Aviation Scanner Buyer’s Guide

Aviation Scanner Buyer's Guide

Want to listen to airport & aviation communication? This is the best place to start.

Aviation scanning and all of the technical terms around it can be a bit overwhelming, especially if you’re new to scanning so we created this guide to give you all the information you need to choose the best aviation scanner.

Short answer: Our aviation radio package has all the options you are looking for.

The Aviation Scanner Buyer’s Guide Covers

How to Listen to Aviation Communication
What to Listen to
Who Uses Aviation Scanners
Aviation Scanner Frequencies
Aviation Scanner Programming
How to Buy an Aviation Scanner
What to Buy With your Aviation Scanner
Aviation Scanning FAQ


How to Listen to Aviation Communication


Aviation communication scanning

There are two ways to listen to aviation communication.

Stream Online & Apps

There are several places online where you can find free feeds of aviation communication. There are also scanner apps where you can listen to aviation communication such as LiveATC.

While online feeds and apps have opened up aviation scanning to a whole new generation, there are several limitations to them including:

› Online feeds and apps are just streams from other people’s scanners, so you are reliant on them to keep their feed up.
› In an emergency, these feeds can and have been taken down (this happened during the Boston Marathon bombing).
› You cannot scan airshows as there is no feed for them.
› Finding smaller channels like cargo, private flights, airport security or maintenance is difficult.


Aviation Scanner

You can also listen to aviation communication with an aviation scanner. Aviation scanners operate like an AM/FM radio in that they can receive signals but cannot transmit.

There are several names for aviation scanners that all mean the same thing:

› Aviation Scanner
› ATC Scanner
› Airport Radio Scanner
› Aircraft Scanner
› Air Traffic Scanner
› Police Scanner
› Aviation Radio
› Police Scanner Radio
› Scanner


What to Listen to


police scanner airport aviation

Airborne communication can be heard 100 miles away. Lots to listen to including:

Approach Control
Pilots communicate with the approach control who is responsible for sequencing incoming aircraft for runways specified by the tower.

Ground Control
Tells pilots which runway and taxiways to use.

Local Control
Issues clearances for takeoff and landing, as well as sequencing in the local pattern at smaller airports.

ARTCC’s (Air Route Traffic Control Centers)
Once the aircraft leaves the airports’ airspace they are handed off to the ATC.

CTAF (Common Traffic Advisory Frequency)
Used at smaller airports (non-towered) for pilots to communicate arrivals and departures.

UNICOM (Universal Communications)
Common at airports with no tower or FSS.

ATIS (Automatic Terminal Information Service)
Each airport has a frequency that continuously plays a recorded message giving pilots flight information, weather, runway details, etc.

Listen to all the communication at an airshow such as the Blue Angels.

Military Communication (Milcom)
Listen to bombers, air fighters, transport planes, helicopters and more.

Additional Flight
Blimps, hot air balloons, NASA, helicopters.


Who Uses Aviation Scanners?


Scanning an airshow with police scanner

Aviation scanners are popular with:

› Aviation enthusiasts and fans
› Amateur radio hobbyists
› Pilots
› Emergency personnel (firefighters, police, EMS, etc.)
› Airport staff
› Air show attendees


Anyone can use an aviation scanner to hear what’s going on in their area. Public airwaves in the US are free to listen to. A few states have restrictions about listening in your vehicle, you can read more  about scanner laws in the US.


Aviation Scanner Frequencies


US frequency spectrum

As you can see from the image above, the radio frequency spectrum in the US is quite complicated. For a full explanation of the radio frequency spectrum you can read more here and/or here. For the purpose of aviation scanning and to keep this article brief(ish), there are two relevant formats.

› Phase 2 Digital
› Analog


Civilian Aviation Communication = Analog

Any scanner we sell can pick up all civilian aviation communication. The most popular scanner type is analog as these scanners cost around $100 where as the new digital scanner cost around $400.

Military Aviation Communication = Analog & Phase 2 Digital

Military Aviation Communication, or milcom, is broadcast using 2 formats:

› Phase 2 Digital
› Analog


If you want to hear all military communication you will need a phase 2 digital scanner.

There is no easy way to look up what format each area is broadcast in (Milcom bands are not published for security reasons) the best way to determine this is to ask others in your area. You can find aviation scanning resources and regional resources here or buy a phase 2 digital scanner and you’ll be set. Worth noting is that most military planes use analog channels at air shows so civilians can listen.


Aviation Scanner Programming


While programming each aviation scanner is unique, it’s been our experience that once users read their owner’s manual, programming is relatively intuitive. As aviation frequencies rarely (if ever) change this only needs to be done once. You will be able to add channels as you listen and discover them as programming is not a big part of aviation scanning. However when you plan to purchase an aviation scanner you can also have it professionally programmed for free with purchase.



How to Buy an Aviation Scanner


There are a lot of aviation scanners on the market and like most electronics – you get what you pay for. There are 3 main things to consider when buying a aviation scanner:

Frequency Bands

As we discussed earlier, depending on what you want to listen to, you must purchase the correct format:

› Phase 2 Digital
› Analog


While it is easy to buy a phase 2 digital scanner and be able to listen to everything, aviation scanners that pick up different formats vary greatly in cost:

› Phase 2 Digital Scanners = $399+
Analog Scanners = $99+


Where Will You Listen

There are 3 ‘types’ of aviation scanners.

Handheld Aviation Scanners – Handheld aviation scanners are portable & can be carried around like a walkie-talkie.
Mobile Aviation Scanners – Mobile aviation scanners are typically installed in a vehicle.
Desktop/Base Aviation Scanners – Desktop aviation scanners are stationary devices for your home or office.


The type of scanner you buy is based solely on your own personal preference and where you will be listening from. Handheld scanner are by far the most popular due to their portability and lower cost.

Aviation Scanner Manufacturers

There are two scanner manufacturers Whistler & Uniden. Both are solid manufacturers, have a year one warranty & have comparable models across the board.



What to Buy With your Aviation Scanner


Aviation Scanner Antenna

police scanner antenna on roof

If you plan on scanning from your home or vehicle you may want an antenna to increase what you can pick up on your scanner. The type of antenna you need varies greatly based on where you live, what you want to listen to, types of structures nearby (buildings, trees, hills) that may block signal and several other considerations. 30 miles is the ball park range on all police scanners with the antenna that comes with them. External antennas can increase this by about 50%. Contact us and we can help you find the best antenna or check out or Antenna Buyer’s Guide.

Accessories to Buy with a Handheld Aviation Scanner.

Uniden Racing Headset - NASCAR Headset

If you listen outside near the airport or at an airshow it can get very loud so over-the-head headphones are recommended.


Male to female splitter

If you’re going to listen to the same aviation scanner as someone else via headphones, you’ll want a splitter.


Handheld aviation scanners typically last 4-6 hours per charge and all handheld aviation scanners use AA batteries.

Aviation Scanner Case

Uniden Nylon Scanner Case

An aviation scanner case will protect your handheld scanner from the elements and keep it looking new.

AC (wall) & DC (car) Charger

All handheld aviation scanners come with a USB cord only so you will need to purchase an AC (wall) adapter to charge at home and a DC (car) adapter to charge in your vehicle.



Aviation Scanning FAQ


How far away will my aviation scanner work?

About 100 miles from planes in the sky, but from airports it will vary greatly based on where you live and what’s around you (buildings, trees, hills, etc.). Scanners work on line of site and from the tower; 30 miles is the range.

How do I program my scanner?

We can program your aviation scanner for you which is free with purchase. Each scanner is different, please consult your owner’s manual or visit your scanners’ product page to see details on that particular scanner.

What is the best aviation scanner?

Civilian only – We recommend the BCD75XLT.

Military & Civilian – We recommend the WS1080.

Are aviation scanners legal?

Yes. Here is an article that goes into great detail regarding scanning laws in the US.


What do you think?

Have any questions or think we should add something? Disagree with anything we wrote? Let us know in the comments below or ask us.


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  • Bill

    So if I get a scanner I can hear everything at air shows?

    • Hey Bill – thanks for commenting.

      Yes, if you get a scanner you can hear all aviation communication at an air show. As we mentioned above, you can hear civilian communication with an analog scanner but to hear military communication you will need to buy a digital scanner.

      In addition to aviation communication at air shows you can also hear other local channels such as police and other emergency services. But scanner type (analog, trunked or digital) depends on where you live and what you want to listen to. Feel free to read more here: http://www.zipscanners.com/resources/ or contact us to find out more about your specific area. Thanks!

      • Ken

        An analog scanner covering the UHF Milband will work just fine. Some examples of what you can hear are the US Navy Blue Angels and Canadian Snowbirds at airshows. Both operate on analog modes.
        Have fun!!! 🙂

        • Ken is correct and we stand corrected. An analog scanner will work at air shows. Thanks Ken – you rock!

  • Ken

    Just a few typos:

    “Civilian air communication (108 – 137 MHz) can be picked up on any of these scanner formats:

    › Digital

    › Trunked

    › Analog”

    108-118 MHz is used for radio navigation VOR

    118-137 Mhz is where you will find voice comms

    Generally all analog in the US, and I’m not aware of any trunked and Digital systems on the aviation band?

    “Military air communication (225 – 400 MHz) can only be picked up on one format:

    › Digital ”

    There is plenty of analog here too. 🙂

    Hope this helps?

    Great site!

    • Ken – you’re right.
      We have updated the document to reflect what you have written. Thank you so much for sharing this! Much appreciated

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