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For Mitsubishi Aircraft, lows still come with the highs

The Mitsubishi Regional Jet makes its maiden flight at Nagoya Airport on Nov. 11, 2015.

TOKYO -- Mitsubishi Aircraft may have hoped it was leaving its troubles behind when it pulled off the maiden test flight of its regional jet late last year. The manufacturer got another boost on Feb. 16, when it bagged its seventh order for the plane, this one from a U.S. leasing company.

     Nevertheless, the Mitsubishi Heavy Industries unit is still struggling to overcome its own limited experience as it seeks to develop Japan's first passenger aircraft in half a century.

     To date, deliveries of the Mitsubishi Regional Jet have been pushed back four times. Mitsubishi Aircraft's quest to confirm the MRJ's safety and earn a type certificate from Japan's transport ministry is taking longer than expected.

"We must get things done"

Mitsubishi Aircraft officials were caught off guard last December when they visited Seattle, a key base of operations for Boeing. An executive at Aerospace Testing Engineering & Certification (Aerotech), a U.S. company that conducts flight tests on behalf of the American aerospace giant and other clients, asked why the Japanese manufacturer has been running so many taxiing tests. 

     Last fall, Mitsubishi Aircraft taxied the MRJ 13 times in the course of a month. The plane reached speeds of 180kph to 200kph on the ground. The Aerotech executive implied it was a waste of time.

     Development of the MRJ went into full swing in 2008. The first flight had to be rescheduled five times but finally happened in November. The project team was elated; after all, the last maiden flight of an airliner designed and produced in Japan occurred in 1962, with the YS-11.

     On Dec. 24, however, Mitsubishi Aircraft announced that the first delivery to ANA Holdings -- the parent of All Nippon Airways -- would be pushed back by about a year.

     Nobuo Kishi, senior executive vice president and chief engineer at Mitsubishi Aircraft, attributed the delay to the need for changes in flight control, fuselage strength and other tests. To obtain a type certificate for commercial aviation, a manufacturer must meet a huge array of safety requirements. But in general, the company is having a hard time devising strength and performance tests to prove that its plane passes muster.

     "Our defense equipment section, which has been involved in the development of combat planes, has participated [in the MRJ project]," a Mitsubishi Heavy executive said. "But it is unable to fully utilize its knowledge because of differences in the systems of fighter and commercial aircraft."

     Hiromichi Morimoto, Mitsubishi Aircraft's president, in late December told reporters: "We would like to act on the fly but can't. We must get things done."

Problematic approach?

Morimoto's comment indicates there may be something to the Aerotech executive's view that Mitsubishi Aircraft is spending too much time on certain tests. Some say its whole approach to problem-solving is, in fact, problematic.

     Mitsubishi Aircraft's policy is to make changes whenever issues crop up. This seems logical: Unlike the planes of half a century ago, modern aircraft are more structurally complex and rely heavily on software.

     But a Boeing official suggested this is the wrong way to go about development. Problems, the official said, should be addressed all at once. Trying to fix them one by one simply stalls development, he said.

     Some Mitsubishi Aircraft executives have raised concerns about how often Morimoto has to travel to consult with executives of the parent company. Mitsubishi Aircraft is based in Toyoyama, Aichi Prefecture; Mitsubishi Heavy is headquartered in Tokyo. 

     The Mitsubishi Heavy bosses, they say, pepper Morimoto with questions -- such as whether it is really necessary to have so many U.S. engineers involved in the project.

     Mitsubishi Heavy sent Morimoto to Mitsubishi Aircraft to replace Teruaki Kawai last April. The parent wanted to strengthen its grip on the subsidiary, but the MRJ project has not accelerated.

     Mitsubishi Aircraft is supposed to be the first to deliver planes equipped with new, fuel-efficient engines from U.S. manufacturer Pratt & Whitney. But Brazilian rival Embraer is to begin deliveries of a new jet fitted with the same engines in 2018. Any further delays could cost Mitsubishi Aircraft business opportunities.

     There is no denying that an airliner is an incredibly complex system, with some 1 million parts -- 30 times more than a car. A careful production process is clearly necessary to ensure quality and safety. But the Japanese company also risks losing the trust of carriers if it persists with its delay-prone methods.

     For now, Mitsubishi Aircraft seems to be sticking to its guns. "As a newcomer, we have to develop [the jet] in a step-by-step and safety-oriented manner," Morimoto said.


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