MIAMI— The Mitsubishi Regional Jet (MRJ) airliner is finally reaching the onset of its flight test campaign, after several setbacks with the first commercial aircraft produced in Japan in over half a century.

Devised for regional markets, the MRJ offers two variants, the MRJ 70 which seats up to 78 passengers, and the MRJ 90 which offers seating up to 92 passengers. These aircraft are aimed to break into a market segment widely dominated by Embraer (Brazil) and Bombardier (Canada).

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In an e-mailed statement sent on Monday, Mitsubishi Aircraft Corporation (MITAC) announced that the first test flight would take place during the second half of October, further stating that the exact date will be disclosed the day before the flight.

In August the planemaker opened the Seattle Engineering Center in Moses Lake, Washington, where most of the flight test campaign will be carried out. Other locations in the United States will also receive the MRJ for specific tests. Roswell, New Mexico (Special Runway Testing), Gunnison, Colorado (High Altitude takeoffs and landings), and the McKinley Climactic Laboratory in Florida (Extreme Weather Environment). One aircraft will remain in Japan for flight testing.

Last June, the MRJ began its low-speed taxi tests that required the redesign of certain elements. Such issues were duly addressed and the taxi test has just been completed.

Aircraft 2 underwent static strength testing, including main wing up bending and fuselage pressurization to confirm MRJ’s structural readiness. The primary objective of the First Flight is to confirm basic flight characteristics (ascent, descent, circling left and right). Some movable parts such as landing gear and flaps will be fixed and the thrust reverse system will not be engaged. However, the first flight is pending of approval by the Ministry of Industry of Japan (MILT).

The announcement of the first flight is a significant milestone for the program, plagued with several delays that in total sum four years behind schedule, and represent a major challenge to the Japan’s Aerospace industry to find customers to gather a market share in a dynamic and competitive market segment in commercial aviation.

Going bigger, not smaller

While the narrowbody aircraft in the segment of +130 seats is booming, the dynamic of regional aircraft is different. Oil prices, pilot shortages and economic slowdown sin key countries such as India, Brazil and China has limited the opportunity for new customers. Actually both Bombardier and its CSeries aircraft and Embraer with the forthcoming E2 series are more a competitor to the entry-level narrowbody segment dominated by Airbus and Boeing (the slow selling A319 and 737-7 Max respectively) than a competitor to other major regional planemakers such as SuperJet International or ATR.

Embraer is currently the dominates the regional market with its E-jet series, ranging in the +80 to +120 seat market segment with a sound E2 program on track toward its initial delivery between 2018 and 2020. Bombardier is a second major player with its CRJ and Q400 aircraft, plus the CSeries in the final stages of certification prior delivery.

A Strong Support, a Weak Market

Although Japan has gained relevance in the last years as a major aerospace industry player building fuselages, wings and components for Airbus, Boeing and the SuperJet, its expertise in aircraft manufacturing is not new. The last passenger airliner built by Japan was the turboprop YS-11, which had just limited success with just 182 aircraft built between 1964 and 1973.

The MRJ was unveiled by Mitsubishi at the Paris Air Show in 2007 and since then, has reaped about 400 orders with an order book comprised mostly by American carriers. Skywest and Eastern Air Lines are two of its most important customers. Despite the delays in the program, Mitsubishi continues citing a second-quarter 2017 first delivery target.

As the MRJ readies to soar for the very first time, a turbulent world economic environment ahead and stiff competition in the horizon threaten to compromise the future of the MRJ in the market. But as Japanese philosopher Daisaku Ikeda said, “Our hopes, desires and ambitions are powerful forces existing within us for the shaping of the future. They are the generating forces that create the future.”

 

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