by Larry "Tree" Tyree N6TR & K7RAT
Originally posted around the year 1999
Hello - my name is Larry Tyree - I have TopBand disease. It has been 14 hours since I have last worked Europe on TopBand.
Yes folks, some of my close friends and family members know this, but to the rest of you, this might be a surprise... I have the TopBand disease, and it is a bad case. I have had this disease for about 25 years now. At times it appears to be in remission, but then it comes back strong (this appears to be related to sunspots).
For those of you not familar with Amateur Radio, some background information will help you fully understand this condition. Some people in Amateur Radio call themselves "DXers". DX is a term used to indicate "far away". This manifests itself as a strong desire to "work" as many different countries as possible. After working a new country, the patient will experience a "high" similar to the one experienced by a sport fisherman when he actuallly catches a fish. However, after a few hours, this high is replaced with anxiety while waiting for the "QSL card" from the station worked.
These QSL cards are proof that the contact took place, look great on the wall, and are used to apply for various awards. Sometimes this anxiety can last for months. I remember having to wait EIGHT YEARS for my card from China to finally arrive. To get a card from Cuba, I had to use a friend in Europe to send it, because it appears mail between Cuba and the USA never gets delivered. Some cards never come. I have been told that getting a card from EU6AF in Belarus will probably be impossible.
DXing is the general strain of this disease. Many people have had terminal cases of it. Just last summer, George Wise, W7MB was at my house and he is one of three people at the top of the "DXCC Honor Role" list. The Honor Roll is reserved for people who have worked the most countries, and George was at the top of the list longer than I can remember. George passed away recently and we all miss him. Being on this list generally requires a lifetime of effort (at least until packet was introduced - a computer network that allows you to share information with others concerning where and when needed countries are).
Radio hams have many different bands that they can use. Each of these bands have different characteristics. Some are night time bands, and others are only alive during the daytime. Some of the bands provide world-wide communication and others are limited to the local area (except under rare conditions). Some bands have antennas the size of you arm, and others require acres of room to have an efficient antenna.
Most hams who are trying to collect countries use bands between 7 and 30 megaHertz, on bands known as 40 , 30, 20, 17, 15, 12 and 10 meters. Some stray down to 80 meters (3.5 megaHertz), but that is rare as the antennas are fairly large, there is lots of noise, and not many DX stations show up on this band. However, the "TopBand" or 160 meters, is even more of a challenge. This band, located at 1.8 megaHertz (or 1800 kiloHertz) is just above the AM broadcast band and has similar propagation characteristics as the top part of it. Listen between 1500 and 1600 kHz sometime and see what you hear. You might hear a station 1000 miles away at night, but maybe only 100 miles during the day. Yes, TopBand is a night time band and because of this, the activity peaks during the times of year when darkness is more prevelant (winter).
AM broadcast stations can run up to 50,000 watts. Radio hams can only run up to 1,500. You have seen the size of AM broadcast towers. They are typically a collection of 3 or 4 towers, each over 200 feet tall, sitting in a 20 acre lot. Radio hams who operate TopBand always drool when driving by one of these stations.
The infected operator will spend all of his mental energy figuring out how to put up an antenna system as similar as possible to the commercial AM station on their own property. Some of them actually succeed, but few of us have the resources. Because of this, there is a lot of experimentation with different antennas, much more so than on some of the other bands. Many TopBand operators use wires hanging in trees - which is how ham radio was supposed to be.
As you can imagine, we are at a significant disadvantage compared to the average AM broadcast station. However, with enough patience and lack of sleep, we have been able to work around the world on TopBand. I am very proud of my country total on TopBand (now over 130). I have worked over 30 different countries in Europe and my furthest contacts are with South Africa (over 10,000 miles as the radio wave travels) and Perth, Austrailia. Contacts with Europe are more difficult because of the earth's magnetic field. Radio waves from Oregon to Europe travel pretty close to the magnetic north pole. Energy from the sun affects the Van Allen belt, which has a significant affect on TopBand signals. If you can see the Northern Lights, my radio is turned off.
Since the number of people who can put up an antenna for topband is limited, there is a feeling of fraternity among the people who you talk to. This was very strong 20 years ago, and has been diluted only a little with increased activity. You can sample the flavor of the band by reading some of the recent posts made to the topband mail reflector. This is where we boast to each other about what things were worked the night before.
Perhaps I can best describe how you get this disease by explaining how I caught it. It was back in 1972. I was 18 years old and had been a ham for almost 5 years. There was a contest coming up (an event where you try to talk to as many people as you can in a weekend), and it was a 160 meter contest. I had no transmitter for this band, but I did have a receiver. I borrowed a "transmitter" from a friend (a Messinger Signal Shifter), not much of one, but it did run 5 watts (about enough to light up a flashlight). The contest started on Friday and I was able to work six states with it the first night: Arizona, California, Oregon, Washington, Utah and Idaho. I was operating in Southern California at the time.
The next day was spent trying to improve the antenna system (more wires) and the transmitter (modify my 80 meter transmitter to be an amplifier). With my improved signal, I was able to work Kentucky!! The callsign of the station I worked was K4GSU, who is now N4AR, and I hear him on TopBand almost every night 25 years later. He obviously has a bad case as well.
More improvements were made, and I finally worked all states from my parent's suburban lot in Southern California. My antenna wire was made out of invisible 30 gauge wire and was strung across the street to a telephone pole (bet you didn't know about that one dad).
A few years later, a friend of mine (Marty Woll, WB6VZI/N6VI) and I, went to my parent's mountain cabin for some 160 meter contests. We strung antennas at the top of the 100 foot trees and were able to work Japan! One of the callsigns we worked was JA3ONB - who I actually worked this morning on 2 January 1997. He is obviously another poor soul who has this disease.
When I moved to Oregon, I finally was able to put up a "proper" TopBand antenna. David, AA6RX, was visiting me and we modified one of my towers to act like an antenna for 160 meters. The results were surprising. We worked several station in Japan the next morning, and in the winter of 1985/86, I heard my first European! I can still remember hearing the letters "9AMO" which were coming from Pierre, HB9AMO in Geneva. I didn't work Pierre (until 11 years later), but soon after I worked Jose, EA3VY (Spain), for my first European country. It was followed shortly by Dave, G3SZA (England), who now lives in Colorado. I remember one night the next October (like it was yesterday) where I worked FOUR new European countries in one evening: including Finland (OH1XX). All of these people mentioned have been heard on topband by myself in the past week or two.
Perhaps I should now explain the symptoms of the disease. They are as follows:
If these symptoms persist for more than one sunspot cycle (every 11 years), then you should strongly suspect TopBand disease.
Currently, the only known cure for symptoms of the disease is exposure to lots of sunspots. This increases the absorption of TopBand signals in the ionosphere, and also makes the higher bands more attractive. Most people (except those with very bad cases) will spend time on the less masochistic bands when high sunspots are present.
Please understand, this only treats the symptoms, not the root cause. It is possible for the disease to go into hiding for a number of years. Earl, K6SE, had the symptoms really bad in the 1970's. Then he was not heard from for almost 15 years. I had thought about looking him up to see if he had found a cure, but I heard him just a couple of nights ago trying to work a station in Sweden.
If you know someone who has this disease, don't invite them over to any dinner parties during the months of December or January. They will constantly be looking at their watch, and using your computer to log into the packet cluster to see what stations have been reported on the band. If you know someone married to a person who has the disease, it is okay to invite them over (alone). This will be greatly appreciated by the TopBand addict and will be repaid during the summertime with equal kindness.
For furthur information on TopBand, subscribe to the topband mailing list. Send a subscribe message to firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also view the messages posted to this support group at http://www.contesting.com/_topband.
There are other strains of the disease which I should mention. The symptoms are equally devastating:
If you are thinking of exposing yourself to TopBand, you should be aware of the risks. You might find yourself only valuing your 40 meter beam as top loading for your tower.
Thanks for listening.
Larry "Tree" Tyree N6TR