Working DX, A View From Both Sides

There is a lot of information and opinions circulating around about how to work DX. After having spent 12 years in Saudi Arabia and working basically the only active station at the time, HZ1AB, for over 6 years, I have experience with working DX from both sides.

My operations were divided between working pile-ups and making a sked with my brother WA9UEW in my home town of Dixon, IL every Friday afternoon (this is like Sunday in the Middle East) on 12 meters. This was in the late 80’s, early 90’s during the peak of sunspot cycle no. 22 which reached a sunspot number of 200. This was the next highest cycle since the big numbers of cycle 19 in the late 50’s. For a couple of years, we made reliably consistent contacts, most of the time with signals approaching 20 to 40 over S9. Both of us were running 1.5 kW and 4 element 12 meter mono-band Yagi’s at 80 ft on the Dixon end and 110 ft on my end.

Back in this time, telephone calls were prohibitively expensive and there was no Skype or any other VoIP on the internet. These contacts, which usually lasted 1-1/2 to 2 hours, were the way to get first hand information from the states about what was going on with the family and the country. However, we had a very large audience and most of the time, I drove the listening DX’ers crazy by refusing any other contacts, except for other close ham friends in the US, during the QSO and after. After the QSO, a pileup would appear on frequency. That pileup would last for almost 20 minutes before everyone gave up.

I would go out to the station, which was located in the USMTM compound on the King Abdul Aziz Airbase, 2 or 3 other evenings to actually work the pileups. Although this compound was only 2 miles air distance away from my house in Dhahran, I had to drive over 12 miles to get to it. There were 5 checkpoints to go through to get there and sometimes it took more than an hour and a half to make the trip one way. I did not mind this inconvenience at all, since HZ1AB was at the time, the only station that foreigners could operate. Quite a bit has changed since then, see below.

DX Lists & DX Nets

It usually did not take many CQ’s to start a pileup. Invariably, one of the first few stations contacted would put HZ1AB on the DX cluster and within a short time there would be what seemed hundreds of stations calling. There are several techniques for working a raging radio crowd like this. Five are mentioned below.

You can work DX Lists. This is where a strong list-taker station, who has a good to excellent copy on the DX station builds up a list of stations who want to work the DX station. The list-taker goes through the list asking each station on the list to call the DX station and make a QSO.

You can join a DX net. DX nets are nets that have been set up for the sole purpose of facilitating the working of DX. The DX station checks into the DX net along with other stations and through the net control station makes contact with any station on the net which desires to contact the DX station.

You can work split frequency. That is, the DX station transmits on a single frequency and listens on a different frequency usually in an announced range or single frequency above the his/her transmit frequency. This requires that the stations trying to work the DX station listen on the transmit frequency and transmit within the range of frequencies that the DX station may be listening. To be most effective with this technique, both the DX station and the stations wanting to work the DX station need radio gear that has dual VFO’s so they can work split. For the stations wanting to work the DX, the ability to listen on the two separate frequencies at the same time is very desirable. With this equipment, the operator can listen to the DX station making calls and by tuning through the DX stations listening range of frequencies, the frequency that the DX station is listening on can be identified. Then a call can be made and it is
just a horse race with the strongest station winning.

You can transmit and receive on the same frequency and sort out the calling stations into regions, countries or call areas. That is, accept only calls from say North America or Europe or the US zero call district and then run through all ten. This has the effect of cutting down the number of stations calling at the same time and thus it is more likely that you can hear at least one at a time.

Or you can do what I always did, just transmit and receive on the same frequency and take the strongest signal that comes up. Of the three techniques, this one is the most challenging for the DX operator. Sometimes you are dealing with dozens or hundreds of signals all on the same frequency and a lot of the time all you hear is a loud buzz of voices on top of and indistinguishable from each other.

It takes a shift in propagation to favor some area or region briefly for a station to become stronger and more readable than the others to pick them up. Of course, usually when I would first start operating, the Big Guns would come on using multiple stacked Yagis and multiple kWs. These stations would be 15 to 30 dB stronger than the rest and be the first in line to work. Then it would become harder.

Although I did not like to work them, I picked up many call signs from stations calling out of turn when I was listening for a report from another station I had just called. I would write down the call sign that I heard clearly and call them a few QSO’s later to cover what I was doing so as not to encourage it. It worked for them, however. When I was operating from HZ1AB, my QSO rate was not as great as some of the other
operators. This is because I insisted on getting the name and QTH of all stations that I worked. I also tried to get their rig and antenna information, but not always. I did not feel that a call sign and a fake report i.e. all 59s or 599s, was a proper QSO.

When I came back to the States permanently in 1993, I built a fairly good station and continued to work DX, especially on 80 meters. I do not work DX nets or lists, although they certainly have their place. I still like to work DX on a simplex frequency, I am successful at it since I put out a better than average signal and I know the tricks of putting your call sign out when it can be heard. I also like working split. I have a transceiver with dual VFOs and I can listen to both frequencies at the same time, one in the left ear and one in the right ear with headphones. Finding the frequency that the DX station is listening to can be tricky but enjoyable.

Comments on HZ1AB. Things have changed very much since I last operated from HZ1AB. The organization which the original HZ1AB license was issued to has departed and changes in the Amateur Radio licensing rules in 2004 made it impossible for the station to keep operating. The Call sign HZ1AB has been reassigned to Bandar Salah Al-Harby of Al-Qasim, Saudi Arabia. Please see for some more information on the subject.

Brion N0AE

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