Estimated reading time 17 minutes, 58 seconds.
Canadian aviation history was made 31 years ago today when the prototype Canadair Regional Jet (CRJ) made its first flight on May 10, 1991, just four days after the innovative aircraft rolled out before 1,800 employees and guests by the Canadair Group of Bombardier, Inc.
Powered by a pair of General Electric CF34 turbofans, the 50-passenger jet (Serial 7001, C-FCRJ) lifted off Runway 24L from Montreal International Airport (YUL) at 9:45 a.m.
Piloted by Doug Adkins, Canadair’s chief test pilot and director of flight operations, and co-pilot Don Stephen, the inaugural flight lasted one hour and 25 minutes, reaching an altitude of 12,000 feet (3,658 meters) and a top speed of 220 knots.
The one hour and 25-minute flight with landing gear extended was accompanied by a Canadair Challenger 601 chase plane and flew to Canadair’s designated flight test area 40 miles (65 kilometers) north of Montreal.
Upon landing at Canadair’s Cartierville Airport, Adkins stated: “The aircraft flies splendidly. It performed very well throughout all areas of the flight envelope we explored. Airline crews and their passengers are going to love the Canadair Regional Jet’s quiet cabin and high cruise speed.”
The CRJ took off for a second flight in the late afternoon, and was scheduled to fly up to 35,000 ft (10,668 m) as the crew continued examining the flight envelope.
On July 16, the prototype relocated to the joint flight test center in Wichita, Kansas — created when Bombardier bought Learjet. The second prototype flew on Aug. 2, followed by a third used for function and reliability testing.
Canadair organized a lavish rollout event on May 6 for its customers, suppliers, government leaders, the media and its employees at the new Challenger and Canadair Regional Jet factory — built just east of the Air Canada maintenance center in the infield of Dorval airport.
The VIP guests at the time included Prime Minister Brian Mulroney, Quebec Premier Robert Bourassa, Bombardier chairman Laurent Beaudoin, Canadair president Bob Brown, and Canadair Regional Jet Division president Robert Wohl.
The aviation reporters in attendance — including myself — had a strong sense that Canada was about to enter a brand-new commercial aviation market. But there was also a lot of uncertainty about whether Canadair would be successful, since the CRJ cost considerably more than a 50-seat turboprop.
The Canadair Regional Jet Series 100 aircraft was launched on March 31, 1989, with orders for 56 aircraft and six options. One of those original customers was DLT of Cologne, Germany, which in March 1992 was renamed Lufthansa CityLine and then became a wholly owned subsidiary of Lufthansa in 1993.
The CRJ capitalized on the increased competition between major airlines at the federal level, the range limitations of turboprops, a public preference for turbofan aircraft, and the lower cost of developing an airliner based on an existing business jet (CL- 600 type certificate) — rather than investing hundreds of millions of dollars in a clean sheet aircraft design.
The standard interior configuration included two-by-two seating with a comfortable 31-inch (78.7 centimeter) pitch separated by a central aisle; six-foot (1.83-m) stand-up headroom; a forward galley; rear baggage compartment; and a rear lavatory.
The sales effort was greatly enhanced in March 1992 when Bombardier completed its acquisition of de Havilland Canada from Boeing Commercial Aircraft, and in July formed Bombardier Regional Aircraft Division which was headquartered in Toronto.
The aircraft was certified by Transport Canada on July 31, 1992, then by JAA (now EASA) on Jan. 15, 1993, followed by FAA certification on July 21, 1993.
Entry into Service
The first 50-seat Bombardier CRJ100 aircraft was handed over to Lufthansa CityLine in October 1992, and entered revenue service between Frankfurt and Barcelona on Nov. 2 — marking an exciting new chapter in aviation history.
In the CRJ’s first 100 days in airline service, the aircraft flew 1,237 flights with 99 percent dispatch reliability — a remarkable achievement for a brand-new aircraft. Even then, new aircraft consumed an average of eight percent less fuel than originally forecast, resulting in significant annual cost savings.
The 50-seat CRJ100 aircraft served Lufthansa’s hubs in Frankfurt, Munich, Dusseldorf, and Hamburg, serving cities in Western Europe, replacing Fokker 50 turboprops and later developed new markets. The changing political landscape following the end of the Cold War saw Lufthansa’s CRJ service also extended eastward to new cities in Eastern Europe, Russia, and the Commonwealth of Independent States.
The first customers for the 50-seat CRJ in the United States were Comair Airlines and Skywest Airlines, two independent regional airlines that were part of the Delta Connection franchise.
Comair placed its initial order for 20 CRJ100 aircraft on Oct. 1, 1991, and its first aircraft entered scheduled service on June 1, 1993, between Delta’s Cincinnati hub and Toronto.
Skywest was the first U.S. airline to commit to the CRJ, before the program was officially launched in 1989. It later firmed up orders for 10 aircraft, the first of which entered service from its hub at Salt Lake City, Utah, on March 24, 1994.
Air Canada placed an order for CRJs to take full advantage of the Canada-U.S. “open skies” agreement. It aggressively used the CRJ to launch new trans-border routes from its major hubs to new U.S. cities. The airline’s existing narrow-body jets were too large to make service economically viable, and the distances made turboprops impractical.
Once introduced, CRJs fulfilled a number of different kinds of passengers. They replaced turboprops flying longer stage lengths, replaced 100 seat single-aisle jets on routes that required more frequencies, and supplemented mainline jet service at off peak times of the day.
The CRJ allowed regional airlines to rapidly expand their scope of operations, since a RJ could fly routes that were three times longer than a turboprop, providing smaller communities with more flight options – which continues to this day.
Bombardier had the regional jet market on its own until late 1996, when the first 50-seat Embraer ERJ145 was delivered to ExpressJet Airlines (then the regional division of Continental Airlines flying as Continental Express).
Smaller regional jet competitors were also introduced (Embraer ERJ135 and ERJ140 and Fairchild Dornier 328JET), but Bombardier resisted pressure to shrink the 50-seat CRJ. The company instead opted to deliver CRJs with 40- and 44-seat interiors to specific airlines to meet “scope clause” restrictions (that could be upgraded to 50 seats at a later date with a Service Bulletin).
The CRJ Family
Following on the tremendous success of the 50-seat CRJ, Bombardier launched development of the 70-seat CRJ700 in 1997 and the 86-seat CRJ900 in 2000. True to promise, the CRJ aircraft family proved to be a game changer, revolutionizing air travel for passengers, airlines, and communities throughout the world.
The CRJ700 (and later CRJ900) offered an improved passenger experience. The major interior changes included lowering the floor, raising the window position to improve visibility, and shifting the position of the overhead bins to increase carry-on baggage capacity.
The CRJ700 brought a significant change to the aerodynamic design of the CRJ family, since it introduced leading edge devices – slats – to improve airfield performance. This allowed the larger and heavier CRJ700 to serve the same airports at the CRJ200, and under certain circumstances even shorter runways.
The General Electric CF34s used on the CRJ700 had 50 percent more thrust than the smaller aircraft’s engine, which allowed the aircraft to cruise at higher altitudes to achieve better performance and fuel economy.
Although the CRJ100/200 and CRJ700 looked similar, there was very little structural commonality between the 50- and 70-seat CRJ models — although they shared an identical cockpit and similar flying characteristics to achieve a common type rating / common crew qualification.
New Production Facility
The CRJ700 also introduced a new level of international collaboration. The wing, forward fuselage, rudder, and flight surfaces were designed and are produced by Bombardier in Montreal, while the mid-fuselage was designed and is produced by Bombardier’s Northern Ireland Shorts operation in Belfast.
CRJ700 production moved from Bombardier’s plant at Montreal-Pierre Elliot Trudeau Airport to the new $170 million CRJ700 / CRJ900 final assembly plant at Montreal Mirabel Airport, which officially opened on Oct. 22, 2001.
The largest member of the family was the 100-seat CRJ1000 NextGen. Construction of prototype aircraft began in July 2007, and it made its first flight at Mirabel Airport on Sept. 2, 2008.
The NextGen cabin interior introduced with the CRJ1000 was also introduced on the CRJ700 NextGen and CRJ900 NextGen. The interior was designed to create the look and feel of a larger aircraft, and the enlarged windows and LED lighting together created a bright and welcoming cabin. The design and size of the overhead bins were increased to accommodate IATA Standard Roller Bags (two per bin), increasing the stowage by nearly 27 percent.
As fuel prices increased through 2008, airlines shifted services from 50-seat CRJ200s to larger capacity CRJ700s and CRJ900s where traffic was sufficient to take advantage of their aircraft’s lower seat mile costs.
The last CRJ200 delivery to an airline took place in 2007, and the last delivery off the CRJ production line actually occurred in 2012 when the last Challenger 850 business jet was delivered to a customer.
Similarly, mainline carriers downsized routes flown by older generation single-aisle aircraft to more fuel-efficient CRJ700s and CRJ900s, which offer a seven- to 15-percent operating cost advantage over its direct competitors, and up to a 30 percent advantage over older competitors.
As 50-seat CRJs were withdrawn from routes in North America and Europe, many of these aircraft migrated to emerging markets where air travel was expanding in step with strong economic growth.
During the development of the Bombardier C Series, all-composite Learjet 85, and Global 7000, it’s well known that the CRJ and Dash 8 (produced by Bombardier Commercial Aircraft) were starved of investment, which allowed Embraer to capture significant market share.
All totaled, 2,023 CRJ aircraft models rolled off the final assembly lines at Dorval and Mirabel airport between 1991 and 2021 — 96 percent of which were for airlines, and about four percent were sold by Bombardier Business Aircraft as their own product (CRJ Special Edition, Challenger 850 and 870).
This CRJ legacy includes 1,113 50-seat CRJ100/200/440 aircraft, 347 CRJ700s, 499 CRJ900s, and 64 CRJ1000s.
The CRJ program was acquired by MHI RJ Aviation of Montreal on June 1, 2019, with product support now provided by a Canadian division of Mitsubishi Heavy Industries of Japan. At the time of the acquisition, some 15 CRJ900s were still on order to be filled.
The very last CRJ – a CRJ900LR (serial 15499) — rolled off the assembly line at Mirabel Airport and was delivered on Feb. 26, 2021, to Skywest for operation on behalf of Delta Air Lines — with the registration N840SK.
Today, CRJ continues to play a strong role in the air transport industry, since it is one of the few regional aircraft that meets the scope clause requirements in the U.S. airline industry, which limit the seat capacity (max 76 seats) and maximum takeoff weight of aircraft flown by regional airlines (which currently preclude the heavier Embraer E175C2 and MHI SpaceJet 100).
MHI RJ now provides support to more than 1,000 CRJs still in service from customer support facilities in Montreal and Toronto and major regional aircraft MRO facilities in Bridgeport, West Virginia, and Tucson, Arizona.
Even among larger commercial aircraft companies, the CRJ family ranks as the fourth all-time most produced commercial jetliner aircraft family, after the Airbus A320, Boeing 737, and Boeing 727 jetliner families.
The CRJ represents a major success story that employed tens of thousands of Canadians over its 30+ year production life.