Much has been made lately about the Porsche Carerra GT and how even highly trained and respected drivers are afraid to touch it. I don't need to tell you why that's become a big deal all of a sudden. But it does remind me of several discussions I've had with people who happen to be highly trained professionals for a different mode of transportation. Trying to develop something that's faster, better, and perhaps ultimate isn't just an innate desire, it's a sound business case - doing something faster, better and cheaper is the very definition of efficiency and pushing the engineering boundaries is how innovation happens, innovation that can filter down the product line and even into things people least suspect. But even when the engineers give it the OK, even when the bean-counters shake an approving nod, things sometimes don't work out in the real world, and you're just forced to go back to the drawing board. And sometimes, people die in between.
This is in essence what happened with the Corvair, Pinto and other "inherently unsafe" cars - it made great engineering sense but there were just issues that cropped up in the "real world" that were just not seen. Ford, GM et al went back to the drawing board and corrected the issues, but the Corvair and Pinto names in particular remain sullied. Of course, much has already been written about them, and they don't exactly meet the mystique of the Carerra GT. Once upon a time, there was something that costs about as much as a Carerra - and beat the pants off the Carerra in terms of horsepower, raw speed and while we're at it, altitude, all some thirty or so years before the Carerra. And it was made by Mitsubishi.
Continuing an Aviation Heritage
Of course, Mitsubishi is perhaps most famous for supplying the Imperial Japanese war machine in WWII, especially with an assortment of advanced fighters and bombers that met their American counterparts with initial success. That success proved short-lived and in 1946 (or even a good deal before then) practically all aircraft flying over Japan came from American factories painted with American insignia. As with Germany, the Japanese were eager to rebuild their industry and rejoin international commerce. Cold War tensions and the impoverished, beaten state of the former Empire convinced the Allies that re-establishing Japanese industry was a pretty good idea, and factories and engineering consortia were quickly rebuilt and re-established. Just as Honda, Toyota and Nissan wanted to not only merely build cars in Japan again but compete on a global scale, so did shipbuilding, industrial and aerospace conglomerate Mitsubishi - but expanding in the automotive sector would be one step of many. Mitsubishi wanted to establish a firm, international foothold in a sector the Japanese performed rather poorly in even before the war - civilian aerospace.
A Showcase of Innovation and Efficiency
Mitsubishi started design work of a highly advanced small passenger aircraft in the mid-50s. And indeed it was advanced for the time, featuring twin turboprop engines and pressurization, something that was newfangled even for the biggest, latest and fastest airliners (which were still overwhelmingly piston-powered). Just having fancy technology wasn't enough - it also needed to be fast and efficient, driving the requirements not only for a slick and unspoiled fuselage but also for a long and slender wing so thin external wing-tip tanks had to be incorporated in order to hold the aircraft's entire fuel supply. Designated the Mu-2 (pronounced variably, with a few pilots calling it by the Greek letter) it was envisioned to take on a number of roles. As well as serving as a fast corporate transport it was also slated for the Japanese Air Self-Defense Force as a light transport as well as the Japanese Coast Guard in the Search and Rescue role (where it's fast speed was seen as a particularly valuable asset).
The prototype Mu-2As flew in the mid-60s; the design had a stubby fuselage with accommodations for four, not including the pilot and co-pilot. It was powered by two Turbomeca Astazou engines (a popular European design at the time, powering a number of helicopters and aircraft) in a somewhat unorthodox podded arrangement hanging below the wing (as seen in the box art above). The production Mu-2B initially retained the short fuselage but switched to Garrett AiResearch TPE-331s (another very popular fixed-wing and helicopter engine) in a more conventional nacelle installation. It also retained one of the design's defining characteristics, a slim wing with an almost unheard of full-span flap system - the flaps extended from one end of the wing all the way to the other. This allowed the plane to achieve amazing short-field performance without sacrificing actual flight performance but naturally displaced conventional ailerons, so wing spoilers were adopted instead. Similar to the control system of the B-2 Spirit stealth bomber, they were panels that popped up - spoiling the airflow and increasing the drag of the wing which would result in the other wing to rise and therefore facilitate lateral axis rolls (including for coordinated turning). As it turns out, the combination of thin wing and spoiler control setup with high performance would be cited for some difficult flight characteristics and a dangerous reputation for pilots not prepared to handle emergency situations.
Competing in the U.S. Marketplace
Part of Mitsubishi's global strategy was to team up with a Western manufacturer who would assemble Mu-2s in a new, purpose-built Texas facility. That manufacturer was Mooney, a company founded by an aerodynamicst who designed aircraft for a larger manufacturer during WWII and had since established a reputation for highly efficient piston-engine aircraft, a seeming perfect fit for the Mu-2. By the time Chevrolet began rolling out Camaros, Mooney was equally busy pushing Mu-2s out the hangar doors. The type was also adopted back home as a military light transport and SAR aircraft, just as intended, though no other military users would up taking the type.
The high performance was immediately appreciated, but the somewhat cramped interior left something to be desired. Additionally, apparently some pilots reported back some stability issues which was also traced to the short fuselage. The Mu-2G sought to solve both issues with a plug that added two more seats; at the same time, the landing gear was moved from a completely flush arrangement to external pods, also to increase cabin space. Both modifications increased weight and surface area and consequently effected performance, but the Mu-2G was still an undeniably fast machine that remained competitive with the era's bizjets. The Mu-2D, a marginally improved Mu-2B, remained in production alongside the Mu-2G and creating parallel "short" and "long" models of the plane (with the "long" model's landing gear pods being the most immediately distinguishing feature). Both versions progressed through various letter designations with the introduction of higher-power TPE-331s and other improvements. These various models existed mostly as a marketing exercise; the FAA certification only recognized the Mu-2B as the actual production model with various block numbers (-10, 15 etc.) denoting long and short-model developments (with the Mu-2G being certified as the Mu-2B-30). This was done as a result of the mechanisms of FAA bureaucracy; it was simpler and cheaper to get the planes certified as sub-models rather than as distinct models. Eventually the short-bodied and long-bodied models got the marketing names "Solitaire" and "Marquise" appended to them.
Safety Issues Arise
The combination of the plane's high and efficient performance and the design features that made it possible made the aircraft more demanding than even the high-performance single and twin piston-engined aircraft pilots had "graduated" from when stepping up to the Mu-2. Despite common belief, the spoiler system was actually more effective at slow speed than conventional ailerons; nonetheless the aircraft reacted differently in engine-out procedures than other twins (a still rare occurrence given the reliability of turboprops). This was enough to bring about safety concerns and a reputation, undeserved or not, of a high accident rate. The high depreciation rate - in large part due to this reputation - meant that many used Mu-2s ended up in the hands of pilots and business operations ill-equipped and underfunded to provide the proper training and maintenance a complex machine like this requires. This death spiral of depreciation means it's not unheard of for Mu-2s to be found for half a million dollars - expensive for someone used to brokering cars but well under half the price of some contemporary turboprop types like the Beechcraft/Raytheon King Air 200. Consequently, the Mu-2 continues to be a favorite of pilots and businesses lured by incredible speed for bottomed-out prices but unaware of how to safely operate the aircraft and unlikely to spring for the recommended extra training.
In late 2005, a long-body Mu-2 operated by a company specializing in the transport of cashed checks crashed while trying to land at Centennial Airport, just outside of Denver, Colorado, prompting state representative Tom Tancredo to call for an investigation into the aircraft's safety record. The FAA eventually required specialized training for all Mu-2 pilots, starting in 2008. The most recent crash occurred only in the past month, resulting in the fatality of the son of an Oklahoma senator.
Still Flying Safely and Reliably
That said, the Mu-2 still gives safe and reliable service to a number of private and corporate pilots and various government and business contractors. It still serves the Japanese Self-Defense Forces, over 40 years after its introduction. In that time the only other air force to officially acquire the type is the Royal New Zealand Defense Force - in the case of four non-flyable examples used as ground instruction trainers. However, an Mu-2 operator is contracted by the USAF to train air traffic controllers, using the Mu-2's performance to get acclimated to the high speeds of fighter jets. Jalops may be interested in knowing that Saab uses Mu-2s for aeronautical testing. Over the past summer, Mike Laver used a modified Mu-2 to conduct an around-the-world flight, coinciding with the type's 50th anniversary.
The Mu-2 was a highly ambitious aircraft that sought to marry the seemingly incompatible characteristics of high-speed performance and short-field take-off in a highly efficient and economical package. In simply nailing those targets, the Mu-2 was a success. However, like the Corvair, unanticipated situations resulted in many pilots getting into unaccustomed situations and straight into trouble - with more than a few losing their lives in the process. Many will claim that it's a death trap, and just as many will claim its safety record no worse than contemporary types. Whatever the truth, the damage has been done - but the Mu-2 still remains a fascinating aircraft that will never lose its speed.