First-Time Buyer: Steve Bloom & His Beautiful Cessna 182

First-Time Buyer: Steve Bloom & His Beautiful Cessna 182

 

With a little hard work, help from his friends—and a reputable aircraft dealer—Steve Bloom turned his lifelong dream of aircraft ownership into a “better-than-expected 182” reality.

While I was walking the grounds of Sun ‘n Fun in Lakeland, Florida, last April, I received a surprise call from my nephew, Steve. He, along with his CFI and another pilot friend, had come to the spring fly-in to “look at airplanes”—nothing unusual there. Sun ‘n Fun is a great place for airplane geeks to ogle and goggle. 

But when I finally tracked the trio down at an exhibit, Steve explained that in this case, “look” actually meant looking—as in, looking for what kind of airplane he wanted to buy. Needless to say, as his uncle and lifelong wannabe airplane owner myself, I was thrilled at the prospect of sharing the aircraft search-and-purchase adventure with my nephew. It was vicarious for sure, but better than nothing.

Sure, you say, buying an airplane is great, but it’s nothing unusual. 

True, but I need to give you a bit of context. You see, back in mid-April, Steve had not yet earned his private certificate. In fact, he was scheduled to take his FAA checkride the following week at his home airport in Manassas, Virginia. (He aced the ride.)

We shouldn’t get too far ahead of ourselves. Let’s start Steve Bloom’s adventure to aircraft ownership from the very beginning.

Steve and his CFII diverted to Brunswick Golden Isles Airport (KBQK) in Brunswick, Georgia, on the flight home after the purchase to avoid the storms rolling in.
Lifelong love

“Aviation has pretty much been a passion of mine a long as I can remember,” Steve said. “When I was a teenager, it was one thing my stepdad—who had owned an Aeronca Champ when he was young—and I shared. It was something we could enjoy and connect over.”

“On my 13th birthday, he and my mom got me a ride in a Stearman biplane at the Flying Circus Airshow in Bealeton, Virginia. And then for my 16th birthday, they gave me an introductory flight in a Cessna 152 at Manassas Airport (KHEF),” he said. “Other than that, there wasn’t much General Aviation experience in my life. But I became a complete geek for it. Every school project had to do with airplanes.”

In high school, young Steve had set his sights on attending Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University or Florida Institute of Technology to earn an aviation degree and pursue a career in the left seat. Unfortunately for the airlines, his less-than-first-class-medical-qualifying eyesight would keep that from happening. 

“So, I did the responsible thing and got a degree in accounting from Bob Jones University in Greenville, South Carolina,” Steve said. “The college also has a really great aviation program and one of my best friends was going there. While my friend was building time toward his commercial, I got a lot of right-seat time in a 172. We flew all over the Carolinas and Georgia.”

Steve explained that while his dream of being a professional pilot didn’t pan out, in a way, his current job as the vice president of information technology for a major video game company is connected to his fascination with aviation. 

“My original introduction and interest in the world of video games and simulations started with the hours and hours spent with the original [Microsoft] Flight Simulator,” he said. “It’s not nearly as popular now as it was then, but it was a chance to ‘fly’—and a lot of fun.”

Here’s where Steve’s road to piloting takes a course that’s all too familiar to so many of us: Life just got in the way of him achieving his lifelong dream of learning how to fly. But he didn’t lose the spark.

“Learning how to fly was always something I wanted to do, but just never could. I finally gave up and said it’s just going to be one of those unrealized dreams—and I was fine with that,” he explained. “I have a wonderful wife and daughter and a lot of amazing things going on in my life. Maybe God knew I would be a terrible pilot and was protecting me from myself.”

Just do it

“My wife, Danni, and I honeymooned at the Outer Banks in North Carolina. Our family loves to spend our vacations out there. A couple of years ago, we decided to start looking at property for a vacation home,” Steve said. “From our home, it’s a six-hour drive [to the Outer Banks] on a good day.”

“Anyway, on the way home from a visit, I happened to mention how easy of a trip it would be in an airplane and if we were be going to make the trip more frequently, driving was the hard way.”

“Danni just looked at me and said, ‘Why don’t we just forget about the whole beach-house thing and you just go get your pilot’s license?’” Steve explained. “She said for me to just stop thinking and dreaming about it, and go do it.”

Steve heeded his wife’s advice and immediately went looking for a flight school, which ended up being a harder task than you might think. Primarily because of a shortage of full-time flight instructors, the few flight schools that are located at Steve’s home airport were swamped with students, especially on the weekends. His diligence finally paid off, and he started his training.

The lack of convenient instructors and available aircraft further cemented Steve’s idea that the only way to really be able to use his license was to buy his own airplane.

“I learned that in aviation—especially as a renter—you are always dependent on someone or something else, which limits your control,” he said. “As a bit of a Type A guy, I wanted to control as much of the process as I possibly could. I knew that when I got my private [certificate], I wanted to immediately start working toward my instrument rating. To do that, I needed to own my own airplane.”

Steve, Danni, Clara, and their newest family member, N4196D.
Let the search begin

Obviously, the first step in looking for the perfect airplane to buy is deciding on just what that “perfect” airplane is. It’s not like you don’t have a plethora of options to choose from. But in Steve’s particular case, he wanted to stay in the Cessna family. Like so many of us, the familiarity he had developed during his flight training made the type his preferred choice. 

But which one?

“I started looking at 172s, but quickly learned good ones are very difficult to find today. Flight schools really want them. Even the old ‘beaters’ that come on the market get sold quickly,” Steve said. “You can buy one, spend another $100,000, and have a really great four-place training airplane for way less than half the cost of a new one.” 

Aside from the lack of available stock, the other negative on the 172 was the lack of useful load. Steve wanted an airplane that could carry his family and a bit of luggage for family trips. 

He also looked at the fixed-gear Cessna 177B. And while he, as do many of us, really liked the Cardinal’s aggressive styling and spacious cabin, much like the 172, its useful load didn’t meet his needs. His search ultimately led to the venerable—and honestly, very hard to beat—Cessna 182 Skylane. 

“My CFI, along with other of my aviation mentors, all said that the 182 would be the ideal ‘first’ airplane for me,” Steve said. “On one hand it’s a big 172, so it would be easy for me to transition to, and it had the power to carry pretty much whatever we want to put in it and still comfortably go as far as we want to go.”

“Also, unlike the majority of 172s,” he continued, “a 182 would not have typically been ‘beat up’ by primary flight students; although I was warned by everyone about 182s wanting to land hard on the nosegear. It was nothing to fear, but you have to pay attention to it and be properly trained. It’s been the bane of many 182 pilots.”

Once his mind was made up on the type, it came time for the daunting task of finding the right 182 out of all the candidates. Like everyone before him, Steve started his search by searching the pages of Trade-A-Plane, Controller, Barnstormers—all the popular places. The problem was they all seemed to have the same airplanes advertised. 

As a social media kind of guy, Steve said he did find a lot of great information on the various aircraft buy/sell/trade groups available on Facebook.

“[The Facebook groups had] some fantastic information. I got an idea of what the real-world prices were for 182s and what I could expect to get within my budget,” Steve explained. 

“The owners on Facebook were much more willing to share photos, logbook entries and other information about owning a particular type that you can’t get on the other sites,” he added. “And, besides, it’s a lot of fun just looking at the airplanes.”

A bit of uncle-ly advice

Throughout his online search, Steve would send me links to “interesting candidates” and ask my opinion on each. 

I had previously contacted a couple of friends who own 182s and are A&Ps. They all shared the same advice: Rule No. 1 is, unless you are an A&P, DO NOT buy a fixer-upper. (The reasons are plentiful enough to warrant their own article.) Instead, find one with a mid-time airframe, low-time engine and serviceable avionics. That way you can start enjoying it right away. 

As you can imagine, internet sites are packed with airplanes that may well have fit the bill. The problem is most owners are, let’s say, overly optimistic about the claims they make about their aircraft.

And besides, as Steve had already surmised, finding the airplane is just the first part of the complex purchasing puzzle.

“The biggest question I had when looking to buy an airplane on the open market was how does the process work? I know how to buy a car or a house, but not an airplane,” he said. “How do I make an offer? Who handles the contract? How do I do the pre-buy if the airplane is hundreds of miles away? How do I get financing or insurance?”

Sure, Steve’s a very smart guy and he would have figured it all out, but as his uncle, and with just a bit more experience and knowledge about the pitfalls of buying an airplane from an individual owner, my advice was to leave all that to the professionals. 

When he asked my opinion, I said I felt his best avenue was to contract a reputable aircraft dealer and pay the dealer to put it all together for him. Sure, it may cost a bit more up front (I don’t mind spending his money), but my experienced opinion is that what it will save in worry and aggravation in the end is worth every penny.

I have known Fred Ahles and his team at Premier Aircraft Sales for a long time and they are the ones I would turn to if I were buying an airplane—especially my first airplane. So, I asked one of Premier’s regional sales managers, Barry Rutheiser, to contact Steve to see if the could work out an arrangement. 

Barry Rutheiser of Premier Aircraft Sales, who found the perfect airplane, presents Steve Bloom (right) with the keys. 

“When I talked to Barry about their acquisition services, I realized it was one simple answer to all of my questions,” Steve said. “Now, paying a sizable chunk of money up front as an acquisition fee is a little scary—you don’t get it back. This was also my first real realization that this was no longer a jaunt. It was serious.”

The first thing Rutheiser did was talk to Steve in-depth about what his goals were for flying and aircraft ownership.

“Just because Steve wanted a 182, didn’t mean that was the best airplane for him to buy. We need to consider the experience as a pilot and what they want to do with the airplane,” Rutheiser said. “You don’t want a buyer to be unrealistic in their search. For example, a Bonanza is fast and a great airplane, but it’s not ideal for the majority of low-time, first-time buyers.”

After their phone discussion, their mutual decision was that the Cessna 182 was indeed the ideal first airplane for Steve. Now the challenge was finding the right 182 to buy.

“There are a lot of 182s out there at all price points. It’s very difficult for the first-time buyer to weed through them all to find the right one,” Rutheiser said. “We go to other established dealers to see what they have available.”

“Working with an established dealer is important, because the dealer has already purchased the airplane from the owner and they’re not going to put their money at risk on a bad investment,” Rutheiser explained.

“In Steve’s case, I contacted a couple of trusted dealers and was able to find an unadvertised 1999 Cessna 182S with only 200 hours on the factory-remanufactured Lycoming engine,” he said. “It had a very nice Garmin avionics package and the cosmetics on the original interior and exterior were very good for its age. It was an exceptionally nice airplane.”

The updated panel, complete with dual Garmin G5s, GTX 345, GNS 530W, JPI EDM 730, and the PS Engineering Bluetooth audio panel contribute to making this a turnkey airplane.

This particular Skylane was so nice, in fact, that Rutheiser made the decision that if Steve didn’t want it, he would buy it for Premier’s inventory. 

“I signed the agreement with Barry on Friday and he called me the following Tuesday saying he thought he had found the ideal 182 for me,” Steve said. “When I saw the information on 4196 Delta, I realized the train was moving pretty fast. The market is hot for these airplanes.”

“I could have said I wasn’t interested, and Barry would have kept looking, but I didn’t want to miss out on the ideal airplane.”

“Then it came down to signing the contract and sending the deposit, setting up financing, all that stuff,” he said. “Now I was really committed. It was exciting—but a little nerve-wracking at the same time.”

While the proverbial clock was ticking, Steve stressed the fact that Rutheiser never put any pressure on him to make a decision. 

“Barry gave me some great advice. He said, ‘Nothing happens quickly in aviation.’ I was all set to send the deposit and head to Fort Lauderdale [Florida] to pick up the airplane and he said to slow down. Premier wanted to first get the airplane to their shop and give it a thorough pre-buy inspection. If there was anything amiss, they wanted time to fix it,” Steve explained. “Barry made me comfortable with the whole process.”

Hello beautiful…

If you’ve ever been on a blind date, well, it’s nothing compared to the anxiety you can feel after committing a bankroll of money and traveling from Virginia to Fort Lauderdale to buy an airplane that you’ve never seen. 

Fortunately, for Steve and N4196 Delta, it was love at first flight.

           

Parked at Orlando Executive (KORL), getting ready to depart after NBAA-BACE.

“There were thunderstorms forecast in the area, so we decided to go fly as soon as my CFI and I arrived at Premier’s office,” Steve said. “Corbin Hallaran, Premier’s chief pilot, gave us a quick walkaround and I was ushered into the left seat.”

“I had never flown a high-performance airplane with a constant-speed prop and a more complicated avionics package before, but Corbin and my CFI assured me it was nothing to worry about. After all, it was just a more powerful l72.”

“After takeoff, I suddenly had this momentary feeling of severe buyer’s remorse. What was I doing? I am an idiot!” Steve said. “But, I’m a pretty levelheaded guy. ‘Don’t panic; fly the airplane,’ I thought. “With Corbin’s guidance, just as quickly as the anxiety came, it was gone—and I was enjoying flying my airplane.”

“It was overwhelming at first, but it was a lot of fun,” Steve said. “Corbin took the time to explain it all to me. It wasn’t a flight lesson; he was just introducing all of the components of the more complex airplane to me. It was a bit like drinking from a fire hose, but I was able to appreciate the fact that there I was, flying around Fort Lauderdale in an airplane I was soon going to own. That was pretty cool!”

After landing, Rutheiser and the rest of Premier’s team gathered in the conference room to go over all the aircraft records and logbooks. Prior to arrival, they had helped Steve with arranging financing through Dorr Aviation Credit Corporation (he can’t recommend them highly enough) and insurance through Falcon Aviation Insurance (great experience there as well).

Once all that was cleared, Steve contacted the bank and OK’d the transfer of the funds. All that was left to do was to go grab lunch at the airport diner.

“During lunch, I got the call from the bank saying the transfer was completed and the airplane was mine,” Steve said. “I never thought a ‘little-bit-more-than-a-hundred’ dollar hamburger could taste so good. It was the best lunch, and one of the best days of my life.”

After a few congratulatory handshakes, and with thunderstorms closing in along their route north, Steve and his CFI climbed aboard ‘96 Delta for the first leg of their trip home and Steve’s first chance to really get to know his new pride and joy.

Everything he wanted and more

Now that Steve and his family have had a few months to enjoy aircraft ownership, I had to ask: How does it feel?

“It’s everything I had hoped it would be,” Steve said. “It’s a beautiful airplane that’s everything I could hope for. It’s fulfilling my mission profile perfectly, which is smashing bugs on Saturday and just enjoying flying.”

“It will get my family safely wherever we want to go.”

“And it’s so, so much better than renting. I know it’s not cost-effective; I did all the math and my break-even point is 100 hours a year. But it’s definitely worth it for how I feel about airplanes and getting to own my own,” Steve said. “It’s an amazing feeling. Even if I just go to the airport and wipe the bugs off, I enjoy every minute of it.”

New family chores include wiping bugs off the leading edge of the wings and cleaning the windshield.

Steve said that while 4196 Delta was fulfilling his personal dream, it has already sparked a bit of the flying bug in a couple of his nieces and nephews.

“We had the airplane down at Kill Devil Hills [North Carolina] during our vacation this summer and we took all the nieces and nephews for rides along the coast. It was as much fun for me as it was for them,” he said. “One of my nieces said it was the coolest thing she had ever done. And my 15-year old nephew was so taken with it, he has decided to join the Air Force to become a pilot.”

Brent, one of Steve’s nephews, became interested in aviation after getting to fly up the coast of North Carolina’s Outer Banks.

You’ve got to admit that it’s a pretty great thing when achieving your dream helps someone else identify theirs.

Dale Smith has been an aviation journalist for 30 years. When he’s not writing aviation articles, Smith does commission aircraft illustrations specializing in seaplanes and flying boats. Smith has been a certificated pilot since 1974 and has flown 35 different types of General Aviation, business and World War II vintage aircraft. Send questions or comments to .

Resources

AIRCRAFT CLASSIFIEDS
Barnstormers
barnstormers.com 

The Cosby-Harrison Company LLC
trade-a-plane.com 

Sandhills Publishing
controller.com

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Alternators and Electrical Systems

Alternators and Electrical Systems

Many single-engine aircraft rely on alternators to power aircraft systems, avionics and cockpit gadgets. A&P Jacqueline Shipe guides you through how alternators work and what to do when yours isn’t functioning correctly. 

Nowadays, with everything from glass cockpits to auxiliary power outlets for iPads and phone chargers, there are more demands on the average aircraft’s electrical system than ever before. Most General Aviation airplanes rely on an alternator to provide a steady, reliable source of electrical energy to power electrical components and recharge the battery. 

Electrical system components

The main components in an average airplane’s electrical system are the battery, alternator, voltage regulator, bus bar and wiring. 

The battery provides stored power for starting the engine. It also provides a reserve of electrical power in case the alternator malfunctions in flight. 

The electrical bus bar provides a central point of power distribution to almost all electrical components (except the starter). The bus bar receives its power from the battery or alternator. Electrical components are connected to the bus bar through a circuit breaker or fuse.

Electrical system specifications

The electrical system on most airplanes is either a 14- or 28-volt system. 14-volt systems have 12-volt batteries. 28-volt systems utilize 24-volt batteries. 

The system voltage refers to an airplane’s operating voltage, which is always higher than battery voltage. The system voltage has to be higher than battery voltage in order to recharge the battery. 

Most airplane electrical systems are “single-wire,” meaning that the airframe itself is used as a ground, eliminating the need to run two wires for a positive and ground connection to each electrical component. They are also DC systems, meaning that the components operate on direct current rather than alternating current (AC).

How alternators work

Alternators generate electric current based on the principle of magnetic induction. Any time magnetic lines of force have relative motion with a conductor that is in close proximity, a voltage will be induced in the conductor. 

Alternators have an electromagnet (called a rotor) that spins inside multiple windings of a conductor (called a stator). As the rotor spins, the varying north-south lines of magnetic force induce an alternating current in the conductor. 

Copper-colored stator windings are barely visible under alternator case.

The alternating current is converted to direct current through a series of diodes (rectifiers) that allow current to flow in one direction, but not the other. 

Aircraft alternators are usually “three-phase,” meaning that the stator has three separate conductor windings.

Stator windings.

The rotor is an electromagnet whose magnetic strength is controlled by the amount of current it receives from the voltage regulator. This allows the voltage output of the alternator to be regulated. If the rotor were made with a permanent fixed-strength magnet, voltage output would be unregulated and would vary with engine rpm. 

Rotor inside a disassembled alternator case half.
Voltage regulator

Aircraft alternators are externally regulated by a voltage regulator (sometimes called an alternator controller), which is usually mounted either on the firewall in the engine compartment or under the instrument panel.

Voltage regulator installed on the firewall of a Cessna.
This regulator has only three wires—a common configuration. The red wire is the current supply for the voltage regulator from the bus. The black wire is the ground connection. The blue wire is the field wire that connects to the F1 terminal of the alternator.

The voltage regulator controls system voltage by controlling the electrical circuit (called the field circuit) that energizes the electromagnet of the alternator rotor. On most single-engine planes, this is accomplished by varying the flow of electric current to the rotor.  

Many voltage regulators have only three wires, but this aircraft’s regulator has five wires in total. The orange wire and the black wire are used to sense alternator voltage directly from the B+ terminal and ground connection at the alternator. The orange wire connects to B+. The red wire is the current supply from the bus that powers the voltage regulator. The yellow wire is the field wire that connects to the alternator’s F1 terminal. There is another ground wire (not shown) for the voltage regulator itself that attaches under one of the voltage regulator mounting bolts.

Older-style voltage regulators had contact points that would wear over time. Modern voltage regulators are fully electronic and, other than a voltage adjustment screw on some models, are maintenance-free. Whenever one of these units fails, it is simply replaced. 

This Plane-Power voltage regulator is similar to a three-wire regulator. The sense wire and the aux wires are connected to the enable wire. The enable wire runs current from the bus to power the regulator. The field wire is the output to the alternator rotor, and the ground wire goes to ground under one of the mounting fasteners for the voltage regulator. This regulator is set up for a 14-volt system and has a built-in 16-volt overvoltage sensor. 
Aircraft alternator design

The original manufacturers for most of the single-engine alternators used on Cessna aircraft were Ford, Chrysler, Prestolite or Delco Remy. Ford alternators were the most commonly used type on Cessnas. Many of the original alternator designs are still in use. 

This alternator’s tag shows Chrysler as the original manufacturer.
Ford-style alternator on a Cessna.

Most aircraft alternators have only three wires connected to them. A field wire connects to the F1 (field) terminal on the alternator, an output wire comes from from the B+ terminal of the alternator and a ground wire connects the alternator frame to a suitable ground connection. 

Ford-style alternator on a Cessna. This alternator has the most common setup with only three wires attached. The braided ground strap is for the ground connection. The heavy wire in the front that connects to the red B+ terminal is the alternator output wire. The field wire connected to F1 is barely visible behind the B+ terminal.
All of the wires attach to terminals on the rear of this alternator.
This alternator has a ground wire from the F2 terminal to the ground connection for the alternator.
Many voltage regulators have only three wires, but this aircraft’s regulator has five wires in total. The orange wire and the black wire are used to sense alternator voltage directly from the B+ terminal and ground connection at the alternator. The orange wire connects to B+. The red wire is the current supply from the bus that powers the voltage regulator. The yellow wire is the field wire that connects to the alternator’s F1 terminal. There is another ground wire (not shown) for the voltage regulator itself that attaches under one of the voltage regulator mounting bolts. 

On most of these types of alternators, the F2 terminal has no wire attached to it and is grounded to the alternator frame. Some alternators have a ground wire routed from the F2 terminal to the ground wire connection on the alternator frame.

F2 terminal. No wire attaches here. The terminal itself is grounded to the alternator case.

The alternator’s rotor gets its electrical connection through two carbon brushes that ride on separate slip rings. One of the brushes transmits positive current from the voltage regulator to the rotor windings and the other provides the ground connection, either from the F2 terminal or from an internal ground to the alternator frame. 

Rotor slip rings. The carbon brushes ride on the slip rings to transmit electric current and provide a ground connection to the rotor windings.

This article covers the most common three-wire system. A pilot/owner performing troubleshooting or wanting specific details on how his/her system operates should reference the current wiring diagram for their aircraft’s model and serial number. 

Electric current flow through a typical system 

When the aircraft master switch is turned on, the battery contactor closes and battery power energizes the aircraft’s electrical bus bar. Current from the bus flows through the alternator field circuit breaker and aircraft master switch to the voltage regulator. 

Some aircraft are also equipped with an overvoltage sensor that is wired in series between the master switch and the voltage regulator. The sensor must be in the closed, unfaulted position to allow current to flow.

The regulator senses that alternator output is zero and sends full current flow through the field wire, which is connected from the voltage regulator output to the F1 terminal of the alternator. The electromagnet of the rotor becomes energized since it has a complete electrical circuit with power at F1 and a ground at F2. 

As the engine starts and the alternator is rotated mechanically with either a belt or gear, the stator windings have an alternating current induced into them from the magnetic field of the rotor. 

Insulated stator winding with a soldered connection to the diode. If the alternator mounts or bushings become loose, the alternator can vibrate and the windings can crack or break. This failure creates an open circuit.

There are usually three stator windings and a total of six diodes in each alternator. The alternating current from each stator winding is converted to direct current after passing through two diodes.

Recently-replaced diode. The diodes have soldered connections to the stator windings.

The output of all three stator windings is rectified and passes as direct current out the B+ terminal, through a heavy-gauge wire to the alternator circuit breaker (usually 60 amp), then to the aircraft bus bar. 

Alternator output terminal (B+).

The voltage regulator senses the alternator output voltage, though the monitoring location varies. Some voltage regulators sense bus voltage, and some are wired to sense voltage directly at the B+ terminal of the alternator. 

The voltage regulator then adjusts current flow to the rotor field as needed to maintain the set system voltage. Always refer to the aircraft maintenance manual for the correct voltage range when setting or checking system voltages. 

If the alternator output or bus voltage is too low, the regulator increases current flow to the rotor field, which in turn increases the strength of the electromagnet and increases the alternator output voltage. 

If alternator output voltage is too high, the regulator decreases current flow to the rotor field, decreasing the strength of the electromagnet, which in turn decreases alternator output voltage.

Troubleshooting basics

A good electrical multimeter and a current wiring diagram that is pertinent to the installed equipment on an airplane are necessary to accurately troubleshoot the charging system for faults. 

Red electrical multimeter probe inserted in auxiliary power port to check bus voltage with the engine running and the alternator on and charging. The black lead is connected to the seat track for a ground connection. When checking voltage using a meter probe in the auxiliary power port or cigarette lighter, make sure the probe isn’t touching both the center and side of the port at the same time. The tip of the probe should only contact the furthermost interior center portion. If the probe touches the center and side at the same time, a direct short to ground occurs. This will either cause the circuit breaker that powers the port to trip, or if the port is installed with an inline fuse, it will blow the fuse.

 

Always check to see if the field (sometimes called the controller) or alternator circuit breaker is tripped before troubleshooting the system. 

Assuming a tripped breaker is not the issue, the first step in checking a charging system is to run the airplane and check bus voltage from either an auxiliary power port (e.g., the cigarette lighter receptacle, not a 5-volt USB power port) or from the bus itself. 

When checking bus voltage on a 28-volt system, the voltage will have to be checked on the bus itself since the power ports on these planes usually have stepped-down voltages. 

You may be able to check system voltage using a panel-mount voltmeter, an engine monitor or a GPS, if so equipped.

Checking the bus voltage is best accomplished with two people, one to run the plane and the other operating the voltmeter. 

With the red probe on the bus bar, and the black probe connected to a good ground (the seat track usually works well), the voltmeter will read the bus voltage. 

Bus voltage should be checked before starting the engine, and then checked again with the engine running to compare battery voltage (not running) to alternator output voltage (running). If the two voltages are identical, the alternator is not charging at all.

If the alternator is charging, the voltage should be noted and then all the electrical equipment on the airplane should be placed in the on position. With the lights, radios, pitot heat and other electrical components turned on, the alternator should carry the full electrical load and still maintain a positive charging rate.

Alternator is not charging

One of the first and easiest checks a pilot/owner can do when troubleshooting an alternator that isn’t charging is to turn on the aircraft master switch (both the alternator and battery side) and see if the alternator rotor becomes magnetized. 

Alternators that are pulley-driven are very easy to check. The pulley should be magnetized enough to hold the steel tool in place. If the alternator is gear-driven, the rotor will still be magnetized enough to detect a magnetic pull on the steel tool held near or on the alternator case. 

If there is a magnetic tug on the tool, it confirms that the field circuit is intact, the voltage regulator is sending power to energize the rotor and the rotor circuit is intact. 

Checking for magnetization of the alternator is done with the engine not running, magnetos off and mixture full lean. It’s also good safety practice to not be near the propeller whenever the battery master switch is being turned on. A stuck starter solenoid could allow the propeller to rotate even though the ignition switch is off.

The integrity of the connections on the alternator itself should be checked to be sure they are secure. A loose connection can allow current to flow intermittently. All alternator ground connections should be checked to make sure they are secure and have a low resistance (less than 0.2 ohms) between them. This includes the connection from F2 to the alternator ground terminal, the alternator-to-engine ground and the airframe-to-engine ground.

Electrical multimeter showing bus voltage with alternator charging.

If the rotor is magnetized and appears to be working properly, the next step is to see if there is bus (battery) voltage on the B+ terminal of the alternator. If there is bus voltage there, it means that the circuit between the alternator output and the bus bar is intact. 

Check next for a mechanical defect in the drive mechanism for the alternator. A loose belt that slips or a failed gear coupling on a gear-driven alternator can cause the alternator malfunction. 

If all the above checks pass, then the most likely problem causing the alternator not to charge is within the alternator itself. It should be removed for repair. 

Alternator is not charging; rotor is not magnetized 

If the rotor is not magnetized whenever the master switch is turned on (make sure the field circuit breaker isn’t tripped), the next step in troubleshooting is to see if the rotor is getting both the current and ground it needs to energize the windings. 

Checking the field circuit and rotor with the master switch turned on. The magnetized rotor and pulley will hold a wrench in place.

Check all ground connections for excessive resistance (anything above about 0.2 ohms). Turn the master switch on and check for voltage at the F1 terminal. It should be within a couple of volts of battery voltage.

In the situation where there is voltage at F1 and all the ground connections have good continuity, the alternator rotor itself is probably faulted or the alternator’s brushes have excessive wear. 

Rotor brush.
Disassembled alternator. The two brushes for transmitting positive current and an electrical ground to the rotor are at right angles to each other. The square white plastic brush holder is surrounding the brush itself. The brushes are spring-loaded to keep them pressed firmly against the slip rings. 

When there is no voltage present at the F1 terminal, there are several things that could be faulted upstream, interrupting current flow. The aircraft’s wiring diagram will show all the installed electrical components in the circuit as well as the wire numbers. 

One of the first things to check in this case is the integrity of the field wire, especially right at the F1 terminal. The crimped terminal connection often breaks over time with vibration. Some engine compartments have a very small space for the alternator terminal attachments and the wires are sometimes routed with sharp bends, causing stress on the crimped terminal ends. The field wire often breaks at or near the alternator terminal. 

Repaired field wire. The field wire is much smaller and more fragile than the alternator outwput wire or the ground wire. It often breaks at or near the alternator terminal where it is attached. This wire has had a prior repair.

If the terminal end is in good shape, the field wire between the F1 terminal and the voltage regulator should be checked for continuity and/or shorts to ground. 

Cessna voltage regulator.

The field wire should only be removed from the alternator with the master switch off. If the master switch is turned on with the wire removed, take precautions to prevent the field wire from touching anything that would allow it to short to ground. The voltage regulator can be ruined if that happens.

The voltage regulator powers the field wire and should be checked next. Disconnect the plug for the regulator and see if the regulator is receiving current from the bus. The red-colored wire is usually the wire that provides power to the regulator. Always consult the wiring diagram. 

If the regulator is receiving power from the bus, check next for a good ground connection for the regulator. Some regulators have a ground wire that is connected under one of the mounting fasteners, and some regulators require a good ground connection between the regulator body and the airframe ground. These connections can corrode over time, causing too much resistance in the ground connection. Cleaning the connections with Scotch-Brite or a small piece of sandpaper usually re-establishes a good ground connection. 

If the voltage regulator has a good ground connection and is receiving bus voltage but is not sending current to the field terminal of the alternator, it is most likely faulted. 

Field terminal (F1).

Some regulators use two wires to sense alternator voltage, one going to the B+ terminal of the alternator and one going to the alternator ground wire. Both of these wires should be checked for continuity and proper attachments at the alternator before assuming the voltage regulator is faulted.

Checking for bus/battery voltage at the B+ terminal.

If the voltage regulator is not receiving power from the bus, the next upstream component is usually an overvoltage sensor. Again, always consult the wiring diagram—some airplanes don’t have overvoltage sensors at all, and some overvoltage sensors are incorporated into the voltage regulator itself. 

The overvoltage sensor opens the power circuit to the regulator if it detects a voltage higher than its preset upper limit. Occasionally the sensor fails in the open position and will not conduct bus voltage to the voltage regulator at all.

If the overvoltage sensor has normal bus voltage on the input wire (usually coming from the master switch), but no voltage on the output wire (between the overvoltage sensor and voltage regulator), the sensor itself is faulted and should be replaced. 

If there is no power to the overvoltage sensor, check for power on both sides of the master switch (alternator side), and for power on the output side of the circuit breaker. Although it is rare, sometimes circuit breakers erode or internally fail in the open position and will no longer conduct current. The master switch contacts can also erode over time. 

Aircraft alternators and electrical systems aren’t complicated once you understand how current flows through the system’s various parts. With a solid understanding of how the system works and an aircraft-specific wiring diagram in hand, combined with these tips for troubleshooting and the assistance of a friendly mechanic, a pilot/owner can diagnose many common problems.

Know your FAR/AIM and check with your mechanic before starting any work. Always get instruction from an A&P prior to attempting preventive maintenance tasks.

Jacqueline Shipe grew up in an aviation home; her dad was a flight instructor. She soloed at age 16 and went on to get her CFII and ATP certificate. Shipe also attended Kentucky Tech and obtained an airframe and powerplant license. She has worked as a mechanic for the airlines and on a variety of General Aviation planes. She’s also logged over 5,000 hours of flight instruction time. Send question or comments to .

Resources

Alternator overhaul and repair– CFA supporter
Airmark Overhaul
 
New OEM alternators– CFA supporter
Plane-Power (Hartzell Engine Technologies LLC)
Read more...