Making progress

No post image

The closing months of 2013 saw Honda achieving a number of significant milestones as its revolutionary new light jet heads towards achieving FAA type certification and the delivery of the first production aircraft to customers. Pre-orders already run to over 100 aircraft.

As Honda Aircraft Company President and CEO Michimasa Fujino points out, not only did Honda’s joint venture with GE on the aircraft’s power plant, the HF120 turbofan, finally get awarded the US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) Part 33 Certificate, the FAA also issued the first Type Inspection Authorisation (TIA) certificate for the jet and certified Honda Aircraft Company’s customer service facility at Greensboro, North Carolina, as a Part 145 repair station.

All three of these milestones mark critical moments or phases in the jet’s progress. The certification of the HF120 proved to be a bumpier ride than Honda might have wished. The 2,095lb-thrust, jointly designed Honda GE engine had trouble passing its ice ingestion tests and delayed things for a year but design changes solved things to the FAA’s satisfaction in December 2013. Commenting on the engine’s achievement, GE Honda president Terry Sharp told the press: “This is just the beginning for our team, which has worked tirelessly to demonstrate the technologies in our engine.”

It was always hugely ambitious for Honda to seek to enter the light jet market with both a new aircraft design and a new engine. However, as Fujino has pointed out time and time again, engines of all descriptions are part of Honda’s DNA, so it was natural for the Group to wish to crown its entry into the aviation sector with a complete offering, comprising aircraft and engine. The importance of the TIA is quite simply that it marks the fact that HondaJet is now ready to begin the final stage of certification flight testing. It signifies that the jet meets type design requirements and clears the way for FAA pilots to prepare for onboard flight tests leading up to certification. Fujino emphasises that Honda Aircraft is now building the first jets for delivery to customers, and that the company fully expects to start deliveries just as soon as certification is granted.

Gaining FAA recognition as a Part 145 Repair Station is just as essential. It tells prospective customers and new owners waiting for aircraft deliveries that Honda is on track with its plans to build out a global service network. “Today we have five authorised HondaJet service centres in the US, one in Canada, three in Europe and one in Mexico,” Fujino says. Honda Aircraft Company’s dealer network in the US and Europe covers 80% of the world’s business jet market. This is a company that likes the 20-year view and builds its plans accordingly. Fujino probably has a spreadsheet somewhere that already anticipates the rise and rise of a light jets market across Asia. But there’s no hurry. A company that can take 20 years to bring a new jet to market is well schooled in patience.

For now, the task is for Honda Aircraft to make the transition from a design and development company to a production company, and that transition is in full swing. We have more than 900 people working now at our world headquarters in Greensboro, NC, with all the functions, from engineering to sales and customer support. Everything is done in-house,” he says. Honda knows that its major competitors will be Embraer and Cessna, but it can also expect plenty of competition from Beechcraft’s King Air 350i twin engine turboprop, which, while it costs almost $1 million more, can take nine passengers and a lot more baggage than the HondaJet, and offers a similar luxury business class interior. Another major competitor is bound to be the Pilatus 24, which is set to be almost double the price, at $8.9 million, and seats 6-8 passengers in an executive configuration. At $4.95 million, Nextant’s 400XTi very light jet also comes into consideration, with its business executive interior.

According to Fujino, the target is to deliver four to five aircraft in the first quarter of 2015, as soon as certification is achieved, and to gradually ramp up quarterly production numbers from there until Honda is producing up to 100 aircraft a year, assuming sales warrant that level of production. “HondaJet has a lot of advanced technology that exceeds that offered by current business jets, so my expectation is that the life of the jet will be much longer than is traditional in the light jet category. Plus we are committed to deploying continuous incremental improvements to the aircraft to maximise the attractiveness and lengthen the life span of this initial model.”

So how big is the global light jet market? Fujino points out that there are a number of analyses which show that at current performance and fuel efficiencies the light jet market should generate around 300 new unit sales per year. His and Honda’s hope is that by introducing a more attractive jet with a lower total cost operating life cycle, Honda will be able to accelerate demand and stimulate increased use of light jets by business executives. A huge percentage of the business aviation flights within North America, for example, are very well suited to the HondaJet’s range and take-off and landing capabilities. “It seems clear to me that if we could drive down costs, and all the signs are that we can, then we will see an exponential increase in demand for the light jet sector,” Fujino comments.

Clearly Honda and any light jet manufacturer would love to see the fortunes of air taxi services improve, since that would give them the option of selling larger numbers of their jets at a stroke, as it were. However, Fujino takes a very realistic attitude to this. “The economics of the model at present do not particularly favour air taxi suppliers, which is why we have seen many start-ups struggle in this space. As more and more people become convinced of the virtues of the light jet and wake up to the benefits of business jet travel, then we will see the fortunes of air taxi services improving, and that will help the whole market,” he comments.

For the next few years, the strongest customer segments for HondaJet are going to be the pilot-enthusiast, probably someone who is upgrading from a turboprop aircraft, and owner-pilots with small to medium-sized businesses, who need to travel frequently to often far-flung destinations, many of which are not readily reachable by scheduled airline without additional lengthy car trips to and from mainstream airports that are a long drive away from the executive’s target destination. The HondaJet can fly into 4,000-foot runways, which covers around 80% of US airports. On a 4,000-foot runway the pilot has about 67% more landing space at his/her disposal than the aircraft actually needs, Fujino notes.

Honda has worked closely with Garmin on the avionics. “For the HondaJet, the primary goal for the cockpit design was to achieve a high degree of flight safety while utilising the design and production efficiencies gained by Honda over the years through its automotive design experience,” Fujino says. The idea was to achieve a high degree of integration between cockpit functionality, human factors and interior aesthetics. When design started on the HondaJet back in the 1990s, cockpit and avionics systems on light jets were not very well integrated and relied heavily on conventional instruments. Honda Aircraft and Garmin pioneered the first generation Garmin 1000 for the proof-of-concept HondaJet. The company’s FAA-conforming flight test fleet use the Garmin 3000 system with all the HondaJet control systems integrated into the avionics with easy touch screen display. Three 14-inch landscape format displays make up the flight deck, and all the information required by the pilot, from flight and engine instrumentation, to navigation, communication, terrain mapping, traffic and weather data are all presented via the dual PFDs and the single MFD. Owners will have an optional synthetic vision capability as well.

As Fujino notes, the transition from research and design to production and sales is a huge one for Honda to undertake, but things are going well. “We started with 30 to 40 engineers and we now have more than 900 people, but we are all united by a single vision and a common goal, to make HondaJet the market leader in its class,” Fujino concludes.