The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) is heavily mentioned in the aviation industry, as they constitute the rules and regulations that keep our airspace safe. But there are other agencies and rules at play that aren’t as referred to that play into the safety of aviation.
One of those topics that require administration is aviation radios. Radios fall under the regulatory guidelines of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), and the FCC regulates who can operate them and what radios can and can’t transmit.
The FCC has two licenses that are of interest to pilots and Aviation Maintenance Technicians (AMTs). One is a Commercial Radio Operator License, which applies to pilots and those who work the equipment (avionics technicians). The other is a station license required for the aircraft.
FCC License Definitions
The FCC is the regulator for broadcasting over the airwaves. Their rules apply to radio and television stations, HAM or amateur radio enthusiasts, or cell phone companies.
The licensing we’re discussing here is a very small part of what a large government organization does. And having little experience with them, finding the right forms you need is a challenge. It helps to look at things from the FCCs perspective. For example, here are two types of FCC licenses that might need to be clarified.
Operator–Someone who transmits over a radio. Think of a pilot in a plane, an airport authority worker inspecting runways, or a controller in the tower.
Station–A radio transmitter. Think of the VHF radios in the plane, truck, or control tower.
FCC Radio Maintenance and Repair License for AMTs
As an AMT, if you want to repair or maintain a radio, you need a Commercial Radio Operator License. Technicians who will repair the equipment will need a high-level certification called the General Radiotelephone Operator License (PG) or GROL.
You need this license if your work involves maintaining or repairing any aircraft or ground station used in aviation–or supervising others doing the work. That includes handheld and portable radios that are used to communicate with aircraft. Specifically, the GROL is required to adjust, maintain, or internally repair an FCC-licensed radiotelephone transmitter.
For AMTs, this often means that avionics technicians will need to become FCC-certified before moving into management or supervisory roles. Getting the FCC license might sound like a pain, but in the avionics or even the A&P field, it’s a great way to set yourself apart and bolster your credentials.
The GROL is a lifetime certificate, so you don’t have to renew it. Getting it requires passing two written exams covering FCC Elements 1 and 3. Element 1 covers basic radio law and operating practice, while Element 3 includes electronic fundamentals and circuits, radio wave propagation, and antennas/feed lines. When you pass the exam, you will be given a Proof of Passing Certificate that you will submit with your license application to the FCC.
Exams are given by the Commercial Operator License Examination Managers (COLEMs). A list of these exam providers is available on the FCC website, and fees vary from place to place. Some providers will do the testing online.
FCC Radio Station License for Aircraft Owners and Operators
If you own a plane, you may also need an Aircraft Radio Station License. The above licenses were for the individual operating the radio, but the station license is for the radio transmitter itself. So, as the pilot needs a pilot certificate and the plane needs an airworthiness certificate, so do the radio operator and radio station.
Individual aircraft only need a station license if it lands in a foreign country or communicates with foreign ground stations. Licenses for aircraft stations can be assigned for an individual plane or a fleet of aircraft, and the license is valid for ten years. Like the other licenses, you’ll use FCC Form 605 to apply for a station license inside the ULS website.
If you need to exercise the privileges of the Aircraft Station License immediately, you can request a Special Temporary Authorization (STA) that is valid for not more than 180 days.
Certain ground stations, like those operated by airport authorities and FBOs, may also require an FCC ground station license.
How to Apply for an FCC License
Unfortunately, the FCC seems to like acronyms and abbreviations even more than the FAA! The form is a minefield of letters, so use care when filling it out and double-check that you’re applying for the correct license.
All license applications start with the same FCC Form 605. You can download the most current PDF of the form from the FCC website, which will include instructions for filling it out. The FCC calls this the “main form” or the “quick form” on their website. Once you’ve got Form 605, you’ll need to find the correct schedule for the type of license you request. For example, commercial Operator and Restricted Radiotelephone licenses are covered on FCC 605 Schedule E.
All fees and forms are filed electronically using the FCC ULS (Universal Licensing System). Once you’ve filled out the correct forms in the ULS, the system will automatically calculate the fee. Fees are collected by a separate FCC payment processing system called CORES.
The good news is that once you wade through the FCC’s website and figure out the right forms, there’s little more to think about. Except for the Aircraft Station License, these are lifetime certificates that are relatively easy to get and require no follow-up action.
Holding these certificates to ensure a properly working aviation radio requires extra work, but can often lead to advancements in your mechanic career. Radios are a critical part in keeping the airways safe for all travelers and the work to maintain them is appreciated by many.