If you had to design a new airplane from scratch, what features would you give it?

That was the question facing Mitsubishi Heavy Industries in the late 1950s. Customers wanted an aircraft that was fast, fuel-efficient, and reliable. They also wanted a plane that could take off and land on short, unpaved runways at small airports.

Mitsubishi responded by engineering one of the most innovative airplanes ever made: the Mitsubishi MU-2.

“It’s one of my favorite airplanes,” says Barrington. “It’s a speed demon, but it’s also one of the most efficient airplanes out there.”

Photo by Jenny Nichols
Photo by Jenny Nichols

 
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What makes the MU-2 so amazing?

In the 1950s, most turboprop manufacturers were taking airplanes built for jet engines and hanging propeller engines off them instead. Mitsubishi decided to try something different. They decided to design a turbine-powered business airplane from the ground up.

It wasn’t easy. Customers wanted speed and good short-field performance. In the physics of aviation, this presented a paradox: high cruise speed requires a small wing area; having sufficient lift for low speed landings requires a large wing area.

To solve this puzzle, the engineers added double-slotted flaps along the length of the MU-2’s wings. When deployed, the flaps made the wings larger, giving the MU-2 high lift for low-altitude, low-speed operations. When retracted, they made the wings smaller to optimize high-speed performance at altitude.

Drawing by Oliver Uberti
Drawing by Oliver Uberti

Since full-span flaps left no room for ailerons on the wing’s trailing edge, Mitsubishi’s engineers added spoilers for roll control (above). The Flying Classroom also uses spoilers instead of ailerons, which according to Barrington, makes the MU-2 “Inspiration III’s ancestor.”

There were other design challenges, too. On the inside, the MU-2’s cabin had to feel more like an executive lounge than a cargo plane. On the outside, the aircraft needed a rugged landing gear and high wing design to withstand landings on unpaved airstrips.

In the end, many believe Mitsubishi pulled off an engineering miracle. They had produced a turboprop that flew like a jet—only better. Unlike a traditional jet, the MU-2 didn't have to fly at high altitudes to get fuel efficiency at high speeds. Its engines were half the price of jet engines. Plus, they lasted longer, required less maintenance, and burned 60% less fuel.

Despite all these innovations, demand for turboprops began to wane in the early 1980s. In 1986, Mitsubishi stopped making them. For most aircraft, that would have been the kiss of death. Not for the MU-2. Nearly thirty years after Mitsubishi stopped production, 281 of the 704 MU-2’s ever built are still flying.

“Owners love them,” says Pat Cannon, president of Turbine Aircraft Services in Dallas, Texas. “They pamper them like classic cars but use them like the family station wagon. You can just load it up and go.”
 
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Last July, the Flying Classroom visited Pat at his office at Addison Executive Airport to see these incredible machines and to learn about careers in aircraft maintenance. As you’ll see in the video above, Barrington installed a propeller. Then he took it for a test flight.

Photo by Oliver Uberti

Pat tests each new install by performing an “engine shutdown.” In other words, he stops the engine in mid-air. As unsettling as that sounds, I assure you it was far more unsettling to witness. Imagine you are sitting in the cabin, cruising along at 300mph, staring out the window, and then suddenly you watch one of the two propellers that are supposedly keeping you aloft stop spinning.

In the cockpit, Pat and Barrington remained unfazed. “I’ve performed 50-60 single engine landings in my life,” said Pat. “We can fly faster on one engine than most props with two engines. It’s a non-event.”

To this passenger, that was a bit of an understatement. Nevertheless, we survived.

We continued on to Decatur Jet Center, where videographer Jenny Nichols and I got out to watch Barrington and Pat perform maneuvers. We set up our cameras on the side of the runway. Then we watched with a mix of awe and terror as they rumbled toward us and took off directly over our heads.

In the summer haze, the MU-2 disappeared out of sight. Somewhere in the distance, Barrington was circling around, preparing to perform an insanely low pass (below).

You could hear the propellers whirring.