HondaJet: Vision Quest in Flight
A reminder that the company’s innovative spirit is alive and well
Michimasa Fujino sat up in bed one night in 1997, looked for the nearest piece of blank paper (the back of a page from his wall calendar), and drew the HondaJet before he forgot it. In his case, Honda's "Power of Dreams" wasn't just a marketing campaign. Indeed, Soichiro Honda was obsessed by those involuntary visions, going so far as calling the company's first self-made motorcycle the Dream. Although Fujino admits he was awake when he had the idea for Honda's first aircraft, at least he was in bed. As a typical Honda light bulb moment of engineering creativity, it'll do fine.
Like other Honda observers, you might wonder how a company that got it so right with the Super Cub, the S600 sports car, and the engine in Ayrton Senna's McLaren Formula 1 cars can also struggle so publicly at times. Its 2015 return to F1 as an engine supplier has yielded consistently scathing headlines, thanks to the dismal performance of the McLarens it powers. We can't expect a big corporation to be consistently brilliant, but the HondaJet's unfettered, clean-sheet design and the story of its genesis provide reason to believe the old Honda is alive and well.
Like Asimo the robot, the HondaJet came from the firm's mid-1980s willingness to invest heavily in out-there projects with little chance of payback. Honda thought there was an opportunity to make a very light jet, or VLJ, mainly for the American market. Owning or chartering a VLJ makes sense if you're moving four people for whom time represents a lot of money, as a VLJ can fly into and out of thousands of small U.S. airports.
So there was demand, but aircraft design is a surprisingly slow-moving business. Most new aircraft are actually revisions of older models. Honda thought its brains and budget could come up with a radically new design. It couldn't — at first. Fujino qualified as an aeronautical engineer but joined Honda to work on road-car research and development. At 26, he was sent to Starkville, Mississippi, and toiled in secrecy for a decade on the jet project, making hand-built prototypes but not finding the killer advantage. In 1996 Honda canned the project, and he moved back to Japan. The following year, he had his big idea.
That pencil sketch on the back of January now stands before me rendered in $4.9 million worth of carbon fiber and aluminum, and I'm about to put considerable trust in his late-night epiphany. To the inexpert eye, the HondaJet doesn't look that different from its rivals. The engines are in roughly the same place, but the big difference is they aren't mounted on the fuselage but on pylons that rise up from the wings. Others have tried this positioning before, usually unsuccessfully. The benefits are headlined by increased cabin space because the engine mounts no longer intrude, and there's less cabin noise now that the engines are not attached to the fuselage. Fujino's breakthrough was to figure out a way of mounting them using pylons that sweep backward so each engine trails the wing and of machining the wings from solid aluminum billets for strength and perfect laminar flow (in which air clings to the surface of an object, passing with minimal turbulence) uninterrupted by rivets or an imperfect shot-peened surface. He refined the pylons' shape and position using computational fluid dynamics modeling. The result is improved aerodynamics for the wings and a cleaner, slipperier fuselage.
This was the breakthrough Honda spent more than a decade looking for. There's 20 percent more cabin space. Maximum speed of about 485 mph is up 25 percent compared to some other VLJs, and fuel consumption is down 17 percent. The engines help. Co-developed with General Electric, the new units are surprisingly small and produce lower emissions than rival aircraft.
Honda used most of that extra space for a proper toilet with a sliding door. (The door alone is $36,900, an optional extra that seems like a must-have.) Fujino calls the toilet a significant competitive advantage, maybe the killer advantage if you've ever had to use the alternative. Some other VLJs have a bucket with some kitty litter and, if you're lucky, a curtain you can hang around you — although the nonvisual impacts of your predicament will be impossible to disguise from fellow passengers. "I've flown a Citation Mustang most days for two years," one pilot told me. "The emergency potty has only been used once, although that guy needed it twice."
The jet project was restarted after Fujino presented his concept to the board in 1997 and was finally approved for production in 2006 when he cheekily flew a prototype at an airshow and took deposits to prove there was a market. Production began last year.
Passengers climb the three steps on the fold-down "air-stair" door. Inside are two pilot seats (though it can be flown solo), a jump seat facing the door, and four passenger seats facing each other with what Honda claims is more space between them than rivals. The toilet is at the back. The cabin smells like a Bentley and features pale carpets, wood veneer, and soft leather trim, which imply the occupants don't often encounter dirt.
Fujino's breakthrough was to figure out a way of mounting the jets using pylons that sweep backward so each engine trails the wing.
It's difficult not to make comparisons with the new Acura NSX. Both are made in the U.S., the NSX in Ohio and the jet in North Carolina. Both use novel aluminum construction: ablation casting for the NSX and wings milled from solid aluminum for the HondaJet. Both use Garmin satellite navigation. HondaJet's demonstration pilot, Mike Finbow, said flying it is a revelation — like using an iPhone for the first time — and that it has a higher level of automation than nearly any other aircraft. However, some members of the aviation media have found it overly automated — something automotive critics also carp about with many modern vehicles. Indeed, the new NSX also can feel somewhat techno-fied with the way it switches character from Xanaxed hybrid to feral Track mode at the twist of a dial.
But oh, are they both fast. The launch procedure is similar, up to a point. You hold both car and jet on the brakes and build engine output against them. When you release them, the NSX is unquestionably quicker. It is savagely accelerative. The HondaJet is "only" standard Porsche 911 quick — at first. But it is as refined as the NSX in Quiet mode even as it takes off and heads for its considerably higher v-max. There's a noticeable but unobtrusive high whine and almost no vibration, despite the fact there are still two turbo fans, each with 2,000 pounds of thrust, mounted not far from the rear passengers' heads. In level flight, the experience is serene.
Honda's greatest innovations have been for the masses. When it makes something great such as the original NSX, we can at least buy into its desire to make something radically different.
Only when you use one of these airplanes do you realize their value to people they're marketed to — those with assets between $20 million and $40 million and with business interests spread over wide areas. Jets like this collapse time and distance. They're more like teleportation than flight. Imagine how much you could fit into a day if you could travel, as we did, 200 miles in 40 minutes instead of the four or more hours you'd allow for such a trip in a car. Or if you could walk through a private aviation terminal to your plane, which leaves when you arrive. No lines, no TSA checks, no cancellations. At European jet fuel prices and with six aboard, the fuel bill was less than $200. Of course, servicing the jet, hiring pilots, and paying for hangar space and landing fees will add a little to your costs.
Historically, Honda's greatest innovations have been for the masses. When it makes something great but for the elite, such as the original NSX, we can at least buy into its desire to make something radically different and perfectly engineered, and we can hope it takes the same approach to our Civics. The HondaJet feels like one of the great Hondas, too, for just those reasons.
Indeed, it's not out of the question that at some point there could be a HondaJet we can all fly on. Fujino points out that the hangar doors at Honda's Greensboro, North Carolina, factory are twice as high and wide as they need to be for this HondaJet, and there are rumors of a range of Honda aircraft, including for commercial airlines. Maybe one day his quiet, efficient midnight sketches will no longer serve only the wealthy.