24th February 2024

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Business Industry and Financial

How and Why Mitsubishi’s Aircraft Division Failed Even Harder Than Its Auto Brand

This is the story of the Mitsubishi MRJ, a twin-engine regional airliner that lived and died wearing the iconic Mitsubishi Tri-star. But first, a brief synopsis of Mitsubishi’s place in Japanese aviation. Even the novice “av-geeks” know Mitsubishi holds the distinction of building the most famous airplane in Japanese history, the A6M Zero fighter of WWII fame. But in truth, the first attempt at a bespoke aircraft division dates back to well before the war.

Starting in the year 1920 under the moniker Mitsubishi Internal Combustion in Nagoya, Japan, considerable assistance from the German aerospace firm Junkers went a long way towards establishing the new company as a premier manufacturer of airplanes. In 1928, the Mitsubishi Internal Combustion name was changed to Mitsubishi Aircraft Company, which, in turn, was re-absorbed into Mitsubishi Heavy Industries (MHI) in 1934. With its foundation in aviation now set, MHI spent the next 11 years building iconic warbirds like the A5M, the world’s first carrier-based mono-wing fighter, and the A6M Zero, the most feared and famous warbird in Japanese history.

According to the 1996 book “Technology and Industrial Development in Japan” by Hiroyuki Odagiri, as many as 24,000 airplanes were built on Japanese soil in the year 1944 alone. A great many of these came from Mitsubishi factories. But the following year, in 1945, the whole show came crashing down with Imperial Japan’s defeat in the Second World War. Since the end of the war, Mitsubishi Heavy Industries themselves didn’t shy away from aircraft production. Most notably, the firm developed the F-1 supersonic strike jet for the Japanese Air Self-Defense Force (JASDF) as well as its successor, the T-2, and a license-built upgrade of the American F-16, the F-2.

But it would take another six decades post-WWII before Mitsubishi Heavy Industries attempted to found a bespoke aviation division targeted at the civilian market. Based out of the same city of Nagoya as the old Mitsubishi Airplane Company, the Mitsubishi Aircraft Corporation (MAC) got its start with a 100 billion yen investment from shareholders that included, if you can believe it or not, a ten percent stake by Toyota Motor Corporation, among others. The company set up offices at home in Nagoya but also in Tokyo, Amsterdam, and even an offshoot in Renton, Washington, within a stone’s throw of one of MAC’s foremost suppliers, Boeing.

Mitsubishi SpaceJet

Photo: Mitsubishi Aircraft Corporation

Even before the founding of Mitsubishi’s new aerospace division, MHI had been working with the Japanese government to develop the first all-new, all-Japanese passenger airliner since the NAMC YS-11 in the 1960s. Dubbed the Mitsubishi Regional Jet program (MRJ), the first full-scale mockup under the design initiative was unveiled at the Paris Air Show in 2007. At that year’s show, Mitsubishi Aircraft Corp announced two bespoke prototypes, the MRJ90, and the MRJ70. Soon afterward, the PW1000G geared-turbofan engine from the American firm Pratt & Whitney was selected to power the new airplanes.

This American-sourced engine also powers the industry-leading Airbus A320neo. With 15,000 lbs (67 kN) of thrust each in normal operation, Mitsubishi expected the twin MRJ jets, later re-named to the SpaceJet M100 and M90, to cruise at a maximum altitude of 39,000 feet (11,900 m) and at a top speed of roughly 830 kph (515.7 mph, 0.78 Mach). The M90 would have carried between 86 and 96 passengers per flight had it entered service. In comparison, the smaller M1000 was designed to accommodate up to 76 passengers with three tiers of seating ranging from economy class to business class.

With an airframe forged from aerospace-grade aluminum alloy flanked by lightweight carbon fiber paneling wherever possible, the MRJ program was lauded as having similar flight performance to regional jets from Embraer and Bombardier while being less thirsty for fuel. After over a decade of continuous development, the first test aircraft in the MRJ series, serial number JA21MJ, made its maiden flight on November 11th, 2015.

Speaking of Bombardier, the Canadian aerospace firm sued Mitsubishi Aircraft Corp in 2018, alleging the company stole and then withheld industry trade secrets in an attempt to expedite the MRJ program’s certification with the American Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). By the time the lawsuit was thrown out in a Quebec court, the tables had turned dramatically, and MAC was able to acquire the IP rights to Bombardier’s CRJ line of regional jetliners for a sum of around $550 million. This rough-and-tumble style corporate takeover allowed MAC to use Bombardier’s Quebec-based assets for their own purposes.

Mitsubishi SpaceJet

Photo: Wikimedia User: Matti Blume – Own Work

Most notably, a section of office space was partitioned in Montreal’s Boisbraind suburb by MAC in 2019 for the sole purpose of growing the brand in North America. By this point in time, Mitsubishi had signed order contracts for five different airliners; two in Japan, one in Sweden, and two in the United States. Mitsubishi was on the hook to manufacture up to 50 M100 jetliners and a further 157 M90s. A further five orders were canceled by three separate American airlines, including the now defunct Eastern Air, and a further two orders from a group in Hong Kong and one by Air Mandalay of Myanmar.

Of course, this was all before the global health crisis of 2020. In May of that year, MCA announced that the budget for the SpaceJet program would be cut in half as a response to the global crisis. Consequentially, all the international expansion the company had made in the previous decade was contracted back to MCA’s home office in Nagoya as international business collaborations sputtered to a halt in the initial waves of the crisis. Further limits to U.S. scope clauses, essentially agreements made between airlines and pilot trade unions regarding how many of one type of aircraft a regional affiliate could operate at once, delayed SpaceJet’s certification in the United States.

By April 2021, Mitsubishi Aircraft Corporation had laid off all but 150 of its employees, including all of its international staff. For the next 23 months, the SpaceJet program sat in limbo. Being unable to fulfill its production contracts nor able to continue development on such a shoestring budget, it was only a matter of time before the project was shut down. Indeed, this day came on February 6th, 2023, when it was announced that not only would the SpaceJet program be terminated, but the entirety of Mitsubishi Aircraft Corporation was to be liquidated in the near future.

As of June 2023, the liquidation of MAC hadn’t yet begun, but at least two of the eight SpaceJet prototypes, one M100, and seven M90s, had already been sent to the scrap heap. Whether or not MAC’s remaining assets will be re-absorbed back into Mitsubishi Heavy Industries as its predecessor did back in the 1930s remains to be seen.

Mitsubishi SpaceJet

Photo: Reddit User: u/kraven420 – Own Work

But to those who know Mitsubishi for building mediocre cars these days, it’s interesting to see how the company’s automotive brand continues to stick around while its once-promising aviation sector couldn’t even make it a full two decades.