Czechs commit to new t-prop

 - March 22, 2007, 7:16 AM

The Czech government has pledged $13.5 million over three years to a consortium of 16 companies to build and market a nine- to 14-seat twin turboprop dubbed the EV-55. Organized by the Czech Aviation Manufacturers’ Association and led by Kunovice-based Evektor, the program would awaken a virtually inactive Czech civil aerospace industry and help regain some of the status it enjoyed during the peak of Let 410 and Zlin glider production.

Of course, over the past decade a lack of capital and promises of big returns on relatively little investment more often than not yielded disappointment for stakeholders in such companies as Let Kunovice and Moravan Aeroplanes. This program, however, would benefit from a funding offset tied to a Czech Air Force lease of 14 Saab Gripen fighters, much of which will go to struggling companies in the impoverished regions of Bohemia and northern Moravia.

Although the project team has not yet announced a powerplant choice, Walter Engines participates in the consortium and stands as another of the Gripen’s offset beneficiaries. As part of the offset, the team hopes to draw on Saab and/or BAE Systems for marketing and international sales. Some four years ago a proposal by BAE Systems to take a stake in Let–then owned by Albany, Ga.-based Ayres Corp.–fizzled when the Czech government postponed its tender for the fighter jets.

Evektor estimates it could assemble the first EV-55 by the end of 2007. Billed as a replacement for aging Britten-Norman Islanders, Cessna 402/404s and Piper Navajos/ Chieftains, the 42.78-foot-long EV-55 would feature a 52.5-foot wingspan, 318 cubic feet of cabin space and a cruise speed of more than 200 knots. Evektor specifications show a range of 1,455 nm, takeoff field length of 1,120 feet, maximum takeoff weight of 9,700 pounds and cargo weight capacity of 3,000 pounds on a 400-nm trip. Possible uses include commuter passenger service, executive transport and cargo/utility duty.

Evektor estimates that in five to seven years many of the more than 3,000 piston-powered twins in the nine-seat category will reach the end of their useful lifespans, leaving the market in dire need of a replacement. In fact, Britten-Norman’s similar view led to its decision to resume production of both piston and turbine Islanders, with the first of an expected production run of 24 going to B-N partner Romaero early last year.

Meanwhile, in the Czech Republic, some politicians and business leaders have raised suspicions that the offset money promised by Britain and Sweden will never find its way to its intended recipients. Opposition party members, in particular, worry that confidentiality agreements will shield offset transactions from public scrutiny. The nature of such contracts makes it virtually impossible to recognize which investment arrived as a result of the offset, they point out, leaving the process open to the sort of abuse many Czechs have come to expect from their government.

The Czech Republic has long suffered a reputation for corruption and an erratically enforced civil code, hindering foreign investment and drawing criticism at home and abroad. Examples in the aerospace field include charges by U.S. entrepreneur Randall Brink that a Czech bankruptcy administrator demanded he wire $1 million to her personal bank account as a prerequisite for his proposed bid for Let. After he refused to do so without detailed legal documentation, she awarded Let’s assets to Moravan Aeroplanes, even though creditors had already filed bankruptcy petitions against its parent company.

About a year later, Canadian businessmen Don Jewitt and Milan Matusik filed charges against Moravan Aeroplanes chairman Libor Soska for stealing their $6 million investment in Let (then known as LZ Aeronautical Industries) by rearranging the company’s ownership structure without their knowledge. After months of inaction by Czech authorities, Jewitt and Matusik threatened to file for international arbitration. Soon afterward, the Brno regional court declared Moravan and LZ bankrupt, forcing the Canadians to join a long line of creditors with claims to the assets.