Scanners 201: Getting the Most Out of Your Scanner

Recently, I wrote about the basics of buying and using a scanner. However there are several helpful features and accessories that go beyond the basic functionality and were beyond the scope of that article as a result.  So let's dive right in and take a look at some features that you mind helpful.

Using Lockout and Primary

In part 1, I mentioned listening to different frequencies such as approach, ground, and ATIS at various times. However if you leave the ATIS in your scan it is all you will hear (it broadcasts in a continuous loop) and the others will just create clutter. A great way to program these channels in but not always have them actively being scanned is to lock them out, keeping them in the scanner's memory for a later time.  I program many different frequencies into my scanner, many of which I hardly ever listen to, and keep them locked out.  That way they are there if I need them.  Operation may vary from scanner to scanner, but to unlock a channel, I simply press the button for manual mode and page through until I find the channel I want to unlock.  Another great use for lockout is to temporarily remove a channel that is catching too much interference or which is monopolizing the feed. Another great feature found on many scanners is 'primary' , which scans one particular frequency more often than everything else. I typically set the main tower frequency as primary as that is mostly what I want to listen to.

Get a Better Antenna

Sad to say, but the "rubber duckie" antenna that came with your scanner is crap compared to what you can purchase as an aftermarket accessory.  The included antenna is designed to be cheap and receive a wide range of frequencies, however it sacrifices range and reception quality in order to accomplish that. Fortunately, there are far better options available that aren't all that expensive.  Look for either an aviation band antenna or a "gainer" or "super gainer" antenna for the best results.  The super gainer that I use is about 16 inches long but is fairly flexible.  Gainer or airband antennas will be somewhat shorter, in the eight to nine inch range.  One thing to be careful of is that there are two different connector styles used on scanner antennas, BNC and SMA, so you want to be sure to get one that matches your scanner.  If you don't know which one you need, take a look in your manual.  Look to spend $25-$35 on a good quality antenna. And then stash that stock antenna away as a spare.  I keep mine around for when I am at an airshow or other event and have my scanner stashed in my bag out of sight.

Better Ways to Listen

Lets face it, airplanes can get be loud, even on final approach when the engines are idling. For situations where the scanner cant quite put out the volume level that I need, a carry along a battery powered external speaker that I purchased off of Amazon. It uses AA batteries just like my scanner does and I always have a few sets of those with me. Pretty much any battery powered, portable speaker should work just fine.  Look to spend $20 or less on one of these.  There are speakers marketed as external scanner speakers, however with a street price in the $30 range there are many less expensive options.

On the other hand, sometimes you don't want to interrupt others with radio chatter or attract extra attention from a suspicious public. For times like that, I keep a pair of cheap earbuds in my bag. You don't need anything fancy, just something that is comfortable and which will stay in your ear.  If you don't already have a pair lying around, look to spend $10 or less.  One thing to keep in mind with both speakers and headphones is that scanner communications are not exactly high-fidelity audio streams so you don't need anything fancy or expensive.

More to Listen To

The listening fun doesn't stop with the approach, tower, and ground frequencies.  There are channels for different airlines at many airports, and even ramp control channels at many of the larger airports.  I can personally attest to the fun times that can be had listening to the JFK Terminal 4 (International Arrivals Terminal) ramp control during the evening.  There are lots of aircraft from many different places, most of which don't speak English as their native language, and that can make for some very interesting discussions on busy frequencies. While these sorts of communications may not be your first choice to listen to while spotting, they can be a fun change of pace.

I hope that this series of posts has helped you to better understand how to use a scanner for spotting.  They are an invaluable tool for any spotter and can greatly enhance your aviation experience.