In this post, we’ll take a look at the best handheld aviation radios and showcase two of the most popular brands: Icom vs Yaesu.
One piece of backup equipment that you’ll find in many pilot bags is a handheld radio. If the possibility of a radio failure concerns you due to the equipment you fly or the area you fly in, a handheld aviation radio is inexpensive peace of mind.
Why Carry a Handheld Aviation Radio?
Handhelds are portable units just like the ones mounted in the plane. They are entirely independent, with their own batteries and their own antennas. Like a walkie-talkie, it also has a built-in speaker and microphone.
Many pilots carry a charged handheld aviation radio for simple redundancy. If you ever experienced a complete radio or electrical failure, you could still talk to the tower and get clearances with your handheld radio.
But there are plenty of other ways that these devices prove themselves useful. In planes without built-in avionics, a portable provides a complete suite of NAV/COM capability.
And finally, handhelds are just handy to have around. Maybe you just want to listen in on the ATIS or follow along from the backseat. They’re small and fit in any
Now let’s take a look at the best aviation handheld radio brands, Icom and Yaesu.
They make a wide range of two-way radios for trucks, boats, and, yes, aircraft use. In airplanes, they make both handheld portables and panel-mount NAV/COMs.
Both have large LCD screens and menu navigation. In addition, it is the only handheld on the market with Bluetooth built-in.
Features to Look For in a Handheld Aviation Radio
COM-only or NAV/COM
Both Icom and Yaesu offer aviation radios in COMM-only and NAV/COMM.
The biggest differentiator between handheld models is whether or not you can use them for receiving VORs.
The simplest models have only voice communications. More advanced ones will include a digital CDI display and the ability to tune in a VOR or localizer.
Memory and Channel Selection
Nearly all portable aircraft radios make programing a channel easy—they usually have a simple telephone-style numeric keypad. But the radio can also store your favorite or most-used frequencies. How many channels it can store in its memory depends on the design.
The complexity of using the memory channels usually comes down to how nice the screen is. For example, if the unit has a tiny LCD numeric display, it is usually more difficult to program and recall channels from memory.
On the other hand, if a unit has a large display for VOR navigation or GPS use, there is usually an easy-to-use menu interface for storing new channels in the memory.
Manufacturers don’t list the range of their radios because it just depends on too many factors.
Of course, your altitude while transmitting is the biggest contributor, but the output power of the transceiver also matters. The higher your handheld’s wattage, the greater its range.
Headset Adapter or Bluetooth
Handhelds are made to be used on their own, with built-in microphones and speakers. But, as you might imagine, that’s awkward in a small aircraft cockpit.
You can usually buy an accessory plug that will allow you to use your headset with the handheld to make using it easier.
Newer units have Bluetooth connections, which is the best solution if you have a Bluetooth-compatible headset. That way, you don’t have to worry about switching the wires around or finding the adapter.
Battery Charging and Life
Like any electronic device, these handhelds have built-in lithium batteries. The higher capacity of the battery, measured in milliamp hours, the longer the radio will last. Remember, though, that transmitting any radio uses a lot of juice and will drain the battery pretty quickly. Receiving uses very little power.
The Icom and Yaesu radios offer comparable battery life, both using Lithium-ion batteries.
The Icom radio A16 COMM-only has an expected battery life of 17 hours while the A25 NAV/COMM radio has an expected battery life of 10 hours.
The Yaesu FTA-250L has an expected 16-hour battery life.
Finally, most modern handhelds also include a GPS receiver. This handy add-on is a free never-get-lost feature. It also means that if you’re using the device for VOR navigation, the GPS will enable you to continue navigation when you are out of range.
And, of course, it means that you can navigate to any point on the planet—not just to VOR stations.
A handheld radio is an excellent addition to your pilot bag, whether you are looking for an often-used transmitter or simply an emergency backup. Once you have it, you’ll likely find yourself using it more often than you ever imagined.
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Liz Brassaw is a first officer for a regional airline and the former Chief Pilot and Chief Flight Operations Officer for Thrust Flight. She holds an ATP, CFI, CFII, MEI, AMEL, ASES with over 2,500 hours of flight instruction given. She earned her Bachelor of Science degree from the Utah Valley University School of Aviation Sciences. She’s passionate about flying and enjoys instilling that love in the instructors on her team and the new students she trains.