A handheld com radio is one of those tools every pilot should have in their flight kit. If you are a CFI, it’s a must for monitoring first solos from the ramp. For everyone else, it is a backup for communications should the radio stack in the airplane go Tango Uniform during the flight. And in some cases, when you are flying an aircraft that lacks an engine-powered electrical system, the battery-powered radio is all you have—and you had better have a specialized jack to plug your headset into, or else you’re going to be doing the awkward “push-the-boom-mic-out-of-the-way-to-talk” routine.
Recently, FLYING had the opportunity to test the PJ2+ com radio from Sporty’s Pilot Shop. It’s the follow-on to the original PJ2 that won FLYING’s Editors’ Choice Award in 2020. The PJ2+ made points with me right off the bat because it has a direct plug-in for the headset. You don’t need a specialized adapter, which very often has gone missing. The direct plug-in allows you to communicate effectively through the boom mic.
The body of the PJ2+ measures 6 inches long and 2 inches wide. The antenna measures approximately 7 inches. That’s enough to communicate within the airport traffic pattern and on the ramp, but if you want to use the PJ2+ as a primary radio in aircraft, you’ll need an external antenna.
The PJ2+ weighs 1.12 pounds, which makes it easy to carry. For comparison, we placed it next to the Icom radio I have carried for years. The PJ2+ is larger, so there will be more space disruption in the gear bag.
You have options when it comes to a power source for the PJ2+. You can use six readily accessible AA batteries to power the device or make use of the USB-C port if your aircraft is so equipped. Sporty’s opted for the AA batteries because they are easy to find and relatively inexpensive.
You will appreciate this if you have ever had a handheld radio that required a specialized battery, charging station, or cord, and one of them went missing. Rechargeable batteries are not recommended.
If you use AA batteries, Sporty’s advises removing them from the unit when it is not in use for an extended period of time because when the batteries break down, it is often the end of the radio. Because I lost my Sporty’s SP-400 nav/com radio to hostile corrosion that could not be removed with a treatment of distilled vinegar, baking soda, and lemon juice, I paid extra attention to this. I recommend designating a specific pouch in your flight bag to hold the batteries—and only the batteries—when not in use. Make reinstalling them and removing them checklist items.
Bonus note: You do not need tools to replace the batteries on the PJ2+. The battery cover is removed by sliding it up. The unit takes six 1.5 volt AA alkaline batteries. There is a diagram on the cover to show you where to put the positive (+) and negative (-) terminal markings inside the case.
READ MORE: Sportys Unveils PJ2+ Handheld Radio
Features from the Top Down
The radio accepts standard twin-plug aviation headset jacks. When the jacks are not in use, they are covered with a rubber gasket. A similar gasket protects the USB-C power jack on the side of the device. Both rubber coverings are attached to the body of the radio on one end, so they will stay with the radio and not disappear into the bowels of your flight bag. In addition to standard aviation headsets jacks, the PJ2+ also features a 3.5 millimeter jack to accommodate wired earbuds or a computer headset.
The antenna attaches via a BNC connector on top of the device. The BNC is standard for use on aircraft radios, so it shouldn’t be too difficult to attach the device to an existing aircraft radio antenna through a coaxial cable. The on/off and volume knob is on top of the unit. The on/off function has the feel and sound of a “click,” so you know when the radio is on even if you cannot see the screen.
The LCD screen measures 1.5 inches by 1.63 inches, which makes it one of the larger handheld com screens on the market. There is a lot of room for data presentation, including a low-battery indicator and several lines of frequencies. According to Sporty’s, the PJ2+ is capable of 760 com frequencies from 118.000 megahertz to 136.975 MHz. Both the data screen and keypad are auto-lit. The screen boasts enough room for 20 visual memory channels.
The buttons on the keypad are larger than most found on handheld coms—and more spread out. There is a designated 121.5 function on the “2” button, and memory clear is found on “0.” Function keys UP and DOWN—along with RCL for “recall,” MEM for “memory,” CLR for “clear,” and WX for “weather”—allow the user to access the automated weather frequencies for the National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). You can also scan the entire frequency range.
On the left side of the device you find the flip/flop button—identifiable with the double-sided arrow—that allows you to move back and forth between the current and last frequency. The next button is the push-to-talk (PTT), shaped like a holding pattern on an instrument approach plate.
The last button has a stylized light bulb on it, as it is used to activate the backlighting for the screen and keypad. When used in combination with the “clear” key, it can enable and/or disable the auto-light feature to put it into night mode.
To get the most out of this radio, you will want to read the manual first. I know that is anathema to pilots that pride themselves on their ability to gronk their way through things, but to really get the most out of the device, spend a few minutes learning about its functions.
Our test began at a nontowered airport on a busy Sunday. We started off by engaging the search mode. When scanning for a frequency, when a broadcast signal is found, the word “search” flashes, and the unit stops on that frequency. If the broadcasting signal is cut off for more than two seconds, the search feature resumes until it picks up another signal in the 118.000 MHz to 136.975 MHz band. Pressing the “clear” key ends the search. You can reverse the search direction by pressing and holding the “UP” or “DOWN” key (whichever is appropriate) for one second.
You can put frequencies into memory by using either the search mode or adding them manually. Once they are in, they can be saved by pressing the “memory” key. Pull up the frequency by pressing the “recall” key and cycling through the channel numbers as they appear on the screen.
The 121.5 emergency key on the “2” gave us pause until we noted that you have to hold down the key for two to three seconds for the PJ2+ to automatically go to 121.5.
The search for the NOAA weather frequencies was easy and an excellent supplemental tool for our weather briefings. This was followed by a search for local frequencies. We listened to the weather and then accessed the CTAF. A radio check came back loud and clear.
We typed in the CTAF and a few ATIS and tower frequencies and saved them for use. The frequencies were visible in direct sunlight. To transmit, press the PTT button at any time while tuned to a com frequency to broadcast over the one you’ve selected. You know you are transmitting because the screen displays a “TX” beneath the frequency. When using the headset with the unit, the PJ2+ com’s internal microphone will be deactivated and the microphone on the headset may be activated by either pressing the PJ2+’s PTT or an inline remote PTT.
We flew three aircraft for the test: two Cessna 172s and a Cessna 182. On the first flight, we could hear Seattle Approach, but it could not hear us, nor did we expect it as the PJ2+ com transmitter power, as tested, is a relatively low 1.5 watts—normal for handhelds. We could hear Seattle, and therefore knew when to expect someone near us. It was a different story when we got closer to the towered and nontowered airports. Our transmissions were received loud and clear.
According to Sporty’s, the unit’s maximum transmit power is 6 watts, which is the maximum allowed by the Federal Communications Commission for portable radios. As noted by Sporty’s, “the real measure is how much a radio typically puts out in day-to-day use. We’ve tested the PJ2+ and the L6 and found they routinely put out 1.5 to 1.8 watts, which is a lot more than the 1.2 to 1.3 watts we see on other radios. More power obviously means more range.”
One of the Cessna 172s had a RAM mount used to hold the device. The second Cessna 172 had a side pocket that worked great. The Cessna 182 has no cockpit pockets, so the PJ2+ was slipped into the side pouch of the bifold kneeboard I was using. It took a little experimentation to find an angle that didn’t have the antenna hitting the yoke.
One thing I would have liked is a more physically robust push-to-talk switch because a few times the PTT kind of quit during use. When I held my finger on the button, the button sort of disengaged. Several of my learners also attempted to use the device and reported the same thing—it was as if your finger slipped off the switch although you had the pressure on.
This story first appeared in the September 2023/Issue 941 of FLYING’s print edition.