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Sep 3, 2017

Alarm over failures of 'revolutionary' GTF engine is rising

Could the current problems with a new tech US engine harm three new regional jet designs as well as some key airlines?

This new version of an Embraer E-jet is bolted down to a geared turbofan GTF engine

There are grounds for fearing that the much hyped Pratt and Whitney GTF or geared turbofan jet engine is going to go the way of past engine tech calamities that once compromised the reputations of Rolls-Royce and Airbus.

The delays in delivery of a version of the new engine that is an option for the Airbus A320 NEO single aisle line are already well known.

But as the MRO Network recently reported, problems have appeared in the smaller version which is the only option for powering the all new Bombardier CSeries jet from Canada, the E2 variants for the Embraer line up of regional jets from Brazil, and the otherwise anything but smooth progression of the much delayed Mitsubishi MRJ 90 from Japan.

These three designs are sub 737 or A320 jets in capacity, and relevant in coming years to the ultimate replacement of large but aging fleets of Boeing 717s and Fokker F100/F70 aircraft used on secondary routes and resource industry runs in this country.

Another review of the problems besetting the main GTF engine from United Technologies P&W division recently released by Bloomberg, shows the magnitude of the risk the engine maker now faces.

Until the rosy promises of the GTF’s marketing campaign were exposed as a travesty of the reality the Pratt & Whitney design was driving major sales of the A320 NEO program. The engine could be described as being in ‘irregular’ rather than regular services with major users including Lufthansa and Indigo.

When it works it delivers outstanding fuel burn reductions. But it isn’t working with sufficient reliability. Qatar Airways refused to take delivery of A320 NEOs using this option, with the other being a version of the Franco-American CFM engine which is the only option fitted to the competing Boeing 737 MAX line up.

There are two lessons in aviation history to keep in mind in relation to what has lurched deeper into fiasco territory in recent months.

In the late 60s Rolls-Royce pitched an early version of the ultimately successful RB-211 series of engines for the Lockheed L1011 Tristar, a tri-jet design that took on the Douglas DC-10 and lost. A ‘wonder’ carbon fibre material called Hyfil was to give the engines an unbeatable low component weight advantage. It turned out to be a triumph of crap marketing claims over engineering achievement.

As Wikipedia accurately reports, the Hyfil material proved no match for the infamous chicken sized bird ingestion engine test and it sent the original Rolls-Royce entity into administration, consigned the Tristar’s to an inferior sales outcome, and led to the British manufacturing icon becoming divided into a the car maker, and the aviation, maritime and industrial engine maker of today.

The next high profile victim of over enthusiastic engine marketing claims was the much smaller Airbus Industrie entity that was to introduce the four engined A340 and twin engined A330 wide bodies in the 1990s.

The A340 was to be powered by a Superfan design study by the IAE consortium that also produced a highly successful engine for the then young A320 single aisle jet.

The Superfan’s failure to eventuate was a huge disappointment for Airbus and the project, or study, inflicted considerable damage on the reputations of various parties, described rather coyly in this Wikipedia summary.

United Technologies challenge, which no doubt has already been embraced, is to prevent Pratt and Whitney from going down the same descent into ignominy as Hyfil and the Superfan, and taking some high profile airlines and even regional jet designs with it.

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