GB7HQ Amateur Radio HQ Contest!

In 2006, GB7HQ was actually GB5HQ. It was changed due to concerns by the CW crews that too many errors were creeping in due to misheard calls.

I originally wrote this article in 2006. It was published in the CDXC magazine in the same year. I’ve just remembered that I never published it here.

Fraser working GB5HQ

Frazer G4BJM

I am still pinching myself having operated the “beacon” station, 80m SSB as GB5HQ for my country along with Lee (G0MTN) and Fraser (G4BJM). Operating GB5HQ was the highest highlight of my hobby career yet. It inspired me to dig deeper and to discover more about myself and it certainly gave me the chance to stay awake for 24 hours!

GB5HQ is the callsign of the UK’s IARU HQ Championships team. The first I knew anything about this was 2 years ago when Lee happened to mention that he was travelling to Milton Keynes for the weekend. He asked if everyone could dust their radios off and take part in the contest, and of course work GB5HQ on as many bands and modes as they could find.12 months later, I remember getting a tinge of excitement again and I was keen to work as many HQ stations as I could. I heard Lee calling CQ on 80m SSB and I was really jealous. I worked him and a dozen other HQ stations on 40 and 80 meters and had lots of fun in the process but it did dawn on me that there really was a contest going on between the HQ stations. There was an edge in their voice, a courtesy that balanced QSO speed -Vs- politeness. Every QSO was vital, and I could tell that they were all working hard to compete with their European cousins. I was intrigued. I shot an email off to Lee saying that if there was a way of helping out or getting on the team, I would be keen to help, spot or operate. He said he would see what he could do. 10 months went by in silence before I had the “tap on the shoulder” one evening via email.

Accepting the “post” was easy compared to what happened next. I was enrolled in the GB5HQ email reflector and started the next phase of my education. Clearly, GB5HQ was not just about being a jolly outing. We were there to win. Each operator had to download, install and configure the special logging software (StarLog) before starting a programme of evening logging practice! This is no joke. The software is networked across the internet to a central server. There is “chat”, instant announcements, spotting facilities, band maps – and of course regular logging too. Some nights, as many as 15 operators were logging fictitious calls, spotting imaginary stations and generally trying to break the software so that not only did we become experts but if necessary, we could have a patch released in time for the “real deal”. The humour was first class at times. I particularly remember one evening when a group of world-class operators were very happy on a certain drink of the red variety, issuing spots to the group – some of the most hilarious made up callsigns you could ever imagine – all funny, most unprintable!

Nearer the day, Dave, G4BUO issued the team orders. We were there to win and to do everything in our power to beat the competition. 10 point plans were distributed and a more sombre mood enveloped the email reflector.

Saturday 8th July 2006, Lee picked me up. I had wrapped my FT1000MP in an old equipment bag. Lee spotted it on the ground and loaded it into his boot thinking it was some sort of gas cooker which I still chuckle about! Once loaded with hampers of goodies, changes of clothes and lots of drinks, we set off to Milton Keynes on an uneventful motorway journey.

We got to the Open University club shack at 10:00am and Fraser met us enthusiastically, immediately showing us his recently-built transmit and receive antennas. There were 4 separate receiving antennas together with all the switching, to be placed in a box on top of my FT1000MP. I delighted at his workmanship and skill. He showed me the Vertical antenna for 80m too and demonstrated the switch to use to flip transmit between a dipole at 100 feet or the vertical. Fabulous. Even the spotting station had its own selection of antennas, all selected by an automatic band switch. Very impressive.

We unloaded the car and had the shack built up within by 12:00 noon with working voice-keyers, antenna switchers, the linear amplifier and the computer network running with the aid of Lee’s Orange GPRS mobile network card. Some RF interference to a mouse was sorted with a liberal sprinkling of ferrite snap-on’s. I was invited to make some test calls on 80 meters, signing /P with my own call. Apparently we were loud. Most excellent!

Lee calmly started CQ at 1:00pm local time on the nail. We were on 3.777.00 – great. Nice number for the boys to pass to. Let’s go. It was slow and Lee checked his watch. Was it 1:00pm? Keep going. Lee had his digital voice keyer that plugged into the back of the MP. “Plink” it made a sound when you hit the button to call CQ.

On-the-fly improvements were made to the StarLog software during the contest which required a download and restart of the software client and my heart was in my mouth as we calmly logged a couple of calls on a scrap of paper and quickly caught up with the StarLog client came back up. Great experience.

After an hour, it was my go. I couldn’t hear anything through the static. I was terrified. Don’t worry – there’s nobody there I told myself! Then I was called! But one of those quiet nasty ones. I get G2 but nothing else, just Lima or London or Lisbon or was it Monday or Guatemala or something. What? The back-end of his callsign is a mess. “Shout”, I want to say! But I stay cool, “please say the suffix three letters at a time”. Bang. I get the call. “Fifty Nine, RSGB, OK”?

The noise-floor at the University is particularly bad, hence the amount of hard work that Fraser put in to the reception, so digging callsigns was sometimes particularly tough. A string of loud calls did wonders for my confidence. Then heavy QRN again for 5 minutes. I had prepared a laminated sign for the shack wall that read GB5HQ and RSGB in case we forgot our call or report. I took W3LPL’s advice and had stuck on the bottom, “WE ARE LOUD”. I looked at it. It didn’t help. I felt like a 10 watt station in CQWW on 40 meters with a G5RV at 10 feet. Where is everyone? Gradually the band started working and they came out the woodwork. “Thank you for working us on 20m SSB”, I would say, seeing them in StarLog’s “IN THE LOG” window that would be presented to me as I entered their call, “we’re also on 40m SSB on 7054, please work us on 40m SB, can you do this for me?” He replies positively. I hit the voice keyer, “plink” and type in the Announce window, “40m SB > DJ1ABC coming up from 80m”.

I glare at Lee sometimes in worried horror. A callsign is deep in the hiss. He picks it out using the spare headphones. He stretches across the keyboard to correct the call. We debate, no it was a Zulu, not a Bravo. Why? He’s right. It’s not fair.

Fraser leaves us to attend to his family and Lee and I start a familiar activity of spotting or working and just having a good time, concentrating on our own thing. I start to relax. Fraser arrives back with a pizza each. Lee and I eat whilst Fraser works 80m at 100 foot on the dipole. We agree a format for the night. Lee takes an early sleep while Fraser and I work the pile as a double act. I find myself pulling the calls out, like Lee did for me. This is rewarding. Lee woke up and started a 90 minute stint around 1:00am, leaving me to start a long session from around 2:30am. I was very keen to have the US calling me. So many times, I’ve been the station doing the S&P on 100 watts. How would I do with the States calling me? Would they call?

“Whiskey One America America” (I think) hits me. I draw my breath. Another Whiskey calls. They were coming in thick and fast as 80m opened to the US and South America. Novembers, Dubbyas and Kilos came across the Atlantic in a steady stream. I was hooked, and suddenly my hearing improved too. I was digging callsigns out of thin air, “your suffix ends Delta Kilo Lima, yes”? And hearing, “QSL, YES”! Unfortunately, when the twilight crept up over the horizon, the US faded out.

Lee took the voice keyer at 5:00am to do the really quiet hours. These are the dullest, nastiest hours on the planet. Most of the EU is still asleep and the US can’t hear us. I crash on the floor of the shack, drifting off to the sound of the fans and an occasional: “..thank you, fifty nine, RSGB”… Plink.

Humour keeps us going for the last few hours, G3SJJ shouting in the Announce window, “send me your hand-me-down Dubbyas!”, which had me in fits of giggles as he slogged the 80m CW end hunting for US stations. Lee worked hard on CW spotting whilst I felt slightly guilty just hitting the plink button. I was finally working those deaf callsigns too. I didn’t need to call Lee over. I didn’t panic, I’d found a different part of me.

1:00pm finally arrived. We stopped on the dot, watching the second hand on the computer display ticking to the top of the hour. We packed silently, thankful that we would soon be home, the humour and the energy evaporating quickly. It was very quiet. I was still hearing callsigns in my head. I was giving reports to passing cars, reading their number plates in phonetics.

Did I achieve my goal? Well, let’s clear one thing up. Contesting isn’t glamorous. It was hard work and during Sunday morning, I really was falling asleep at the Voice Keyer. Sometimes my mind would go into to a weird sort of melt-down. My eyes would close and I could hear the static. A trigger would go off, “where had the CQ gone”? It’s because I hadn’t hit the button! Plink. More interesting though is that I also found out that you can hear two callsigns and act on them at the same time. This is a marvellous skill that I’m developing. It’s like listening to a pile up with two minds. You tune one part of the mind into one voice and in parallel time, you can tune into another voice. I’m told it’s possible to do this with three callsigns at once – and remember them all without calling CQ again. Food for thought. On a more practical level though, I discovered that by relaxing the mind, you can dig a callsign out of thin air and impress your mates, however any slight hint of concern or worry and you’ll lose it. Unless you have complete confidence in your abilities, the mind will play darts with phonetic letters and you’ll be running over too many of them. Confidence is therefore key to success.

I hope I passed the test so that I can once again, call GB5HQ – Contest!

Callum McCormick