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Sixty years after the founding of its parent company- Honda stands poised at the runway threshold- in the final stages of a lengthy pre-flight in preparation to join the crowded skies of business aviation. And in the company’s deliberative approach to entering aviation- you can sense the potential for Honda Aircraft and Honda Aero to set a new standard in business aircraft in much the same way the Honda Motor Co.- Ltd. helped ...

Dave Higdon   |   1st June 2008
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Dave Higdon Dave Higdon

Dave Higdon writes about aviation from his base in Wichita Kansas. During three decades in...
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Honda Aircraft:
Preparing to make its mark on aviation.

Sixty years after the founding of its parent company- Honda stands poised at the runway threshold- in the final stages of a lengthy pre-flight in preparation to join the crowded skies of business aviation. And in the company’s deliberative approach to entering aviation- you can sense the potential for Honda Aircraft and Honda Aero to set a new standard in business aircraft in much the same way the Honda Motor Co.- Ltd. helped revolutionize the motorcycle and auto communities- and boating and off-road worlds – by starting small.

Having established itself in nearly every field that employs reciprocating internal-combustion engines- however- Honda’s launch into aviation with a small jet has been no small feat.
First the company spent untold monies and about two decades cautiously- methodically focusing its engine and manufacturing expertise on the development of a new form of small turbofan. The result of that work first flew on a purpose-built Honda development aircraft on December 16- 2003. The engine was the HF 118- the airframe the HA-420. At that moment- the company had already been investing in powerplant and airframe development for nearly 15 years.

A lot’s happened since the first of several seminal moments in the annals of Honda’s aviation aspirations leaving a lot less to go before this giant of transportation becomes an officially blessed and fully vested member of the general aviation community. Let’s look at the progress of the past few years and what remains ahead of the scheduled service entry in less than two years.

How This Started…
The company sought to create a product that could claim a quantum leap in specific fuel consumption- simplicity and power for its size - and the data from its early tests must have been compelling.

Sporting a new fan design- an advanced two-stage compressor- two-stage power turbine- and precisely designed combustor yielded a prototype HF 118 that developed nearly 800 lbst at a weight well below 400 pounds. The company applied lessons it learned in sophisticated engine-control systems for street autos and race cars to produce a smaller- lighter FADEC system with no mechanical parts. To test this new engine- though- Honda Aero - the company that brought forward the engine - and its parent decided to create an airframe suitable to the power and mission of the new engine – fulfilling the potential of its multiple new approaches. Honda started work on airframe design and advanced aerodynamics in parallel with its launch into engine R&D in 1986.

Honda’s move into aviation was one of the most-anticipated- worst-kept “secret” projects in aviation annals – under wraps but never completely denied for years. Industry insiders knew of Honda’s engine development work even if they knew little to nothing about the details. However- work the company did in partnership with Mississippi State University on a composite-body aircraft between 1993 and 1996 helped advance the company’s ambitions.

The below-the-radar nature of Honda’s efforts largely evaporated in 2001 when the company established a U.S. base in North Carolina to pursue development- certification and production of an engine. Even with a public presence- details on Honda’s efforts were few - until it began to hire staff to support building an airplane on which the new engine would debut. Information started tumbling out more progressively after that.

So it was that the public heard from Honda when the engine passed its ground-test runs- then started taxi testing its new airframe with its new engines. And already Honda had flown prototype versions of its new engine on a variety of test-bed aircraft. But the world learned how committed Honda was to aviation with the company’s announcement of the successful first flight of its new engine – on an all-new airplane of the company’s own creation.

Over the following three years- Honda Aircraft took shape- established a base for developing and building the aircraft- entered an alliance with engine giant GE to develop- certificate and market a second engine- the HF-120 for the HondaJet- and started construction of a plant to build the engines.

In typical fashion- Honda applied some new ideas and new techniques to both the airframe and the powerplant. At the same time- the company embraced some of the best elements of today’s aircraft production systems.

The HondaJet
The most-visible aspect of this program- naturally- is the sleek- svelte HondaJet itself. The HondaJet deserves to be known as the full composite aircraft that it is – full composite- as in its construction is a composite of several materials and technologies. The fuselage employs carbon-fiber-honeycomb-sandwich construction. Using this material provides a structure that’s lighter- stronger- smoother and more spacious than the same structure rendered in aluminum – the very traits that prompted Hawker Beechcraft to adopt the same approach for the Premier I and the Hawker 4000. For the wing and empennage structures- Honda engineers tapped good old aluminum – but employed some innovative new techniques such as milling structural support for the wing skins directly into the inside of those skins- in pursuit of a lighter- stronger and smoother wing than available from more conventional techniques.

In a departure from the typical twin jet- Honda designed and perfected a distinctive engine mount for its jet- one which employs pylons mounted atop and toward the aft edge of the wings- spaced about as close to the fuselage as they would be on a typical jet with aft fuselage-mounted engines. Several Soviet-era aircraft also employed top-of-the-wing pylons to carry engines but earlier approaches always seemed to leave some issues only partly solved- such as drag- fuselage-engine-mount interference and airflow at high angles of attack.

The aft fuselage sports shallow sculpting that reflects the designers use of the Area Rule for reducing drag even further than removing the pylons alone does. Honda even applied laminar-flow design to the nose of the aircraft- giving it an unusual look. Standing outside the HondaJet- the composite fuselage appears smaller than other jets of its class. Stepping inside- though- is an entirely different matter. It is larger than you might expect- thanks to the absence of the engine-pylon carrythrough structure needed on jets with aft-fuselage-mounted engines. Indeed- the cabin is longer inside than you’d find in another small jet with a fuselage of about the same length. The aircraft made its public debut at the 2005 EAA AirVenture Oshkosh in Wisconsin- visiting briefly and performing some crowd-teasing fly-bys. The next year- the HondaJet was back- with its own large exhibit where tens of thousands of people ogled the aircraft. But it was at the 2006 Oshkosh gathering where Honda executives confirmed plans to commercially launch what had previously been an extensive research and development exercise.

Despite all the attention and success- however- it wasn’t until October 2006 that the Honda Aircraft Co. made its formal bow into aviation and began taking deposits and penning orders for the distinctively different little jet. To date- the company claims more than 100 orders and growing. But as others have learned most pointedly- simply fielding an innovative aircraft is only part of entering aviation.

Where the HondaJet stands today
Thus was born a Very Light Jet so well conceived and executed that it provided a platform for Honda Aircraft to launch an all-new business line- Honda Aircraft- the entity which formally offered the new jet at the October 2006 NBAA meeting in Orlando. Since that show-stopping introduction in 2006- Honda Aircraft has moved deliberately and effectively toward its goal of conquering the sky.

First- it gained a major ally in GE- which entered an arrangement with Honda Aero to develop- certificate and market the HF-120- a more-powerful growth version of the HF-118 that will go on the HondaJet being developed for customers. Honda Aircraft continues to work that proof-of-concept prototype- acquiring data to apply to the production prototype coming next year and the newer HF-120 GE-Honda engines going on the HondaJet and another company’s upcoming jet- Spectrum Aeronautics’ Freedom midsize jet.

That’s right – before delivering anything but prototypes and development engines- Honda Aero landed a second significant customer for its first commercial aircraft engine. Little wonder that GE took an interest in participating in this program. The company has established sites for building the engines and another for the airframe manufacturing and completion. Meanwhile- at last year’s NBAA convention in Atlanta- Georgia- the company unveiled a new- more expansive interior that addressed some of the input received from customers and prospects.

The company has also been busy working on a foundation that will underpin what will likely be a fleet quickly numbering in the hundreds- and possibly a variety of other models.

Sales and Support Progress
In mid-April- Honda Aircraft made a series of announcements that served to focus attention on the above foundational efforts. For example- the company announced the culmination of work filling out its sales and support network. Honda Aircraft tapped Albany- New York- as the site for HondaJet East sales and service facility- completing the establishment of a nationwide U.S. sales and service infrastructure for HondaJet.

HondaJet East will be owned and managed by the same folks in Tallahassee- Florida- who landed the franchise for HondaJet Southeast. HondaJet Midwest will be established in Aurora- Illinois- while Phoenix- Arizona- will be home to HondaJet Southwest. Salt Lake City- Utah- will be the home of HondaJet Northwest. Honda Aircraft’s goal is to provide unparalleled quality and convenience to HondaJet customers- with flight times for all customers to their nearest facility limited to 90 minutes or less. To say this is an ambitious undertaking is to say the Apollo Program was just a trip to the moon. In all five cities- the companies which will own and operate these factory-authorized sales and service centers must construct- equip and staff their new facilities- including the requisite trappings for maintaining the airframes- engines and avionics - and Honda Aircraft set a deadline for completion and opening of the five facilities ahead of customer deliveries of its flagship aircraft.

Honda Aircraft Goes International
The company also revealed in April its plans to expand sales efforts to Europe starting in mid-May at the recent annual EBACE Conference in Geneva- Switzerland. Honda said its decision to expand sales of its advanced light jet to the European market reflects the strong business aviation growth on the continent and in response to strong demand for the aircraft from customers across the region. The company believes its class-leading performance- high fuel efficiency- large cabin and cargo capacity are traits well-suited to the needs of European business and personal light jet owners and operators – traits that hold appeal on every continent and every market. “We are excited to initiate sales in Europe- where we have received a steady stream of inquiries from interested customers who will now have the opportunity to reserve delivery of a HondaJet-” said Honda Aircraft Company president and CEO Michimasa Fujino. “We are committed to providing our customers with both a class-leading product and a sales and service support system that exceed their expectations for private jet ownership and travel.

“The expansion of HondaJet sales to Europe is an important step in the continued evolution of our business strategy- which seeks to address the extensive worldwide demand for HondaJet-” Fujino explained.
Prior to making known its European ambitions- Honda had already unveiled expanded sales throughout North America with the establishment of a sales and service strategy for both Mexico and Canada.

Progressing the HondaJet
As it advances its flight-test and certification plans- Honda Aircraft is working closely with the FAA and EASA on concurrent certification in the first half of 2010. Work is underway on the test fleet the company will employ for its certification efforts with an eye toward first flight of a production-conforming model in early 2009. The company expects to also start deliveries to U.S. customers in 2010.

Honda Aircraft plans for all HondaJet customer deliveries to occur at its new world delivery center now under construction at the Piedmont Triad International Airport in Greensboro- North Carolina. Co-located with the headquarters are the company’s R&D facility and the production plant.

The world headquarters and R&D facility are scheduled for completion in summer 2008- with the production plant and delivery center scheduled for completion in late 2009.

The company plans to also host its HondaJet pilot training center adjacent to the delivery center with training partner Flight Safety International- which is developing a Level-D full-motion flight simulator for HondaJet training. Additional training facilities will be established in the future as HondaJet sales continue to grow.

Lots Done- Lots To Do
Among the ventures Honda maintains in addition to Honda Aero- Inc. to manage its aircraft engine business in the U.S. is the Wako Nishi R&D Center in Japan- which is devoted to research and development both turbofan jets and piston aviation engines. And the company’s investment in developing both the engine and aircraft are expected to manifest in further new products as the company progresses with the HondaJet.

From its work on airframes with MSA starting in 1993- its earliest high-altitude engine tests starting in 1996- to its establishment of Honda Aero’s world headquarters in Burlington- N.C. last July- the HondaJet and production of the GE Honda HF-120 turbofan engine coming in 2010- it’s hard to fathom that the company will stop at one engine and one airframe.

So although we may not see initially Honda name badges on aircraft in the numbers we see for autos and motorcycles- those badges are likely to be far more common on far more products as the years roll out. After all- the company started small with small engines back in 1948. Just look where it is today – taxiing to take off into the most-challenging business we know of- aviation. And we know- in aviation- the sky truly is the limit.

More information from http://hondajet.honda.com

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