When GE Aviation bought the storied but small Czech turboprop builder Walter Aircraft Engines in 2008, the American company hadn’t developed a propeller engine in decades. Companies like Pratt & Whitney Canada dominated the market, while GE focused chiefly on making powerful jet engines for passenger planes and military jets.
But engineers in both in Prague and in the U.S. hunkered down and have spent the last seven years developing 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’s developing. GE’s turboprop business is about to take off.
GE Aviation said today it would use a portion of its $400 million investment in Europe to build its 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 other customers beginning in 2020. “We like to build things in the Czech Republic and there is a deep pool of engineering talent in the country,” said Paul Corkery, GE’s ATP program manager. “We’ve been building aircraft engines here since the early days of aviation, but this new center will take it to a whole new level.”
The advanced turboprop, called GE93, burns 20 percent less fuel and produces 10 percent more power compared to engines in its class. It will allow pilots to carry less fuel for the same mission, said Brad Mottier, vice president of business and general aviation and integrated systems at GE Aviation. Mottier says that “jetlike controls” in the cockpit will allow Textron to “design a different class of aircraft.”
Like the Wright brothers, Josef Walter, the founder of Walter Aircraft Engines, started out by building bicycles. He opened his bike shop in Prague in 1898, progressed to motorcycles and car engines, and built the first aircraft engine in 1923.
Czechoslovak State Airlines signed up as one of the first customers for the plane engines in the 1920s. Within a decade, they covered nearly 2 million miles in the carrier’s service. 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. Later, the company also ventured into jets and made new engines even under four-decades-long Communist rule.
Following the 2008 acquisition, GE brought in new machines, investment and know-how and moved the business to a new factory. The company also revamped its product line and found new customers for Walter’s workhorse H80 turboprop engines. They now fly even to Lukla at the foot Mount Everest, the world’s most dangerous airport.
“Walter has always been an iconic aviation brand,” says Zdenek Soukal, commercial director of GE Aviation Czech. “It’s great to see it soar again.”