Radio Communication

Much of aviation communication and navigation is accomplished through the use of radio waves. Communication by radio was the first use of radio frequency transmissions in aviation.

Radio Waves

A radio wave is invisible to the human eye. It is electromagnetic in nature and part of the electronic spectrum of wave activity that includes gamma rays, x-rays, ultraviolet rays, infrared waves, and visible light rays, as well all radio waves. [Figure 1] The atmosphere is filled with these waves. Each wave occurs at a specific frequency and has a corresponding wavelength. The relationship between frequency and wavelength is inversely proportional. A high frequency wave has a short wave length and a low frequency wave has a long wave length.

Radio Communication
Figure 1

In aviation, a variety of radio waves are used for communication. Figure 2 illustrates the radio spectrum that includes the range of common aviation radio frequencies and their applications.

aviation radio frequencies
Figure 2

NOTE: A wide range of frequencies are used from low frequency (LF) at 100 kHz (100,000 cycles per second) to super high frequency (SHF) at nearly 10gHz (10,000,000,000 cycles per second). The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) controls the assignment of frequency usage.

AC power of a particular frequency has a characteristic length of conductor that is resonant at that frequency. This length is the wavelength of the frequency that can be seen on an oscilloscope. Fractions of the wavelength also resonate, especially half of a wavelength, which is the same as half of the AC sign wave or cycle.

The frequency of an AC signal is the number of times the AC cycles every second. AC applied to the center of a radio antenna, a conductor half the wavelength of the AC frequency, travels the length of the antenna, collapses, and travels the length of the antenna in the opposite direction. The number of times it does this every second is known as the radio wave signal frequency or radio frequency as shown in Figure 2. As the current flows through the antenna, corresponding electromagnetic and electric fields build, collapse, build in the opposite direction, and collapse again. [Figure 3]

Radio Communication
Figure 3

To transmit radio waves, an AC generator is placed at the midpoint of an antenna. As AC current builds and collapses in the antenna, a magnetic field also builds and collapses around it. An electric field also builds and subsides as the voltage shifts from one end of the antenna to the other. Both fields, the magnetic and the electric, fluctuate around the antenna at the same time. The antenna is half the wavelength of the AC signal received from the generator. At any one point along the antenna, voltage and current vary inversely to each other.

Because of the speed of the AC, the electromagnetic fields and electric fields created around the antenna do not have time to completely collapse as the AC cycles. Each new current flow creates new fields around the antenna that force the nottotally-collapsed fields from the previous AC cycle out into space. These are the radio waves. The process is continuous as long as AC is applied to the antenna. Thus, steady radio waves of a frequency determined by the input AC frequency propagate out into space.

Radio waves are directional and propagate out into space at 186,000 miles per second. The distance they travel depends on the frequency and the amplification of the signal AC sent to the antenna. The electric field component and the electromagnetic field component are oriented at 90° to each other, and at 90° to the direction that the wave is traveling. [Figure 4]

Radio Communication
Figure 4

Loading Information onto a Radio Wave

The production and broadcast of radio waves does not convey any significant information. The basic radio wave discussed above is known as a carrier wave. To transmit and receive useful information, this wave is altered or modulated by an information signal. The information signal contains the unique voice or data information desired to be conveyed. The modulated carrier wave then carries the information from the transmitting radio to the receiving radio via their respective antennas. Two common methods of modulating carrier waves are amplitude modulation and frequency modulation.

Radio Transmitters and Receivers

Radio transmitters and receivers are electronic devices that manipulate electricity resulting in the transmission of useful information through the atmosphere or space.


As stated, antennas are conductors that are used to transmit and receive radio frequency waves. Although the airframe technician has limited duties in relation to maintaining and repairing avionics, it is the responsibility of the technician to install, inspect, repair, and maintain aircraft radio antennas. Three characteristics are of major concern when considering antennas:
  1. Length
  2. Polarization
  3. Directivity
The exact shape and material from which an antenna is made can alter its transmitting and receiving characteristics. Also note that some non-metallic aircraft have antennas imbedded into the composite material as it is built up.


There are three basic types of antennas used in aviation:
  1. Dipole antenna
  2. Marconi antenna
  3. Loop antenna.