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Ham radio fun for holiday air travel

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Ham radio fun for holiday air travel

It’s the holiday season, and if you’re stuck in an airport, this is a great opportunity to have some ham radio fun! You can listen to air traffic of flights as they take off and land. I find this amusing because it’s like listening to a live airport reality TV show that you’re a part of. You learn a lot about how the coordination of flights. Plus, there’s the occasional drama when a pilot makes a wrong turn and causes other planes to have to be rerouted.

As you listen, you can actually hear the different air traffic communications of flights as they proceed through preparations to take off and land (clearance, ground, tower, and so on). Each step has a different frequency, after a flight finishes checking in at one level, the pilots tune the radio to the next frequency. After reading this tutorial, you’ll be able to listen in and tune your radio to follow a flight as it passes through the different stages of landing or depart. Below is a description of the different levels, along with sample audio clips. A lot of communication is in special codes. You’ll hear a lot of “alpha alpha one” or “delta five seventy-three.” I’ll explain what these mean as well. All you need is a scanner or handheld ham radio to listen. You can use these in the airport, and even on the plane, when use of electronics are approved.

Understanding Air Traffic Codes

Airline Name + Number: When you hear “Delta five seventy-three,” or “Comair fifteen sixty-one,” these are the names of different flights.
Letters: When you hear “alpha bravo kilo charlie echo lima,” these are letters “A B K C E L.” Sometimes, it’s difficult to understand letters on the radio, so this spelling alphabet is used.

Frequencies and Procedure
You can find the frequencies for different airports and air traffic on this website. Following are the communication procedures for a departing and an arriving flight. After the pilot communicates with each, he tunes the radio to the frequency of the next.

Gives general directions for take off, including which runway to use, direction, and altitude, and transponder frequency (“squawk”). The transponder frequency helps radars to identify planes.

Here is what you will hear in the first communication on the audio clip:
1. CLEARANCE: asks FLIGHT LAN Chile 533 if they are ready to receive the flight route.
2. FLIGHT LAN CHILE 533: says they are ready.
3. CLEARANCE: tells FLIGHT LAN Chile 533 their flight route then tells them the transponder frequency is 1642 by saying “squawk 1642”.
4. FLIGHT LAN CHILE 533: confirms the flight route by repeating it back to CLEARANCE

Tells flights where to taxi and which runway to use. While a plane is on the ground, you have probably looked out the window and seen signs with letters (such as “KK”). When ground tells planes where to taxi, they use these letters to explain the route like street names. Numbers are used name runway.

Here is what you will hear in the first communication on the audio clip:
GROUND: tells FLIGHT COMAIR 1496 to use runway 31. Taxi left at KK and left at B.
FLIGHT COMAIR 1496: confirms by repeating the directions

Controls the actual runway and gives clearance for take off. Once in the air, tower will say “radar contact” which means planes can be seen on the radar and should switch their frequency to Departure.

Gives planes initial directions in the air.

Makes sure planes are lined up to land.

Gives final clearance to land.

Tells planes how to navigate to the gate by assigning a gate and a taxi route.

In theory, licensed hams are also allowed to operate while on board a plane with the pilot’s permission. In this case, you would append “/AM” to your call sign, short for “aeronautical mobile.” In practice, this is only feasible on private planes. On commercial flights, if your airline permits it, you can use your radio or scanner in receive mode to listen to local repeaters as you fly over different cities. Pick up a copy of the ARRL Repeater Directory to find repeaters on your route. And once you’re back on the ground, you can use it to program your radio with a few local repeater frequencies so you can chat with the locals.

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46 thoughts on “Ham radio fun for holiday air travel

  1. Anonymous says:

    These files started playing automatically when I opened the page in Chrome

    Goodbye make blog until this drops off the page!

    1. Anonymous says:

      I second that.

      Auto-play for sound or video runs the usability of my feed.
      Five at once is a meaningless jumble.

      Also, as someone who enjoys piloting recreationally, having multiple people talking at once on the comms is potentially dangerous and extremely rude at the best of times, and at worst it’s a kick in the guts that something is seriously wrong. Please don’t do that.

      1. Gareth Branwyn says:

        Autoplay is set to “false” on these. I have a email in to out IT person. They don’t autoplay in Firefox.

        If anyone knows how to set this to suit Chrome, please let me know.

        1. Gareth Branwyn says:

          I’ve un-embedded the MP3s for now.

          Sorry for the inconvenience.

        2. Anonymous says:

          Thankyou for making the change. :)
          And, sorry if I came-across as a grouch… generally I love reading the Make blog.

          As you deduced, I’m using Chrome. I’m unsure what the underlying cause of the autoplay problem was. If anyone has advice on how to configure it so Autoplay=false (or respect such a command from feeds such as Make) I’d be very grateful.

        3. Stephen Gentle says:

          You’re probably specifying a value, which is not how you use it – from the HTML spec:

          “The values “true” and “false” are not allowed on boolean attributes. To represent a false value, the attribute has to be omitted altogether.”

          1. Gareth Branwyn says:

            The autoplay issue in Chrome should be resolved now. Let us know if you have further problems.

  2. Chris Moore says:

    Lots of ATC online here:

  3. says:

    In general, any kind of radio isn’t allowed to be operated on the plane. This is because receivers work by downconverting the incoming frequency to a constant internal frequency, and that can cause radiation on that IF which can interfere with the plane’s navigation systems. If you look in the back of the inflight magazines, radios are always a no-no.

    1. RocketGuy says:

      Agreed, not on the plane.

      The only exception to this would be the ramsey kit air receiver, it doesn’t heterodyne at all, nor does it tune, it just gives you the strongest signal. They’ve verified that it emits nothing due to it’s design, unlike all other radios out there.

      Transmitting at 1 or 5W inside a metal tube with wiring that keeps you alive isn’t a good idea, regardless of what band you’re using. You might not affect anything, but might isn’t good enough. And if any pilot gives you permission, he needs to review the AIM.

    2. Diana Eng says:

      Thanks for the tip. My understanding is that there’s not a hard and fast rule about this. USAirways, for example, explicitly permits the use of radio receivers on their flights ( whereas some other airlines explicitly forbid it. So definitely check with your airline before using a radio on board, and if you’re unsure, ask a crew member.

    3. leif says:

      No, not all receivers work by downconverting. That is a specific type of radio called a superhetrodyne. There are other kinds, although they are rare and mostly homebrew. Some radiate worse, some don’t radiate at all.

      A simple TRF radio, just a tuned circuit, detector and audio amplifier would be extremely unlikely to interfere with anything and would work just find for this use. I suppose there is some non-zero probability the audio amplifier might go into oscillation and cause a problem. It’s probably right up there with me finding a lottery ticket in the parking lot when I go home tonight and it turns out to be a multi-million dollar winner…. twice… this week.

      Still.. if you want to be 100.000000000000% sure..

      I once read an article by a guy who built a crystal set for listening to air traffic from within a plane. Crystal radios do not generate anything. They can’t, they don’t have any power. The only power they have is the radio waves they receive, which are then converted directly to sound.

      The difficulty I think would be in explaining it to the flight crew what it is. No doubt it isn’t worth it. I can just imagine getting caught by the stewardess and told to turn it off. Good luck, the only way to turn it off is to take it apart! I think the article I read mentioned mounting it inside something that doesn’t look like a radio. That would most likey work but if you did still manage to get caught that would just make it even harder to explain. Is that your secret spy radio that gives you directions from Al Quaeda?

      So again, just not worth it. But.. does anybody else think that aircraft design which is so sensative that even the emissions of a receiver (not transmitter) could cause problems should be cause for a major lawsuit? Actually, I would think they should be hardened even against transmitters. At least up to whatever power cellphones use.

      Whatever the rules, you know somebody is going to leave their phone on, probably even make a call! How about some shielding on those wires? Some ferrite beads? Some bypass capacitors? Error correcting algorthms for the control signals?

      Imagine if a car was built that way! Oh… maybe that’s what happened to Toyota a few years back…

  4. Anonymous says:

    It’s LAN Chile (with “e”), not chili. :)

  5. Tomasthanes says:

    Is seems like the only bit of data left out of this very good and complete article (remembering the comments above where most of these kinds of radios shouldn’t actually be used on a plane) was the actual make/model of the radio in the picture. Hams would probably rattle the make/model off in their sleep. I’m not a ham but was interested anyway.

    1. Bob D says:

      Looks like a Yaesu VS-3R to me.

      1. Bob D says:

        Make that a VX-3R

  6. Kevin says:

    Any recommendation on which radio or scanner to use ?

    I would be looking for something small.

  7. Alan says:

    I am sitting at LAX right now. When I went through security, I got pulled out for secondary screening because of my radio (Yaesu FT-60R). Got a lot of questions about what was it and why I had it. The questions were hard to answer because a) I brought the radio on this trip for no particular reason and b) one of the things that I did with the radio last night was listen to airport frequencies and I was concerned what the TSA agents (who didn’t seem to know much about ham radio) would think about that.

  8. Greg says:

    Could someone recommend an affordable option for doing this? Nothing fancy, something sub $100 would be ideal. I love listening to Channel 9 (On, United? I cannot recal) when they let you listen to the pilots.

    Also, the TSA is always a pain. Imagine trying to explain why I am carrying custom boards on a plane. (Because I am not checking $200K worth of product, jeez). It terrifies me that they are so poorly trained they cannot tell basic electronics from an actual threat.

    1. alandove says:

      If you’re looking for a good, basic scanner, especially for use in and around airports, go to Radio Shack. Their scanners aren’t the world’s best, but they’re pretty good, and they have one enormous advantage over all others: they’re prominently branded with a product name even the least-educated TSA screener will recognize. I’ve had security folks scrutinize my Kenwood, Yaesu, and Icom gear, but none of them ever bat an eye at my Radio Shack scanner.

  9. Glenn says:

    The “spelling alphabet” is called the phonetic alphabet. Also, the “1642” is a transponder code, not a “transponder frequency”. Other than that, great article.

  10. Peter says:

    It’s always the same frequency (1.6 GHz or something like that?). The squawk code defines the pulse pattern transmitted back to the radar receiver when the aircraft is “painted” by a radar beam. Different pulse pattern for each aircraft lets the traffic controller know which blip corresponds to which aircraft.

  11. Steve Low says:

    Clear the use of ANY two way radio with the flight crew (you can even appeal to the pilot, if you are really nice about it.) prior to the flight.   This is true even if you do not plan to transmit.

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Fashion + Technology Diana was a contestant on Project Runway season 2, graduated from RISD, and currently lives in New York City.

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