Looking Back at HCJB’s 690kHz Tests

By Rich McVicar

(A broadcaster, Rich McVicar served with HCJB’s English Language Service from 1990-1996. He also served as Frequency Manager from 1994-1996. Rich and his family now live in central New York state. His program, Wake Up Smiling, is heard on the Mars Hill Network, based in Syracuse. It might be the only North American FM morning show with regular auroral alerts and occasional interval signals.)

In 1994, 1995 and 1996, HCJB ran a series of fifteen DX test programs on its mediumwave frequency of 690 kHz. The purpose of the tests were threefold:

– To make Ecuador a slightly easier DX target for those interested in hearing this Andean nation on the mediumwave broadcast band.

– To observe the already well-known phenomena of dusk and dawn enhancement.

– To observe the effects of the sun and Earth’s geomagnetic field on the propagation of the test signals.

I was pleased with the results overall, especially that which related to the first and second goals. I didn’t get too far with the third, partly because the sun wasn’t up to much activity and partly because I didn’t gather enough data. Also, what data I did gather may have not been the right kind.

To give DXers time to plan to listen (and perhaps erect huge antennas,) each of the tests were announced on HCJB’s “DX Partyline” and “The Latest Catch” programs ahead of schedule. HCJB is indebted to the many DX clubs and newsletters around the world who kindly reprinted the test schedule information in their monthly bulletins and over the Internet. Much appreciation also goes to the other DX programs that announced the schedules.

For the test programs, we used audio code signals (as opposed to true CW where the carrier is turned on and off) and high-pitched audio sound effects. This audio was broadcast on a regular amplitude modulated carrier. On all but two of the tests, the transmitter used was an ageing HCJB-built 50 kw unit located on Pichincha volcano, just west of Quito. (Two of the tests featured the use of different transmitters. These are noted below.) The 690 kHz antenna has a north-south directional pattern and is situated on Rucu Pichincha, part of the massive Pichincha volcano. (The highest point of Pichincha, Guagua Pichincha, lies further to the west.) The piercing audio of the code and sound effects was sometimes able to penetrate the comparatively subdued audio of other stations sharing the 690 kHz frequency.

Words sent in International Code were usually different for each test and ranged from character names in C.S. Lewis novels to dessert foods. The idea was to use words and phrases that no one would be able to guess if that person were to prepare a report of a fabricated reception. (There were only two or three such reports. I wish I had kept the one where the talented author invented an entire paragraph of English-language test text, which included a brief history of HCJB!) Some of the code messages consisted of phrases such as “I won a t-shirt,” which became a fact for the DXer who copied it and sent us a report. Other audio included dogs barking, police sirens, whistles and music ranging from Andean folk to Prokofiev.

The first test included code as well as bilingual explanations of the hobby of DXing. Both voices were male, that of Mauricio Carpio for Spanish and my own for English. On subsequent tests, the only spoken audio was in Spanish with announcer Tanya Davalos giving an identification and explanation (with local listeners in mind) of what in the world was going on. This was aired several times in each program. So as not to interrupt regular programming, each test was scheduled at a time not conflicting with HCJB’s daily broadcasts on 690 kHz. That is, the tests aired between 0504 and 0830 UTC. Some of the times lined up favourably with the sunrise terminator in different parts of Europe and Africa while others with the sunset terminator in New Zealand, Australia and Japan. In the results which follow, the terminator location is mentioned for each test in known DXer-populated areas of the world.

Below is a brief account of each test. Solar and geomagnetic indices were obtained from the web page of the Space Environment Center, provided by the US Dept. of Commerce, NOAA, Space Environment Laboratory. A and K indices mentioned are Estimated Planetary Indices, as opposed to Middle Latitude and High Latitude indices, also found at the same site. My thanks to David Clark who directed me to this useful web page (www.sel.bldrdoc.gov/index.html).

1) May 29, 1994 0500-0530 UTC (terminator in mid British Columbia, Canada, just getting to New Zealand and leaving Portugal)

Reports:

—The first report received was a thrilling encouragement from Mark Connelly at Harwich, Cape Cod, Massachusetts. “The code IDs cut

through the other three co-channel stations (CBF, HJCZ and Anguilla) like a hot knife through butter.” He reported the signals as poor to fair. His equipment consisted of two phased wires together with his MWDX-6 phasing unit.

—Bruce Conti, Nashua, New Hampshire (who had erected an antenna in a Nashua high school football field especially for the test.)

—Al Merriman, Virginia

—J.D. Stephens, Huntsville, Alabama

—Robert Tiara, Hendersonville, North Carolina.

Solar & geomagnetic conditions:

A-Index: 37 K-Index: 6

Solar Flux: 69 Sunspot No: 0

Apparently, a disturbance took place on the sun just about the time of the test. Twenty-four hours after the test, the A-Index was 44 with a K-Index of 7. With these more-disturbed conditions, it may have been possible to hear the test under auroral conditions on a much wider basis one day later.

 

2) December 24, 1994 0515-0545 UTC (terminator in southeast Europe, N. Russia, Africa)

Reports

—Mike Hardester, Jacksonville, North Carolina

—Mark Connelly, Harwich, Massachusetts.

Both reported this test with very poor signals.

Solar & geomagnetic conditions:

A-Index: 23 K-Index: 3

Solar Flux: 80 Sunspot No: 50

 

3) May 13, 1995 0600-0630 UTC (terminator at New Zealand)

Reports:

—Bruce Conti, Rockport, Massachusetts–very poor signals using two phased wires each over 1000 feet in length

—David Russell, Illinois Very faint code reported. (David, an HCJB missionary, was home on furlough at the time. The code IDs on the first test programs in 1994 were tapped out by David, HC1DVE.)

—Basil Jamieson, Paul Ormandy, Alistair Sutherland and Peter Grenfell, Waianakarua, New Zealand. The four New Zealand DXers, all listening at the same location, were able to hear voice segments as well as code. Signals were fair. As part of the code message they successfully copied included the words, “I won a mug,” each of their radio-logoed-liquid receptacle collections increased by one.

Solar & geomagnetic conditions:

A-Index: 10 K-Index: 3

Solar Flux: 81 Sunspot No: 70

 

4) October 7, 1995 0600-0615 UTC (terminator crossing the British Isles, France, Spain)

Reports:

—Don Moore, Davenport, Iowa. Poor to fair signals. Don commented that Mexican & Central American MW stations were being well received over the previous few nights. Don was using a 400 foot (length) antenna.

—Oscar Javier Ariza Miranda, Bogota, Colombia. Fair signals. Oscar heard the test on a boom-box receiver. He was able to null-out the local Radio Deportes in Bogota. He copied a complete ID voice text. 

Solar & geomagnetic conditions:

A-Index: 28 K-Index: 6 Solar Flux: 73 Sunspot No: 11 

5) November 5, 1995 0603-0620 UTC (terminator across western Europe) Reports:

—Jerry Berg, Lexington, Massachusetts Poor signals–heard a siren & code

—David Gasque, Orangeburg, South Carolina

Solar & geomagnetic conditions:

A-Index: 11 K-Index: 1 Solar Flux: 75 Sunspot No: 0 

6) December 3, 1995 0600-0615 UTC (terminator in Central Europe)

Reports:

—Clive Rooms & Steve Whitt, Sheigra, Scotland. On the annual Sheigra DXpedition, these two DXers became the only two people to convincingly describe test details as heard from a European location. They successfully taped several seconds of siren sound effects and code. The antenna used was450 yards in length and directed at 270 degrees.

 

—Rev. Jim Renfrew, Rochester, New York. Signals were very poor and suffered from a buzzing Cuban transmitter, also on 690 kHz. Jim was successful at hearing a “t-shirt” message.

—Jerry Berg, Lexington, Massachusetts. Signals poor to fair. Jerry’s comments included the adrenalin level-raising “Wreaking havoc with reception of local stations up here!”

—John Sgrulletta, Mahopac, New York. Very poor signals.

Solar & geomagnetic conditions:

A-Index: 7 K-Index: 2 Solar Flux: 73 Sunspot No: 23

 

7) January 7, 1996 0800-0815 UTC (terminator across the British Isles, Scandinavia, New Zealand and Japan)

Reports:

—Ron Musco, Poquonock, Connecticut Poor-very poor signals

—Mike Hardester, Jacksonville, North Carolina Poor signals, complete CW words copied.

—Tony Ward, Whitby, Ontario, Canada Poor signals on a 750-foot longwire. Nothing heard at the same time on a loop.

—Randy Stewart, Springfield, Missouri. Very poor but a good amount of code copied. Using a 15-inch amplified box-loop antenna. Caribbean stations & Saudi Arabia coming in on MW.

—Kermit Geary, Walnutport, Pennsylvania. Very poor signals with Anguilla coming in at the same time. Kermit also mentioned having heard HCJB MW tests on February 3, 1946 on 974 kHz and on 700 kHz on March 13, 1961. It was an honour for me to be able to sign

a QSL card that would go into one of the most incredible collections of MW QSLs in the world.

—Gerry Bishop, Niceville, Florida. Very poor signals. Gerry also heard MW stations in Venezuela, Colombia and the Caribbean on a 100-foot antenna.

—John Long, Southbury, Connecticut. Code and tone heard using an R-8 and a 1000′-foot long Beverage antenna directed at 160 degrees.

—William Revaz, Oxford, Connecticut. Very poor signals on a 135′ longwire

Jim Pogue, Memphis, Tennessee

Solar & Geomagnetic conditions:

A-Index: 3 K-Index: 1 Solar Flux: 83 Sunspot No: 45

 

8) February 4, 1996 0606-0621 UTC. (terminator in Central Europe). This test had a late start time with an interesting reason… At 0600 UTC, the transmitter on Mt. Pichincha did not come on the air as scheduled. After running down the three flights of stairs to HCJB’s Programming Automated Control Center, I learned that “Antenna Hill” on Mount Pichincha was in a sector of Quito which was undergoing electricity rationing. (The rationing was on account of low water levels at Ecuador’s largest hydroelectricity generating plant.) We called the shortwave transmitter site at Pifo, where HCJB’s 25 kilowatt MW backup transmitter was located. It came on the air a few minutes later and the test proceeded.

Reports:

Jim Bryant, Aledo, Texas. Very poor signals. (Jim’s report made running down the stairs worthwhile!)

Solar & geomagnetic conditions:

A-Index: 5 K-Index: 1 Solar Flux: 74 Sunspot No: 0

 

9) March 3, 1996 0600-0615 UTC (terminator in western Europe)

Reports:

Jean Burnell, St. John’s, Newfoundland, Canada. Heard code only, using a Drake R-8 and 50-foot random wire antenna and a preamp. (Jean has also been successful at hearing a regular HCJB broadcast on 690 kHz.)

Yoshihiko Hida, Pilar, Paraguay. Code copied well.

Solar & geomagnetic conditions:

A-Index: 6 K-Index: 2 Solar Flux: 70 Sunspot No: 0

 

10) April 7, 1996 0515-0530 UTC (terminator crossing the British Isles, France, Spain)

Reports:

Ruben Antonio Sagristani, Cordoba, Argentina. Very poor signals. Using a Sony 2010 receiver and loop antenna.

Solar and geomagnetic conditions:

A-Index: 3 K-Index: 0 Solar Flux: 68 Sunspot No: 0

 

 

11) May 5, 1996 0545-0600 UTC (terminator at New Zealand)

Reports:

Henrik Klemetz, Bogota, Colombia. Code heard under local Radio Deportes

Basil Jamieson, Alistair Sutherland, Oamaru, N.Zealand. Code and some other audio portions heard.

Solar and geomagnetic conditions:

A-Index: 7 K-Index: 3 Solar Flux: 70 Sunspot No: 12

 

12) June 2, 1996 0600-0615 UTC (terminator at New Zealand)

Reports:

Paul Ormandy, Waianakarua, New Zealand Weak to occasionally fair signals on a poor evening for Latin American MW signals.

David Sharp, Lutz, Florida Very very poor signals

Basil Jamieson, Waianakarua, New Zealand. Code and tones heard.

Solar and geomagnetic conditions:

A-Index: 6 K-Index: 1 Solar Flux: 68 Sunspot No: 11

 

 

13) July 7, 1996 0801-0816 UTC (terminator crossing the

Canadian Maritime provinces and eastern Australia)

Reports:

Bryan Clark, Auckland, New Zealand. Very poor signals. Peru also heard on 730 kHz.

Paul Ormandy, Waianakaura, New Zealand. Not as good as the signal heard on the May and June tests due to Australian QRM at the later hour.

Solar and geomagnetic conditions:

A-Index: 9 K-Index: 4 Solar Flux: 72 Sunspot No: 27

 

14) August 4, 1996 0600-0615 UTC (terminator at New Zealand)

Reports:

Paul Ormandy, Waianakarua, New Zealand

Solar and geomagnetic conditions:

A-Index: 6 K-Index: 3 Solar Flux: 78 Sunspot No: 29

 

15) September 1, 1996 0515-0530 UTC (terminator nearing New Zealand, crossing the British Isles, Spain, Portugal)

(This was the first and only test–so far–on HCJB’s new Harris transmitter, which replaced the old 50 kw unit on Mt. Pichincha. The transmitter is capable of running at 100 kw, but is operated at 50 kw.)

Reports:

Jerry Coatsworth, Merlin, Ontario, Canada

 

Bill Dvorak, Madison, Wisconson Fair to good signals reported while using only the internal ferrite core antenna on his portable receiver! (CBF in Montreal on 690 kHz was completely nulled out.)

Stephen George, Amherst, Massachusetts Very weak signals

Paul Ormandy, Waianakarua, New Zealand Fair-good signals and Paul successfully copied the “t-shirt” message. Paul reported conditions being very good with long path Europeans coming in as well.

 

Solar and geomagnetic conditions:

A-Index: 5 K-Index: 1 Solar Flux: 74 Sunspot No: 11

Conclusions:

^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^

The tests took place during the years heading into a solar minimum when there was relatively little solar activity taking place. Not surprisingly then, there were no geomagnetic disturbances during the times of the tests. That, unfortunately, results in a lack of differing solar/geomagnetic data with which to compare and draw conclusions. Veteran BCB DXer James Goodwin in Toronto, Ontario, kindly looked over the above test data. He comments that “wrong interpretations can be made if only the A-reading at test time is given. The figure can be misleading in these cases because the test occurs in a very early part of the day while the figure reflects the experience for the whole day.”

Concerning the K index, Mr. Goodwin believes that the K index figure can also sometimes be misleading. He writes that, ” A sudden increase in geomagnetic activity may quickly increase general absorption levels and enhance north-south paths. A relatively short burst of geomagnetic activity can pass away quickly, leaving the bands somewhat dead for 12 or more hours. In that time, while all reports may say that the K is back to a 0 or 1, tuning the bands doesn’t indicate the fact at all.” Even with the limited amount of data gathered, one well-known phenomenon which I believe was observed effectively during this series of tests was that of reception being enhanced by the receiver being in the terminator. This was especially evident with the New Zealand receptions during New Zealand evening twilight. The enhancement phenomenon with the 690 kHz tests would most likely have been all the clearer (data-wise) if we could have stretched the duration of each test to that of a few hours on either side of dawn and/or dusk. However, even at those late hours, there were probably enough listeners in Quito tuning by 690 kHz questioning our sanity as it was!

Mediumwave and shortwave DXers alike might agree with me that more DXers would be able to hear such tests if they coincided with geomagnetic storm conditions. Perhaps, now with so many DXers on the Internet, it would be worthwhile to schedule tests on very short notice. If I correctly understand the relationship of solar flares/coronal mass ejections to the solar wind to the Earth’s geomagnetic field to the ionosphere, it would be best to air a test about 24-36 hours after a solar flare/coronal mass ejection occurred. This would be at the point when auroral conditions here at Earth would reach maximum. Another positive factor for DXers attempting to hear DX on 690 kHz is that the 50 kw broadcaster in Montreal, CBF, has moved to the FM band.

To the many DXers around the world who tried to hear the tests, a heart felt thank you. I had a great deal of fun putting the eccentric little programs together and only wished I could have popped in to various locations on the planet in attempts to hear the beeps, barks and whatnots along with you. To those who were fortunate enough to actually hear those strange code words and siren wailings, thank you for your valuable reports and recordings!

73 and God bless,

Richard McVicar

DX Test Coordinator

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