HondaJet Likely To Be First Of A Family

By George C. LarsonGreensboro, N.C.

As Honda Aircraft begins its sixth year, it is advancing cautiously but relentlessly toward the 2012 scheduled certification of its $4.5 million HA-420 HondaJet.

One pacing item for the airplane’s overall approval is its turbofan engine, the HF-120. A product of GE Honda Aero Engines, the powerplant, equipped with a full authority digital engine control (Fadec), first ran in 2009 and became available for testing on a conformal aircraft for the first time in 2010. Its developers report “steady progress” and expect to receive FAA certification of the 2,095-lb.-thrust engine by year-end.

Although the aircraft program has been delayed by more than a year, the Honda organization appears to be unhurried—paced, no doubt, by the precipitous drop in the global economy and subsequent fall-off in light-jet sales. Meanwhile, it continues to be guarded about the precise health of the order book, which has stood at “over 100” for years now.

The company says aircraft testing has proceeded on schedule, and the conformal aircraft, which first flew in December 2010, recently surpassed its specified 420-kt. true airspeed with a flight to 425 kt. Five aircraft are to be involved in the certification trials.

In an industry familiar with failed startups, a visit to Honda Aircraft’s Greensboro, N.C., headquarters at Piedmont Triad International Airport makes clear very quickly that one of the world’s largest automakers is in the aircraft business for the long haul. The tidy campus, and the offices and workspaces contained therein, are austere and functional, in keeping with the company’s culture. But the amount of investment in evidence and 263,000-sq.-ft. production facility leaves no doubt that Honda is looking beyond this first light jet and toward follow-on products.

CEO Mishimasa Fujino only hints at that scenario, saying, “We cannot sustain a company with one product.” Future models might not feature the HondaJet’s unique engine-over-wing design, he has said, but would likely incorporate concepts that are equally innovative.

The company could have reduced the amount of its bet by outsourcing much of the testing and research on both its original proof-of-concept aircraft and the production conforming models in FAA certification testing now. But Honda decided to do it all in-house, and has not scrimped in the process.

One employee estimates the total investment in buildings and equipment at roughly $100 million, but that seems low. On campus are complete full-scale structural test rigs equipped with dozens of computer-controlled actuators, an advanced system-integration test facility that “flies” a virtually complete airplane as represented by its principal systems, and a fully staffed telemetry facility that can capture 2,500 data streams.

This is not to say that Honda is not availing itself of numerous suppliers from all over the world.

The plant as configured now is planned around assembly of finished components, not ab initio manufacture. Just one example: Hampson Aerospace of Grand Prairie, Texas, a subsidiary of a parent company in the U.K., will provide completed empennage assemblies. And more: GKN Aerospace, a composites fabricator in Tallassee, Ala., supplies fuselage components. Avcorp, a subcontractor in British Columbia, will supply parts of the wing. Garmin’s G3000 avionics will light up the panel.

Aircraft will follow two parallel paths and emerge from the now completed final assembly facility, empty for the moment, then undergo systems installation, completion and painting at Greensboro.

Fujino expresses satisfaction with the Carolina workers, citing “good quality” and “a strong work ethic.”

The workforce is young—tablet notebooks are everywhere—with some notable experienced heads such as Mark Ard, vice president of engineering and a former Gulfstream executive, in key management slots. Fujino notes that just four years ago the company had 40 employees; now the figure is 600-700, with another 200-300 expected in 2012 when production gets under way in earnest.

The light jet’s legend started as Fujino’s vision and a cursory sketch in 1997. The unconventional engine arrangement employing overwing mounting is said to save room in the fuselage for a total of 66 cu. ft. of baggage (9 cu. ft. in a forward compartment and 57 aft of the cabin; it’s not accessible in flight). The combination of drag-reducing natural laminar flow over the wing’s advanced airfoil and the unusually shaped bulbous nose are what Honda says provides up to 30% gains in efficiency over the competition. Efficiency may sell on paper, but Honda appears to be placing more of its marketing bet on cabin appeal. To that end, the Greensboro facility has a complete and well-equipped design studio.

Fujino says the single-pilot-certified version is marketed primarily to individuals and corporations rather than to fleet buyers, but the company portrays a 2+6 seating arrangement as well. The HondaJet faces stiff competition, particularly from Embraer’s Phenom 100 and the M2, Cessna’s new successor to the Citation CJ1+.

Photo Credit: George C. Larson/AWST