Early in the morning of Thursday, September 30, the sky above Berlin airport is streaked with long clouds, silhouetted against stunning sunrise. A cool Autumn breeze sweeps across the airfield.
Europeans are familiar with the feeling of a penalty shootout on the football pitch, and this morning has a similar mix of tension, excitement, and anxiety. Inside the Beechcraft Berlin Aviation (BBA) hangar is an experimental Beechcraft King Air 350, and on its left wing was the new Catalyst engine, which was installed last December.
Before noon, pilots and test engineers are outside t he hangar for the technical tune-up that precedes takeoff. Federico Dellavalle and Pavel Rensa, from Avio Aero and CVUT Czech Technical University (a partner of GE Aviation Turboprop) respectively, are extremely focused while walking around the experimental King Air. They are doing final checks before this plane takes to the sky for the first time.
Dellavalle is the Catalyst Flight Test Director for Avio Aero. He first arrived at the Berlin hangar in November 2019 at the closing of the call for tenders issued by CVUT University that named the Beechcraft King Air 350 as the chosen aircraft to take on Catalyst’s first flight. Catalyst is set to become the first engine designed from scratch and built in Europe within the GE product portfolio.
After joining the Avio Aero Engineering team in 2012 at the Rivalta Headquarters, Dellavalle first specialized in transmission technologies, working on advanced R&D programs like SAGE by Clean Sky and, in 2016, he seized what he calls “the opportunity of a lifetime.”
“I have always dealt with NTI/NPI (new technology/product introduction), initially on a module and component level but, as the teams for Catalyst were being set up, I spent every last ounce of my energy to be part of it from day one,” recalls Dellavalle. “During the interviews to join the program, I was afraid they wouldn’t consider me but, instead, it was a wonderful surprise!”
Having bet on himself, Dellavalle immediately set to work, connecting the Rivalta and Bari teams – who developed digital controls, or FADEC, for engines and propellers – with those in Prague who were beginning to work on the integration of FTB and engine.
“With our Czech colleagues, we started from the performance (my specialty) and from the functioning we wanted from the engine, up to the mechanical and digital integration issues that allowed me to learn a lot, as well as increasing our involvement with the Prague experts and the hangar staff.”
Pairing an aircraft conceived in the 1960s with the first new engine to be introduced to the turboprop market in 50 years was no easy feat, the test engineering team unanimously said.
Among that group is Pavel Rensa, the integration engineer leading the operation, who has been at CVUT Prague since 2016 after working at GE Aviation Turboprop Headquarters for the previous eight years.
“In my work, I look at the engine as a whole. One of the experiences of a lifetime for us engineers was the so-called Engine Truss,” explains Rensa. “It’s about taking the Flying Test Bed from a drawing on paper to a real, experimental aircraft. There’s a tremendous level of complexity having two different engines and engine controls. But that’s why we selected an adaptable, and flexible aircraft in the King Air. That was hope our hope during the selection phase.”
Over the past few years, Rensa and the other CVUT experts have worked interacting with more than 40 people in Avio Aero, GE Aviation Turboprop, EDC Warsaw, Aviation Advanced Technology in Munich and finally, with the staff of the BBA hangar.
“This is a really unique experience for those in charge with R&D at the university and for young talents in particular,” says Rensa. “Having the opportunity to experience first-hand, understand the responsibilities and satisfaction of real problem solving is an opportunity for growth for the university, as well as for the industry and also for our country, in a way.”
In fact, the team also plans to conduct Flying Test Bed tests at the research center at Hradec Králové airport (just outside Prague), which was created by CVUT with the support of GE Aviation Turboprop and boasts advanced engine test rooms.
“There, we will be able to process all the data collected so far and generate more, focusing on crucial research topics, predictive engine maintenance and additive technology,” Rensa said.
Catalyst concentrates GE’s European innovation and ingenuity, with more than 400 engineers contributing through their technological specialties such as digital and high-pressure compressor technologies held by the Aviation Advanced Technology team in Munich. Then the Engineering Design Center in Warsaw, which handled much of thermodynamics, 3D printed parts and turbines development, and the GE Turkey Technology Center for turbine’s rotors and structures design.
Warsaw is where Krzysztof Bak, who worked alongside Rensa as a mechanical integration engine & aircraft manager, is originally from.
“The endeavor of combining a very highly-digitalized engine system with analogue aerial structure and avionics required a wide range of skills,” explains Bak. He’s been with GE since 2012 working on the engines of the largest commercial aircraft such as the GE90 or GP7200, as well as being involved in the design phases of the Catalyst combustor module with the Avio Aero team.
“We started with mechanical integration, then we worked on the oil and fuel systems, safety systems, and moved on to the interface with the cockpit, which had to work with the FADEC control system that we see on modern airliners. All this required an important collaboration with many people. In particular, to connect the digital brain of the Catalyst to the test aircraft, I worked closely with the team in Bari, which receives continuous data directly from the aircraft and processes it at the laboratory at each ground and flight test.”
Getting a new engine into the sky is hard. Throwing in the turmoil of the COVID-19 pandemic makes it even harder.
“From day one, not only the allocation of resources and the management of priorities, materials, and human dynamics with challenges presented by the pandemic were essential to ensure success and efficiency,” says Adam Drozd, Program Manager.
Arriving in Berlin in August 2020, Drozd coordinated with departments across GE and Avio Aero who were trying to exchange information or pursue activities with the team stationed at the hangar.
Watching these people in love with their work, demonstrating competence and teamwork every day as they work from the Berlin hanger, there’s extraordinary sense of pride. That pride allowed them to overcome months of organizational complexities, health emergencies, and national closures with resilience and determination.
And it paid off when they saw Catalyst lift off for the first time.
The team is in fact already looking ahead. The post-flight debrief with the BBA flight test crew has provided exciting feedback and strong momentum toward the next phases of flight testing.
“We are in constant contact with the launch customer, Textron, who has followed out developments and work up to the first flight with the Beechcraft Denali prototype,” states Dellavalle. “The next few weeks are shaping up to be exciting, as they will involve pilots, engineers and technicians in various capacities in this huge process. It may sound challenging, but we engineers live for this!”