Mitsubishi taking flight in Seattle with new engineering center

SEATTLE — Most of the cubicles in Mitsubishi Aircraft Corp.’s new engineering center are still empty, some are still being assembled. Pieces of paper with handwritten room numbers are taped outside offices and on cubicles.

While the center is a work in progress, it is an important step in Washington’s aerospace industry efforts to ease its dependence on the Boeing Co.

Mitsubishi’s presence in the state also is helping its partner here, AeroTEC, rapidly expand.

The Seattle-based aerospace engineering company will provide more than half of the roughly 350 jobs Mitsubishi’s flight test program will bring to the state. The program is for the Mitsubishi’s new MRJ 90 regional jetliner.

The engineering office in Seattle’s industrial SoDo neighborhood will support about 150 jobs — 50 Mitsubishi engineers and 100 with AeroTEC.

The flight tests will be based at a new facility in Moses Lake, and will need about 200 workers, most with AeroTEC. Those jobs include engineers and aircraft maintenance mechanics.

AeroTEC, which specializes in flight testing, development engineering and certification work, has grown at a dizzying pace, said Lee Human, the company’s president and cofounder.

It began 2015 with about 20 workers.

“We’ve already doubled the size of the company this year, and we plan to do that again by the end of the year,” he said.

That growth means the company can better compete for testing and certification work around the world, he said.

Three Washington aerospace suppliers already are working on Mitsubishi’s MRJ program.

Zodiac Aerospace’s Bellingham operation provides parts for the passenger cabins.

Two Everett-area companies are on the program. AvtechTyee supplies the phones used by flight attendants, and Esterline’s Korry Electronics provides overhead control panels used in the jet’s cockpit.

“I expect more and more business in the Seattle area” in the future, said Nobuo Kishi, a senior executive vice president at Mitsubishi Aircraft Corporation.

Washington officials approached Mitsubishi’s parent company, Mitsubishi Heavy Industries, at the Farnborough International Airshow in 2012 about setting up an assembly line here for its work as a Boeing 787 supplier.

That didn’t happen. But the MRJ program was looking for a location to do flight testing, said Alex Pietsch, director of the state’s Office of Aerospace.

Japan’s airspace is extremely crowded and quickly bumps into airspace contested by China.

The MRJ 90 is the first commercial airplane built in Japan since 1962. The 88-seat jetliner is trying to find space in the regional jet market, which is currently split between Canada’s Bombardier and Brazil’s Embraer.

It already is two years behind schedule. First flight in Japan is scheduled for October.

The schedule for starting flight tests at Moses Lake in 2016 has been moved back from first quarter to second quarter, the company announced Monday.

So far, the airplane’s six customers have placed 223 firm orders and have options to buy another 184. But Mitsubishi has not received a firm order since January, when Air Mandalay put in six firm orders and options to buy another four.

The company has not received any orders for the smaller MRJ 70, which is not in production — and might never be, if a market can’t be found.

Dan Catchpole: 425-339-3454; dcatchpole@heraldnet.com.

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