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Aircraft Electrical Systems

by Flight Learnings

in Aircraft Systems

Most aircraft are equipped with either a 14- or a 28-volt direct current electrical system. A basic aircraft electrical system consists of the following components:

  • Alternator/generator
  • Battery
  • Master/battery switch
  • Alternator/generator switch
  • Bus bar, fuses, and circuit breakers
  • Voltage regulator
  • Ammeter/loadmeter
  • Associated electrical wiring

Engine-driven alternators or generators supply electric current to the electrical system. They also maintain a sufficient electrical charge in the battery. Electrical energy stored in a battery provides a source of electrical power for starting the engine and a limited supply of electrical power for use in the event the alternator or generator fails.

Most direct-current generators will not produce a sufficient amount of electrical current at low engine rpm to operate the entire electrical system. During operations at low engine rpm, the electrical needs must be drawn from the battery, which can quickly be depleted.

Alternators have several advantages over generators. Alternators produce sufficient current to operate the entire electrical system, even at slower engine speeds, by producing alternating current, which is converted to direct current. The electrical output of an alternator is more constant throughout a wide range of engine speeds.

Some aircraft have receptacles to which an external ground power unit (GPU) may be connected to provide electrical energy for starting. These are very useful, especially during cold weather starting. Follow the manufacturer’s recommendations for engine starting using a GPU.

The electrical system is turned on or off with a master switch. Turning the master switch to the ON position provides electrical energy to all the electrical equipment circuits except the ignition system. Equipment that commonly uses the electrical system for its source of energy includes:

  • Position lights
  • Anticollision lights
  • Landing lights
  • Taxi lights
  • Interior cabin lights
  • Instrument lights
  • Radio equipment
  • Turn indicator
  • Fuel gauges
  • Electric fuel pump
  • Stall warning system
  • Pitot heat
  • Starting motor

Many aircraft are equipped with a battery switch that controls the electrical power to the aircraft in a manner similar to the master switch. In addition, an alternator switch is installed which permits the pilot to exclude the alternator from the electrical system in the event of alternator failure. [Figure 6-33]

On this master switch, the left half is for the alternator and the right half is for the battery.

Figure 6-33. On this master switch, the left half is for the alternator and the right half is for the battery.

With the alternator half of the switch in the OFF position, the entire electrical load is placed on the battery. All nonessential electrical equipment should be turned off to conserve battery power.

A bus bar is used as a terminal in the aircraft electrical system to connect the main electrical system to the equipment using electricity as a source of power. This simplifies the wiring system and provides a common point from which voltage can be distributed throughout the system. [Figure 6-34]

Electrical system schematic.

Figure 6-34. Electrical system schematic. - Click to Enlarge

Fuses or circuit breakers are used in the electrical system to protect the circuits and equipment from electrical overload. Spare fuses of the proper amperage limit should be carried in the aircraft to replace defective or blown fuses. Circuit breakers have the same function as a fuse but can be manually reset, rather than replaced, if an overload condition occurs in the electrical system. Placards at the fuse or circuit breaker panel identify the circuit by name and show the amperage limit.

An ammeter is used to monitor the performance of the aircraft electrical system. The ammeter shows if the alternator/generator is producing an adequate supply of electrical power. It also indicates whether or not the battery is receiving an electrical charge.

Ammeters are designed with the zero point in the center of the face and a negative or positive indication on either side. [Figure 6-35] When the pointer of the ammeter is on the plus side, it shows the charging rate of the battery. A minus indication means more current is being drawn from the battery than is being replaced. A full-scale minus deflection indicates a malfunction of the alternator/generator. A full-scale positive deflection indicates a malfunction of the regulator. In either case, consult the AFM or POH for appropriate action to be taken.

Ammeter and loadmeter.

Figure 6-35. Ammeter and loadmeter.

Not all aircraft are equipped with an ammeter. Some have a warning light that, when lighted, indicates a discharge in the system as a generator/alternator malfunction. Refer to the AFM or POH for appropriate action to be taken.

Another electrical monitoring indicator is a loadmeter. This type of gauge has a scale beginning with zero and shows the load being placed on the alternator/generator. [Figure 6-35] The loadmeter reflects the total percentage of the load placed on the generating capacity of the electrical system by the electrical accessories and battery. When all electrical components are turned off, it reflects only the amount of charging current demanded by the battery.

A voltage regulator controls the rate of charge to the battery by stabilizing the generator or alternator electrical output. The generator/alternator voltage output should be higher than the battery voltage. For example, a 12-volt battery would be fed by a generator/alternator system of approximately 14 volts. The difference in voltage keeps the battery charged.

1 Fred Mabonga November 30, 2010 at 1:14 pm

Very good reading material on aircraft electrical system. Educational and also recommended for refresher reading by experienced aviators.

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