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 GE Honda CEO Steven Shaknaitis on the H120 engine and the JV’s determination to become a multi-engine venture

Q: The Honda-GE joint venture has been going a long time. I imagine it is very gratifying to finally see your engine, the H120, being on the production line with sales set to ramp up in 2017.

A: Well, we are now finally in service, with 18 aircraft flying our engines out there and plenty more to come. The joint venture (JV) with Honda started way back in October 2004 and is now stronger than ever. Here at GE Honda we have long said that we want to be a multiple applications mission, with multiple products. As such we have been studying the markets, visiting other airframe companies and really trying to envisage the future for light jets. Through all this we see the JV continuing to grow in strength.

Q: GE obviously brings deep experience in turbojet engines to the table. What does Honda bring to the party, besides the airframe and what, at the time, was an entirely unknown light turbofan engine?

A: Well, Honda obviously had the HF118 small turbofan engine, which was a Honda only design. It was a 1,800 pound-thrust engine which they put many years and millions of dollars into developing. The HF118 was designed specifically with the requirements of the light jet market in mind. It has to be affordable, light, fuel efficient, reliable and deliver a low cost of ownership. The two major competitors to a new engine like the HF118 in this market are Williams, with the FJ44 and FJ33 and Pratt & Whitney Canada, with the PW600 series engine. The sub-3,000 pound thrust market was entirely new for GE at the time and our engineers spent a long time evaluating the HF118 before we went into the JV.

Honda was obviously very interested in our production and after-market support capabilities, along with our long history of expertise in jet engines. But what was absolutely key for them was GE’s deep experience in walking jet engines through the certification process, which was a completely new field for them. So, the JV had their prowess in the sub-2,000 pound turbofan class plus their very strong manufacturing expertise.

Honda make a large range of products in mass quantities, to a very high standard, all over the world. They have a state-of-the-art advanced manufacturing and assembly facility in Burlington, North Carolina, where we do all the assembly testing and overhauling of the HF120. This really is one of the nicer facilities in the world. So they own the assembly and test portions of the HF120, which we carry out in their facility.

The thing to bear in mind is that GE is the largest jet engine manufacturer in the world, but we make something like 5,000 engines a year. Honda makes 23 million engines a year. And they have the process and production skills that go along with those kinds of numbers.

Q: When you took over the leadership of the JV in 2014 when Terry Sharp retired, what were your plans?

A: I have a deep experience of what it takes to build and maintain a global support and after-market network around engines in service. I came over to the JV from GE’s G90 programme and the thinking there was that once the HF120 got to certification in December 2013, the next step was to build a first-class product support and services model around the engine. We made this a priority and we now have an excellent third-party authorised support network.

Around a year ago, Jun Yanada joined from Honda as Executive Vice President of GE Honda. Jun is a 33-year veteran of Honda, and has much the same depth of career with them that I have with GE. His presence strengthens our management team and he has considerable experience in running various subsidiaries for Honda. We’re now in a very interesting phase with the H120. Certification is now a done deal and we are building a services fleet business out there.

So the task for Jun and myself is to keep everything progressing smoothly and to look at where we are going to be investing in the future. We have a new engine on the drawing board. We’ve talked to everyone in the industry, all the airframe manufacturers and operators, and collected a lot of input. Now we’re in the process of starting to architecture the cycle, which means deciding how many stages the turbine is going to have and so on. We have a Board meeting coming up where we’ll be presenting our findings, and then we’ll make a decision on what to do. We want to pick the right technology and the right architecture for the engine, which we expect to be in the 3,000 to 4,000 pound thrust range. The whole idea is to build an engine that has tremendous performance and that is clearly superior to anything out there on the market today. If we are going to build it, it has to be really good and it has to have a launch customer. We’re not going to give the project the go-ahead until we are sure we have a strong case.

The important thing is that we have complete backing from both our parent companies. We had a key board meeting in May this year, which cleared the way for us to move to the next phase in our goal of being a multi-product company, so that was an important milestone for us. It has been an issue for us being a small JV standing beside two giant parent companies, so we’re giving a lot of thought to our branding and how we carve out a niche for ourselves as an engine and support OEM.

Q: Now that the H118 has become the H120 and is flying on the HondaJet, with, potentially, sales about to ramp, what are the clear advantages you see for this engine over the competition?

A: The compressor is unique, for a start. We see a better pressure ratio coming from it than any of the competition can produce. We have a 3D designed fan blisk, which is one of the really strong features as well. You can’t have a great core without this. The actual bypass ratio of the engine will be much the same as the H118, at around 2.9, just under a 3 to 1 ratio. By comparison a G90 engine for a large commercial airliner is about a 9 to 1 ratio and a supersonic fighter jet has a very small ratio, so 2.9 is a nice size for a light jet.

Our thinking for the next engine, where we are going up to say 4,000 pounds of thrust, is a bypass ratio of about 3.5 to 4. However, the really key design point for us is to produce an engine that can perform hot and high, and this is one of the really critical distinguishing features of the HF120. It does hot and high better than any of the competition. It is comfortable with 40,000 feet and still has room to climb, whereas they are maxing out at about 39,000 feet.

This is one of the features that we know will make it very attractive to other airframers besides Honda. People who like to fly fast in light jets like to get to cruise altitude as fast as they can, since that is where you get the best performance numbers in terms of fuel consumption and time to destination. So being the fastest engine around is huge, and being able to climb really fast is also critical. We have the best climb rate and the highest top speed in our class. The engine is certified to 46,000 feet though the HondaJet has a ceiling of 43,000 feet. So we have room there for another airframe manufacturer if they want more height.

Q: What kind of feedback are yougetting from owners now that the aircraftis out there?

A: The comments and feedback from owners have been and are extremely positive. They love the HondaJet and the engine definitely plays its part, not just in speed and rate of climb, but in terms of low cabin noise and low vibration. And HondaJet’s OTW positioning of the engine really helps the feel in the cabin too, plus giving the jet tremendous ramp appeal.

So far, too, we have had no engine removals and no issues. It is early days, but you have to remember that the HondaJet has flown really long distance, multiple-dhop journeys already, including going from the US to Japan on a demonstration trip, and to EBACE in Geneva last year. Plus, it toured Latin America. So it has racked up the hours and everything is good.

Q: Where is breakeven in all this,in terms of the number of engines that need to be sold?

A: Both GE and Honda have invested very significantly in the development of this engine, so we have to sell a lot of engines to break even. However, this is not something we are fixated on. Right now our goals are to ensure we build out a world-class support infrastructure for the engine and HondaJet, and that we move forward on our plans to be a multi-product JV. We are in this to build a sustainable business that sells these aircraft and engines for at least the next two decades, and we are very focused on ensuring a smooth entry into service as sales ramp up.

Right now we have spare engines, parts and tools for our support infrastructure and great partners out there. HondaJet owners are high net worth people and they expect a commensurate level of support and service. They want to be able to fly when they need to, and we are there to ensure that they can.

Q: What are the criteria for signing up third-party ASPs for your global support infrastructure?

A: We have a checklist or process to go through to bring a new ASP on board and we are good at doing this. It works through everything from training the ASP’s team to parts. We just basically roll this process and keep a very tight grip on it and make sure that everyone is ready to go as HondaJets start being sold into their region and owners outside the region start travelling into it. We’ve got our customer support people trained and ready and we are analysing the flight data on the various HondaJets as it comes in. We’ve been practising engine overhaul techniques down in Burlington as well. So far, all the signs are good.

To recap, I believe we have five attributes that put the HF120 above the competition. These are our high cruise speed, the fast climb rate, better life cycle costs thanks to our reduced fuel burn, the ability to do hot and high, and finally, the fact that we have the quietest cabin in the light jets class.”

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