How 2 R-985s Aided the PT6 in Achieving Legendary Aviation Status

pt6a king air

The question of how a radial engine can be compared to a turbine engine is a question that has been asked many times over. Individuals in the Agricultural world are still asking themselves this question every year on a purely economic basis. However, the question can also be asked from a historic basis as well. In looking at the Pratt & Whitney family of Radial Engines and the PT6A family of engines, it is clear that the two are closely related.

A Bit of Background on Pratt & Whitney’s Engine Marvels: The PT6A, R-1340, & The R-985

A legendary engine deserves a story as extraordinary as it is, and such is the case with the early history of Pratt & Whitney’s PT6. This story begins decades before the turbulent history of the PT6 when radial engines were still the dominant engine for airplane use. The gas turbine engine of the PT6 revolutionized the industry, but not before the static, air-cooled radial engines had a few decades in the limelight.

Of all the radial engines, Pratt & Whitney’s R-985 was always a favorite since its inception in 1932. Simply sit back and watch a smile cross an aviation enthusiast’s face upon observing the sputter of the round radial engine as it starts up, and it is clear that these engines were something special.

However, the transition into the era of the PT6 was not an easy one. In fact, it was something of a miracle.

The Rise of the PT6

While the advancements of gas turbine engines were known to the aviation industry in the early 1950s, the expenses of the manufacturing, maintenance and repairing processes were problematic. However, that did not deter Pratt & Whitney Canada (PWC) while they forged ahead with their plans of designing a powerful gas turbine engine. They hired a team of specialists and proceeded with attempts to develop a 450 hp engine that had growth potential up to 500 hp. Their goal was to keep operating costs at a similar level as the previous radial engines, and their first foray into gas turbine engines was designed to fit small and lightweight airplane models.

However, they still needed to decide on a gas turbine technology, but eventually settled on a free turbine configuration that was more expensive, but had crucial advantages such as less starting power requirements, simplified controls for fuel and the ability for fixed-wing aircrafts to purchase off the shelf propellers rather than custom ones. Once the team decided to move in this direction, they still were not ready to get to work since they had to travel to Pratt & Whitney’s headquarters to convince the chief engineer that their plan was the right one. Upon securing his approval, the jubilant team started working on the ambitious project.

Unfortunately, their work was a blight on company balance sheets. The new design attempts led to a sort of development nightmare, but the chief engineer that approved the project still had faith in the vision. As a result, he sent a team of six experts spearheaded by a highly skilled engineer named Bruce Torell. The goal was to get the project back on track, and history reveals that this historic engine would have likely failed without his aid.

Progress was quickly made thanks to Torell’s engine expertise, but then the team faced obstacles from PWC itself. Despite aggressive attempts to terminate the project, work continued and was finally ready for flight testing in 1961. A search began for a suitable twin engine airplane to test with the PT6, and the team chose Beechcraft C-45 “Expeditor”. This Beechcraft Model 18 was equipped with two R-985s, meaning that the traditional radial engines played a huge role in the development and rise of the PT6. While further tweaks to the engine were made, the future of airplane engines was clear. Gas turbine technology was here to stay, it was just a matter of whether the PT6 was the engine that would dominate the airplane industry. It did, thanks to Beechcraft, the same company that used P&W’s radial R-985 engines of decades past. With that agreement, the PT6 finally saw mainstream success that produced its dominant run as one of the great engines of history and in fact was the first engine ever put on a King Air.

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Turbine Vs. Radial, Why the Comparison?

I’ve been privileged to know both the PT6A and the 9-cylinder Pratt engines. Both engines operate on a different technique for deriving horsepower from the combustion process, but at heart they are still both internal combustion engines that share the same engineering DNA.

radial blower section

One of the most complex parts of the R-1340/R-985 engine, which has remained relatively unchanged since December 24, 1925 when the very first R-1340 roared to life, is the supercharger or blower section. The blower section, which also serves as the anchor-point when installing the engine, is attached to the rear power case. The circular case receives the fuel/air mixture from the impeller assembly through diffuser channels then delivers the fuel/air mixture to the cylinders via the intake pipes. The blower is driven directly by the crankshaft through a spring loaded gear coupling located at the aft section of the crankshaft assembly. This ingenious design helps protect the blower gearing from sudden acceleration or deceleration. The spring loaded gear drives the floating gear. The impeller assembly, being indirectly driven by the crankshaft, turns ten or even twelve times crankshaft speed.

rise of the pt6a impeller

In like manner the PT6A Impeller is located in the gas generator housing which is the anchor point when installing the engine. The centrifugal impeller delivers air through diffuser tubes to the combustion chamber. The hot gases flow through a series of turbines which produce horsepower to the propeller shaft.

rise of the pt6a

The impeller is only one area of similar design and function.  The reduction gearing in both the PT6A & R-1340G engines are remarkably similar as well as many other features. It is not difficult to see a common engineering theory. Many pilots and mechanics love the history and engineering that goes along with engines and aircraft. Certainly looking and comparing two of the legacy engines from Pratt & Whitney is enjoyable information for many in the aviation community. I have always found it entertaining that as the PT6A engine took its first breath of life, there were R-985 engines on each side! The photo (left) is of the first flight of the PT6A, being test flown on a Beech 18 (May 1961).

In closing, I am a mechanic that holds to the history of aviation. Learning about the past can certainly give insight to the present while possibly holding a glimpse into the future. Drawing a comparison between these two engines certainly does that.

– Rob Seeman, Covington Aircraft Operations Manager

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Cessna SkyCourier Begins Final Phase of Flight Testing

The certification flight test phase of the Cessna SkyCourier development program has begun after the twin-turboprop checked off a number of milestones and continues its march toward FAA type approval and first deliveries later this year. So far, Textron Aviation’s fleet of three SkyCourier flight test vehicles (FTV) has accumulated more than 700 hours since the first flight of the high-wing airplane in May 2020.

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Maintaining Floatplanes

As one might intuitively guess, maintaining floatplanes and amphibians – particularly those which routinely operate commercial charters or scheduled services and need to provide very high levels of operational reliability – is a rather more specialized and MRO-intensive business than is maintaining aircraft which fly only from runways on land.

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Vultee BT-13 aircraft profile

The Vultee Aircraft Corp. BT-13 “Valiant” was a single-engine, tandem-seat trainer produced for the U.S. Army Air Corps, U.S. Navy and foreign allies prior to and during World War II. The aircraft was selected and produced as a primary and follow-on intermediary trainer due to its ruggedness, forgiving flight characteristics and stability. Most of the pilots produced in the early years of World War II conducted initial training, or Basic Training, hence the BT name, on the BT-13.

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A Longer Look at the PT6A-34 Powered Viking 400

An airplane that can go virtually anywhere, do anything, and operate in the most extreme weather—and that could sell for twice what you paid for it after 30 years—might sound like a fantasy. But the iconic DHC-6 Twin Otter, which de Havilland Canada ­produced, fits that description. It helped launch the commuter and regional airline industry in North America, remains the backbone of maritime coastal patrols for many navies, and serves the mining and oil industries worldwide. It lands on wheels, big tundra tires, straight floats, amphibious floats, and skis. Runways are optional. Nice flat surfaces of any kind are kid stuff. When it’s 60 below in Antarctica and some scientist needs to be medevaced, this is the airplane they send.

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A Thrush is “Reborn” with Upgrades & a PT6A-41

It was in 2010 that Thrush Aircraft introduced a new engine mount design for the 510 series Thrush, specifically the then newly certified H80 GE turboprop engine. The extension was approximately 18 inches forward of the hopper, creating a mini-storage area and eliminating the lead-shot ballast ring. Not only did this improve flight characteristics by moving the CG, but removed nearly 300 pounds of “dead” weight.

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The PT6A – The Legend Tells Its Story

THE PT6 ENGINE MILESTONES

It’s the remarkable story of a remarkable engine. With more than 51,000 engines delivered to power some 130 different applications, the PT6 engine can tell quite a story of creativity and transformation. While we had a lot to choose from, we’ve put together a list of milestones for the engine as we mark its golden anniversary.

1957 – P&WC assembled a team of 12 talented young engineers after studies showed a market opportunity for 500 shp (shaft horsepower) class turboprop engines in the aircraft market then powered by piston engines. P&WC saw an opportunity to channel some of the profits from its piston engine spare parts business towards the development of gas turbine engines smaller than those made by its U.S. parent.

Twelve key men on the PT6 engine design team: Gordon Hardy, Jim Rankin, Fernand Desrochers, Fred Glasspoole, Ken Elsworth, Allan Newland, Pete Peterson, Hugh Langshur, Jean-Pierre Beauregard, Elvie Smith, Dick Guthrie and Thor Stephenson.

Twelve key men on the PT6 engine design team: Gordon Hardy, Jim Rankin, Fernand Desrochers, Fred Glasspoole, Ken Elsworth, Allan Newland, Pete Peterson, Hugh Langshur, Jean-Pierre Beauregard, Elvie Smith, Dick Guthrie and Thor Stephenson. © Library and Archives Canada. Reproduced with the permission of Library and Archives Canada. Source: Library and Archives Canada/Credit: Bruce Moss/Weekend Magazine collection/PA-167966.

1963 – It’s what our celebration is all about. In December 1963, P&WC shipped the first PT6 production engine, the PT6A-6, to Beech Aircraft Company for its Beech 87, which later became the King Air. The PT6A-6 was a highly innovative gas turbine that represented a significant advance in technology from the traditional piston-driven engines used to power small aircraft.  Gas turbines have a higher power to weight ratio than piston engines.

The first PT6 production engine.

The first PT6 production engine. P&WC Archives (Records and Information Management).

1967 – Piper’s PA-31 Navajo took its first flight powered by PT6A-20s. Piper had enjoyed enormous success building light aircraft since the 1930s, but it took P&WC years of effort to get Piper to adopt turbine engines and move away from their traditional reliance on piston-driven engines.

1968 – P&WC’s ST6L73 engine (a derivative of the PT6A without the gearbox second stage) entered into service as an auxiliary power unit (APU) for the Lockheed L1011 airliner.

1968 – Bell Helicopter placed its initial order for P&WC’s first turboshaft, the PT6T Twin-Pac® engine

1970 – P&WC’s PT6T Twin Pac® entered into service. It is two engines coupled in a single package to power medium-sized, twin-engine helicopters.

1970 – The United States Military ordered 294 Bell 212s under the designation UH-1N equipped with PT6T Twin-Pac® turboshaft engines. Delivery also began in 1970.

1973 – The second-stage power turbine was introduced on the PT6A-41. This was a step change in engine power and efficiency.

1979 – An Air Tractor agricultural aircraft is powered by a PT6A engine and flies to the National Agricultural Aviation Association convention in Las Vegas – the first time such a combination was displayed in public.

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The P-750 XSTOL and the P&W PT6-34 Engine

Pacific Aerospace describes its flagship product, the P-750 XSTOL, as the world’s first Extremely Short Take-Off and Landing (XSTOL) aircraft and as the best in the world for the missions it was designed to accomplish. Bold claims from the New Zealand based company, to be sure, but not without foundation, as it can boast some pretty impressive performance. Much of that performance can be credited to the Pratt & Whitney PT6A-34 engine that powers the plane, but more on that in a moment.

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The T-6 Texan: Then and Now

Since it was first produced in 1937, the T-6 Texan and its offshoots have filled many roles for many different institutions in dozens of countries. It proved to be one of the more enduring, durable, and useful aircraft ever designed, and that’s further evidenced by the evolution in the 1990’s of the Beechcraft T-6 Texan II, which is a modern version of the original WWII trainer.

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