When GE Aviation bought the storied but obscure Czech turboprop builder Walter Aircraft Engines in 2008, the American company hadn’t developed a new propeller engine in decades. Companies like Pratt & Whitney Canada dominated the market, while GE focused chiefly on making engines for passenger and military jets.
But engineers in both Prague and the U.S. spent the last seven years working on a new advanced turboprop engine (ATP) that could unlock the lucrative space. The bet paid off last fall when Textron Aviation, the world’s largest maker of business propeller planes, announced it would use the new engine for a brand-new plane it has been developing.
The 1,300 shaft-horsepower turboprop, which burns 20 percent less fuel and produces 10 percent more power compared to engines in its class, may be new but it has deep roots. “Over time, we leveraged our technical strength to produce [the] all-new engine design,” Jeff Immelt, GE chairman and CEO, wrote in his annual letter to shareowners, published in February. “This will lead to $40 billion in revenue over 25 years, a long-lasting competitive win.”
Immelt said the fulcrum of that technical strength was the GE Store, which “captures our ability to share knowledge, technology and capabilities across the GE businesses,” Immelt wrote. “The Store allows GE to innovate at scale, investing more than our peers and spreading the innovation across more businesses.”
To develop the new engine, engineers built on Walter and GE turboprop engines, which have flown for nearly 20 million hours and served on 30 different types of aircraft. But they added in the mix jet engine technologies that have logged more than 1 billion flight-hours, but have never been used inside a turboprop of this size.
For example, the engine’s designers drew on variable stator vanes, a technology that was originally developed by GE engineer and aviation legend Gerhard Neumann for supersonic jet engines. The design also makes gas turbines used for power generation more efficient. The new engine will also include 3D-printed parts (which debuted inside the LEAP jet engine), cooled turbine blades and integrated propulsion control that manages both the engine and propeller as a single system to lessen pilot workload.
Brad Mottier, who spearheaded the Walter acquisition and led the new turboprop development, says that packaged together, the new technologies will improve aircraft performance and can extend time between engine overhauls by more than 30 percent.
GE Aviation said in January it would use a portion of its $400 million investment in Europe to build a new turboprop development, test and engine-production headquarters in the Czech Republic. The center, which will employ more than 500 workers and engineers, will make the new engine for Textron and new customers beginning in 2020.
This week GE Reports visited GE Aviation’s existing Prague plant (you can see it on our Periscope channel), which makes and services the H-series turboprop engines powering everything from American crop dusters to passenger aircraft flying to remote Himalayan airports. Take a look.