Until the end of the 1980s, Czechoslovakia was one of Europe's biggest players in general aviation. In the southern Moravia region of what is now the Czech Republic, manufacturers such as Let, Mesit and Moravan employed more than 10,000 people and sold their products mostly throughout the communist and developing world.
The Velvet Revolution and the changes that came with the end of the planned economy put huge pressures on Czech aerospace generally. But slowly - thanks to foreign investment, a dash of home-grown entrepreneurship and with a few bumps along the way - the country's industry has reinvented itself, with national champion Aero Vodochody now a leading force in third-party aerostructures and Prague-based GA engine-maker Walter under General Electric ownership.
There have been changes in Moravia too, where one of the new names to emerge after the fall of communism was Evektor. The privately owned company was formed in the early 1990s as a design engineering consultancy in both aerospace and automotive , and branched into manufacturing when it bought an established aircraft builder Aerotechnik in 1996. It worked with Aero Vodochody on the design of the L159 light combat aircraft and with Czech car maker Skoda on the styling of a number of its models.
A consortium of mainly Czech suppliers has helped fund the EV-55. Picture: Evektor
But it is in light sport aircraft that Evektor has made its name in recent years in the GA world. It makes three LSA models - the EuroStar SL, EuroStar SLW and SportStar - and has sold 1,000 of them in 40 countries. While the Rotax-powered EuroStar is pitched at the European market, its US counterpart, the SportStar, is the best-selling low-wing aircraft into the US flight schools market in its category, claims the company, which turns over the equivalent of €20 million ($27 million), half of it from aviation.
Now Evektor is turning its attention to heavier aircraft, particularly the piston-twin utility market, a sector marketing manager Petr Grebeníček says is dominated by ageing Cessnas and Pipers. It rolled out its EV-55 Outback twin turboprop last week from its Kunovice factory and is targeting a first flight in the third quarter, kicking off a three-year certification programme with first deliveries estimated for the end of 2013.
The flexible aircraft - with short take-off and landing distances and a 20min changeover time from nine-passenger cabin to cargo configuration - will be pitched mainly at developing countries in Latin America, Africa and Asia, but also at North America and Australia. Evektor plans to eventually be producing up to 50 EV-55s a year.
The aircraft has had a long gestation. Evektor began looking for a gap in the market in 2003 and discovered that there were 2,500 cabin piston twins such as the Cessna 402 and Piper PA-31 Navajo or Chieftain on the market, with the fleet scarcely shrinking each year despite few new offerings in the category.
Evektor says the EV-55 has the edge on its competitors in terms of its take-off and landing capabilities (420m/1,380ft even in hot and high conditions), its 12.7m3 (450ft3) cabin and baggage compartment and its 220kt (410km/h) top speed.
However, Grebeníček is under no delusions about the scale of the challenge, given the recent patchy record of launching new programmes in the general aviation market, both in the Czech republic and further afield. High- profile failures include the Eclipse Aviation Eclipse 500 very light jet and Grob SPn light jet. But other programmes that came to naught include the Ibis Aerospace Ae270 Ibis, a single-engined turboprop passenger aircraft designed as a joint venture between Aero Vodochody and AIDC of Taiwan that was axed with just three prototypes built.
"Airplane production is not an easy business," he admits. "Eclipse failed because they wanted to change the whole paradigm of airplane production. They wanted to produce airplanes like cars and that was a big mistake. The Ae270 project failed for business arrangement reasons and due to a lot of input changes in the course of development. We have learned from these failures."
Evektor has carried out "broad and detailed market research" to discover a space in the market and has put together a network of mainly Czech suppliers to build the first prototype, he adds. "There are many steps ahead for us to be successful, but we will go through all of them."
That supplier network includes Pratt & Whitney, whose PT6A-21 engine Evektor has opted for. "The engine is very reliable with superior support around the world. It was a clear choice," says Grebeníček.
Most of the other partners, the majority of which are participating on a risk-sharing basis, are domestic. They include Avia Propeller, landing gear supplier Technometra and Jihlavan and Jihostroj, which designed the hydraulic systems.
UNIS was responsible for the electrical distribution system, while Mesit makes the instrument panel. Aero Vodochody produces the tailplane. The prototype has a "steam gauge" instrument panel, but the third aircraft will have an integrated glass cockpit, although the supplier has not yet been chosen.
Some funding has also come from the Czech trade and industry ministry and also from the European Union's CESAR general aviation oriented project, part of the Seventh Framework research and development initiative.
However, to take the EV-55 programme forward, Evektor needs an outside investor, and this could influence where production of the aircraft takes place. "We would prefer to stay in Kunovice, but we are ready to consider other possibilities," says Grebeníček. The company has deep roots in Moravia. Many of its 300 employees formerly worked for other Czech aero manufacturers in the region and Evektor co-operates closely with Brno University of Technology, from where it recruits many of its designers.
For the moment, Evektor will press ahead with flight testing and assembling a further two prototypes. Aircraft 002 is in production and will be used for stress tests with 003, parts of which are now being built, the conforming aircraft for certification.
The company will unveil the EV-55 at next week's Aero Friedrichshafen, although Europe will not be the aircraft's core market. But an enthusiastic reception at Europe's largest general aviation show will make it easier for Evektor to secure the funding it needs to take the Czech Republic's first new large GA aircraft for decades to volume production.
See the EV-55's engine run