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Best Aviation Handheld Radios on The Market

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Best Aviation Handheld Radios on The Market

Effective communication is one of the tenants of safe flying, which means that radios play a key role in every cockpit. Often referred to as air band avionic radios, aviation radios come in 3 different types – ground station (obviously not meant for in-flight), panel mount and handheld.

Most aircraft have a panel mount radio installed in the cockpit, but some pilots have yet to invest in the smaller, portable handheld version.

Why do I need an aviation handheld radio?

“But my aircraft already has a panel mount radio,” you may be thinking. “Why would I need to invest in a handheld?” Let’s answer your question with a question, “What is your redundancy plan if your panel mount fails?” Your aircraft may have a secondary radio, but if it doesn’t, a handheld is an excellent affordable way to get some peace of mind.

A handheld radio can also save you time and money. When you are being charged on the Hobbs for a rental aircraft, imagine the benefits of being able to get your ATIS report before you ever turn the key. Those few extra minutes of charged time on each flight leg add up. If you fly rental aircraft often, it won’t take long for the savings to offset the purchase price of an entry level handheld which can then benefit you for years.

As a student, a handheld radio is an invaluable educational tool for listening and familiarizing yourself with local traffic outside of your paid lesson times. You can hear what other pilots say in any given situation and how they respond to ATC. This will speed up your learning curve and soon you will feel at ease communicating over the air.

Finally, as an extra bonus, having a handheld radio makes for a lot of fun, allowing you to listen to traffic at air shows.

Clearly investing in a handheld flight radio makes sense for a variety of reasons.

Now we’re ready to go pick out a radio, but how do we choose the best option? What specs should we be comparing from radio to radio and what else should we be aware of?

What to look for when shopping for a handheld radio

It’s easy to get bogged down in minute differences between the various radio models. To alleviate some of the confusion, let’s discuss some important decision-making points.

Battery Life

No one wants a dead battery during flight. The good news is that most radios come with both a DC and an AC charging option, so you can charge them up at home or in the cockpit.

The average battery life for a radio is determined primarily by the battery’s capacity (measured in mAh) along with how it is being used.

The higher the mAh number, the longer a battery can be expected to last. Now we factor in usage. The battery on a radio which is being used for both navigation and communication will drain faster than one that is being used only for comms. This makes sense because the more you are actively using the radio, the faster the battery will drain.

Remember that it takes much less power for a radio to receive than it does to transmit. Think of your radio like your cell phone. If you simply turn it on but don’t use it much, your battery will make it through the day no problem. Now take that same phone and make a bunch of calls, check email, play games, surf the web and you will be looking for a charging station by lunch time.

Frequency Ranges

The Federal Communication Commission (FCC) allocates specific frequency bands for aviation. When you are shopping for a handheld radio, you will want to understand which bands your radio can receive and transmit on.

Handheld air band radios receive and transmit in the VHF (Very High Frequency) bands.

The frequencies will vary depending on whether your radio is designed to be used for communication only or if it also has navigation functionality.

  • For a communications only radio, you should see a range of 118.000 – 136.975.
  • Com + nav radios will have an additional range from 108.000 – 117.975 for navigation.
  • Weather channels are included on most radios and are located between 161 and 164 mHz.
  • Many radios have a dedicated distress button that automatically transmits on 121.500 mHz – the International Air Distress (IAD) frequency.

Uses (Communication/Navigation or Com Only)

Handheld radios are available in 2 types:

  • Communications + Navigation (COM/NAV)
  • Communications only

The dual Com/Nav option radios are more versatile and have more uses in the cockpit than the com only models since they include both the communications and navigational frequencies.

Of course, they also cost more, so before you decide, think through how you expect to use your radio. If the nav option is useful to you, look for a radio with those functions. If not, save some money and opt for a com only model.

Top Aviation Handheld Radios

When it comes to the best of the best in aviation handheld radios, two brands – Yaesu and iCom – rise to the top. You know what you’re looking for – now here are the top 8 radios that may be right for you.

To make it easy, we have divided them into groups based on their functionality – com + nav or nav only. We’ll start out with the com + nav models.

Best Com + Nav Handheld Radios

1.      Yaesu FTA-750L Handheld VHF Transceiver w/GPS

Yaesu FTA-750L Handheld VHF Transceiver w/GPS

Yaesu’s FTA-750L comes loaded with lots of features that earned it a spot at the top of our handheld nav/com radio lineup. When you want your handheld radio to do just about everything your panel mount radio does just at a lesser range, this unit delivers.

The 750L features an impressive 66-channel GPS WAAS receiver, VOR navigation with course deviation indicator (CDI) and ILS/glideslope navigation.

Access to NOAA weather channels and weather alerts keeps you apprised of any new developments while the waypoint navigation and GPS logging features make the most of the navigational capabilities of this unit.

Specs:

  • Type: Com/Nav
  • Screen size:7” x 1.7”
  • Screen type: Full-dot matrix display (160 x 160 dots)
  • Battery life: 12 hours
  • Memory: up to 200 channels with 15 alphanumeric characters
  • Power: 5 watts TX
  • Speaker: 800 mW
  • Water protection rating: IPX5

2.      Yaesu FTA-550L Li-Ion Handheld VHF Transceiver

Yaesu FTA-550L Li-Ion Handheld VHF Transceiver

If you want a robust Com/Nav transceiver but don’t need all the deluxe features of the Yaesu FTA-750L, consider its little sibling, the FTA-550L. The 550L is nearly identical to the 750L, but without the GPS and Glidescope navigation functions (and with a correspondingly lower price tag).

With the 550L, you still get Yaesu’s VOR navigational functions including the automatic navigation and CDI. While the 550L doesn’t have the full ILS navigational capability, it does still include the localizer component.

Specs:

  • Type: Com/Nav
  • Screen size:7” x 1.7”
  • Screen type: Full-dot matrix display (160 x 160 dots)
  • Battery type: Lithium-ion 1800 mAh plus alkaline battery tray to support AA battery operation option
  • Battery life: 12 hours (Lithium-ion)
  • Memory: up to 200 channels with 15 alphanumeric characters
  • Power: 5 watts TX
  • Speaker: 800 mW
  • Water protection rating: IPX5

3.      Yaesu FTA-550 AA Handheld VHF Transceiver

Yaesu FTA-550 AA Handheld VHF Transceiver

A variation on the 550L, the Yaesu FTA-550’s power source is a pack of 6 AA batteries. An included 12V DC power cable connects you to 12V power while in the cockpit.

Like the 550L, the 550 AA is equipped with NOAA weather channel monitoring, VOR and ILS localizer functionality. 

Specs:

  • Type: Com/Nav
  • Screen size:7” x 1.7”
  • Screen type: Full-dot matrix display (160 x 160 dots)
  • Battery type: Six AA alkaline
  • Memory: Up to 200 channels with 15 alphanumeric characters
  • Power: 5 watts TX
  • Speaker: 800 mW
  • Water protection rating: IPX5

4.      Icom IC-A25N (NAV/COMM/VOR & GPS) Handheld VHF Transceiver

Icom IC-A25N (NAV/COM/VOR & GPS) Handheld VHF Transceiver

Would you like all the amazing features of a com/nav model plus the freedom to pair your radio with your Bluetooth earbuds or phone and take advantage of extra functionality? Check out the Icom IC-A25N.

Not only do you get the Bluetooth feature, but you also have plenty of memory channels (300 to be exact), a large easy to read 1.5” x 2.0” LCD screen, an upgraded 6 watts of transmitting power and a mega 2,350 mAh battery.

What exactly can you use the Bluetooth for beyond simply pairing your earbuds or headset for easy listening? The Bluetooth function also gives you the ability to pair your radio with your Android or iOS phone.

Download the RS-AERO1A app (Android) or RS-AERO1l app (iOS). The app will allow you to create a flight plan, display flight plan info, display waypoint info and set Direct-To NAV. Once your planning is done, use the Bluetooth function import flight plans from your phone directly to your radio.

Specs:

  • Type: Com/Nav
  • Screen size:5” x 2.0”
  • Screen type: LCD
  • Battery type: Lithium-Ion 2350 mAh
  • Battery Life:5 hours
  • Memory: 300 channels with 12 alphanumeric characters
  • Power: 6 watts TX
  • Water protection rating: IP57

Best Com Only Handheld Radios

5.      Yaesu FTA-250L (COM ONLY) Li-Ion Handheld VHF Transceiver

Yaesu FTA-250L (COMM ONLY) Li-Ion Handheld VHF Transceiver

Maybe you don’t need your radio to have navigation features and you are looking for an affordable and durable com only device. The top option in the com only handheld market is the Yaesu FTA-250L.

This easy to use transceiver has an oversized 250 channel memory bank so you can store all the frequencies you will need for upcoming flights. The memory may be oversized, but the radio itself is compact. Yaesu’s smallest airband transceiver measures in at just 4.1” x 2.1” x 1.2”.

Your unit comes with both AC and 12V DC chargers, but the high capacity (1,950 mAh) battery means you won’t need to charge your radio too often.

Specs:

  • Type: Com
  • Screen type: High-resolution dot-matrix display
  • Battery type: Lithium-ion 1950 mAh
  • Memory: up to 250 channels
  • Speaker: 700 mW
  • Water protection rating: IPX5 (with 3-year warranty)

6.      Icom IC-A25C (COM ONLY) Handheld VHF Transceiver

Icom IC-A25C (COM ONLY) Handheld VHF Transceiver

If you like the look of Icom’s IC-A25N but want a more pared down version without the extra features, Icom had you in mind when they designed the IC-A25C. This com only transceiver jettisons the Bluetooth, GPS and VOR navigation features of the A25N in favor of streamlined simplicity.

What it keeps are the 300 memory channels, the generously sized and easy-to-read LCD screen, impressive 2,350 mAh battery and the boosted 6 watts of transmitting power.

Specs:

  • Type: Com
  • Screen size:5” x 2.0”
  • Screen type: LCD
  • Battery type: Lithium-Ion 2350 mAh
  • Battery Life:5 hours
  • Memory: 300 channels with 12 alphanumeric characters
  • Power: 6 watts TX
  • Water protection rating: IP57

7.      Icom IC-A25C-S (SPORT COM ONLY) Handheld VHF Transceiver

Icom IC-A25C-S (SPORT COM ONLY) Handheld VHF Transceiver

The Icom IC-A25C-S is a good easy to use radio that supports all your basic communication needs. It has a dedicated emergency key linked to the 121.5 mHz distress frequency and it can store up to 300 memory channels. If you will be needing to switch back and forth between several channels, you will appreciate the “flip-flop” channel recall feature that stores the last 10 channels which were used, making it easy to go back and forth.

Detailed battery status lets you know exactly how much battery life you have left and helps you to perform optimal charging if you elect to purchase rechargeable AA batteries in place of the standard non-rechargable ones which are included.

Specs:

  • Type: Com
  • Screen size:3”
  • Screen type: High Visibility LCD
  • Battery type: AA battery pack
  • Memory: 300 channels
  • Power: 6 watts TX
  • Water protection rating: IP57

8.      Icom IC-A16B (COM) Handheld VHF Transceiver with Bluetooth

Icom IC-A16B (COM) Handheld VHF Transceiver with Bluetooth

Rounding out our top 8 portable radios list is the Icom IC-A16B. This beast of a handheld packs a stunning number of features into a lightweight portable package.

Looking for a battery that will stay with you for the long haul? How does a 17-hour battery life sound? Want Bluetooth capability, but don’t need the nav features? The A16B delivers. How about a loud internal speaker that can be heard over noise on the tarmac? 1,500 mW does the trick and then some.

This is your go-to radio for durability, function and performance.

Specs:

  • Type: Com
  • Screen type: LCD
  • Battery type: Lithium-Ion 2400 mAh
  • Battery Life: 17 hours
  • Memory: 200 channels
  • Speaker: 1,500 mW
  • Power: 6 watts TX
  • Water protection rating: IP67

Recap

Regardless of whether your aircraft has a panel mount radio system or not, a handheld radio can be a valuable asset. It provides redundancy, saves time and money and is a good learning tool for student pilots.

When shopping, consider and compare features like battery life, frequency ranges and type of usage.

Handheld radios are available in either communications and navigation or communications only configurations. Communications only radios have fewer features and are generally less expensive than the com/nav radios. Some radios of each type have Bluetooth functionality for pairing with iPhone or Android phones as well as headsets or earbuds.

The 8 best handheld radio models currently on the market are:

Com + Nav

  1. Yaesu FTA-750L Handheld VHF Transceiver w/GPS
  2. Yaesu FTA-550L Li-Ion Handheld VHF Transceiver
  3. Yaesu FTA-550 AA Handheld VHF Transceiver
  4. Icom IC-A25N (NAV/COMM/VOR & GPS) Handheld VHF Transceiver

Com

  1. Yaesu FTA-250L (COMM ONLY) Li-Ion Handheld VHF Transceiver
  2. Icom IC-A25C (COMM ONLY) Handheld VHF Transceiver
  3. Icom IC-A25C-S (SPORT COMM ONLY) Handheld VHF Transceiver
  4. Icom IC-A16B (COMM) Handheld VHF Transceiver with Bluetooth

 

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  • PilotMall.com Editor