The number two radio

I’ve been asked before what we do with the second radio on airliners, so I’m here to tell you (this assumes an aircraft with two required radios and a backup). Are you ready? It depends….

If the airplane is equipped with ACARS (Aircraft Crew Alerting and Reporting System, sort of an in-flight email/fax system), most of the time you will monitor 121.5. If the airplane is not ACARS equipped, or if the ACARS is out of service, the procedures will vary a bit from company to company, but most of the time, you will monitor a designated company radio frequency.

Since my airline flies for Delta, we monitor the Atlanta Radio network. That way Delta can spy on us, plus it saves having to build our own network nationwide, which would make it harder for Delta to spy on us. We have available to us a map that shows what frequency we are supposed to use in a given area. There are approximately eight or nine airborne sections of the United States, plus a few each in Canada, Mexico, the Bahamas, et cetera. Because the FARs require that an airline be capable of contacting any airplane at any time, crews must monitor a designated company frequency or have functional alternative, such as ACARS.

There are also a number of locations where dial-up ground frequencies are available.

Our network is guaranteed to work above a certain altitude, again, per the FARs.

As for when the number two radio is used, well, this is the “it depends” area. We can use the company frequency for a number of things: calling for weather updates, advising the company of a hold or delay or a diversion, discussing maintenance issues with the dispatcher or mechanic, passenger service issues, or any number of emergencies or critical events. It can be a little disconcerting to hear a full-blown emergency in progress, especially if you happen to be on the same ATC frequency as the crew that is in distress. But it’s also good to see how others handle certain situations to compare to your own methodology.

Company radio is only supposed to be used for company, flight-specific information, but it isn’t unusual for someone to request football scores or election results. Occasionally, a pair of pilots will recognize each others’ voice on the ATC frequency, and they will switch an air-to-air frequency on the number two radio to chat for a couple of minutes. Not exactly what’s supposed to be done, but it is never for very long, and for the most part it’s no-harm, no-foul.

Closer to the airport, each station has its own frequency, similar to an FBO. Crews will call “in range” anywhere from 10 to 20 minutes out, workload permitting. This is an opportunity to verify the gate and relay any specific needs, which might be mundane (bags of ice) to the more important customer needs (wheelchairs). It’s also a chance to give a station a heads up on any potential delays or issues for the outbound flight.

In short, the number two radio is often used exactly as you use it today in general aviation. With two pilots–especially when something is going wrong–it can be your most valuable asset. In fact, the FARs require at least two functioning primary radios, so if one of them fails, you aren’t going anywhere. It’s that important.–Chip Wright

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  • John Frank

    Chip Wright’s article on “The Number Two Radio” is the kind of ammunition for the airlines need to dump “experienced” pilots that don’t want to be “spied on” while piloting a companies multi million dollar aircraft full of paying passengers expecting a professional to be in the cockpit. I can see why Chip’s airline flies FOR Delta and Chip is not a Delta pilot per se but a contractor. This is encouraging for me to read this as a student pilot because it shows there is room for real professionals to move into the field.

  • John Frank

    I paid membership money to read this?

  • Zip Andre

    Chip’s assertions about these things we “professionals” do which are not what we are supposed to be doing, but its a “no harm, no foul” thing is exactly the basis for attitudes that result in all kinds of embarassing stunts airline pilots keep doing. I know, I was one for 30 years and this idea that “I am good enough that I can perform outside of the rules box and my companies procedures that there will be no problem” is exactly why accidents will still happen.
    You have done a disservice by printing this crap for young aspiring pilots to read and believe.

  • Scott Hampton

    John, how impressive that you already know more than the entire pilot community even though you haven’t even passed a checkride yet. All you have left to learn is that the surest sign of a true professional is that a true professional never thinks they already know it all, especially when they don’t know enough to even understand just how much they don’t know. Now run along and get your membership money back because AOPA forced you to read a few paragraphs of someone’s blog.

    Zip, if you can’t tell the difference between a few seconds of harmless banter and an embarrassing stunt, then you have absolutely no sense of proportion. I must assume that for the last 30 years you’ve only eaten dry toast for breakfast because you live in terrible fear that you might slip and slit your wrist with the butter knife. It wasn’t a brief exchange of chatter that brought down Colgan 3407 or Air France 447, it was not knowing how to react when not everything was exactly as it was supposed to be in their spotless, perfectly-ordered little world.

  • David

    My thoughts exactly Scott.

  • Ex comair

    What a worthless article. It’s ridiculous guys like chip who think flying an RJ is a great job and that’s all to aviation.
    Keep paying those Alpa dues and keep receiving pay cuts