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The Aircraft Electrical System

From the communication systems that enable pilots to speak with air traffic control to the lighting systems that provide safe operations during low-light conditions, much of an aircraft’s equipment will rely on electrical systems and power for their functionality. As aircraft electronic technology and flight instruments continue to be improved and advanced, so too are the electrical systems that provide them with the power needed for their operability. In this blog, we will discuss how the aircraft electrical system functions and how power is generated aboard the aircraft during flight.

Regardless of whether an aircraft is a simple and lightweight single-engine plane or a large commercial airliner, all aircraft with an electrical system must have some means of generating electrical power for their components. While a majority of electrical systems are engine driven, some aircraft may take advantage of an Auxiliary Power Unit (APU), Ram Air Turbine (RAT), or a hydraulic motor. If the aircraft features a generator, power is typically provided with an output of 115 to 120V AC, 14V DC, or 28V DC. Depending upon the type of electrical output, the electrical system may take the electricity as is or may employ a series of rectifiers, transformers, or inverters to adjust either the type of current flowing through the system or its voltage. Regardless of what power sources are used, the output energy makes its way to a distribution bus from where it can then be directed to individual components after passing through a form of circuit protection.

Generators and alternators are commonly found on aircraft for the production of energy, and the two equipment pieces provide different advantages. Generators are useful for charging aircraft batteries, and they are reliable power sources that can be used for starting engine operations or as an emergency system when there is an electrical distribution system failure. Alternators, on the other hand, are capable of generating more power and are more lightweight, though they require energy from the battery in order to begin operations.

Due to the consistent advancements made to the aircraft electrical system and its related parts, many changes have been made to such assemblies to ensure that they are more sophisticated. In many modern aircraft models, more robust systems have been implemented to accommodate varying voltage systems, and increased safety capabilities have also been installed to prevent the hazards of failures. In the case that any issue occurs, there must be some means of connecting the aircraft electrical system to a ground power unit.

As electrical failures are always possible, it is crucial that there are defenses in place to ensure the continued and safe operation of the aircraft. In most aircraft, redundant generators and a secondary installation may be present to ensure that there is a backup system that can quickly take over. To prevent overload conditions from destroying sensitive components, many parts attached to the bus will have circuit protection devices such as circuit breakers or fuses. If smoke, fumes, or fire is suspected to be coming from an electrical source, the faulty component must be identified and isolated as quickly as possible. In any case of fire, smoke, or fumes, the aircraft needs to be landed immediately for safety.


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