Japan’s Mitsubishi sets sights on aircraft niche
The company hopes to break into the international market with MRJ regional jet.
At a tightly guarded factory in central Japan, Mitsubishi, a maker of the Zero fighter planes of World War II, is launching its MRJ regional jet and aiming to fulfill Japan’s long-cherished ambitions to regain status as a major aviation power.
The company said Friday that a recent decision to push back the jet’s maiden flight from this spring to a few months later would not delay its commercial deliveries. Workers were conducting hydraulic and other tests on two of the test jets in a cavernous assembly facility; another jet had been sent out for painting.
Company executives are emphatic about their determination and urgency to get the job done.
“This is the last chance to get into real aircraft manufacturing. Mitsubishi Heavy Industries has a long-term vision to get into the aircraft assembly industry,” said Hideyuki Kamiya, head of marketing for Mitsubishi Aircraft Corp.
“We think we have a lot of potential to give this industry. This is very high-tech work requiring skilled workers and engineers. We can compete in this area,” he said.
The quest reflects a yearning to translate Japan’s engineering and manufacturing prowess into a firsttier aircraft industry with global reach, an ambition subsumed for decades after Japan’s 1945 defeat.
The plan dovetails with a national blueprint for turning the area near Nagoya into an aerospace hub on par with Boeing’s manufacturing base near Seattle.
Developed partly with government support, the 70to 90-seat jet project also parlays previous work by Mitsubishi on the Boeing 787 Dreamliner.
But years of delays are adding to the challenge of competing with Brazil’s Embraer, which dominates the regional jet market.
“It’s easier to put a man on the moon than to build an airliner that airlines want to buy,” said Greg Waldron, Asian managing editor at Flightglobal in Singapore. “It’s an extremely high-risk, extremely costly endeavor.”
Mitsubishi executives note that their product is 20% more fuel efficient than other leading single-aisle jets because it was engineered specifically to work with a Pratt and Whitney high-bypass geared turbofan engine. Such engines are more efficient because they require less jet thrust to propel them through the air.
The jet also will be quieter and slightly roomier than competitors’ aircraft, they say.
The Mitsubishi regional jet is the successor to a failed attempt in the 1960s to break into the international commercial market with the 64seat turboprop YS-11. The aim this time is finally to win Japan a foothold in the lucrative commercial passenger jet market.
Mitsubishi and Nakajima Aircraft Co. — predecessor to Fuji Heavy Industries, the parent company of Subaru — produced nearly 11,000 Zero fighters. Toward the war’s end, hundreds were used in kamikaze suicide attacks.
After Japan’s defeat, the U.S. occupation initially banned aircraft making. It was revived in the 1950s. The aviation industry is a key supplier of components for passenger jets, most significantly the Boeing 787 Dreamliner, but mainly makes military aircraft for Japan’s own defense force.
Although it holds leading technologies in avionics, materials and other key aircraft-related know-how and products, Japan has yet to integrate them into an entire commercialized passenger aircraft.
“The real prestige in all this comes from being the systems integrator,” Waldron said. “You design the aircraft and then you integrate it, which is where the value really comes in, and then can sell that abroad. It’s like a symbol of your country’s prowess.”
HIROMICHI MORIMOTO, president of Japan’s Mitsubishi Aircraft, speaks at a news conference Friday about plans for the company’s MRJ regional jet.