ICOM IC-A22 and IC-A3 VHF Transceivers

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One-third smaller than previous-generation units like the IC-A21 and KX-99, these are our hands-down picks for a handheld VHF air band transceiver.

The lower-cost ICOM IC-A4 transceiver is subject of a separate AVweb review article.


I've used the ICOM IC-A20 and IC-A21, King KX-99, and Sporty's A300. They're all fine handheld aviation transceivers, and it has always been difficult for me to pick any one of them as the best-of-category.

For many years, I've carried an ICOM IC-A20 in my flight bag. It has always given me flawless service. When I purchased the ICOM, I made that choice mostly because ICOM has a long history of making excellent handheld tranceivers for amateur radio and marine band use, so I figured they'd know how to make a reliable aviation handheld. I've never had cause to regret that choice.

Back in January 1995, I was given the opportunity to beta-test ICOM's new IC-A22 transceiver for several months before it went on the market. I wondered why ICOM would even bother developing a new aviation handheld. After all, I reasoned, "if you've seen one aviation handheld, you've seen 'em all."

Wrong! The IC-A22 just blew me away. It was love at first sight! And after two years in service, I'm still convinced it's the best aviation handheld transceiver there is.

A miniature marvel

The most obvious difference between the new IC-A22 and previous-generation handhelds is that the new ICOM is much smaller and lighter. It's about one-third smaller in size, and about 40% lighter (15 oz vs. 25 oz according to my postal scale) than its predecessor IC-A20 and -A21 or the King KX-99.

But these numbers don't really tell the whole story. Subjectively, the size of the IC-A22 feels just right. It fits my hand perfectly. It slips neatly in my jacket pocket. It stows in my soft-sided flight bag without a bulge. I don't think I'd want it to be any smaller than it is.

After a week of testing the IC-A22, my old handheld seemed incredibly big, heavy, and unwieldy.

Size-wise, the only thing that seems strange about the IC-A22 is its antenna. The radio comes with a typical "rubber duckie" style antenna that is approximately the same size as the antennas for previous-generation ICOMs and the King KX-99. This standard-size antenna seems to dwarf the diminutive new transceiver.

It seems a pity that the antenna couldn't have been shrunk along with the radio itself. But antenna size is a function of frequency, and performance would have suffered if ICOM had used a smaller antenna. Such are the laws of physics.

There appears to be no penalty associated with the IC-A22's small size and weight. Its transmitter power is exactly the same as previous models (5 watts PEP, 1.5 watts carrier), and its receiver, noise blanker, and audio quality seem every bit as good as the older, larger radios.

Mammoth memory

The other obvious difference that sets the new IC-A22 apart from earlier handhelds is its capacious 50-channel frequency memory. (My old IC-A20 could memorize only 16 frequencies.) What makes this 50-channel memory so marvelously useful is that each memory slot can be programmed with not only a frequency, but also an alphanumeric identifier as well. The identifier may be up to six characters long, with an optional hyphen between the third and fourth characters.

So when I flip through the channels of my IC-A22's memory, instead of seeing "121.15", "121.90", "118.30", "119.05", "122.75", "122.95", and so forth, what I see on the display is "SMX-ATS", "SMX-GND", "SMX-TWR", "ZLA-CTR", "AIR-AIR", "UNICOM", etc. Incredibly slick!

At first, it can be a little tricky to program these identifiers into the memories. The IC-A22 uses a typical numeric keypad for data-entry, so entering alphabetic information requires multiple keypresses. ICOM cleverly decided to use the same digit-to-letter assignments as a standard touch-tone telephone dial. But not so cleverly, they failed to mark the letter assignments anywhere on the radio itself. Consequently, when programming alphabetic identifiers into memory, it's helpful to have a telephone dial nearby that you can refer to. There's also a chart in the IC-A22 instruction manual if you don't happen to have a phone handy.

If you are really into memory programming, ICOM offers an alternative to all this button pushing. You can use an accessory PC-to-radio "cloning cable" (OPC-478, $42.00) to hook the IC-A22 to your DOS-based personal computer, and use ICOM's "cloning software" (EX-1563, $40.00) to load and save the radio's frequency memories. While this is a very powerful capability, you'd have to do a good deal of programming to justify the $82.00 cost of the cable and software.

Navigation functions

The IC-A22 includes a very capable VOR navigation capability. When you tune the radio to any of the 200 navigation channels in the 108-118 MHz range, the navigation features are activated automatically.

There are two nav modes: DVOR mode and CDI mode. In DVOR mode, the radio display acts as a digital RMI and continuously displays either your radial from or your bearing to the station. In CDI mode, you can specify the radial or bearing that you want to fly (OBS setting) and the radio displays a pseudo-analog course deviation bar that shows you whether you are left or right of the desired course.

If you want to fly directly to a VOR from your present position, the IC-A22 lets you start off in DVOR mode (to determine your bearing to the station) and then switch to CDI mode with a single keypress to track that radial inbound. I found the navigation modes quite intuitive and easy to use.

If you tune in a localizer frequency, the IC-A22 displays the letters "LOC" in place of the usual RMI display. It does not support localizer navigation. (Neither does any other aviation handheld that I know of, although I've often wondered why not.)

Other features

The IC-A22 includes a bunch of other handy capabilities, including:

  • Duplex operation (transmit to a FSS while listening on a VOR frequency).
  • One-button selection of 121.5 MHz emergency frequency.
  • Reception of all ten VHF FM marine weather channels.
  • Band scanning and memory scanning (with programmable lockout).
  • Selectable automatic noise limiter (ANL) function to reduce ignition noise.
  • Low battery indicator and over-voltage caution indicator.

The radio comes standard with the following accessories:

  • CM-166 600 mAh NiCd battery pack (typical 5-hour battery life).
  • BM-112 wall charger (charges battery pack in about 15 hours).
  • FA-B01AR flexible "rubber duckie" antenna.
  • LC-122 leather carrying case.
  • OPC-499 headset adapter (with built-in sidetone function so you can hear yourself talk).
  • Belt clip with attaching screws.

Versions and prices

The ICOM IC-A22 has a "street price" of $569.00. There's also a "Sport" version of the IC-A22 that comes with an alkaline battery pack instead of the rechargable NiCd battery with wall charger, and also omits the headset adapter and carrying case. The "Sport" version sells for a $140 less: the "street" price is $429.00. If you buy the "Sport" version of the radio, you always have the option of ordering a NiCd battery pack, charger, or other accessories later on.

ICOM also offers the IC-A3, a comm-only version of the same radio with no nav functions, for a "street price" of $499.00. There's also a "Sport" version of the IC-A3 (with alkaline battery instead of NiCd) that sells for $80 less: $419.00. If you carry a handheld GPS, the IC-A3 (regular or "Sport") is an attractive choice because you probably don't have much need for the VOR nav functions of the IC-A22.

Accessories

Although the IC-A22 and IC-A3 come with everything you need, there are a number of optional accessories available at extra cost:

  • CM-167 battery case (uses 10 AA alkaline batteries). $33.00.
  • CM-166 extra NiCd battery pack (one furnished with radio). $154.00.
  • BC-79 rapid drop-in desktop charger. $196.00.
  • CP-17L cigarette lighter cable (for 12V vehicles only). $24.00.
  • EX-1563 PC cloning software for programming radio memories. $40.00.
  • OPC-478 PC-to-radio cloning cable. $42.00.
  • OPC-474 radio-to-radio cloning cable. $18.00.

I'd particularly recommend considering the CM-167 alkaline battery case and keeping it loaded with fresh AA alkalines for emergencies. The alkaline pack has nearly twice the power capacity of the NiCd pack, and alkalines have excellent shelf life. If your primary use of the radio is as an emergency backup, you might want to forgo the NiCd battery altogether and purchase the alkaline-only "Sport" version for $80 to $140 less.

You won't have any regrets if you buy this radio. I sure wouldn't part with mine!

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Editor's Note

In March 1998, ICOM introduced a new, lower-cost handheld: the IC-A4.  This unit is subject of a separate AVweb review article.