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Czech This Out: Like the Wright Flyer, GE’s Turboprop Business Was Born in a Bike Shop

GE unveiled a new advanced turboprop engine yesterday that produces 10 percent more power than its peers and burns 20 percent less fuel. Its design can extend time between overhauls by as much as 30 percent. Textron Aviation, the company behind such aircraft brands as Beechcraft, Cessna and Bell Helicopter, will use the engine to power a new plane that’s currently in development. “This is by far the biggest win of my 35-year career in aviation,” says Brad Mottier, a vice president of business and general aviation and integrated systems at GE Aviation, who himself is a pilot.

But GE’s turboprop-engine business has even deeper roots. They go to the very beginning of aviation.

Above: On May 22, 1906, Orville and Wilbur Wright received a patent for “new and useful improvements to the flying machine.” Top image: Czech engineers weren’t far behind them. In 1910, Jan Kaspar became the first Czech pilot. He designed his own plane and engine, but later flew in this Bleriot XI. Image credit: GE Reports.

GE got into the turboprop business in 2008, when it acquired Walter Aircraft Engines in the Czech Republic. There, Walter is still a household name.

Just like Wilbur and Orville Wright in the United States, Josef Walter, the founder of Walter Engines, built his aviation business from a bike shop. He started out in 1898 by fixing bicycles, but soon started adapting their design and adding a small engine to the frame so his customers wouldn’t have to pedal.

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Josef Walter founded Walter Engines in 1898 in Prague, Czech Republic. Image credit: GE Aviation

Orders quickly grew and, in 1902, Walter used his wife’s dowry to buy drills, lathes and other machines for his workshop. It was a smart, if risky, move. Within a decade, Walter had enough business to build a factory on the outskirts of Prague.

Walted Moto

An early Walter engine powered this Walter tricycle. The machine is now in the collection of the National Technical Museum in Prague. Image credit: GE Reports

From bicycles and tricycles, Walter expanded into the automobile business. In 1923, two decades after the Wright brothers’ first powered flight, the company moved into the quickly growing aviation industry.

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The ad copy reads: Look, a Walter engine. There’s nothing more reliable. Image credit: GE Aviation

Its first engine was a water-cooled BMW design, but Walter soon started building engines designed in-house. The first one was the 60-horsepower, five-valve, air-cooled NZ-60 piston engine. It was certified also in 1923 and went into production the next year. The company made 188 NZ-60 engines in total and they served all over Europe as well as the United States.

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Walter’s design duo Novak-Zeithammer – their initials stand for the NZ in the engine’s name – built the NZ-60 engine that started it all. This example is in the collection of the Aviation Museum in Prague. Image credit: GE Reports

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A Czech Letov S-218 trainer powered by a Walter NZ-120 engine. Image credit: GE Reports

The company quickly developed a whole line of radial “star engines” that went on to power personal, passenger and acrobatic, as well as military, aircraft.

The next big engine was the nine-valve star engine NZ-120. In 1928, an NZ-120-powered Spartan aircraft flew from Detroit to Key West, just in time for a big airshow in Chicago. At the time, it was the longest flight with an engine of this size and the feat made it onto the front pages of American newspapers.

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This NZ-60-powered Avia BH-11C (pictured above) won Copa D’Italia in 1926, one of the most famous aviation races at the time. Image credit: GE Reports

In the 1920s, Czechoslovak State Airlines started using Walter engines. Within a decade, they covered nearly 2 million miles in the carrier’s service.

By the mid-1930s, new Walter designs like Castor and Pollux allowed Czech acrobats to show off their skills in front of 150,000 people attending the first World Aerobatic Championships in Paris in 1934, and also at the 1936 Berlin Olympics.

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The Walter factory on the outskirts of Prague made both automobile and aircraft engines. Image credit: GE Reports

By 1936, the company was producing 18 different engines in Prague. Four other factories in Spain, Italy, Yugoslavia and Poland were making them under a license. The national air forces of 13 countries were using Walter engines, which served in a total of 21 countries.

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A row of Walter star engines at Prague’s Aviation Museum. Image credit: GE Reports

Walter’s successful run was interrupted by World War II and the Nazi occupation of what is now the Czech Republic. The Nazis scrapped local products and started building engines for German aircraft like Fieseler 156C Storch and Siebel Si 204D.

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This Czech-made Aero Ae-45 aerotaxi was powered by a pair of Walter engines. Image credit: Getty Images

Things didn’t return to normal even after the war. The government nationalized the Walter factory in 1946 and renamed it Motorlet. The company started developing engines for gliders and helicopters; in 1952 it built the first jet engine for the Soviet MiG-15 fighter jet.

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In 1952, Walter produced this jet engine for Soviet MiG-15 fighter jets (see below). Image credit: GE Aviation

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A vintage Soviet MiG-15. Image credit: Getty Images

That engine was produced under a Soviet license, but Czech engineers quickly developed their own design, called M-701. It powered the L-29 trainer jet, which went on to serve in many countries and can still be seen at air shows today.

1971 Walter M701

The L-29 Dolphin trainers used this Walter jet engine. After America’s Lockeed T-33, the Dolphin was the most popular trainer ever. The Czechs built more than 3,600 of them. Image credit: GE Aviation

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An L-29 trainer jet. Image credit: Getty Images

The most recent era of Walter history is tied to the Czech-made L-410 passenger and transport aircraft, for which the company developed the M601 turboprop engine.

In the 1960s, the Soviet airline Aeroflot was shopping for a tough new commuter plane that could service distant landing strips in Siberia as well as in the desert. The airline commissioned the Czechs to build an aircraft and an engine that met their needs.

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An L-410 powered by GE H80 engines on a runway in Nepal. Image credit: GE Aviation

The teams delivered. To date, M601 engines have accumulated more than 17 million flight-hours by carrying passengers and cargo over Europe, Africa, Asia and South America.

When GE acquired Walter in 2008, the M601 was still its main product. GE redesigned the engines so they could produce as much as 850 horsepower, fly higher and consume less fuel to reach some of the world’s most remote airports, including Lukla at the foot of Mount Everest. The engines, called H80 and H85, also serve on commuter and business planes as well as crop dusters.

The advanced turboprop announced on Monday is the latest step in Walter’s journey. It’s the first business turboprop engine that GE developed from scratch. Engineers pulled together jet technologies that have logged more than 1 billion flight-hours but have never been used inside a turboprop of this size. They include variable stator vanes, which were originally developed by GE engineer and aviation legend Gerhard Neumann for supersonic flight. The new engine will also include 3D-printed parts, cooled turbine blades and integrated propulsion control that manages both the engine and propeller as a single system to lessen pilot workload.

If Josef Walter were still alive, he would be surprised by what came out of his bike shop, and his wife’s dowry.

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