Confidence on the radio is all about listening

For me, learning how to talk on the radio was a difficult element of my training. And I know from talking to other pilots, I’m not alone. I would always put undue pressure on myself because of wanting to communicate the right way, but more than anything, I wanted to sound like the polished pros I was used to hearing on LiveATC. I rarely heard anyone fumble. And those confident airline voices always had a knack for communicating in two words what would take me five or more.

I learned at a pilot controlled field, so when we flew to the big city to practice landings at a towered field, I often fumbled my way through the communication. My flight instructor suggested that I invest in an aviation scanner and listen to other pilots in the local area. My process was to listen to the ATC transmission and then try to repeat it back. This annoyed the heck out of my roommate, but it made me much more confident when I had to fly into controlled airspace.

ATC controller

The lack of radio confidence can be just as dangerous a distraction on the flight deck as electronics or a needy passenger. It can create unnecessary barriers when planning flights or even have you thinking twice about asking for assistance so this is just as much about safety as it is enjoyment and utility.

One of the limitations I experienced while listening to a scanner was the reception range. I would consistently hear transmissions at my home airport within 5-10 miles of my location, but I wanted to reach the towered field further down the road. After talking to some local pilots, I learned a few tricks that helped to double range and my learning. Here are a few if you choose to invest in a scanner:  

  1. Location, Location, Location

Transmission reception is highly dependant upon line of sight. When we are flying at 10,000 feet, there are few obstructions that interfere with radio transmissions. But on the ground, trees, buildings, hills, power lines, etc. will affect incoming radio waves. The rule of thumb: the higher you can position the antenna, the better your range. The same receiver picking up traffic 10 miles in one direction may now reach 20 miles in all directions when elevated with unobstructed views.

  1. Bigger is better most of the time

Not all antennas are created equally. Some are tuned for specific bands while others are designed to receive a wide swath of radio signals. Most aviation antennas are the latter. The most popular antennas used for scanners are referred to as discone antennas with lots of arms radiating out in many directions and are normally mounted above the roof of your building. While this will certainly pick up more than a single wire antenna, don’t expect four times the reception distance. Location is much more important than antenna type.

  1. Minimize interference

Most avionics shops have hundreds of stories about chasing down that annoying little pulsing hum in older airplanes, only to find that the shielding on the wire used to the cigarette lighter plug wasn’t sufficient for our modern demands. Here are the top five modern conveniences that may create interference with ground based receivers:

  1. Computers, phones
  2. Fluorescent light bulbs
  3. AC/DC adapters
  4. Appliances
  5. Motors

When in doubt, try to keep your receiver and antenna away from these items.

Finally, my recommendations for ground-based antennas:

Deluxe Base Station Antenna – most popular for roof mounting. Most people are mounting this to a steel pipe and running the wire down the middle. Note: the longer the wire, the more possibility for signal loss. Try to keep the distance from antenna to receiver under 50 feet.

Thru-Glass Mobile Antenna – designed for mobile use in a vehicle. The antenna mounts to the outside of a window with an adhesive pad. The opposite side is attached inside the vehicle. This works pretty well when the glass is relatively thin and you don’t want to permanently mount something on your car. Home use is hit or miss, as double paned windows leaves a fairly large gap between the two pads.

Extension Cables – best thing you can do to improve reception is improve your location. A simple extension cable and some zip ties will do wonders for improving your current antenna’s reception capabilities.