It’s a sunny and hot July afternoon in Eastern Washington, and Kenji Okimoto is racing down the runway of Grant County International Airport. Okimoto, a vice president at Mitsubishi Aircraft Corporation America who runs operations support at Moses Lake Flight Test Center, is looking to position himself near the right runway so he can take a group of guests to observe today’s take-off of the Mitsubishi Regional Jet (MRJ). Air traffic control switched the runway due to a change in the wind conditions.
“It’s right around here,” he says, pulling the car over onto the side of the tarmac. Minutes later, the sleek regional jet quietly whooshes by and lifts off into the clear blue sky.
The Moses Lake Flight Test Center (MFC) is an under-the-radar, but pivotal part of the MRJ development program. MFC is where the MRJ is immersed in a rigorous testing schedule on its way toward type certification in 2019. Led by Hank Iwasa and stationed about 200 miles east of Seattle, Washington, Moses Lake serves as the central testing hub for the MRJ where all flight tests are currently managed. The center is home to a giant hangar housing four flight test aircraft (FTA) and approximately 250 Mitsubishi Aircraft Corporation employees and important partner AeroTEC.
On the surface, Moses Lake might seem to be an unlikely place to center the testing of a next-generation regional jet, but in many ways, it’s ideal. The center is adjacent to the Grant County International Airport, and it’s surrounded by open airspace that’s sparsely populated and receives little rain in the shadow of the Cascade Mountains. In addition, AeroTEC – a turnkey flight testing, engineering and certification partner – keeps an office on-site.
Moses Lake is also nearby a well-known aviation center in Seattle—where the MRJ has its own engineering team—that allows for a constant flow of communication with Mitsubishi Aircraft Corporation in Nagoya, Japan.
“Any data that needs crunching, engineering that needs to be worked out, we can hand over to Japan and they can take a stab at it while we’re asleep,” said Morgan Heysse, who works in the MRJ’s operations support group.
At Moses Lake, there’s no such thing as a typical day. Work starts early so the team can take advantage of as much optimal flying weather as possible. The maintenance day shift arrives around 5:30 a.m., and executives arrive soon after for the morning leadership meeting. Everyone reviews the plan for the day, and the hive prepares for a flight test. For certain tests, pilots go through required simulator exercises to get a feel for the actual flight.
“If there's a particularly interesting test going on, people's interest gets really piqued and you'll find more people than usual standing by the fence, watching the MRJ take off,” said Heysse.
Once a flight test has been performed, there’s a debrief in the afternoon where results are reviewed and data is prepared for transmission to Japan. As the day progresses, Nagoya wakes up and the cycle begins anew. Workers on site say it feels similar to working at a commercial airport, where there’s a constant flurry of activity.
Rather than two teams working separately from opposite sides of the world, the MRJ operation has evolved and come together as one team. The process began around 18 months ago when Mitsubishi Heavy Industries and Mitsubishi Aircraft Corporation restructured the MRJ development program, including operations at Moses Lake. Each flight test aircraft now has its own functional leader, with a core team of around 10 people who work on each aircraft across all disciplines – spanning engineering, supply chain, manufacturing, flight operations, pilots and engineers – to drive performance.
This relationship is already producing results: In recent months, the MRJ’s development has accelerated and the company has set important benchmarks on tests critical to achieving type certification. Major steps have been taken with tests for static strength, natural icing, cold and hot soak, cargo smoke containment and hot weather.
Importantly, the MRJ is seeing just a 1% takeoff cancellation rate due to technical issues during the testing program. That bodes well for the MRJ’s future as a regional jet, which often rely on quick turnaround during commercial service.
The plane also made a successful debut at the Paris Air Show this June where CNN’s aviation correspondent wrote, “the 92-passenger plane promises to reshape regional flying in the U.S. and upend a market long dominated by Canada's Bombardier and Embraer of Brazil.”
With a slate of upcoming tests and a united development team in place, Moses Lake will continue to be critical to the MRJ’s development, performance and first delivery in mid-2020.