Radio information and setup for ultralight pilots

By Had Robinson K3FQE
updated March 13, 2020

A. Radio information

Why bother having a radio, getting the proper license, and learning how to use it?  "Hey, I know how to turn on the radio in my car!"  You're on your way to being a genius and that's really good but it is not so easy.

Pilots have been killed because of one of the radios in use by a group of pilots in the air was stuck in transmit mode.  This effectively makes the common frequency unusable by everyone else.  Properly setting up the radio can help prevent these kinds of tragedies.  For example, knowing how to setup the "transmission timeout timer" in the setup section of the radio is CRITICALLY important.  Setting it to 60 seconds or less will automatically turn off a continuously transmitting radio so others can use the frequency during ordinary operations or if there is an emergency.

Why not use a Sena with a 2 meter radio?

I have the latest Sena system that I use for PPG, especially when I fly solo because I can easily receive cell phone calls via Bluetooth.  I do not recommend it for PG.  The Sena system is designed for motorcycle riders and is more suitable for group chatting.  It is primarily a VOX setup (voice operated transmission) but PTT is also available.  It is 2 or 3 times as expensive as a simple 2 meter radio setup with a PTT button on the helmet.  The noise canceling microphone is about as good as the NAC system used on the ICARO helmets.  A typical 2 meter Sena setup has poorer audio quality compared to a simple 2 meter radio connected to the Thermal Tracker system.  A specific advantage for PPG pilots is that it is 100% legal to use.  I have my cell phone and 2 meter radio connected to my Sena and this is a great convenience.  In general, I only use the Sena if it is what others have or that I need easy access to my cell phone while flying.  The Sena can also play your favorite music but flying an ultralight is an intensive operation and distractions only increase risk, especially from power lines.

Get your Amateur Radio operator license

All pilots would greatly benefit (and, possibly, save their own lives) if they would get their FCC amateur radio license.   It is so easy and local hams are thrilled to help.  You actually might learn something.  Using a radio is way more than just "hitting a button".  How do you know you have been heard by other pilots?  Why have a power setting on the radio and why does it matter?  What is the proper way to speak into a microphone?  How long should transmissions be?  What is the danger of a "chatty" operator?  Radio skills are no different than flying skills.  That is, they both require effort and focus.

Do not be foolish and think you know everything.  I routinely deal with new pilots who are smart, well educated, and competent in their fields (including military aviators) who have had serious accidents, some permanently crippling, because they *thought* they knew how to fly an ultralight.  One of my students wishes he had listened to me as he will never fly again nor walk particularly well.  Pride and ego are not compatible with long term aviation safely.  'Nuff said....

The American Radio Relay League has this helpful resource for those who want to become licensed.  You will want to study the section on the Technician Class license.  To find a training class near you, complete this form.

Use of the Amateur bands by pilots who are not licensed will upset Amateur Radio operators who hear them and can result in complaints to the FCC.  Getting noticed by the FCC is similar to being noticed by the FAA.  The pilot may need lots of money (fines) to make either go away.  Don't be a nuisance – we already have way too many of these people in our flying community who have helped ruin the public's attitude towards our sport in some parts of the U. S., especially on the West coast and in New England.  Rude and/or dangerous pilots affect us all.

USHPA radio authorization

Study the USHPA Radio Authorization (RA) guide, take the easy exam (administered by any USHPA instructor), and apply to USHPA for an RA license.  It is just $15 USD.  The guide was authorized by the FCC (Federal Communications Commission).  Studying will help pilots obey the law and, more importantly, increase their margin of safety while flying.

Here are the special USHPA radio frequencies which are located in the commercial 2 meter business band: 151.505, 151.625, 151.925, 151.955, and 158.400 MHz, simplex, no tones   USHPA call sign: WPRY420

The best 2 meter band radio for pilots

The best radio for pilots is the YAESU FT-60R.  It is of top quality, very durable, and has a simple connection to the economical Thermal Tracker helmet communication set (PG) and the ICARO PPG helmet (PPG).  When the FT-60R powers on, it shows the battery voltage.  Knowing if your battery is about to go dead could be helpful....  The FT-60R is the only radio I know that has this important feature.  Other brands and YAESU models are complicated to operate when flying, constantly drain their batteries when off, have a complicated external audio connection, are difficult to program and switch batteries, lock the keypad, etc.  The Baofeng transceiver costs about 80% less, mostly works, but is severely limited in receiver sensitivity and selectivity (which is why they are so inexpensive).  It does not have an easy way to check battery voltage.  It should NOT be used for pilot to pilot communication in the air.  The only downside of the FT-60R is that the external audio connector MUST be held in place with a rubber band, a piece of Velcro, or by a tightly fitting radio pocket/harness.

Southwest Airsports sells the specially modified FT-60R for use on the USHPA frequencies for $190 + shipping.  Contact us to order and we will send an invoice.  No quality 2 meter radio will transmit out-of-the-box on the business band frequencies and must be internally modified.  The only exception is the Baofeng which is basically a disposable transceiver which work most of the time....

Why not purchase a business band radio with the requisite license?  Pilots may have to spend upwards of $500 or more, have to construct special adapters in order to use it with common PG or PPG helmets, and be burdened by a much larger and heavier radio that requires expensive batteries and a special charger.  The FCC knows that the YAESU 2 meter radios (and nearly all others) can be easily modified to work in the business bands and that the Baofeng works out-of-the-box.  However, they choose to do nothing about it.  I can only surmise that this is because the PG and PPG community is so small that this technical violation of the rules is not an issue and may continue – for now.

PPG'ers should get their amateur radio license because the USPPA has no station license in the business bands that members can use.

Aviation band radios

Aviation band (airband) radios are very different than the typical 2 meter radios that are used by hams and business band users.  The airband radios are used for communication between all general aviation aircraft and between aircraft and air traffic control towers.  They have special frequencies and utilize a special form of modulation (AM).  There is nothing anyone can do to modify, rig, purchase, etc. that will enable a 2 meter FM transceiver to transmit in AM mode.  It is not some simple matter, electronically.  The transmitting section of an AM radio is radically different than that of an FM radio.  Pilots can read here why aviation uses AM rather than FM.  It is a critical safety issue due to the FM "capture effect".

If you plan on operating near an airport or going cross country (PG or PPG), it is important that you have an airband radio and learn how to use it.  Briefly, you should always announce your intentions to other aircraft in the area just before launching e.g. "Tulsa traffic, this is PPG07, will be launching from the ultralight operating area at 0900 hours and heading south, Tulsa traffic."  An airport manager or a general aviation pilot can help with the best content of an announcement, the correct frequency to use, etc.  PG or PPG pilots that operate near busy aviation traffic need to demonstrate that they are responsible, something that too many are not.  Their irresponsible behavior affects the rest of us and is the main reason so many airport managers and general pilots are openly hostile to ultralight operations anywhere near them.  Will you do your part?  I hope so.

Because our paramotors do not have shielded ignition systems, reception of signals from airband radios may be unintelligible.  PPG pilot Frank Hoffman has done some experimenting with this and has discovered that the use of a resistor type spark plug greatly helps eliminate ignition noise.

PPG pilots can purchase a handheld airband radio for under $300 that includes the proper cables and pigtails to connect to your typical ICARO PPG helmet.

Radio manuals

B. Radio setup

The instructions below are for the YAESU.  Other brands of 2m FM amateur radio transceivers are very similar.  These are NOT instructions for setting up an aviation band radio.

Note: A problem of the YAESU FT-60R (and some others) is the connection to an external speaker and microphone.  Pilots must either have a radio harness that will FIRMLY hold the connector in the radio or put a rubber band or a piece of Velcro around the radio to hold the connector in place.  IF THE CONNECTOR SLIPS OUT PARTIALLY THE RADIO WILL GO INTO TRANSMIT MODE!

Microphone position

PPG pilots have high ambient noise because of the propeller and, to a lesser extent, the engine.  Some types of noise-canceling sets require the pilot to almost touch the microphone with his mouth.  Pilots will have to experiment with their particular headset to determine what is the best position of the microphone.  For PG this not a problem if, for example, the Thermal Tracker communication system is used.  This is because the microphone is buried deep in the lining of the helmet and ambient noise is low.

Set mode items of critical importance to pilots

If your radio is not working properly, completely reset it before making the following changes.  On how to do this on the YAESU, see "Resetting the radio" below or refer to the respective manual for your radio.  You may lose any pre-programmed memory values, however.

Some radios may be different in how to enter the SET mode but the SET parameters are similar for all radios, including the Baofeng.  Please refer to the "Baofeng Quick Setup" link above to program the SET functions on that radio.

YAESU – Press the “F” key (function key) and then “0” (set key).  (Note that some radios may be slightly different in how to enter the "SET" mode.)  Rotate the dial (can be the inner or outer dial) until the number you wish to check/change appears at the left of the display.  Press the “F” again to toggle between the item description and the value.  Change the value by rotating the top (or bottom) right knob.  To save, be sure the display is the description, not the SET value and then press the PTT button to save and return to the mode you left (VFO or MR).  For other radios, check the respective manual. 

Recommended settings for YAESU

9    Rx SAVE – OFF (receive save function) – default is .25 sec
10  Tx SAVE – OFF (transmit save function) – default is off
11  APO – 3 hours (automatic power off) – default is off
22  TOT – 1 minute (transmission time out) – default is off  (this SET value is CRITICAL for the safety of other pilots!)
32  LK Mode – K + D (all keys & dial locked) – default is key only
37  BAT check – shows the battery voltage – recharge if below 7.3V – 7.4V  Some power on with the battery voltage showing.

Changing the various set commands from their defaults without thoroughly understanding what you are doing can easily make your radio a nuisance (and even dangerous) to yourself and others, especially #22.

Transmit/Receive Save Function

Both these set functions save battery power but have significant drawbacks.  For example, waiting 2 seconds for your receiver to turn on after it receives a transmission will cause you to lose the first 2 seconds of what is being transmitted.  Activating the transmit save function lowers the radio’s transmit level if the prior received signal is very strong.  If you are near another pilot and receive a transmission, the next time you transmit, your power level will be lowered greatly.  If the other pilot flies away, he won’t hear you as your power level may be too low.  It will not correct itself until he contacts you again.  Meanwhile, you have no idea whether your transmission was heard or not.  It gets more complicated if you have many pilots.  Turn these features off!

APO automatic power off

There is nothing more annoying than to be at launch, turn your radio on, and nothing happens.  A serious design flaw with YAESU radios is that it is easy to accidently turn your radio on with ordinary handling.  If you have this function set correctly the chances of having a dead battery are lessened.  The exact time out should be more than the time you expect to be in the air.  The APO clock starts from the time of your last transmission.  Three hours should be plenty for any pilot.  If you are not communicating within a 3 hour period, you probably are not in the air.  When the radio is about to turn off, it plays a tune (Beethoven's "Ode to Joy").  If you push the PTT to transmit, the timer will reset and the radio will stay on.

Transmission Time Out Time

It is of vital importance to set this feature.  Pilots may have a malfunction of their PTT wiring and their radio will transmit until they discover the problem or the battery goes dead.  Either way, other pilots in the area will not be able to communicate.  Such scenarios can endanger pilot safety as vital information cannot be shared, calls for help received, etc.  Setting the TOT correctly (1 min) can help prevent tragedy to say nothing of the annoyance you could be to other pilots.  This writer knows of one needless death that could have been avoided if the radios in use had been properly setup and if the users had obtained minimal training in radio use.

Transmit power level

It is important that other pilots can hear you in the air.  Ordinarily, the “mid” setting of 1-2 watts should be used.  The “low” setting of .5 watts is not enough to be heard more than a few hundred yards away. The “high” setting, however, will quickly drain your battery and broadcast your signal for a hundred miles.  In fact, FCC rules state that you are to only use enough power to maintain adequate communications.  To change it, press the “F” key and then “3” (low).  Rotate the dial to change the power level.  Press the “F” key again.  Note: The display will read “low” in both the “low” and “mid” power settings.  If you can see other pilots the “mid” setting is more than adequate.  If you cannot see other pilots, try the “high” setting.

Locking the Keypad and Dial

Radios that are in a pilot’s harness are prone to having various parts pressed hard, including the buttons.  It is important that the radio be locked when flying but the right mode must be chosen (both keypad and dial locked).  To do this, see above (recommended settings #32) and be sure the mode is “K + D” which means that both the keypad and dial will be locked.  On newer radios, you can also prevent any transmissions of the radio (PTT locked).  If you choose “ALL” on the newer radios, you won’t be able to transmit!  Turn on the lock mode by pressing the “F” key (function) and #6 (lock).  On newer YAESU radios, there is not a separate key to initiate the lock mode.  Instead, just hold down the “F” key for a few seconds to lock the radio.  A little key icon will appear in the lower right of the display.  BAOFENG radios lock the same way.

BAT check

The VX-150/170 and the FT-250R/270R (unlike the FT-60R) do not display the battery voltage at power on.  Do not fly with a battery less than 7.3/7.4 volts.  Always carry an extra fully charged battery – you might need it, especially if you are injured.

Memory Operations

Always make sure the power is set to the right value e.g. to "medium" BEFORE saving a frequency to memory.

To save a frequency to memory (YAESU models), get in the VFO mode by pressing #8 (VFO).  Repeatedly pressing “VFO” will toggle between the two VFO banks “A” and “B”.  Choose one or the other – it doesn’t matter.  Dial the frequency you want (but without the first number e.g. "1" on single band radios like the VX-150). To start over, press the PTT button or power cycle the radio.  To save it to memory hold the “F” for one second and then immediately rotate the dial to pick the memory channel you want. (If the channel is blinking, it already has a frequency stored in it.)  Then press the “F” key momentarily again and the frequency will be saved to memory but you will still be in VFO mode.  To check what you saved in memory, press the “MR” button.  If you press the “MR” twice, the “MR” in the display will blink and the radio will be in temporary VFO mode where you can adjust the displayed frequency up or down.  It is easier to do this than to go to VFO mode and then dial in the frequency you want.

Resetting the radio

If you program your radio incorrectly and have no idea what happened or how to fix it, you can reset it.  YAESU: Turn it off, hold down both the PTT button and the lamp button (two buttons down below the PTT button) while turning on the radio.  It will make an interesting set of beeps.  Turn the dial to “ALL.RST”.  To reset just the set values, dial “SET.RST”.  To reset just the memory, dial “MEM.ONLY”.  Now press the “F” key briefly.  Power cycle the radio.  Other brands of radios are similar.

Fly safely!

Turkey Vulture