Photo/Illutration Seiji Izumisawa, president of Mitsubishi Heavy Industries Ltd., announces at a news conference in Tokyo’s Marunouchi district Feb. 7 that the company has withdrawn from the SpaceJet business. (Ikuro Aiba)

Mitsubishi Heavy Industries Ltd. was clearly ill-prepared to take on such a massive project as developing Japan’s first passenger jet.

That much was made clear by MHI President Seiji Izumisawa’s Feb. 7 explanation of issues that dogged the SpaceJet project from the outset 15 years ago.

Dogged by delays, missed deadlines, spiraling costs, outdated technology and no business prospects, MHI decided to call it a day Feb. 7. 

The government had supported the commercial SpaceJet in the hope of making the aircraft industry a new pillar of Japanese manufacturing.

Izumisawa said that development of what initially was known as Mitsubishi Regional Jet began in 2008 but became protracted and functions and equipment were overtaken by technical advances.

He said that even if the company had changed the aircraft’s design to obtain a “type certificate” required to operate commercial aircraft, no business potential was in the offing in terms of the time and funding needed.

Izumisawa said the prolonged development resulted from a lack of understanding of the process to obtain the certificate, an essential piece of documentation which confirms that an aircraft is in legal compliance with airworthiness requirements.

Mitsubishi Aircraft Corp., MHI’s subsidiary in Toyoyama, Aichi Prefecture, had been tasked with development of the SpaceJet. It is now tasked with coordinating with relevant parties to liquidate itself.

Employees will be reassigned to defense-related business work, and the technology they developed will be used in the development of new fighter jets.

MHI had spent around 1 trillion yen ($7.6 billion) on the SpaceJet project but failed for the sixth time to deliver its first jet to an airline company due to inadequate inspection systems and changes in component specifications.

In autumn 2020, when the COVID-19 pandemic was raging, Izumisawa announced the suspension of the aircraft’s development, and its scale was drastically reduced.

Since MHI succeeded in its first SpaceJet test flight at Nagoya Airport in November 2015, it had been fine-tuning the aircraft through around 3,900 hours of test flights.

“If we don’t have (sufficient) technology, we can’t perform test flights,” Izumisawa said at a news conference. “The fact is, we lacked sufficient preparation and knowledge to turn the technology into a business.”

That elusive trump card was a type certificate. 

Manufacturers can obtain the certificate by proving their aircraft meet safety standards, which are tightened every time an aircraft accident occurs.

But MHI lacked the know-how to do so.

“Unfortunately, our company, which had never taken a type certificate, had a lot of things that we didn’t know until we tried, such as work arrangements, how to prepare documents and methods of data maintenance,” Izumisawa said.

Since around 2016, the company tried to make up for its shortcomings by actively hiring foreign engineers with experience at overseas manufacturers.

“We had more options and the workflow became smoother, but we still didn’t reach our ultimate goal,” Izumisawa said.

It is believed that MHI will need to invest around 100 billion yen annually for several more years to obtain the certificate. Instead of being a passenger aircraft boasting the latest technology, the SpaceJet became a has-been. The prolonged development process killed any chance of the project taking off.

MHI said it decided to withdraw from the aviation business since it also needed to revise the SpaceJet’s design to electrify and accommodate sustainable aviation fuels that emit less carbon dioxide than conventional fuels through the reuse of waste cooking oil and other resources, to market the aircraft.

Izumisawa explained it took more than two years to decide to withdraw from the aircraft business after the company suspended the development in October 2020.

“We could not easily reach a conclusion because it was a big project that carried everyone’s expectations,” he said.