Sporty’s SP-400; Icom IC-A24
It’s curious that in this age of technologically advanced general aviation aircraft with capabilities that rival those of airliners, we still communicate using technology developed in 1900. All of us who fly have struggled with radio communication in one way or another—either by learning how to speak on the radio or by being frustrated by a lack of clarity in our communications. While the music world has advanced exponentially in the area of sound (for example, we use in-ear monitors on stage instead of bulky, floor-mounted wedge speakers), aviation communication hasn’t changed much since before World War II.
As a quick review, aviation uses a reserved frequency band within the VHF (very high frequency) spectrum of radio communication. In the United States, as around the world, aviation communications use frequencies from 118.0 to 137.0 MHz. Air navigation aids (such as VORs and ILSs) operate just below, in the 108.0 to 118.0 MHz range. For emergency aviation communications, 121.5 MHz is reserved around the globe and is known internationally as international air distress (IAD).
The VHF spectrum is used around the world for everything from railroad communications to television to marine radio. The small sliver carved out for aviation lies just above FM radio and below amateur radio and marine communications. It’s interesting to note that 137 MHz to 138 MHz is reserved for space operations and research. Meanwhile, the military communicates exclusively in the ultra high-frequency (UHF) spectrum, at 225 MHz and up (the military’s emergency channel is 243.0 MHz). Most panel-mounted radios output eight watts of power while handheld radios typically output five watts.
Until the mid 1990s, a license was required to operate air-band radios in most countries, including the United States. Many of us pilots remember the little radio operator permit you had to get as a student pilot. However, on October 25, 1996, the FCC eliminated licensing requirements for aircraft “radio stations” operating domestically. Still, in many countries around the world (such as the UK), even possessing an air-band radio without a license is illegal.
Many pilots don’t know that our VHF communications are transmitted using amplitude modulation, the same technique as AM radio. Thus, it’s subject to all the frustrations you likely remember from those early radio stations: line-of-sight limitations and vulnerability to atmospheric disturbances. Line-of-sight means that both the transmitting and receiving antennas must have a clear visual path to each other in order to be heard. Pilots flying among the high mountains in the West are all too aware of this limitation.
Our radios operate in what’s called “half-duplex” mode. That means you can either talk (transmit) or listen (receive). You can’t do both. If you’re speaking to air traffic control, they can’t answer until you release your push-to-talk switch. Meanwhile, landline telephones and most cellular phones operate in full duplex mode, meaning both parties can speak or listen at the same time, allowing interruptions to be heard.
The quality of our communications also has stayed roughly the same for decades. Sure, we use headsets today (thankfully), but the radio technology is still stuck in 1930. In addition to half-duplex mode, the intelligibility is poor. In fact, that’s why the familiar phonetic alphabet was developed—to reduce confusion on the radio. On a VHF radio, “three” sounds like “C” which sounds like “P” which sounds like “T,” and so on. Hence “charlie” and “papa” and “tango.” We also used to say “over” when ending our transmission so the other person would know they could talk.
What has changed is the portability of our communications and the availability of emergency and backup communication devices. One of these—the handheld transceiver—has transformed aviation, making communication possible in many cockpits where installation of a full radio set would be impractical or impossible. Handheld radios have transformed everything from air shows to student pilots, and they continue to get smaller and more powerful.
Several radio manufacturers have held focus groups to find out what pilots want in portable radios. The answer: ease of use, easy-to-read display and keys, and long battery life. Manufacturers have accepted this challenge and have produced several models that are ideally suited to the cockpit. Portable radios have changed how we communicate as pilots. Here are a few of our favorites.
If you’re in the market for a soup-to-nuts backup solution for all your communications and navigation, it’s tough to go wrong with Sporty’s SP-400 NAV/COM handheld radio. Hundreds of pilots have used it in a pinch, and it remains one of the best handheld radios anywhere. The SP-400 is the only radio we’re aware of that offers a full ILS display. Of course, you can track VORs (remember those?), cross-radials and follow a CDI course.
The SP-400 is impressive in so many ways. First, the display is bright and clear, and larger than anything we’ve seen. More importantly, it’s super easy to use and intuitive—critical for emergency situations when all you need is a fast solution. The radio is loud and clear, and features a flip-flop button and large keys. There are no memory banks or menus, just push the buttons that correspond to a frequency. Nice-to-have features include a built-in NOAA weather receiver, long life on ubiquitous AA batteries, and side tone so you can hear yourself in your headset. Price: $315, www.sportys.com.
Yaesu FTA 750L
Another complete solution to the NAV and COMM backup issue is the excellent Icom IC-A24. Icom knows a thing or two about radios, and its portable and panel-mount models have a reputation for reliability. The IC-A24 is priced just below the SP-400 and has a few differences. It’s powered by nickel metal hydride (NiMH) batteries, and features a duplex capability allowing you to talk on the NAV frequency and receive on the COMM frequency. The IC-A24 also offers full NAV capability with a VOR display and a nifty “DVOR” function that shows the radial to or from the VOR.
The Icom radio adds water-resistant (not waterproof) construction, making it a rugged choice for seaplane operations. It also has a 200-channel memory, NOAA weather receiver, dedicated emergency channel and the usual flip-flop and last-used memory. The IC-A24 is loud and clear, with five watts power output, and it comes with a three-year warranty. List price is $349, with market prices well below that, www.icomamerica.com.
Yaesu FTA 750L
A top-of-the-line NAV/COMM transceiver that comes in near the high end of the price ladder, the Yaesu 750L offers many of the features of other handheld radios with the addition of a 66-channel WAAS GPS receiver. Though it doesn’t have a moving map display, the 750L’s GPS receiver provides the capability of manually entering waypoints for reliable navigation. When a waypoint is activated, the navigation screen features a compass display with bearing, course over ground, distance and speed information. The standard NAV capabilities add VOR navigation and ILS displays for localizer and glideslope.
The 750L outputs five watts of power like its competitors. It features a large backlit display, though the buttons seemed a bit small to me. Tuning and operation can be more challenging than its simpler brethren, but the 750L does offer advanced features. The unit can be powered by six AA batteries or a lithuim-ion battery pack. List price: $429, www.yaesu.com.
Icom IC-A14; Yaesu FTA-230; TSC-100RA
With less-advanced features and a lower price, Yaesu’s FTA-230 is a great option for pilots looking for a simple but capable backup transceiver for communications. One feature we loved, especially for water operations, is that this radio is built to survive immersion in water for up to 30 minutes at a depth of three feet. The unit is the most rugged we tested.
Like other Yaesu radios, we found the buttons a little small for those of us with “over-40” vision, though the backlit display is clear. The 230 come with all the usual features and also has five watts of output power and a nice, loud audio. It features a side tone for headsets, as well as a larger memory (250 channels). This model doesn’t offer VOR navigation or ILS display. A great bargain for a basic radio with lots of added goodies. Lists for $330 with market prices around $200, www.yaesu.com.
For those looking for Icom reliability at a lower price, the Icom IC-A14 may be just the answer. Offering just COMM capability, the IC-A14 can go 18 hours on a single charge of its lithium-ion battery pack. Packed with features like 200 memory channels, backlit display and water-resistant construction, the IC-A14 can be used for a variety of missions.
Smaller than many of its competitors (2 inches wide by 4.5 inches high by 1.5 inches deep), it still transmits like the big boys with five watts of output power. Large buttons and simple operation make this an easy-to-use radio that’s perfect for small cockpits or for an emergency backup. A joy to use because of its simplicity. List price: $230, www.icomamerica.com.
For student pilots, air show enthusiasts, or folks who don’t need to transmit, we’ve included this air-band scanner from TTO. The TSC-100RA allows users to listen to 66 to 87.495 MHz (VHR low band), 87.5 to 108 MHz (FM Broadcast Band), 108.005 to 135.995 MHz (Aircraft Band, and 136 to 174 MHz (Federal Government, Amateur Band 2 Meters, and VHF high band). This compact unit offers clear reception along with easy-to-use functionality. The TSC-100RA features a low-battery alarm, and operates on three AA batteries. (We wish it would have a charger option.)
One feature we love is the SMA to BNC antenna adapter, which means you can connect it to a more powerful BNC external antenna in your vehicle for better reception. Take this to your next air show and listen to all the communications. It’s also great for student pilots learning aviation jargon. List price: $139 list, with lower market prices. Available from most aviation retailers.