A Conversation with: Bernd Koch, DF3CB

December 2000 issue of "CQ Contest"

This month our conversation is with Bernd, DF3CB, who is a well-known contester. Bernd has been on several important DXpeditions and participated in the LX7A Multi-Multi. He created a situation such that his work, his house, and his station are all about five minutes from one another. Read on to find out more about him.

CQ Contest (CQC): What is the story of how you became a ham? Who got you interested in amateur radio?

DF3CB (Bernd): It was back in 1974 at the age of 12 when my parents (now DF3CP and DL1MAO) asked me whether I would like to join them in starting to learn ham radio. We became members of the DARC then and learned the license exam in a course which was held at our local club. I was immediately fascinated by CW and learned it within a few weeks. As my parents joined in the same hobby and were always very supportive, it wasn’t long before my father bought the first HF receiver which was completely taken over me. But I had to wait another two years before the German license regulations allowed me to take the license test. I used the waiting time to listen to the HF bands and to send SWL reports.

CQC: What was your first station? You had a station at your house near Munich. What was that like?

Bernd: After I finally could take my license exam in 1976, I spent the first year on 2 meter CW but that became quickly very boring. So I tried to persuade my father to purchase the first HF station. Our first station was an used FT-DX 500 and two low dipoles, one for 80 meters and one for 20 meters, which were matched for the other bands. DX attracted me and immediately brought me the idea to set my first goal: 5 Band DXCC! It took a few years but I made it with 100 watts. When that goal was reached, I built my first amplifier with a 3-500Z tube and replaced the radio with a Drake B-line. What a difference that made.
We later moved to another house which gave me the opportunity to set up my first own Yagis and an inverted Vee for 160 to 40. With this antenna setup I could even reach second place in Europe in the CQWW Single Op Assisted category twice. Luckily, our neighbors were very friendly and supporting and hardly ever complained about TVI. One neighbor only grumbled about the electric toothbrush which started when I had my beam pointed to the U.S. and transmitted.

CQC: How did you become interested in contesting?

Bernd: The members of our local club were, aside from drinking beer, mainly interested in two things at that time: VHF contesting and HF Field Days. I became a frequent operator in many VHF contests, but that never really raised my real interest in contesting. The noise-to-quantity-of-stations ratio was not satisfying enough for me. The HF Field Days were much more interesting. Our club always ended up at place 6 to 10 or so in the final results, but I thought, let’s go to the top, it’s possible! And it was! By improving my skills we ended up first or second place from that point on. The other key reason that tied me to contesting was participating in my first CQWW contest operating 5W QRP on 10 meters in the sunspot maximum of the late 1970s. This was a crucial experience such that the CQWW Contest became my favorite contest. Since then I have missed only very few of the CQWW’s.

CQC: What is it about DX contests that is challenging?

Bernd: As my roots are in DXing, my initial challenge in DX contests was to work new DXCC band countries on each of the contest bands. This gave me the ability to "smell" new multipliers and helped me a lot to become an excellent multiplier finder. But this is also a potential danger because the DXer tends to spend too much time calling rare multipliers in a heavy contest pile-up, while an easy GM or YO counts the same and can be logged after only one call.
The propagation nowadays, to be more exact, the unexpected propagation as you find it on 10 and 160 meters, is fascinating for me and...not to miss it of course. The contests are always at the same time of the year, but the changing propagation makes an essential influence on the operating strategy and challenges the operator. If propagation were the same every year, it would become boring.

CQC: You are a member of HSC. What is that club and what are the requirements?

Bernd: The Radio Telegraphy High Speed Club (HSC), founded 1951 in Germany, is a traditional loose interest group oh high speed CW operators. Club life takes place on the bands in high-speed ragchew CW QSOs. To become a member of the HSC, you should be able to copy and send CW correctly at a speed of at least 25 wpm, any you need five proposals of HSC members with whom you have to prove QSOs over at least 30 minutes each. You may ask for proposals in the QSOs. Send your application to DL7AKC together with eight IRCs and the five QSL cards of the HSC members indicating the 30-minute period of the proposed QSOs. There are no annual club fees. For the real fast ones, there is even the "Very High Speed Club" (VHSC), four proposals at 40 wpm), the "Super High Speed Club" (SHSC, three proposals at 50 wpm), and the "Extremely High Speed Club" (EHSC, two proposals at 60 wpm).

CQC: You have been interested in working all countries on all bands and modes. That must be real challenging. How did you become interested in that?

Bernd: Well, as mentioned above, my first goal was to achieve 5-Band DXCC. I got it and thought: "I should be happy and proud now.". But I somehow wasn’t and set my next goal: DXCC Honor Roll. After upgrading my station with my first tribander and after a total of 16 years, I was in top position of the DXCC Honor Roll, after a few more years also on #1 of the Phone and CW DXCC Honor Roll. And I was not really satisfied again. Is that all I can do? No, let’s make it a little more difficult and let’s work all countries on each of the nine HF bands. I had found a real challenge which fascinated me and which I couldn’t stop despite all consequences. My life and holiday schedule was determined by DX and DXpedition activities and I had to find a job where I didn’t need to travel on business.

CQC: What is your favorite mode? Why?

Bernd: This is easy to answer, it is definitely CW. CW still is an art. There is no substitute for CW under difficult propagation circumstances, like for instance 160 meters. In contests or pile-ups, a good CW operator can distinguish different signals much more easily and pull them out faster because a narrow, single-tone signal requires less concentration. My ears feel more relaxed after a CW contest than after a SSB contest.

CQC: You have traveled to many places. Have you operated throughout the world? Which was the most challenging?

Bernd: I like to travel very much and have been to many countries on all continents. But when I look back, the most intense moments which immediately come to my mind are the times when I operated mobile in the U.S., Canada and Alaska! I remember the nights operating the WAEDC from the Yukon. The car motor was running all night long. It was below the freezing point and too cold to stay in the tent. Or the times when I handed out rare Texas counties on CW while driving and simultaneously keeping a logbook.
My most challenging DX and contest activity was definitely Albania in 1992 when we operated the IARU Championship Multi-Multi as ZA1A, led by OH2BH. Albania is a very ruined, poor, and even dangerous country, but we were welcomed by all Albanian hams (Where in the world do you have the chance to meet the whole ham population of a country?). There was hardly any food available in the country at that time, but the locals did their best to offer us what not even they had enough of. One of the Finnish operators, OH1MKT, even decided then to move to Albania and become active as ZA1AB for a couple of years.

CQC: There is an interesting story of how you found your present QTH. Please tell us.

Bernd: On my birthday in March 1995, I read a packet announcement by DL7AV which said, "Three transmitting towers and a radio room to rent out!" It actually was advertised in DARC club magazine cq-DL. I went to the place the next morning, it was just 5 minutes away from my workplace. Wow, what a setup! There were three high, self-supporting concrete towers standing in a triangle some 70m apart from each other. I think it took only a few fractions of a second to say "Yes, that’s it!" I was the only person with a real interest. I made an appointment with the owners and got a rental contract. And so the wheels began to roll. It took another six months of planning; ordering antennas, rotors, cables; and furnishing the radio room, and then we were ready to put up the antennas. It took another week to attach the cables and to put up the low band vertical, and the I had the first QSOs. It was impressive! I was now able to create endless pileups with antennas like a 6-ele on 20 meters despite my really non-rare German call sign.

CQC: What sort of station do you have in Munich now?

Bernd: I use a couple of Force 12 monoband Yagis: 3-ele on 40, 3-ele on 30, 6-ele on 20, 4-ele on 15, 4-ele on 10, with some of them combined as interlaced monobanders. Besides that, I have a KLM KT34XA (for the multiplier station), an A3WS for 17 and 12, a shunt-fed tower for 160 and 80, plus a dipole for 160 and 80. The radio room consists of two operating positions, the main operating table with two FT-1000MP’s and an Alpha 87a. The second desk is used as the multiplier station, equipped with a FT-1000 and FT-990 plus an Alpha 91ß. I have a few photos on my website at df3cb.com.

CQC: Do you operate Single Op or Multi? How do you prepare yourself for a major contest?

Bernd: For me personally, the most interesting contest category is the Single Op Assisted category and therefore it is my favorite. It is most challenging because you find yourself in a very extreme situation where your job is to optimize the right strategy of hunting multipliers and increasing the QSO count by CQ runs. Every category has this same goal, but in comparison to the Multi or Single Band category, further factors play a role: stay awake as long as possible or take the breaks at the right time; it is an all-band effort where any band is always open; and finally the continuous, never-ending supply of multiplier spots from packet. On the other hand, you need excellent technical hardware to be competitive, which I have optimized in the last years by things such as automatic amplifiers and a great choice of good antennas. But we mainly operate Multi-Single now, because my station attracts a lot of operators who don’t have a good station at their disposal and I always want to give other people an opportunity to improve their contest skills.We prepare ourselves by trying to get some sleep before the contest. This is difficult, because the contests start on Saturday at 2 AM local time. To encourage ourselves, we have the last year’s contest results and rate sheets available. We never have a strict operating plan, but we have had good experience by putting operators into two very long shifts, a daytime and a nighttime shift. This fits in more with the preferences of the operators, as some are typical low band operators and some prefer only the high bands!

CQC: Which was your most interesting contest operation?

Bernd: That was in 1989 when I was part of the Bavarian Contest Club (BCC) group winning the European Multi-Multi record as LX7A from Luxembourg in both Phone and CW. This was unforgettable for me because of the harmony of the group of some 35 operators and support people building the whole station in field-day style within a week in a very cold, early-winter season, and...to also win! What you can learn radio-wise in such a common effort is enormous, and you make friendships that last. You will never have such experiences if you always stay at home and operate Single Op. I was the 160 meter operator because that was my most challenging band, and we were able to set a milestone at that time by reaching the 1000 QSO mark on top band.
I will join CN8WW this year for the CQWW CW mainly to repeat this unforgettable type of experience and to learn more about the advanced contesting technologies which have developed in the past decade.

CQC: You have become interested in 6 meters. Who got you interested in that band? What do find challenging about it?

Bernd: Since I can work only few new DXCC band countries on the nine HF bands, I had to keep my interest alive and set new goals. My radio neighbor Thomas, DL7AV, got me interested in 6 meters, since he devoted most of his radio career to that magic band. As the current sunspot cycle was still on the incline and after putting a 6 meter Yagi on top of my highest tower, nothing could stop me from conquering this band, too. Six meters reminds me very often of 160, a challenge of its own because propagation is not at all or hardly predictable and you "have to be there" at the right time.

CQC: Germany is the most active radio country in Europe. Why do you think that is? What is the national organization called and does it have a national convention? Are there amateur radio publications in Germany? If so what are they?

Bernd: Germany is a very technical oriented country, and ham radio is primarily a technical hobby. But, like in most other countries, ham radio is on a decline for several reasons: it is more and more difficult to get antenna permissions, to purchase property is unaffordable and the upcoming generation of young people is only interested in computers and internet. Ham radio has a kind of old-fashioned character when looked at beside the fast technical developments.
Our national radio club is the Deutscher Amateur Radio Club (DARC) with some 60,000 members and more than 1000 local radio clubs. The club magazine cq-DL is published monthly. The second biggest magazine is Funkamateur, which originates from the former GDR, and Funk, which also covers subjects such as broadcasting and computers.
There actually are no national (public) DARC conventions, but there is the annual HAMRADIO in Friedrichshafen on Lake Constance in southern Germany at the end of June, which attracts tens of thousands of national and international visitors. It is comparable to the Dayton Hamvention.

CQC: In 2000 you were at the WRTC. How did you find that event? I think you had many visitors in the days before and after WRTC. How did you handle that?

Bernd: The Dayton Hamvention and Germany’s HAMRADIO are definitely the places to meet other contesters, but where in this world do you meet them all at one place at the same time in a highly concentrated dose? It was the WRTC 2000! Wow, this was an unforgettable moment of life. You know half of the faces there and the other half at least by the callsigns. But there is no fun without pain: My radio station and my Munich apartment were overcrowded with contesters who arrived in Munich before the WRTC and abused me because I had to find sleeping places for people such as K3EST, N5KO, N2AA, N6KT, N6AA and N6IG, who left breakfast leftovers on my carpet. HI!

CQC: What advice would you give to amateurs who would like to get started in contesting?

Bernd: From the standpoint of my experience, I have to appreciate the time when I was an SWL and operated QRP and low power with small antennas, which gave me the opportunity to learn about propagation and operating. Everything has grown slowly and naturally. I don’t regard it as a good idea that someone builds a powerful station one day after the license exam and immediately starts to feel like "the big boy" on the bands. Everything needs roots and development.The motivation for contesting comes to a large extent through committed members of a local contest club. Try to find a contest club, not necessarily a local radio club. Since we have internet and e-mail, finding one should be pretty easy.

CQC: Good advice, Bernd!