Best Two-way radios for Hot Air Ballooning

Hi everyone,

Anyone have any recommendations for two-way radios for hot air ballooning? One radio would be used in the basket of the balloon and the other used in the chase vehicle. These 2 could be seperated up to 5 miles.

Do we need to have licence to operate two-way radios? I’m from Canada.

Thanks for your help!

You don’t mention anything about your budget.

The thing to remember is that EVERYTHING in two-way radios is a compromise. You can get cheap, licence-free radios with clear sound, long range and private channels.

You just can’t get ALL of that in ONE radio.

So what are your priorities? Here are some examples of compromises:

  • You can use shared frequencies and achieve the range you need but you share the frequency with every kid and half the drive-throughs in a 10 mile radius.
  • You can get your own dedicated business frequency and be guaranteed that no one else will be using your frequency, but you will need to pay for a business licence from Industry Canada.
  • You can get digital radios with very good range and 100% clarity in all your transmissions, and with about 10,000 combinations of digital “channels,” you are almost guaranteed to have zero interference (and zero chance of monitoring) but the radios are military-grade, industrial class weather resistant radios and are NOT cheap.

So I would suggest you provide more information, and maybe even list your priorities in order. For example, what is more important? Price? Reliability? Range? Licence-free? Privacy?

Also, keep in mind you are dealing with a business that takes passengers for hire, so in addition to the aviation transceiver and transponder that will be mandatory, you need reliable communications with your chase unit as sometimes lives may be at stake. Spend thousands on aviation radios and transponders, and then cheap out with $50 bubble-pack family radios and you risk a lawsuit if your communications fail at a critical time. There have been a few balloon tragedies the past few years so you can bet that there will low tolerance for cutting corners.

In addition to providing more information, research FRS and GMRS radios (with shared frequencies) and DTR/DLR radios for private digital communication.

Regulations in the U.S. have recently changed (that also brings them more in line with Canadian law) so the two countries are now closer in regulation. You do NOT need a licence for the new category of 2-watt FRS radios, nor did you need a licence in Canada for the old category of GMRS radios (provided they are under 2-watts.)

The interesting thing is that most GMRS radios were consumer-grade, and were under 2-watts in actual radiated power anyway. Power output actually has little to do with range, and a good 2-watt radio with a good antenna will beat a cheap 8-watt radio with a bad antenna.

While GMRS/FRS are not private, you have several advantages:

  • There are some good quality business-class radios that broadcast on GMRS. The also accept external antennas which will be very important in your chase vehicle. (You will need a mobile antenna mounted outside the vehicle to achieve a 5-mile range reliably.) The downside is that the power will exceed the 2-watt Canadian limit.

Your only other choice for licence-free radios is Motorola DTR and DLR radios. They are very high quality military-grade radios and have good range and 100% clarity. The downside is that you can get external mobile antennas for them but tests from a few of us DTR users have shown the range with an outside-mounted mobile antenna is actually worse than simply having them inside your vehicle.

Do not bother researching MURS radios. They are not legal in Canada and all the U.S. MURS frequencies have been assigned to business users in Canada. So they are not just illegal but you will actually interfere with properly licenced users.

So there is a quick outline of licence-free radios.

Next step up are business-class radios with your own dedicated frequency.

Also, don’t forget that, depending on how often you get up, rental radios on an as-needed basis may be your best bet.

Hope this helps.

One where the UK and the US drift apart - airborne use of radio systems in the UK is one of our usually banned areas. Here our Civil Aviation Authority has control of everything off the ground that can transmit, and in general parachuting and balloon ops use Airband AM on VHF, not easier to obtain VHF or UHF FM. Obviously they make exceptions - emergency services and professional comms systems, but they’re heavily controlled and licenced. Most balloon chasers here use handheld airband - which of course the balloon already has to talk to the various ground stations it has to talk to if wind does strange things and takes them into zones and other controlled airspace.

Good point! Unlike the U.K., Canada and the U.S. have allowed airborne use of business frequencies on an as-licenced basis. Businesses can have their own dedicated frequencies for their area of operations, or events such as big balloon gatherings can have temporary business licences (either UHF or VHF) granted.

One of the advantages of two-way radio communications is that one doesn’t need much more than two handhelds and a mobile mount antenna. If your chase vehicle is not within line of sight at most times, they are not doing their job.

There are also certain aviation band (AM) frequencies assigned to general air-to-air communication that are commonly used by balloon operators. They have the advantage - as you point out in the U.K. - that you only need one radio. The down side is that you can’t receive two transmissions on two different frequencies simultaneously, and if you are venturing near restricted airspace, you pretty much must be locked onto the controller or tower frequency at all times. This is where having a second radio is invaluable.

Two aviation radios are a good solution, but here in Canada, operators have also used everything from CB to FRS and GMRS, as well as their own dedicated VHF or UHF frequencies.

I think as long as the operator understands the compromises, there are no problems using GMRS/FRS. (I would avoid CB, as the frequency spectrum is more prone to atmosphere “skipping” which is good when you are rag-chewing, but bad when you need critical communications.)

Thanks for the good point about U.K. operations. That adds one more option - the use of aviation bands on common air-to-air frequencies.

Being a belt and suspenders kinda pilot, I never left the ground without two working Navcoms, plus a handheld backup. But unless I was a balloon operator getting up many times a month, I would be happy with two handheld aviation radios, a transponder and a commercial-grade radio on GMRS, or (my favorite) a DTR/DLR radio. Canada has never required licencing for GMRS.

MURS on the other hand is illegal for use in aircraft in the U.S., and not recognized in Canada, so those ones I would avoid.

Depending on where you are, population centre wise, there is also another problem. The usual radio systems you might buy are designed to have limited range - and we get frequent complaints about the 2 mile range claimed in the box not being correct - it isn’t. Local conditions mean 200yds could be a struggle sometimes, but this is deliberate - thousands of radios in small areas and nobody really suffers too much. Stick one in a balloon at 2000ft and your range suddenly becomes HUGE. You could well be trying to hear your chase vehicle that you can see - but have so many users all talking and shouting at the same time. The busy store on that industrial estate use them pretty well non-stop on the very channel your vehicle is using. They then try a different (to them) quiet channel, you can’t find them anywhere. It could be a total mess, and for safety applications quite worrying.

Proper aviation radios seem the only sensible solution here. Perhaps a couple of cheap public radios for backup or use on the ground, but nothing more would be my advice.

I have to say your post is so professional and exact, and feel that I have nothing to say. And I know little about car radio in Canada or USA.But I think waht you said will be helpful to the one who post this thread.I like it.