HF Email From The Mobile?

Last summer when we were camping in the national parks, there were many campsites where we had no cell phone service. I am not complaining about that, but our work around to communicate back home to the XYL often required a trip to the pay phone (sometimes hard to find). I thought about perhaps using APRS’s capability of relaying short pieces of text as emails. Part of the problem is that there are many areas of the parks that don’t have any APRS digipeater coverage (Glacier and Yellowstone National Parks for example). How to get a message through?

Then I remembered my MARS station (AEN5AC) in Iraq. I was using an ICOM IC-7000 and an SCS PTC-IIusb modem to pass MARSGRAMS from my location north of Baghdad to another station at the US embassy in Qatar. The pairing worked quite well and I was consistently able to connect and pass traffic using PACTOR 3 at the 1400 baud rate. Could I use a similar setup to provide an HF email option while camping this summer?

September 2007, Taji, Iraq - MARS Station AEN5AC
September 2007, Taji, Iraq – MARS Station AEN5AC

I dug out my SCS PTC-IIusb modem. I had not used it since shutting down the MARS station in June of 2008. Everything was still in the box. To include the cables necessary to interface the modem with an ICOM IC-706MKIIG… the same rig I use for HF mobile.

I pulled out my spare IC-706MKIIG. Coming back to Kansas from Field Day in California back in 2009, my IC-706MKIIG quit on me. I ended up buying a second at the HRO in Denver and sent the broke one to ICOM. ICOM fixed it and returned it. I kept it in the box and it went back on the shelf. I did order a 6 pin Molex connector with powerpoles to allow for an easy power connection (#9). I connected the two cables from the modem to the rig. Once cable is for the data and plugs into the 706’s 13 pin accessory connection (#4). The other cable connects to the 706’s CI-V interface (#6) to have the radio change frequencies based on what station is being contacted.

Rear of IC-706MKIIG
Rear of IC-706MKIIG

I had the basic hardware of a HF email station, except for a computer. I would need one that would function out of the vehicle. This would probably require a laptop. I also decided for the ease of simplicity that the computer should be Windows driven (instead of Linux). Gasp! The bottom line is that the software and drivers required to send email via HF and use the SCS PTC-IIusb modem is Windows based. The answer ended up being an Dell XPS 15.

Using a Windows based computer helped me with a number of summer travel tasks that could not be accomplished by my small Linux laptop:
(1) Run the software required for HF email (more on Winlink and Airmail later)
(2) Run ARRL’s TravelPlus for Repeaters
(3) Run RT Systems radio programming software for my TM-D710A
(4) Run RT Systems radio programming software for my VX-8RGs
(5) Read the SD card from my Canon digital camera

Interestingly enough, the new laptop does not have a CD/DVD drive nor an RJ-45 connection for a LAN cable. Neither of these have been a show stopper yet.

ARRL’s TravelPlus for Repeaters

travelplus_repeatersI had purchased TravelPlus for Repeaters with the intent of installing it on my existing Linux laptop and running it under a VirtualBox Windows session (similar to how I run iTunes on my Linux laptop). However the software failed to install. I tried troubleshooting and looking at suggested fixes found on the forum sites but still had no luck. I tried installing TravelPlus using WINE. It installed but would not run as well.

Dell XPS 15 to the rescue. As the laptop does not have a CD/DVD drive, I copied the drive onto network storage. I then was able to install TravelPlus over the network and it is working without issue.

RT Systems Programming Software
The RT Systems programming software works fine under a VirtualBox Windows session. As I was moving all my vehicle related radio/computer tasks to the new Windows laptop, I attempted to install the programming software for the TM-D710A (used for beaconing the location of my vehicle and talking on VHF/UHF). Following a similar procedure that worked for TravelPlus, I copied the programming software from the install disks to a network drive. The software installation for the TM-D710A worked without a hitch. The software for the VX-8RGs (HTs we use for around camp and hiking) failed to load. The error said that I must use the original disk to install. A big challenge when the laptop doesn’t have a CD/DVD drive. The work around is that you find another Windows computer with a CD drive, load the software CD, then back on the driveless laptop, map the CD drive (like you would map a network drive). That worked and I was able to install the programing software for the VX-8GR.

HF Email Software
There are two main choices for software to allow for HF email: RMS Express and Airmail. I installed both. Airmail was the same program I used in Iraq and it offered easy configuration with the IC-706MKIIG and the SCS PTC-IIusb.

I now had all my equipment for a test run setup in my basement hamshack: spare IC-706MKIIG, SCS PTC-IIusb, and the Dell XPS 15 with Airmail. I connected the IC-706MKIIG to my Elecraft tuner and used my existing G5RV antenna. Airmail configures easily. The software has a list of stations offering mailbox services that can be viewed on a propagation chart by frequency and distance. Based on time of day, I selected a station in Texas that offered a 40M PACTOR 3 connection. Airmail allows me to click on the frequency in the propagation chart which then changes the dial frequency of the radio. After listening to see if there were any ongoing connections, I initiated contact. The modem lights flashed and the rig clicked between transmit and receive. The connection was made and I was able to send a test email as well as a position report.

Propagation Prediction & Frequency Selection
Propagation Prediction & Frequency Selection

Success! The position reports that go into the Winlink system are copied over into APRS. Now, even if I am not able to reach a digipeater with my VHF APRS beacon, I can send a position report over HF to let the XYL know where we are.

APRS.fi showing Position Report  from WINLINK
APRS.fi showing Position Report from WINLINK

I then thought about the steps I would have to take of transitioning my IC-706MKIIG configured for HF mobile to be ready to work with the PTC-IIusb to send email. As the remote head is located up near the drivers seat, this would present problems with being able to observe the modem, laptop, and radio control head all at the same time.

Remote control heads for the IC-706MKIIG and TM-D710A to the right of the center console. APRS Avmap GPS to the left of steering wheel.
Remote control heads for the IC-706MKIIG and TM-D710A to the right of the center console. APRS Avmap GPS to the left of steering wheel.

What if I just dedicated the spare IC-706MKIIG rig to the task of HF email? It would save me time and bother in pulling and plugging cables. It would also give the camping option of being able to operate HF from outside the vehicle.

VHF/UHF antenna is forward, above driver's door. Tarheel antenna is mounted on a swing out jerry can holder.
VHF/UHF antenna is forward, above driver’s door. Tarheel antenna is mounted on a swing out jerry can holder.

Using an additional iPortable box, I rack mounted the spare IC-706MKIIG and the SCS PTC-IIusb. Now I will have a spare HF rig with me, so if one goes out I will still be operational. I also attached the Tarheel screwdriver antenna’s rocker switch to raise and lower the antenna on the side of the box. During normal HF mobile operations, the TurboTuner (connected to the other IC-706’s tuner connection and CI-V connection) manages achieving a correct match between the operating frequency and the screwdriver antenna.

I only have the one TurboTuner. The TurboTuner requires a connection to the CI-V. So does the SCS PTC-IIusb. My solution was to leave the TurboTuner alone. Instead, using the rocker switch, I can manually tune the antenna while visually observing the 706’s SWR meter.

HF Email Ready: SCS PTC-IIusb, IC-706MKIIG
HF Email Ready: SCS PTC-IIusb, IC-706MKIIG

To transition between using the 706 dedicated to HF mobile to the 706 now dedicated to HF email, I have to do the following:
(1) disconnect the antenna feedline from the TurboTuner
(2) disconnect the control line that goes from the TurboTuner to the Tarheel screwdriver antenna
(3) connect the antenna feedline directly to the HF email 706
(4) connect the control line to the rocker switch
(5) connect the laptop to the SCS PTC-IIusb via a USB cable
(6) connect the iPortable’s powerpole connection to the junction box in the back of the vehicle

… then I am ready to go. The iPortable box rests nicely on the vehicle’s tailgate, next to the laptop. All at about lawn chair height. Not only can I use this setup to send email via HF, but I can also use it for causal National Parks On The Air contacts as well.

What’s left to do:
(1) Constant cooling fan modification for both IC-706s (see AD5X’s article)
(2) An extended control cable for the Tarheel screwdriver antenna. This will allow me to further remote away from the vehicle, but still use the antenna.
(3) A length of antenna feedline for remoting.
(4) A length of powerpole-ready powerline to attach to either the travel trailer battery or directly to the spare vehicle battery… again for remoting away from the vehicle.
(5) I have a set of Heil headsets that worked with my IC-7000. I think if I get the AD-1ICM, I should be able to use them with the 706.
(6) A Heil HS-2 hand PTT switch to use with the headset.


During my deployment to Iraq, I wanted to setup and operate a MARS station. I know that MARS is not nearly as well used by deployed soldiers as it once was to send MARSGrams and use phone patches to talk to family back home. Access to the internet and AT&T Call Centers now enable most soldiers to stay in touch. However, it is always good planning to have a back up for communications – and a MARS station provides that. I have been through initial MARS training back in Virginia, completing the basic course and participating in local nets. It was good to get that training because it provided me a better understanding of how MARS functions and well as educating me on basic net procedures. MARS nets are generally not procedurally similar to how military voice radio communications function today. It was good to be familiar with the differences.

Applying for a MARS callsign to operate in Iraq is straight forward. I contacted Mr. Daniel Wolff, AEM1WF, in Germany. Mr. Wolff processed my application and assigned me my MARS callsign as well as provided me with the regional net plans and basic MARS information for operating in the region.

For a station setup, I am using an ICOM IC-7000. The rig is a reasonably priced, full-featured radio with a modest size that lends itself to portable operations.

The primary means of moving MARS traffic in the region is digital, specifically Pactor using the WL2K/Airmail PMBO (Participating Mail Box Office) backbone. To add a Pactor capability to my station I initially chose the Kantronics KAM XL. Although this TNC is only capable of Pactor 1, it can do the job.

I wanted flexibility for the power system. We our currently on the Iraqi power grid which is 240V. At some point my team may relocate to a US-controlled area where the power source could possibly be 120V. I needed a power supply that was capable of using both a 120V or 240V electrical source – the Astron SS-30M suited this requirement nicely. For power distribution, I am using a RIGrunner which uses the Anderson Powerpole connectors. I’ve had past success using Anderson Powerpoles; they provide flexibility of operation and a dependable connection. The power grid here is up and down – I needed a battery backup to provide sustainable power during the brief outages. The solution was an 18Ah battery tied in through West Mountain Radio’s PWRgate. The PWRgate automatically transitions from the Astron SS-30M power supply to the backup battery should shore power fail and does so without a drop of supplied amps. I’ve been in the middle of a connection with the regional WL2K/PMBO when the power grid dropped and the PWRgate kept my the power coming without interruption.

I wanted a simple, efficient antenna that provided coverage from 80M to 10M with a modest footprint and that I could deploy with minimal assistance. A 130′ inverted vee was the solution. I am fortunate to be at a location where our one-story building has a high 20′ ceiling. There was also an unused 30′ OE-254 mast already emplaced on top of the roof that I could use to support the center point of the vee. Some more scrounging around the camp rewarded me with additional support polls that I used to get both ends of the vee 35′ off the ground. The building and surrounding structures allowed me to orient the antenna NE/SW, leaving the sides to face NW towards AEM1US in Germany and SE to AEN5QT in Qatar – the two nearest PMBOs. I used ladderline from the center point down to a 4:1 balun and into the LDG AT-200pro antenna tuner.

Installing Airmail (version 3.3.081) on my PC was straight forward with good directions provided by “Airmail for WL2K MARS_Basic Training. PDF” and additional help from the Yahoo Group. The KAM XL TNC (version 1.07050) is supported by Airmail and configures all the Airmail software settings for you. I did a hard reset on KAM XL then configured the KAM XL’s XMITLVL setting via Airmail’s Tools>Dumb Terminal. I used the CAL command and then the T command (send square wave) to create a signal into the IC-7000. I incrementally increased the XMITLVL value until I peaked the IC-7000’s ALC meter into the red. I then backed the XMITLVL setting down one. I make slight adjustments of the XMITLVL depending on the band I am operating on.

With Airmail, connecting to a PMBO is relatively easy. Bringing up the HF Module and selecting Mode>Monitoring Enabled allows you to see all communications between the PC and the modem.

Once you select Mode>Monitoring Enabled you’ll see:

Close the HF Module window and then go back to Airmail and select the HF Module again.

This time when the HF Module is stared, Airmail connects to the KAM XL and makes the following setting adjustments (which you can see because “Monitoring Enabled” is ON):

2007/MM/DD HH:MM:SS KAM-XL modem initialized OK
reply=XFLOW was OFF
cmd= ECHO ON
reply=ECHO was ON
reply=XMITECHO was ON
reply=TXFLOW was OFF
reply=XFLOW was OFF
reply=TRFLOW was OFF
cmd= AUTOCR 0
reply=AUTOCR was 0
reply=AUTOLF was OFF
reply=CRADD was OFF
cmd= MAXUSERS 10/10
reply=MAXUSERS was 10/10
reply=CRSUP was OFF/OFF
reply=LFADD was OFF/OFF
reply=LFSUP was OFF/OFF
cmd= ARQID 0
reply=ARQID was 0
reply=ARQBBS was OFF
reply=PTHUFF was ON
reply=SHIFT was MODEM
cmd= SPACE 3000
reply=SPACE was 1600
cmd= MARK 1400
reply=MARK was 1400
cmd= SPACE 1600
reply=SPACE was 3000
cmd= INV ON
reply=INVERT was OFF

Next, select the callsign of the PMBO you are trying to reach. Combined with the integrated ITS HF Propagation software, it is easy to select the best frequency to attempt a connection. Airmail has the ability to control your rig directly and adjust the proper frequency and mode prior to transmitting. Adjustments can also be made manually by using the dial frequency/mode being displayed in the lower right corner of the HF Module window.

When trying to connect, Airmail will make several 1 to 2 second transmissions attempting to raise the distant PMBO. I adjusted the IC-7000s MONITOR function to allow me to hear and confirm that the data is being transmitted. The following is displayed in Airmail’s HF Module window when you initiate a connection:

2007/MM/DD HH:MM:SS Calling (PMBO’s callsign)

cmd=PACTOR (PMBO’s callsign)

Upon connecting, something like the following appears in the HF Module window:

2007/MM/DD HH:MM:SS Connected to (PMBO’s callsign)
(LINKED TO (PMBO’s callsign))
1AEN5AC (This is your callsign)
(Pactor1: )
Welcome to…. (info concerning this PMBO you connected to)

The Following are a list of frequencies that this PMBO scans.
Please note that not all these frequencies can be used from all locations.
Please consult your Netplan for proper usage in your area.

(PMBO’s callsign) last contacted the Central server 1 min ago.

AEN5AC de (PMBO’s callsign) QTC 0 Msgs 0 bytes>
; (PMBO’s callsign) de AEN5AC
2007/MM/DD HH:MM:SS Disconnected from (PMBO’s callsign)

Airmail uploads outgoing mail before it downloads incoming mail – the process is automatic.

Despite heavy QRM and QRN, Pactor is able to get through with just a 100 watts. Pactor 1 has a slow data rate, but can get simple text emails through quickly. I have recently upgraded the TNC to an SCS PTC-IIusb Modem with Pactor 3 capability. The PTC-IIusb provides a more stable connection and better data rate transfer.

Future plans for the station include mounting everything in a road case for easy portability.