Many Air-band radios/scanners are available today costing from just a few pounds to well over £700.
The cheaper radio is usually able to pick up transmissions from civilian aircraft but are limited by the
absence of accurate tuning so you have little idea of what frequency you are listening to and you are often tuned into more than one frequency at the same time.
A scanner, while more costly (about £70 and more), usually consists of a keypad to enter a particular frequency, LCD display, a memory which will remember stored frequencies, and the ability to scan through a certain set
of frequencies. There isn't any frequency overlap that you get on the cheaper Air-band radio. You can
get either a hand-held scanner, ideal for air shows etc, or a larger desk top/base station model.
The cheaper scanners can receive just the VHF aircraft band (108-137MHz) which is ideal if you want to listen to civilian aircraft transmissions. More expensive models allow you to receive the UHF aircraft band
(225-400MHz) in addition to the VHF aircraft band. These scanners can receive military aircraft transmissions
as well as civilian. In order to listen to the Red Arrows leader at an air show you would require the UHF band.
Both VHF and UHF are short range, line-of-sight radio transmissions which are
restricted to a maximum range of about 200 miles due to the curvature of the earth and usually considerably
less depending on the surroundings (hills etc). Some scanners can receive the HF (short wave) aircraft band in addition to the VHF and UHF aircraft bands. The HF band is not restricted to line-of-sight radio transmissions and can be used to monitor Shanwick and the trans-Atlantic routes etc. There are also multi-band scanners which cover much more than just the aircraft bands.
Which scanner should i buy?
It all depends on how much you are willing to pay for a scanner and what you want to use it for. I mainly use a scanner when i go to an air show so a small hand held dedicated air-band model is ideal for my use. There are many airband models on the market today all packed with various features making it hard to choose which is the best scanner for you. I will mention a few popular hand-held air-band scanners that are good value for money and ideal for listening to aviation broadcasts at air shows or airports etc.
Scanners are available at different prices with the more expensive scanners having more features, a keypad to enter frequencies easily, having more memory to store frequencies which are organised into banks etc.
Maycom offer two airband scanners: the AR108, and the FR100 for listening to civilian airband. Both these scanners are relatively cheap and good value for money although they lack a keypad, the FR100 has the new 8.33KHz spacing.
Icom have the small but very robust IC-R5 which has a wide continuous frequency range from 100KHz to 1309.995MHz which includes airband but has no keypad.
Alinco have the DJ-X30 which has a wide frequency range from 100KHz to 1.3Ghz and includes a keypad.
GRE have the PSR-295 which is very good for airband listening and has a wide frequency range and includes a keypad.
Yaesu have the VR500 which also has a wide continuous frequency range from 100KHz to 1299.99MHz including airband but also includes a keypad.
Uniden have the UBC72XLT and UBC3500XLT which both have a very wide frequency range including airband and both have keypads. The sensitive UBC3500XLT is generally thought to be the best aviation/airshow hand-held scanner that is currently available to buy today. Note that the Bearcat USC230E model will pick up civilian aircraft but not military. The new Uniden UBC 125XLT Airband Scanner receives both civilian and military frequencies, a keypad, and is a reasonable price.
If you are considering buying second-hand from Ebay then a highly sought after but obsolete scanner for aviation is the Yupiteru MVT-7100 which is considered to be superior to the newer MVT-7200 & MVT 7300 models. I use the Yupiteru VT-225 which is also a good but now obsolete dedicated airband scanner for civilian, and military airband.
Recently the spacing between airband frequencies has been reduced from 25KHz spacing to 8.33KHz spacing. This has been done to increase the number of frequencies available. Newer scanners may be equipped to deal with 8.33KHz spacing but it is a good idea to check before buying. At the moment, commercial aircraft use the new 8.33KHz spacing but the military still use the older 25KHz steps.
Actually listening to aircraft frequencies on VHF/UHF/HF air bands in the UK is illegal but actually owning and using a scanner is okay, and the authorities usually aren't
concerned. If you go to a UK air show you will see many people using air-band scanners. Please do not bring a transceiver to an airshow as it could be very dangerous. When visiting air shows
in other countries it is advisable to check if using a scanner is acceptable.
A scanner can be invaluable at an air show for listening to the tower and hearing what is going on. You will hear
the pilot talking to the tower and know exactly when a display aircraft is to take-off, ideal if you want to be in the right place at the right time to get that photograph.
Which frequencies do i use?
You can get a complete HF/VHF/UHF aviation frequency listing along with maps and other info in the excellent
Airwaves book by Photavia Press. Photavia Press also publish
a book which is a directory of civilian and military callsigns. You can order these books on their website or you can usually
obtain a copy at an air show.
You can find the scanner frequencies for many RAF bases, Airports, Airfields here.
In addition to these frequencies you should have all the Common Air Display Frequencies in your scanner for a UK airshow:
121.175, 130.675, 132.90, 130.50, 130.625, 134.55
and the NATO Common Frequencies:
Tower - 122.1, 257.8
Radar - 123.3, 344.0, 362.3, 385.4
Also add the frequencies of any Display Teams that are there.