Mitsubishi MRJ Plows Ahead Amid Legal Distractions

 - October 25, 2018, 9:47 AM

While Mitsubishi lawyers prepare to defend a lawsuit brought by Bombardier alleging theft of trade secrets, those tasked with bringing Japan’s first airliner to market since the 1960s continue their work unabated in Nagoya and Moses Lake, Washington. Still targeting certification in either late 2019 or early 2020, the program team has now clocked some 2,400 hours of flight testing with four flying MRJ90 prototypes, the fourth of which engineers will fit with representative avionics bay modifications in preparation for certification testing of a new configuration. 

Indeed, 2018 has proved the busiest year in the long history of the program’s development, as MRJ chief development officer and head of program management Alex Bellamy predicted during an interview with AIN ahead of February’s Singapore Air Show. Since then the program has clocked some 900 hours and met all its major schedule targets in preparation for first delivery in mid-2020 to Japan’s All Nippon Airways.

“I said it was going to be a busy year, and it’s been busier than I thought,” Bellamy told AIN on Wednesday from his office in Nagoya. “We’ve made some fundamental agreements with the [Japan Civil Aviation Bureau] on how we’re going to do certification in Japan. So a lot of our [activity] has been reaching those foundational agreements.” Bellamy characterized an agreement to use mainly approved company personnel to act on the government’s behalf for certification as a major breakthrough for the program. Under the current plan, JCAB pilots will participate in the certification program only in critical or select areas, he added. “This is the first commercial aircraft certification program in Japan for a long time, so we don’t have a regulation yet that says how we do this,” he said. “So we’ve been writing the regulations with the JCAB in partnership as we move forward.”

Program schedules next call for modification of all four flight-test aircraft to bring them to the latest certification standard for their respective systems testing responsibilities. 

To address design missteps that resulted in the fifth and most recent delay to the program, Mitsubishi won’t install a fully modified avionics bay in Aircraft 4, but rather equivalent wiring modifications for the individual systems due for testing. For example, engineers will install the appropriate wiring for the radar altimeter but won’t move the box to the position it will ultimately occupy in the production airplane. The company will reserve the testing of the full avionics bay change in aircraft numbers 7 and 10, explained Bellamy.

Meanwhile, the company has reached “full speed” producing aircraft 7 and 10, both of which will join the program next year and perform some flight testing involving human factors items. Airplane 10 will serve as a full flight test aircraft, while number 7—a production representative example—carries the full interior in the configuration chosen by ANA. Bellamy explained that most of the work for those two airplanes will involve hangar testing, such as lightning-strike trials using high voltage applied to the wingtips and other points of the airframe to examine how the electricity propagates throughout the aircraft. Certification validation of the relocated avionics bay will involve how the change has affected heat distribution.

While aircraft number five serves as a ground-test aircraft in Nagoya for the MRJ90 campaign, aircraft 8 and 9, now undergoing major structural assembly, will serve as test articles for the MRJ70 program. Bellamy said Mitsubishi hasn’t committed to a date for flying aircraft 8. 
Mitsubishi continues to expand the team working on the smaller MRJ variant, as it progresses with conceptual design and more detailed tasks centered on such features as IFE, Wi-Fi, and electrical power, all of which it expects to become standard equipment when that model reaches the market in 2022. “We know that airlines, for example, are looking at improving their brand ties through their family of aircraft,” said Bellamy. “So one of the goals of the current design phase is to make sure that we have a product that is capable of implementing those customer visions.” 

So much of the recent increased attention paid by Mitsubishi on the MRJ70 reflects its emergence as an even more vital member of the family than first envisioned, as weight limitations in U.S. union contract scope clauses continue to disqualify the MRJ90 from use at regional airline affiliates. Mitsubishi, in fact, has placed more emphasis on improvements to the smaller variant as pilot unions appear unlikely to relax the weight limitations in the next round of bargaining. “We are operating under the assumption that fundamentally there will be limited change [to scope clauses],” conceded Bellamy. 

While the MRJ90 would carry 76 seats in a dual-class configuration in the U.S. to meet scope-clause capacity limits, Mitsubishi now also quotes a 76-seat “design point” for the MRJ70 in a single-class layout. “That’s the sweet spot for the U.S. market,” explained Bellamy. “It’s an aircraft that will fit within the scope clause; it will be the only next-generation regional aircraft that will. We’re making sure it complies with all of the relevant scope clause regulations that we see today, but also any changes we see coming across the next twenty years is what we’re studying now.”