HondaJet’s Michimasa Fujino
Business aviation is an industry of contradiction. While the realities of aerodynamics and engineering mean bizjets generally look similar to one another, they don’t need to look quite so cool as they do – the industry has come to expect and accept a formula that produces great-looking, high-performance, high-tech aircraft that don’t really stand out. The ability to slip into an airport without raising awareness is keenly important to many bizjet users, of course, and an aircraft similar to its peers helps achieve that, albeit an aircraft that looks incredible. On the one hand then, we have an immensely smart machine that oozes ramp presence, and on the other we have the desire to arrive without anyone noticing.
On top of those contradictory requirements, aviation in general tends to be tremendously conservative. Few manufacturers dare break the established mould. When they do, the result is frequently spectacular, but the market acceptance of their more conventional competitors difficult to achieve – consider Piaggio’s superlative Avanti as a great example.
And then there’s the HondaJet. Michimasa Fujino joined Honda’s research and development effort in 1984 and was involved in the company’s business aircraft vision from its origin in 1986. He became HondaJet project leader in 1997 and today he’s President and CEO of Honda Aircraft Company, producing the HondaJet in its Greensboro, North Carolina facility. Fujino broke the mould. In fact, he seems unaware it ever existed…
Defining a dream
The HondaJet he created is very different. Park it among its peers and it will stand out. And not only because of the over-the-wing engine mounts Fujino designed; it also has a very distinctive, surprisingly proud, Fujino-designed forward fuselage and nose section, plus a dramatically glazed, prominent cockpit, crafted, like everything else on the aeroplane, through the best aerodynamic and engineering principles, yet simultaneously placing the pilots in a position where one can’t help but notice they’re flying a HondaJet.
The controlling influence behind such a vision ought to be a larger-than-life character, brimming with confident enthusiasm, a person that stands out in a crowd, just the way the HondaJet does. In fact, Fujino is a quietly determined, disarmingly modest man. He thinks carefully before responding to questions, then reacts expansively and intelligently. He listens intently and answers naturally, seemingly unaware of his own genius. Ask other folk in the industry for their opinion of Michimasa Fujino and they all agree he’s a force of brilliance, vision and rare determination.
He’s needed all that determination to bring the HondaJet to market, in a process he began during the late 1980s and patiently stuck with, creating a new aeroplane in his own vision and now, recognising the march of technology – and competition – continues working relentlessly to improve. Honda had long dreamed of creating an aircraft and it fell to Fujino to realise the dream. He recounted the story to EVA, after unveiling the new HondaJet Elite at the European Business Aviation Convention and Exhibition in May.
“When I was considering my career, I thought I might become a scientist or engineer, then realised that I wanted to create something that people could use, something that benefitted them, rather than only doing research. When I graduated from college I decided to work in the automobile industry because it was a more exciting business in Japan than aviation.
“I ended up working on research and development projects, rather than products. When I was assigned to the HondaJet programme I determined that we would create an aircraft that came to market. That was always my motivation, I wanted to create something that people could use.”
Today, ‘strange looking’ has become ‘distinctive’
and the over-the-wing engines are considered
a bold Honda feature
Over three decades – the HondaJet achieved FAA certification in 2015, EASA following in spring 2016 – Fujino built Honda’s aircraft capability from nothing, developing every aspect of that capability, as well as the aircraft itself. Involving himself at every stage, working to understand the processes and define solutions, his has been an involvement unlike anything since the pioneering days of aviation, seven or eight decades ago. For his role in founding and defining the Honda Aircraft Company and in creating its product, Fujino has received many awards, but ought to be recognised as a modern day Clyde Cessna or Geoffrey de Havilland.
Unlike Cessna and de Havilland though, Fujino designed his aircraft in an era where just about everyone on the planet has a fairly clear idea of what an aircraft looks like. And he built his aeroplane for business aviation, a market pretty much certain it knew what its products would and should always look like.
They certainly didn’t have their engines over their wings, yet Fujino designed what HondaJet calls the Over-The-Wing Engine Mount (OTWEM), to maximise fuselage space – there’s no carry-through structure as there would be with conventional rear-fuselage engines – and reduce cabin noise, although he also found aerodynamic advantages. He created an elegant, narrow-chord, natural laminar flow wing, applying the same drag-reducing principles to the forward fuselage, helping achieve lower aerodynamic drag for greater efficiency at high speed. Beneath its skin, the unusual fuselage introduced new structural techniques, employing a unique combination of advanced composite honeycomb sandwich and stiffened panel structures joined, according to HondaJet literature, “…using a patented integral co-curing process that reduces weight for optimal performance and payload capacity, while also reducing manufacturing complexity.”
That said, Fujino still needed to sell aeroplanes, so how did he resist the temptation to move away from the dramatic low-drag, aerodynamically efficient configuration he’d arrived at, towards something less unusual but with more obvious customer appeal?
“How customers would perceive the aircraft was a big concern. When I began the HondaJet project, I considered why Honda was taking it on? We had to deliver not only performance, but also uniqueness. At the same time, we knew many business jet customers were very conservative and they often wanted to remain low key. I wanted us to achieve a technological breakthrough, but that meant we had a conspicuous, unusual-looking design.
“So, I conducted market surveys and focus group interviews in major US cities. I watched the discussions from behind the mirrors when the moderator showed sketches of a conventional rear-engine configuration, underwing and over-the-wing.
“Maybe 80% preferred the conventional configuration, they thought the over-the-wing engines strange. But I was encouraged when a single pilot said: ‘If this aircraft was being built by the Lockheed Skunkworks, I’d think it was really advanced.’ It was just one person, but he began a conversation during which perhaps 70% of the group agreed that it might be an advanced configuration.”
Based on that observation, Fujino decided that if potential customers were convinced he’d hit upon a high-tech solution based on sound technical principles, they might come to accept over-the-wing engines as an advantage. “This was around 1994/95 and from then on I worked to validate the configuration by experimenting in Boeing and NASA wind tunnels. I also decided to write a paper on the subject, hoping for academic approval for the work.
“But I was concerned academia might not understand my theory and it took me almost a year after I’d written the paper to submit it. I was worried that I might have made a mistake and if people realised, I’d lose my credibility and perhaps my career. Eventually, I made up my mind to email the paper to the AIAA [American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics] and I was surprised to receive a very positive message back from the AIAA reviewer within a month. I was really encouraged and while it usually takes the AIAA 18 months to two years to publish a submitted paper, mine was out in less than six months.”
Thus HondaJet’s ‘strange design’ became a ‘high-tech design’, with important academic support. Further encouraged, Fujino took the opportunity to discuss his concept with established aircraft engineers and designers, all of whom found it convincing. Next, around a decade after that focus group epiphany, in 2005 he took an experimental HondaJet to the Experimental Aircraft Association AirVenture Airshow at Oshkosh.
“We had an overwhelming response. People were really excited and thought the aircraft looked very high-tech. Many people described it as beautiful, often describing the engine pylon shape as their favourite part of the design. If I’d introduced the concept in Japan, people probably wouldn’t have understood, but I introduced it at Oshkosh, in front of aviation enthusiasts – it was a strategic approach to gaining appreciation and support in what was then our primary market – the US.
“There were good reasons why I wanted the engines over the wings, but I had been correct to worry about how people would perceive the aircraft. Today, ‘strange looking’ has become ‘distinctive’ and the over-the-wing engines are considered a bold Honda feature.”
Honda builds millions of internal combustion engines every year, for road cars and motorcycles, but also to power its glorious motorsport achievements, boats, generators and even lawnmowers. There was perhaps never any chance that the HondaJet would take anything other than a Honda engine, but designing a powerplant from scratch while simultaneously designing the aircraft it is to power, is a task that has stretched, even overstretched, well-established manufacturers before. Yet here was Fujino, building a company and an aeroplane, and at the same time integrating a brand new engine.
Having worked on its own prototype, Honda joined with General Electric to produce the definitive HF120 turbofan that powers the production aircraft. Fujino confirms the size and complexity of the task.
“Simultaneously developing the airframe and engine was perhaps the greatest challenge of all. We couldn’t be sure of the engine characteristics and performance when we were designing the airframe; if we’d used an already certified engine it would probably have reduced the complexity by half.
“Conversely, if we’d used an existing engine, only our airframe design would have differentiated us from other manufacturers, but our engine was new technology too, and that gives us a greater advantage. So yes, it was a major challenge, but it worked and helped us create a successful, unique product.”
While the US remains a key market, Fujino sees great potential in China where, he says, modern young people take a very Western attitude and are realising the importance of speed and time-saving in competitive business. The region’s paucity of airports remains an issue and business jet flights in China generally still make inefficient use of aircraft too large for the mission, but Fujino expects that to change and his aircraft to take a good proportion of the market that opens up as a result.
With increasing sales, he also expects more than enthusiasm from HondaJet owners. “My goal is for many people to use the HondaJet, but with increased business jet ownership comes greater environmental responsibility. Because of its design, a HondaJet flown between 300 and 400 hours annually will use as much as 8,000US gallons less fuel than any comparable light jet on the market. I don’t really think so much of that as a benefit for now, I think of its effect in the future. That’s what the HondaJet is designed for, the future.”