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Why Aircraft have Radio's...

Why Aircraft have Radios…

        In my flying career, almost every aircraft I have flown has had a flight radio. So basically, I have been brought up with a radio in each and every aircraft ... except my hang gliders.

        I hear some pilots say that radios are a waste of time and money, and they serve no real purpose..... Well this is fine, and CASA allow aircraft to operate at certain altitudes and from certain airfields without radio. Most of the ag pilots I knew around my area didn't have a working VHF radio, until June the 3rd this year.

        So why have a radio? A flight radio gives you, the pilot, the chance to eavesdrop on the airwaves, ... to establish who is in the area, what the weather is doing, and in an emergency, you have a means of telling someone where you are.

        Of course, there are always down sides! You would have to know the frequencies, and this means you have to invest in Charts and an ERSA. And let's not forget your radio licence. All of this comes at a cost. So you would have to weigh the good against the bad!

        I have seen midair crashes happen due to aircraft not having radios. The Glider pilots have had their fair share of incidents, and there have been deaths due to not being able to communicate with other gliders or tug aircraft.

        I think you can see were I am coming from, and yes, I do think all aircraft should have flight radios. So with allowing for this preference of mine, let's look at the way to use your radio, if you have one. (If you don't, and you are not interested in radios, go to the next article, or read on and get two paper cups and a piece of string and play along.)

       OK.... Let's look at the fundamentals of the radio. Wavelength, frequency, amplitude, sound waves, and radio waves. I could go into each of these topics in great length, but I won't. You can look up that technical information if you want or need it. What I am going to do is tell you the basics. After all, that's the 10% that you will use as a flight radio operator. In all my years of flying I have never had anyone ask me about wavelength, amplitude or the other subjects above, except for Frequency, so I don't see the need to bore you with the "I'll send you to sleep" information.

        We use VHF (Very High Frequency) radios in our aircraft, (for the technical reader the band is 30 MHz to 300 MHz). The VHF radio gives you a high quality line-of-sight communication, which however is usually short range. This means you can communicate between aircraft and a ground station, or aircraft to aircraft. The rule of thumb with VHF transmissions is an aircraft at or below 5000 feet AGL will have VHF coverage of approximately 60 nm range. If we take the aircraft up from 5000 feet to 10,000 feet we should get around 90 nm coverage, but these distances are only a rule of thumb.  The other things to remember about the range of your radio is the type of antenna you use and where it is mounted, as well as the terrain you’re flying in, because all of these have a dramatic effect on your range.

        There is VHF-NAV equipment in some radios as well, like VOR (VHF Omni-directional Radio range) and the NDB (Non-directional Beacons) and the ADF (Automatic Direction Finder). Again, some radios have them and some don't. An ICOM A6 and the Vertex VXA-300 handheld radio’s have the VOR function, but would you use it? Only once in a blue moon! …it’s just too hard to operate with a handheld radio in the cockpit. If you want these functions you need to go to much larger radios in the panel mount area. So let's not go down that track either.

        The airspace is setup in sectors, you have Controlled Airspace or Control Zones (CTR). If you are a recreational pilot you don't normally fly in Controlled Airspace. However you would fly in Uncontrolled Airspace (OCTA), and you would fly in Common Traffic Advisory Frequencies (CTAF) and (CTAF (R). The CTAF (R) means you must have a radio to enter that area. However the new regulations, mean that all registered, certified, and Military aerodromes are now as designated CTAF, and you will only be able to enter these airfields with a radio!

        A CTAF normally covers a radius of 10 nm around the airfield and up to 3,000 feet above ground level (AGL). However you will need to check individual CTAF information in the ERSA. When you are operating around these aerodromes make sure you have a working radio and that you use it.

        If you look at charts like the VTC (Visual Terminal Chart, Enroute Chart (ERC) or the Visual Navigation Chart (VNC) you will see the airspace is divided into sectors. Each sector has one or two radio frequencies written on it. One will be in green type and the other will be brown. In other words the green is the area frequency and the brown is E class airspace. In the area I fly in, the frequency below 8500 feet and above 8500 feet E Class, are the same (ML CEN 125.2). However if you go to the next sector towards Melbourne they are different.

        So you have your radio in your aircraft, but perhaps you are a little reluctant to use it. Well I can understand that. You don't want to make a mistake, or you just don't want to make a fool of yourself..... Don't worry there are no "radio police", but at the same time you need to aim to use the radio in the right manner. Keep your conversation short, clear, and don't be over polite. You don't need to say "please" or "thanks". These words just take up air time unnecessarily.

        When spelling a word, use phonetic spelling. You know, Alpha, Bravo, Charlie and so on. These words are not used just because they sound good. They are used because they are unique words which cannot be easily mistaken for another word.  So improvising by using Bob instead of Bravo is not helpful, and may, in fact, be confusing!

        Also, don't rush your conversation, ... take it slowly. If you don't understand a transmission, ask for it again, by saying "SAY AGAIN" and if you are asked to repeat your transmission, start by saying "I SAY AGAIN". There are a number of standard words and phrases. If you listen to the radio chit chat you will pick them up, or, if you prefer, you could buy a book on Flight Radio Operations.

        If you have a radio, I wonder if this has ever happened to you. You are flying along fat, dumb, and beautiful, (in other words you are really enjoying your flight), when smashing through the airwaves comes a broadcast..... "Victor, Charlie, Golf, Cessna, flying near YABBA NORTH 2700 heading for Shepparton". ... and then the airwaves go silent. What would your reaction be? I know what mine was..... "Shit..... He’s on an intersecting track to mine". But..... Do I remember his call sign? NO. All I can remember was a rushed broadcast with some thing about YABBA NORTH, (Yes I saw this on my map and I was flying near Yabba North). The altitude was similar to mine, and he was heading for Shepparton. In other words he was going to cross my track. The first thing I would start doing is scanning the sky to get a visual on that Cessna...... Do I see it?..... NO! So my next reaction is to place a call. But what to say? Remember, I didn't catch his call sign! My call would go like this;

"Aircraft in the YABBA NORTH area..... Trike 7079 is Tracking Shepparton...... for Yarrawonga at 2500..... overhead YABBA NORTH". This gives the Cessna a chance is respond to me, and, more importantly, he knows that there is another aircraft in his airspace with an intersecting track. Most times that this happens to me, I do get a response, and this time was no exception. The Cessna Pilot got back to me, he amended his altitude, we both got a visual and we passed each other without incident.

        But if his initial broadcast had been a little different, and slower, I would have picked up more information. I would have liked to have heard it like this;

"YABBA NORTH traffic..... Victor..., Charlie..., Golf..., Cessna 172... tracking 5nm North of Yabba North for Shepparton at 2700 feet. YABBA NORTH".

        That type of broadcast gives me a massive amount of clear, useful information..... The first is the “YABBA NORTH traffic” … he is near me. Secondly, the registration and type of aircraft… If I miss the registration, I will still get the type of aircraft. A Cessna, but more importantly it is a 172.... so I now know the profile of the aircraft I am looking for, and possibly the speed range. Thirdly, the track is from Yarrawonga to Shepparton.... I could look in the direction I am heading. But this is now not necessary as the other pilot has said "Tracking 5nm NORTH of Yabba North". A quick look at the map, and there is Yabba North, just over my left shoulder, and the Cessna 172 is heading for Shepparton. This means he will pass me on my left. The fourth and last bit of information, is the altitude…. 2700 feet. I am at 2500 feet, so we have separation, or do we? I hope my QNH is the same as the Cessna's! Either way I would make a broadcast and let the Cessna pilot know my information. We can both now make an informed decision on what maneuver to make next.

So before you make a broadcast, think about it, and then, when you speak, don't rush it. Take it slowly, so that all the other aircraft listening in can make sense of what you are trying to communicate. What you need to get across the airwaves is

WHERE I AM (Location)

WHO I AM (Aircraft Type and Call Sign)

WHAT I AM DOING (Your position and intention)

WHERE I AM, again. (Location)

That’s the important stuff.  

(Note from Anne: When we are airborne, Peter usually alerts me to the fact that he is about to make a radio call, so I don't start a conversation. Then he sits quietly for a few seconds before I hear him make the call ... slowly, clearly and with an efficient use of words ... even I know just what is going on!)

The CAAP 166 will give you more information about all the why’s and wherefores of the new procedures. I suggest you have a look at them.

        Now let's look at a few standard radio procedures used in a CTAF.

When departing a CTAF, for safety and courtesy reasons, you are now required to give a taxi broadcast, which lets any aircraft in the area know that you are about to move. So let's look at the radio calls I would make when departing a CTAF.

"Yarrawonga Traffic, Trike 7079 is taxiing for runway 19 for a flight to the North, Yarrawonga”.

My next call would be my entering runway call.

"Yarrawonga Traffic, Trike 7079 is entering runway 19 for immediate departure for a local flight to the North, Yarrawonga”.

When flying, I maintain a listening watch on the CTAF and the area frequencies. This gives me a chance to hear other aircraft in the area and I can get all the information I require to keep out of their way. If there was an aircraft in the area that would conflict with my flight, I could now know where they are, and I could contact them if needed.

Entering a CTAF.

        On my return trip I would make calls similar to these when entering the CTAF;

"Yarrawonga Traffic, …Trike 7079,… 10 miles north,… inbound at 2000 feet for a full stop landing,… time in circuit 23, … Yarrawonga”. Now every pilot in the CTAF knows my intentions.

        If you are not sure about the “23” it is my expected time in circuit or over head. The 23 is twenty minutes past the hour. Using a GPS, this is a simple piece of information to obtain and report, but it allows other pilots to judge the speed of my aircraft compared with the speed of their aircraft, and they can make an informed decision about whether my flight will conflict with their flying intentions in the CTAF area.  

My next call would be made as I join the circuit, and it goes like this.

"Yarrawonga Traffic, Trike 7079, joining crosswind for runway 19 for a full stop, Yarrawonga".

Once again anyone in the CTAF knows my intentions and whereabouts.

I make my next call is just before I turn Base.

"Yarrawonga Traffic, Trike 7079 turns base for runway 19 full stop, Yarrawonga".

The last call I would make is a runway clearance call.

"Yarrawonga Traffic, Trike 7079 is clear all runways, Yarrawonga".

        This call is made not as I move off the runway, it is made as I cross the holding point. You know, the Yellow lines, two solid and two broken ones. This means you are passed the flight strip and now you are really clear of the runway.

These calls are now the standard and everyone should be using them whether you at a CTAF or at your own airfield.

        If you choose to make a straight-in approach, the calls are made at 10nm, and 3nm, with your intention.

        And that's it! You see the flight radio is nothing to fear. As pilots, it is only a tool of our trade.

        I use my radio frequently, and I quite often call up flight service to get a clearance or find out the QNH, and they have always been helpful.

        I also use my radio to talk to other aircraft. When we have a Megafauna fly-away we have a designated Chat Channel. This means that all the pilots on our fly-away can talk to each other without infringing the normal area or CTAF frequencies. The other good part about being on the Chat Channel, is that you can talk as you would on the phone.

        So next time your flying around using your radio, just remember to think about the information you would like to know about any aircraft that is flying near you. This is what you want to tell other pilots. Process it, perhaps even rehearse it. Press the transmit button and wait while you count “one”, (so you don’t cut off the first piece of information that your transmit) then take it slowly, ... You don't like it when someone rushes information you need to hear, so keep your broadcast simple, slow and precise. That way it will be useful to the people to whom you are communicating.


NOTE: Periodically, CASA will, after much consideration for aviators’ safety, elect to alter radio frequency boundaries, or radio techniques, or even methods of delivering radio communication, right down to when to make a call and what to say, at each stage of approaching a landing area. These changes are reflected in charts and ERSA as they are implemented. In a few cases they have even been changed by NOTAM between publications! Far more important than fear of being caught out and fined, it is an excellent reason to make sure your own documentation is kept up to date, and that you use the current published information when you are flying.


And if you haven't got Radio?  Well, you don't know what you’re missing!!!    Happy flying!


  • XC Triker

    Great information YFT!

    I found the CD "Say Again Please" by ASA very helpful.  I played it over & over in my car until it sunk in-- it's like a language--  fortunately, most of what you said above applies to the US too.


    What's a QNH?


    Some Translation off the top of my Head:

    Australian                US                   British              Other

    CASA                     FAA                   fill in

    VTC                       TAC Chart     

    ERSA                     AIM

    En Route Supplement Australia (ERSA) – part of the Aeronautical Information Publication (AIP) published by Airservices Australia

                                Not like a TRSA in the US now  Class C & B / Mode C Veil

    CTAF (R)                No direct equivalent , but the lowest level required airspace with a radio is Class D


    Show me where your online charts for Oz are, ours can be found easily at Skyvector.com


    I like the MGL V10 Radio, mostly because it has two channel capability with ease--  Suppose you are on the chat freq with your mates... if you aren't able to monitor two freqs, then you miss out on all the awareness and info YFT mentions above, in fact it may be worse because you are distracted by all your buddies.  Or suppose you are talking to flight following and need to get an ATIS, or monitor a local airport you are flying over?  without a second freq, what are you going to do?  etc, etc.