Many handheld Air-band radios/scanners are available today costing from just a few pounds to several hundred pounds. The cheaper air-band radio is usually able to pick up transmissions from civilian aircraft but are limited by the absence of accurate tuning so you have little idea of what frequency you are listening to and you are often tuned into more than one frequency at the same time.
A scanner, while more costly (about £70 and more), usually consists of a keypad to enter a particular frequency, LCD display, a memory which will remember stored frequencies, and the ability to scan through a certain set of frequencies. There isn't any frequency overlap that you get on the cheaper Air-band radio. You can get either a hand-held scanner, ideal for air shows etc, or a larger desk top/base station model.
The cheaper scanners can receive just the VHF aircraft band (108-137MHz) which is ideal if you want to listen to civilian aircraft transmissions. More expensive models allow you to receive the UHF aircraft band (225-400MHz) in addition to the VHF aircraft band. These scanners can receive military aircraft transmissions as well as civilian. In order to listen to the Red Arrows leader at an air show you would require the UHF band.
Both VHF and UHF are short range, line-of-sight radio transmissions which are restricted to a maximum range of about 200 miles due to the curvature of the earth and usually considerably less depending on the surroundings (hills etc). Some scanners can receive the HF (short wave) aircraft band in addition to the VHF and UHF aircraft bands. The HF band is not restricted to line-of-sight radio transmissions and can be used to monitor Shanwick and the trans-Atlantic routes etc. There are also multi-band scanners which cover much more than just the aircraft bands.
Using a handheld scanner:
A handheld scanner usually includes a belt-clip and wrist-strap for convenience. It is powered by normal or rechargeable batteries and includes a speaker, earphone jack, and detachable antenna.
The scanner may have a keypad for manually entering frequencies or you may be able to connect it to a computer for programming in the frequencies. The frequencies that are entered into the scanner's memory are usually organised into 'Banks' and 'Channels'.
A scanner includes a 'Squelch' control which is used to eliminate background noise. There is also an AM and FM 'Mode' and for aircraft reception you should use AM only.
Some more expensive scanner models have many additional functions which makes them quite complicated to use especially as the included instructions are sometimes a bit vague. More information on your scanner can usually be found on the Internet following a Google search.
Recently the spacing between airband frequencies has been reduced from 25KHz spacing to 8.33KHz spacing. This has been done to increase the number of frequencies available. Newer scanners may be equipped to deal with 8.33KHz spacing but it is a good idea to check before buying. At the moment, commercial aircraft use the new 8.33KHz spacing but the military still use the older 25KHz steps.
Using a scanner at Air shows:
A scanner can be invaluable at an air show for listening to the tower and hearing what is going on. You will hear the pilot talking to the tower and know exactly when a display aircraft is to take-off, ideal if you want to be in the right place at the right time to get that photograph.
The airshow frequency (Tower) can usually be received on the civilian VHF aircraft band and will most likely be a 'Common Air Display Frequency' which is temporarily used for the duration of the airshow. They may also use the usual Tower frequency for that particular airfield. If you see a stall at the airshow selling airband scanners and accessories then they may display a list of frequencies being used or will help you.
If you want to listen in to a military air display team such as the Red Arrows then you will need a scanner that receives the UHF aircraft band. You will here the Red Arrows leader barking his commands to the other Red Arrows pilots.
Actually listening to aircraft frequencies on VHF/UHF/HF air bands in the UK is illegal but actually owning and using a scanner is okay, and the authorities usually aren't concerned. If you go to a UK airshow you will see many people using air-band scanners but it is advisable to be discrete when using a scanner by using an earpiece and not having the scanner blasting out and on show. Please do not bring a transceiver to an airshow as it could be very dangerous. When visiting air shows in other countries then it is advisable to check their laws to see if using a scanner is acceptable.
Which scanner should i buy?
It all depends on how much you are willing to pay for a scanner and what you want to use it for. If you are using it mainly at civilian airports then you may only need a scanner with the VHF aircraft band (108-137MHz). If you want a scanner to also be able to receive military aircraft transmissions then you need a scanner with the UHF aircraft band (225-400MHz). You may also want to hear aircraft on the HF band or have a multi-band scanner that can pick up many other transmissions such as local marine communications, CB radio, or police and emergency services etc.
There are many airband models on the market today all packed with various features making it hard to choose which is the best scanner for you. I will mention a few popular hand-held air-band scanners that are good value for money and ideal for listening to aviation broadcasts at air shows or airports etc.
Scanners are available at different prices with the more expensive scanners having more features, a keypad to enter frequencies easily, having more memory to store frequencies etc.
Maycom offer two airband scanners: the AR108, and the FR100 for listening to civilian airband. Both these scanners are relatively cheap and good value for money although they lack a keypad, the FR100 has the new 8.33KHz spacing.
Icom have the small but very robust IC-R5 which has a wide continuous frequency range from 100KHz to 1309.995MHz which includes airband but has no keypad.
Alinco have the DJ-X30 which has a wide frequency range from 100KHz to 1.3Ghz and includes a keypad.
GRE have the PSR-295 which is very good for airband listening and has a wide frequency range and includes a keypad.
Yaesu have the VR500 which also has a wide continuous frequency range from 100KHz to 1299.99MHz including airband but also includes a keypad.
Uniden have the UBC-72XLT which can recieve the civilian airband, and also the UBC-3500XLT which has a very wide frequency range including civilian & military airband along with a keypad. The sensitive UBC3500XLT is fairly expensive but is generally thought to be the best aviation/airshow hand-held scanner that is currently available to buy today. The new UBC-125XLT scanner receives both civilian and military airband frequencies, a keypad, and is a good scanner for a reasonable price.
If you are considering buying second-hand from Ebay then a highly sought after but obsolete scanner for aviation is the Yupiteru MVT-7100 which is considered to be superior to the newer MVT-7200 & MVT 7300 models.
Which frequencies do i use?
You can get a complete HF/VHF/UHF aviation frequency listing along with maps and other info in the excellent Airwaves book by Photavia Press. Photavia Press also publish a book which is a directory of civilian and military callsigns. You can order these books on their website or you can usually obtain a copy at an air show.
Follow the following links for a list of frequencies on this website:
• RAF, Airshow, and Display Team Frequencies.
• Airport Frequencies.
In addition to these frequencies you should have all the Common Air Display Frequencies in your scanner for a UK airshow:
121.175, 130.675, 132.90, 130.50, 130.625, 134.55
and the NATO Common Frequencies:
Tower - 122.1, 257.8
Radar - 123.3, 344.0, 362.3, 385.4
Also add the frequencies of any Display Teams that are expected to display at the airshow.