Monday, 27 January 2014

Churches On The Air - September 13th 2014

Unsure as to whether the Doncaster Show will be held this year, I started looking for other special events I could run. One that caught my attention was ChOTA - Churches On The Air. Organised by the World Association of Christian Radio Amateurs and Listeners (WACRAL) this encourages the running of special event stations from churches as a fund raising and hobby promoting activity.

WACRAL maintain a website, on which further details and lists of prospective stations may be found

My initial thought was Selby Abbey. But then I started to consider one of my favourite churches - St. Mary's Chapel, Lead, the 'Ramblers Church'.  This is a lovely little church in the middle of a field on the edge of the historic Towton battlefield. It presents several interesting challenges for a radio station - it is tiny, so space is at a premium, and it has absolutely no utilities. No toilet, no water, no electricity!

The thought of operating from this wonderful location made the decision for me. If I can get permission, I will put on a station from St. Mary's.

St. Mary's is owned and maintained by the Churches Conservation Trust. This organisation looks after many old churches around the country, and their website has details of many to visit. After emailing them, I was invited to a meeting at St. Johns in Leeds to discuss the idea.

One difficulty when meeting people without a radio background, is explaining just what is intended, without leaving them dazed and confused. Now, I cant claim that I managed to explain everything properly, but I seem to have at least got the gist of the plan across, because the trust are very enthusiastic!

So with the trust on board, I can start planning the station. There are many problems that need solving, and many other people whose co-operation is essential. Not least the farmer who owns the field the church is in. The antenna systems will have to be put up in the field behind the church, and so the landowners permission is critical. Then comes power. Although battery is a last option, the ideal would be a small generator. This I hope to borrow from work, and will need to discuss this with management at some point. I then need assistance, not just volunteers for handling visitors, who will probably be supplied by the trust, but operators for the station. Then comes parking and access, facilities and refreshments, for this permission to utilise the Crooked Billet pub, next to the church, is likely to be key.

Once all this 'admin' is sorted, we then come to the nature of the station itself. I like to have a capable if small station. VHF, as ive found on other events, isnt very popular any more, and unless you have plenty of space and operators its not worth the effort of raising a heavy monopole antenna! Most CHOTA activity is on HF, generally 40m SSB, so this is what I intend to use as the primary station. Because of the need to keep the antenna clear of the public, I plan to use the 8m Larkspur mast to raise the feedpoint of a doublet, and then two 5.4m Clansman masts to raise the ends. A 135ft doublet, fed by 30ft of 300ohm ladderline and matched with my RT-11 remote auto ATU, will give me the frequency agility needed to allow a bit of DX as well.

As well as the primary station, I'd like to run a QRP demonstration station, to show how little expenditure it really takes to get into this hobby. Im not sure what to use yet, and it will be dependent on what QRP transceivers I can get, but I think a PSK-31 demo would be spot on. Even if I dont have an operator for it, it can sit quietly and automatically receiving and scrolling the QSOs across a laptop screen. An inverted V dipole off one of the Clansman masts will feed it. This may be on 80m using my MKARS-80 with suitable modification to its cooling, or perhaps 30m or 20m with a future QRP rig.

If I have the 10m Wispy working by then, The 10m fishing pole mast might also be put into service carrying my 10m J-pole antenna, and a WSPR beacon put on air alongside the station. Full operation will be possible if internet access can be arranged. If not, then Tx beaconing only will be utilised.

The trust are doing several WW1 commemorative events this year. It would be nice if the station could be tied into this, but the art of wireless communications was in its very infancy during WW1, and theres not much vintage equipment about. Theres also little space for an exhibition type station at St. Marys. However, another of the trusts churches is the considerably bigger All Souls in Halifax, which certainly has the space, close ties to the local museums, and an active radio club close by. I have contacted Halifax radio club and they are also keen on a CHOTA station, I will visit them this week to say hi and discuss possibilities. With a station at All Souls, we have the ability to do a direct link up between trust churches. Halifax club may be able to demonstrate WW2 vintage radios as part of their station.

The station is not until september, so there is lots of time to sort out the problems.

One aspect that has just occurred to me, is that we will be operating electrical equipment, ad-hoc, with potentially high voltages and at powers that may lead to elevated equipment temperatures, in a medieval building not ever intended to have such use. Likewise, we have potentially high discharge current batteries on site, and (hopefully) either LPG or petrol, and a hot generator. So, in addition to the normal HSE surveys and procedures that will be in place, I realise I will also have to ensure we bring with us any safety equipment thats needed. I carry first aid in the car anyway, but the types of equipment mean that a comprehensive emergency fire fighting capability would be prudent. For any risk from the generator, the dry powder extinguisher I carry in the car is adequate, but I would not want to use DP within the church, as it may have damaging consequences to building fabric. I will ensure we are equipped with CO2 for use on the station itself. Although, careful planning should mean that all this is just an exercise in good practice. I should have the CO2 extinguisher within the next week.

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