Handheld transceiver selection

Discussion in 'Flight Following' started by Artiom, Dec 2, 2010.

  1. Artiom

    Artiom Pre-takeoff checklist

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    As holidays approaching I need to tell my family what gift do I want. So I was thinking about getting handheld transceiver. I recently moved to SF Bay area where airspace is extremely crowded and in case the radio dies it will be difficult and not safe to fly :hairraise:.
    I'm planning to use this transceiver as a backup device, to get weather before flight and listen to the ATC while near the airport.
    I searched the web but didn't really see any good review or comparation of the handheld radios. I don't think I need VOR capability on handheld so I selected those two as a candidates:
    ICOM IC-A6 $230
    Vertex VXA-220 Pro VI $169
    Don't see significant difference between those two from the descriptions except $60.
    Any suggestions and feedback will be greatly appreciated.
     
  2. Matthew

    Matthew Touchdown! Greaser!

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    There are tons of "what handheld should I get?" posts, so you should be able to get a lot of info that way.

    In my glider club we rely on handhelds, so I've used the Vertex and Icom a lot. I own the Icom - the Vertex is louder, that's good on a busy ramp when the radio is on your belt. I prefer the user-interface on the Icom. I don't know why there is always that price difference between the two, but it's always there. Both are rock solid and will survive being dropped, tossed around in a flight bag, being caught in the rain, ...

    Only problem I've ever had with the Icom is with the headset adapter and the remote PTT. It causes some feedback in the mic circuit of my headset. Icom service is aware of this and has some suggestions on their website, but it's hit or miss as to whether or not it helps - depends on the headset, I guess.

    If you can borrow one of each, play with them a bit. There really is not much difference technically, but you might find one easier to use than the other.
     
  3. weilke

    weilke Touchdown! Greaser!

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    I have one.

    Pro:
    - built well enough to pound tiedown stakes into the dry clay or a prop into shape after a ground-strike
    - AA backup battery pack.

    Con:
    - the operating logic is overly complex. A tool that requires a bound volume for an operating manual defeats the purpose.
    - it lacks a separate squelch knob (you can reprogram the volume knob to be squelch, but then you need to change volume numerically)

    I had to use it once 'in anger' when I broke the PTT switch off the yoke after my engine quit :eek:. I used it to talk to departure about 6 miles from the transmitter and it worked with the little rubber-ducky antenna.

    Would I buy it again: Maybe.
     
    Last edited: Dec 3, 2010
  4. Arbiter419

    Arbiter419 Cleared for Takeoff

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    Talking to the airport manager at SEG who has one on him at all times at the airport, he swears by Vertex. They get banged around alot fueling planes, moving them around, etc. and he's busted up a few Icoms and similar, but he just loves the Vertex.
     
  5. Artiom

    Artiom Pre-takeoff checklist

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    Thanks for your feedback.
    I searched this forum and the web before starting this thread. Wasn't able to get the information I'm getting here from just 3 posts. All I've found before was for different aspects of the hendheld radios but not comparation of those two models.
    What I really like about Vertex is AA batteries backup. Doesn't hurt much to throw in the flight bag half dozen batteries just in case but might be really handy when main battery dies.
     
  6. weilke

    weilke Touchdown! Greaser!

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    I rotate those batteries into a bowl with batteries for various childrens toys about once a year. No use in having the backup if its dead when you need it.

    I would have to consult the tome of a manual, but I believe they didn't like lithium batteries.
     
  7. dmccormack

    dmccormack Touchdown! Greaser!

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    I've had a Sporty's SP-200 since 2002. I use it exclusively in the Chief with a mounted whip antenna and an external battery pack.

    I used the SP on two actual events -- one a no-electric flight across PA in a C152 while still a student pilot, and another when I lost electric while IFR in a Bonanza.

    The new model has an improved display.
     
  8. DutchessFlier

    DutchessFlier Line Up and Wait

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    I have an ICOM-A24 works fine, But the battery level doesn't display until its down to about 1/4 charge left..I consider that a pretty big flaw.
     
  9. nyoung

    nyoung Pre-takeoff checklist

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    I have had a Vertex for several years, and have been happy with it. That said, I don't believe there is a significant difference between handheld Nav/com brands.

    I'd say get whatever meets your price/form factor desires, and instead concentrate on these two features...

    1. Get a radio that allows plug-in of your headset, whether directly into the radio, or via a patch cable. Aircraft cabins are quite loud, easily overwhelming the audio output of a handheld. The headset will also help your transmissions sound cleaner (with less background noise).

    2. If able, have your mechanic put a splitter into one of the antennas of the plane and run an extra length of coax with the appropriate connector (typically BNC). Stuff this cable into your sidewall map pocket. Handheld transmit/receiver range is significantly affected by the tiny antennas that come with the handhelds.

    It would be interesting to hear other pilot's experience with this. The one time that I really needed a handheld (night electrical failure while transitioning airspace), I had a tough time using it because I didn't have the patch cord with me, and I didn't have an external antenna hookup.
     
  10. dmccormack

    dmccormack Touchdown! Greaser!

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    Same. In a 152 I was talking with Cleveland center, then Harrisburg Approach, then LNS Tower.

    In the Bonanza last ATC instruction took me right over KPIT. I could hear them, they couldn't hear me. I flew to destination, cranked down gear, landed, called and everything was fine.

    In the Chief I had to mount an external whip antenna to be heard. I could hear, just couldn't transmit more than 4 miles and only in certain directions.
     
  11. gismo

    gismo Touchdown! Greaser!

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    You don't want a "splitter" you either need a coax switch (King used to sell one that automatically switched when you plugged the handheld antenna cable in) or a way to disconnect one of your panel mounts from it's external antenna and attach the handheld antenna cable in it's place. That's what I have, it's nothing more than a BNC-BNC barrel connector mounted under the panel with the antenna connected to the side behind the panel and a cable running from the front side of the barrel to com2. If I want to use the handheld I remove the lead to com2 and plug the handheld cable in it's place. Cost was about $1. A nice but much more expensive option is to install an extra comm antenna on the aircraft terminated at a BNC on the panel.

    And that brings up another point about handhelds. While they generally have terrible range (<5 miles) when used inside a metal cockpit without an external antenna, some (including the Yeasu VXA200 I own) have a front end (portion of the receiver tied to the antenna) which is easily overloaded by strong signals near the aircraft band. When I connect the VXA200 to an external antenna and climb above a few hundred feet AGL, the broadcast FM transmitters in the area cause the squelch to break almost continuously and the Yeasu's lack of a squelch knob makes it a real PITE (pain in the ear) to use around here. For that reason alone I would go with the ICOM.

    One of my airplanes has no electrical system or built in radios and I use a handheld (King KX99) connected to an external antenna all the time there. With just a rubber duck I can hear the tower from 15-20 miles away but they can't hear me beyond about 5 miles. With the external connection they can hear me from 15-20 miles (I'm usually down low which doesn't help with the range). The only time I needed a handheld in my other airplane was when the PTT in my Bonanza died and at that time the KX99 saved the day. I've needed the portable GPS I carry more often and consider that to be a more important tool than a handheld com. BTW both handhelds I own have VOR nav and the only time I've ever used that was when trying to find my way back to an airport in a rental car (pre-GPS days) and the airport had an on-field VOR.
     
  12. SCCutler

    SCCutler Administrator Management Council Member PoA Supporter

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    When visiting with the owner of one of the on-line pilots shops (a very large and successful one), he said that the Vertex's have by far the lowest return rate and are, thus, his recommendation.

    I can say without equivocation: the JHP (now called Rexon) is absolute junk. I have one. The radio's stunningly bad design has given its US distributor, Edmo, the opportunity to show the most amazingly good customer service, as I have truly lost count of the number of times they have replaced the radio after it Just Stopped Working.
     
  13. gismo

    gismo Touchdown! Greaser!

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    I guess I'd have to agree that my Vertex (Yeasu) radio has been reliable. I don't think I've had a single problem with it other than the front end overloading issue and the lack of an easily adjusted squelch, neither of which are workmanship defects. The KX-99 has never been back to King but I did have to open it up and fix the broken solder joints on the antenna connector (a common problem).
     
  14. Artiom

    Artiom Pre-takeoff checklist

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    Modifying plane to get an external antena connector is out of question for now since I'm renting. 4-5 miles range is about what I expected.
    For navigation backup I have iPad with SkyCharts Pro which does outstanding job especially when I want to make sure I'm staying outside class B SFO. It just shows TAC or sectional chart with your position on it.
     
  15. Artiom

    Artiom Pre-takeoff checklist

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    It is good point about headset adaptor. Both models I listed come with headset adaptor.
    Due to lack of adaptor I removed ICOM IC-A14S from my list, not to mention this one looks very basic model to me.
     
  16. Ghery

    Ghery Final Approach

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    I've got the Sporty's hand held. Bulky compared with the Vertex. Vertex/Yaesu are the same company and I've got a Yaesu VX-5 amateur radio handheld. Works fine, but I have the following nits to pick with it:

    1. The writing on the buttons is wearing off. Memorize them while you can.

    2. The user interface stinks. I can turn it on and off and select the frequency or memory channel I want. I can also change the volume. Much beyond that and I need a cheat sheet or the manual. My old (1988 vintage) Yaesu FT-727R was much better. We don't need all those features, so why make it so darned hard to use?

    That said, as others have noted, make sure you can plug your headset into the radio, typically with an adapter cable.

    I prefer alkaline batteries for my aviation handheld. I don't use it very often and NiCd batteries self discharge. I suspect LiIon batteries do the same, just not as fast. And have a spare battery pack. There's no battery meter on my Sporty's radio, so the battery can quit with little notice. Having a spare to swap out is much faster than changing the batteries in the pack, especially while you are trying to fly an airplane.

    Good luck with your choice.
     
  17. PittsDriver

    PittsDriver Cleared for Takeoff

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    That A14 is the best handheld out there. I'm a big user of handhelds using them for aerobatic critiquing and contest operations and this radio has definitely the best battery of any out there. It's not that feature rich but you're wasting you money on any of those features anyway if you have any kind of back up GPS (no need for nav). I'm not sure what the S model is but my A14 lasts all day long transmitting frequently and listing all day.
     
  18. gismo

    gismo Touchdown! Greaser!

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    One option that might help is a remote antenna with a suction cup mount that attaches to a cabin window. I've never used one of those but I know of a few folks who say this at least doubles the transmit range.
     
  19. dmccormack

    dmccormack Touchdown! Greaser!

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    Tried one ($30).

    Didn't work.

    :dunno:
     
  20. zaitcev

    zaitcev En-Route

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    ICOM has a similar pack too:
    http://www.skygeek.com/icom-bp-208n-battery-case.html
    This is a holiday price though. When I looked at it, every accessory for ICOM was way more expensive than for Vertex. I eventually bought VX-220, and to my endless surprise, the thing was made in Japan. Regarding squelch, instead of adjusting it, got ready to defeat it (there is a dedicated button), but never head a chance: auto setting always worked thus far. The only annoyance is that you need a special adapter for, say, line cable. I found it when I tried to record funny ATIS broadcasts. The connector looks like a normal 3.5mm socket, but a normal stereo cable causes radio to transmit.
    -- Pete
     
  21. silver-eagle

    silver-eagle En-Route

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    I have an Icom A23. Bought it from a local pilot's shop who beat price from the best online price I could find. Happy to support them. I guess I've had it for about 10 years. Easy to use especially since I don't very often do more than just listen to the local ATIS or tower.
    See if you can borrow a radio from a friend or your local shop and play with it. Try the different features out. The A5 has 10 banks of saved stations. You can scan frequencies or various memory banks. There's also the nav functions. Those you can't really use unless you're airborne.
    As to the headset adapter, I've rarely used it. As a backup radio, you're not going to want to rummage around your flight bag looking for it. I wouldn't make it a deal breaker one way or the other.
     
    Last edited: Dec 4, 2010
  22. PittsDriver

    PittsDriver Cleared for Takeoff

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    I have an A23 also that I bought about 8 years ago and I've never used any of the extra features of it. The A14 is less than $200 and has a 2000mAh battery. I don't even use the A23 anymore due to shorter battery life.
     
  23. weirdjim

    weirdjim En-Route

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    The option I recommend if you own the aircraft is to have a small panel installed with two BNC bulkhead connectors installed. (A bulkhead connector is simply a female to female barrel connector with a thread/nut in the middle so that you have a female BNC coming out both sides of the panel.

    The radio is connected to one of the bulkhead connectors and the antenna is connected to the other. You fabricate a short jumper cable to go from the front of one bulkhead connector to the other for normal operation. You need to connect to the antenna? Simply unplug the radio side of the front connector and use the short jumper to connect to your handheld. Takes less time to do it than to talk about it.

    Jim
     
  24. gismo

    gismo Touchdown! Greaser!

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    Personally I think my single (bulkhead mount) barrel connector with the antenna attached behind the panel and a coax from Com2 plugged into the side facing the pilot. With your approach one would have a 50/50 chance of connecting the handheld to Com2 if you didn't/couldn't read the labels correctly.
     
  25. weirdjim

    weirdjim En-Route

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    There are several ways of handling your concern without having coax strung about the workplace. One is to use a TNC bulkhead for the radio and a BNC bulkhead for the antenna. THen you couldn't connect the handheld to the radio. Another would be to paint the one you pull off red and remember to pull the brightly colored connector. There are dozens of schemes that don't involve bringing the aircraft radio's coax out to the front office.
     
  26. RyanShort1

    RyanShort1 En-Route

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    I have an A23 and a second battery... I use it mainly with the Cub. It has MAJOR issues with the antennae directly attached to the unit - could even be understood in the pattern due to all of the interference. I bought an extender from Aircraft Spruce & Specialty with the suction cup mount and have had great success range wise. I know I have talked to San Antonio Approach from past Kelly AFB with the unit antennae mounted on the extender attached to the windshield. I think I've gotten up to 25NM of range out of it personally.

    Ryan
     
  27. Artiom

    Artiom Pre-takeoff checklist

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    Thanks for replys. I made up my mind and ordered Vertex VX-220 today. Will update this thread when I get it.
     
  28. Artiom

    Artiom Pre-takeoff checklist

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    Got Vertex VX-220 on Thursday from Marv Golden. Looks really nice. Reception is quite impressive. I'm living 6.3nm away from San Jose International and can get ATIS in my apartment on the first floor.
     
  29. Arbiter419

    Arbiter419 Cleared for Takeoff

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    Sweet! How's the build quality feel?
     
  30. Artiom

    Artiom Pre-takeoff checklist

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    It feels solid. The only problem I've noticed so far is squelch adjustment. Like been mention already it is really buried down in the menu. It will be really nice if that function could be assigned to up-down arrows. I personally don't really need frequency knob but volume on knob and squelch on up-down arrows will be nice.
     
  31. zaitcev

    zaitcev En-Route

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    It looks like my VXA-220 has a defect. Sometimes I turn it on and it starts completely mute: there is no keypad beep and no other sound. Turning it on and off has no effect, battery removal has no effect. Then if left alone for a day it starts working again and will work for a while.

    The madness is that sending it back is not likely to yield any positive effect. They are not likely to find a problem, because usually it works just fine.

    -- Pete
     
  32. Gsim Aviation

    Gsim Aviation Pre-Flight

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    I have the Vertex and the Icom, the Icom is way better, IMO
     
  33. Artiom

    Artiom Pre-takeoff checklist

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    Finally the weather gets better in Northern California and I took my new toy to the airport with intention to use it to get ATIS, call for fuel and monitor tower frequency while pre-flying. I stored all the frequencies in the memory to be able to quickly switch between them. And I was really surprised - I turned the transceiver on and recalled ATIS freq from the memory and nothing happen - complete silence. Same with tower and ground. But when I dial the same freq in VFO mode I hear it loud and clear. I send an email to Vertex's support. Will update when I hear back from them.
     
  34. denverpilot

    denverpilot Tied Down

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    Having been a user of both Yaesu and Icom products in Amateur Radio for almost two decades, here's a general observation or two:

    Icom: Built like tanks. Usually decent user interface design. (Read as: Not digging for the manual to do things.) Usually a few bucks more expensive. Display is usually slightly bigger with bigger character sizes and icons. Not a big deal if you're Joe-hotshot 20/20 but anyone with bi-focals... May appreciate that info. I haven't joined that club yet, but my father has and his opinion of a "good handheld" and mine usually differ on display and button size.

    Yaesu: Usually a little more "fidgety" user interface. Often display has very small icons for mode selection but often significantly brighter backlighting than other manufacturers. Built well, but not the "run it over with the fuel truck" heaviness of the Icom rigs.

    Most of the aviation handhelds use the same cases as the Amateur and Public Safety/Commercial rigs. The taller Icom cases with the big buttons are damn near indestructible. I've seen one take an 80' fall off a communications tower onto concrete, bounce, and the radio survived. Yaesu, no.

    Most important item on most radios these days... Buy the AA battery pack, or buy the Lithium Ion battery. If it says it has a Nickel Cadmium (NiCD) or Nickel Metal Hydride (NiMH) battery, just move on. That's 80's tech with significant charging fussiness and problems with battery life when stored without a charge for a long period of time or kept on "trickle" charge with the cheap chargers that most Aviation HTs come with.

    Most of us are using these for emergency backup. Three transmissions into a "trickle charger cooked" battery, or a "battery that's been in my flight bag WAY too long without a charge" isn't when you want to find out your battery is weak.

    AA is self-explanatory... Get high quality brand name alkalines and replace them on a schedule. Save the batteries that have been in the flight bag for a year for the kids toys and yours that don't do mission critical duty.

    Lithium Ion have a set number of "cycles". Give 'em a little top-off charge once a month or two if you're not using the rig, and they'll be ready to go when you are. The charge controller circuitry is built into the pack itself, and paired with an appropriate charger. Internally they're much more "fussy" than the others, but that means every pack has it's own "brains".

    Others have pointed out what to look for in headset connections. I won't go into that here other than to say they all suck. Mini-jacks weren't built to lock, nor handle much stress when the radio bounces off the roof in turbulence. Keep the radio in a good mount or location where it's not going anywhere and no stress on the audio connectors. (Side and seat pockets suck for this.)

    Finally, think carefully about the antenna connector. The BNC and SMA connectors are both common but SMA is taking over. Can you line up an SMA in turbulence and not cross-thread it? Of course if you're using the "rubber ducky" antenna and never removing it, this isn't an issue. But if you have access to an outside antenna, which is highly recommended, SMA or an awkward SMA to BNC adapter is a pain.

    Hope that helps someone.
     
  35. dmccormack

    dmccormack Touchdown! Greaser!

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    Good summary, but I'll add this:

    New AA battery pack is good for about 2 hours of listening, but maybe 5 transmissions. The power drops off significantly after 5 and you may not have enough left to push out another. If you're down to the handheld, limit transmissions.
     
  36. chucky

    chucky Line Up and Wait

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    Aside from the high discharge, I thought NiMH was supposed to be pretty good battery technology. As long as I periodically top-off the charge, rather than leaving it on the charger, I should avoid any problems associated with trickle charging, right? My VXA-220 has a NiMH battery.
     
  37. denverpilot

    denverpilot Tied Down

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    If you already have NiMH and it's doing well, yeah... don't worry about it. The problems with NiMH are less than the problems with NiCD. And most NiCD and NiMH problems can be traced directly back to "dumb" chargers that charge at C/10 or so rates and continue to charge after the battery is heating up and often begins to mildly out-gas due to internal heat. Thus, losing some capacity.

    If you're regularly charging your NiMH and it's holding up longer than a few transmissions (the hard part for those of us who use handhelds only for "emergency" purposes -- take it out once in a while when you're in the local pattern and use it just to see if it's really working, and then take it home and charge it back up), you're probably fine.

    You used to see a lot of NiMH in things like cordless phones, for example. They'd sit on the charger base and cook for days on end, and even though you hardly used the phone at all and "always kept it on the charger", the batteries would show serious signs of degradation after a year or so... compared to when they were new.

    Maha and others manufacturers make "smart" chargers that also can measure a battery's actual capacity through multiple charge/discharge cycles, but they're overkill for most of us pilots. They're available if you're really picky about seeing how your batteries are doing.

    I have one, as do most ham radio operators these days, as they're about $100 and cheap, but do a great job of full-discharge/recharge cycling of these older battery chemistries.

    Lithium Ion are completely different in that discharge/recharge cycles actually lower their lifespan, while a good solid discharge/recharge cycle or two can often breathe a little new life back into an "abused" NiCD or NiMH.

    NiCD and NiMH also suffer from a different problem: The chemistry means that an AA sized cell doesn't put out quite the voltage that an alkaline AA cell does. Most radio manufacturers know this, but don't really make any change in the radio to compensate, and since voltage will drop in the cells at each high-current use transmission, the radio's internal voltage regulator will typically drop out a number of minutes sooner (say, a couple of transmissions, depending on length of transmission) on the NiMH pack than on the AA pack loaded with good quality alkaline cells. All things being equal, anyway. Which is rare in the real world. :)

    So if you already own NiCD or NiMH tech, and it's working and you keep the packs charged and "exercise" them a bit from time to time, they can last a very long time. NASA has NiCD charge/discharge down to a real science and has some nice papers on the subject... since they're used in most satellite and other space applications... so treating a NiCD "right" they're great tech... the problem arises in radios that are sold with cheap wall-wort chargers that aren't current limited or controlled, that treat the batteries poorly.

    And of course, all three types of chemistry have also been certified and flown on various commercial aircraft as backup battery systems for years. Again, well-designed charging and monitoring systems... work wonders.

    The comment about picking Lithium Ion over the others was directed at those looking at new radios today... it's just the "best" tech for high-current draw mobile radio applications. Just like modern laptops or iPods or whatever... they're lighter and last a long time with very reproducible results. The NiMH and NiCD can be "squirrelly" when used lightly (or not at all) and left in a flight bag for a long time.

    Aviation HT batteries of NiCD and NiMH chemistry are similar to airplanes themselves.... keep 'em flying or they become hangar queens fast. Lithium Ion, just top 'em off once in a while if you're not using them, and they're generally ready to go anytime.

    This thread has got me interested in looking at the aviation HT market again. I'll report back on other features that are desirable, if I get some time to do some analysis on what's available.
     
  38. Hobbydave

    Hobbydave Filing Flight Plan

    Joined:
    Jan 18, 2011
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    USA, IL, Buffalo Grove
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    Hobbydave
    I have had a VXA-300 for about 18 months. It has been trouble free although it is mostly used for ground based listening. I do carry it with me on all my flights as an emergency backup. The battery life on it is really amazing. Hope you get your straightened out. Good Luck