Is it worth it to buy a handheld radio (transceiver)? That was a question I received regularly as an active flight instructor, from both student and certificated pilots… This is one of those things that aspiring pilots see in a Sportys catalog or on a pilot supplies website, which costs a little more than most other aviation items but is less than the really expensive items like a noise-cancelling headset, as an exmaple. I believe this adds to the desire for many pilots to want to purchase a handheld. It is in a class of pilot supplies higher than the flashlight that includes 5 different colors of light, a compass, can opener, AM/FM radio and a multitude of other useless, yet seemingly cool, features…
Many of the pilots that asked me about transceivers would see my handheld’s antenna protruding from the end pocket of my flight bag. Of course if a flight instructor has one, why shouldn’t they, right? My response is that I think it’s a good thing to have, but not the most important for a VFR pilot flying during the day.
I always explain that as a flight instructor the reason that I carry a handheld is so when I hop out of the airplane to let a student go up solo I can keep my headset on, plug into my radio and listen along to the radio as they make their position reports. Additionally, during the winter this trick works well to keep one’s ears warm when a wool cap is not available! Since my students and private pilot friends probably won’t be soloing anyone anytime soon the reason they may elect to carry one is different.
For student pilots, a handheld is a good aid to training/learning. Sitting along an airport fence and watching the flow of traffic while listening to radio calls on a handheld can prove invaluable for a student learning position reports at nontowered airports and proper protocols for interacting with a control tower! For those reasons, I recommend purchasing a handheld for students, but only if they can do it in addition to purchasing more valuable items (such as, Gleim test prep software or the admission to an Aviation Seminars “test prep” session).
For private pilots, a handheld radio provides a back up for their aircraft avionics. I typically recommend a generic radio, not the “super duper deluxe” version, complete with localizer display, that is overkill…
For IFR pilots, flying “in the soup” (clouds), a handheld is essentially insurance. If their aircraft’s radios go out, they can continue to communicate with Air Traffic Control (ATC). I often compare handheld radios to insurance. They are only expensive if you never need to use it. But once you need it and you have it, it is SO TOTALLY worth it!
As any of my former flight instructor students could attest, I always recommend a CFI have access to a handheld. I am a believer in the surprise solo, not a predetermined first solo. Essentially, pulling the aircraft over to a run-up area or ramp, completing the proper endorsements and then hopping out. This often prevents over thinking, stressing and needless nervousness on the part of the student. Having a handheld, ready to go, makes the first solo experience all the more efficient and easy.
Of course, there is one other reason for any pilot to have a handheld radio. Most flight bags come with a special pocket for the radio, many of which are not useable for other items, making the radio necessary to fill that cool new flight bag you just purchased online! This isn’t always the case tough, the Brightline Flight Bag is nice because the handheld radio sleeve can just as easily be used to hold a bottle of water as opposed to the more constrictive pockets of many other flight bags that won’t fit the round bottle in the square pocket…
Buying a handheld early on in training is likely a good investment; it will be a learning aid early on and help a student overcome the radio fear that so many students and even many certificated pilots have… Then the radio serves as insurance for the radios and if the pilot goes all the way on to become a flight instructor, the radio is a teaching tool. One high-quality transceiver can go full circle from learning aid to teaching tool… Definitely worth it for any pilot!
-Fly Safe, @MTElia1B9