DXing from Palmyra Atoll (KH5)

My experiences as a solo YL operator

by Bev Yuen AH6NF

Funk Magazine - June 2005

[English translation below]


English Translation
DXing from Palmyra Atoll (KH5):

My experiences as a solo YL operator.

A chance to go to Palmyra Atoll (KH5)? What an opportunity! And a chance to work some HF from that sought-after DX entity? Not to be missed! But, thoughts of tackling the pile-ups that were bound to greet someone, especially a solo YL operating from this rather rare DX entity was a little unnerving. Was I, a beginning DXer, up to the challenge? Such were my thoughts at the beginning of operations from Palmyra in February, 2005.

Jim, my husband, and I agreed to go to Palmyra as volunteers for The Nature Conservancy for about 10 days to move some of their communications equipment from the old location into the new, permanent structures that were being erected. Since that wouldn't take 10 days, we were to help out wherever needed. This was a great chance to operate HF from there. But, as this was a work trip and not a DXpedition, time working the bands was secondary to the work project.

Palmyra Atoll (KH5) is located in the Pacific Ocean 1,000 miles (about 1,600 km) south of the Hawaiian Islands and about 5 degrees north of the equator. It is U.S. territory, but not part of any U.S. state. It is now a nature preserve since being purchased by The Nature Conservancy in 2000. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service now manages most of the preserve, but The Nature Conservancy maintains control over the main island (Cooper Island) where we were working. Research facilities are under construction there replacing the tents and a few older buildings that have provided facilities up to this time. No one lives there permanently, but there are always a few people in residence - staff of The Nature Conservancy and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and a few volunteers working on projects for these organizations. Access to Palmyra is by a chartered plane, which lands on the old military runway.

We looked forward to our time there, planning what to take. At the last minute, we were told that the plane would be heavily loaded with food and construction materials and we were to take only essential luggage. So, the linear amplifier stayed home. My station consisted of my small, trusty Yaesu FT-890 transceiver, a power supply and Heil Pro II headset. I also took a laptop computer and an interface for some PSK 31 operating. No luxury of the redundancy of backup equipment. Although I took a Force 12, Sigma 5 vertical dipole, the antenna that proved the best was the existing wire dipole (10 - 80 meters) mounted on a 45 foot (15 meters) tower and oriented north-south. It was still in excellent condition.

Being so close to the equator, the temperature was about 90 degrees Fahrenheit (32 degrees C.) and the humidity about 90%. As is typical there, it rained nearly every night, and sometimes during the day also. Not the best conditions for electronics. Over the days, the humidity took its toll on the electronic equipment. First, the power supply failed. Thank goodness there was a battery and charger available. Then my footswitch shorted out. Then even my clock stopped working. I ended up using the stock microphone and a paper log. Even our movie camera succumbed to the humidity and balked at operating. Each time I finished operating, I stowed the transceiver in its waterproof Pelican case and it performed flawlessly. Jim, with his electronics knowledge was invaluable. Although he is a licensed ham (WH6GS), he has no interest in operating HF. However, he was constantly by my side providing "fixes" when something failed and ingenious solutions to problems.

Thoughts of entire days on the radio or time to explore the lush, tropical island, check out the colorful reef fish and manta rays visible in the crystal-clear lagoon and enjoy all of the many birds quickly changed when we got there. They were replaced with thoughts of "When am I going to get time to operate?" We learned that the construction project was behind schedule and they really needed us on the construction crew. As an unskilled volunteer, I fitted in on the painting crew. Jim spent days wiring electrical sockets and installing fans and lights. Operating the radio became mostly limited to a couple of hours in the evening in order to do necessary chores and get enough sleep to function reasonably well to "pull my weight" on the crew.

Being the object or center of a pileup was new to me. With my small station at home in Hawaii, I have always been on the other end of the pile-up, trying to be heard amongst the multitude of other stations, most of them running full legal power, to get that contact for a new country. A little bit of contesting experience helped as I struggled to pull even partial call signs out of the mob. The stress of the first few hours lessened as I adjusted to dealing with the masses and found it was quite fun. At times I had the impression that they were maybe a little more polite to an inexperienced YL than they might have been to a seasoned OM DXer. For that I was really appreciative. At dinner each day, my island comrades (There were 16 of us on the island.) would ask what countries I had contacted that day. I'm sure they thought I was crazy! But, several of them did come down to where I was operating to watch, listen and ask questions.

As soon as I came on the air, the pile-ups began. Most of the callers were from Japan and around the Pacific due partly to being on the air mostly in the evenings after our work day. U.S. stations were prominent on the days that I was operating in the afternoon, during a break from work. The one day that we had "off" work, a trip was planned to one of the other islands accompanying the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service staff-person on his seed-collection trip. I was really torn - wanting to see the atoll, but longing for more HF time. That morning, I got on the radio for a few minutes before breakfast just to check the bands and found the first opening to Europe. I heard my friend Roger, DL5RBW, in Germany finishing a QSO just as clearly as if he was on the next island. After a short chat with him, other Europeans were eager callers. Should I go on the boat or stay and work the pileup? Propagation to Europe faded after about half an hour so the boat trip won out. I worked the bands until it was time to leave, grabbed a bite to eat and ran to the boat, hoping there would be more openings to Europe in the days to come. One more opening, a few days later, in the evening Palmyra time, provided more Europeans their sought-after contact. For many, it was a new DXCC entity.

Being on the bottom end of the solar cycle, propagation wasn't the greatest. High noise levels were a problem from the first day, with noise sometimes escalating to S7-S9. On one evening, the noise was locally generated from torrential rain pounding on the corrugated metal roof above me. My headphones were barely adequate to suppress the din. Even so, the log shows about 750 QSOs and 45 DXCC entities, including 15 European countries.

It was a privilege to go to Palmyra and a pleasure to be able to work the HF bands from there, even for a short time. Now, in a small way, I could finally return the favor that others had done for me on their DXpeditions. I could pass out a few contacts from a place not easily worked or accessible by others and give a few DXers an all-time new one. When the plane returned 10 days later to take us home, it was difficult to pack up and say goodbye to the beautiful atoll and a great DXing adventure for a solo YL operator.


Bev Yuen, AH6NF

For more information on Palmyra see: http://nature.org/wherewework/asiapacific/palmyra/