Author Archives: Jock Elliott

Armed Forces Day QSL Card

On May 14, 2022, this blog published an announcement of the Annual Armed Forces Day Crossband Test.

The blog included a link to a PDF file that listed all the details, such as times, frequencies, and military stations that were participating (including some that were aboard ships), and there was even a link where you could submit your information online to receive a QSL card. I thought it would be fun to see if I could hear some of the military stations.

At 3:29 pm on May 14, I posted a comment on the blog:

1850Z & 1925Z — 14.487 MHz — Station sending CW CQ CQ CQ (I can copy but not read the rest), believed to be NSS — US Naval Academy transmitting for Annual Armed Forces Crossband test.

At 3:37 pm, I posted:

1934Z — 14.487 station NSS announces in voice they are listening 14.234.0 USB. Additional contacts in SSB. “It’s raining buckets here.”

Not hearing anything further, I filled  out the QSL request for — which asked for two-way contact information. I explained that I had only heard the Anapolis station, but I gave the details. Frankly, I did not hold out much hope for receiving a card, but yesterday it arrived.

As I reported elsewhere the MFJ 1020C active antenna/preselector made it possible to hear the Armed Forces Day station.

It was a very nice surprise to received the QSL card in the mail.

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The fertilizer hits the fan radio kit

By Jock Elliott, KB2GOM

Murphy’s Law: If anything can go wrong, it will.

            1st corollary: Even if anything can’t go wrong, it still will.

            2nd corollary: It will go wrong in the worst possible place at the worst possible time.

            Most devastating corollary: Murphy was an optimist.

            “It’s tough to make predictions, especially about the future.” – Yogi Berra

 The Better Half thinks I am sick, and maybe she is right, but I am unrepentant: I like disaster movies and books. True stories are better than fiction, but I like both, and I am curious about how people, real or imagined, get through whatever Horrible Event faces them.

As I have written before–here, here, and here–that when bad stuff happens, radio can be a really useful tool.

It was a comment from a reader – Rob, W4ZNG – that got me thinking some more about this. He mentioned enduring three weeks without electricity on the Mississippi Gulf Coast as a result of Katrina. So we had a phone conversation about: What do you want in your radio kit bag when faced with a longer duration, more severe regional or national emergency?

Here’s some of the stuff we agreed upon.

Gathering Information

At the most basic level, you want a radio capable of receiving local AM or FM broadcasters, and it would be good to know ahead of time which local stations have local news staffs that can broadcast useful in formation in times of crisis. In addition, if you live in the US or Canada, I absolutely recommend the ability to receive NOAA weather radio. The ability to run off batteries is critical, in case the mains power is out. In addition, a generous supply of batteries, or a means to recharge batteries is in order. If you decide to go with recharging batteries, you need to think about your options now, not when the lights go out.

In Rob’s case, during Katrina, all of the local broadcasters were wiped out. There was a local low-power FM broadcaster who got permission to increase power to 1,000 watts and was broadcasting where to get food and water. There was a New Orleans AM station that was on the air, but all of its coverage was “New Orleans-centric.” After a few days, some local FM broadcaster, working together, cobbled together a station that they put on the air and began broadcasting news. Rob also began DXing AM stations at night to get additional news.

We agreed that shortwave broadcasters were not likely to be very useful in most cases, but a shortwave radio with the ability to hear ham radio single sideband networks might well be.

To scan, or not to scan, that is the question

Another potential source of information are local public agency radio transmissions in the VHF and UHF ranges that could be heard with a scanner. But – and this is a very big but – that depends a lot on whether your local government (first responders, etc.) transmissions are encrypted. You need to check a source like to see if Public Safety transmissions in your area are encrypted. If they are, you will be unable to decipher them, no matter what equipment you own. However, an inexpensive analog-only scanner may prove very useful for listening to ham transmissions VHF and UHF (2 meters and 440 primarily) as well as FRS and GMRS.

If your local Public Safety radio systems are not encrypted, the RR database will give the details of the radio systems used by those agencies, and that in turn will determine the level of sophistication of scanner that will be required to hear their transmission.

The Radio Reference database also includes a listing of national radio frequencies including a list of federal disaster frequencies such as might be used by FEMA. In addition, I have found that the folks at the Radio Reference forum are generous with their time and expertise: . If all this sounds a bit daunting, there are scanners that have built-in databases of all available frequencies and radio systems, and all you need to do is put in your zip code and select which services you want to hear. I own one, they work well, but they are expensive.

Summoning Help

Assuming that the power is out, your cell phone may or may not work (during Hurricane Katrina, some people found that they could not make voice phone calls, but text messages would go through).

If the cell phones are not working, two-way radio may be useful to summon help and gather information. Again, some research on your part is in order. Perhaps there are 2-meter or 440 ham repeaters in your area with backup power, or maybe there is a robust GMRS repeater system. If so, get your ham or GMRS license and start participating! (It was his experience during Hurricane Katrina that prompted Rob to get his ham license, and when Hurricane Zeta hit, he was glad he had it.)

FRS bubble-pack radios are good for staying in touch while getting around the immediate neighborhood.  It’s also good to have a few spares to hand to neighbors if the need arises.  Often on sale (especially after Christmas) in multi-packs for less than $10 each.

Rob notes that great strides have been made in hardening cell phone towers since Katrina.  When Hurricane Harvey clobbered Houston in 2017, the cell net stayed up.  Even so, it would be prudent not to count on it!

The Bottom Line

At a bare minimum the ability to receive your local AM and FM broadcasters is essential, and NOAA weather radio is also very useful. At the next step up, depending upon your local situation, a scanner may help you to gather information. In addition, the ability to monitor ham transmissions may also add to your information gathering abilities. Finally, having a ham license and the ability to transmit on ham frequencies may be very valuable in a widespread or long-duration emergency.

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Testing the MFJ-1020C Active Antenna/Preselector

By Jock Elliott, KB2GOM

Truth be told, I’ve been curious about the MFJ 1020C for a long time. Back when I wrote for Passport to World Band Radio, over a decade ago, I wondered if the 1020C was a worthwhile device, but then I had a big wire antenna outside connected to a communications receiver, so I didn’t worry so much about squeezing every last erg out of the signals I was receiving. As a result, I never experimented with an MFJ 1020C.

Now, however, I have a 50-foot indoor end-fed wire antenna connected to a Grundig Satellit 800, and I am constantly looking to improve the signal. Feeding the signal through a 9:1 unun and then through coax to the Satellit 800 has boosted the signal-to-noise ratio a bit — —  and so has grounding the unun — But is there such a thing as too much signal to noise? Not in my not-so-humble opinion, so the quest for improvement continues.

During a phone call with Thomas (Maximum Leader of, I mentioned my curiosity about the 1020C. Thomas said, “MFJ is a sponsor of, I’ll see if they would like to send you one for testing.” Two days later, a package arrived with the 1020C, a power supply for it, and a short coax jumper.

The Basic Layout

The 1020C is small — 2.5” H x 6.4” W x 3.3” D – and looks well made. It covers 300 KHz to 40 MHz. On the front panel are two knobs, a push button, and a selector switch. The left-most knob controls the gain of the amplifier. Moving to the right, you’ll find a push button that controls the bypass circuit.

To the right of the bypass button, you’ll find the band switch, which controls which frequency range is in use, and to the right of that is the tuning knob which allows you to peak the signal in the frequency range you have selected. We’ll get to how it all works in just a bit.

On the back of the 1020C, you’ll find a coax connector labeled INPUT and another labeled OUTPUT, a grounding post, and a connector for the external power supply.

Setup is easy. Plug the power supply into the wall and into the back of the 1020C. (You can also run the 1020C off a 9-volt battery, which we will discuss in a while.) Connect a coax jumper from the OUTPUT connector on the 1020C to the coax input on your receiver. (If you don’t have a coax connector on your receiver, we’ll deal with that issue shortly).

Finally, you need to make a choice about which antenna you want to use. The 1020C Owner’s Manual says:

You may connect either the telescoping antenna provided or an external wire antenna of your choice. To connect the telescoping antenna; screw the antenna end through the top cover and into the spacer located on the PC board. If you chose to use external wire antenna; plug it into the INPUT SO239 connector located on the back of the unit. (DO NOT HAVE BOTH ANTENNAS CONNECTED AT THE SAME TIME!)

Attaching the telescoping antenna can take a while since you may have to hunt around to get the antenna centered on top of the screw inside the 1020C’s case.

Operating the MFJ 1020C

Here’s how I operate the 1020C:

  1. With the BYPASS turned ON (the button pressed in), tune the receiver to the frequency you want to hear.
  2. Set the GAIN knob to around 3 or 4.
  3. Set the BAND knob to the band with the MHz that you are tuned to. You will notice that the red PWR indicator on the 1020C lights up.
  4. Press and release the BYPASS button. This turns on the active preselector and amplification circuits.
  5. Slowly turn the TUNE knob back & forth. At some point in its tuning range, you will hear the signal peak. With the 1020C, I often find there is a spot where the noise peaks and a hair to the side of the noise peak is the sweet spot for listening.
  6. Finally, adjust the GAIN knob for maximum intelligibility of the signal.

Note: When the BYPASS button is pushed IN (the ON position), that means you are hearing the signal straight through from the antenna without going through the amplification and preselection circuits of the 1020C . . . it’s like the 1020C isn’t even there. This is true even if the red PWR LED is illuminated. To put the 1020C to work for you, the BYPASS button must be OUT, and a band must be selected.

The Results of My Tests

Bottom line: the 1020C can really help in certain situations.

Initially, I set up the 1020C with its diminutive 20 inch antenna and connected a coax jumper cable between its coax output and the coax input on the back of the Satellit 800. I wanted to see if it would out-perform the four-foot-long telescopic antenna on the Satellit. No way, I thought; the Satellit antenna is twice as long. But I was wrong. On the first day I tested the 1020C, the atmospheric noise was terrible. I could not hear time station CHU on 3.330 MHz at all with the Satellit’s built-in antenna. But with the 1020C properly tuned, I could hear the time “pips” on CHU clearly.

A couple of days later, when announced the Annual Armed Forces Day Crossband Test — — I set out to see if I could hear some of the stations. I removed the telescopic antenna from the 1020C and connected the 1020C to my indoor end-fed antenna. Putting the unit in bypass mode, I then started punching in the crossband test frequencies on the Satellit 800. At each frequency, I would first listen to the frequency in “barefoot” mode, then activate the 1020C to see if I could bring any intelligible signal up out of the noise. I had no success until I got to 14.487 MHz USB.  With the straight-through indoor end-fed antenna, I heard nothing, but with the 1020C engaged and carefully tuned, I could copy a station sending in CW: CQ CQ CQ. Later I was able to confirm the ID as NSS from Annapolis, Maryland, one of the stations in the crossband test.

On some easier-to-hear signals, the 1020C sounds as if it lowers the noise floor, improving the “listenability,” but the 1020C does not improve all signals. Sometimes the signal processed by the 1020C sounds roughly the same as the bypassed signal. And sometimes the bypassed signal (straight through from the antenna without the 1020C in-line) simply sounds better.

The pigtail.

Testing the 1020C with a Portable

Next, I tried the 1020C with my Tecsun PL-880. Immediately, I was confronted with a problem: how to get the signal from the coax output of the 1020C and into the antenna socket of the 880. Fortunately, a ham friend fabricated a “pigtail” for me that made the connection from the coax connector on the 1020C to the antenna input socket on the PL-880. As soon as I hooked it up, I heard an unpleasant hum that I had not heard on the Satellit 800.

I decided to see if running the 1020C off battery would offer an improvement. This involved another challenge: there is no “hatch” on the 1020C to provide access for plugging-in the 9-volt battery. Instead, you have to take out the screws on either side of the cabinet, remove the cabinet top, find the 9-volt connector hidden in a little plastic sleeve inside the 1020C, plug in the 9 volt battery, slide it into its clip, replace the cabinet top, and run the screws back in. That, in itself, is not difficult to do, but as soon as the battery needs replacing, you have to go through most of the process all over again.

The good news is that once the 1020C was running off battery, I could detect no hum, and the experience with the 1020C with the PL-880 was much the same as with the Satellit 800. Some signals were improved, some were the same, and sometimes the straight-through (bypassed) signal was better.

I have not tested the 1020C with a large, signal-devouring antenna out in the fresh air. The 2009 edition of Passport to World Band Radio offered that, with an inverted-L antenna longer than, say, 50-75 feet, the 1020C may not provide much benefit. However, my experience with a modest 50-foot indoor end-fed antenna demonstrates that the 1020C can deliver a significant signal boost in some circumstances, and I am glad to have it in my shack.

Bearing in mind that it won’t improve every signal you want to hear, if you live in an antenna-challenged situation, the MFJ 1020C – particularly if you can get 20-50 feet of wire outdoors or run around the perimeter of a room – may be just what the doctor ordered.

Suggestions for MFJ

There are three areas in which MFJ could make life easier for 1020C users: (1) make a pigtail or other device available to get the signal from any wire antenna to the coax input of the 1020C, (2) make a pigtail or other solution to bring a signal from the output of the 1020C to a shortwave portable (possibly a pigtail with an alligator clip to connect to the whip antenna), and (3) offer or provide quick-release pins for the 1020C cabinet for those who wish to operate it off batteries and want to be able to replace them quickly and easily.

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A Practical Application of Ham Radio – the Commuter Assistance Network         

The big gun of the operation, the Motorola CDM 1250. While sitting on The Big 94 repeater, it also scans NY State Police frequencies.

By Jock Elliott, KB2GOM

Disclaimer: this isn’t about shortwave; it’s about 2 meter ham radio, but it’s something I thoroughly love doing in the world of radio.

About 40 years ago, a Citizens Band operator named Ed Barnat started a loose-knit group called Tri-County Assistance. Its purpose was to detect problems on the roadways and report them in real time. Ed acted as the central hub for information and in turn relayed it on to the proper authorities for action. He also used the information gathered through the Tri-County net to provide on-the-air traffic reports for local radio stations. Back then, there were no cell phones and no traffic apps on smart phones. CB and broadcast radio were the only sources of traffic info for commuters.

In time, Ed got his ham license – N2RKA – and added a 2-meter section to the Tri-County net. Somewhere along the line, I got my ham license and participated in both sides of the net. Then change of jobs forced Ed to stop running the Commuter Assistance Net as it was now known.

Thrown into Deep Water

A couple of hams tried to continue the net, but struggled and ran into trouble. One day, I had just checked in when the repeater owner came on the air, because of a problem, he forbid the two hams from using his repeater to run the net and added, “Jock, if you want to run the net, you can.”

Holy smokes! I believed firmly in the concept of the Commuter Assistance Net. I had a wife and a son, and if they were out on the roadways and had a problem, I would want them to get help (no cellphones, remember?). So I agreed, but being Net Control is very different from being a net participant, and I had to figure it out as I did it. That was over 25 years ago.

At first, I kept a strict log of the callsigns of the hams who checked into the net, and I maintained a list over 70 agencies that I might need to call with an incident. With the advent of the Traffic Management Center (see below), now I have a single point of contact, and I keep a hash mark tally of the number of hams who participate each week.

One of the things I am most proud of is the lack of bureaucracy. We’ve operated 25 years with no dues, no bylaws, no formal membership list, and only three meetings . . . all for pie and coffee.

The Dawn Patrol

Scanners are part of the commuter net. Below are some of my notes for the week and my hash tag tally of check-ins day-by-day.

Every workday morning at 6 am, I fire up a Motorola CDM 1250 transceiver on 146.94 and announce: “This KB2GOM, net control, standing by for the Commuter Assistance Network.” 146.94 is an open repeater (no tone) that is located on Bald Mountain, north of Troy, NY. Its coverage footprint is enormous, reaching far to the North, South, and West. The East is pretty well blocked by the Berkshire Mountains. Official backup is our sister repeater on 147.330 – PL 146.2, and if both repeaters are down, find the net on simplex at 146.520.

The Big 94 — 146.94 — repeater has a huge footprint.

The net serves the Capital District of New York, which nearly at the eastern edge of the state, about 145 miles north of New York City. Workday mornings, a large number of commuters drive into the three major cities: Albany, Schenectady, and Troy, which have a population of about 600,000. People commute to state government offices (Albany is the capital of the state), colleges, universities, and a variety of companies.

The net runs every morning from 6 am until 8:15 am and sometimes longer when a major event happens such as a blizzard or major accident. On an average day, there a relatively long stretches of silence, punctuated by check-ins. On a typical morning, 8-10 hams will participate, and we’ll handle 1-2 incidents a day.

Most of the time, the incidents are disabled vehicles in or out of traffic which I report by phone to the Traffic Management Center, which is run by the NY State Department of Transportation. The TMC is located in the same room as the State Police dispatchers, and when a report comes in, troopers or HELP trucks, as appropriate to the situation, are sent to handle the call. Sometimes TMC calls to let me know about incidents, so the communication is a two-way street.

A trash truck that almost went over the guardrail.

Sometimes we get accidents, accidents with injuries, chemical spills, vehicles (including a propane tanker) on fire, rollovers, and even a truck that smashed into a bridge overpass. During one morning, an ice storm swept through the area, and I handled 70 calls in two hours.

Just Two Rules

Everyone is welcome to participate in the Commuter Assistance Net. The goals are simple: to detect problems on the roadways and report them to the proper authorities and to share that information with net participants.

The net has just two rules. The PRIME DIRECTIVE is: Don’t cause anything! Rule two: when in doubt, report anyway.

With all the traffic cameras that seem to be just about everywhere, one might ask: “Why do you even need a commuter net?” Three reasons: (1) the cameras don’t see everything; (2) the folks at TMC can’t monitor all the cameras all the time; it’s impossible, and (3) there is nothing like a trained observed (which the net participants are) to let you know what is actually going on in a particular situation.

Sometimes Funny Happens

Here’s a true story from the net that was posted on Reddit:

Going back a few years, I had a job that required me to commute about 45 minutes each way. On one local repeater, on 146.94, there was a “commuter net” that ran every morning from about 6-8, net control was a fellow that worked from home named Jock Elliot, KB2GOM. The ostensible purpose of the net was to track commute traffic conditions, warn about backups, construction, obstructions, debris, and to get assistance to stranded motorists. Jock had the local traffic center (the one that provides traffic reports to all of the broadcast media in the area), DOT and several fire and police departments all on speed-dial and would bring them up to date. Sometimes, they would call him as well with info, because he could be counted on to get eyes on the situation. I was a participant every morning during this stretch of time.

It was a fairly relaxed net, the channel was quiet most of the time, owing to it being largely event-driven, so some light banter went by most mornings . . . more some days than others, depending on the overall conditions . . . you get the idea, I hope.

Anyway, it was protocol, when a car was spotted along the side of the road, we would call it in, and Jock’s first question was always, “Is it occupied?” The answer to this question would decide what order he called DOT (which had a free roadside assistance service), police, and the traffic center. If it was occupied, it was in that order; if not, it was traffic center, then police.

That leads us to one particular morning. Jock gave me a call. It went like this:

Jock: KC2***, KB2GOM. Are you on this morning?

Me: KB2GOM, KC2***. Go ahead.

Jock: Do I remember right, that you take I-90 east?

Me: QSL.

Jock: Have you passed Everett Rd. yet?

Me: Negative. Probably about ten minutes ahead.

Jock: Great. The Traffic Center is telling me that they’ve got a report of debris in the road. When you get there, would you get a closer look at it so I can tell them what it is?

Me: Roger that.

About ten minutes pass. . . .

Me: KB2GOM, KC2***. I have eyes on the debris.

Jock: KB2GOM. What is it?

Me: There is a mattress sitting in the middle lane, about a hundred feet past the offramp.

A beat.

Jock: Is it occupied?

Finally, I am deeply grateful for all the hams who have participated in the net over the years . . . over 150 by my best estimate.

One day, I was thanking one of the net participants, and I said: “Without you guys, I would be just a weird old guy with a radio.”

Fred, W2EMS, came back to me: “Ah, Jock . . .”

Me: Yeah?

Fred: “Even with those guys, you’re still a weird old guy with a radio!”

When I stopped laughing, I said, “Guilty as charged.”

So if you are in the Capital District of New York on a workday morning between 6 am and 8:15, drop a call on 146.94 . . . everyone is welcome!

  • End —
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