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If you’ve ever been to a favorite spotting location near a major airport, you’ve likely seen aviation enthusiasts listening to the communications between pilots and air traffic controllers. And, even if not, you’ve likely heard air traffic control phrases such as “Cleared for take off.” or “Turn left heading 350.” in a TV show before.
In this article, I will look at what some of the best airband scanners are (Uniden Bearcat BCT125AT is my favorite) and how to go about choosing one. Besides that, I will also look at some of the common questions people have about air traffic control about listening to airband frequencies.
Two Best Airband Scanners to Get in 2019
If you are looking for a handheld airband radio, I recommend you start with one of the following two – Uniden Bearcat BCT75XLT or Uniden Bearcat BCT125AT – each of which I look at in more detail in this section.
In case you don’t find either of them compelling enough, continue reading to learn what things to consider when choosing what airband scanner to buy as well as more about listening to air traffic control in general.
Uniden Bearcat BCT75XLT: Best Budget Airband Scanner
If you begun plane spotting recently or have been an aviation enthusiast for a while but are looking for your first airband scanner, the Uniden Bearcat BCT75XLT might be the right choice.
It’s one of the cheaper aviation scanners out there and is powered by a pair of AA batteries which are affordable and easy to come by. While batteries are not included with the device, it comes with an antenna, a belt clip, a strap, and an USB cable.
The BCT75XLT can only into civil air frequencies, and it can store up to 300 channels in 10 banks which can be programmed either directly or through computer.
You could, for example, have a bank per each airport you frequent with each of the banks including all the frequencies (such as approach, departure, ground, clearance, etc.) for the given airport. Unfortunately, though, you cannot assign names to the banks and channels and so you will need to note down those details separately.
As for other downsides of this scanner, quite a few users reported that it has a short battery life which might be an issue if you tend to hang around an airport for the whole day. Also, depending on where you are listening to the transmissions, you might find the default antenna not to be strong enough.
If you get this airband receiver and encounter either of the two problems above, you can solve them fairly easily and cheaply by getting an extra set of rechargeable AA batteries and a better replacement antenna.
Uniden Bearcat BCT125AT: Best Mid-Range Airband Scanner
The Uniden Bearcat BCT125AT is quite similar to the cheaper BCT75XLT that I wrote about above. In fact, at first glance you would barely notice any difference – the two scanners are both made by Uniden, they measure and weight roughly the same, they are both equipped with the exact same buttons, and they are both powered by a pair of AA batteries.
However, there are some significant differences between the two which might make it worthwhile getting this slightly more expensive model depending on your preferences.
The BCT125AT is able to store up to 500 channels in 10 banks meaning you can have up to 50 channels in a single bank. While the 300 offered by the cheaper model are more than enough, it will certainly not hurt to have the extra capacity.
What makes, in my opinion, this scanner a much better choice than the previous one if you can afford it, though, is the fact that it allows you to name each of the channels and banks you store. And so, instead of channel 1 of bank 3, you can have the “Approach” channel of the “London Heathrow” bank.
Finally, you should also look into this airband scanner if you are into both military and civil aviation, since it covers both frequency ranges.
A Guide to Buying an Aviation Scanner
While there are several airband receiver makers out there, in general, all of them will work perfectly fine for most amateur needs. Especially so, if you plan to listen to the communications near to where they are transmitted such as while plane spotting next to an airport’s runway. Just to give you a couple of examples, you might want to look at Uniden, Yaesu, and Icom when searching for your radio.
Brand aside, there are several things to consider when choosing the ideal airband scanner to buy including the below.
Mobility: The first thing you will have to consider is what kind of airband scanner in terms of its mobility you want to have. In general, there are handheld scanners you can walk around with, mobile scanners you can install in your car, and desktop scanners that you install in a fixed location. If you are a plane spotter, you should look at handheld scanners which you can easily carry around with you whether you go to an airport’s observation deck or near an approach path.
One-Way vs. Two-Way: While you will also find airband scanners that are just receivers (one-way radios), many of them are transceivers (two-way radios) – devices that can both transmit and receive radio signals. Unless you are a pilot needing to communicate with the air traffic control, you will only need the receiver function. In fact, keep in mind that transmitting without license, especially on airband frequencies, is illegal (check your local laws). That said, you can still get a transceiver and only use it as a receiver.
Budget: The price you will have to pay will highly depend on the exact model of scanner you will want to buy as well as whether you are willing to get a used one or prefer a brand new one. In general, however, around 100 dollars (80 pounds) should get you a decent entry-level airband scanner. Keep in mind, though, that on top of that you might also need to get some accessories which I will talk about further down.
Power: When it comes to powering the radio, handheld radios either use standard AA batteries or unique batteries designed for that radio. While the latter might give you some extra battery life, spares will be harder to come by and more expensive. If you get one with AA batteries, I recommend getting a set or two of high-capacity rechargeable ones. Mobile scanners plug into your car’s lighter outlet and desktop ones will use standard power outlet.
Controls: Depending on your preference, you will have the choice of having a scanner with keypad which will allow you to easily enter a frequency you want to listen to or without one. Keep in mind, though, that even though entering frequencies without a keypad might be a bit of a hassle, most scanners have memory where you can save channels, and so if you tend to go to the airport over and over again, you can easily do without one.
Finally, as mentioned in the section about budget, besides getting the airband scanner itself, you might also need to get some accessories. Depending on how long you plan to listen to the radio in one charge, you might want to get a set of spare batteries.
If your radio uses special batteries, you will not have much to choose from when it comes to buying spares. In case of standard AA batteries, though, there are literally tens if not hundreds of brands and models out there. Some of the ones you might want to consider for your handheld aviation scanner include Energizer, Panasonic, and Duracell (get rechargeable AA batteries on Amazon).
The other important accessory, even though you can listen to air traffic control on your scanner’s loudspeaker, are earphones. If you already have some that you use with your smartphone or computer, those will do the job (as long as they have the standard 3.5 mm jack). Otherwise, you can just get a cheap pair on Amazon or in your local electronics store.
One more accessory that you will want for your handheld scanner is a strap that you can use to hang the scanner around your neck or a belt clip.
The Two Ways to Listen to Air Traffic Control
While in the past, you needed to have an airband scanner to listen to air traffic control, nowadays there are two ways to do so.
The first of those is LiveATC – a website and an app that has air traffic control feeds for various airports provided by enthusiasts. And, the second one is the “good old way” of owning an airband receiver which I talked about in great detail earlier in this article.
LiveATC: Advantages & Disadvantages
As for LiveATC, you can either get the app on your smartphone or simply use it in your web browser by accessing this URL.
The biggest disadvantage of LiveATC is the fact that you are relying on other people’s feeds to listen in. As such, depending on the time of the day or the airport that you want to listen to, the feeds might be unavailable.
Other disadvantages of LiveATC include the fact that you have to be connected to the Internet to use it, and the fact that there might be a time lag between what you are hearing and what is actually happening.
On the other hand, LiveATC also has advantages compared to actual radios. The two biggest ones are the fact that it’s free and that you can listen to feeds located halfway across the world (with an actual airband receiver you can only listen to transmissions in your vicinity).
Airband Scanners: Advantages & Disadvantages
While LiveATC is certainly great and more than sufficient in many situations, for many spotters, an actual aviation scanner (also referred to as airband scanner, air traffic control radio scanner, airband radio, airband receiver, and so on) is an indispensable part of their equipment.
The advantages of listening to ATC using an airband radio of course include the fact that you don’t have to rely on other people sharing their feeds and that you will always be listening to the communications in real-time. And, you will not need Internet connection to listen in.
Also, as an aviation enthusiast, you might want to switch between frequencies often – something that is cumbersome with LiveATC but a breeze with an airband scanner.
All of the above comes at a cost of having to pay for and carry around an airband radio (check the first half of this article if you are considering getting one) and needing to be in the vicinity of the transmissions you want to listen to (i.e. you cannot listen to Haneda tower while being located in London).
Still, if you are a plane spotter, I highly recommend getting an airband receiver if legal in your country since it will not only make your spotting more enjoyable, but will also help you be in the right spot at the right time.
Air Traffic Control & Listening to Airband: FAQs
Below, I answer some of the questions about air traffic control and listening to airband that I was asked in the past and that I saw other people asking around the Internet. If you have any other question, please leave it below in the comments section.
What is air traffic control?
Air traffic control includes activities aimed at guiding aircraft safely from their departure gate all the way to their arrival gate.
As such, it not only includes the control tower (and the people inside it) which is what most people imagine when they hear the term. It also includes air traffic controllers that guide the aircraft while they are at their cruising altitude among others. And those, in many cases, work in centers which are not elevated like control towers and which might not even be located near an airport.
What is airband?
Airband refers to a range of VHF radio frequencies between 108 and 137 MHz which are set aside for use by civil aviation. Besides being used for air traffic control, those frequencies are also used for such as VOR beacons that help navigate aircraft separately from air traffic controllers.
As for military, they use UHF frequencies which are not part of “airband,” and so keep that in mind in case you are a military spotter and want to listen to their frequencies as well.
What is the difference between receiver, scanner, and transceiver?
A receiver is any radio that can tune into a certain frequency and listen to the transmissions on that frequency.
A scanner is a more advanced radio device that can not only tune in to a specific frequency, but that can “scan” (go through channel by channel) a range of frequencies to detect transmissions. Once it detects transmissions, it stays on that frequency until the transmission is over and then it continues scanning.
A transciever, as its name suggests, is a radio device that can not only receive but also transmit.
Is it legal to listen to air traffic control?
The very first question that many people might have is whether it is legal to listen to air traffic control. And, while you shouldn’t take the below as a legal advice, it should give you a good starting point when it comes to this question.
Just like with any issue like this, whether or not you can listen to air traffic control legally depends on where you want to do so. While in some countries such as the United States and Japan, it is perfectly legal to listen to the airband frequencies, in other countries – such as United Kingdom and Germany, it is illegal.
That said, even in countries where listening to air traffic control is technically illegal without a license, there might be cases where it’s tolerated. For example, in the United Kingdom, it is not uncommon to see people listening to airband scanners openly even at airshows.
While I will not talk about the legality of listening to airband frequencies in all countries, you can usually find the answer to that question by searching something along the lines of “airband scanners legal in [country]” on Google.
What can you hear when listening to airband channels?
Just like the term “air traffic control communications” suggests, you can mainly hear communications between pilots and air traffic controllers when listening to airband frequencies.
Rather than there being one universal frequency where every pilots and air traffic controller talk, there are several frequencies for each airport – each with its own specific function. Some of the most common frequencies include:
- Clearance: Pilots asking for and receiving permissions to fly based on the flight plans that they file.
- Ground: Approvals to start engines and get pushed back for departing aircraft, and clearing arriving aircraft to taxi to their arrival gates.
- Tower: Deals with traffic on runways, gives permissions to take-off to departing aircraft handed over from “ground” and permissions to land to arriving aircraft handed over from “approach.”
- Approach: Directs arriving aircraft towards the landing runway they were assigned, puts them into holds as necessary to ensure safe spacing between them.
- Departure: Directs departing aircraft from right after take-off until a certain altitude when they will be passed of to “center.”
- Center: Also called “center,” guiding aircraft for the most of its journey when its above a certain altitude, in a certain flight level.
The exact functions of the above feeds might vary based on the airport, especially how busy it is or how large it is. And, besides the above, there might also be other frequencies such as ATIS (automated weather information) and individual airline frequencies where pilots can communicate with their airline’s operations staff, etc.
What does a flight’s communication with air traffic control look like?
In general, an aircraft departing from a certain airport will first tune into “clearance” where it will get a permission to fly. Then, it will contact “ground” to receive permission to get pushed back and taxi. And finally, after reaching the runway holding point, it will be handed over to “tower” which will give the flight take-off clearance.
Once the flight is in the air, it will contact “departure” so that its air traffic controllers can guide it along the departure route into airspace outside the airport’s control.
Then, the flight will be handed over to a “center” that takes care of the airspace above the airport. Depending on where the aircraft is going, the aircraft might pass through multiple “centers.”
Finally, when the aircraft gets near its arrival airport and descends to a certain altitude, it will be handed over to the arrival airport’s “approach.” On that frequency, it will be guided towards its landing runway, and then, shortly before landing, it will switch to “tower.”
And, the arrival airport’s tower will give the flight a permission to land. Once the aircraft is on the ground, it will tune into “ground” again to receive clearance to taxi to its arrival gate.
Whether you are someone that enjoys spending time at a park near a busy airport or a plane spotter that travels around the world to catch different aircraft, you can get a lot of joy (and useful information) out of listening to air traffic control.
While you can do so using LiveATC, I recommend getting an airband receiver so that you can listen to the frequencies without having to have an Internet connection and without having to depend on someone else sharing them online.