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Let's Go T-Hunting

by Joe Moell, K0OV

Here's an introduction to RDF contesting using southern California style as an example.  This article was updated from a paper originally submitted for Proceedings of the West Coast VHF/UHF Conference. This is a good introductory article.
(See the copyright notice at the end.)

VHF/UHF enthusiasts often install yagis and quads at their home stations. Many take them out on camping trips and use them on public service events. But did you know that some enjoy flying the freeways and beating the back roads with one hand on the steering wheel and the other on a rotating antenna mast?

Perhaps you have seen these hams on weekends, intently driving and turning their beams. What are they doing? They are competing in hidden transmitter hunts.

If you've never experienced one of these mobile radio direction finding (RDF) contests, you have missed some of the greatest excitement a ham can have. While there are several names for it such as "fox-hunting" and "bunny chasing," in southern California this sport is almost always referred to as "T-hunting."

Ammo-can transmitter

Transmitter hunting seems to be one of the best kept secrets in ham radio, even though dozens of hams here consider themselves to be regular hunters. They range in age from the teens to the eighties. Besides keeping the coordinated two-meter hunt frequency (146.565 MHz FM) hopping, hunters love to hash over their exploits by the hour on their favorite repeaters.

The idea is simple: One or two hams take a transmitter, antenna, and some sort of distinctive audio source to an carefully selected spot, then make continuous or intermittent transmissions. Usually they remain stationary, though mobile "bunnies" are popular with some groups. Sometimes there are more than one "T" to be found. Surplus ammunition cans are often used as hidden transmitter enclosures. The hunters, as individuals or in teams, do their best to home in on the hidden station(s) with their mobile and portable RDF gear.

Fun, But Beneficial

T-hunters think their events are more fun than any other ham contest. You get to meet and socialize with your competitors both before and after the event. Usually, you'll find out your score and how well you placed before you go home. You may encounter your competitors along the way, with opportunities to try to "psych them out" or misdirect them. (Hence the southern California maxim: "Never trust anything said by a T-hunter or hider.")

"Techies" like the thrill of finding the hidden T with gear they made themselves. They relentlessly work to improve their setups. Mystery lovers and dyed-in-the-wool contesters love the challenge, because very hunt is a fresh start to a new adventure. Your past performances are forgotten. It's just your team and your equipment against today's hider and the other hunters.

At some point, every ham will find knowledge of RDF techniques useful, because it simplifies such chores as finding a neighborhood source of power line interference or TV cable leakage. T-hunters here frequently are called upon to track down sources of "spurs," intermodulation and noise that can plague amateur (and sometimes commercial) repeaters.

RDF plays an important part in Amateur Radio self-policing. In many areas of the country, including southern California, there are standing agreements between Local Interference Committees and district FCC offices, permitting volunteer ham RDFers to gather evidence leading to prosecution in serious cases of malicious interference.

You have up to a dozen competitive hunt opportunities to choose from every month in Los Angeles, Orange, Riverside and Santa Barbara Counties. They are all different in some way, such as time or mileage scoring, day or night start, single or multiple transmitters, intermittent or continuous signal, wide or narrow boundaries. (Or perhaps there are no boundaries at all!)

Most hunts are on two meters with FM signals, but there are occasional FM hunts on the 50, 223, 440 and 1200 MHz bands. There have even been hunts for Amateur Television transmissions on 434 MHz.

Winning Isn't Easy

There are many ways to score mobile T-hunts. Due to traffic problems, "First-In-Wins" hunts are less common than "Low-Mileage-Wins" hunts in southern California. Odometer calibration differences are resolved by requesting hunters to obtain an odometer correction factor by driving a standardized course in advance of the hunt. This correction factor is called the Crenshaw Factor because the course runs along Crenshaw Boulevard for approximately 9 miles.

T-hunters have become very sophisticated at finding dastardly hiding places. With the right combination of location and antenna, they make it difficult for hunters to get reliable bearings. Like a ventriloquist, a good hider can make the signal appear to be coming from some other location. With careful planning (and a little luck), the signal's characteristics can cause the hunters to approach the transmitter from the most difficult direction, with impassable roads or other obstructions, even though the T may be easily accessible via other routes. Perhaps the hider will camouflage the setup so well that the hunters won't find the transmitter unless they literally trip over it.

The most challenging of all southern California 2-meter RDF events are the All Day Hunts. Despite their difficulty, many enthusiasts like them best of all. The name is a misnomer, because these marathons often last the entire weekend. The transmitter(s) can be anywhere in the continental USA. The hunt starts in Rancho Palos Verdes. Hiding spots have included locations near Yosemite National Park (California), Las Vegas (Nevada), Yuma (Arizona), and St. George (Utah). The record path distance for a two-meter hidden transmitter signal to be heard at the starting point was set on the St. George hunt, well over 300 miles!

Not every T-hunt is this arduous, of course. Several clubs have sponsored hunts just for Beginners, to get things started. Hiders make brief transmissions on a repeater, encouraging hunters to come out and find them. After a while, they give clues to narrow the search area. The idea is to give every participant a good first-time experience, including a story-telling session at a restaurant after the hunt.

While some hunters prefer to go it alone, most have more success by teaming up. The driver concentrates on handling the vehicle, while the DFer turns the beam and reads the meters. The DFer also handles maps and plotting, unless there is a third team member for that task.

Inexpensive Beams Work Fine

Quad illustration

In the Los Angeles basin, most hunters use some sort of beam antenna. Three to five element quads are most popular. Usually they are built in "diamond" form with a PVC pipe or wood boom and elements made of thin wire strung on fiberglass spreaders. Variations include the "stiff wire" version, which is much more tree-resistant. (It can get mashed, but is easily re-shaped and returned to service, as compared to "strung-wire" quads which more readily suffer wire breakage.)

Yagis are second to quads in popularity. Commercial models work fine, provided that the mast is attached at a good balance point. Occasionally you will see some other kind of gain antenna, such as a "ZL special." Small-diameter loops are seldom used for RDF above 54 MHz because of their bidirectional pattern and low sensitivity.

Yagi illustration No matter which gain antenna is used, it is important that the mounting system allow for quickly changing polarization. Hiders can use any wave polarization on most hunts, so hunters must attempt to determine the correct polarization and hunt with it. Hunting a horizontal signal with a vertically polarized beam, for example, causes the direct signal to be attenuated. Reflections and scattered signals (multipath) from buildings and terrain features are enhanced relative to the direct signal when the wrong polarization is chosen.

Hunters need sensitive mobile RDF setups for events like the All-Day hunts. They achieve it with their long beams, plus GaAsFET preamps, noise-quieting meters, and SSB receivers (even though the hider is transmitting FM).

Homing Sets Sniff Well

TDOA illustration

Another type of RDF instrument, called the homing or dual-antenna RDF, has its place in the arsenal of the well-equipped hunter. These units have a pair of vertical antennas, a switching circuit, and a direction sensor with some sort of left-right indicator, such as a meter or a pair of LEDs. They are easy to use: When the indicator says LEFT, turn the unit left; when it indicates RIGHT, turn right. There is a sharply defined crossover at which the unit points toward the signal source direction.

There are two types of dual antenna sets. One type is called a switched-pattern set and requires a receiver with AM detection. It is used mostly on the aircraft band. More popular with hams is the phase-front detector or Time-Difference-of-Arrival (TDOA) set. It is designed to work with any narrowband FM receiver that covers the frequency of interest. While they could be used in vehicles, these dual-antenna sets are used mostly for on-foot RDF. They are excellent for closing in at the end of a hunt ("sniffing") and for wilderness search/rescue work. Be sure to build or buy one with left-right indicators.

Dopplers Have Their Place

An ideal RDF system would not require constant manual antenna turning. It would take directional readings hundreds of times per second, and continue to indicate the bearing after the signal leaves the air. Doppler type RDF sets, though far from ideal, fulfill all these wishes. The typical four-whip antenna system can be mounted without drilling holes in the vehicle.

Doppler display

Doppler readouts usually feature a ring of at least 16 LEDs, and may also include a three-digit display in degrees relative to the vehicle. In the clear, a well-installed doppler has about +/-5 degree bearing accuracy. Accuracy is degraded by multipath, just like it is with the homing RDF, but "eyeball averaging" while the vehicle is moving helps counteract this problem.

While popular in places such as Cincinnati and the San Francisco Bay area, doppler RDF installations have not caught on among most southern California competitive T-hunters due to their lower sensitivity compared to beam setups. Vertically polarized doppler antennas are at an extreme disadvantage if the hider transmits horizontal polarization, especially if the signal is weak and non-direct.

On the other hand, dopplers are a popular choice of jammer hunters, who are usually tracking strong vertically polarized signals. They like the rapid indication update rate and the ability to quickly get bearings on short-duration signals. Occasionally, you may see RDFers using both a beam and a doppler set on the same vehicle.

How To Learn More

While commercial RDF equipment is available, the majority of southern California T-hunters prefer to build their own gear. All you need to get started is a directional antenna, an attenuator to knock down strong nearby signals, and a receiver with S-meter. You may have it all right now! If so, it will only take a bit of installation work on the family car to get you going.

For equipment information, installation ideas, and hunting techniques, read TRANSMITTER HUNTING--- Radio Direction Finding Simplified by KØOV and WB6UZZ, published by Tab Books (#2701). This book is available at many electronics and ham radio stores. It is also available by mail from ARRL Bookstore and from the authors.

For a new ham radio adventure, try going out on a hidden transmitter hunt. Be prepared for some pleasant surprises. Remember, every time you set out on a hunt, you never know where you'll end up, and you never know what you will find.

Above article Copyright ©1992 and 2001 by Joseph D. Moell. It may be reproduced in club newsletters and other non-commercial publications, provided that it is printed in its entirety (either with or without illustrations) and readers are encouraged to visit this Homing In Web site: THRDFS cover

If you reprint this article, please send a copy of it via e-mail
or by postal mail to: Joe Moell KØOV, PO Box 2508, Fullerton, CA 92837