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Business

Test flights to start as early as September

Hiromichi Morimoto

TOKYO -- Mitsubishi Aircraft is looking to start flying trials of Japan's first homegrown passenger jet as early as September in the U.S., in a bid to make up for past delays and ensure it can deliver the first unit to ANA Holdings in mid-2018 as promised.

     The company has pushed back the delivery date of the Mitsubishi Regional Jet four times, due to unexpected glitches and a lag in product design. Test flights were previously slated to begin in December, but the company is eager to cut even a few months from the timeline.

     Four of the five prototypes will be brought to the U.S., including to an airport at Moses Lake in the state of Washington. They will be tested for safety in the body design and controls. Because trials can be conducted more frequently in the U.S. than in Japan, it will take less time for Mitsubishi Aircraft to log the 2,500 hours of flight required to obtain type certification.

     "If we sent the planes there in the fall, it'll be extremely difficult to meet the mid-2018 delivery target," which the company announced at the end of last year, said President Hiromichi Morimoto. "But we'll be prepared for unforeseen circumstances if we tighten the schedule and aim to obtain type certification near the end of 2017."

     The company is planning four flights for each of the four planes per day. "If we log about 50 hours each week, assuming that things go well, we'll be done with trials by the fall of 2017," Morimoto said.

     Mitsubishi Aircraft also revealed plans to create a team of up to 400, including both Japanese and American workers, at Moses Lake. "We need both a good quantity and quality of staff for the tests," he said.

     The company is hiring retired engineers and mechanics from its competitors, and plans to have representatives from key Japanese suppliers, such as Sumitomo Precision Products and Nabtesco, stationed there. It has also secured about 70% of the 100 staffers it will employ at a separate center in Seattle.

     The airplane maker will also seek assistance from the defense unit of parent company Mitsubishi Heavy Industries, which has recently unveiled the prototype of the X-2 stealth fighter. It will have Kawasaki Heavy Industries and software developers send in additional engineers as well.

     "Free cash flow will delve furthest into negative territory from fiscal 2017 to the beginning of fiscal 2018," Morimoto said. The company had expected to turn profits in 2020. But with the latest push back in its delivery target, it will likely remain in the red until 2021.

     Brazil's Embraer, Mitsubishi Aircraft's biggest rival, plans to start delivering its E2 series, which carries the same cutting-edge engine as the MRJ, in 2018. The Japanese jet was supposed to be commercialized a year earlier than the competition, but a number of delays have put them on a similar time  line.

     "Even if we use the same engine, there's a difference in the body design, so the MRJ has the advantage in fuel efficiency and other fields," Morimoto stresses. But the Japanese plane could easily lose the leverage it had in terms of the delivery date.

     "We absolutely cannot allow a fifth delay in our delivery target," said a Mitsubishi Aircraft executive.

(Nikkei)

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