Honda Takes Flight

Honda, one of the world's largest-volume producers of internal-combustion engines, is a famously multifaceted organization. Even as it launches the vitally important new Civic (page 70), the company is celebrating a milestone in its mission to become the only automaker to manufacture airplanes (but far from the first; see next page). After several delays, the first FAA-conforming example of the $4.5 million HondaJet has begun test flights, achieving a top speed of 489 mph and moving a step closer to production.

The radical design was imagined long ago by Honda Aircraft Company CEO Michimasa Fujino and claims structural and aerodynamic advantages. The lightweight composite fuselage features natural laminar flow, and the wings are aluminum with single-piece skins. The engines are perched above the wings, as on the unsuccessful 1970s VFW-Fokker 614 regional airliner, which reduces structural weight, protects against debris ingestion, and allows for shorter, lighter landing gear. Honda expects as much as 20 percent fuel-efficiency superiority versus conventional jets. Power will come from two of Honda's own 2050-pounds-thrust turbofan engines, which were developed in collaboration with General Electric.

Honda's work on jets began in 1986, when the company worked with Mississippi State University to build the MH-02 -- the first-ever all-composite light business jet -- which took flight in 1993. Lessons learned have been applied to the current, quite differently shaped airplane. A proof-of-concept example first flew in December 2003 from Honda's base at the Piedmont Triad International Airport in Greensboro, North Carolina, a hundred years after the Wright brothers' first flight at Kitty Hawk.

The jet will be produced in a newly completed Greensboro factory at an anticipated rate of up to 100 per year. There are more than 100 advance orders. As it did with motorcycles, and then with cars, Honda is starting this adventure with a carefully thought-out, well-engineered, and thoroughly tested product that we expect to have an influence on the aircraft industry disproportionately larger than its modest production volume.

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