The significance of General Electric’s purchase of Walter Aircraft Engines last year has only recently become evident. The American company appears poised to seriously challenge the primacy of Pratt & Whitney Canada as the principal source of turboprop engines for executive aircraft, light transport twins and more.
The ubiquitous PT6A series has made Pratt & Whitney Canada the dominant supplier of smaller turboprop engines. The Canadian company has produced some 15,000 of the 20,000 powerplants of its category in service around the world today.
The lengthy legal process necessary to confirm the takeover of Walter Engines by GE resulted in the topic leaving center stage last year. Not until July 1 this year had the company completed the acquisition of certain assets. Consequently, only 14 days ago Walter moved to new premises in the Czech Republic, where product improvement efforts will occur.
A $28 million company in business since 1923, Walter Engines has produced more than 37,000 engines to date. Of that total, some 1,500 feature the company’s M601 turboprop family, which has powered 38 different aircraft types. Most of those turboprops were installed in the Czech-built Let 410/420 twin turboprop 19-seater, but with the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of its dominance over much of Eastern Europe, demand for the M601 engine fell dramatically.
That encouraged the company to seek more applications for its engine, and it found some success in the retrofit and upgrade market. In some cases, that involved the installation of an M601 in place of a PT6A.
M601 program leader Miloslav Canko revealed that after the collapse of the former Soviet market, production dropped to no more than 15 examples per year, although the rate has grown and will reach 40 this year. Any spare capacity in the company’s workshops went to the overhaul of around 200 engines annually.
The M601 won some converts in the West but none were big enough to warrant increasing production. So the GE takeover brought with it the expectation of a much-needed investment to make the Czech engine more competitive. Indeed, the company has wasted no time launching a revamped version dubbed the M601H. Plans call for the production of an 800-shp model followed by a 900-shp version, up from the 777 shp of the current model.
GE will apply its advanced metals expertise gained from use in its larger jet engine and adapt them to the rugged Czech engine. The new models will also feature full authority digital engine controls (fadec) and the aim is to both increase the time between overhauls and reduce fuel burn.
If GE’s endeavors prove successful, it could ramp up production to as many as 500 engines per year by 2010 and reach four figures “a couple of years” later.