An aviation radio is an essential piece of equipment for any pilot to have while flying. While it serves as a great learning tool for student pilots, its real value is in being able to literally save your life one day, allowing you to call air traffic control for help or navigate to an airport.
There are only a few models you should consider and put your trust in when it really matters. Both COMM only and NAV/COMM portable radios have been included.
Handheld Aviation Radio Comparison Table
|Yaesu FTA-750L||Yaesu FTA-550L||Yaesu FTA-450L||Yaesu FTA-250L||Icom IC-A25N||Icom IC-A25C||Icom IC-A16||Icom IC-A14|
|Price||Check Price||Check Price||Check Price||Check Price||Check Price||Check Price||Check Price||Check Price|
|Ranking||Top choice||Also great||Great option if you don't need NAV||Best value||Best Bluetooth model||Also great||Worthy direct upgrade to the IC-A14||A classic|
|Pros||Feature packed, includes accessories||Large screen, includes accessories||Large screen, includes accessories||Battery life, price||Bluetooth, easy to use||Easy to use||Battery life, lightweight, easy to use||Battery life, easy to use|
|Cons||Learning curve||Learning curve||Learning curve||Small screen, not alkaline battery tray compatible||Accessories must be bought separately||Accessories must be bought separately||Small screen, accessories must be bought separately||Small screen, accessories must be bought separately, no 8.33 kHz|
|Bottom Line||The best Yaesu model||Excellent if you don't need everything the 750L offers||Bigger screen and meets MIL-STD 810 standards (comapared to 250L)||Best value for money||Best Bluetooth model||COMM only version of A25N, though not much cheaper||Worthy direct upgrade to IC-A14||Great but may be outdated - Beware of no 8.33 kHz spacing|
|Battery Type||1800 mAH Lithium-Ion||1800 mAH Lithium-Ion||1800 mAH Lithium-Ion||1950 mAH Lithium-Ion||2350 mAH Lithium-Ion||2350 mAH Lithium-Ion||2400 mAH Lithium-Ion||2000 mAH Lithium-Ion|
|Battery Life||12 hrs||12 hrs||13.5 hrs||16 hrs||10.5 hrs||10.5 hrs||17 hrs||18 hrs|
|Display Type||Dot Matrix||Dot Matrix||Dot Matrix||LCD||LCD||LCD||LCD||LCD|
|Display Size||1.7" x 1.7"||1.7" x 1.7"||1.7" x 1.7"||0.5" x 1.38"||1.5" x 2.0"||1.5" x 2.0"||0.375" x 1.125"|
|Unit Size||2.4" x 5.2" x 1.3"||2.4" x 5.2" x 1.3"||2.4" x 5.2" x 1.3"||2.1" x 4.1" x 1.2"||2.3" x 5.8" x 1.3"||2.3" x 5.8" x 1.3"||2.1" x 4.4" x 1.3"||2.09" x 4.71" x 1.43"|
|Weight||14.5 oz||14.5 oz||14.5 oz||10.6 oz||13.6 oz||13.6 oz||9.1 oz||15.2 oz|
|MIL-STD 810 Standard||Yes||Yes||Yes||No||Yes||Yes||Yes||Yes|
|TX Output||5 watt||5 watt||5 watt||5 watt||6 watt||6 watt||6 Watt||5 watt|
|Output Power (Carrier)||1.5W||1.5W||1.5W||1.5W||1.8W||1.8W||1.8W||1.5W|
|Channel Spacing||25 kHz / 8.33 kHz||25 kHz / 8.33 kHz||25 kHz / 8.33 kHz||25 kHz / 8.33 kHz||25 kHz / 8.33 kHz||25 kHz / 8.33 kHz||25 kHz / 8.33 kHz||25 kHz|
|Alkaline Battery Case (Included)||Yes||Yes||Yes||No||Buy Separately||Buy Separately||Buy Separately||Buy Separately|
|Cigarette Lighter Adapter (Included)||Yes||Yes||Yes||Yes||Buy Separately||Buy Separately||Buy Separately||Buy Separately|
Note: All radios contain the following features. To make the table easier to read they have been omitted. Water resistant, backlight, BNC antenna connector, low battery indicator, direct enter keypad, internal sidetone, automatic noise limiter, direct 121.5 Mhz Access, weather channels, 3 year warranty, rechargeable battery, battery charger, belt clip,
The 8 Best Handheld Aviation Radios
The Yaesu FTA750L is the most feature packed handheld radio for aviation purposes on the market, containing everything you need while flying.
It has VOR and ILS Navigation, as well as a Course Deviation Indicator (CDI). Best of all, along with the Icom IC-A25N, it is the only transceiver on this list that has GPS functionality – a 66 channel WAAS GPS receiver.
Its only downside is that it can be a little hard to get up and going while you learn how to program it. Once some time is spent with the device, however, it soon becomes second nature.
At 14.5 ounces, the FTA750L is one of the heavier handhelds, but its Dot Matrix display is large enough at 1.7” x 1.7” to be easy to read.
Battery life stands at 12 hours, and an alkaline battery case and cigarette light adapter are included without the need to purchase them separately.
The Yaesu FTA-550L is similar to the 750L is many ways. The only real difference between the two include the less expensive 550L not coming with GPS or ILS Navigation (localizer component is included, not glidescope).
The included accessories are the same, as is the 1.7” x 1.7” Dot Matrix display, 12 hour battery life, and 200 memory channels amongst other things.
If you don’t need the GPS and Glidescope, you may as well save yourself some money and go with the cheaper FTA-550L.
The FTA-450L is a COMM only version of the 550L. The only differences between the two are that this model doesn’t come with any ILS Navigation at all. It still has the same specs, included accessories, and great reliability that Yaesu products are known for.
There is one other difference which turns out to be a plus, despite the 450L’s lower price point. Its battery life stands at 13.5 hours instead of the 12 hours of the 550L and 750L.
The Yeasu FTA-250L is an excellent COMM only handheld radio. It is of course therefore not as feature packed as other models by Yeasu and Icom, but it does have a couple of very strong selling points for being a COMM only model, especially considering it low price point.
For one, at 10.6 ounces and measuring 2.1” x 4.1” x 1.2”, it is very light and compact. Its battery life at 16 hours is also superb. It’s good to see that a cigarette lighter adapter is included without the need to purchase one separately. The 250 memory channels also beat out more expensive models that come with fewer.
One thing to note is that its squelch adjustment could also be easier.
If you’re looking for an inexpensive, compact, easy to operate, COMM aviation radio the FTA-250L is an excellent choice.
If you’re looking for an aviation handheld radio with Bluetooth you’ve found it in the Icom IC-A25N. Not only does the A25N have Bluetooth but it is also one of the very few models to also have built-in GPS. These two features alone will make it the first port of call for anyone looking for a handheld radio. Yet the A25N also has a few other things going for it.
It has VOR Navigation CDI, as well as more memory channels than any other model at 300. Its LCD display is also oversized, measuring 1.5” x 2.0”, making it easy to read. Arguably, it is easier and more intuitive to use and program that any Yaesu model too.
Battery life stands at 10.5 hours. As with all Icom units, an alkaline battery case and cigarette lighter must be purchased separately.
The A25N is the COMM only version of the A25-N, so you’re won’t be getting Bluetooth, GPS or VOR Navigation.
Considering the minimal price difference it is recommended to give the model a miss and go for the A25N, unless you are absolutely sure that you will not need the additional NAV channels.
The IC-A14 is a good aviation radio that has been trusted by many pilots over the years. It is the heaviest model at 15.2 ounces, and has a very impressive battery life of 18 hours. Its screen is a little harder to read than others due to measuring just 0.375” x 1.125”. One thing to keep in mind is that 8.33 kHz channel spacing is not available on this radio.
If you’re looking for a direct upgrade of the A14, you should consider the recently released IC-A16.
Compared to the A14, the A16 is quite a bit lighter – in fact it is the lightest model at just 9.1 ounces. It has a battery life of 17 hours compared to the 18 hours of the A14, which is still superb. Other features and enhancements include 8,33 kHz and 25 kHz spacing, greater protection (IP67 instead of IPX4), larger capacity battery (2400 mAh instead of 2000 mAh), and louder audio. There is also a Bluetooth version available – Icom IC-A16B.
Icom IC-A14: View Price and Reviews
Icom IC-A16: View Price and Reviews
What to Consider When Buying an Aviation Handheld Radio
You’ll find that handheld radios come as COMM only or both COMM and NAV. Inevitably, the radio with NAV functionality will be more expensive.
The battery life of a handheld aviation radio can last anywhere between just over 10 to 18 hours. Typically, with all things being equal a larger mAH rating means a longer battery life, as the battery can store more power. However, this isn’t always the case because it also depends on the quality of the battery itself, as well the number of features the radio has. If a radio has GPS and ILS Navigation, for example, this will influence battery life compared to a model that doesn’t have to power this functionality.
It’s also a good idea to consider if the radio you are interested in can take alkaline batteries as well as rechargeable ones. As is whether the alkaline battery case required for this comes included or must be purchased separately. Being able to use both can certainly come in handy, and can save you money if included in the package.
This isn’t usually too much of a factor to consider because 25 kHz and 8.33 kHz channel spacing is present on almost all the models. The only exception to this is the Icom IC-A14, which only has 25 kHz. It has already been out for a while and is being discontinued and replaced by the Icom IC-A16 in any case.
This is important to know because according to EU regulations, pilots are required to use radios that have 8.33 kHz channel spacing.
Generally, all Yaesu models come with useful accessories like an alkaline battery case and cigarette lighter adapter expect the FTA-250L. Icom radios, on the other hand, require you to purchase these accessories separately. If you buy an Icom radio and really want these accessories the cost can soon add up.
The weight and size of the radio usually isn’t too much of a concern for most pilots, but it’s still something to keep in mind if you want a compact, lightweight radio that can fit in your pocket and be as easy to hold as possible.
There are two aspects of a radio’s display to consider: its display type and size. You will probably want a radio that doesn’t have a tiny screen, so you can read the information more easily and without squinting.
You will see that a radio either has a Dot Matrix or LCD screen. An LCD screen is the easier of the two to read, although considering you will likely only be viewing simple text and images this might not be too much of a concern, especially if you’re buying a COMM only radio.
Aviation Radio FAQS
The answer might surprise you. Many pilots think that portable radios only have a range of a few miles. However, it would be very rare to come across a radio that doesn’t work within five or even ten miles. This should be enough range when experiencing an emergency.
Beyond 10 miles things get a little complicated because it is dependent on the model. Typically, the more expensive models are more expensive for a reason, and allow transmissions to be readable further away.
Should you buy a COMM only or NAV/COMM pilot radio?
Only you can decide what will serve you best. Some pilots do not need to depend on a radio with navigation capabilities while flying whereas others do. The price differences between the two usually aren’t huge. In any case, it might be a good idea to initially spend a little more on a NAV model if you think you will probably upgrade later down the line. Something like the Yaesu FTA-550 NAV/COMM or FTA-750 are popular with pilots.
Do you really need an aviation handheld radio?
The answer is a resounding yes. As mentioned at the start, the radio could literally save your life. When trouble strikes it enables you to call ATC for help and navigate to an airport for an emergency landing.