Generator Controls (Part One)

in Aircraft Electrical System

Generator Controls
Theory of Generator Control

All aircraft are designed to operate within a specific voltage range (for example 13.5–14.5 volts). And since aircraft operate at a variety of engine speeds (remember, the engine drives the generator) and with a variety of electrical demands, all generators must be regulated by some control system. The generator control system is designed to keep the generator output within limits for all flight variables. Generator control systems are often referred to as voltage regulators or generator control units (GCU).


Aircraft generator output can easily be adjusted through control of the generator’s magnetic field strength. Remember, the strength of the magnetic field has a direct effect on generator output. More field current means more generator output and vice versa. Figure 9-54 shows a simple generator control used to adjust field current. When field current is controlled, generator output is controlled. Keep in mind, this system is manually adjusted and would not be suitable for aircraft. Aircraft systems must be automatic and are therefore a bit more complex.

Figure 9-54. Regulation of generator voltage by field rheostat.

Figure 9-54. Regulation of generator voltage by field rheostat.

There are two basic types of generator controls: electro-mechanical and solid-state (transistorized). The electromechanical type controls are found on older aircraft and tend to require regular inspection and maintenance. Solid-state systems are more modern and typically considered to have better reliability and more accurate generator output control.

Functions of Generator Control Systems

Most generator control systems perform a number of functions related to the regulation, sensing, and protection of the DC generation system. Light aircraft typically require a less complex generator control system than larger multiengine aircraft. Some of the functions listed below are not found on light aircraft.

Voltage Regulation

The most basic of the GCU functions is that of voltage regulation. Regulation of any kind requires the regulation unit to take a sample of a generator output and compare that sample to a known reference. If the generator’s output voltage falls outside of the set limits, then the regulation unit must provide an adjustment to the generator field current. Adjusting field current controls generator output.

Overvoltage Protection

The overvoltage protection system compares the sampled voltage to a reference voltage. The overvoltage protection circuit is used to open the relay that controls the field excitation current. It is typically found on more complex generator control systems.

Parallel Generator Operations

On multiengine aircraft, a paralleling feature must be employed to ensure all generators operate within limits. In general, paralleling systems compare the voltages between two or more generators and adjust the voltage regulation circuit accordingly.

Overexcitation Protection

When one generator in a paralleled system fails, one of the generators can become overexcited and tends to carry more than its share of the load, if not all of the loads. Basically, this condition causes the generator to produce too much current. If this condition is sensed, the overexcited generator must be brought back within limits, or damage occurs. The overexcitation circuit often works in conjunction with the overvoltage circuit to control the generator.

Differential Voltage

This function of a control system is designed to ensure all generator voltage values are within a close tolerance before being connected to the load bus. If the output is not within the specified tolerance, then the generator contactor is not allowed to connect the generator to the load bus.

Reverse Current Sensing

If the generator cannot maintain the required voltage level, it eventually begins to draw current instead of providing it. This situation occurs, for example, if a generator fails. When a generator fails, it becomes a load to the other operating generators or the battery. The defective generator must be removed from the bus. The reverse current sensing function monitors the system for a reverse current. Reverse current indicates that current is flowing to the generator not from the generator. If this occurs, the system opens the generator relay and disconnects the generator from the bus.

Generator Controls for High Output Generators

Most modern high output generators are found on turbine powered corporate-type aircraft. These small business jets and turboprop aircraft employ a generator and starter combined into one unit. This unit is referred to as a startergenerator. A starter-generator has the advantage of combining two units into one housing, saving space and weight. Since the starter-generator performs two tasks, engine starting and generation of electrical power, the control system for this unit is relatively complex.

A simple explanation of a starter-generator shows that the unit contains two sets of field windings. One field is used to start the engine and one used for the generation of electrical power. [Figure 9-55]

Figure 9-55. Starter-generator.

Figure 9-55. Starter-generator.

During the start function, the GCU must energize the series field and the armature causes the unit to act like a motor. During the generating mode, the GCU must disconnect the series field, energize the parallel field, and control the current produced by the armature. At this time, the startergenerator acts like a typical generator. Of course, the GCU must perform all the functions described earlier to control voltage and protect the system. These functions include voltage regulation, reverse current sensing, differential voltage, overexcitation protection, overvoltage protection, and parallel generator operations. A typical GCU is shown in Figure 9-56.

Figure 9-56. Generator control unit (GCU).

Figure 9-56. Generator control unit (GCU).

In general, modern GCUs for high-output generators employ solid-state electronic circuits to sense the operations of the generator or starter-generator. The circuitry then controls a series of relays and/or solenoids to connect and disconnect the unit to various distribution busses. One unit found in almost all voltage regulation circuitry is the zener diode. The zener diode is a voltage sensitive device that is used to monitor system voltage. The zener diode, connected in conjunction to the GCU circuitry, then controls the field current, which in turn controls the generator output.