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Listening in on Uncle Sam

With the Right Equipment, You Can Hear America’s Defenders in the Skies Above...After years of listening to conversations just like this on my multiband radio scanner, I’m still drawn to the excitement and intrigue of monitoring military aircraft transmissions.

SidebarScanner Requirements:

Modes: AM, FM, NFM (narrow FM)

Frequencies: 108 to 136.9750; 137 to 143.9950; 162 to 215.9500; and 216 to 449.9875 MHz.

Notes: The number of programmable channels and speed of scanning are of less importance than the reception modes and the bands of operation. If you live near a military facility you will undoubtedly find more frequencies. Specific frequencies are available publicly on the Internet, in scanner books and in FCC and FAA databases.

Two good Internet sources for scanner frequencies are: _Scanner_freqs

Other sites may be found on the World Wide Web.With the Right Equipment, You Can Hear America’s Defenders in the Skies Above

“Bright-Star, Bright-Star, Right Foot on Yellow twenty?”

“Bright-Star go ahead.”

“Yes sir, request base plus two?”

“Affirm, Toaster will meet you on Victor. Track two-four-seven west at Wrestling. How soon, Bingo?”

” Plus one-point-five.”

“Click, click.”

After years of listening to conversations just like this on my multiband radio scanner, I’m still drawn to the excitement and intrigue of monitoring military aircraft transmissions.

What does it all mean? Who is saying what to whom? Where are these folks flying, is this a practice exercise or is something really going on? Are we safe? It’s a giant jigsaw puzzle in the sky.

You can listen in as your U.S. air forces endure the long hours of constant training above the skies of America. Usually they are practicing clandestine missions for unseen emergencies and homeland defense, all the while knowing that someday the emergency may arrive.

Furious activity

Meteorologists who report on the weather for our nation often compile a list of top 10 weather days for the year. Bright sun, low humidity and calm winds with moderate temperatures figure into the mix for making the “best days” pick.

Tuesday Sept. 11 was such a day in the northeastern part of the United States. Who among us could have imagined that a day dawning with such promise would become the darkest moment in American history? Only a handful of self-proclaimed religious zealots knew what was about to unfold as the day began. Soon the entire civilized world would be rocked by the actions of a few.

Most of us will remember where we were when we heard about the attack on America. For the men and women of our military this wasn’t a drill. War had come to our shores not from without, but from within. This time it was the real thing.

As westbound jetliners began diverting from their filed flight plans, F-15 Eagles from Otis Air Force base just north of Falmouth, Mass., and F-16 Falcons out of Langley Air Force base Hampton Roads, Va., headed north and south to intercept the stray aircraft.

Despite closing at near-supersonic speeds, the Otis F-15s were still 70 miles north of Manhattan when the second jetliner hit the World Trade Center.

Although the F-16s from Langley also arrived too late to prevent the carnage at the Pentagon, once on station, both groups would patrol the skies indefinitely. President George W. Bush issued the unprecedented order to shoot down any aircraft that further threatened America. Less than 90 minutes later all commercial air traffic was on the ground nationwide.

Commercial airliners across the country were replaced with armed jet fighters, KC-10 and KC-135 tanker aircraft for refueling, as well as E-3 AWACS flying command posts. The entire military establishment was at highest alert status.

In the New York area, news helicopters covering the morning traffic were not permitted to return to the air. A no-fly zone extended around lower Manhattan and the nation’s capital.

Along the East and West Coasts of the United States, military surveillance extended miles out to sea as pilots scrutinized everything afloat along our boarders. A boat that came perilously close to an ocean liner several miles off Atlantic City, N.J., was buzzed repeatedly by F-15s. Upon investigation, the second vessel was identified as a Coast Guard ship.

In the uncertain moments after the attack on America, everything was suspect. For those with the capability to monitor aircraft transmissions, the chatter was non-stop as the nation and indeed the world struggled to comprehend the magnitude of the crime.

Altitude matters

Monitoring the military in peacetime can be a fun and interesting pastime. Listening to radio chatter during warlike conditions takes on a new perspective. For those in the news business, monitoring military activity can give us insight into what is really going on around us.

Commercial aircraft generally operate within the VHF spectrum, at frequencies between 108 to 137 MHz. Most typical police and fire scanners will also cover this commercial band.

Military aircraft are capable of operating within both the VHF and UHF bands. Because the military are many times within the same airspace as commercial jetliners, its planes have the ability to simulcast on both the civilian and exclusively military frequencies. Transmissions almost always use AM as the mode of operation.

Signals within the VHF and UHF spectrum travel in a line-of-sight manner and generally are limited to the curvature of the earth, a distance of approximately 20 to 30 miles. In a newsroom while monitoring local police and fire frequencies, the occasional adjacent city transmission might be heard when conditions permit.

Newcomers to aircraft monitoring often are surprised as to the long-distance reception range afforded by airborne transmissions. Aircraft are heard over extremely great distances because of their altitude. As high as 35,000 to 40,000 feet, aircraft transmitters cover vast distances.

From my listening post in central New Jersey it’s not unusual to hear aircraft in flight from Boston to Washington and as far west as Pittsburgh.


Like any activity, aircraft and military communication has a language all its own. The more you listen, the more intuitive you will become as to what is really happening in the skies above you.

Some conversations are routine and straightforward, but there are times when security matters. Because aircraft radio waves cover such vast distances, and with transmissions plainly within earshot of millions of ground-based listeners, the military has two options for clandestine radio communications.

For total security, the obvious answer is to encrypt all two-way radio transmissions and make them unavailable to anyone without a need to know. While the use of encrypted transmissions by routine military aircraft has never been officially confirmed, it’s reasonable to assume that if radio encryption capability doesn’t already exist, it will someday.

Totally encrypting all radio transmissions, however, poses a problem when the need arises to interface with civilian ground controllers and other commercial aircraft.

The second security operation involves the legendary use of tactical call signs and codes to evade and confuse those of us who mean no harm, as well as those who do.

Coded messages offer the most interest for the casual radio listener.

“Poker Three Two. Tuna?”

“Go Head, Tuna.”

“Heads up, Flipper 88, one-twenty tracking north east, estimated two zero.”


“Click, click.”

Although it sounds like standard American English, it’s difficult to comprehend what is being said and by whom. Even if you think you know what’s going on, chances are you’ll never know for sure. And that’s the idea. Even if you figure out who Tuna is today, chances are they won’t be Tuna tomorrow.

Air Force One

Training and now homeland security flights are not the only military scanner action within earshot of anyone on the ground.

The flagship of the Air Force inventory is the Boeing 747 commonly known as Air Force One. Actually there are two 747s. They are called Air Force One only when the president is aboard. You can in fact monitor Air Force One transmissions over the air.

Let me preface this by saying, in all my years of listening to the radio, never once have I heard the voice of the president of the United States on an “open” radio channel. Aboard Air Force One, the use of encrypted radio transmissions definitely exists.

An Air Force technician calling “Crown” (the White House) and using the phrase “Go secure” causes Air Force One transmissions to disappear into a rush of digital white noise, the content of which can only be imagined.

Although you may be blocked from listening to presidential conversations, there can still be items of interest and even amusement coming from Air Force One.

Visits to New York City by the president and other members of the former Clinton administration were routine throughout most of the 1990s. On one such visit, a half-hour discussion ensued about the First Lady’s hairdresser appointments. Another time the presidential dinner menu was discussed at great length.

While not being of any real importance, these conversations do give the listener a sense of being clued in to what’s happening aboard the “Flying White House.”

Whether such openness will continue in these times of heightened security is anyone’s guess.

Most newsrooms have scanner capabilities to listen to police, fire and EMS. Generally only top-of-the-line units also have the ability to monitor the VHF and UHF frequencies used by the military. A list of scanner requirements for monitoring the military is listed in the sidebar.

While a complete list of military frequencies is not possible, the frequencies listed in the box are a good starting point.

In these times of concern, keeping your feet on the ground while you have one ear to the skies can make you better informed.

Back in the Cold War days, the old Strategic Air Command was charged with the task of defending our country against sudden nuclear attack. For more than 30 years, B-52 bombers were aloft, defending our air space 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

When the Cold Ware was over, SAC was dismantled and the constant aerial surveillance ended. The possibility of an airborne attack was thought to be minimal.

Our sense of invulnerability was shattered on Sept. 11. Since then and for the foreseeable future, the heavy bombers of the past have been replaced by more-agile fighter gun ships, refueling tankers and flying command centers.

When a deranged man recently stormed the cockpit of an eastbound American Airlines jetliner headed for Chicago, Air Force F-16s were called on to provide a fighter escort. Presumably the fighters were in direct communications with the jumbo jet as well as ground control and an AWACS command post. The American Airlines plane landed safely at O’Hare.

As far back as the Cuban missile crisis of 1962, the Strategic Air Command had a motto that still holds true today: “Sleep tight America, your Air Force is awake.” It’s comforting to know they’re up there – and to hear them on the radio.