A handheld radio is an indispensable part of a pilot’s flight bag. Not only does it improve safety, but it can also be a great money-saving tool on the ground for (student) pilots. But with so many different models available today, it’s not easy to determine which model will be best for your needs.
In this guide, we’ll discuss some important things to keep in mind when looking for a radio, and we list some of the best aviation handheld radios available today!
Why do you Need a Handheld Aviation Radio?
You might be thinking “My aircraft already has one or two panel-mounted radios, why would I need another one?”.
First of all, it’s a matter of redundancy. In case of unexpected radio or electrical failure, a handheld aviation radio will provide the necessary redundancy so you can keep communicating with ATC and other pilots when needed. The portability of these radios make them the preferred companion for pilots who want peace-of-mind when their aircraft’s panel-mounted radio might not available in certain situations.
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.
A portable radio is the ideal flight companion for every (student) pilot; it practically pays for itself by saving pilots both engine hours and fuel during preflight communications with the tower.
Things to Consider when Buying a Handheld Aviation Radio
When looking for a handheld aviation radio, there are a few factors to consider and look out for.
This might speak for itself, but always watch out for the very cheap radios; they are usually receivers (not transceivers), that you can use to receive radio transmissions only. If your only intention is to listen to ATC conversations, a receiver would do the job just fine.
However, if you’re really looking for a good handheld alternative to your aircraft’s radio, a handheld aviation transceiver is what you need.
Most radios are sold in two different models; The inexpensive model is usually COMM-only, with the more expensive one also offering navigation functionalities. This NAV function is usually able to track VOR’s and even ILS, and could be helpful as a backup when flying IFR. Recently, some of the newer models are equipped with a built-in GPS as well, to offer an even more valuable tool.
The type of battery a radio uses can affect how often it needs to be charged as well as its overall size and weight- ask yourself if these factors matter most when choosing which radio would suit you best.
Most handheld radios now use lithium-ion batteries, which can be recharged without replacing them. There are some models that come with a battery pack using AA batteries; make sure to periodically check the battery life and replace them when needed.
If you’re flying in the EU, this is something very important to keep in mind. Since 2018, EU regulations have changed the spacing of the frequencies to 8,33 kHz, meaning for every single old frequency, there can now be three new ones. As a result, EU pilots are required to use radios that support 8,33 kHz spacing, making the older 25 kHz radios obsolete. Keep this in mind so you can operate your radio legally inside the EU and potentially other countries that might follow in the near future.
All radios mentioned in this guide support the 8,33 kHz narrow band.
More about the 8.33 kHz implementation can be found on Eurocontrol’s website.
Handheld air band radios are designed to receive and transmit on the VHF (Very High Frequency) bands. If you purchase a com-only radio, it will operate at frequencies between 118.000 – 136.975 MHz (MHz – megahertz). However, if your radio also features navigation capabilities, it will have an additional range between 108.000 – 117.975 mHz.
Many models also include weather channels (between 161 and 164 mHz) and can automatically transmit on the International Air Distress (IAD) frequency, 121.500 mHz, using a dedicated button on the radio.
A good way to determine the quality and suitability of an aviation radio is by reading customer reviews. Check the reviews to see what other pilots have said about their experience with these radios. That way, you’ll quickly find out what to expect and which models are the best aviation handheld radios to purchase.
The Best Aviation COMM-only Handheld Radios
1. Yaesu FTA-250L
At a price point of just below $200, the Yaesu FTA-250L is the cheapest aviation transceiver in the list. This Yaesu radio is an extremely affordable, compact (comm- only) airband transceiver. Featuring an extremely rugged polycarbonate housing with an IPX5 waterproof rating for use in harsh environments with rain, splash and spray. Loud 700mW audio output guarantees that radio calls will not be missed even in noisy environments. The FTA-250L is 8.33kHz Narrow Band capable, with a huge programmable 250 channel capacity memory bank.Learn more about this radio
$189.28 $330.00Buy now on Amazon
2. Yaesu FTA-450L
The Yaesu FTA-450L is a competitively priced (COMM-ONLY) version of the wildly successful FTA-550L (mentioned further down below). Featuring the same easy to operate icon-driven menu system, on a large 1.7″ x 1.7″ Full Dot Matrix Display. The same loud 800mW internal audio speaker guarantees calls will not be missed. The FTA-450L has a programmable 200 channel memory bank, means all favorite channels can be easily stored and retrieved with just a few button presses.
Valued packaged with all the necessary accessories, including 110VAC and 12VDC chargers, headset adapter, Alkaline battery tray, Belt Clip, USB programming cable, and a large capacity 1800mAh Li-Ion rechargeable battery.Learn more about this radio
$271.51Buy now on Amazon
3. Icom IC-A16B (Bluetooth)
The Icom IC-A16B is the IC-A14 and IC-A15 successor, featuring advanced functions like Bluetooth and a louder speaker.
Users appreciate the A16’s compact, waterproof design for one-hand operation for working on the flight line, using it for back up in any aircraft, or for use by ground crew. Its 2400mAh Li-ion battery lasts over 17 hours and the radio includes a nice sit in rapid charger. Airband radios are usually operated in high noise environments, so it is essential for the pilot’s radio to provide loud audio. The A16 internal speaker delivers a loud 1500mW audio output with clear sound to cut through cabin or tarmac noise.Learn more about this radio
$263.99Buy now on Amazon
4. Icom IC-A25C
The IC-A25C is Icom’s latest handheld aviation radio. It’s a powerful air band COM handheld with 6 watts of power and an IP57 waterproof rating; weather cannot stop these radios. The handheld transceiver includes a large 2350mAh Li-ion battery, providing a long operating time. The easy-to-use interface and large 2.3-inch LCD display combine to provide stress-free programming and in-flight operation.Learn more about this radio
$412.40Buy now on Amazon
The Best Aviation COMM/NAV Handheld Radios
1. Yaesu FTA-550L
The Yaesu FTA-550 is packed with features, yet very affordable. With an oversize full dot-matrix LCD display, the FTA-550 Airband Transceiver provides full communication on the Aircraft communications Band and additionally provides VOR and localizer navigation features on the “NAV” band. The FTA-550 includes NOAA weather band monitoring and the capability of programming up to 200 memory channels with a quick and easy channel recall feature.Learn more about this radio
2. Yaesu FTA-750L (GPS)
The Yaesu FTA-750L is the larger and more equipped version of the FTA-550L. It’s a compact, handheld transceiver that brings to market a full-spectrum aviation COM/NAV radio with NOAA weather channels & weather alerts, VOR navigation, ILS/glideslope navigation, and even a 66-channel GPS WAAS receiver.
If you’re looking for a handheld radio with besides COMM and NAV also a built-in GPS, the FTA-750L is definitely the way to go!Learn more about this radio
$409.55Buy now on Amazon
3. Icom IC-A25N
The Icom IC-A25N is a powerful air band NAV-COM handheld with 6 watts of power and an IP57 waterproof rating; weather cannot stop these radios. The handheld transceiver includes a large 2350mAh Li-ion battery, providing a long operating time. The easy-to-use interface and large 2.3-inch LCD display combine to provide stress-free programming and in-flight operation. The A25N NAV/COM version also features built-in Bluetooth, GPS and VOR navigation.Learn more about this radio
$448.95Buy now on Amazon
Aviation Handheld Radios Comparison Table
Below you will find a full comparison table between both Icom’s and Yaesu’s models. This should help you make an informed decision!
|Icom IC-A16||Icom IC-A16B with Bluetooth||Icom IC-A25C||Icom IC-A25N||Yaesu FTA-250L||Yaesu FTA-450L||Yaesu FTA-550L||Yaesu FTA-750L|
|Size (inches)||2.1" x 4.4" x 1.3"||2.1" x 4.4" x 1.3"||2.3" x 5.8" x 1.3"||2.3" x 5.8" x 1.3"||2.1" x 4.1" x 1.2"||2.4" x 5.2" x 1.3"||2.4" x 5.2" x 1.3"||2.4" x 5.2" x 1.3"|
|Battery type||2400mAh Lithium-Ion||2400mAh Lithium-Ion||2350mAh Lithium-Ion||2350mAh Lithium-Ion||1950mAh Lithium-Ion||2000mAh Lithium-Ion||2000mAh Lithium-Ion||2000mAh Lithium-Ion|
|Submersible||IP67 Waterproof||IP67 Waterproof||3 ft. up to 30 min.||3 ft. up to 30 min.||IPX5 Water Spray||IPX5 Water Spray||IPX5 Water Spray||IPX5 Water Spray|
|TX output||6 watt||6 watt||6 watt||6 watt||5 watt||5 watt||5 watt||5 watt|
|Display type||LCD||LCD||LCD||LCD||LCD||Dot Matrix||Dot Matrix||Dot Matrix|
|Display size (inches)||.375" x 1.125"||.375" x 1.125"||1.5" x 2.0"||1.5" x 2.0"||.5" x 1.38"||1.7" x 1.7"||1.7" x 1.7"||1.7" x 1.7"|
|Flight planning apps||No||No||No||Yes||No||No||No||No|
|Automatic noise limiter||Yes||Yes||Yes||Yes||Yes||Yes||Yes||Yes|
|Direct 121.5 mHz access||Yes||Yes||Yes||Yes||Yes||Yes||Yes||Yes|
|Alkaline battery case||No||No||Optional||Optional||No||Included||Included||Included|
|Cigarette lighter adapter||Optional||Optional||Optional||Optional||Included||Included||Included||Included|
|Warranty||3 years||3 years||3 years||3 years||3 years||3 years||3 years||3 years|
|Buy on Amazon||Buy on Amazon||Buy on Amazon||Buy on Amazon||Buy on Amazon||Buy on Amazon||Buy on Amazon||Buy on Amazon|
When shopping for a handheld aviation radio, it’s important to consider what exactly it is you need. If you’re looking for a simple handheld aviation radio to use as a backup, then a COMM-only radio is usually sufficient. If you’re planning on using it as a backup navigational device as well, NAV functionality might be worth the additional investment.
All in all, the best aviation handheld radios for you will depend on your personal needs and budget. Good luck!
Icom and Yaesu make the two most popular brands of these handheld aviation radios. In this Icom vs Yaesu article, we will explore some of the key differences between both aviation radio brands!
Buying an aviation headset should be a well-thought-out decision. We searched for the best aviation headsets and help you pick the right one in 2021!
A logbook is one of the most important tools for a pilot. We went looking for the best pilot logbooks you should buy!