Mitsubishi Inaugurates Seattle Engineering Center

 - August 4, 2015, 1:00 PM
L-r: Consul General of Japan Masahiro Omura, Washington Governor Jay Inslee, Mitsubishi Aircraft president Hiromichi Morimoto and FAA Transport Airplane Directorate Manager Jeffery Duven take part in a ceremony to mark the opening of Mitsubishi’s Seattle Engineering Center. (Photo: Nigel Moll)

Mitsubishi Aircraft formally opened its Seattle Engineering Center (SEC) on August 3 in Washington State. Established in collaboration with locally based AeroTec, the facility will administer the certification flight-test program for the Mitsubishi Regional Jet (MRJ), which Mitsubishi expects to fly for the first time in September or October. The first aircraft was rolled out in Japan last October and it logged its first engine run this past January. It has since been engaged in taxiing tests.

Plans call for the first of four MRJ90 prototypes to arrive in the U.S. in the second quarter next year to begin a flight-test campaign scheduled to take place at Grant County International Airport at Moses Lake, about 180 miles east-southeast of Seattle. The Japanese company said it chose to do all certification flight-testing in Washington not just for its weather and airspace availability but also for the expertise of its workforce in the intricacies of jetliner certification. Mitsubishi Aircraft fell foul of those paperwork intricacies early in the MRJ program, setting back the development schedule by a couple of years, and it recognized it could not risk similar mistakes with the certification flight-test effort.

The MRJ will be certified first by Japan’s civil aviation authority–in 2017, Mitsubishi expects–and then by the FAA. AeroTec envisions employing 100 people at the SEC, alongside 50 engineers deployed from Mitsubishi Aircraft in Nagoya. Mitsubishi Aircraft and AeroTec shook hands on the collaboration only this past January.

The OEM sees the U.S. as the most important market for the airplane. Of the 223 aircraft now secured by firm orders, 170 are for U.S. regional airlines (TransStates, 50; SkyWest, 100; and Eastern, 20). Including options and other purchase rights, Mitsubishi holds signatures for 407 aircraft. Mitsubishi Aircraft president Hiromichi Morimoto told AIN that the company had hoped to reach this sales level when it launched the program in 2008. “We hoped to have orders and options for between 400 and 500 aircraft by the time we made the first flight,” he said.

The opening ceremony today, held at the Museum of Flight on Boeing Field, was attended by about 200 guests, among them Washington Governor Jay Inslee; Masahiro Omura, Consul General of Japan in Seattle; and Lee Human, president of AeroTec (Aerospace Testing Engineering & Certification). In attendance from Mitsubishi Aircraft were president Morimoto and Kenichiro Honda, v-p of the Seattle Engineering Center. Masahiko Arihara, chairman of Mitsubishi Heavy Industries America, was also present.

The current configuration of the MRJ has its roots in smaller aircraft. A source close to the program told AIN that the airplane as first conceived was to be a 35-seater powered by Rolls-Royce BR700-series turbofans but later grew to 50 seats with GE CF34s for power. The design was essentially frozen when Pratt & Whitney mounted an intense effort to persuade Mitsubishi to adopt its geared turbofan. Despite Mitsubishi’s insistence that the program was too far along to change the engines, Pratt persisted and eventually prevailed, signing the MRJ in its current configurations (the 76-seat MRJ70 and 88-seat MRJ90) as the launch application for the PW1200G variant of the new engine. Mitsubishi predicts the MRJ will reduce the airport noise area of the Embraer E190 by 40 percent and beat its CO2 emissions by 20 percent.

In AeroTec, Mitsubishi has a partner founded in 2003 by president Human. Before he launched AeroTec, Human was flight-test manager at Aviation Partners Boeing, and before that an engineer with Aircraft Engineering Specialists. Among the projects on which he has worked are the Aviation Partners blended winglets for the 737, 757 and 767 and various business jets, the 737-300 that served as the avionics testbed for the F-35, and the Beechcraft King Air 250.

Construction of AeroTec’s 65,000-sq-ft hangar at Moses Lake in the desert east of Seattle was almost complete in August. At 87 feet high in the center of the doors, it is sized to accommodate a Boeing 777X and will comfortably house the MRJ test fleet. Data collected by the four flight-test aircraft will be analyzed at the engineering center in the Georgetown section of South Seattle. Mitsubishi and AeroTec chose Moses Lake (elevation 1,189 feet msl) for its runways (four of them, the longest 13,503 feet) and its desert climate, which combine to ensure high-frequency flight-test operations. Some runway performance testing will be performed at Roswell International Air Center, N.M., and high-altitude takeoffs and landings proving trials will be conducted on 9,400-foot-long Runway 6/24 at Gunnison-Crested Butte Regional Airport, Colo., elevation 7,680 feet msl. Extreme environmental testing will take place in the McKinley Climatic Laboratory in Florida.