Aircraft Electrical Systems – Large Multiengine Aircraft (Part One)

in Aircraft Electrical System

Large Multiengine Aircraft

Transport category aircraft typically carry hundreds of passengers and fly thousands of miles each trip. Therefore, large aircraft require extremely reliable power distribution systems that are computer controlled. These aircraft have multiple power sources (AC generators) and a variety of distribution busses. A typical airliner contains two or more main AC generators driven by the aircraft turbine engines, as well as more than one backup AC generator. DC systems are also employed on large aircraft and the ship’s battery is used to supply emergency power in case of a multiple failures.


The AC generator (sometimes called an alternator) produces three-phase 115-volt AC at 400 Hz. AC generators were discussed previously in this chapter. Since most modern transport category aircraft are designed with two engines, there are two main AC generators. The APU also drives an AC generator. This unit is available during flight if one of the main generators fails. The main and auxiliary generators are typically similar in output capacity and supply a maximum of 110 kilovolt amps (KVA). A fourth generator, driven by an emergency ram air turbine, is also available in the event the two main generators and one auxiliary generator fail. The emergency generator is typically smaller and produces less power. With four AC generators available on modern aircraft, it is highly unlikely that a complete power failure occurs. However, if all AC generators are lost, the aircraft battery will continue to supply DC electrical power to operate vital systems.

AC Power Systems

Transport category aircraft use large amounts of electrical power for a variety of systems. Passenger comfort requires power for lighting, audio visual systems, and galley power for food warmers and beverage coolers. A variety of electrical systems are required to fly the aircraft, such as flight control systems, electronic engine controls, communication, and navigation systems. The output capacity of one engine-driven AC generator can typically power all necessary electrical systems. A second engine-driven generator is operated during flight to share the electrical loads and provide redundancy.

The complexity of multiple generators and a variety of distribution busses requires several control units to maintain a constant supply of safe electrical power. The AC electrical system must maintain a constant output of 115 to 120 volts at a frequency of 400 Hz (±10 percent). The system must ensure power limits are not exceeded. AC generators are connected to the appropriate distribution busses at the appropriate time, and generators are in phase when needed. There is also the need to monitor and control any external power supplied to the aircraft, as well as control of all DC electrical power.

Two electronic line replaceable units are used to control the electrical power on a typical large aircraft. The generator control unit (GCU) is used for control of AC generator functions, such as voltage regulation and frequency control. The bus power control unit (BPCU) is used to control the distribution of electrical power between the various distribution busses on the aircraft. The GCU and BPCU work together to control electrical power, detect faults, take corrective actions when needed, and report any defect to the pilots and the aircraft’s central maintenance system. There is typically one GCU for each AC generator and at least one BPCU to control bus connections. These LRUs are located in the aircraft’s electronics equipment bay and are designed for easy replacement.

When the pilot calls for generator power by activating the generator control switch on the flight deck, the GCU monitors the system to ensure correct operation. If all systems are operating within limits, the GCU energizes the appropriate generator circuits and provides voltage regulation for the system. The GCU also monitors AC output to ensure a constant 400-Hz frequency. If the generator output is within limits, the GCU then connects the electrical power to the main generator bus through an electrical contactor (solenoid). These contactors are often called generator breakers (GB) since they break (open) or make (close) the main generator circuit.

After generator power is available, the BPCU activates various contactors to distribute the electrical power. The BPCU monitors the complete electrical system and communicates with the GCU to ensure proper operation. The BPCU employs remote current sensors known as a current transformers (CT) to monitor the system. [Figure 9-103]

Figure 9-103. Current transformer.

Figure 9-103. Current transformer.

A CT is an inductive unit that surrounds the main power cables of the electrical distribution system. As AC power flows through the main cables, the CT receives an induced voltage. The amount of CT voltage is directly related to the current flowing through the cable. The CT connects to the BPCU, which allows accurate current monitoring of the system. A typical aircraft employs several CTs throughout the electrical system.

The BPCU is a dedicated computer that controls the electrical connections between the various distribution busses found on the aircraft. The BPCU uses contactors (solenoids) called bus tie breakers (BTB) for connection of various circuits. These BTBs open/close the connections between the busses as needed for system operation as called for by the pilots and the BPCU. This sounds like a simple task, yet to ensure proper operation under a variety of conditions, the bus system becomes very complex. There are three common types of distribution bus systems found on transport category aircraft: split bus, parallel bus, and split parallel.