High flyer - Issue 129 - Magazine | Monocle

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It’s a crisp autumn day in the town of Moses Lake, Washington, and inside an aircraft hangar the final stages of work are afoot on a major industrial gamble: Japan’s first commercial airplane in half a century. Designed and built entirely in Japan (only the country’s second ever postwar attempt at such a feat) by Mitsubishi Aircraft Corporation (Mac), four Spacejet M90 aircraft are currently undergoing flight testing in this remote corner of the US. While two are put through their paces in the air, the other two sparkle under the floodlights as engineers tinker with parts off to the side.

Mac has navigated delays, design issues, slow orders, strong market scepticism and the sheer cost of putting out new planes from scratch – one estimate suggests just shy of €7bn. At the end of October, early customer Trans State Holdings, which owns several US regional airlines, cancelled a long-standing order for up to 100 M90s, reportedly because the jet was too large for its needs – a major blow. Yet come hell or high water, the programme is now nearing the end of a decade-long development phase. Mitsubishi expects to obtain certification for the SpaceJet (formerly the Mitsubishi Regional Jet) in 2020 and shortly afterwards deliver the first of 15 planes to Japan’s largest airline, All Nippon Airways, whose pilots are already undergoing simulator training. It currently holds firm orders from seven airlines and leasing companies for 232 planes in all, plus purchase options for another 180. If all goes well it will mark the dawn of a new era for Japanese aviation.

The fact that there is a lot riding on the programme’s success is not lost on anyone in Moses Lake. Inside the hangar, two large banners outline the vision of Mitsubishi Aircraft Corporation, a company specially formed in 2008 and majority owned by Japanese manufacturing giant Mitsubishi Heavy Industries (minority shareholders include Mitsubishi Corp and Toyota). One sign is in English and the other in Japanese – both emphasise the words kampeki (perfection) and shokunin-hada (expert craftsmanship). Japan has a reputation for quality and attention to detail that Mitsubishi isn’t planning to betray.

“We’re re-establishing the commercial aircraft industry in Japan,” says Hitoshi “Hank” Iwasa, president of Mitsubishi Aircraft Corporation America. He gestures towards the banner and points out a line that reads: Smile, you are building a legacy. “We need to show that Japan is here, that it can produce a very good aircraft.”

Moses Lake, population 23,000, is a three-hour drive east of Seattle, through the evergreen forest of the Snoqualmie Pass, across the mighty Columbia River and out into the desert of central Washington state. Its airport, Grant County International, offered the perfect setting for Mac. As a former US military Strategic Command Airfield and an emergency landing site for Nasa’s space shuttle, it has one of the longest runways in the world, uncrowded airspace and a tower and emergency services well versed in flight-test support – an impossible combination in Japan. Furthermore it places SpaceJet near the focal point of the US aviation industry, Seattle, and close to an immense pool of aviation-industry talent. Mac’s new 150-person US headquarters just outside Seattle also helps to add legitimacy to the programme, placing the company alongside the likes of Boeing in the largest aerospace cluster in the world.

Some 450 employees of various nationalities work in Moses Lake on everything from telemetry to engineering, alongside permanent representatives of the Japan Civil Aviation Bureau. The planes themselves are built in Nagoya, central Japan, home to the 1,600-strong head office of Mitsubishi Aircraft Corporation. That four flyable planes are here at all is the result of a turbulent journey. The jet was originally supposed to be ready in 2013 but there have been delays from the start: within a year of being announced in 2008 a whole wing redesign was needed. As the complexity of building an aircraft with little prior experience became clearer, engineers increasingly struggled to keep to the timeline.

The turning point came in 2016 when the company began enlisting outside help: flight testing was moved to Moses Lake that year and more foreign workers were hired (in 2016 non-Japanese made up 6 per cent of Mac’s workforce, by 2018 it was 17 per cent). “The first thing we needed to do was acknowledge that we needed to learn from the experts,” says Iwasa. “So we changed our processes. Our flight test centre is now world class.”

Indeed, the list of former employers of workers at Moses Lake reads like a who’s who of aviation excellence: Boeing, Airbus, Bombardier, Gulfstream, Raytheon, Textron, Cessna and a number of militaries. “We had the opportunity to have people come work with us from all across the world,” says Chris Anderson, an Australian engineer who worked on the Bombardier CSeries (now Airbus A220) test programme before joining Mitsubishi as vice-president of the flight-test division in 2018. “Although we’re a Japanese company, we’re influenced by best practices from all parts of industry.”

As of October, SpaceJet has logged more than 3,000 flight-test hours. On a good day the company aims to send all four airplanes out for up to five hours at a time. One of the most important figures here is chief test pilot Yoshiyuki Yasumura. Emerging onto the tarmac with his crew, he looks the part in his blue jumpsuit and reflective sunglasses. He’s been on board since the early days and if he’s tired of working on it after more than 10 years, it doesn’t show. “I like the shape of the plane – it has a very nice nose,” he says with a laugh. As he sits in the captain’s seat preparing for a flight, engineers in the stripped-back cabin behind him set up workstations for monitoring flight parameters and performance. Does the fact that so much is at stake ever get to him? He recalls the M90’s very first test flight back in 2015 in Nagoya. “Lots of people came to the airport so we were under lots of pressure,” he says. “‘Let’s go fly,’ I thought. A test pilot needs to have positive thinking.”

These days, positive thinking is a bit easier to come by. In what can be chalked up to a mixture of prescience and luck, Mitsubishi finds itself nearing the end of its flight-test programme at just the right time. Bombardier announced in 2019 that it would stop producing commercial aircraft, eliminating what would have been one of SpaceJet’s primary competitors: the CRJ regional jet. Mere weeks later Mitsubishi Heavy Industries (mhi) snapped up Bombardier’s regional jet business, including the CRJ, for a shade under €500m. This significantly broadened its engineering and customer-support infrastructure, a crucial factor when airlines look at buying a new plane.

For now that leaves Brazil’s Embraer as Spacejet’s main rival. Yet Mitsubishi may have found a way to get ahead of them. None of Embraer’s new E2 planes meet so-called “scope-clause” requirements for regional flights in the US – essentially a threshold of the plane’s size above which pilots have to be paid standard union wages, as opposed to the lower pay allowed for smaller jets. Recognising this as a critical market, Mitsubishi announced a shortened M100 model, due in 2024, that is scope-clause compliant. This is important because out of the roughly 3,000 regional jets flying in the world, about 1,700 are in North America. In other words, to make it with a regional jet, you need to make it in the US.

Years of delays mean Mitsubishi has missed some key sales opportunities, however. As Trans State’s order cancellation shows, US airlines looking at getting an M100 in 2024 versus getting an older Embraer now may choose not to wait. Breaking into the market holds other challenges too. Airlines are often nervous to be among the first to buy unproven new models, especially if it’s the company’s first ever airplane, and Mitsubishi Aircraft Corporation may have a hard time matching the discounts offered by established manufacturers. An expected tie-up between Embraer and Boeing in 2020 would create a significant rival. More delays are also a risk: as Monocle went to press the schedule appeared to be put back another six months.

That said, recent developments mean that the future looks much brighter than it did just a few years back. Mitsubishi predicts that 5,000 new regional jets will be needed globally over the next 20 years so they could still find plenty of buyers. Though only a cabin mock-up is available for now, the SpaceJet is an attractive proposition. Offering more space than current regional planes is the key selling point but there is also an expected 20 per cent reduction in fuel burn compared to similarly sized planes.

To recoup development costs it will likely need to sell hundreds more than are currently on the books – though in the end, whether the plane eventually turns a profit may not be the most important thing. From day one, SpaceJet’s debut in airline fleets will represent a significant notch in the belt for brand Japan. “Everyone here is excited,” says Iwasa. “But in Japan we say that if you need 100 steps, you need to think of 99 steps as halfway. The last step is very important. It’s an exciting time but we need to be humble.”

Spacejet, from start to finish:

Mitsubishi launches Mitsubishi Aircraft Corporation and the Mitsubishi Regional Jet programme.

Mitsubishi unveils significant design changes to the aircraft, including a new wing.

Assembly of the first pieces of the aircraft begins in Nagoya.

The first fully assembled aircraft is unveiled to the public.

The Spacejet completes its maiden flight in Nagoya.

Part of the fleet is moved to Moses Lake to begin the flight-test programme in earnest.

Bombardier sues Mitsubishi, alleging it stole trade secrets. (The case was dismissed in 2019.)

The Spacejet makes its debut at the Paris Airshow. mhi buys Bombardier’s regional jet business.

SpaceJet’s rivals:

Embraer’s E2
The Brazilian firm is busy marketing the latest E2 series of its popular jet. They are slightly larger than existing SpaceJet models.

Embraer’s E170 and E175
Embraer’s previous-generation aircraft, though less fuel-efficient than the SpaceJet, offer stiff competition as they are scope-clause compliant.

Sukhoi Superjet
At least two foreign airlines have reported serious reliability issues but it’s always possible that the Russians could undercut Mitsubishi on price.

Airbus A220
The A220 is larger but it has already entered service and orders have been picking up steam, with airlines reporting great results despite some early engine issues.

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