By Ryan Ferguson
|Many useful functions, very portable, reliable
|Great backup handheld if you've got the money
Four stars (out of five)
Prior to earning my instrument rating, the importance of backup comm was emphasized to me when I experienced an alternator failure in a Piper Arrow, at night, on a cross-country flight.
I lucked out that night - the weather was clear VFR and I recognized the problem in its early stages. I shut down all of the unnecessary electrical gear and relied on the GNS 430 moving map GPS/comm/nav radio and a flashlight. It was apparent that a backup handheld radio would be a big advantage for VFR flight, and practically a requirement for IFR. (Nowadays, I don't go without a backup.)
I started shopping around for a handheld transceiver. I compared the features of the Yaesu VXA-100 to the ICOM IC-A23 while, of course, taking price into account as a primary consideration. I wanted both navigation and comm frequencies; the ICOM IC-A23 featured a VOR with CDI function, which I liked. These seemed to be the leading handhelds at the time, and I wanted a small transceiver that I could easily carry in a flight bag. I will not be comparing features in this review, and for more information about the Yaesu you might want to ask around in rec.aviation.* (aviation internet newsgroups.)
"The accompanying documentation is a bit of a mess. ICOM could certainly benefit from better technical writing to explain the product."
I decided on the ICOM for one main reason: the company had been around for quite some time and had a good track record for repairing problems on their units. I didn't know much about Yaesu. After a very informal comparison of the construction quality of both units, I favored the ICOM. Your mileage may vary. I forked over the 'big bucks' and went home with my new navcom radio.
The unit comes with the standard complement of extra stuff you would expect: Belt clip, protective leather sheath, a headseat adapter, and a battery charger. The accompanying documentation is a bit of a mess. ICOM could certainly benefit from better technical writing to explain the product - I found the explanations a little confusing, but after brief study session I was able to get around the unit. It's not particularly difficult.
"The first point I'd like to make is that, in my opinion, the majority of pilots who purchase a handheld procure one as a backup and as such, make very little use of the device in their day-to-day flying. There are exceptions, but most of the pilots I know throw their handheld into their flight bag and forget about it."
The unit will transmit on the 760 comm channels (118.0 through 136.975 mhz) and receive the VOR frequencies (108.0 through 117.975 mhz.) It's got a 5 watt transmitter and backlit LCD display and buttons. Now I'm going to run down the numerous extra functions that you'll find on this transceiver:
- Voice recorder - record and playback snippets of audio.
- VOR navigation - as mentioned. Also will tell you which radial you are on, and give fly left/right indications (CDI)
- 'Tag' and memory bank scanning
- WX channels built-in
- One-touch 121.5 freq selection
- Semi-duplex operation in nav mode
- Memory presets
Why a handheld transceiver?
The first point I'd like to make is that, in my opinion, the majority of pilots who purchase a handheld procure one as a backup and as such, make very little use of the device in their day-to-day flying. There are exceptions, but most of the pilots I know throw their handheld into their flight bag and forget about it. I've found a few useful non-emergency functions for the transciever. These are not specific to the ICOM IC-A23, but here they are:
These are just a few of the reasons it's handy to have a transceiver. It also would be fun to have at an airshow, or just to listen on freq at the airport if you're bored. Although I live 25nm away from Orlando International, Sometimes I'll sit out back on the porch and listen to airliners talking to MCO Approach on 119.4. Can't hear ATC, but I can hear the traffic.
"The A/P was deactivated, and in this 'emergency' I would be flying solo, so the CFI I was riding with could offer no help. If I were in turbulent IMC and had to retrieve the transceiver, install the headset adaptor, plug my headset in, and start punching buttons on the unit... I'd be a busy beaver."
- Picking up an IFR clearance on the ground. Why fire up your engines and pick up your clearance while the Hobbs-meter is running? For rental pilots, this can save a few bucks over time. If your clearance is complicated and/or not what you expected, you can sit peacefully in the cockpit working it out without feeling rushed.
- General airport comms. Need the fuel truck to come out your hangar or tie-down spot? Give them a yell on your transceiver. This is also useful because you can pick them up as you're approaching the airport. I can usually time it so the fuel truck will meet me as I pull up next to my airplane. This is also good for making special requests from ground control, asking for weather updates, reporting FOD on the tarmac, and/or communicating with fellow pilots coming in to land at an uncontrolled airport at which you're already on the ground waiting.
- A second aircraft radio when flying aircraft with only one operating comm radio. Several times I've rented aircraft which had an inoperative second nav/comm. This can be a pain if you're trying to coordinate services from the FBO as you approach after landing, or need to switch through several frequencies as you climb out on departure (ground, tower, departure #1, departure #2.) The radio has plenty of power to talk to the tower at close range, so this can be a useful application.
The primary function of this radio, for me, was to use as a backup. So let's take a look at some real-world scenarios.
Flying the IC-A23
If you want to learn more about the various features of the IC-A23, simply visit their website and read through the specs. They're all in there. What I want to focus on is: how well does this transceiver work in the real world?
The answer, in a nutshell, is: it works pretty well. There are inherent limitations on a handheld transceiver, what with no connection to an external antenna on the aircraft, and a 5 watt transmitter. These limitations do play a role in how you can use the transceiver.
I was flying in the right seat on a night x/c with a CFI. (This was a requirement for my commercial pilot checkride, and I was flying right-seat to work on on my landings from that position for CFI checkride.) This was a perfect opportunity to simulate an electrical failure and be forced to rely on the handheld.
I left the handheld in my flight bag - in the back seat - as I normally would. We dimmed the lights on the panel and reached for our flashlights. I reached into the backseat and fumbled around to get my transceiver out of its resident flight bag pocket, as well as the headset adapter so I could plug my headseat into the unit. Lesson #1: keep the transceiver, and the adapter, very handy. The A/P was deactivated, and in this 'emergency' I would be flying solo, so the CFI I was riding with could offer no help. If I were in turbulent IMC and had to retrieve the transceiver, install the headset adaptor, plug my headset in, and start punching buttons on the unit... I'd be a busy beaver.
"'Miami Center, Skyhawk 2479B, request,' I called. No answer. No surprise there - we were at 2500 feet and the transceiver only has 5 watts of transmitting power."
After I managed to get set up (holding a heading and altitude while doing all of this, and of course fumbling with my flashlight) I realized that I'd need the frequency for Miami Center, the facility I was with just moments ago. The frequency was still sitting up on the airplane's comm 1 - my trusty 'copilot' was still monitoring it in the background, of course - but had it not been available I'd have had to recall it from memory. A good tip that I will now be more religious about following is to write down every freqency change for precisely this type of purpose.
Time to use the IC-A23. I hadn't played with it in awhile, and as strange as this might sound, I couldn't remember how to turn it on! I was still flying the airplane and had to glance down and divide my attention among the instruments and the unit, while trying to shine my flashlight on a combination of all three. The workload involved in doing this surprised me quite a bit. The power button doesn't stand out - it's labeled 'PWR' in green letters, but that was more or less invisible in the glare of my red-light flashlight. The button is not shaped differently from the others, and it's located in the center of the unit. (For a closeup of the keypad layout, click here.) After fumbling for a few seconds I managed to activate the unit, and remembered that the backlight button is on the far left of the unit underneath the Push-To-Talk switch. Phew. The unit came alive, I could read the LCD clearly thanks to the backlighting, and could hear static in my headset.
I dialed in Miami Center's frequency. It was quiet - we were flying northbound along Florida's east coast after having departed from Boca Raton (BCT). I waited a few moments and sure enough, I heard ATC giving instructions to another VFR aircraft. He was scratchy but clear, and I would have easily been able to understand the controller's instructions had he been addressing my aircraft.
"Miami Center, Skyhawk 2479B, request," I called. No answer. No surprise there - we were at 2500 feet and the transceiver only has 5 watts of transmitting power. My copilot indicated he didn't hear anything on the frequency over the aircraft radio. I tried PBI approach, who were significantly closer (about 20nm behind us) - nothing, no response. Finally, I tuned in the CTAF of a small uncontrolled field we were flying toward. A couple of airplanes were in the pattern and I could hear their calls clearly. I transmitted every 15 seconds or so for a radio check. 7nm from the airport, at 2500 feet, a pilot in the pattern called "2479B, radio weak and scratchy but readable."
Time to test the nav function. We were still simulating an emergency. Despite the fact that Florida's coast was clearly defined on this clear VFR night, I needed the transceiver to tell us where we were and how to get where we were going. I dialed in the Palm Beach VORTAC and realized: the buttons (1, 2, 3, etc.) are backlit, but the small function labels above each button are not. To access the CDI function, I had to use the flashlight again.
"You could 'communicate' with ATC with this transceiver, but you'd have to acknowledge their instructions with your transponder (if you didn't suffer a complete electrical failure) or by flying a heading, etc. Things would work out."
No reception of the VOR, despite the fact we were maybe 25nm away from the station. Admittedly, we were flying on the low side - 2,500MSL. Wiggling the antenna around in the cockpit produced occasional intermittent signals. The VOR told use we were on the 011 radial when in reality were flying closer to the 350 radial. I can only assume this reception was due to our low altitude. I tried to cross reference with another VOR which was located further away, but couldn't pick anything up.
An external antenna hookup would be hugely helpful, but that is not a realistic option for most renter pilots.
This was a worthwhile exercise. I'd heartily recommend that any pilot who might be called upon to rely on backup equipment practice the 'full procedure' occasionally - retrieving the radio, flying the plane, fumbling with flashlights, the whole works. I now realize the importance of keeping backup equipment located in an easy-to-access location. It is also important to be familiar with using the equipment.
All that aside, how'd the ICOM do? I later tried the VOR function at 5000 MSL on a cross country trip. It picked up the VOR fine but still thought we were about 5 degrees off of what the onboard receiver told us. This is good enough for government work - you can track a radial inbound and get on the ground with this thing. I sure wouldn't want to fly an approach with it, but it will pick up localizers! That's a plus - but an emergency card one should pray never to have to use.
You could 'communicate' with ATC with this transceiver, but you'd have to acknowledge their instructions with your transponder (if you didn't suffer a complete electrical failure) or by flying a heading, etc. Things would work out. You can't expect a long transmitting range with a 5 watt transmitter; for it to be more powerful would make the thing unreasonably large and heavy.
My complaints specific to the IC-A23 (as opposed to handheld transceivers in general) are mostly ergonomic, and are as follows:
- Power button is too hard to find blind with one hand.
- Function labels, not just buttons, should be backlit.
- Function labels are not intuitive.
- Unit volume not loud enough if used without the headset adapter in cockpit.
- Leather sheath must line up perfectly for microphone on transceiver not to be covered by clear plastic. ("Hey, why can't anyone hear my transmissions?")
- Too many unnecessary features.
Let me touch on that last gripe. For my purposes, this transceiver suffers from feature-bloat. The record/playback feature? (This feature allows you to record snippets of audio for later playback.) Never used it, and it requires enough advance button pressing to be effectively useless, in my opinion, when in flight. Memory scan? Never used it. Memory presets? Never used 'em. Duplex operation between NAV and COM? Never used it. (But that one could, conceivably, be useful.) I'd just as soon prefer to have these features dropped if the unit's price was suitably reduced as a result. If you fly VFR only, you may wish to consider a handheld without the nav function. ICOM's A5 offers all of the features of the A23 minus the nav capability, for a lesser price; however, it still has all of the stuff I just listed. I wish they'd just dump that stuff and lower the price even further for the A5.
If you're in the market for a handheld primarily for backup purposes, you're not going to use the handheld much. It is an item that mostly rides along with you and should be immediately accessible if and when the need arises. You won't care about the audio recording and playback, for example, when you go to the handheld after you lose your electrical system.
It's not impossible that you, however, might find some of these features more useful than I did.
What I liked
It's small. It's handy. It (pretty much) does what it says it'll do. It works reliably. It's fun to play with when I'm waiting for someone at the airport. (I listened in on my wife doing solo pattern work and enjoyed listening to her interaction with ATC .) It resists water. Overall, you can't really go wrong with this little number, as long as you're comfortable with the inherent limitations of a handheld transceiver. I give it 4 stars - I'd give 5 for a lower price and fewer features which I personally found to be unnecessary.