Getting Started on 6 Meters

Icom IC-7200 tuned to 50.125 MHz

By Dr. Ron Milliman, K8HSY

The “Mystery” Band

The 6 meter band (50-54 MHz) is often referred to as the “mystery band” or the “magic band” by many hams. It is almost always available for short distances, like line of sight, but it occasionally opens up for some exciting DX opportunities too. You just never know when those exciting DX openings are going to happen. When it does open up, it might only last for a few minutes and then, suddenly go dead, available once again to only line of sight contacts or somewhat longer contacts with the help of a repeater, much like two meters.

6 meter propagation is substantially controlled by sun spot and atmospheric conditions. For instance, on 6 meters when the solar flux index numbers rise to between 150 and 200, the F-layer skip can provide, literally, worldwide QSO opportunities. 6 can get really exciting when openings arise from sporadic-E, aurora, meteor-scatter, transequatorial and even moonbounce can be used for some fun communications.

Of these propagation events, sporadic-E is most often used for 6 meter long distance communications. Sporadic-E openings usually hit maximum during the solstices in the months of June and December. When these openings occur, such propagation often provides QSOs over distances of from a few hundred miles to possibly even a few thousand miles or more with what we call a "double-hop." These openings occur every year, no matter what the sun spot index is. Though this propagation opening can happen at any time, normally, the E-skip is most prevalent from May to July, with another heightened opportunity during December and the first half of January. Again, such openings can last for a few minutes up to a few hours. It is lots of fun and excitement while it lasts, and you can work the skip quite successfully with very little power and with even a very modest antenna array.

Equipment You Need

It is especially easy to get on 6 meters these days because many of our modern transceivers are designed to cover 160 through 6 meters. If you want to get the best results working DX, however, you will need a transceiver that provides more modes than just FM. You need a rig that will allow you to work SSB and even CW if you enjoy operating CW. Ten watts is sufficient when 6 is really open.

Your Antenna

There are numerous commercially made antennas on the market designed to cover the 6 meter band, including yagis, verticals, various types of wire antennas, single-banders, multi-banders, etc. The prices range from well below $100 to well over $1000, and they are available from most all of the well-known brand name companies.

However, since the size of most 6 meter antennas is relatively small, they are also quite easy to build yourself. There is an endless repertoire of designs from which to select readily available online and described in many articles published in the ham magazines. A simple dipole, for example, is only 9’ 4” cut for the bottom of the band, and only 9’ cut for the middle of the band. Even with this very basic of all antennas, you can still make lots of DX contacts when 6 meters is open. When it isn’t open, a dipole will also allow you to make solid local contacts working simplex or through repeaters. Since a dipole has some directional characteristics, it is also desirable and quite easy to homebrew a rotatable dipole from light weight, aluminum tubing. In like manner, it is very easy to build a yagi; a 3-element yagi utilizing a director, driven element, and reflector, is still quite small and will give you considerable added DB gain over a simple dipole. Excellent results can also be obtained on 6 meters from other simple antennas too. For instance, ground-planes and J-Poles are popular 6 meter antennas. Construction details for all of these kinds of antennas are readily available from many online sources.

Antenna polarization is another factor that needs to be considered, depending upon what kind of communications you are seeking on 6 meters. Antennas can be either horizontally or vertically polarized. While the details of antenna polarization are beyond the scope of this basic article, let it suffice to state that for working DX on 6 meters, polarization is not very important. However, in contrast, for working short distance, ground wave, how your antenna is polarized is considerably more important. In general, 6 meter Yagis or rotatable dipoles tend to use horizontal polarization, which have a higher angle of radiation than vertically polarized antennas. Of course, a yagi, for example, can be erected for either horizontal or vertical polarization, and some are actually designed for both. Verticals, ground-planes and J-Poles are all normally vertically polarized antennas. Vertically polarized antennas have a lower angle of radiation, and thus, they normally perform best over longer distances. The ideal antenna would be both vertically and horizontally polarized, and there are such antennas available both commercially and construction details for homebrewing such arrays can be found online. One such design, for instance, is an antenna called the “L” antenna described by L. B. Cebik, W4RNL (see his article at
http://www.antennex.com/preview/Folder01/lant/lant.htm

Listen for the Beacons

To help you know when 6 meters is open and open into which area of the country or world, there are numerous beacons set up that you can listen for. Here in the United States beacons can be heard in the frequency range between 50.060 and 50.080 MHz. However, in other countries around the globe, they are more scattered across the 6 meter band. For a comprehensive and up-to-date list of 6 meter beacons go to:

G3USF's Worldwide List of 50MHz Beacons
http://www.keele.ac.uk/depts/por/50.htm

The 6 Meter Band Structure

According to Dave Finley, N1IRZ in his article entitled: "Six Meters: An Introduction," published in QRPp, Spring 2000, "...six meters is much more rigidly structured in terms of what frequencies are used for what purposes than the HF bands tend to be. 6 meters has a CW-only sub-band which runs from 50.0 to 50.1 MHz... Also, Calling frequencies are used extensively. From 50.100 to 50.125 is a "DX Window," in which domestic QSOs tend to be discouraged. The DX calling frequency is 50.110. The traditional domestic calling frequency is 50.125." Several years ago, Back in the late 1990’s and early 2000’s, there was a movement to extend the DX window to 50.130 and make 50.200 the new domestic calling frequency. The movement was precipitated by the extension of six-meter privileges to hams in other countries around the globe, resulting in a significant increase in the number of DX stations on the air. However, this movement never really caught on. N1IRZ goes on to point out that "...The recommended CW calling frequency is 50.090, but you will often hear CW CQs on 50.125, too… I would recommend monitoring both 50.125 and 50.200, as well as 50.090, during an opening. If the opening seems real good, start checking 50.110 for DX stations, too."

Do You Know Your Grid Square?

As N1IRZ points out you need to know your grid square when operating 6 meters because you are likely to be asked for it. The grid square system "is almost universally used as a locator system by VHF, UHF and microwave operators." It "divides the world into 32,400 squares, each 2 degrees of longitude by 1 degree of latitude. There are larger "fields" of 100 locator squares each, and each square is divided into smaller sub-squares. Most generally, it will be sufficient if you only know your 2 degree by 1 degree square."

Dave, N1IRZ, says: "VHF operators collect grid squares like HF operators collect countries. Many are working toward the ARRL's VHF-UHF Century Club (VUCC) award, which requires confirmed contacts with 100 grid squares. During VHF contests, some enthusiasts go on "Gridexpeditions," to put rare grid squares on the air, while others become "rovers" to operate from several grids during the contest. Just as states or countries serve as multipliers for HF-contest scores, grid squares are the typical multipliers for VHF-contest scores."

To find your grid square, go to:
http://www.amsat.org/amsat-new/tools/grids.php

If you work 6 meters very much, it might be a good idea to even add your grid square number to your QSL card information.

The Key Word When Working 6 Meters

The key word when working 6 meters is 'patience.' It requires considerable patience, and you will need to make it a part of your ham operating routine to check 6 meters frequently for band openings and to listen for the several beacons that will let you know not only if the band is open, but the beacons will let you know what part of the country or world is open to you. Of course, 6 is open pretty much all of the time for local communications, much like 2 meters in that regard.

Good luck...

Ron, K8HSY