Mitsubishi Aircraft started flying the MRJ90 in November 2015. For 31 months, the test fleet has performed standard trials, mostly out of public view. In public, the MRJ90 test fleet has been shown parked in a static display of a major air show.
But now it is time for the Mitsubishi Regional Jet to show what it can do – and the Farnborough air show is coming. The MRJ's normally tightly scripted manufacturer plans to push the MRJ90 to centre stage. For the first time in its decade-long development, Japan's most ambitious civil aircraft programme in more than 40 years will demonstrate its aerodynamic and propulsion capabilities at a major air show.
A preview event at the MRJ flight centre in Moses Lake, Washington, on 27 June showed that Mitsubishi has no plans to hold back after such a long a wait. A test aircraft – nicknamed “Rising Sun” internally – powered into a steep climb immediately after take-off, then performed a series of sharp banks and impressively quiet passes, meeting any standard for an entertaining display by a modern airliner.
Featuring Pratt & Whitney PW1200G geared turbofan engines and full fly-by-wire control system, the MRJ family was launched by Mitsubishi in a bid to evolve from a tier-one supplier for commercial aircraft into an aircraft manufacturer. Mitsubishi was the first manufacturer to embrace the P&W geared turbofan engine. The MRJ70 represents the industry's smallest commercial application of a fly-by-wire control system.
But Mitsubishi has not decided to enter the entertainment business. The flying display at Farnborough is part of a serious campaign to send the market a clear message. After years of costly delays caused by redesigns and process errors, the programme is not only back on track but, the MRJ's revamped leadership team says, also ready to make a statement.
The aerial antics cannot erase the programme's six-year delay to entry into service, but Mitsubishi hopes a bold show of force on the aviation industry's biggest stage this year can help reset the narrative. Instead of shrinking from the spotlight, Mitsubishi wants to channel the attention gained from the air show to highlight a set of radical changes made over the past 18 months. The latest two-year delay announced in January 2017 was caused by design faults that made certification impossible. In addition to correcting those design problems, Mitsubishi has also overhauled its management team and engineering system over the past 18 months to make sure it never happens again.
"We've changed the way we operate as a management system," says Alex Bellamy, the chief development officer and head of the programme management division for Mitsubishi Aircraft. "We've brought in new expertise and we have a laser focus to deliver this airplane."
The management reforms started at the flight-test centre on central Washington's high desert plateau where the 27 June preview event took place.
Located about 300km (186 miles) east of Seattle, MRJ's Moses Lake Flight Test Centre (MFC) hosts 250 employees and – so far – four MRJ90 flight-test aircraft, including Rising Sun.
The centre, which includes a hangar and office buildings, sits next to the Grant County International airport, a former Strategic Air Command base with a 4,110m (13,500ft) runway. Such infrastructure and the absence of any passenger airline traffic has brought Boeing and the US Navy to Grant County for decades. As journalists waited for an MRJ90 to land on 27 June, a Boeing 737 Max aircraft on a customer check-out flight performed a simulated go-around on the same runway. A US Air Force C-17 from nearby Joint Base Lewis-McChord performed touch-and-go manoeuvres and a flight of US Navy EA-18G Growlers flew in from NAS Whidbey Island.
Hitoshi "Hank" Iwasa, Mitsubishi's head of the MFC, oversaw an internal reorganisation that formed the template for the rest of the business. In Japan's aerospace industry, the MRJ programme is unique. Though Mitsubishi, Kawasaki and ShinMaywa Industries have each produced business jets, amphibians and military aircraft, Japanese industry has not produced an aircraft requiring a Part 25 airworthiness certificate since the Nihon Aircraft Manufacturing Corp YS-11, a twin turboprop with a 13-year production run that ended, unprofitably, in 1974.
In the interim four decades, the task of bringing new commercial aircraft to market evolved significantly. Instead of organising a team by function (engineering, supply chain, customer service, sales), many manufacturers adopted a system of cross-functional working groups called integrated product teams, or IPTs. Boeing adopted this approach on the development of the 777. Reorganising around IPTs then became a signature part of the US Department of Defense acquisition management reforms of the 1990s.
But Mitsubishi Aircraft never made the transition. When Bellamy, a veteran of the Bombardier CSeries and Eurofighter Typhoon flight-test programmes, arrived at MRJ headquarters in Nagoya in March 2016, he found a management team divided by function.
"Engineering had a team, supply-chain management had a team, manufacturing had a team, customer support had a team," Bellamy explains. "The strength [of that approach] is you coalesce all the knowledge for that function into one group. The weakness is you lose flexibility. If we have an engineering question which needs to reach a partner, we have to go through the engineering hierarchy and into the supply-chain hierarchy. That loses us time and flexibility."
Nine months after Bellamy arrived, a new two-year delay to the MRJ was announced, pushing entry into service further back to 2020. Unlike the cause of previous setbacks, this one had nothing to do with documenting the aircraft's certification tests. More than eight years after the launch of the MRJ, programme officials admitted the original design of the wiring and some avionics boxes could not be certificated. In addition to delaying first delivery of the MRJ90 to 2020, the decision would require the programme to add two more aircraft – numbered 7 and 10 – to the flight-test fleet.
The MRJ's former management system had to be changed, Bellamy decided. Instead of the functional management approach, Mitsubishi adopted an IPT system for the MRJ. The transition consolidates decision-making around about 20 "products", such as propulsion, wings and electrical systems. Each team manager has a full complement of functional staff, including engineering, supply-chain management and customer service.
"If we have a problem – an engineering problem – the engineer can talk to supply chain and certification and close the loop on any problems that we have," Bellamy says.
The new IPT structure may hold the key to Mitsubishi's future as a commercial aircraft manufacturer. In an interview in May, Bellamy acknowledged the stark reality that the programme could not afford another mistake that caused another multi-year delay. Its credibility as a manufacturer rests on bringing the MRJ90 into service with launch operator All Nippon Airways in 2020.
Flight testing is making progress, but slowly. Nearly three years after flights began, the MRJ90 remains in pre-certification trials. Lacking the pedigree of an established manufacturer of Part 25 aircraft, Mitsubishi has to complete hundreds of additional hours of internal testing before it can begin flight trials for certification. So far, the company has recorded more than 2,000 flight hours with the MRJ90.
"We say that after 1,000h we discover most of the things that we're going to discover. At 2,000, we're fairly confident we won't discover any major things," Bellamy says, before adding, superstitiously: "Touch wood."
Many of the hardest pre-certification tests have already been performed. Mitsubishi has confirmed the minimum speed needed for take-off, even in extreme situations, such as tailstrikes or failure of one engine.
In a major step forward, programme officials expect to begin testing for certification credit in September. The two aircraft with the certification-compliant avionics and wiring design will not enter the test fleet until next year, so the programme will use the existing test aircraft. Certification officials prefer to reserve tests of the aircraft characteristics to only aircraft using a certification-compliant design. That limits the certification tests with the existing aircraft to those that involve the engines and the auxiliary power unit, Bellamy says.
Beyond certification, the final – and most important – test will be decided by the market.
Since ANA placed a launch order in 2008, Mitsubishi has collected firm commitments for 213 MRJs, plus options and purchase rights for 174 more. The six customers include ANA, Japan Airlines, Air Mandalay and Aerolease. The backlog, however, is dominated by orders from two US regional carriers: SkyWest Airlines and Trans States Airlines. Those two carriers alone account for more than 70% of the MRJ backlog.
That dependence on the US regional market represents the most intriguing problem facing the MRJ programme.
Trans States signed an order for 50 MRJ90s in 2009. SkyWest placed an order for 100 of the same type three years later. At the time, most industry observers expected the airlines to win relief from the scope clauses in pilots' contracts that limit the weight of regional aircraft to 39t. The lightest configuration of the MRJ90 exceeds that limit by nearly 1t. But the outbreak of a crippling shortage of airline pilots has eroded the leverage of airlines in contract negotiations with pilots.
SkyWest executives have already said they are unlikely to take delivery of 76-seat MRJ90s because of the scope clause issue, which potentially deprives Mitsubishi of its largest customer.
Bellamy acknowledges the problem, but points to the MRJ70, the programme's scope-clause compliant sister aircraft. The MRJ70, however, weighs less than 39t, but is listed with 69 seats in a standard two-class layout.
But that difference in seat count is part of the MRJ70's appeal, argues Yugo Fukuhara, vice-president and general manager of sales and marketing for Mitsubishi.
The MRJ programme forecasts that North American airlines will retire more than 900 50-seat regional jets between 2022 and 2027, Fukuhara says. As those aircraft – Embraer ERJ-145s and Bombardier CRJ200s – exit, MRJ can offer the MRJ70 as a natural upgauge from the 50-seat aircraft, he says. Mitsubishi now plans to deliver the MRJ70 in 2021.
"This is a very important time for us to get into the market," Fukuhara says.
In addition, MRJ officials are also studying options to increase the seat count of the MRJ70 to raise it closer to the maximum capacity of 76 seats now allowed under the pilot contracts, Bellamy says.