In the world of HF amateur radio some bands are “rag chew” bands – a small group of hams get together on the air for a long chat. Think of a coffee clutch. On other bands things are more rapid fire. Sometimes it is because the calling station is from a far off land and many hams either want a QSL card (confirmation of contact) or want to have that country or location checked off for some award certificate – like Worked All States (WAS) or DXCC (contacted 100 distant countries) to name a couple. In the instance of that rare contact there can be a pile-up – many hams trying to make the contact at the same instant – or – bit of time. This is where operating techniques can be more important than expensive equipment like top of the line radios, enough antennas to pose as a, ummm, NSA listening station, etc..
My operating environment is that we have a nice but modest operating station. We run a Yaesu FT 857 d radio complimented by a Gap Challenger DX antenna. The Gap is a strong multi-band vertical designed to work nearly all bands from 80 meters through 2 meters – all without the need of a tuner or extensive ground radial networks. The antenna is a center fed 31 foot vertical with three 17 foot ground radials gently sloping away from the antenna base for optimal SWR. We run 100 watts which is the standard for most HF radios without the aid of a separate expensive amplifier. The strength of the antenna is that, because it is center fed, it has a low take-off angle. This results in exception DX performance – for a vertical. It is said that the antenna also has a bit of gain to it. However, even with this nice modest operating environment, busting a pile-up can be a tough nut to crack. So far I have some 78 countries logged for my DXCC paper. I don’t spend much time chasing DX but when I do happen across an interesting contact and am in the mood and have time for it – I will tenaciously try to break the pile-up.
The reality is that in a large pile-up there are a LOT of hams that run power amplifiers and have larger, taller antennas that have more gain than ours. One would think that a modest station doesn’t stand a chance. No! definitely NOT! Thinking from a logical point of view, there are at least three different techniques that can be employed for an assault on the pile-up objective. They are:
1. Dive into the middle of the pile-up.
2. Be a front-runner.
3. Try tailing the pile-up.
I have tried all three and, at the right time, all three can work. I think the toughest to achieve many good contacts with is to just dive into the middle of the pile-up. In my view, stations with more power, better antennas, and just the fact that maybe dozens of stations are all transmitting at the same time make the chances of success minimal. If you do try to work the middle of a pile-up then I think the best bet is to try and sense a low point in the traffic and then pounce!
Front running can work and does for some and at some times. I think it depends on the nature of the operator on the other end. It seems as though some operators will end their transmission and then lock onto the first transmission that comes along. They will remember that call sign, will wait for the pile-up to subside and then will call that call sign.
Tailing the pile-up also works. It seems as if some operators will listen to the pile-up and, when the pile-up subsides, they will grab the strongest signal and work that one. Since we have a HF antenna that is a pretty good performer this technique works pretty well for me.
Given the above, what is Probably The Best Method For Breaking A Pile-Up? I say – listen to the tactics of the other operator. Get to know his / her operating preferences. Let them tell you what they like. Follow their advice! It won’t let you down…
If the operator consistently prefers front-runners then it makes little sense to try and tail the pile-up. Turning that around – the same is true for an operator that prefers to pick off the strongest tailing operator. Trying to be a front-runner may not be all that effective.
Different people have different feelings about which technique to use – and that’s OK. If something works for you it may be that you are comfortable with that technique and have become very proficient with it. That doesn’t mean that everyone will be as comfortable or as talented with that specific technique. Sharing ideas is good as is discussing why you believe it works for you. At the end of the day – it’s just Amateur Radio. It’s meant to be enjoyable. If it’s not – pick a different technique, different equipment or a different band. But don’t give up!
While I am no expert in working DX traffic I do have some amateur radio experience and given the techniques above, you can be effective at breaking pile-ups! You need patience and practice – if you have that then you will make those contacts!
Until later – stay radio active!
Jon E. Kreski – AB9NN
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