Manufacturing

GE Aviation Hopes Its New Engine Will Be A Catalyst In The Turboprop Market


While most of us were getting ready for Thanksgiving, the new Beechcraft Denali made its first flight Tuesday morning. The challenger to single-engine turboprops like Pilatus’ PC-12 and Daher’s TBM 940 is notable in its own right, but the Denali is also breaking ground with the first new clean sheet turboprop engine to enter the business and general aviation market in more than 50 years.

Beechcraft is the launch customer for General Electric Aviation’s

GE
Catalyst turboprop engine. It’s a new breed of turboprop according to GE, poised to deliver a “step change in performance” with as much as 20% lower fuel burn and 10% higher cruise power compared to competitors in the same size class.

The most obvious competitor, and the figurative elephant in the single-engine business/general aviation turboprop aircraft market, is the evergreen Pratt & Whitney PT6A family of powerplants. Pratt & Whitney has dominated the segment for what seems like forever with over 20,000 of its PT6A variants produced to date.

North America was the largest market for turboprop engines in 2019, according to Mordor Intelligence. In the general aviation/business segment it accounted for about 50.3% of the turboprop aircraft shipments in 2019. It’s also expected to grow with the highest CAGR through 2025.

Pratt’s prime position in the turboprop market is a thorn for GE which, with its joint ventures, remains the leader of the broader aircraft engine market (turbofans/turbojets), holding an approximate 55% overall share according to Statista. Pratt comes in at number two with a 26% share.

The successful two hour and 50-minute Denali flight came quickly on the heels of Catalyst’s own first flight on a Beechcraft King Air test bed on September 30. The test bed flight took off from and landed at the Berlin Airport, calling attention to its design, development and construction entirely in Europe. Final assembly for the engine is slated to take place at GE’s Prague facilities, with gearboxes coming from Italy and other equipment from different places around the continent.

The engine is GE’s first modern Full Authority Digital Engine Control (FADEC) controlled turboprop, designed for power output in the 850 -1600 SHP range. GE says the FADEC-managed engine delivers a “jet-like, single-lever power and propeller control and reduces pilot workload while providing a greater level of control and responsiveness.”

GE also touts Catalyst as the first turboprop in aviation history made with 3D printed components. Utilizing additive manufacturing, the engine’s designers claim to have reduced 855 separate parts down to 12 parts. The reduction benefits engine weight, with the lighter powerplant requiring less fuel to achieve the same cruise speeds. An increase in component strength and durability is also expected.

The Catalyst’s advantage in specific fuel consumption over its competitors yields several benefits GE asserts: Over the same routes/altitudes, a Catalyst-powered aircraft can carry 150 pounds of additional payload, adding a passenger or more cargo. For the same payload, the nominal aircraft can travel 145 nautical miles further, fly 12kts faster at the same fuel-flow rate, or offer equivalent performance with a larger cabin.

Even if such claims are proven, Catalyst will have a lot of ground to make up in the market, with Pratt & Whitney’s powerplant a staple in turboprop singles, including the Cessna Grand Caravan EX, Pilatus PC-12 NG/NGX, Daher TBM 910/940, Piper M500/M600, Epic E1000, and Kodiak 100, among others. It’s worth remembering that PT6 variants also power a range of helicopters, including Leonardo’s latest AW119Kx and its military trainer version, the Navy’s new TH-73 Thrasher.

GE Aviation’s general manager, Paul Corkery, told Flying Magazine, “We feel good about this engine. It’s really setting the foundation for us in the future. Of course, my hat’s off to the competition. They’re good. My job, you know, is to make their lives tougher, but they’re very, very good.”

Catalyst had been considered a possible selection for commercial turboprop airframer ATR, but Reuters recently cited industry sources claiming that ATR would announce a new variant of the Pratt & Whitney Canada PW127 engines that power its 42-600 and 72-600 family of turboprop planes.

That doesn’t mean GE has no other irons in the fire. In 2019 the company signed an agreement to provide the Catalyst engine as the core of a hybrid-electric propulsion system for the XTI TriFan 600 VTOL business aircraft. Using three ducted fans, the TriFan 600 lifts off vertically. Its two wing fans then rotate forward for a transition to initial climb and cruise at 300 kts at 30,000 feet then rotate up and aft again for vertical landing.

The company sees Catalyst as a potential core in a variety of other parallel and series hybrid-electric powerplants for a new generation of aircraft. GE is also eyeing the military drone market with Medium Altitude Long Endurance (MALE) UAVs in mind. The engine’s commercial certification (pending) development means it will be free of ITAR restrictions and so available for a variety of military applications.

The Denali’s first flight marks progress toward the aircraft’s scheduled certification in 2023 and with it the production debut of the Catalyst. Whether it can wrest market share from upcoming advanced versions of Pratt & Whitney’s PT6 remains a catalyzing question.



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