Handling Your Pileups

Critical Success factors - A Guide for Beginners

Few of us will ever have opportunity to operate as “rare DX” and experience the deafening roar at the DX-station-end of a phone pileup. Should you so blessed, it can be both heart-stopping (exciting) and mind-numbingly intimidating. But once you get rolling and contacts begin to fill the log, there is no greater thrill!

Whether you’re planning a one week vacation trip on an island in the Caribbean, armed with your IC-7000 and enough coax and wire for a simple dipole, or you live in a semi-rare and somewhat exotic country in the South America, the following list of considerations may help you handle your pileups more efficiently and effectively, resulting in more contacts - and ultimately a more satisfying experience.

These are referred to as “critical success factors”. They are not all encompassing, and are only meant as a sort of “Guide for Beginners” who have interest in and passion for the adventure of DXing and handling pileups.

Awareness and Support:

Successfully handling a pileup requires knowledge and understanding of current and changing band conditions, an appreciation of propagation patterns, as well as feedback from trusted sources.

Knowing where, and how well are you being heard, and how propagation shifts over time, will help you more effectively manage your pileups, especially if you are operating from a rare, exotic or much sought-after call area. Awareness will help you understand caller behavior - how eager or excited callers can be to make the contact, especially if your operation is for a very brief period of time. Awareness will spell the difference between an orderly, well orchestrated undertaking with good pace and rhythm - and sheer band chaos and pandemonium.

Understanding your station limitations will enhance your approach, attitude and level of professionalism as you conduct business. For example, should you be plagued with local power line, atmospheric noise, or other severe receiving limitations, being aware of your station’s true capability is vital.

Independent of your operating skill, ability and experience, or your station equipment and antenna system, your general awareness is a critical success factor governing your pileup handling success. The “who, what, where, why and how” of your operation, for example - propagation, where you are on the band and other activity around you, your operating schedule, your support network (access to the Internet, key stations in strategic locations who may be able to help control or manage in case of difficulty, etc.) - will all contribute to your level of awareness and support, to make the experience pleasurable for all and a successful undertaking for you.

Control:

Given the vagaries of propagation and the unpredictable nature of callers, one rarely is ever in complete control - however certain operating techniques and practices will help you to maintain control in handling your pileups.

For example, should the number or behavior of callers begin to negatively impact or significantly slow the orderly flow of contacts, consider changing from simplex to split operation. Before you do however, understand the impact on others on the band around you, since your operation will now consume greater bandwidth. Weigh this against the potential increase and improvement in contact flow, and evaluate your knowledge and experience of operating “split”. Ensure a good understanding of how to set your radio in the split mode - ahead of time.

And before you get started, have a game plan on how to proceed. How effectively you control the pileup will have a significant impact of the orderly and efficient flow of contacts. As the DX station, you set the standard. For example, while it may be tempting to provide your name and location information on every contact, know this will slow the process since callers will be similarly motivated. If the volume of callers is large, stick to call sign and report (usually 5-9) - then move on. Once you achieve a rhythm, pace and contact flow, taking into consideration caller volume, propagation, your comfort and ability, etc., your degree of control will increase to the point where you could communicate instructions as required, and/or adjust your contact handling style on the fly.

Setting a good example is important, so remain calm - and stay humble.

Don’t ignore strong stations; handle them first - get them out of the way - rather than having them call back again and again, blotting out weaker stations in the pileup. And, depending on your ability, knowledge or experience, demonstrate a spirit of fair play in maintaining control, avoiding a collapse into disorder. Don’t be afraid to say what call or call area you’re listening for. Conversely, avoid favoring any one continent, country or call area unduly - unless there’s a good reason to do so.

Decide early, and show consistency, in how you respond to callers (first station heard, last one heard, partial call signs, etc.), if only to establish a pattern. This will help improve the rhythm, pace and flow of contacts. If you set the standard early, and are consistent, the pileup can be better controlled - with more contacts in your log and a higher level of satisfaction - by all.

Do listen for QRP stations - and avoid rewarding bad behavior.

Management:

Most DX stations at the epicenter of a large pileup will face completing objectives best described as “quantity” versus “quality”. Irrespective of operator knowledge, experience or ability, pileup management will always be critical. How well you perform will ultimately have a huge impact on results.

For example, taking-in what you hear (and feel), and adjusting your style as required to improve the pace and rhythm of contact flow is a pre-requisite to handling a pileup effectively and efficiently. Practice does indeed make perfect, but nothing trumps smart listening with immediate remedial action. Let your personality, passion and versatility guide you in this regard. Be yourself - and have fun.

Always show respect, be courteous, and have empathy for callers who may exhibit varying levels of operating experience and skill, or language comprehension, not to mention station equipment and propagation conditions to your location. Remember to express yourself using standard phonetics, and enunciate your call sign and signal report clearly. An appropriate microphone feeding a properly adjusted transmitter - mic gain, compression level, treble and bass settings - for good articulation will contribute to successful pileup handling.

Managing your pileup handling performance intelligently is a critical success factor.

Playing to the Strengths of Propagation and the Terminator Line:

Most new DXpeditioners or Hams vacationing outside North America who operate as “rare DX” fail to appreciate propagation often determines who they should be listening for as a priority in pileups. The bands close earlier to Europe than to North America when you are operating from the Caribbean or Latin America.

So, you should listen for and aim to work stations in eastern Europe and Russia first, saving western and southern Europe for late afternoon. Once the sun has set in Europe, turn your attention (and your beam antenna, if you are so lucky) to North America and repeat the strategy. Start with eastern USA/Canada and recognize when the band shifts to the mid-west and eventually to the west coast. 

Remember: the terminator line is your propagation enhancer for weak stations, especially across the poles to certain parts of Europe, Asia and the Pacific. Periodically ask stations to stand by as you listen for them. They can be worked if they are on.

The important thing is not to forget to ask for them.

Miscellaneous:

 This final critical success factor deals with things largely beyond your control, viz., interference and misbehavers, nevertheless how you handle these will set you apart from the crowd - as a pro.

Interference, accidental or intentional - is a reality of pileups. Some Hams may not like DXing (or contests), and may show their displeasure by deliberately interfering with your operation. On the other hand, propagation may have changed such that stations previously out of your skip zone now become clearly audible, resulting in interference to your pileup. No matter the circumstance, it’s important to remain calm and avoid voicing anger or disrespectful language. Simply ask the pileup to standby while the situation clarifies itself and you can determine more clearly what you up against. Derogatory comments being addressed your way are best ignored. At worst, changing skip conditions may necessitate a change in your calling or listening frequency.

On the other hand, you may not need to do anything, as members in the pileup may already have identified the source of the interference, and may have undertaken “police action” to dissuade the interlopers. Soon the frequency will likely be clear again, and you can resume as if nothing had happened. Above all, do not engage with or acknowledge intentional interferers. Keep to the high road - you will likely find you have more supporters than you imagined who will rally to your defence.

Should the interference situation become explosive or unpleasant, simply QSY. If this is not practical, take a break and come back to it later.

Regarding “misbehavers” - those who make a general nuisance of themselves by calling out of turn regardless of who you say you’re listening for, or those who call continuously over everyone else (you know the ones - the guys with no receiver), it is best to ignore these callers (if possible). If you ignore them long enough, they may cease and desist - and simply go away. Avoid any display of displeasure and avoid mentioning their call sign. Instead, remain calm, proceeding as best you can, to work the pileup professionally. As mentioned earlier, you may not need to take any action - others may do it for you.

Maintaining proper balance and a positive attitude is key when and if things turn nasty. Remember, a pileup is far from being a matter of life or death - so keep cool, stay focused and be professional.

Finally, don’t forget to post QSL information via QRZ.com, your personal website, DX Coffee, Daily DX Bulletin, or on one of the many other Internet resources.

Enjoy your pileups - and good DX!

73,

John - HK3C