Feb. 14, 2017, © Leeham Co.: When Mitsubishi announced that it would conduct nearly all the flight testing for its new MRJ90 in Moses Lake in Eastern Washington State, one of the reasons was its history of good weather.
It turns out that this is the worst winter there in 20 years. Snow storms became blizzards, shutting down nearby Interstate 90, sometimes for days. Driving to Moses Lake from Seattle, where part of Mitsubishi’s engineering force is located, became impossible when three mountain passes were closed due to avalanches, rock slides and fallen trees. Temperatures reached an all-time low in Moses Lakes in two decades.
“I never experienced this kind of cold weather in Japan,” said Hitoshi Iwasa, Executive Vice President, Operations Support, in an interview with LNC last week. “Many people in Moses Lakes told me this is the coldest weather in 20 years.”
As a result, flight testing with three of four Flight Test Aircraft (FTAs) is running slower than planned.
Hitoshi said about 400 hours have been completed among the four FTAs, three in Washington and one in Japan. The Moses lake airplanes are flying 3-4 flights a day
for 10 hours—when the weather is good.
Certification required 2,500 hours, but Mitsubishi must add more (how much is unclear now) due to design changes that are necessary to protect the airplane against catastrophic failure in the event of a bombing; or water contamination of some systems.
Hitoshi said these were not related to redundancy issues, as some media reported. The changes result in another program delay, with entry-into-service now set for 2020.
Assembly of the first MRJ70, the smaller, 70-seat sibling, is underway. Hitoshi said design changes will be incorporated into the first aircraft. The additional work will slow assembly; the dates for the roll-out and first flight haven’t been announced, Hitoshi said.
There are no orders yet for the MRJ70. But this is the fallback airplane in case US labor pilot contract Scope Clauses restricting the weight of aircraft that regional airlines fly for major carriers are relaxed.
The MRJ90 exceeds the 86,000 lb weight limit. US regional airlines Trans States and Skywest account for two thirds of the total orders for the MRJ90. (Other US carriers and lessors bring the share of US-based orders to 80%.)
Hitoshi said the extra EIS delay to 2020 gives time for contracts to be renegotiated in 2019. But in the event the Scope isn’t relaxed, he believes the MRJ70 will be the answer.
The competing Embraer E175-E2, with the new Pratt & Whitney GTF engine, is also too heavy. EIS for this model, originally 2020, was rescheduled to 2021 for the Scope Clause issue.
The in-production E175-E1, with the CF-34 engine, is within the Scope Clause weight limit. The even smaller (and lighter) E170 is no longer being purchased by airlines.
The MRJ70, also with the PW GTF, is the only 70-passenger aircraft with the next generation engine, Hitoshi says.
Mitsubishi points out that there are about 1,000 50-70 regional jets operating in the US, providing Mitsubishi with a large market potential for the airplane.
Additionally, the US only represents 35% of the global market for this size aircraft.
Hitoshi said Mitsubishi isn’t seeing any of the issues with the PW GTF engine that plagued Airbus on its A320neo. Rotor bowing, oil bearing problems, production ramp up and blade issues have driven PW, Airbus and its customers crazy with delays and on-wing time.
Of course, only being in flight testing relieves pressure on these issues. MRJ program delays will give PW ample time to work out teething problems.
But Hitoshi says fuel economy is better than forecast—though he declined to give a figure.
The assignments for the FTAs are: