Reference: Radio Recommendations

Radio Recommendations

by Pat Chewning, December 2001

I am a HAM radio operator, and I bought, maintained, and serviced the 30+ radios for the Metro League Ski Race Association, so I have some experience with VHF handheld radios under trying conditions.

You need to get the "HAM Radio Outlet" catalog and browse through it to find a radio. HRO is located just east of the Hwy 217 and Hwy 99W interchange, in Tigard. They are also on the Internet.

Key features you might want to look for:

1) Removable/Replaceable antenna connector (usually with a BNC connector — twist and lock). The "cheapo" radios have a fixed antenna. The antenna is the weakest link of all radios — they either break, or they are a useless "dummy load".

2) If the radio doesn’t come with one, then buy an aftermarket "Larsen Kul Duck" antenna, which is flexible helical-wound at the base, and then more flexible at the tip. These are the best VHF hand-held antennae around.

3) You should also get a "5/8 wavelength" telescoping rigid antenna. When you are on the ground and can’t reach others with the flexible antennae, then this one will likely work for you. It is no good for flying with, because it will snap and break, but it gives great performance. For the ultimate in emergency antenna, you could construct a "J-pole" out of 300-ohm TV leader-line wire, a BNC connector and a long length of 50-ohm coax. Strung up in a tall tree, this will give you a great range.

4) Batteries: This is the 2nd "weakest link" Most radios come with rechargeable Ni-Cad batteries and a "wall wart" slow charger. Here are some tips:
a) The best thing you can do is to immediately cut off the cord from the "wall wart" charger, throw it away, and use the cord to attach to a real charger.
b) The best charger I have come across is the Sirius Charge PRO. I use this one charger with multiple "charge cords" to charge R/C transmitters and receivers, HAM radios, a digital camera, video camera batteries, etc. It runs on 12VDC, so you can charge your equipment inside your car on the way to the flying site.
c) Buy a radio with at least two battery cases which can accept AA batteries. Radios with proprietary battery packs are far too expensive to buy batteries for.
d) Replace the batteries every 2 years. Even if they are working.

5) Bullet-proof operation. This may not be very important for paragliding, because you rarely will be changing channels in the air, or doing an auto-patch (calling a repeater to make a phone call), or other advanced operations in the air. Basically, you are going to set it for a channel on the ground and then leave it alone in the air. One key feature is a "key lock" or
"feature lock" so the radio cannot change channels or go into a weird mode in the air due to random buttons being pushed while it sits in the radio harness.

6) Output power: You want at least 5 watts. You will spend 70% of the time not hearing anything, 25% of the time receiving, and 5% of the time talking. You don’t need to worry about power consumption during talking, so get the highest power output possible so people can hear you when you do transmit.

7) Accessible display and controls while in the radio harness. Not very important. But I find my Alinco DJ-160 MUCH more convenient than most radios because the channel selector is a rotary knob on the TOP of the radio, and the display is on the TOP of the radio. This is the only surface available to you when the radio is mounted in a radio harness. Unfortunately, the current trend is to mount the display and channel selector buttons on the front face of the radio.

After all this is considered, I bought the ski club a number of ICOM T2H radios because:
A) Extremely rugged construction. One-piece die cast base.
B) Battery holder accepts 8 AA batteries. Inexpensive 2nd battery case.
C) Comes with the usual BNC connector and with a reasonable antenna (but not as good as a Larsen)
D) Can be set in a "simple" mode of only 10 channels.
E) Pre-programmed and one-key accessible weather channels
F) Available at HRO at good prices ($99 without batteries, $149 with batteries.
HINT: Buy without batteries, spend that money on a good charger, good batteries, and an extra battery case.

CPC members: I will "mod" your radio for you if you do not feel comfortable doing it. (I’ve got access to SMD soldering tools at work, and I’ve done about 10 radios so far without problems).

PS: I have no affiliation with Sirius Chargers (PEAK), Ham Radio Outlet, Larsen, or ICOM. Just a satisfied customer.

Additional Comments
By Mark Forbes

I can’t argue with the price and performance of the Icom IC-T2H; it’s under $100 at HRO sans batteries, nicely built, the mod is easy (at least for me) and it does a fine job of transmitting and receiving.

If the modification idea scares you, relax. If you need a radio and want the mod done, just let me know. I’ll order a radio, have it shipped to me, do the mod, and send it along to you. If there’s several people who’d like this, it’d be great if you’d all let me know and I’ll just order a bulk batch of radios. I can get NiCd batteries cheaper than HRO sells them for this radio, or you can use alkaline AA cells or NiMH batteries. Again, if you tell me what you want, I can place orders and get the stuff.

The mod consists of removing two surface-mount diodes on the main PCB, and I’ve figured out how to get there without having to disassemble the entire radio. It *does* require a precision temperature-controlled iron, but I’ve got that sitting on my bench. I’ve done four of this model now, and it’s getting to be easy and quick.

If you want broadband RX from DC to light, the Yaesu VX-5R is a nice 5 watt radio that’ll work well. More expensive, but very nice. Uses a proprietary Li-ion battery, but it seems to last a long time.