It wasn’t the worst weather for a test flight I’d ever seen, but by late afternoon, the North Carolina air was bumpy, and I’d already had a long day, which started at seven with a training session in the HondaJet sim. The bumps, I soon realized, were a great test. Anybody can fly an airplane in smooth air, I thought to myself as I bounced in on final for Greensboro’s Runway 23, grinding through the mechanical turbulence created by hills that in any other circumstances I would have thought were simply very pretty. Here as it was, though, with plus and minus 10 or 15 knots of wind shear, and me trying to get the feel of the thrust levers on the HondaJet, I was working pretty hard.
It was worth it, a fact given away by the stupid grin I was warily wearing on my face. You see, I’d been dreaming about flying this airplane for more than 10 years. The dreams became really vivid once I saw the cool-looking little jet arrive at Oshkosh in 2005. By 2012, I couldn’t take it any longer. I was trying not to be too much of a pest in my pleading with my friends at Honda to please, oh, please, let me fly it. I’d drop anything to get to Greensboro to make it happen, I said. In late March, I finally got the call. I had 48 hours to get there. As promised, I made it happen.
You can pretty much forget everything you might have heard about the HondaJet, the entry-level jet from Honda Aircraft that has been long in coming. I’ve flown it a couple of times now, and I’m here to tell you that nothing I heard through the grapevine prepared me for the experience. The bottom line is, the jet is for real, and there are a lot of folks who are going to want one. Here’s why.
I describe the HondaJet somewhat playfully as a mystery, but there’s some truth to it. Honda Aircraft has worked exceptionally hard to keep the airplane from being flown and those impressions publicized, much to the frustration of aviation journalists like me, not to mention consumers, who are wondering what all the buzz is about. I, in turn, have worked exceptionally hard to get behind the yoke of it. As I said, it finally paid off in late March, when I got the chance to fly it, giving Plane & Pilot the first opportunity to get behind the yoke of this new certificated jet, one with a remarkable story behind it and, the company hopes, an even more remarkable future in front of it.
We all know the recent news. Honda earned certification for the jet late last year and delivered its first airplane just before the end of the year. These were important milestones for the company and big news for the industry. Unfortunately, the company wishes the program had progressed at a more rapid pace. For the record, Honda Aircraft, a subsidiary of Honda Motor Company, has been working to bring the airplane to market officially since 2005 and as a secret program starting in 1997. Unofficially, the concept has been around since Michimasa Fujino, the founding president and CEO of Honda Aircraft, started noodling and doodling about the concept of a new jet with the engines mounted on the wings, way back in the 1990s, after getting selected to work on a broad research program Honda initiated in the mid-1980s when he was fresh out of the University of Tokyo.
There are a lot of cool things about the HondaJet, but it doesn’t take much digging to find that the secret behind just about every one of them is one key element: the over-the-wing-mounted engines (OTWEM), one of our least favorite acronyms, but one of our most favorite technologies. Developed by Mr. Fujino himself, the approach is no mere flourish. Mr. Fujino has written an award-winning paper on the subject, and while it’s too long and too complex a story to go into in any depth, suffice it to say that the aerodynamics are well proven. Mounted where they are and how they are, the OTWEM design does several things for the HondaJet that set it apart from the competition.
Because they’re not mounted on the fuselage itself, they free up a great deal of space due to the lack of reinforcing structure and support systems that normally would take up space along the sidewall. This allows the HondaJet to have a remarkably roomy cabin, both in width and length, for a jet of its size. Again, because they’re not mounted on the fuselage, the noise of the engines and the vibration are both, in theory (and, in practice, I discovered), lessened, making for a somewhat quieter and smoother ride. The way the engines are mounted to the wing, Honda claims, greatly reduces interference drag compared to the fuselage-mounted approach. I’ll leave the aerodynamic modeling to the supercomputers. I do know that the airplane is significantly faster on around the same power as similarly sized jets.
The HondaJet is really fuel efficient, which allows it to go farther on less Jet A, a fact that can be only partly accounted for due to factors (such as wing design and wing loading) apart from the OTWEM design.
The rest of the design is, for the most part, what passes for conventional these days, but which surely wasn’t when Mr. Fujino dreamt it up. The fuselage is composite for lightweight, vibration tolerance and aerodynamic shape shifting, and the wing, empennage and nacelles are metal. The engines are turbofans, the avionics are flat panels with touch controllers, and the anti-ice is bleed air with electric heat on the windshield and electro-impulsive on the tail.
Again, since we’ve been gazing at pictures of the HondaJet, seeing it at aviation events, reading updates on its progress (and of its GE Honda engines), we’ve all gotten used to the idea, and the bold look of the airplane looks pretty familiar to us. In fact, a lot of us have seen it fly, either at Oshkosh or into one of dozens of airports around the country (and, increasingly, around the world) where Honda has been conducting sales tours.
So we all might need to take a step back and look at the story with a renewed sense of perspective. Honda Aircraft is, as I said, a subsidiary of Honda Motor Company, the eighth-largest automaker in the world. The company made $1.7 billion in 2015, which is a lot of financial might. The engines on the HondaJet, moreover, are the clean-sheet product of a joint venture between the automaker and another corporate heavy-hitter, GE, which until this venture had never wandered this far downmarket from its massive commercial airliner engines.
The two-decade foray by Honda into a foreign market (both literally and in terms of its core competencies) is a big experiment for the Japanese firm. One might ask why Honda would engage in such an experiment, one that has surely cost a few billion dollars, making the choice of Greensboro appropriate since it sounds so much like “Greenbacks.” The market for light jets is competitive and not a large one. There are currently, including the HondaJet, three strong players in the market, with the Cessna Citation M2 and Embraer Phenom 100 providing healthy competition to the HondaJet, as well as some instructional counterpoints to the technology and business model of the product by the startup Japanese light jet maker.
The buzz around the HondaJet has quieted some over the past couple of years, the inevitable result of the program being delayed and earning certification only last year, nearly five years after Honda originally anticipated earning FAA approval. The reasons for the delays were many and the kind that are bound to affect any startup company with a clean-sheet airframe and engine. Unfortunately, a few years back, as the company was just getting the finish line in sight, it got stopped cold when, in 2013, the HF120 engine that powers the plane suffered a failure during ice ingestion testing. The resulting redesign delayed certification for at least a year, on top of previous delays, that is.
The company officially says that orders have been slightly up and down since it started taking orders in 2006, the year after the jet’s debut at AirVenture the year before. Today, it says, it has orders for more than 100 of the jets, which should keep the company busy for the next couple of years. When we toured the factory with Mr. Fujino, we saw 20 airplanes in various states of construction, with at least 100 workers there busy doing assembly work.
The investment Honda has already made, easily a quarter of a billion dollars in infrastructure alone, makes the case. The Greensboro campus is a multifaceted gem in the green rolling hills of North Carolina. I wasn’t there for long before I figured out that Honda is in this game for the long haul and that it plans to invest in additional airplanes for the Honda lineup down the road. How far down the road is a good question.
I asked Mr. Fujino if that were the case, if new airplane designs were on the way, and he humbly responded, “I cannot say,” and with a tone filled with more hopefulness and pride than any reply I’ve heard in my career, he finished that thought with, “but I certainly hope so.” I’m guessing there’s more than hope involved. It’s really hard, in fact, to imagine that any company, no matter how large, would invest the kind of money Honda has in developing and producing a single model. We’ll have to wait and see.
Much more than a factory and headquarters, the Greensboro facility is composed of divisions that are each crucial to the company’s success in the market. There’s the factory, of course, an impressive building with two lines of assembly in a remarkably brightly lit space, almost like a giant movie soundstage, with a highly polished white epoxy enamel floor. We watched as HondaJets in various states of assembly moved down the line. We even got to see one of them on jacks as workers in their traditional Japanese white overalls mated the single-piece metal-alloy wing to the laid-up composite fuselage. There’s also the headquarters, where the business of building, selling and supporting jets gets done, and adjacent to it is the delivery center, which Mr. Fujino, a renaissance man apparently, designed himself. Created to present customers with their airplane in the most dramatic and elegant way imaginable, the delivery center has at its heart a great room in which a single HondaJet sits upon, believe it or not, a turntable, which can turn the jet around ever so slowly so the customer, seated with their family or friends or business associates (or some combination of those) can gaze through great panes of glass from a story above, beholding it from every angle as it makes an elegant 360º journey below. The airplane is sure to leave a lasting impression on HondaJet customers. The delivery ceremony surely will, too.
Flying The HondaJet Across campus is the flight test center, which is where I met with Honda Senior Test Pilot Stefan Johansson late on a Wednesday afternoon to take this little jet for what would turn out to be a remarkable flight experience. When I climbed into the front seat of this brand-new jet—getting into and out of it thanks to generous cabin proportions and a terrific airstair door—I was in the lucky position of having already flown it briefly from the right seat a few days earlier, and having flown both the Phenom 100 and the Citation M2 on extensive flight reviews. I was in a great position to compare the three aircraft. That said, all I cared about as we closed the door and I fired up the GE Honda engines was the airplane I was in.
The cockpit of the HondaJet is the easiest to use of any single-pilot jet I’ve flown, though its modest size and speed make that target a bit easier to reach than for a Falcon Jet or Gulfstream. Honda achieved this elegance in a few pretty straightforward, but devilishly difficult-to-achieve ways. For starters, it partnered with Garmin with what was at the time the first adoption of the G3000 cockpit, the latest generation of flat-panel suites that uses touch-screen controllers and a greatly simplified software design to put systems control right at the pilot’s fingertips, no more deep menus and complicated paths to where you want to go. When in doubt, hit the home button. There are seldom more than two or three intuitive button pushes to get anywhere in the menu from anywhere else. The G3000 panel is easy to learn and does away with a large number of counterintuitive G1000-era software conventions.
Another brilliant idea was hardly new, but beautifully executed: grouping buttons and switches with like functions in one place and running the checklists, built into the G3000, as a flow through those sections. Just as with aircraft systems utilizing green when things are normal, the buttonology of the HF420 makes use of two conventions to let you know when things are good, for which I’ve come up with two mnemonics—“a white light is the right sight” and “up and down and we’re going to town.” The approach is remarkably effective. One look at the switch panel, and it’s clear when it’s good to go and when it’s not, should an amber or red light break up the white. When setting switches, there’s no need to remember which ones go in which direction (or even to have to read the position labels). Every one of them is normally straight up and down. Again, one glance tells all.
The HondaJet is, of course, a single-pilot airplane, like the others in its segment are, and they’re all designed specifically to be easy, duh, for a single pilot to operate. Thanks to the design of the cockpit, the HondaJet is the easiest of the three.
When taxiing the HondaJet, you feel a lot of the bumps and cracks in the tarmac. That said, it’s fun and very responsive to taxi. With hydraulically actuated steer-by-wire control, the nosewheel can be turned very sharply when you’re going slowly (up to 60 degrees) and much less sharply (just a few degrees) as you start rolling down the runway. On the ramp, you can maneuver the HF420 like it was a Honda Civic, making incredibly tight turns on the ramp to put it just where you want it.
One of the coolest things about this new jet is that it does some of the thinking for you, eliminating the chance to make some of the mistakes that all of us have made, like not putting the lights on when you line up, and others that no one should ever make, like not having the flaps set. For example, lining up on the active, the system puts the lights on and checks to be sure the airplane is configured for takeoff, warning you if it isn’t. In flight, ice protection, except the engine inlets, comes on automatically, and the Garmin G3000 system has envelope protection built in, to help keep pilots squarely within the envelope should the demands of single-engine flying get the better of them. I wish there were autothrottles, a technology that with the advent of the Eclipse 550, no one can claim is too exotic for a light jet anymore.
All lined up on Runway 23 Left, I held the brakes and advanced the power to the takeoff setting, snug up against the stop, felt the plane groan against the indignity of not being allowed to fly, and then let it go, immediately getting pressed back into my seat. Despite its powerful acceleration, the plane is easy to keep on the centerline. We passed through V1, the “we’re going flying” speed, and I rotated. Gear up, flaps up, and we rocketed up, climbing at a remarkable 4,000 fpm initial rate of climb. The airspace around KGSO was crowded, and although we’d asked for FL430, it took us a few level-offs to get there.
Speed is the name of the game for the HondaJet. Its published top speed of 420 knots is, by far, the best in the segment—by around 20 knots over the Citation M2’s best figure. More on that in a bit.
The HondaJet gets its best range figure of better than 1200 nm with reserves with four aboard up in the 40s, giving it New York to Miami range, which is nice to have starting most years just after November. As the speed goes up, the fuel consumption rises and the range decreases, just as with any jet, but the purpose of a jet, after all, is to fly fast, and owners are certain to fly it up against the barber pole, that is, just shy of the red line on the airspeed indicator, every chance they get.
I did just that at 32,000 feet, but I have to admit we didn’t hit 420 knots, the claimed top speed. No, we hit 423 knots. And it was even a degree or two warmer than standard. At that altitude and with the power pushed up like that, we were burning 1,050 pounds per hour, but, as I said, that’s what fuel is for, to go fast.
On our way back in, we asked for and got a block altitude so I could hand-fly the plane a little more. We did the usual 360-degree steep banked turns, slow flight, stalls, and we got to see the Garmin G3000 envelope protection, ESP, in action. It was all very impressive. The airplane flies easily, with nice control harmony and just the right forces in all axes. The visibility forward in cruise is good as it flies nose down, as do many jets, but the pinched side windows restrict visibility out to the side and in back a bit.
In the pattern, the same was true. My only gripe is one that I’m not sure is even fair, that the thrust is finicky to set, but as I said at the beginning, the wind shear was strong that day, so I was probably just chasing the airspeed as the turbulence was chasing me right back.
Even in the bumpy conditions, I pulled off a good landing and a passable one, and I was able to get the airplane stopped using relatively little runway. The HondaJet is faster than the M2 or Phenom, so it uses a bit more runway, still not a lot by jet standards though. And even with my less than practiced technique, I was able to come close to hitting the numbers.
It’s been a long time coming, but the HondaJet is here, and there’s cause for celebration in Greensboro (and in Tokyo, too). Though it’s years behind schedule, the HF420 is everything the company claimed it would be—fast, quiet, a great climber, easy to fly, technologically advanced, roomy and stylish. With customers (and journalists) getting their hands on this remarkable plane now, word will get out. And it will be a horse race among three very high-quality, entry-level jets from what appear to be three high-quality, established companies, one of which is now getting started in earnest in the airplane game.
One of Honda’s biggest boasts is that it has the best cabin in the class, and in some ways, it’s hard to argue against that claim. The jet is beautifully appointed, though that doesn’t set it apart from the two other entry-level jets on the market—their interiors are very nicely finished. The HondaJet, however, is larger, both in fuselage diameter and in cabin length. The effect of the bigger fuselage is greater comfort in just about every dimension, but most notably in legroom, where occupants in the club-cabin seating arrangement can sit without getting their feet tangled. The lav is also the nicest in the class, with a counter and wash basin, as well as what appears to be, but isn’t, a skylight. The seats can be moved inboard and they recline a good deal, giving passengers a comfortable ride for the modest length of time they’ll be in the plane. The one thing you might have heard about the HondaJet is how amazingly quiet it is. It’s pretty quiet compared to other light jets, but don’t expect your inside voice to be heard all the way across the aisle. It’s still an airplane and there’s no magic. If I were a regular passenger, I’d still wear a good ANR headset, as we did up front for the flight tests.
The Competition: HondaJet Vs. Cessna Citation M2
Vs. Embraer Phenom 100 // Three great planes, and the winner is…
With the entry into service (which is how jet makers refer to a new model finally getting into the hands of owners and going to work) of the HF420, HondaJet is as much responsible for the changing scene in the light jet market as are its competitors, market conditions or the state of the industry.
Honda boasts, and with some justification, that its jet is the fastest in its category (it is), that its pilot/machine interface is the most user-friendly in the industry (again, it can make a strong case for that claim), and that it has the quietest and most comfortable cabin in the class, as well (again, the claim is a solid one).
Still, while its competitors have arguably surrendered the high ground in each of these cases, all of which are absolutely critical to the cost and utility of jet ownership, they aren’t far behind.
There are a couple of areas in which the Embraer Phenom 100 and Cessna Citation M2 (the latest entry-level model 525 CJ) have a distinct advantage over the HondaJet. The first is in service and support, where both are established global brands offering award-winning service not just in North America, but around the world. As a new company, Honda Aircraft has just established its service presence, and the fleet is still miniscule compared to its two competitors, measuring in single digits as of this writing compared to the many thousands of Cessna Citations and Embraer jets (both business and commercial) flying around the world. Cessna, in particular, has a highly regarded service support network, with large and capable Citation Service Centers around the globe.
Embraer’s airline lineage is one of its great strengths, and its business jets, including the entry-level Phenom 100 and its larger hangar mate, the Phenom 300, are built tough, like mini-airliners.
Especially in the United States, Cessna has the top training network, though Embraer has made great strides and invested heavily in recent years in establishing a North American presence. Both of its jets are now assembled in the United States, at the Brazilian company’s Melbourne, Florida, facility.
In terms of cost, the three are neck and neck, with each of them typically equipped running just south of $5 million in 2016 dollars. The figures, of course, vary based on the current economic climate—because of the weakness of the Brazilian currency versus the dollar, the Phenom is currently a great deal for U.S. buyers.
In terms of takeoff and landing performance, the M2 is the winner, and it has excellent range for the segment, too, at least as good as the HondaJet. The HondaJet wins in cabin size and comfort, as well as in cargo space and the spaciousness and functionality of the lav. The Phenom 100 doesn’t beat its competitors in many categories, but it doesn’t have any weak points; it’s a solid overall performer, fast and easy to fly, and it has, in my opinion at least, the best ramp appeal among the three, though that’s admittedly a subjective call, one with which Honda Aircraft’s Mr. Fujino surely would disagree.
Revolutionary HondaJet Training // Now why doesn’t everyone do it this way?
Before I got to Greensboro, I’d already heard about Honda’s training center there, and what I’d heard were rave reviews. It’s unusual to hear such excitement over a training facility because, let’s face it, the experience of training in a full-motion sim, that is, a Level-D full-motion flight simulator, in which one can get a full type rating, doesn’t change a whole lot from one
training center to the next. But this one sounded as though it was different.
For starters, the “training center” houses just one sim, which is enough considering the fleet is still very small. A second sim will be added before long. The full-motion simulator is an electric model, as opposed to hydraulic. In terms of feel and fidelity, an electrically actuated sim just feels better, more precise and with better fidelity, even down to the landing. The center isn’t just the sim, though. It also houses a touch-screen avionics training station set up just like the G3000 in the HondaJet, as well as a classroom with a big white board and 20 individual workstations, each of which is outfitted with a G3000 touch controller for individual practice.
What sets the Greensboro HondaJet Training Center apart, though, is the approach that it takes to the learning. Center manager Eric Dixon described that approach, known as “operational day flow,” as a way to learn that’s based on what the pilot needs to know instead of the raw data behind the required knowledge. For instance, knowing at what temperature a fire detection circuit will activate is interesting, I suppose, but in case of a fire, it’s completely useless. What matters is knowing what to do when that most terrible of red lights comes on. Operational day flow training concentrates on just that and leaves the raw data to the engineers.
The effect, at least according to the two pilots with whom I spoke about the training, is nothing short of revolutionary. The two, who work for a Honda dealer, were the two most enthusiastic type rating graduates I’d ever encountered, and the reason, they said, was the operational day flow approach. Because the training focuses on what you need to know and not on useless data that seems as though it was introduced into the training manual to give the instructors something to talk about (because it was), pilots learn to fly the plane instead of being forced to remember data they will quickly forget, since they never needed to know it to begin with.