There are few aircraft manufacturers in the world these days. Given what it takes to succeed in the cutthroat competition of building aircraft, it is more likely that there will be a continued decrease, rather than an increase, in the already low number of manufacturers. However, an industrial giant like Japan, which is also the world’s third largest economy, would seem like a country that would have a chance to compete on this narrow but important industrial niche. Unfortunately, the ongoing story of the Mitsubishi SpaceJet, is not a hopeful one for Japan or for any country that hopes to build up a successful aircraft manufacturing industry.
Already in 2003 the government in Japan launched a project, led by Mitsubishi Heavy Industries (MHI), aimed at developing a regional jet aircraft for 30-50 passengers. Soon after the size was adjusted to 70-90 passengers and the project and the aim was to deliver the first Mitsibushi Regional Jet (MRJ) aircraft in 2010. Since then it seems as if very few things have gone right with this project. Before going into details, it should be noted that MHI successfully builds wings for the Boing B787, missiles, power systems, ships, railway systems, and space launch vehicles – so there was never any lack of or experience in large engineering projects for MHI. In this case, industrial and government ambitions came together into an initiative in aviation, one that was aimed at challenging Bombardier and Embraer in the mid-sized segment of aircraft manufacturing.
Through design and early assembly stages the project had some changing specifciations and conditions, but in 2015 the maiden flight was performed. Orders for the aircraft had been placed and there was considerable interest for what a nation with such engineering prowess as japan would be able to deliver to aviation industry. The same year as the maiden flight a delay of one year to the project was announced. Then, in 2017, a two year delay was announced. The aircraft was rebranded as “Mistubishi SpaceJet” due to U.S. requirements. Still, it was getting increasingly troubling that a project originally aimed at delivery in 2010 was no coming up to a decade of delays. Even if delays in developing new aircraft are no unsual, a delay of this length means that new technology may have emerged that makes the original project obsolete. However, MHI seemed determined to get the aircraft to market and in June 2020 the company acquired the CRJ program from Bombardier, with the aim to discontinue production focus and focus on using the global presence of the CRJ to promote their own aircraft.
In recent times a flight test center in the U.S. has been closed, orders cancelled, capital and people for the project slashed and as of late October 2020 the poject is “frozen” (link). The reasons for why the project went wrong are not clear, or at least not to those not involved in it and little has been made public in regards to the failure of the project. According to some comments, the development of the aircraft was hampered by reluctance to involve forein expertise (link). The Japanese government are now facing demands to explain what happened with the project and with the 50 billion Yen (450 Billion USD) spent on it by the government on research and support for a project that was intended to broaden the industrial base of the country (link).
There is much more to research, understand and say about the project of the Mitsubishi SpaceJet – and hopefully some learning to come out of it. However, at this point the project seems to tell a cautionary tale about how engineering expertise, great ambitions, large government support and national commitment may not be enough to make it in the aviation industry. As we usually hear much more about sucess stories than failures, this tale may be one that needs to be remembered before other nations decides to seek industrial glory by building their own aircraft.