Paragliding radios

P
  • What they are
  • How to program your two-way radio
  • South Africa SAHPA radio frequencies
  • Radio hacks & improvements

As a beginner, your instructor will tie a radio (sometimes called a “walkie-talkie”) to your harness, and then give you instructions on what to do (“Look left. Now lean left. Steer a little to the left. Now ease off and fly straight.”). You will keep your hands on the brake lines and won’t need to talk back to them (and something like kicking your legs together works well enough as a response of “I hear you”).

That said, over time you’d like to ask questions from the sky, communicate with other pilots, or with your retrieve driver on the ground. You can buy a pre-programmed radio for $100, but it’s easy and cheap to buy and program one yourself for about half that.

Note: in many countries, radio transmissions are regulated and you will need to purchase a very specific radio or be required to have an amateur radio license (or otherwise be certified to use it). Your SAHPA license in South Africa grants you this permission, but only for the SAHPA-sanctioned frequencies. It may be illegal to enter some countries to use or import these types of radios, so do your research before travelling. Also, just because you can scan and listen in on certain frequencies โ€“used by other businesses like farms, private security companies and the likeโ€“ doesnโ€™t mean that you have the legal right to do so.

Like most things, there are top-end, mid-level, and entry-level radios. Kenwood makes models that cost around $600, there are some very good Yaesu models for around $200, and Baofeng dominates the entry-level market (prices starting at $25). Since I don’t use a radio much (many pilots decide to fly without one), I got a cheap Baofeng as my first radio, which I upgraded to a slightly nicer (ICASA compliant) Baofeng.

Baofeng Radios

Important note: ICASA has restricted the sale and use of the Baofeng UV-5R in South Africa since it has “continuous tuning capabilities and [found] to be causing radio frequency interference” (see full Government Gazette here). Since they didn’t ban all Baofeng radios, I bought a different model, since they are so affordable and easy to use. Most other models can also be self-programmed either with a USB cable (sold separately) or via they keypad, same as on the UV-5R.

I don’t like endorsing brands, but this is one of the cheapest and most readily available radios on the market, and the one I see most on the hill in South Africa. You can buy them on places like Amazon, Craigslist, Gumtree, and Facebook Marketplace (or Bidorbuy or Takealot in South Africa) for under $30. You don’t need a computer to program the frequencies and the replacement parts are all also affordable and readily available (if you lost or wanted to upgrade your aerial, battery or charger).

There are more reliable brands out there and almost everyone who upgrades to a more expensive or robust radio can’t stop talking about how much better those brands are, but for me, “good enough” is a better place to start than “perfect”.

The omnipresent Baofeng UV-5R

Programming your Baofeng

After unboxing, fully charging the battery and screwing in the antenna (donโ€™t over-tighten it or it may strip), you can turn on the radio with the big volume knob. Do yourself a favour and watch a few tutorial videos on YouTube on how to operate the unit, it will help a lot (and I wonโ€™t go into all the features here).

Pressing the VFO/MR button switches between Channel Mode and Frequency Mode. Frequency Mode is used for temporary frequency assignment or field programming โ€“it isnโ€™t auto-saved to the device after you turn the radio off. Channel Mode is used for selecting pre-programmed channels and those channels are saved even when powering off (or removing the battery). All programming is first done in Frequency Mode and then saved to Channel Mode.

When you press the Menu button there are 40 menu items you can go through with the Up/Down buttons. You can see the number of the menu item you are on underneath the battery status on the screen.

SAHPA radio frequencies

You will need to set the following SAHPA frequencies in South Africa:

ChannelFrequencyR-CTCST-CTCS
0 (not used)141.750OFFOFF
SAHPA 1141.600OFFOFF
SAHPA 2141.625OFFOFF
SAHPA 3141.60097.497.4
SAHPA 4141.62597.497.4
SAHPA 5141.600179.9179.9
SAHPA 6141.625179.9179.9
SAHPA 7141.600241.8241.8
SAHPA 8141.625241.8241.8

In short:

  1. Optional: Delete old data (Menu button > 28 > pick channel to delete > confirm > exit menu)
  2. Enter Frequency Mode (VFO button)
  3. Select the upper display (A/B button)
  4. Enter the frequency (above)
  5. Enter the menu, go to MEM-CH (number 27) and save the channel
  6. For SAHPA channels 3-8, you will also need to set the frequency of R-CTCS (number 11) and T-CTCS (number 13) before saving MEM-CH.

If you already have something stored on a channel, you have to delete that channel first as in step one (MENU โ€“ 28 – MENU – CHANNEL NR โ€“ MENU โ€“ EXIT). Alternatively, just do a factory reset, set the language to English and start from scratch.

Once my radio is all set up, I keep the button beep (menu:8) and voice (menu:14) enabled. It makes it easier to make changes in flight. I also enable auto-lock after 5 or 10 seconds (menu:24), so that I don’t accidentally make changes by pressing on my radio (hold the key button if you want to unlock).

Keith Pickersgill wrote an excellent article for SAHPA about why it’s usually best to fly on Channel 3, why you should keep your radio vertical, and a whole lot more.

Making a hands-free PTT for your radio

I hate hate hate taking my hands off my brake lines to talk during XC (and in many instances, it is super dangerous, since you won’t be able to actively fly and prevent collapses), so I made my own push-to-talk system. It went through a few iterations, but the current version works really well.

But first, here are things that I experimented with that didn’t work well for me:

  • Headsets, earphones, or external speakers. Anything stuck in my helmet was too noisy or uncomfortable. Anything in my ears for the entire flight started hurting after ten minutes.
  • External microphones. Most of them are really poor quality and there was too much wind noise. There are better units, but they usually work best in full-face helmets. Like with the earphones, there are extra wires that complicate things and may get in the way.
  • Bluetooth systems. It prevents the loose wire issue, but they’re still uncomfortable to me and it’s yet a separate thing to occupy my limited mental capacity (adding a Bluetooth transmitter to the radio, charging both the headset and the transmitter, pairing the system, fiddling and reconnecting in flight).

So then, here’s what worked for me:

I always wear my radio in the chest pocket of my running hydration vest. Hydration vests nowadays have two bottles in front, as opposed to the big bladder in the back. This style allows me to keep one side with a water-filled bottle (hands-free access to water during my flight, just biting on that straw) and my radio in the other. The mesh pocket I put my radio in also breaks most wind noise (if you mount your radio another way, cover the microphone hole with something like a thin sock or stocking)

Since there is nothing in the skin-tight back compartment, you can comfortably sit back in your harness. I put snacks in the other zippered pockets on my chest.

Most importantly, I am able to clearly hear and be heard with the radio’s built-in speaker and microphone ~15cm from my face during flight.

Next up, I took an external speaker/microphone unit (the standard UV-5R comes with a cheap headpiece in the box you can cut open, but you can also get one online for under $8).

The problem is that when you plug these into a radio, they override the built-in microphone and speaker on the radio (to use the external microphone and speaker you plugged in).

On to the Googlemachine, I found the wiring diagram for this Kenwood-style connector online:

This means that only the two little parts of the pins closest to the connector are used for the PTT (the actual button you press when talking), the others are for the microphone and speaker. So by snipping those off, your PTT connector will only use the cable for the “talk” button, not for a microphone or speaker.

I didn’t take photos of the first time I made a PTT cable, but I literally just made another one for this article in five minutes. Step by step:

1. Take a cheap external speaker or headset

Remove the crocodile clip. Cut off the earpiece of the headset (the bottom part in the image), we only want the cable with the radio connector and the PTT button (the top half of the image).

Take the connector side…

…and snip off the unnecessary parts of the two pins (as shown on the wiring diagram, earlier).

Plug it into the radio. I secure mine with an elastic rubber band (not that it is particularly loose in the radio, it would stay put without the rubber band).

I also attached a piece of velcro to the wire by the PTT to keep it secure onto my thumb. Now just push to talk, still using the radio’s microphone and speaker!

One last thing: there will still be a wire running from your radio to your hand, and I dislike anything that can snag or get in the way when I’m flying.

I always, always, always fly with my arms covered (a jacket, a long sleeve shirt, or arm sun protection sleeves I also use for jogging), so I simply run the wire from my running vest underneath one of these. I also always fly with gloves (thick ones in winter, thin, $5 gardening or jogging ones in summer) meaning all of the wires are always completely out of the way. It’s really so useful to just pinch your left hand to respond to people or ask for assistance and suggestions. Safe to do even when hooking a thermal in bumpy conditions. I can’t recommend this little hack enough!

Other paraglider radio improvements

I got a larger battery for ยฃ12 on Amazon UK. I used it during a five-day cross-country workshop (around 12 hours of flying, more usage if you include waiting on takeoff and talking to and waiting for retrieve drivers) and it only went down by 25%. It makes the radio slightly taller, but in every other regard, it’s a great upgrade.

The main reason for the slightly larger battery was that I disliked the clunky charger dock and wall socket that comes with the Baofeng UV-5R, very impractical for travelling. The larger battery has a direct USB charging plug, meaning you can charge it via a power bank, laptop, wall outlet, or car USB charger (if you get the ยฃ8 USB cable, below). No more clunky chargers!

(some new radios come with USB-C chargers these days; a massive upgrade)

The standard “rubber duck” aerial that comes with the UV-5R has a good range (on a clear day, I heard other pilots ~80km away), but when you don’t have direct line of sight, like when you’re around the bend of a hill or mountain trying to talk to your retrieve, it gets a little scratchy. The Baofeng blog suggests that you add a DIY “rat tail” to your rubber duck to improve range, definitely worth a try.

I instead got a ยฃ12 foldable long-range antenna on Amazon UK, that I use on cross-country and other more adventurous flights. I keep the antenna folded and if things get scratchy, I unfold it, as in the pictures below. The 47cm model is more than enough and doesn’t get in the way while flying, even when unfolded. Anything longer than this will probably be annoying.

Sometimes when thermalling, my harness chest strap pushed the buttons on my radio which I keep in my running vest on my chest. This sometimes changed the frequency or channel in flight. By holding down the key button (bottom right) on the UV-5R, you can lock it, but even with it locked, I once had the bad luck once of my harness strap both unlocking and changing some settings on my radio. All this was in really turbulent air, which made it dangerous to pull the radio out of my running vest and change it back to the right channel.

The solution was to cut a keypad cover from a piece of plastic (an old cell phone case, for me) and to secure the cover with “hinges” I made from duct tape (below, on the left). I keep the keypad cover in place with another rubber band.

About me

Werner van Rooyen

Formerly Business Development and Marketing at Luno (where we went from eight nerds in a tiny office to hundreds of people spread over three continents) and before that Marketing at PayFast. Currently investing, paragliding, and doing research, mostly in Mexico.