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The basics of air band radios

Air band or avionic radios are used in aviation as for both navigation and two way communication. If you are into aviation, you probably already know how important it is to have a radio while in the air.

Air Band Basics
Air Band radios use VHF frequencies in the 108 MHz - 137 MHz range. VHF air band channels are different than those used for land based radios and are specifically allotted by the FCC for use in avionics. In addition to the VHF channels, trans-oceanic aircraft may use HF frequencies as well. But that's another topic for another time. For now, we will focus exclusively on VHF.

VHF provides optimal coverage in open spaces with a clear line of sight. Since air band radio transmissions primarily occur in the air or air to ground from high altitudes, range will generally be much greater than land-based radios. This means typical 5 watt handheld airband radios in flight will reach considerably farther than typical 5 watt UHF or VHF radios communicating ground to ground. Panel mounted NAV/COM airband radios around 8 watts can go even farther.

Air band is divided into COM and NAV channels. COM channels use the higher end of the band and are programmed to frequencies used specifically for voice communication. In the US, the frequencies assigned for amplitude modulated voice communication are between 118.000 MHz to 136.975 MHz. NAV channels use the lower end of the band and are assigned the frequencies from 108.000 MHz to 117.95 MHz for navigational assistance. These frequencies are split into 200 narrow-band channels of 50 kHZ.

One navigation system is the VHF Omnidirectional Range (VOR). It is a system of short-range radio beacons developed by the US in 1937 to help pilots determine their position and stay on course. It is now a global standard for navigation in aviation with around 3000 VOR stations worldwide.

In addition to the COM and NAV channels, VHF air band radios typically support NOAA marine weather channels and NOAA weather alerts. Air band also includes an emergency communication frequency at 121.5 MHz with a 100 kHz bandwidth. This frequency is known as International Air Distress (IAD).

Licensing
Until the mid 1990's, a license was required to operate air band radios in most countries, including the US. On October 25, 1996, the FCC released a Report and Order in WT Docket No. 96-82, 11 FCC Rcd 14849, FCC 96-421 (pdf) eliminating the individual licensing requirement for aircraft radio stations operating domestically which are not required by law to carry a radio.

Currently In Part 87 Subpart B of Title 47, the FCC rules are as follows:

(a) Except as noted in paragraph (b) of this section, stations in the aviation service must be licensed by the FCC either individually or by fleet.

(b) An aircraft station is licensed by rule and does not need an individual license issued by the FCC if the aircraft station is not required by statute, treaty, or agreement to which the United States is signatory to carry a radio, and the aircraft station does not make international flights or communications. Even though an individual license is not required, an aircraft station licensed by rule must be operated in accordance with all applicable operating requirements, procedures, and technical specifications found in this part.

Types of Air Band Radios
There are three basic types of air band radios. A handheld air band radio is about the same design as a typical handheld portable land mobile two way radio. Panel mount air band radios generally mount in the cockpit of an airplane or other aircraft, much like the typical mobile radio in a vehicle. A ground station refers to an air band radio that operates on the ground, whether mounted in a vehicle or sitting on a desk.

Examples of handheld airband radios are the Icom IC-A6 and IC-A14. The A6 offers COM channels only. The A14 includes both NAV and COM channels. Both models are available from Buy Two Way Radios.

10 thoughts on “The basics of air band radios”

  • Gary

    I’m a licensed pilot, commercial sUAS pilot, licensed radio telephone operator, and an Extra Class Amateur Radio operator. The original post is wrong. Read the FCC regs regarding aircraft radios closer. Ignorance of the law is no excuse.

    You can monitor aircraft frequencies without a license. It is also true that aircraft radios, including handheld aircraft radios or HTs no longer need to be licensed by the FCC when the radio is used in an aircraft for air operations; however, if you are going to transmit with such a radio on the ground outside of an aircraft for any purpose including air operations, you need an FCC license.

    The aircraft frequencies are reserved by law for air operations for good reason. Licensing and the regulations are what allow the FCC to enforce the rules, which is the only way to keep things from becoming chaotic like Citizen Band radio became after deregulation.

    You cannot use the air band frequencies or aircraft radios for anything other than air operations unless it's a life or death situation in an emergency. If you do improperly use the air band frequencies, you will be interfering with air operations for hundreds of miles, putting a lot of people at risk, and when found, you will likely be arrested, fined, and/or imprisoned. Even if you are on the ground, aircraft fly high, which allows them to receive weak signals and why aircraft don't need much RF power for effective communications over hundreds of miles. Don’t screw with the Aircraft Radio Service.

    Use Family Radio Service (FRS) equipment, which is unlicensed and should be fine for most activities.

    The Amateur Radio Service (Ham radio) is also licensed, but largely self-regulated by people who know and follow the FCC regulations. Ham bands and equipment cannot be used without a license or for any commercial purpose. Hams can and do assist the FCC with locating illegally used transmitters, which is easy to do. The Don’t screw with the Amateur Radio Service.

    Please act like a responsible person since that's most certainly how you will be treated by a jury of your peers.

    Reply
    • rick

      Hi Gary, could you please point out exactly where the the original post is wrong? There is only one paragraph in the section on licensing that is not a direct quote from the FCC rules, and it only states that the license by rule for airband radios only applies to those who fly domestically and to operators who do not otherwise require a license to operate. This implies operations such as base stations, commercial operators any other ground based station, among others, DO require a license.

      Also, the article is about airband radios only and does not cover FRS, amateur (ham) or any other service.

      Reply
  • CJ Fast

    A Restricted Operator's Certificate - Aeronautical (ROC-A) is required to communicate on aeronautical frequencies in Canada. Pilots-in-training in Canada are therefore required to obtain their ROC-A as part of their training, since radio use is a required part of piloting an aircraft. Anyone can get an ROC-A, and possess an air band radio (I have two), and transmit on air band frequencies if they are involved in aeronautical activities, such as ground support. Transmitting on air band frequencies while not involved in aeronautical activities would be considered 'unnecessary radio use' or 'harmful interference,' and may result in penalties from Industry Canada.

    Reply
  • Really? You're going to call the FAA for what? Some people SMH

    Reply
  • Jarrod

    Kalyan, Rick is right. If you are looking for a hand held air radio to monitor traffic then that is fine. You should never speak in to air band frequencies unless it is for aviation purposes or in an emergency. You aren't very specific in what are looking to accomplish with a radio in your "Motor Sports and WildLife Shoots"
    I can only discern from that you are a photographer. And perhaps you are looking to monitor air traffic for purposes of flying a sUAS in uncontrolled airspace. You cannot participate in communication on air band frequencies, however. But you couldn't say something like "DJI XXXXX taking off at...." That would just clutter, confuse, and piss off a lot of people. Likewise, you would not use air band for two-way ground communications, "alright johnny, i'm ready, spin some donuts and I'll film" again, not advisable.
    You can monitor 108 - 137 but not communicate. If you need two way there are a lot of options. Simple "walkie-talkie" types today can have 30+ mile range with "vLOS". You don't need a "ham" radio for ground two communication unless you are looking to coordinate with people in other cities or states or countries. If you do need two-way air band, a popular option for both monitoring 108-137 or two-way communication is iCOM's ic-a14.

    Reply
  • Rick

    Kalyan, A single band radio only works on one band. Air band radios are licensed and intended for use in aviation only, not for general purpose or personal hobbies, so unless you will be using it for flight, the use of an airband radio for your purposes would not be considered legal in the US and many other countries. Also, handheld airband radios have the same range capabilities and limitations of any other handheld radio. They only provide better range when they are at high altitudes, where there is little or nothing to obstruct the signal. Any handheld radio will provide better range at a higher altitude or elevation.
    Perhaps more research would be in order before you purchase the airband radio.

    Reply
  • Kalyan C

    Hi Team,
    I am planning to buy an Amateur HAM Radio for my Motor Sports & WildLife usage. Just came through this model Yeisu FTA-310 which is a VHF Air Band Radio. Will this support Dual Band VHF & UHF. Will this model help me for my Motor Sports & WildLife Shoots. Planning for this model as Airband Radios are best for higher range.
    Kindly suggest.
    Cheers,
    Kalyan C

    Reply
  • Michael Gordon
    Michael Gordon April 20, 2016 at 2:37 pm

    Handheld air band radios are ideal for non-airplane aviation such as hot air balloons and a class of station license exists just for that purpose.
    Many classes of aviation license can use these radios including Aeronautical Utility Mobile (trucks and vehicles traveling around the airport), Aeronautical Fixed Stations, and obviously light aircraft. They're pretty handy as an emergency radio even if your Cessna is equipped with NAVCOM.
    The gritty details: http://www.ecfr.gov/cgi-bin/text-idx?c=ecfr;rgn=div5;view=text;node=47%3A5.0.1.1.2;idno=47;cc=ecfr#se47.5.87_118
    Subpart K—Aviation Support Stations
    return arrow Back to Top
    §87.319 Scope of service.
    Aviation support stations are used for the following types of operations:
    (a) Pilot training;
    (b) Coordination of soaring activities between gliders, tow aircraft and land stations;
    (c) Coordination of activities between free balloons or lighter-than-air aircraft and ground stations;
    (d) Coordination between aircraft and aviation service organizations located on an airport concerning the safe and efficient portal-to-portal transit of the aircraft, such as the types of fuel and ground services available; and
    (e) Promotion of safety of life and property.

    Reply
  • Rick

    Hi Tom, the article does not intend to mislead. It is simply an explanation of what air band radio is and how it works. At the time the article was written, it was generally assumed to be understood that aircraft radio stations are on board aircraft, and referenced as "handheld airband radios in flight" in the article. The article compares handheld airband radios to general use handheld radios only as a point of reference to clarify the technical differences between them. It in no way promotes the use of airband radios for any purpose other than as an aircraft station.
    The information in the article is based on documents from the FCC and the exemption is a direct quote from Part 87 of the FCC rules, which state "Even though an individual license is not required, an aircraft station licensed by rule must be operated in accordance with all applicable operating requirements, procedures, and technical specifications found in this part." This means that the aircraft station must indeed be an aircraft station operating according to FCC rules, and not "random handheld users" as you put it. There is nothing in the article that intends to mislead anyone about the basics of airband radio. If the article seems misleading, perhaps the article can be misread.
    There is only one paragraph under Licensing that was not a direct quote from the FCC rules. If you could point out exactly where it could be potentially misleading, we will be happy to review it for possible changes to prevent any future misinterpretation. We want to be as accurate and correct as possible, so such assistance would be greatly appreciated.
    Thanks!

    Reply
  • Tom Peterson

    Your information on licensing is misleading.
    An Aircraft Station is a radio in an aircraft. Not a handheld used however.
    The exemption only applies to Aircraft Stations, not random handheld users.
    You might want to correct that or I can pass this on to the FCC and they can help you.
    Cheers!
    Tom

    Reply

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