Peter I island in 1994 by K0IR, KK6EK, W6MKB, HB9AHL, and ON6TT, at a cost of more than $200,000 (QSL card below).
Peter I island is a Norwegian possession in the Bellinghausen Sea just off the coast of the Antarctic iceshelf, and about 1,000 miles due south of the tip of Chile. In addition to the cost of travel and shipping bulk containers of generators, fuel, tents, food, and radio equipment to Punta Arenas, Chile, there were costs for chartering an icebreaker, along with a helicopter for transporting people and supplies onto the island, and then back again after a week of operation. That's DX!!!
For review of some of the more ambitious DXpeditions of the recent past, as well as schedules for some planned for the near future, visit some of the websites referenced below.

Information is Essential!

Knowing what future DX operations are planned is essential information to a DXer, who can then begin to plan for the most opportune times, frequencies, and modes to use in order to get them in the log! As stressed previously, huge tower-mounted antennas, expensive transceivers, and big amplifiers are NOT the primary things that you need to begin DXing. For example, the audio clip of the "CQ" by the station T20DX, from the island nation of Tuvalu in the south Pacific, illustrates the value of knowing when to expect interesting DX activity. The planned activity of this station in 2004, along with those of a series of other Pacific entities during an island tour by Christian, 3D2EA, was announced in advance in the DX bulletins. Knowing this, one could readily plan ahead in order to get in the log! Remember, next to interest (i.e., P,E,P) and the development of Skill, Information about when DX stations are expected to be on the air is the next most important ingredient for successful DXing. We'll delve into these and other things as we look into DXing techniques, equipment, and information resources in other chapters.
Finally, as has been mentioned, one of the primary appeals of DXing is that of the challenge of making contacts over great distance and often under difficult conditions. There are many ways to approach DXing, and the best way is that which is most satisfying to you, which is the purpose of having a hobby in the first place! It is to be expected that, as in any other hobby, there are many different types of DXers, from the very casual to the obsessive. For a survey of DX types, presented in a humorous style patterned after that of Hugh Cassidy, WA6AUD (SK), one of the great writers of ham radio lore, visit the website listed below of Paul Dunphy, VE3DX, to read some of the stories. Also, you may be assured that you WILL eventually encounter all of these DXer types as you pursue DX ... and you WILL evolve into one of them. ;-)

A Labor of Love

The purpose of A,B,C,Dx is to discuss the key aspects of a part of the amateur radio hobby that I have enjoyed for 50+ years - chasing DX. In addition to operating information and tips, a brief summary of background theory is included for two of the key topics - Propagation and Antennas - because of their importance to DXers.
In addtion to personal experience, I am indebted to all of the friends who shared their hard-earned expertise, and to the many books and articles by others that I've read and added to my library. Also, I never cease to be amazed by the abundance of useful information easily available on the World Wide Web - literally, low-hanging fruit for the mind! In keeping with this, A,B,C,Dx uses a multimedia platform to provide a stroll through the essentials of the sport of DXing. The topics are arranged in chapters, each readily accessible at any time via the ever-present menu list on the left edge of the screen. Whenever possible, animated graphics are used to better illustrate points - left-clicking on any figure will cause it to open in a re-sizable pop-up window where it may be enlarged and, if available, animation will execute. Key words are italicized and underlined, indicating that a definition is available via "mouseover" - by simply placing the mouse cursor over the word (no click needed), the definition will popup on the screen (e.g., the term DX here). At the end of each chapter, there is a Reference list of website hyperlinks that can be opened in a re-sizable popup window.
Finally, chapters are arranged in an order that seemed appropriate; however, there is no reason to follow the arranged sequence - you can jump around as much as you like! Every effort was made to keep the material as simple as possible without compromising correctness, but inevitably there will be errors - I would greatly appreciate any critiques and suggestions for improvement.  

 Getting Started

What equipment do I need to get started?

One of the first questions that many ask is: "What equipment do I need to begin working DX?" The answer is very simple: any transceiver and antenna will do for a start. Many hams with extremely modest stations (a typical 100w transmitter and a simple wire or vertical antenna) have earned the DX Century Club award for certified contact with 100 geopolitical DX entities. Conversely, there are also many operators who have the most expensive equipment available, with beam antennas on high towers, and yet they have not achieved DXCC, complaining about being unable to find any DX. Sadly, the only way that they know how to work DX is when someone calls them on the telephone to tell them where to listen! Once again, here is the Golden Rule of DXing:
Equipment is not as important as Patience, Energy, Persistence, Skill, and Information.
The importance of this Rule cannot be emphasized enough: the primary attributes of a successful DXer are P.E.P.S.I. These are the things that far surpass the value of any particular equipment. Unfortunately, beginners may become discouraged when they hear others describe enviable stations and antennas, or hear it proclaimed that "You can't work 'em if you can't hear 'em". While this statement is often heard among DXers and is undeniably true, it does NOT mean that you need the most expensive equipment and antennas in order to enjoy DXing. To anyone who thinks otherwise, I say Hogwash!! This erroneous perception undoubtedly arises from the fact that the well-known, high-achieving DXers in your club or area do usually indeed have well-equipped stations and impressive antennas; but it is false logic to conclude from this that ALL (or even most) DXers have well-endowed stations. Ask the best-known DXers in your area how they got started and you will find that, in almost 100% of the cases, they began with very modest stations. In fact, some will probably still have only modest equipment and antennas. In talking to them you'll find that what they do have in common is P.E.P.S.I and a passion for chasing DX!
Now, let me set the record straight - no one will seriously argue that good antennas and good equipment are totally unimportant. Once you have become a skilled DXer, a well-endowed station will certainly make it easier to work DX; however, it will not help a bit if you don't know HOW to work DX. It can't be said enough: What one must understand is that equipment alone is no match for P.E.P.S.I.. No matter what equipment or antennas that you may have, you will not be a true DXer if you aren't interested in expending the effort required to do it. You must be willing to spend as much time as possible tuning for new ones: in the mornings, evenings, and at any other free moments, and occasionally into the wee hours. If you do this, you WILL work DX. Eventually, when you feel that it is feasible for you to do it, you may want to become a truly dedicated DXer when you're willing to:
  • stay up most of the night, night-after-night for a week, to tune for a rare one;
  • accept calls at any hour of the day or night about a new one that you need;
  • regularly follow DX publications in order to know when and where to find new ones;
  • keep at it even while others are working the station you want, but all that you hear is noise; and
  • look forward to trying again another time after missing out on a contact.
If you are not able or willing to invest some level of effort beyond sporadic, unfocused tuning, then no matter how much equipment you buy, you will rarely work very much DX - except by random chance!
Again, the message in all of this is: don't get hung up on the "need" for equipment and antennas - develop the operating skills with whatever you have at the moment. In time, you will be better able to improve your station once you begin to understand the needs of a DXer. Meanwhile, there are many DX stations operating on the bands at all hours of every day that are workable at some time by any modest station setup. DXing is like any endeavor: nice clothes, nice tools, good looks - while they may all be of superficial help - will never guarantee success nearly as much as P.E.P.S.I.

OK, I've got a working transceiver and antenna - How do I begin?

Outlined below, and discussed in detail in the chapters to follow, is a five-step program of the A,B,C's of Dx that is guaranteed to work:
  1. Learn how to tune for DX. "Tuning" is most often what successful DXing is about. It is truly a game of patience and persistence - tune and listen, tune and listen. It is not an exaggeration to say that for every hour that a successful DXer is active, 55 minutes are spent in tuning and listening. Tuning is more that just turning the radio ON and idly twisting the dial - it is the FIRST important skill to be learned and a whole chapter is devoted to the process. The best time to tune for DX? Although steps 3 and 4 will address the technical issues of when to tune, the fact is that the most practical answer is any and every moment that you have to spare. Even 15 minutes of tuning before breakfast or dinner can often be very productive, once you learn how to do it. This is especially true today with the availability of DX Spotting networks that show what and where DX stations are being heard (more on this later). After you have reached a certain level of expertise and achievement in DXing, you may decide to be a bit more selective in your tuning time, while spending more time reading some of the publications on DXing, learning about propagation, QSLing, planning station upgrades, or studying antenna design.
  2. Learn how to make the contact and how to confirm it. Once you've located a DX station that you want/need, it is then time to put your "contact skills" to work, deciding when to call and whether to call directly on the DX station's frequency or try a bit up the band away from the crowd. In some cases, the DX station won't even listen on his own frequency, therefore stations calling there (and there will always be some!) will not be able to make a contact. If many stations are calling, it probably sounds like an unintelligible jumble to the DX station, so waiting to make your call just as the cacophony dies down may well get you in the log before the guys with all of the expensive high-powered equipment. Knowing when and where to call will often determine whether or not a contact is made, regardless of the station equipment! After a contact is made, the next task is to seek to confirm it, usually with a QSL card, but another (digital electronic) method has now emerged - the Logbook Of The World (LOTW) hosted by ARRL.
  3. Learn about your equipment and how best to use it. When the station that you really want to work is just a whisper in the noise, you must know enough about your equipment to be able to optimize weak signal reception. It is not unusual to hear someone say that since they have "low-end" equipment, they just can't hear DX. Remember that it wasn't so long ago that the first trans-Atlantic radio contacts were made by hams using equipment that was less capable of tuning in and hearing stations than a contemporary $20 portable radio. Unfortunately, many hams don't take the time to learn enough about the technical aspects of their transceivers in order to use them properly under varying band conditions; rather, too often the "solution" is to buy a "better" radio or antenna, only to find that things aren't really much improved. Learning just a little bit about your radios and antennas will make a BIG difference in your operating skills and will keep you from costly "upgrades" that may well be disappointing. Knowing how to make the best of what you have, while planning for the future, is the hallmark of a successful DXer.
  4. Learn how to find information on DX happenings. This is one part of the answer to the "when to tune" question: knowing if there is to be activity expected, and at what time/mode/frequency that the DX station is most likely to operate, is far superior to random tuning. For example, in the Spring of 1991, I was actively pursuing DXCC Honor Roll on CW and I needed a contact with Mt. Athos (SV2 or SY2). While the resident ham, SV2ASP, Monk Apollo, was periodically on SSB, activity on CW was rare. A notice in one of the DX bulletins mentioned the possibility that a well-known DXer, Baldur/DJ6SI, may visit there. Knowing that Baldur is an excellent CW operator, I began to plan a "watch" for him as /SV2. Of course, I still had to go to work, not to mention family duties (!), so a 24/7 tuning schedule was not feasible. A bit of thought led to the anticipation that perhaps local sunrise at Mt. Athos would be a likely time for one to begin operating. Since local time there is 2 hours ahead of UTC, this meant that I should start tuning no later than 0400 UTC. As for the band to tune, I knew that we were then at the peak of the current solar cycle so that 20 meters, open for almost 24 hours, seemed the best choice - and so the watch began. The yawning stopped and the adrenalin began to flow one evening at 0510 UTC when I tuned across a high-speed CW operator on 14.025 MHz giving out rapid-fire signal reports ... sure enough, it was SY2/DJ6SI !! It took me only a minute to determine that he was listening up the band and I began to follow the stations that he worked, calling on the station's frequency immediately after the contact was completed - a method known as "Tailending". Despite the fierce pileup, a small tri-bander at 40 ft, and no amplifier, he was in the log within 20 minutes! I really didn't mind having to get up 4 hours later for work . There are many sources of this kind of information today that are readily available free or by subscription, by mail or on the Internet. In addition to news information sources, another powerful DXing aide is the DX Cluster spotting network. Having access to these kinds of information is next in importance to developing the tuning and contact skills.
  5. Learn about radio wave propagation. This is the other part of the answer to the question of when to tune: you should know something about the radio waves that we use and the solar and the geophysical conditions that affect how they travel (propagate) about the globe. There are two essential variables that affect RF propagation: the activity on the surface of the Sun, the position of the Earth with respect to the Sun (time-of-day, day-of-the-month, and season-of-year), and the variability of the Earth's magnetic field.
So there you have it in a nutshell - all of the "secrets" of successful DXing!

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