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I'm in the process of buying a handheld radio as a backup for when I go flying. According to the owner's manual, I'd need a ground station license to operate it when I'm not actually in an airplane, and to fill out FCC Form 406. But, I can't find any information on a "Form 406" on the FAA's website, and the online application has five different options that seem to be aviation-related ("AA - Aviation Auxiliary Group", "AC - Aircraft", "AF - Aeronautical and Fixed", "CA - Commercial Air-ground Radiotelephone", and "CG - General Aviation Air-ground Radiotelephone"), and I can't figure out which one is applicable.

So, if I wanted to use my shiny new aviation radio on the ground, legally speaking, what license would I need?

(I already have a Restricted Radiotelephone license, if that helps.)

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    $\begingroup$ Why do you need to use it outside of an aircraft? Just to chat? Or just to listen? $\endgroup$
    – Ron Beyer
    Jan 11 '21 at 18:15
  • $\begingroup$ @RonBeyer I actually can't think of a reason right now why I might need to do so (other than maybe a one-time test). I just like having the option. $\endgroup$ Jan 11 '21 at 19:05
  • $\begingroup$ @RonBeyer - I’ve always wondered if a CFI at a non-towered field would find it useful to be able to use a handheld while their student solos. I know that parachute drop zones have airband ground radios. And, of course, FBOs have them. What about an individual? Just curious. $\endgroup$
    – Dean F.
    Jan 11 '21 at 19:11
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    $\begingroup$ Listening probably doesn't require a license, the problem is if you want to talk. FBO's have unicom and are probably allowed under some FAA/FCC rule without the license. If you want to test the radio, sit in the airplane, it's a better test anyway. If you really want the license, I think you need the "CG" version. $\endgroup$
    – Ron Beyer
    Jan 11 '21 at 21:37
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    $\begingroup$ There is an FCC form 601, which says it replaces form 406 (and many more) $\endgroup$
    – DeltaLima
    Jan 12 '21 at 22:34
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Part 87, more properly 47 CFR § 87 defines many different types of stations that use the FCC's "Aviation Services" (the legal use of radios on aviation bands in the US). See 47 CFR § 87.5 - Definitions. Here are some examples:

Aeronautical advisory station (unicom). An aeronautical station used for advisory and civil defense communications primarily with private aircraft stations.

Aeronautical enroute station. An aeronautical station which communicates with aircraft stations in flight status or with other aeronautical enroute stations.

Aeronautical multicom station. An aeronautical station used to provide communications to conduct the activities being performed by, or directed from, private aircraft.

Aeronautical search and rescue station. An aeronautical station for communication with aircraft and other aeronautical search and rescue stations pertaining to search and rescue activities with aircraft.

[I'll skip a few...]

Aircraft station. A mobile station in the aeronautical mobile service other than a survival craft station, located on board an aircraft.

[Skipping a few more...]

Aviation support station. An aeronautical station used to coordinate aviation services with aircraft and to communicate with aircraft engaged in unique or specialized activities. (See subpart K)

[There are several more.]

So before you apply, you'll need to know exactly what kind of station license you're applying for. The FCC has a nice web page that explains some of the various types of ground stations for the aviation services bands that the law recognizes.

If "aviation support station" caught your eye, that type of ground station is explained more fully in section 87.319. That section is quite specific, and "aviation support station" isn't just a miscellaneous catch-all category. By the way, it looks as though FBOs use aviation support station licenses.

Section 87.18 says, "An aircraft station is licensed by rule and does not need an individual license issued by the FCC if the aircraft station is not required by statute, treaty, or agreement to which the United States is signatory to carry a radio, and the aircraft station does not make international flights or communications."

So you use your shiny new radio in an aircraft without a license, as long as you don't plan to cross any borders. However, if you don't have a station license and you want to test your radio, then you should probably be testing it from inside an aircraft. (Take my advice with a healthy dose of skepticism, because I'm not a lawyer.)

On the other hand, Section 87.47 says, "A person may apply for a portable aircraft radio station license if the need exists to operate the same station on more than one U.S. aircraft." So if you want to use your shiny new radio in more than one aircraft, then you may apply for a portable aircraft radio station license. However, there really is no need for a portable aircraft radio station license for a pilot who wants to use a radio in more than one aircraft and intends to communicate only inside the US, because the license is implied in each aircraft. (Hat tip to @AJHenderson.)

The way to apply for any of the Aviation Services licenses (besides the basic aircraft station license for which no license is required) is to register with the FCC's Universal Licensing System (ULS), and then file a license application electronically there, which will be the equivalent of the old Form 601, which replaced the older form 406. Depending on how you applied for your restricted radiotelephone license, you may already have the FRN (Federal Registration Number) to use with the ULS.

One commenter wondered about the meaning of the word "station" in the law. Essentially, a station is a radio. The terminology dates back to the vacuum tube era, when radios were large and cumbersome, and most radio transmitters were permanently installed in buildings; portable radios capable of transmitting weighed 25 lbs or more, and typically had low output power. For most radio "services" (the radio broadcast services, the amateur service, etc.), including the aviation services, the license is associated with the station (the transmitter or radio) rather than the operator.

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  • $\begingroup$ It is worth adding that the chances of actually getting a ground license are pretty slim. You have to be in one of a very select group of roles to be granted a ground station license. $\endgroup$ Nov 30 '21 at 4:23
  • $\begingroup$ It's also likely worth highlighting that you don't need to have the portable license for moving between planes domestically as each plane would have it's own implied station. The main reason I can think of to apply for a portable license would be if you wanted to fly internationally in multiple aircraft and not have to worry about if they had a station filed or not, though this might make radio calls more interesting since you would need to use your callsign and identify your plane (or would you just use the callsign maybe?) $\endgroup$ Nov 30 '21 at 4:24
  • $\begingroup$ Interesting choice of words in 87.47. Because “MAY apply if there’s a NEED” is not even close to “MUST apply if there’s a WANT.” That language makes it 100% optional in any circumstance. Also, is there any official definition of the word “station”? Because “handheld portable station” is an oxymoron unless radio = station. (I think a strong case can be made from plain language definitions that they are not the same thing). Summary: good compelling answer, but I’m as confused as ever... $\endgroup$ Dec 19 '21 at 17:04
  • $\begingroup$ Thanks @MichaelHall! I added a paragraph to the answer clarifying what a station is. $\endgroup$
    – rclocher3
    Dec 20 '21 at 15:37
  • $\begingroup$ I think you're right that the FCC reserves the right to evaluate the degree of need when deciding whether or not to grant a license. $\endgroup$
    – rclocher3
    Dec 20 '21 at 15:44
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This is the same as when using an aviation radio inside the airplane. The operator of the aviation handheld radio does not need a license to operate the radio within the US. You only need a license to operate outside of the US.

And it would also be the same Restricted Radiotelephone license you already have.

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    $\begingroup$ Welcome to aviation.SE! Do you have a source for this? 47 CFR 87.18 says that aircraft stations don't need a license, but I don't see the same exemption for ground stations. $\endgroup$
    – Pondlife
    Jul 20 '21 at 17:07
  • $\begingroup$ @Pondlife, are there any FCC references equating portable devices with stations? Because I think they are different… $\endgroup$ Dec 19 '21 at 17:08
  • $\begingroup$ @MichaelHall See this: "You may only use your hand-held aircraft VHF radio in your aircraft under the terms of your aircraft license. You are required to have a separate Ground Station license to operate your radio on the ground." The link goes here, it looks like "aviation support station" covers what many people use handhelds for. $\endgroup$
    – Pondlife
    Dec 20 '21 at 19:04
  • $\begingroup$ @Pondlife, that first quote is a slam dunk answer to the question, but it doesn't appear in the link you provided. Would you please verify where that came from? $\endgroup$ Dec 21 '21 at 2:31
  • $\begingroup$ @MichaelHall Sure, it’s on the page I linked but you need to click the Operations ‘tab’ or header to see it. $\endgroup$
    – Pondlife
    Dec 21 '21 at 7:46

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