In this post, we’ll take a look at 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.
A few companies make handhelds, but Icom and Yaesu are the best name brands. They offer complete lines of great radios that fit any budget and deserve a place in your flight bag.
Why Carry a Handheld 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 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.
Flight instructors like to use handhelds for monitoring their students while they’re out on solo flights. They can use them to monitor what’s going on in the pattern, and they can even use them to call students and have a chat on an open frequency (like 123.45).
Airport workers use handhelds all the time for ramp and airside operations. Vehicles moving around controlled airport areas can get clearances from ground controllers using a handheld. This is a big help to workers at FBOs and flight schools.
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
The Icom name might not be familiar to pilots, whose radios are usually made by Garmin or Bendix King, but the company has been around for a long time.
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.
The A16 is a simple COMM-only handheld with a small numeric display. It’s a great value and the perfect backup for VFR pilots.
Yaesu is a big name in radios, but not much in aviation. Most of the radios are for amateur radio enthusiasts. Their aviation offerings are limited only to handhelds and portables.
Like Icom, they have a full-featured model that is a NAV/COM unit—the FTA-850L. It has a color TFT display, 400-channel memory, and has built-in GPS.
They also offer several middle-of-the-road radios with COMM-only, NAV/COMM, or NAV/COMM/GPS. It features a sizeable black-and-white display with a great menu system.
Their simplest model is the FTA-250L, a COMM-only radio with a simple numeric display and 250-channel memory.
Features to Look For in a Handheld Aviation Radio
COM-only or NAV/COM
Both Icom and Yaesu offer 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 aviation units 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 A16 COMM-only radio 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.
There are a handful of other suppliers where you can get good handheld radios from. For one, Sporty’s Pilot Shop sells its own branded versions of these radios. Their radios aren’t as full-featured as Icom’s or Yaesu’s, but they are a good value.
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.