From its conception all the way up to its maiden flight in Berlin on September 30th, 2021, the Catalyst engine program has been based in Europe, from the Czech Republic and Italy to Germany and Poland. And with it came the goal of creating several technological solutions and innovations for this advanced engine — the first brand-new turboprop in over 50 years — right from a clean sheet.
More than half of the engineers who worked on the Catalyst design and development are based in Poland, a country with a notable aviation legacy. It was the ingenuity of many engineering experts that contributed to the Catalyst’s success, including its ability to perform an industry-best 16:1 overall pressure ratio.
“Seven years ago, the Catalyst was taking just its first steps,” says Janek Biskupski, Catalyst Systems Engineering Leader. Only six years later, the Catalyst took to the skies. “In less than two years, we achieved the engine first start in a test cell and, after another three years, we leapt from a draft to a flying engine.”
Today, this “young engine” has collected over 700 flight hours on board four different test airplanes while providing insightful feedback.
In 2013 and 2014, GE Aerospace engineers in Warsaw, Poland, were ready to take on new challenges. Initially, there were about a dozen engineers working on the program, but that number quickly rose to almost one hundred.
“Catalyst opened-up all new prospects and a new era for us, not only because of its design and technological solutions, but also for our project management expertise. It was the first time that our site in Poland participated in such project from the very beginning,” continues Biskupski.
When the project started in 2015, the first development investments totaled about $400 million. “We knew perfectly well what we were up against, but at the same time we were certain that we had everything we needed to build an engine never seen before on the market. We used the knowledge we had from 15 years of working on the largest aviation engines to create even better and more compact solutions for the Catalyst turboprop,” says Biskupski.
The road to success
From the start, creating the Catalyst engine proved to be a challenge. For example, the team had to design a cooling system for the high-pressure turbine from scratch. It was there the engineers started to shine.
“For me, this program started with a tough task: the Chief Engineering Office asked us to design cooled high-pressure turbine airfoils from scratch in just three weeks,” recalls Tomasz Bulsiewicz, GE Aerospace Thermal Systems Design & Component Cooling Consulting Engineer. “In the beginning, we put together a group of five engineers. Every single person in our team is among the most experts in their field. We locked ourselves for three weeks in a separate building at the engineering centre in Warsaw. During that time, you could hear whispers across the center like we were on a special mission inside there, because nobody knew what we were working on.”
The team was not only able to achieve the design concept, but they also developed simplified analytical models and suggested how to implement the design in compliance with requirements. Despite its challenges, designing this key component was a dream come true for the team, including a dream realized for Bulsiewicz, who always wanted to create a cooled airfoil.
He had long been told it was unplausible feat, but he and the team demonstrated it was possible thanks to the dedicated and talented engineers who spent countless hours working the problem.
In fact, these engineers brought to life the first turboprop engine in its class to introduce two stages of variable stator vanes in the compressor, cooled high-pressure turbine blades, and a number of 3D printed parts.
More than 200 engineers in Poland engaged in the endeavor across multiple GE Aerospace and Avio Aero facilities in Poland, in addition to the engineering center in Warsaw.
When the need to join forces and grow the team arises, specialists in Poland know each other well enough to quickly call for input and help.
Maciej Chomicz, a GE Aerospace Senior Mechanical Component Engineer from Warsaw, needed just one day to pack his things and relocate to Avio Aero Bielsko-Biała for six months to support the local team in designing rotors for a low-pressure turbine.
“During a random conversation with one of my colleagues, I heard that the team in Bielsko was looking for a mentor in rotor design, and I knew I could do that,” Chomicz says, noting it was intensive timeline. “Timing was our second priority, following safety, as always. We really had to give everything we had to finish the design. We knew that if we failed to start the engine on the test bench on time, it could divert the whole program. It’s been a very intense six months, but I would do that again.”
Catalyzer of pan-European cooperation
Janek Sikorski, a GE Aerospace Mechanical Component Consulting Engineer, has worked on the Catalyst program from the very first day. He says it was a natural continuation of his work on smaller engines, including the CT7, Honda HF118 and H80.
What really made the project different was the fact that all engineers were based in Europe, a few hundred kilometers away from each other.
“Frequent visits to Prague’s Turboprop headquarters facilitated the integration of the project team,” he says. “We were able to visit the production site and get the perspective that was unavailable in other engine lines. For me, the proudest moment was the start of the First Engine to Test, in 2017. We had a lot of emotional moments over these years, but not all of them were cheerful. But knowing the goal always got us back on track.”
The team notes that the Catalyst program was a true “catalyzer” for European cooperation. And like any project, it was the people who made a difference, spanning across four countries during the difficulties of the COVID19 pandemic, which slowed the in-person teamwork. And when the team needed to expedite the engine testing campaign, project leaders got a helping hand from Poland.
Filip Sęk, a Test Engineer based in Polonia Aero in Zielonka, moved to Czech Republic for more than a year. While he had wide experience with engine component testing, it was his first opportunity to test the entire engine and be part of an engine certification.
Sęk is now a vital part of the longest running certification test in the Catalyst program. Initial Maintenance Interval (IMI) is a test in which the engine operates in ground conditions, simulating its work in the air. After almost a year and a half, this crucial phase of the testing campaign is about to be complete.
“What we do is a piece of a puzzle,” he says. “It’s hard to describe what you feel seeing the engine you helped build flying in the sky. I’m proud and honored at the same time.”
Catalyst was the greatest engineering adventure that could happen to a group of technical experts , says to Tomasz Bulsiewicz.
“To me, the very first start of the engine was the most thrilling moment, something you couldn’t feel as profoundly during the design phase. Seeing the airfoils not only designed but also manufactured here in Poland made us so proud, as well as listening to the first roar of the engine. It was the perfect culmination of years of hard work.”
What’s next for Catalyst?
The European engineers’ efforts — from Poland to Italy and Germany up to Czech Republic — are now fully focused on Catalyst certification and the future is bright for this new turboprop engine. Along with the launch customer, Textron, Airbus has chosen the military version of the Catalyst engine to power the Eurodrone unmanned aerial system.
And Catalyst hasn’t gone unnoticed on the Polish market.
“We already had two serious inquiries from Polish companies that wanted to make an airplane here in Poland using our engine. My personal dream would be for the Catalyst to become a part of an aircraft made entirely in Poland. Right now, we’re totally dedicated to the next steps – engine production and integration – for the Beechcraft Denali,” concludes Biskupski.