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Shortwave Aircraft Radio Listening

shortwave aircraft radio listening

If you want something else to listen to on your SDR, try shortwave aircraft radio listening for trans-oceanic flights.

More than 110 years ago, aircraft started using radio communications. Above, you can see Canadian airplane pioneer John McCurdy, who used a spark transmitter and trailing antenna to send Morse code from a Curtiss biplane in 1910. His spark transmitter is shown at the bottom of the picture.

By World War I, observation aircraft were using CW, and later voice, for communications to ground artillery. Now, to be fair, I must admit these early systems were on Medium Wave, as spark transmitters had limited frequency range. But, you get the idea.

A century later, we can still do shortwave aircraft radio listening as a hobby.

Most of our planet is oceans and icecaps. More than half of the time, trans-oceanic aircraft are out of range of VHF air band systems, or even radars for that matter. So, our airplanes use shortwave radio, as well as satellites, to send data and communicate with ground controllers.

Here in western Canada, I can regularly listen to aircraft over the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. You can find most common frequencies here. Most often, I can here them in the 5, 8, 11 and 13 MHz bands. Another source of listening are the VOLMET weather broadcasts. You can also listen to military channels in the High Frequency Global Communications System, as well as Coast Guard radio.

Shortwave Aircraft Radio Listening Declines

Yes, use of HF is declining and many carriers switch to SatVoice. Still, you will find that most trans-oceanic aircraft still require at least one HF radio, and these are heavily used.

When you hear an aircraft on shortwave, you can typically enter its call letters into FlightAware and track its position. Good news is that these transmissions are in English.

You can get a sense of frequencies and coverage zones for Major Routes Air Route Areas shortwave aircraft radio listening at MWARA.


      • Earl W Robinson says:

        I thoroughly enjoyed this historical interlude. Furthermore, regarding airborne HF operations, I would suggest researching the works of Professor John Keagan (Kings College). Specifically, in his magnificent work on the history of WW1, he mentions the application of MF/HF radio relative to air operations on the western front (circa 1915). Moreover, the person responsible for this application, an accomplished officer and pilot of historical ill repute, played a significant role in the application and operation of radio in air operations of this period.
        I am currently engaged in historical research involving the evolutionary magnitude of EMI relative to HF operations here in the United States (1965 to present). I would be happy to provide further comment on this and other related topics if necessary.

  1. Greg-- W2BEE says:

    Interesting topic. Plus, including the links is a real plus. I had forgotten that FlightAware could look up planes by callsign/tail number. I will try to use one of the online SDR radios to monitor. 73, W2BEE (NY)

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