How to listen to aircraft frequencies

Written by ed wagner
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How to listen to aircraft frequencies
Listening in: scanning radios allow you to monitor aircraft communications. (Thomas Northcut/Photodisc/Getty Images)

Modern scanning radios make listening to a wide variety of public communications an easy and enjoyable hobby. Most modern scanners can receive the commercial aircraft band. Some can receive the military aviation band as well. Most of the radio traffic is routine, as pilots receive instructions from ground controllers, ask permission to move aircraft, or get weather updates. A listener will rarely hear a pilot declare an emergency, though these tense moments happen occasionally.

Skill level:

Things you need

  • Scanning radio capable of receiving 118-136 MHz (225-400 MHz for military).
  • Outside antenna and coaxial cable -- if greater range is needed or desired.
  • Frequency guide.

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    Aircraft radios use amplitude modulation (AM) rather than frequency modulation (FM). AM is susceptible to atmospheric noise, such as static bursts from thunderstorms. The advantage of AM is that a listener can hear two simultaneous transmissions on the same frequency. With FM, only the stronger one can be heard. There's less risk of misunderstood communication with AM, which is a safety consideration in crowded air space.

    Aircraft frequencies use simplex communication, which means transmitters and receivers are on the same frequency. However, it's not always possible to hear both sides of the conversation, because an aircraft directly overhead may be communicating with a ground station far over the horizon. An external antenna mounted as high as possible will improve reception of weak signals from distant transmitters.

    Scanning radios are programmed to change frequencies in discrete steps. In the aircraft band, stations are 25 kHz apart, so the radio scans in 25 kHz steps.

    Commercial and private aircraft communications take place in the 108-137 MHz band. The first 10MHz are used for navigation rather than voice contacts. Almost all modern scanners will receive this band.

    Military aircraft use two bands: 136-144 MHz and 225-400 MHz. They may be AM or FM. Some radio scanners will receive these frequencies, but many do not. Radio enthusiasts need fast scanners capable of 100 channels per second or more in order to cover the wide range of frequencies.

    How to listen to aircraft frequencies
    View from a cabin window. At altitude, the horizon may be 50 miles away. (Thomas Northcut/Photodisc/Getty Images)
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    Find a convenient location for the scanner radio, one that's not in direct sunlight or near a heat source. Overheating is one cause of electronic failures. Follow the radio manual for the programming steps. If there are small children in the house, place the receiver out of their reach, unless you have an urge to reprogram it frequently.

    If you install an outside antenna, mount it as high as possible, perhaps in an attic or on the roof. Connect a coaxial cable from the antenna to the rear of the radio. Electronics stores offer these cables in pre-cut lengths with connectors already installed.

    How to listen to aircraft frequencies
    Typical hand-held scanner radio with a "rubber duck" antenna. (Hemera Technologies/ Images)
  3. 3

    One way to find airport frequencies is through a radio guide book. These are available through retailers or online.

    Major airports use the Automatic Terminal Information Service (ATIS). This is a continuous broadcast that updates frequently, supplying weather, runway and taxiway information, as well as the frequencies for approach, departure and ground control.

Tips and warnings

  • In a noisy environment, lightweight headphones make transmissions easier to hear.
  • If an outside antenna is used, install a lightning arrester to protect people and property. Be sure it conforms to local codes. Never install an antenna where it could contact a power line.
  • Mobile operation of a scanning radio may be restricted or unlawful in some areas.

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