I push the power levers forward smoothly, let off the brakes and feel an almost Tesla-like shove in the back as 4,000 lbs of thrust accelerates the HondaJet swiftly along the long runway at Greensboro airport. After just a few minutes of a rocket-like 4,000 ft per minute rate of climb, we are at somewhere near the 43,000 ft ceiling, looking down through patchy cloud at a world that has suddenly become much smaller.
The design that became the Honda Aircraft Company HA-420 has teased the general aviation market for two decades with its claims for speed and performance. Now is its chance to show what it can actually do.
But there’s a delicious irony about the fact that a jet that has speed as one its main selling points should have been so slow in getting off the ground.
The HondaJet finally won US certification at the end of 2016, years after the design was sketched on a piece of scrap paper by Michimasa Fujino.
It took a lot of pushing and shoving to get the project approved but global car and motorcycle giant Honda has ended up with an aircraft-making subsidiary that has one product with a healthy order book, a state-of-the-art production facility in Greensboro, North Carolina, that is working up to an output of 100 HondaJets a year, and a joint venture with GE Aviation producing a dedicated turbofan, the HF120, that plays its part in the speed and efficiency claims of the HA-420.
Fujino, who along the way became the founding president and chief executive of Honda Aircraft Company, is very proud of the fact that his aircraft is extremely faithful to his early sketch. And the fact that the shape of the nose of the HondaJet’s composite fuselage was partly inspired by a pair of women’s high-heeled shoes from the designer Salvatore Ferragamo.
But even more than the organic shape of the natural laminar flow nose that resulted, and aluminium wings that also use the same aerodynamic rules, the HondaJet is remarkable for the over-the-wing engine mounts – unique on current aircraft, though the idea of engines mounted on stalks over the wing was used as recently as the 1960s on a West German design for a small airliner, the VFW-Focker 614, partly to cut down on noise heard on the ground. And in the 1970s Soviet Antonov An-72, jet engines were mounted just above the wing were used to speed up airflow and maintain lift at low airspeed.
Fujino realised that mounting the engines on pylons above the wing would mean more space in the cabin for passengers and their bags than if the turbofans were mounted on the tail, as is the case with every other aircraft in its light jet class – tail-mounted engines cause drag unless the fuselage is pinched in beside them. Then there is the space in the fuselage that has to be given to plumbing for them, and the weight penalty of making the fuselage strong enough to carry the engines. Quite apart from the noise and vibration in the cabin.
I would be able to assess the noise levels in flight, but a display in HondaJet’s Greensboro facility of the bags that can be crammed into the unpressurised rear compartment gives an idea of how effective the space issue is. The cargo door is beside the left-hand engine, so long items need to be guided in carefully, but 57 cu ft of space – plus 9 cu ft in the nose – is a class-leading number.
The over-the-wing engines have become a trademark of the aircraft, but despite their novelty they were not responsible for any of the many delays – the initial target for first deliveries was late 2010. The slow pace came about because this is a new plane, using a new engine, at a new aircraft-making facility, from a manufacturer new to making aircraft. All of which also meant extra scrutiny from the Federal Aviation Administration.
And from a company with the reputation and global reach of Honda, came a requirement that after sinking what has been estimated at up to US$2bn into the project it would not fail. The possible upside for Honda, though, is that a successful first jet could be leveraged into a new high-profile activity that meets a revival of interest in personal aviation to beat ever-increasing congestion on the ground and a product line that diversifies away from an uncertain future for traditional, internal-combustion ground transport.
But all of that depends on the aircraft meeting promises that have been 20 years in the making.
Most of what has been written about the actual finished aircraft focuses on the passenger compartment – perhaps partly because few outsiders have actually had a chance to get behind the controls.
But as important is how it flies, because owner-flyers are an important alternative to a fiercely contested section of the charter market, and to corporate aircraft buying that is circumscribed by global business uncertainty. That strategy seems to be paying off, as about half of the 50 or so aircraft delivered so far are to owners who will also fly them.
With that in mind, and the fact that this aircraft is authorised for single-pilot operation, Honda has been careful to set up a comprehensive, well-structured training course for would-be HondaJet pilots. It chose as its partner FlightSafety International – which has in its facility next to Honda’s at Greensboro’s Piedmont Triad International Airport a full-motion simulator in a hall easily big enough to contain two.
Normal length of a course is about two weeks, starting from the classroom via screen-based cockpit mock-ups to the simulator and, of course, finally a check-ride. The sim itself is state-of-the-art, with visual and motion realistic enough to provide effective training for any situation.
After the darkened sim, on climbing into the real aircraft, drinking in the leather and new-machine smell, what is most apparent is the airiness of the passenger cabin. The windows are big but electronically dimmable, to overcome the sun’s glare at 43,000 ft. There are even two small skylights in the toilet compartment – no shades for them, but then privacy should not be an issue even in the most crowded airways.
There are four seats in a club configuration, with plenty of room to avoid having to fight for knee space. Plus a side-facing seat across from the door.
Up in the cockpit, the Garmin 3000 system is already a largely intuitive way for pilots to interact with the avionics but Honda worked closely with Garmin on this specific fitment in the HondaJet, which has two big, 5.7 inch touchscreens mounted low behind the throttles, at the base of the three giant 14.1 screens – two primary flight displays and a multifunction display in the centre.
The system has been customised with a high degree of automation. That goes right across the board – a sudden loss of cabin pressure at altitude triggers an automatic dive to a survivable level, for example, but at the other end the navigation lights come on when it gets dark and, also like in many new cars, if a hatch or door is open, the displays tell you.
But there are also quick ways to override the automation – a systems control button takes you straight to a page that quickly allows you to alter settings, such as cabin temperature and exterior lights.
Checklists are also on the screen, controlled by a scroll wheel on the yoke, which makes it easy to make sure that nothing vital is missed.
Engines are digitally controlled, which means firing up the turbofans – using big “start” buttons like those on most new cars with sporty pretensions – is automatically monitored and will be aborted if anything is amiss. It is all part of the aim of making as many routine tasks as possible simple – allowing the pilot or pilots to focus on anything out of the ordinary. That does make the fact that there are no auto-throttles stand out, but prompts from the screens and assistance from the digital control are a pretty close second-best.
The same philosophy of subtle assistance extends to colours of the labels on the switches and knobs – white or unlit for normal, amber for caution – and is similar to, although not a perfect match for, the green-for-normal and red-for-warning of the Garmin system.
Engines lit, it is immediately apparent that noise levels are appreciably lower than in most rivals.
One thing that the sim did not prepare me for was the steering, which is done through the rudder pedals. There’s no direct connection and the steer-by-wire system is very sensitive, so for most people the first few hundreds of metres are marred by over-controlling.
However, the lengthy taxi to the active runway at Greensboro means I have the measure of the situation by the time it comes to depart, and the takeoff roll – published takeoff distance is 4,000 ft or less – was completed so fast there was no time to worry about steering.
Typical missions for the HondaJet are likely to be well under its range of 1,220 nautical miles (at 368 knots, with four passengers, and maintaining healthy reserves of fuel), meaning that the maximum speed of 422 knots can be exploited. The aircraft certainly feels fast – and slippery, so speed brakes are welcome.
Typically, the well-integrated autopilot would be used for all but the initial and final phases of flight. But Fujino always intended that his aircraft should feel to the pilot like an aerial sports car, and hand-flying for extended periods gives a reassuring impression of quick and responsive handling, along with predictability extending down to speeds that provoke the stick-shaker to start dancing in my hands and the stall warning alarms to upset the quiet of the cockpit.
The emergency procedures I experimented with were also reassuring – automatic rudder assistance if an engine is not functioning is invaluable, for example. In that sort of scenario it makes much more sense to be problem-solving and looking for somewhere to land than to have one’s attention taken up by fighting the controls.
Landing is done fairly flat, with not much of a flare, but the trailing-link suspension is generously accommodating, and I remember to be delicate with the steering once the nosewheel is on the ground.
There are no bad aircraft in the new light jet category. But the HondaJet does score over rivals in efficiency – as it claimed it would all along – with fuel savings of 13 to 20 per cent compared with rivals at long-range cruise, achieved through a combination of slippery aerodynamics and efficient engines.
The HondaJet also has the edge in speed over rivals such as the Phenom 100 from Brazil’s Embraer, and the Citation M2 from Textron Aviation of the US. Both of those score high in sophisticated interiors and avionics, but the Honda beats them from a pilot’s point of view for overall user-friendliness, thanks partly to the later and highly customised Garmin system, and from a passenger’s for wow-factor.
And then there is the Honda name. This aircraft has caught the imagination of the public like no other small business jet because it has the backing of a global mobility giant with a hard-earned reputation for quality and reliability. Honda Aircraft is building on that by making sure its dealers are more like those in the car scene, offering a fuller service than normal in the world of small jets.
That, along with the sporty handling and high degree of automation, mean the HondaJet does feel like a genuine step forward. That seems to be the verdict shared by buyers and the industry – the Honda was the most delivered aircraft in its class in the first half of this year, and Fujino and his aircraft have picked up a clutch of awards for innovation.
But the big question is what Honda and its plane-making subsidiary will do next. One clue might lie in the buildings at Greensboro. There is plenty more space, and plenty more headroom, in the existing plants for bigger aircraft and greater numbers, the Honda Aircraft chief admits. More than that, the smiling Fujino adds, he will not say.