Scanners 101: What to Buy and How to Use

As I have mentioned before, a radio scanner is one of my favorite tools to use when planespotting.  In fact, after my camera and lens, my scanner is the next thing I prep and pack before heading out. A good scanner lets you know when there is going to be a runway change and what the next few aircraft you will be seeing are before you can actually make them out.  In addition, they provide some really cool and appropriate background noise for your spotting adventures.  In order to make efficient use of this technology, you need to have a basic idea of what you need and how to use it.

There are two main types of scanners available: portable and base/mobile.  For the sake of this discussion, we are going to focus solely on the handheld radio-style portable models. These typically range in price from roughly $100-$500 with the more expensive models being able to receive digital and/or trunked (multiple independent channels on one frequency, similar to an analog cell phone) communications, monitor a larger range of frequencies, and store more programmed channels (more on that later). Fortunately for us, most aircraft communication is done with analog, non-trunked signals.  This puts a basic, entry-level scanner squarely in our sights and also makes programming significantly more simple.  One popular scanner among spotters today is the Uniden Bearcat BC75XLT.  It is a capable, 300 channel scanner in a compact package, and it is able to be programmed via a Windows-based PC with an included cable and free software downloaded from the internet, all for about $100.  Other recommended scanner brands are GRE and Radio Shack which sells re-badged scanners made by both Uniden and GRE under their PRO nameplate. While a basic scanner such as that one is certainly sufficient for planespotting, there is one feature, and alpha-numeric display, which is generally not found on the cheapest scanners. You may find that it is worth paying a little more for this feature so that you can see a description of what channel you are listening to. One thing to be cautious of are the so-called "race" scanners which are generally relatively inexpensive but only cover a narrow 450-470 MHz band that is nowhere near the aviation bands. The primary frequencies used for air traffic control of civilian aircraft are 118.0000 MHz to 137.0000 MHz, so that is what you should be most interested in.

Once you have found a scanner that fits your needs and budget, you need to know the basics of how to use it.  Fortunately, aviation radio communications are fairly basic and that makes listening to them relatively easy.  There are three basic modes to use when you want to listen to frequencies on your scanner.  The first and most basic is manual mode, where you key in a specific channel and that is all that you listen to.  Next comes service scanning mode where all frequencies used by a particular type of communication are scanned.  This is useful for areas where you don't know what channels are in use, but may pick up other traffic than just the airport you are spotting at.  It is also fairly inefficient as it spends a lot of time scanning unused or unneeded frequencies, potentially causing you to miss some of the communications that you are listening for.  The final, most useful mode is a programmed scan, where the channels that you want to listen in on are programmed into the device and only they are scanned.  This is a far more quick and efficient method of scanning, though it requires some amount of setup time and knowledge of frequencies.

Before we get into how to program a scanner, lets take a look at what banks and channels are.  Most if not all scanners have the ability to group frequencies into one of 10 banks where each frequency gets a unique channel number assigned to it. I find it easiest to group all of the channels for a particular airport into one bank that can then be activated when I am that particular airport. Having a basic understanding of that, its time to take a look at the two ways to program the desired information into your device.   First off, you can manually enter the frequencies, assign them a bank and channel, and give them a name if your scanner allows it.  This can be a fairly confusing and time-consuming process at least at first, but can be done without any additional equipment or software.  The other method is to use PC-based software and a cable that attaches your scanner to the computer for a far more simple entry interface.  The downside to this method is that for many scanners the cable and/or the full version of the software carries an additional cost.

The airwaves truly come alive at a major airport with dozens of frequencies in use for air traffic control, airport operations, and airline communications. While the vast majority of them hold little spotting value (though some can be quite interesting to listen to), a few are absolutely key.  I typically tune in to the tower and approach frequencies while spotting arrivals and the tower and ground frequencies while shooting departures.  At a busy airport this can be about 10 frequencies in total.  Another frequency worth making note of is the airport's ATIS channel which will tell you in a brief message the weather and which runways are active.

Of course this is just the basics of what you can do with a scanner while spotting.  Look for another article soon on some of the more advanced topics.