The business aviation industry has had a number of years now to get over the shock announcement by Honda back in 2006 that it had set itself the goal of bringing the HondaJet to market and that Honda Motor Company, which has a global reputation for its cars, motorbikes and lawnmowers, intended to be a serious player in the aircraft industry in the decades to come. Instead of amazement and some disbelief, the industry was by and large rather pleased when Honda Aircraft Company announced at the 2012 National Business and Aviation Association Annual Meeting and Exhibition that assembly and production of the first HondaJet had begun at the company’s global headquarters at the Piedmont Triad International Airport in Greensboro, North Carolina. The light jet market was in some disarray, and anything that could reawaken interest in this fascinating and potentially lucrative end of the business aviation market was greatly to be welcomed.
Honda Aircraft President and CEO Michimasa Fujino, the man who first told the then Honda Chairman about the viability of plans for Hondajet, made the announcement in person. The time frame here is worth pondering for a moment or two. If we take October 2012 as the moment when commercial production of the HondaJet actually began to roll in earnest, that gives the project a 27-year lead up and development time frame. It is extremely difficult to think of any Western company that would allow any prototype R&D project to gestate and evolve for the best part of three decades, all the while providing that project with the funding required to push each development stage through to the next level. Wall Street’s notoriously short attention span and insistence on near-immediate returns simply does not allow major companies the luxury of taking a two-and-a-half to three decade-long view of projects, no matter how visionary they may be.
“That is the difference between Honda and our competitors,” says Fujino quietly. “When we have a dream, we give it time to develop. It is much more important to us that we get it right than that we get quick results,” he says. That’s the first point to grasp about the HondaJet – that it is a dream project for Honda. In revenue terms, Honda Aircraft is not going to be much more than a rounding error on the Honda Motor Co. balance sheet for a long while to come but it has a significance to Honda that is way beyond its immediate revenue generating potential. As Fujino and Honda Aircraft Company like to put it, “HondaJet began as an intellectual contemplation and developed into a series of questions: how could a light jet become more efficient, more elegant, more advanced?”
Fujino didn’t start off his career in Honda on the HondaJet, despite being a graduate in aeronautical engineering. He was transferred into the airplane project which was actually a dream of Honda Motor Co. founder, Soichiro Honda, whose lifelong interest in mobility did not stop him from constantly pushing himself and his top executives, to think about where, broadly speaking, manufacturing was headed next? What are the next hot issues beyond the motorcycle and automobile? In 1986, this constant probing of future directions received formal expression, with the company’s decision to establish a world class research centre with the aim of looking at future products.
A few projects suggested themselves as likely to be fundamental future market opportunities. Artificial intelligence and robotics was one project, business aviation, or extending personal mobility from the road to the skies, was another, which is why the young aeronautical engineer found himself clearing his desk in the automobile division and heading off to see if Honda’s innovation could turn into a market leading competitive product.
“To understand why Honda thinks deeply about the future, you need to understand that in Honda’s case management’s responsibility is not just to maximise this quarter’s profits or this year’s profits, but to work out a viable strategy that will see Honda able to continue its growth for decades to come. That kind of culture and approach at the top of a company stimulates long term thinking and in my view it has been a fundamental driver behind Honda’s success so far. I attend stockholder meetings in Japan and although the HondaJet program has had a long inception period, the questions I get from shareholders are very supportive. For example, one investor told me: I am very proud to be a Honda shareholder because I hold stock in a company that is presenting challenging visions for the future. In an AGM for a top Western company the questions would be much more about when can we expect a profit from HondaJet!” Fujino comments.
Fujino’s first project for the Honda R&D Fundamental Research Centre was to build from scratch an experimental Honda-orginial aircraft. The first design effort was called the MH01. It was an advanced turboprop plane rather than a jet. The “M” here stood for Mississippi, as in Mississippi Honda, since Honda partnered with Mississippi State University for the project, or more specifically, with MSU’s Raspet Flight Research Laboratory. The project took an existing aircraft, the Bonanza A36, and looked at modifying its wing and empennage to a composite structure. According to an interview Fujino gave to the Smithsonian Institute’s Air & Space Magazine back in May 2007 (http://www.airspacemag.com/flight-today/INTERVIEW-Fujino.html) initially Honda was simply looking for a partner, be it a university or a company, that would help it build a prototype, but it leaned towards a university “since the academic world can keep a secret better!”. Honda was not about to shout its interest in aviation to the world yet. This, after all, was still just a research project with a lot of ground to cover and a lot of questions to answer before it would turn into a reality.
Interestingly, Fujino came up with the revolutionary Over-The-Wing Engine Mount design during his work on the MH02, the successor to the MH01. Honda management decided that if they were going to build a plane, they would prefer to take a shot at the light jet market rather than the advanced turboprop market and summarily told Fujino to switch to a turbofan concept. This gave him a real problem since there were no turbofan engines small enough for a concept plane like the MH02. He settled on an engine from Pratt & Whitney, but it was too cumbersome to hang under the wing so an over the wing mount was the only viable option. This is usually anathema to aircraft designers since it is axiomatic that anything on top of the wing is going to increase drag, causing a deterioration in performance, as well as generating penalties as far as lift is concerned. Fujino worked through umpteen possible configurations and finally he found a configuration that was acceptable. Later, using flow modelling, he and his team found that by reshaping the nacelle and pylon and by moving the engine closer to the cabin, they actually improved drag and lift and lowered cabin noise.
By 1996, ten years after he had started on the project, he was ready to tell Honda management that the company had a viable proposition. However, if he thought he was going to get an easy passage he was in for a shock. Management decided to pull the plug on the whole test project in favour of a renewed and intensive focus on the automobile sector, which was then at white heat, competitively speaking. Fujino spend a little while taking stock. The work so far had convinced him that he was within reach of building a market leading light jet. He went back to management in 1997 and presented them with a new concept plan: exit the MH02, enter the HondaJet. Fujino took his idea straight to the then President and CEO of Honda Motor Co., Nobuhiko Kawamoto, an engineer by profession, rather than a finance specialist. “The problem we had in getting the concept of a light jet across to the full Board was that while Japanese are very familiar with automobiles, very few at that time had any experience with business jets. It really needed an engineer to see the merits of the design solution and the product we were proposing. The President considered my proposal for perhaps 30 minutes, then gave me the all clear to take HondaJet forward,” Fujino recalls.
The HondaJet now in production is unquestionably a beautiful looking aircraft and much of that beauty comes from the Over-The-Wing Engine Mount design and the shape of the pylons and nacelle. Fujino says happily that of all the elements of HondaJet, these are the features that give him the most pleasure and the most satisfaction. When he finally found the right shape and the right wing position what he found was that they gave HondaJet a real performance benefit in terms of speed and fuel efficiency without sacrificing precious cabin volume and luggage space.
Since light business jet designs are very close to the ground, it is impossible to install the engines under the wing. In technical terms, placing the engine over the wing results in an unfavorable aerodynamic interference and induces a strong shock wave that results in a lower drag divergence Mach number. The configuration also significantly changes the vibration characteristics of the original clean wing and influences aeroelastic characteristics as a result.
For Fujino, the technical challenge was how to incorporate an Over-The-Wing Engine Mount configuration into a light business jet design that minimized wave increase at high speeds while also achieving higher cruise efficiency and reducing the aeroelastic penalty. The HondaJet accomplishes this aeronautical feat. In addition to its patented OTWEM configuration, innovations including a natural-laminar flow technology and composite fuselage structure were developed from long term research activities. These innovations combined help the HondaJet deliver high fuel efficiency, high speed and a very spacious cabin.
The HondaJet may, by general agreement, be a beautiful aeroplane, but will it sell? By January 2012 Honda had already taken over 100 orders for the plane, priced at $4.5 million, and Fujino expects Honda Aircraft to be a profitable division within five years after its first delivery. The company is steadily adding to its dealer network for HondaJet sales, service and support, one of the latest signings being SkyService Business Aviation, Canadian authorized sales representative for the HondaJet. In 2008 the company expanded sales to Europe and announced three European regional facilities, to come onstream in time for delivery of the first HondaJets to customers this year. Honda is partnering with TAG Aviation SA in Northern Europe and the UK, with facilities based at Farnborough and Geneva. In Central Europe the company has joined with Rheinland Air Services to establish HondaJet Central Europe, based in Frankfurt while Southern Europe is covered by a partnership with Aviastec in Madrid, covering Spain, Portugal, France, Monaco, Italy, Greece and Turkey.
One thing that is certain is that the production centre is already benefitting hugely from Honda’s long experience as an auto manufacturer. The company is setting one first after another in its production facility. The Learjet 85 might have been the first plane to have a fully composite body, but Fujino scooped a first by machining the entire wing skin out of a single piece of aluminium. “We used to use sheet metal structures, using stringers, a frame and sheet metal held with rivets or bonding. But as labour costs increase it becomes much cheaper to machine, the whole wing skin from a single piece of metal. This gives you additional efficiency and accuracy in production,” he comments.
Another first for Honda was the decision to use its experience as one of the world’s leading engine producers to design and build its own engines for the HondaJet, via a joint venture between Honda Aero and GE Aviation. The result is the twin HF120 engine configuration, with each engine delivering 2050 lb of thrust.
Fujino points out that the company already has an infrastructure comparable to a large airframe OEM. By NBAA 2012 it had 750 staff at its North Carolina site. This year the numbers are ramping towards 1000.
“If you look at this strategy from the outside, it might look as if Honda is being very bold in launching into the business aviation market. But our management is much more conservative and cautious than people might think. They want to see that we are doing the best we can do to bring about success even if success is not guaranteed. The product is good, the strategy is reasonable and the idea is not to recoup our investment in one year but steadily over time. Our vision at Honda is of a group supported by four pillars, an automobile business, a motorcycle business, a power equipment business and now aviation as our fourth pillar. We call ourselves a mobility company. Five years ago profits came largely from the automobile division. However, this year the big profit driver is motorcycles driven by demand from Asia. Things change and diversification is important. By analogy, with HondaJet we are not just selling the equivalent of a sports car, but a rather highly fuel efficient sports car with a good sized cabin!”