When a jet’s design is inspired by a high-heeled Ferragamo shoe, you’d expect this to be the most striking aspect of it. But the first things anyone looking at Honda’s debut aircraft will notice are its engines, which thrust upwards from the wings like giant hairdryers, rather than being discreetly tucked in either side of the tail.
The story of how one of the world’s largest car and motorcycle manufacturers came to make this trailblazing 21st-century aircraft started in 1986, when Honda put 26-year-old Michimasa Fujino to work on what was then a secret aviation project. At first, Fujino was unwilling to take on the assignment, seeing it as a likely dead end. And indeed, within a decade of him finally agreeing to do so, the project was wound up. But Fujino continued to think about it and a year later had a breakthrough with an idea that enabled the engines to be mounted over the wings (an idea that had fallen into disfavour in the aviation industry) in a way that would cut down overall drag. He sketched out a design and took it to his bosses.
Placing the engines atop pylons projecting upwards from the wings, he said, would mean a quieter cabin, as well as more space for people and luggage. He later added smooth, laminar-flow wings with supercritical aerofoils to minimise drag, and in 2000 was given the go-ahead to build a prototype. The project was finally approved in 2006, and Honda teamed up with US company GE Aviation to develop and build the jet’s completely new turbofan-engine, the 2,000lb-thrust HF120.
The result, more than a decade later, is the HA-420 HondaJet ($4.9m), a light aircraft with seating for up to seven people (including one or two pilots). Its handsome dolphin-like shape, says Fujino, now chief executive of Honda’s aircraft subsidiary, is based on a Salvatore Ferragamo high-heeled shoe he’d seen in a Hawaiian duty-free store – behaviour not that surprising in a company with a track record for backing mavericks. Honda pushed back against the trend for heavier motorcycles in the early 1990s, allowing R&D engineer Tadao Baba to design the genre-redefining CBR900RR FireBlade that was 41kg lighter than its rivals. That’s not to say conventional aircraft design went completely out of the window for the HondaJet. There is a composite fuselage onto which are attached wings made of aluminium alloy, and a tail with a fin and horizontal stabiliser – nothing radically different from the other aircraft in its size category. But there are enough steps forward to indicate that this – just as the FireBlade spawned a new generation of nimble sports bikes – could help transform the face of private aviation.
The level of automation, for example, is outstanding. If there is a loss of pressure at altitude – which could cause the pilot to lose consciousness – the aircraft is programmed to dive to a level at which the plane can be operated safely. The grouping and lighting of switches is colour-coordinated – unlit or white for normal operation, amber or red to draw attention to an abnormal situation – and a similar principle applies to the cockpit’s huge computer screens. These are the most visible part of an avionics system that is more capable than many on commercial airliners. Honda also appears to have drawn on its experience with racing cars and motorcycles to simplify the instrument panel – all the rotating switches point to 12 o’clock during normal operations, making it easier to check the plane’s systems at a glance.
Another key leap forward is the flight training. A partnership with leading tuition provider FlightSafety International has resulted in a full-motion simulator sitting proudly in a vast hall next to Honda’s campus at Greensboro’s Piedmont Triad International Airport in North Carolina (more locations are planned, but are yet to be announced), and a 14-day training syllabus. After a long spell in the simulator, by the time I used the ceiling-mounted handhold to clamber into the pilot’s seat of a real HondaJet at Greensboro I had a pretty good idea of what it would feel like. The only difference was that its behaviour on the ground was a touch jerkier than I had expected. “It’s the steer-by-wire system, which is extremely sensitive,” explained demonstration pilot Tim Frazier as I navigated us around to the start of the active runway. “Everyone notices that at first.”
On earlier flights in the HondaJet’s passenger cabin I had been impressed with the low levels of noise and vibration, even when the engines were at full power, and I was equally impressed in the cockpit. On the runway, and pushing up the power, acceleration is rapid, as is the climb to the HondaJet’s maximum cruise altitude of 43,000ft at a rate of about 4,000ft per minute. Along with the advanced avionics, the autopilot makes smooth and easy work of flying the aircraft. Manual flying, though, is also free of drama (once the required degree of sensitivity is dialled in), even at speeds low enough to cause the multiple safeguards against stalling to kick in. Maximum cruise speed, of course, depends on weight and factors such as air density, and speed over the ground depends on whether the wind is at the nose or the tail, but the maximum 422 knots true air speed is impressive. And the efficiency of the engines translates into a non-stop range, with safe fuel reserves, of 1,223 nautical miles. In the US, that connects New York with Chicago, or Denver with Los Angeles, and in Europe it is enough to get from London to Rome or Vienna.
The first deliveries of HondaJets to customers came at the very end of 2015 (after a series of delays, many stemming from the fact that the US safety regulators were dealing with a completely new aircraft manufacturer that had to prove itself). Since then over 50 more have been delivered. Some of those owners will employ a pilot, others will let the aircraft out for charter, but up to half plan to fly the plane themselves. A non-professional pilot-owner who allocates the time and energy to the training, and flies enough to avoid those skills becoming rusty, should have no problem taking to the skies in a HondaJet. And the owner will enjoy flying a plane that handles like a sports car and looks equally dashing, with its bold diagonally divided colour scheme setting a slice of red, silver, blue, green or yellow on the nose against a plain white body. Equally delightful is how the windows, which are significantly larger than those on most similarly sized planes, give the cleanly designed cabin a light and airy feel (it can be darkened using the electronically controlled tinting).
For this traditionally land-based vehicle manufacturer, the HondaJet could be the machine that propels it into the third dimension just when surface transportation is looking like it cannot survive long in its current, oil-powered, human-handled form. Even more significant, this venture by one of the most trusted brands in surface vehicles could lead to wider acceptance of the possibilities of private aviation, lending credence to recently unveiled flying car proposals by companies as different as Uber and Airbus. That would be a fittingly far-reaching result for a project so long in the making.