Aircraft Electrical Systems – Small Single Engine Aircraft (Part One)

in Aircraft Electrical System

Virtually all aircraft contain some form of an electrical system. The most basic aircraft must produce electricity for operation of the engine’s ignition system. Modern aircraft have complex electrical systems that control almost every aspect of flight. In general, electrical systems can be divided into different categories according to the function of the system. Common systems include lighting, engine starting, and power generation.

Small Single-Engine Aircraft


Light aircraft typically have a relatively simple electrical system because simple aircraft generally require less redundancy and less complexity than larger transport category aircraft. On most light aircraft, there is only one electrical system powered by the engine-driven alternator or generator. The aircraft battery is used for emergency power and engine starting. Electrical power is typically distributed through one or more common points known as an electrical bus (or bus bar).

Almost all electrical circuits must be protected from faults that can occur in the system. Faults are commonly known as opens or shorts. An open circuit is an electrical fault that occurs when a circuit becomes disconnected. A short circuit is an electrical fault that occurs when one or more circuits create an unwanted connection. The most dangerous short circuit occurs when a positive wire creates an unwanted connection to a negative connection or ground. This is typically called a short to ground.

There are two ways to protect electrical systems from faults: mechanically and electrically. Mechanically, wires and components are protected from abrasion and excess wear through proper installation and by adding protective covers and shields. Electrically, wires can be protected using circuit breakers and fuses. The circuit breakers protect each system in the event of a short circuit. It should be noted that fuses can be used instead of circuit breakers. Fuses are typically found on older aircraft. A circuit breaker panel from a light aircraft is shown in Figure 9-83.

Figure 9-83. Light aircraft circuit breaker panel.

Figure 9-83. Light aircraft circuit breaker panel.

Battery Circuit

The aircraft battery and battery circuit is used to supply power for engine starting and to provide a secondary power supply in the event of an alternator (or generator) failure. A schematic of a typical battery circuit is shown in Figure 9-84. This diagram shows the relationship of the starter and external power circuits that are discussed later in this chapter. The bold lines found on the diagram represent large wire (see the wire leaving the battery positive connection), which is used in the battery circuit due to the heavy current provided through these wires. Because batteries can supply large current flows, a battery is typically connected to the system through an electrical solenoid. At the start/end of each flight, the battery is connected/disconnected from the electrical distribution bus through the solenoid contacts. A battery master switch on the flight deck is used to control the solenoid.

Figure 9-84. Schematic of typical battery circuit.

Figure 9-84. Schematic of typical battery circuit. [click image to enlarge]

Although they are very similar, there is often confusion between the terms “solenoid” and “relay.” A solenoid is typically used for switching high current circuits and relays used to control lower current circuits. To help illuminate the confusion, the term “contactor” is often used when describing a magnetically operated switch. For general purposes, an aircraft technician may consider the terms relay, solenoid, and contactor synonymous. Each of these three terms may be used on diagrams and schematics to describe electrical switches controlled by an electromagnet.

Here it can be seen that the battery positive wire is connected to the electrical bus when the battery master switch is active. A battery solenoid is shown in Figure 9-85. The battery switch is often referred to as the master switch since it turns off or on virtually all electrical power by controlling the battery connection. Note how the electrical connections of the battery solenoid are protected from electrical shorts by rubber covers at the end of each wire.

Figure 9-85. Battery solenoid.

Figure 9-85. Battery solenoid.

The ammeter shown in the battery circuit is used to monitor the current flow from the battery to the distribution bus. When all systems are operating properly, battery current should flow from the main bus to the battery giving a positive indication on the ammeter. In this case, the battery is being charged. If the aircraft alternator (or generator) experiences a malfunction, the ammeter indicates a negative value. A negative indication means current is leaving the battery to power any electrical load connected to the bus. The battery is being discharged and the aircraft is in danger of losing all electrical power.

Generator Circuit

Generator circuits are used to control electrical power between the aircraft generator and the distribution bus. Typically, these circuits are found on older aircraft that have not upgraded to an alternator. Generator circuits control power to the field winding and electrical power from the generator to the electrical bus. A generator master switch is used to turn on the generator typically by controlling field current. If the generator is spinning and current is sent to the field circuit, the generator produces electrical power. The power output of the generator is controlled through the generator control unit (or voltage regulator). A simplified generator control circuit is shown in Figure 9-86.

Figure 9-86. Simplified generator control circuit.

Figure 9-86. Simplified generator control circuit.

As can be seen in Figure 9-86, the generator switch controls the power to the generator field (F terminal). The generator output current is supplied to the aircraft bus through the armature circuit (A terminal) of the generator.

Alternator Circuit

Alternator circuits, like generator circuits, must control power both to and from the alternator. The alternator is controlled by the pilot through the alternator master switch. The alternator master switch in turn operates a circuit within the alternator control unit (or voltage regulator) and sends current to the alternator field. If the alternator is powered by the aircraft engine, the alternator produces electrical power for the aircraft electrical loads. The alternator control circuit contains the three major components of the alternator circuit: alternator, voltage regulator, and alternator master switch. [Figure 9-87]

Figure 9-87. Alternator control circuit.

Figure 9-87. Alternator control circuit. [click image to enlarge]

The voltage regulator controls the generator field current according to aircraft electrical load. If the aircraft engine is running and the alternator master switch is on, the voltage regulator adjusts current to the alternator field as needed. If more current flows to the alternator field, the alternator output increases and feeds the aircraft loads through the distribution bus.

All alternators must be monitored for correct output. Most light aircraft employ an ammeter to monitor alternator output. Figure 9-88 shows a typical ammeter circuit used to monitor alternator output. An ammeter placed in the alternator circuit is a single polarity meter that shows current flow in only one direction. This flow is from the alternator to the bus. Since the alternator contains diodes in the armature circuit, current cannot reverse flow from the bus to the alternator.

Figure 9-88. Typical ammeter circuit used to monitor alternator output.

Figure 9-88. Typical ammeter circuit used to monitor alternator output.

When troubleshooting an alternator system, be sure to monitor the aircraft ammeter. If the alternator system is inoperative, the ammeter gives a zero indication. In this case, the battery is being discharged. A voltmeter is also a valuable tool when troubleshooting an alternator system. The voltmeter should be installed in the electrical system while the engine is running and the alternator operating. A system operating normally produces a voltage within the specified limits (approximately 14 volts or 28 volts depending on the electrical system). Consult the aircraft manual and verify the system voltage is correct. If the voltage is below specified values, the charging system should be inspected.

External Power Circuit

Many aircraft employ an external power circuit that provides a means of connecting electrical power from a ground source to the aircraft. External power is often used for starting the engine or maintenance activities on the aircraft. This type of system allows operation of various electrical systems without discharging the battery. The external power systems typically consists of an electrical plug located in a convenient area of the fuselage, an electrical solenoid used to connect external power to the bus, and the related wiring for the system. A common external power receptacle is shown in Figure 9-89.

Figure 9-89. External power receptacle.

Figure 9-89. External power receptacle.

Figure 9-90 shows how the external power receptacle connects to the external power solenoid through a reverse polarity diode. This diode is used to prevent any accidental connection in the event the external power supply has the incorrect polarity (i.e., a reverse of the positive and negative electrical connections). A reverse polarity connection could be catastrophic to the aircraft’s electrical system. If a ground power source with a reverse polarity is connected, the diode blocks current and the external power solenoid does not close.

Figure 9-90. A simple external power circuit diagram.

Figure 9-90. A simple external power circuit diagram. [click image to enlarge]

This diagram also shows that external power can be used to charge the aircraft battery or power the aircraft electrical loads. For external power to start the aircraft engine or power electrical loads, the battery master switch must be closed.