Mitsubishi Aircraft Corp. executives opened their new Seattle engineering center, which will work on flight test analysis of the forthcoming Mitsubishi Regional Jet.
Smashing and splashing barrels of Japanese sake, Seattle on Monday celebrated a new airplane company in town.
The enthusiasm of dignitaries at an event to celebrate Mitsubishi Aircraft Corp.’s new engineering center in Seattle left Mayor Ed Murray, Gov. Jay Inslee and other guests with more than a little sake splattered on the traditional Japanese ceremonial jackets they had donned over their suits.
The engineering center in Georgetown will by next year more than double its staff to 150 people.
One hundred U.S. workers and about 50 Mitsubishi Aircraft engineers from Japan will work there on analyzing flight-test data to get the new Mitsubishi Regional Jet (MRJ) certified and into service with airlines.
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And the new engineering center will be tied tightly to the MRJ flight test program, most of which will be conducted at Moses Lake in Eastern Washington where another 200 people will be employed — twice the number touted a year ago when Moses Lake was first announced as a test site.
In a celebration at the Museum of Flight, some 200 guests heard speeches from Inslee and Mitsubishi Aircraft President and CEO Hiromichi Morimoto. Then the event culminated in a traditional “kagami” ceremony in which invited dignitaries broke open large barrels of sake with big wooden hammers.
Lee Human, chief executive of Mitsubishi Aircraft’s local partner, AeroTEC, broke through the top of his barrel with extra force, eliciting laughter as those who shared his barrel — Murray and Rep. Suzan DelBene — were liberally doused with sake.
The MRJ is Japan’s first all-new commercial plane since an unsuccessful 1960s-era turboprop. It’s aimed at the market for regional jets, just below the capacity of the smallest jets built by Boeing and Airbus.
The first MRJ is an 88-seat version, to be followed a year later by a 76-seat version. The majority of the MRJ’s total of 223 firm orders come from three U.S. regional airlines that operate low-density routes for the bigger U.S. carriers.
The MRJ’s first flight is set for September or October in Japan. It is scheduled to enter service in 2017.
Morimoto said Mitsubishi chose to set up here “to make the best use of the resources and skill sets of the aircraft engineers and professionals of Seattle, which is a global hub of the aviation industry.”
About half of the components inside the new jet are U.S.-made, including a significant portion in Washington.
Zodiac in Bellingham, formerly Heath Techna, provides the cabin interior.
The Korry unit of Esterline in Everett supplies various cockpit controls.
And Avtech Tyee, also in Everett, supplies the intercom phone system connecting the cabin and the cockpit.
Echoing Boeing’s marketing in Japan — which advertises the 787 Dreamliner as “made with Japan” — Morimoto declared that “the MRJ is developed and made with the state of Washington.”
Inslee, who will visit Japan on a trade mission next month, happily concurred.
He said the MRJ work represents “a new chapter in the long partnership between Washington state and Japan.”
And he said the broadening of the state’s aerospace industry signals that “we are not going to cede our leadership in world aerospace.”
Scott Hamilton, Issaquah-based aviation analyst with Leeham.net, has long advocated that the state look “beyond Boeing” to maintain and grow its aerospace industrial base.
“Getting Mitsubishi here for flight testing is a good step,” Hamilton said.
The Seattle engineering center will be tied tightly to the MRJ flight test program, most of which will be conducted in Eastern Washington.
After some initial flight tests in Japan, Mitsubishi Aircraft will fly four of the five flight test MRJ airplanes out of Moses Lake in Eastern Washington starting next spring.
That site provides plenty of open air space and dry weather that will allow more frequent test flights than are possible in Japan’s crowded air space.
Mitsubishi is collaborating in the U.S. with AeroTEC, a Seattle firm that provides airplane manufacturers with “testing, engineering and certification” support (hence the name) to speed development and certification of a new airplane.
AeroTEC is hiring the U.S. engineers, airplane maintenance mechanics and administrative staff to fill the positions not covered by Mitsubishi Aircraft’s Japanese employees.
It currently has 52 engineers working with the first 13 engineers from Japan, with more to come in the near future.
AeroTEC CEO Human said the plan to build the engineering center came together only this year.
And he thanked Inslee for “substantial financial support to our Moses Lake project.”
Inslee said last year that the state provided “some strategic reserve funds” for infrastructure — a 65,000-square-foot hangar now under construction at Grant County International Airport — to help make the Mitsubishi project come together.
Mitsubishi Aircraft is a unit of Japanese industrial giant Mitsubishi, which does extensive aerospace manufacturing. It is a major supplier to Boeing, with work that includes building the wings of the 787 Dreamliner.
Nobuo Kishi, senior executive vice president with Mitsubishi Aircraft’s MRJ division, said the Seattle engineering center represents a beginning of collaboration with Washington state that will only increase in future.
“After the MRJ program, I expect more and more business in the Seattle area,” Kishi said.