The importance of DXpedition pilot stations…..

Posted: October 27, 2015 in Uncategorized

I really enjoy planning and organizing Dxpeditions. The VP8STI/VP8SGI activations will be my ninth and tenth Dxpeditions. Some Dxpeditions are more successful than others. Factors such as propagation, operator and antenna selection and Pilot relay stations are all important considerations.

I feel that Pilot relay stations are a critical element of a successful Dxpedition. The role of the Pilot relay station is to be the local (regional) eyes and ears of the Dxpedition team and to detect and address those issues that can help the Dxpedition team improve or meet certain needs or goals.

A leading Dxpedition organizer who I greatly respect and admire tells me that we “need to give our audience “ownership” in the DXpedition — make them feel part of the process, let them know that their opinions matter, and bring them into the realm rather than hold them at arm’s length.  He uses the example of their contributions being an “investment” in a DXpedition, just as you’d invest in a company with the expectation of a dividend or growth.  If you invest in a company, you can vote your shares; you have a voice.  We should give our contributors a voice as well.  Pilots facilitate that process”

I feel that it is most important for a Dxpedition to have a regional Pilot relay in your most difficult regions to work. They get a sense of whether the team is exploiting propagation at every opportunity to work the most difficult regions. Case in point, during the XZ1J Dxpedition to Myanmar, we were quite surprised and glad to learn that we were being heard quite well via the long path on the higher bands to the US East Coast. That was our most difficult area to work and these paths were not predicted.

During the EP6T Iran Dxpedition, the US regional pilot was able to relay to the operational team that the US West Coast was hearing them well on 30 & 40 meters long path at the W6 sunset. Soon, the EP6T team was exploiting this opening and asking for W6/W7 at the right place and time. This greatly improved their success rate.  One leading Dxpeditioner writes “I’ve also advocated that we base our operations on data.  Rather than “we’ll work what we hear,” we should use the data to know what is potentially there (a little opening under a big one).  This is not to say that we don’t have to be on our toes for the unexpected openings.  The pilots are key in this process”

A good Dxpedition Pilot relay station acts as your regional ambassador, advocate and defender. The pilots receive a lot of abuse at times and this must be filtered and deflected away from the operational team.  Many experienced Dxpedition leaders feel that the Pilots are also “funnels” and “filters.”  They funnel important information and filter out the trivia and redundant.  The internet and computers don’t know the difference.

During the Dxpedition, the Operational team must stay focused on careful, fast and steady operating. They should not have to deal with the abuse, complaints, whining that comes in via the Internet. The Operational team has a difficult job to do and they must maintain their energy and desire to do their best. They must not get emotionally mired in the bashing that often takes place in internet forums and email reflectors.  We know that bad and erroneous comments can really spoil your day.  These are often knee-jerk reactions to the moment and poorly thought out.  Also, how many operator hours will you burn looking at email when you could be making QSO’s?

This is the realm of the Pilot relay, to sense and address those issues. The Pilot relay should properly filter the information to the team so that the raw emotion is stripped away and the important information is presented to the Operational team. During the E30FB Dxpedition, I made the mistake of looking at some of the comments about our Dxpedition on the internet. There was a lot of complaining that was not consistent with Pilot information. In hindsight, I should have kept my complete focus on the tasks at hand and continued my practice to ignore Internet drivel.

I was very surprised to see that one major 2016 Dxpedition has announced that they have created a new “Pilot Paradigm”.

They have announced that they have “taken the innovative step to completely eliminate pilots for the radio operation on Heard Island. This function has been replaced by a satellite-linked lightweight messaging system that will enable reliable two-way “instantaneous” messaging between the island and the support team. In conjunction with the service to process emails received through the DXA web page, the system completely eliminates the need for the traditional “pilots” that have been part of the DXpedition scene for several decades”.

As an experienced Dxpeditioner, I think this approach has several potential flaws. It relies heavily on IT gear and satellite technology to complete the circuit of communications. This can be problematic for a remote island. We always experience visits from “Murphy” and quite often the impact is seen in our computer network infrastructure. That is why for VP8STI/VP8SGI, we have eliminated the computer network altogether. Why rely on technology that often fails you?   Our Chief Pilot has the ability to reach the Dxpedition leaders via super-secret email, via the Iridium telephone or as a third means our InReach SE via SMS.

A leading Dxpeditioner writes “The pilot is the human interface between the audience and the DXpedition.  The pilot is the real, human voice instead of the answering machine.  Take out the pilot and you further de-humanize the DXpedition, assign our audience a position of lesser importance, and offer them a black hole as a repository for their opinions”

We feel that super-secret email is required because during a Dxpedition, team member email is often abused. We receive many email messages regarding “busted” contacts while the Dxpedition is far from complete. We have actually had people send us sound and video files as attachments to their email messages. Imagine trying to receive those on a satellite email system where your costs are $7.00 a MB. You can’t delete the messages until you down load them and your other email is essentially blocked until you remove the sound and video files that you would rather not have received.

It will be interesting to see how the new “Pilot Paradigm” works out for the Heard Island team. It’s a novel idea to bring all of the stuff that comes with the Internet directly into the operational setting. Not something that I would want to do. Dxpedition Pilots are important and necessary components of a Dxpedition. Our experience has shown us that they are vital and I would not want to be without them.

Leading DXpeditioners know that a DXpedition must ask itself, “Why are we here?  Are we here to hand out as many QSO’s as possible and be focused on amateur radio?  Or, are we here and subsidized by amateur radio to do something else?”

As many of us see it, pilots give a receptive ear to our audience and whenever they can, they give a human reply.  They are the Dxpedition’s ambassadors and personalize the DXpedition process rather than depersonalize it.   Computers and the internet are very fast but they don’t think.  Pilots are that critical element to a Dxpedition’s success.

What do you think?

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Comments
  1. W2IRT says:

    I’m looking forward to serving as the North American East Coast pilot for this operation. Thank you for the opportunity. As Paul stated, the pilots will be there to relay critical information to the team such as missed openings, long-path, skewed-path or other unusual openings or perhaps technical problems like distorted audio, etc.

    Please don’t hesitate to email those types of reports, but the pilots will not be able to verify that you’re in the log (we have no access to the logs) nor will be relay complaints of “too much Europe” or “too much NA” or other such complaints. And of course, we cannot arrange skeds, so please don’t ask. As Paul said, we’ll be trying to work the team too, and will be in the pileups with everyone else–even we don’t get skeds!

    Good luck to one and all.

    • n6pse says:

      Peter, the VP8STI/VP8SGI team is very proud to have you serve as our East-Coast Pilot relay station. We know that your calm, thorough manner and your excellent skills as an operator and your understanding of propagation and “how things work” in general will greatly aid us in fulfilling the needs of the many on the East Coast. That is a very important part of our goals.

      Even if you could be “virtualized” or eliminated, we would rather have you adding to our success!

      All the best,

      Paul N6PSE

  2. RoyInNC says:

    From the mid Atlantic area and SE US in general, LP often represents our easiest path to south central and southeast Asia, so it seems nearly unbelievable that stations operating there might not recognize that. I don’t take propagation forecasts too seriously, preferring to rely on decades of experience through solar maximums and minimums to tell me what’s likely.

    • n6pse says:

      Roy in NC, I live in California and was a member of the XZ1J team. We didn’t assume that there was a terrific long path opening and only because our Pilots told us that we were being heard on LP that we made a serious effort to beam in that direction. Thus, the value of real human pilot stations. I don’t believe that technology can replace the pilot concept.

      • RoyInNC says:

        Not taking issue with the pilot station concept, nor being accusatory for not having checked the LP. However, since the LP is so vital to much of the south central/SE Asia region for us in the eastern part of the US, it seems difficult to accept that it wouldn’t have been recognized as a distinct possibility. My 1 contact with XZ1J was on the 15 meter LP. The LP is a mostly over water path, vital to many of our qso’s into that region. It only requires being attentive to that possibility and occasionally turning the antenna that way. Still, I was certainly appreciative of that contact, regardless.

        Roy WA4DOU

  3. Gene says:

    Nice article Paul, great points.

    Your thoughts on reading e-mails while on the island are spot on.

    I’m slogging through hundreds of e-mails, many identical – sent to multiple e-mail addresses. If we tried to read these on the island we’d have spent enough money on BGAN units to have bought our own satellite, and keep 2 or 3 operators busy full time answering e-mails.

    Sending a Not in log or busted call request and expecting an immediate answer is unrealistic, as is sending the same request 2 or 3 times to different e-mail addresses, but we have them.

    Another disappointment was the number of really good suggestions that should have gone to the pilots but instead were sent to an address that we would not monitor while on the island. I don’t think many people understand the dynamics of a DX-pedition. We were not at a beach resort with restaurants, a guest house, tropical drinks with little umbrellas and unlimited broadband Internet.

    I would also suggest there are lots of new DXers out there who don’t read the various free and/or for fee bulletins, a few got frustrated and sent e-mails that were rather caustic. I think they don’t realize it’s a hobby and we’re volunteers.

    We too used a private e-mail address for the chief pilot. One thing I need to think about is the time value of information. Propagation was so unusual and erratic that knowing of an opening 8 – 12 hours before was interesting but I’m not sure how useful. Some of the bizarre comments from the armchair quarterbacks was a little disheartening, we ignored the few our pilots passed along.

    Equipment got back to New Zealand last Sunday, over a holiday weekend. Met with a customs agent on Tuesday to arrange for its transport back to the US.

    Let’s talk when I get back home…

    Cheers,
    GS

    • n6pse says:

      Hi Gene, Yes, we face the same issues. Numerous emails about busted calls, some guys send them over and over, then they send QSL cards via OQRS, DIrect and the Bureau for the same contacts! Talk about a duplication of efforts!

      Yes, unfortunately much on the Internet these days is caustic. Our young people have not learned the rules of the playground. Never say or write anything that is likely to get you punched.

      I hope you and your team are recovering from your outing. I cannot remember a DXpedition team having as bad of propagation as what your team faced on Chesterfield. Truly unfortunate.

      Best of luck for future operations!

      Paul N6PSE

  4. ky6r says:

    There are some guesses here on how the system works that are incorrect.

    We will describe it in the next VK0EK newsletter, completely free of charge or obligation that anyone can sign up for at http://www.heardisland.org

    Cheers,

    Rich

    • n6pse says:

      Hi Rich, yes of course we would like to know more. Your VK0EK Blog announcement seems clear that you are replacing the off island Pilots with communications via satellite directly to the team Experienced DXpedition leaders such as myself think that off island Pilots have great value.

      Here is what you have written on the Blog: The VK0EK IT team, led by Rich KY6R has taken the innovative step to completely eliminate pilots for the radio operation on Heard Island. This function has been replaced by a satellite-linked lightweight messaging system that will enable reliable two-way “instantaneous” messaging between the island and the support team. In conjunction with the service to process emails received through the DXA web page, the system completely eliminates the need for the traditional “pilots” that have been part of the DXpedition scene for several decades”.

      It seems to me that you don’t see the value in Pilot relay stations and are bringing all of the good and bad data directly into the operation. That is a mistake for many reasons, mostly because the Ops team has more important things to do such as to make contacts. Also, in order to be most effective, they need to have high energy and morale. If you bring all the whining and complaints into the Ops area this will erode the energy and morale of the team and the result will be a less effective DXpedition.

      • Mike KJ4Z says:

        Hi Paul,

        There will be no direct, unfiltered communications between the general public and the operators on the island. I would say the role of pilots is being virtualized, rather than being eliminated. But, it will still be humans at the switch, not computers. Rich will have more info later.

        73,
        Mike

  5. n6pse says:

    Hi Mike, I am glad to hear that the on island team will be insulated from the potential bashing and whining that comes in via the Internet. That is a good thing. But how do you virtualize a human thought process of deciding what is good and relevant and what is worthless? That is one of the many critical functions that the Pilot does. I know that Rich has served as a Pilot before and he knows that it is a difficult and demanding role. I just don’t see how that can be “virtualized” or eliminated as the announcement says. It seems a bit Hubris for someone that has never organized a DXpedition before to say that they have found a means to eliminate the need for traditional pilots. That is quite a provocative announcement given the known value of Pilots.

    Best wishes always,

    Paul N6PSE

    • Mike KJ4Z says:

      Hi Paul,

      I hope I’m not stealing too much of Rich’s thunder here, but the idea is still that several people will read and process every message that comes in. We’ve assembled a geographically diverse team of volunteers who can process incoming messages in near real time, discuss them in a live chat room, and forward the relevant ones to the team on the island, or save them for summary later. The hope is that we can provide the feedback necessary to correct problems or take advantage of surprise openings while they’re still happening. And, by using a distributed virtualized approach instead of a 1:1 mapping between a region and its pilot, we hope to provide around the clock coverage. We also can fall back to using a conventional HF link between Rich and the team if there are satellite issues.

      Hang onto your hat, because there are other surprises in store, some of which may surprise you. I hope you’ll like them. 🙂

      73,
      Mike

  6. ky6r says:

    This has been a great discussion and I’m very excited about the next issue of our newsletter. In fact – the newsletter will be entirely dedicated to this topic – so we hope you enjoy it, and if you aren’t already a (Free, no obligation) subscriber, please see http://www.heardisland.org

  7. Gene says:

    Hi Paul,

    After we realized there were so many duplicate and triplicate e-mails asking for a log check the following was discussed:

    No one is going to take the time while on the island to research busted calls, so sending an e-mail during the DX-pedition serves no useful purpose.

    E-mail is an ineffective way to deal with this, especially since there’s no standard format for the e-mail and people tend to make their own by adding screenshots, spreadsheets, long explanations that need to be read in order to get the pertinent info, and of course the language challenges.

    I’m thinking about a Web Form that only allows the user to add the suspected busted QSO info:
    User Call sign, e-mail address, Date – Time – Band – Mode of suspected busted calls. I might consider a short note field if the submitter already did the research and found the incorrect call (some actually did that).

    The form would be active “after” the DX-pedition, NO busted call requests will be handled by e-mail, there will be no e-mail address for this and any that comes in to our other addresses will be deleted.

    I also think the form will be keyed to call sign and date/time submitted, only one submission per call sign will be allowed, yea I know this may not be popular.

    We also discussed a form to use for Pilot Communications that might help quickly consolidate their workload, but no specifics discussed.

    Just thinking about doing this, but it would save a lot of time after the DX-pedition.

    What do you think??

    • n6pse says:

      Hi Gene, yes a web form might be useful, perhaps one where the user can toggle the language that they understand and the back end converts to English. Sounds like an interesting project.

      Best wishes!

      Paul N6PSE

    • RoyInNC says:

      To even write to the dx’pedition or members, whether in the foreground or background, during a dx’pedition in progress, about logging issues, is a clear indication of a lack of intuitive understanding of the situation and of their place within it. It’s as inappropriate as arguing with a police officer on the side of the road, over a ticket. Amateur radio has its share of prima donna’s, including the thousands who never seem to learn when to call in the pileups and when to listen.

  8. […] Source: The importance of DXpedition pilot stations….. […]

  9. Jarrad Mitchell (XU7AGA / VK3HXT) says:

    Fantastic article mate, really enjoyed reading it. Hope to work you in the new year! 🙂

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