The HF operations were set up under a large tent just above the hillside. There was a table for each band - 20, 10, 40, 80, 160 and 15 meters as well as the digital station and the GOTA station. Each table was equipped with a place for two operators - one for phone (voice) and another for CW. The antennas stood along the base of the hillside running along the western edge of the camp.
My first chance to get on the air was at the GOTA station right as Field Day officially began. With help, I "ran" a frequency for about an hour. I called for stations, made contacts with the people who answered my call, and logged their information into the computer. This was the first time that I ever ran a frequency. Before then, I had only ever worked "search & pounce" (answering the guys that are calling CQ). Running was a very new experience for me! To my surprise, the first 50 contacts went very quickly and I found that after an hour, I was allowed to take a break while others took a turn at GOTA. I was already halfway toward my goal of 50 GOTA CW contacts and I had 23 hours to go!
Having borrowed a chair and headphones, I decided to travel next door to the 40 meter station table. I observed the 40 meter CW operations for about an hour and then moved on to the 20 meter station table to do the same. Over the course of the weekend, I had the chance to listen to many very skillful CW operators. It was a great experience. I picked up a lot of good tips and it really challenged my ability to concentrate and copy the code. I can copy small pieces of code in my head, but not more than a few letters or numbers at a time. Otherwise, I need to write it down as I hear it. I also tend to get tripped up when letters and numbers are mixed - which is not good, since that it what call signs are! My "observation time" at the various stations was helpful for all of those things.
While I was at the 20 meter station, someone came up from another tent with a slip of paper and a message. My neighbor sent me greetings from the NOVA QRP Field Day operation in Northern Virginia! That was really fun and I got a kick out of it - hihi.
After sitting at the 20 meter station for a while, I was encouraged to go learn how to operate digital modes. I knew nothing about operating digital, but it sounded like fun, so I made my way down to the digital station at the other end of the tent. There, I received training on RTTY (radio-teletype) and PSK (phase shift keying). Both are signals sent over the air that can then be received by a radio and displayed as text on a computer screen. In a way, it's just another form of "instant message" or "text message." I thought that it was pretty cool to be working RTTY - something that I had seen in the movies but never done before. I also found it neat that the digital modes use many of the CW abbreviations and prosigns that I already knew. They make communication so much simpler!
After learning about the computer interfaces and watching a few sample contacts, I was allowed to try it for myself. I made a couple of contacts using both RTTY and PSK. RTTY was easier for me to tune into and follow, but PSK was slower and more forgiving when I needed an extra second to figure out what I was doing.
After my lessons in digital, I decided to return to wandering CW observation. This time, I went around to the 80 meter station. Again, I got good experience listening in and a fun time hanging out with the ops!
A little while later, I found out that GOTA station was open, and so I went back to GOTA and finished off my 100 CW contacts there. It was done in no time. Hooray for success at the GOTA station! It was very exciting - and at the same time, the operation was starting to feel rather familiar and not quite as intimidating as it was initially. Somehow those 100 contacts felt more like the start of something than the completion of something. I'm on my way...
After graduating from GOTA, I was given the opportunity to operate at one of the main tables - the 160 meter station. There was no one operating that band later Saturday evening. I was left to fend for myself. I made a couple CW contacts, called CQ a bit, and tuned around to search and pounce on one or two really nice signals, but there was not much else to be heard. Perhaps I wasn't listening closely enough through the noise. My ears are still not used to picking out code from noise, though they are slowly learning to do it. Well, after assisting in the refueling of a generator, I helped to log a SSB contact on 160; but after tuning around for more, I found that the band was very quiet. I stayed there a while, thinking that I may be able to log more contacts, but not much happened. I decided to go back to observing the busier stations. By now it was about midnight or 1 am. I went back to 40 meters.
I observed for a while very contentedly and a bit sleepily. Then the operator told me to switch chairs. My turn to operate? But this is W3AO's evening 40 meter CW operation - yikes! The 40 meter band is known to do well at night and it was busy then. The thought of trying to take over the operation from a highly skilled ham was pretty scary, but this was Field Day, so I really didn't have any reason to panic. All the operators who assisted me during the weekend helped me out when I ran into trouble with pile-ups, faint signals, or the times when my brain simply didn't copy things. When I started at 2 pm, I was really nervous about hitting that transmit key, but after a while, it was no big deal... I did my best working 40 meters for a while and it was going all right. I was not very smooth nor was I extremely quick, but I persevered and did make some nice contacts amidst it all!
At some point, the operator assisting me needed to step away for a moment. I think I probably looked pretty horrified at the thought of being abandoned on such a busy band with so many people out to take my frequency! Were it not for the encouraging training, I probably would have panicked and lost the frequency and the contacts. After making 100 q's on GOTA, though, I thought that I should be able to handle this. The operator would not be too happy if I lost his frequency! So, putting on a determined expression, I turned to the computer screen and starting making contacts 'till the op returned. Some of the contacts I made were rather messy, but I got through them by asking for repeats where I missed info, requesting that people slow down when they came back at me well over 30 wpm, listening very carefully to the weaker signals, and abandoning the stations that I just couldn't hear well enough to work. Somehow, I managed to keep the frequency, which made me very happy. It was also satisfying to know that I could make contacts on my own. I was very relieved when I had assistance again, though!
In the middle of the night, after working the 40 meter station for a short time, I took over one of the digital stations. The operator had left to catch a few hours of sleep. I worked a decent amount of PSK and had a lot of fun. It was like chatting in CW lingo to someone online.
I worked digital till 4 or 5 am when the sky started lighting up purple and peach. At about that time, some of the operators returned. I took my turn sleeping for an hour or two. It was just enough to feel refreshed again by 7 or 8 am. Tea also helped.
In the morning, I was observing and operating on 15 meters. The operator there had his function keys set up differently, so it took me a bit of time to adjust to that style. I did like the flexibility of having the messages broken up into smaller pieces. I had not been at the 15 meter station long before I was given the chance to operate there, too! Every time the operator left on some errand, I had to battle to make the contacts on my own. I was operating around 20 wpm. I did slow down for one fellow who came back to me around 15 wpm. I think it was there that I had to ask some guy over 30 wpm to slow down! I actually had a run of a couple very nice contacts (no hesitations, repeats, or unnecessary abbreviations/prosigns), but then I ran into trouble copying some station and it threw off that nice rhythm. Too bad! One poor station patiently endured as I got his call wrong more than once, first due to a bad copy and then again due to bad typing. The station continued to send his corrected call and then his information. In the end, we made the contact and I got his info right. TU to all the stations who were so patient with me!
Finally, Field Day drew to a close. With a half an hour remaining, I worked a little RTTY and made two last contacts from the digital station. With that, the event was officially over!
The tear down, clean up work went very quickly and I was impressed with how well organized it was. Everything was neatly kitted and ready for storage until next year.
Many thanks to all the people who made this Field Day a wonderful event - from the radios to the tasty cake! I truly appreciate the time, encouragement, assistance, and opportunities that everyone offered me. I had a great time and I gained a lot of experience. I am definitely a CW contesting op in training!
For now, though, I am a sleepy CW op. TNX AGN! 73 es CUL.