Progress has proven slow–tediously slow–for Mitsubishi’s MRJ regional jet program during the two years between the 2011 Dubai Air Show and this one. In fact, program schedules reflect two separate year-and-a-half-long delays to certification since then, placing the company further from its elusive goal today than it thought it stood during the 2011 edition of the Middle East’s premier aerospace event.
Undaunted, program managers continue to persevere, insisting that they now see a clear path to certification in the second quarter of 2017, two years after first flight. Previous schedules called for first delivery to launch customer ANA between the summer of 2015 and the first quarter of 2016.
In a somewhat opaque statement, Mitsubishi explained that design and certification has taken more resources than previously expected, which, in turn, affected component deliveries and aircraft fabrication. The new schedules take into account the “fulfillment of respective safety certification standards,” it said. Roughly a week later, during a conference call from Tokyo, executives explained that the company’s failure to properly forecast the effects of new U.S. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) procedures introduced in 2009 to validate regulatory compliance of production processes forced the latest delay.
Those standards–set by the FAA’s Organization Designation Authorization (ODA)–replaced an earlier process to certify airplanes in which a designated engineering representative (DER) and a designated manufacturing inspection representative (DMIR) validated compliance based upon a test or analysis on a part following its manufacture, explained Mitsubishi Aircraft director and head of sales Yugo Fukuhara. The ODA system requires documentation and approval of all internal design and manufacturing processes in advance. “Under this system we need to build a new process of compliance not only for ourselves but also all partner components, so we needed more time to build this process together with our partners,” said Fukuhara. “Of course, we knew this system conceptually, but [in practice] we needed more time than expected.”
The first program fully governed under the ODA system from the start of its development, the MRJ has now encountered three major delays since its launch in 2007. The first happened in 2009, when the company moved its first flight target from late 2011 to the second quarter of 2012 to accommodate changes to the design of the cabin and the wing box. More recently, in April 2012, the program suffered a setback of roughly a year-and-a-half following Mitsubishi Heavy Industries’ failure to properly document engineering and productionprocesses.
That rather abrupt interruption came at the behest of the Japan Civil Aviation Bureau (JCAB), which, in concert with the FAA and the European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA), carries responsibility for issuing type and production certification for theairplane. Since the JCAB intervened, Mitsubishi Heavy Industries (MHI) has had to remanufacture virtually all the parts for the first prototype.
The company and its partners have now produced more than 90 percent of the parts for the first flight-test airplane, and production schedules call for the imminent start of final assembly at MHI’s Komaki South plant.
During June’s Paris Air Show, Fukuhara detailed the flight-test plan, which specifies 2,500 flight hours over the course of almost two years. He said the first aircraft, MSN10001, would test basic flight characteristics, possible expansion of the altitude and airspeed envelopes, major systems and runway performance, including hot-and-high analysis, at a still undetermined location in the U.S.
The second airplane, MSN9001, would serve as a ground-test airplane and assess static strength. The company plans to use the third airplane and second flight-test example, MSN10002, for general flight performance tests; the fourth, MSN1003, would prove detailed flight characteristics and test avionics; the fifth, MSN1004, would perform systems and interior tests, natural icing, extreme temperature tests and community noise tests, again at undetermined locations in the U.S. Finally, MSN1005 would test autopilot performance and flight characteristics with simulated ice shapes.
Now carrying a backlog of 165 MRJs, Mitsubishi last added a customer for the program during the 2012 Farnborough Air Show, when U.S. regional airline SkyWest signed an agreement in principle covering a firm order for 100 and options on another 100. Ostensibly, the latest delay might not affect SkyWest, whose original order called for first deliveries in 2017–some two years after the previous target for certification. However, Mitsubishi executives have declined to elaborate on how many deliveries it had planned to make to its other customers–ANA and Trans States Airlines–between the time it last expected certification and SkyWest’s first delivery date.