Field Day Band Captain's Handbook

By Mike Polkinghorn, K6PUD


Congratulations, you are one of a select group of hams! Only a few are capable and knowledgeable enough to be a Band Captain for the West Valley ARA Field Day Celebration. By taking on this responsibility, you have signaled to the whole club that you are excited and motivated to make this the best Field Day ever. In the months ahead, challenges will be met, problems solved and great victories achieved. As a Band Captain, you will be an essential part of all of it.

What is Field Day?

You will notice that I use the word "Celebration" when referring to Field Day. You will hear people referring to Field Day as a contest, an exercise or an event. Truthfully these are all apt descriptions of parts of Field Day. Field Day is ostensibly an emergency preparedness exercise designed to get all ham radio operators out of their shacks and operating in unimproved conditions at least once a year. It is also a contest as the focus of the operating part of Field Day is making contest style contacts. Finally most clubs (including West Valley) use Field Day as a club event. This is a great time to gather the whole club and meet face to face. With all of these disparate facets of the event, the only term that seems to fit is "Celebration."

The History of the West Valley Field Day Site

West Valley has operated a large Field Day site for several years now. But it wasn't always this way. For most of the clubs existence, Field Day was a small affair. Over time it began to generate little enthusiasm. At one point the club had such little motivation that it couldn't mount a Field Day effort of it's own. WVARA had to combine with another local clubs 2A operation to hold any sort of an event at all. This proved disastrous. The other club had already set up its schedule of stations and operators and WVARA members spent most of the time merely watching the event from the sidelines or helping with not contest related activities such as cooking. A number of members spilt off from WVARA after that year to hold their own Field Day operations.

One year though, a movement was formed to see how many stations could be put on the air by the club. People jumped at the chance to contribute. People who hadn't in the past simply because they had never been asked. There were many problems to be solved along the way, but now there were more people to solve them. The larger Field Day site meant that a larger group of people could learn from the event. It was at this point that the WVARA membership realized that by organizing a larger Field Day Celebration, more people were able to participate and get involved. This is the whole idea behind Field Day in the first place!

The Calendar of Events

Field Day planning begins early. There are those that say that Field Day should not be a planned event, but rather should be done as spontaneously as possible. To those I point out that no other emergency service does anything without planning and practice. Firefighters do not show up to a fire and then see if anyone knows how to operate the pumper truck! The same principle applies to ham radio communications. When a real emergency does arise, hams should already know what they have to do to get on the air.

If you ran a station last year, you will hear from the Field Day Coordinator in early January. He will want to know if you will be returning this year. After all, who knows better than you do how to run your station? The Field Day Coordinator wants to know how many Band Captains are returning and how many holes will have to be filled on the roster. Also if you would like a different assignment, this is the time to ask for it. You will find that the Coordinator will do whatever can be done for you. Many times the move can be made. If it can't, try to be understanding and pitch in where you can anyway.

In March the planning begins in earnest. You should start recruiting people to help with your station by getting in touch with the people that helped you out last year. The first site walk should be scheduled for the second weekend in March (the first and last weekends are major contests). This site walk is mainly for the Band Captains and anyone who has never been to the site before. The group can survey the site and note any changes that have occurred. Also any changes in the site layout can be discussed at that time. If you have never been to the site or if your station has been moved, you should make sure to go. This is also the time to start collecting your equipment. This will keep you from finding out on June 1st that the part you need is back ordered until late July!

You should continue to work quietly behind the scenes for the next three months. If you get a chance to recruit a new operator, do so.

When June hits, the frenzy will begin. A Field Day Net should be held on the WVARA repeaters after the regular Club Net on the first Tuesday. Band Captains should check in and announce if they need any operators or equipment. Likewise members should check in and announce the availability of themselves or their equipment.

A second site walk should be scheduled for the first weekend of June (the second weekend is June VHF QSO Party). This will be the last site walk before Field Day and anyone and everyone who wants to go should be invited. Last minute changes should be discussed with the Band Captains at that time.

The June club meeting is usually reserved for Field Day. You should have your station pretty well figured out by this time, but if not you should make any last minute pleas for equipment or operators at the meeting.

Finally the event arrives! All of the Band Captains should be on site just as close to the start of the set up time (11 AM local time). If anyone arrives early, they are allowed to place their equipment on the ground at their station location. You should recruit enough help to set up their station, however it is common practice for everyone to band together for tougher jobs such as antenna erection and so forth.

Emphasis should be put on finishing all of the stations before dark on Friday. After the Friday BBQ a testing net should be held. The net should be coordinated on a simplex channel on 2 meters or 70 CM and all of the stations should be listening to the band they will operate on. Each station will be instructed, one at a time, to transmit for a short time. All stations should confirm that they are not receiving any interference from transmitting station. It is important that this net be held on Friday night so that any interference that is detected can be dealt with while there is time on Saturday morning. After the net, all stations should be encouraged to spend some time operating their stations after the net and make sure that everything is working correctly.

One other thing to take care of on Friday night is the W1AW bulletin. It will be broadcast on voice, teleprinter, and CW at various times on Friday afternoon and evening. You should try to copy it down, especially if you are on one of the digital stations. The ARRL has been known to inform you of extra bonuses in the bulletin.

On Saturday, you should prepare for the upcoming contest by "reserving" a frequency. Find an open frequency 10-20 minutes before the start of the contest and call CQ and if possible start a QSO to occupy the frequency. Then as the contest starts, you can sign off from the QSO and start calling CQ Field Day.

The contest will smoothly (or not) until the evening BBQ. This is the highlight of the event! This, however, presents quite a quandary for the Band Captain. Obviously you will want to join in the gathering. At the same time, any time off represents lost contest time and potentially lost QSOs. Some Band Captains will decide to keep working their radios. If that is the case, let the Coordinator know so food can be delivered to you. Other operators will simply shut down their stations. A good compromise is to make a shift change at mealtime. Have an operator finish eating and then replace the operator currently on shift. This way both ops get to enjoy the BBQ and the station stays on the air.

The contest will grind through the night and onto the next morning. Breakfast will give everyone a chance to gauge how close the club is to its goal. Then it is back to the radios for the last push to the end. When the final horn sounds, save your log file to a floppy disk and take your final QSO count and post it on the score board.


Just as it is true that the Field Day Coordinator can not run the site without your help, so it true that you can not run your station all by yourself. OK, you probably could but it wouldn't be a lot of fun, especially for the bands that run 24 hours day! Field Day is an event that is best when it is shared with as many people as possible (that's why we have a big Field Day after all). The bare minimum staff for a station that will be active all twenty-four hours is you and two other operators. You would then rotate in three shifts of eight hours apiece or six shifts of four hours. Either way, you will get enough time off to sleep and perhaps operate another station or two (we should encourage all operators to work from as many stations as they wish). The more the merrier though. Make sure to keep the shifts to no less than two to four hours. You want your operators to feel like they have contributed and to have enough time to get into the swing of the contest. While it is exceedingly rare (at our site), too many ops is just as bad as too few. When in doubt, ask your operators how long they would like to spend in front of the rig and schedule accordingly.

One thing to be considered is the rough shifts to operate, the Vampire Shift (middle of the night) and the Grind (the last shift). You will probably have no problem filling shifts in the middle of the day and especially right after the BBQ. In fact you may wish to schedule some open time right after the BBQ for drop in operators. The wee hours of the morning may be another story entirely. If you can find an operator that wants to run that shift, hurrah! Otherwise, you should be prepared to run it yourself. For some bands such as 40, 80 and 160 this is the prime time. You won't have trouble finding help, or if you do, it is no problem as you get the best shift! The Grind is another story. The last shift is always the hardest. It seems like you CQ endlessly with few takers. If you search and pounce, it seems like everyone you find is a dupe. This is the time when you or your operator needs to buckle down and keep at it. A lot of contests are won and lost in these last few hours. This is another shift you may need to schedule for yourself. Another option is to make the last shift extra long so the operator that has that shift has the greatest chance to see some good conditions before it becomes a challenge. No matter what, you will have to be creative with your scheduling to accommodate meals, operators' schedules and your own tactics.

One last bit of planning is to gather together your operators together a week or two before Field Day. You should familiarize everyone with the equipment you will use. Make sure everyone knows how to run the rig, computer and so forth.


Obviously this section could go on forever. However there are a couple of highlights that should be hit.

The first is antennas. In the past WVARA has erected a six-element triband and a two-element 40 Meter Yagi all for one station! We have also had people just string up a simple wire antenna when a Yagi or Quad wouldn't have been too hard to erect. The first option took the whole site hours to accomplish and the second produced poor results. A happy medium needs to be found here. You will want to erect as large an antenna as possible without straining the resources of your crew. For the low bands, a dipole is the obvious choice while a directional antenna is best for the high bands. Tribanders and multi-band verticals are popular antennas for Field Day, and why not. They allow you to operate on any band that you are assigned to and often allow you to run a multi-band station off of one antenna. However, if possible use mono band antennas as multi-band antennas can radiate/receive spurious transmissions. Another consideration is beam width. While you may be lured by the higher gain of a larger beam antenna, remember that comes with a narrower beam width. A three element Yagi can be fixed towards the East will cover a large part of the US while a lager antenna will need to be repositioned to get adequate signal to the North and South. Either way, you will want to get the antenna as high above the terrain as is practical. Make sure to keep it simple though. A dipole up ten feet will get you on the air but will not give you a commanding signal. A large Yagi up high will give you a great signal but not if your pole folds halfway up and crumples the antenna.

The corollary to antennas is coax. The most important thing to do is to measure the amount of coax you will need. Some runs can be quite long at Field Day and you won't want to eyeball the distance and then find out that you were off by twenty feet! That being said, it's probably a good idea to bring an extra length of coax and a barrel connector just in case.

The next area to consider is shelter. Conditions at the top of the ridge can be quite variable. It can be cold, hot, sunny, cloudy, windy, or still, sometimes all within a couple of hours. Your shelter should be able to accommodate all of that. Large dome or cabin tents seem to be the best compromise. Another popular solution is the screen pavilion. Some operators erect both and if the conditions warrant, they move their operating position. The roof material can be another concern. A light color can let in too much light and wash out the display on your computer. A blue colored roof can wash out the blue displays of some older rigs.

Another consideration is sleeping arrangements. While it is another item to pack, setup and tear down, most operators prefer to have a separate sleeping tent. While some operators (especially at the CW stations) can get away with sleeping in the same tent with a Field Day station, in most cases it is easier to sleep somewhere else.

The last thing to consider is spares. In a perfect world, you would only have to bring one of each item up to the site. Unfortunately we have to live in our world where things tend to go wrong. It is wise to have some spare parts around. The ultimate would be to have a spare one of everything, but who has the room and resources for that? Also, anything you bring to Field Day is something that could be dropped and broken. Spare rope, coax, and backup dipole antenna are all reasonable items. A spare rig if you are more aggressive. You will have to make up a list that you are comfortable with.

Band Switching

While the West Valley site has been moving towards mono-band stations, there are still a few stations that operate on one band during the day and another at night. Whenever you have one of these stations, the obvious question that arises is when to switch between the two bands. Some times this decision is made for you. One band will pitter out before you are ready and you are forced to switch to the other band to continue the contest. More often, you are forced to choose between a band that is fading and another that hasn't quite woken up yet or two bands that are both going gangbusters. In general it is better to switch too soon than too late. Here in California, the only states West of us are Hawaii and Alaska. That means that the vast bulk of the contestants are to the East where night is falling. While it may be sunny here at five in the evening, it's eight PM on the East Coast and everyone is already on 40 and 80! The best idea if you have a multi-band station is to get on during the weekends prior to Field Day and see when signals for your two bands start appearing and fading out.

Communications while Climbing the Hill

Once you are have made it to the Field Day site, you will have no problem getting into the West Valley repeaters with a mobile rig. You can even make it into the repeaters with an HT in a few spots at the site. However, you will probably notice that it is difficult to make it into the machines once you leave Highway 17 till you get to the Field Day site. In this area you should use the output of the W6PIY 2 Meter repeater (147.39) as a simplex channel. This allows the people at the site to listen you one frequency and hear your signal either way. Make sure when you are on simplex to announce that when you transmit so the operator at the Field Day site can adjust the radio there.

How to Contest

While Field Day isn't strictly a contest, that is how the entrants are rated and why not? A contest is a great way to evaluate a stations performance. It is also a great way to simulate message handling which will be a big part of any response to an emergency.

So what is a contest? Put most simply, in a contest the objective is to make as many contacts in as many places as possible in a prescribed amount of time. For Field Day, the objective is simply to make as many contacts as possible in the 24 hours you are allotted. To make those contacts valid, you have to exchange a certain amount of information. The "exchange" for Field Day is your entry class (number of transmitters) and your ARRL section.

So how do you go about making these contacts? Just as you would for any other QSO in amateur radio, there are only two ways to initiate a conversation. You either have to answer someone who is calling CQ or call CQ yourself and wait for someone to answer you. Which method is better? It is generally accepted that staying in one place, calling CQ and letting the other stations come to you is quicker and less tiring. However, this only works if you have a signal that is loud enough to attract other stations. If you aren't making any contacts or aren't making them fast enough, you are forced to switch to the search and pounce method. Excellent operators can rack up the QSOs almost as fast this way. Which ever method you employ, a Field Day contact sounds like this:

CQ Field Day CQ Field Day this is W6PIY Whiskey Six Papa India Yankee calling CQ Field Day and listening.

>>Whiskey One Alfa Whiskey.

W1AW thank you, we are 20 Alfa, Santa Clara Valley, over.

>>Thank you, we are 6 Delta, Connecticut, over.

Thank you, this is Whiskey Six Papa India Yankee, QRZ?

All that is left is to record the contact on your log sheet and get ready for the next contact.

Obviously because of the variability of radio propagation and other factors, many contacts aren't this neat and clean and you may need the other operator to repeat portions of the QSO. This is especially true when multiple people are calling you or you are getting interference from another station, but learning to deal with these conditions are part of the lure and purpose of Field Day!


There really is only one thing to say about the rules. Read them! There is no substitute for another knowledgeable person at the Field Day site. You may keep the club from making a costly error! The rules are available on the ARRL web site and they should be available at the site as well.

Operator List

Time		Operator			Phone #			Email		

Set Up Help - 

Tear Down Help - 

Station Equipment Check List

Antenna tuner (if not already inside the transceiver)
Antenna supports (masts, towers, guy wires, nylon rope, etc.)
Power supply (at least 20A peak)
Extension power cords
Power strips
Bandpass filter 
Logging computer
Logging software
Microphone (preferably mike headset)
Foot switch
Digital voice recorder
CW paddle
CW interface cable for CT
Tent and stakes
External clock
Lights for late night operating
Tools (wrenches, screwdrivers, hammer, etc.) 
Antenna erection equipment (ladder, slingshot, climbing harness, etc.)
Power meter, antenna analyzer
Y-adapter for multiple headphones
Accesories (tape measurer, zip ties, soldering iron, connectors, etc.)
Pens and pencils
Blank paper
Floppy Disk

Camping Equipment Check List

Sleeping tent
Sleeping bag, pillow
Clothes (light clothes for the day, warm clothes for the evenings)

Water, drinks
Food  (lunch and snacks)
Toiletries (soap, washcloth, toilet paper, etc.)
Insect repellent
First aid and medicine box (band-aids, aspirin, etc.)
Alarm clock