For owner-pilots, this fast, roomy light jet delivers where it matters most: simplicity and lower workload.
The story of HondaJet’s architect Michimasa Fujino and his long journey from initial concept in the late 1980s to proof of concept in 2005 and finally certification is one of determination and patient perseverance. The founding CEO of Honda Aircraft Company (HACI), a subsidiary of Honda Motor Company, was given the reins to pursue a research project that led to the clean sheet design of a light business jet that employed an unconventional over-the-wing engine configuration and a composite fuselage.
While the certification program took longer than expected, the timing for a resurgence of interest in this remarkable light jet may be ideal, given the improved economy and steady upticks in aircraft market activity. Following certification in late 2015, 54 aircraft have been delivered. With an airframe that has had time to mature through a decade of development, certification and entry into service, the aircraft is truly finding its legs in the marketplace, especially among owner-operators.
When provided the opportunity to fly the HondaJet at this year’s AirVenture Oshkosh, I approached it strictly from the perspective of a step-up owner-pilot who would be operating it single-pilot and with no prior jet experience. Honda Aircraft Company’s Flight Operations Manager and Chief Test Pilot Warren Gould, who hosted me on this test flight, has been involved in the initial development and flight test of multiple jets in his career at other OEMs. He said he was impressed with HACI’s approach to single-pilot ops.
“In the development phase, they built multiple mock-ups and spent a lot of time gathering pilot input. This is most pilot involvement I’ve ever seen on a development program,” Gould said. “It is an extremely pilot-centric aircraft, with tremendous thought given to simplicity, workload and ergonomics.”
Before our flight, Gould took me on a detailed walkaround to point out the features that make the HondaJet a formidable light jet, as well as an ideal owner-pilot platform. The obvious one is the over-the-wing-mounted engines, or as HACI calls them, OTWEM. Initially conceived by Fujino, the company adopted the OTWEM for three primary reasons: First, mounting the engines on the wing provided more space in the fuselage by eliminating the carry-through structure that would normally be located in the rear part of the fuselage. Engine accessories are also encased in the pylon instead of the empennage. All of this translates into a roomier cabin, lavatory and aft baggage compartment.
Second, it contributes to the aerodynamic efficiency of the airframe because the pylon design itself acts as an aerodynamic surface that achieves lower wave drag at higher transonic speeds. Thus, high-altitude cruise efficiency is actually greater than that of a conventional rear-fuselage engine-nacelle configuration. Finally, engine noise and vibration in the cabin is reduced as the engines are now located further away from the cabin.
The fuselage is all composite, giving it an extremely smooth, sleek appearance. The bulbous nose of the aircraft – which observers either love or hate – is an aerodynamic marvel as well. Using a natural laminar flow shape, the nose reduces drag and wing noise, as well as providing ample leg and elbow room in the cockpit.
Keeping with the theme of reducing pilot workload and increasing safety, the aircraft’s de-ice systems are all managed and activated automatically with no proactive actions required of the pilot. Dual ice detectors feed information to the de-ice system, which then triggers bleed air on the wing and an electro-impulsive system for the tail. All external lights are LED and are handled automatically. That is, the plane knows what phase of flight it is in, as well as flight conditions, and selects the lights appropriately. For example, once you release the brake, the taxi light comes on. Once you go to takeoff thrust, the landing lights and strobes illuminate. As gear is retracted, the recognition lights come on; at FL180, the recogs and ice lights go off.
Similar to what is found on the much larger Gulfstream G650 or Dassault Falcon 7X, the aircraft is equipped with UTC Aerospace Systems SmartProbes that each have dedicated air data computers to provide airspeed, angle of attack and other flight data. There is no pneumatic tubing or pitot tubes that can potentially fail or get iced up. There is a third backup probe that feeds to a three-in-one Meggitt EFIS standby gauge. As the ultimate backup, this third probe can feed the PFD should the aircraft lose both primary air data probes or if both generators go offline.
The HondaJet’s windscreen is electrically heated and automatically controlled. Gold filament is embedded in the windshield with the terminating bars giving it the trademark “shark’s teeth” look.
The aircraft is also equipped with short, beefy trailing link gear to deliver a smooth landing without excessive float. The speed brakes, located on the empennage rather than the wings, are aerodynamically limited, meaning that at high speed they only deploy a small amount; at low speeds, they deploy fully. The result is that the pilot gets the same deceleration over the entire speed range, but without the rumble and buffeting that sometimes occurs with wing-mounted brakes.
One thing that was noticeably absent from the walkaround was fluid checks. All consumables – oxygen, hydraulic, oil and fire bottle pressures – are monitored electronically, with no gauges to check. The preflight simply requires the pilot to look for leaks or damage.
Finally, we take a look at the nose and aft baggage compartments. The nose baggage holds 100 pounds and 9 cubic feet of space. The aft baggage holds 400 pounds and could easily accommodate six tour-size golf bags. The aft compartment isn’t heated, but the outflow valves exhaust under the floor, keeping liquids from freezing.
The door is a true airstair, giving it the feel of a much bigger aircraft. Inside, it is obvious how Honda leveraged the extra space gained by the OTWEM. The club seating arrangement is modern and airy with ample seated shoulder and headroom. At the rear is a surprisingly roomy lavatory with the option to have a sink and externally serviced potty.
Let’s Go Fly
Once buckled into the cockpit, it’s apparent HACI had the single-pilot operator in mind. The Garmin G3000 flight deck, with its two touch controllers and large 14-inch PFD’s and single MFD, provide an uncluttered cockpit. Every panel and pedestal items are elegantly and ergonomically designed. Other thoughtful touches included cup holders, side-panel storage cubbies and glareshield-mounted push-to-talk buttons.
Once the battery comes on, a quick sweep of the switches confirms everything is in the 12-o’clock position. From a single-pilot flow standpoint, the switch layout and access is simple and ergonomic. Once the avionics fire up, the Garmin G3000 brings up a status page where the pilot can confirm fluid levels, electrical status, door status and fuel status. As Gould said, “All green, all good.” The HondaJet has a nice feature that allows you to click through checklist items using a small wheel on the yoke.
Today for this flight demonstration, we are moderately loaded with 2,200 pounds of fuel and an outside temperature of 17 Celsius. One feature that is still missing with this G3000 installation is the performance calculations for V speeds where the FMS automatically determines takeoff and landing performance data and transfers it to the PFD. Although not a time-consuming process, this is one capability HACI should add in the future.
Everything checks out, so we begin the engine start, get our clearance and taxi instructions. As we were parked on a tightly packed ramp at Appleton, Wisconsin, Gould demonstrated the aircraft’s incredibly tight turning abilities. Hydraulically powered and electrically controlled, the nosewheel steering is smoothly controlled through the rudder pedals. It is speed sensitive, so there is more travel at low speed than at high speed. On the ramp, the aircraft turned 60 degrees, practically within its own wing area, allow us to maneuver around cones and other obstacles around us. Residual thrust is only 90 pounds, so the pilot is not having to ride the brakes during the taxi.
After a short delay, we are cleared onto KATW’s Runway 30. Brakes are held while takeoff power is brought up and with brake release, the aircraft sprints down the runway. At 113 kts, we rotate and quickly accelerate as gear is brought up.
After a few turns and altitude holds for traffic avoidance, ATC sets us free to climb to our intended altitude of FL280. Hand-flying in the climb, the aircraft is easy to fly, a little heavy in roll (in part thanks to those large winglets) and responsive in pitch. Once I leveled off at FL280, the aircraft accelerated nicely to Mach 0.687 or about 413 kts. Honda publishes its max speed of 422 kts at FL310, although most would prefer to fly it closer to its maximum operating altitude of FL430 to get the best range out of the aircraft. Published long-range cruise at FL430 nets 1,200 nm (with NBAA reserves), a speed of 368 kts, burning about
607 lbs/hr total.
I did a few steep turns to get the feel of the aircraft. In general, the aircraft felt true and predictable. After leveling and trimming for level flight, I give one rudder pedal a firm push to gauge lateral directional stability and how quickly the aircraft returned to balanced flight. The plane oscillated three to four times before settling down. Next, I reduced power the aircraft for slow flight. According to HACI’s test data, the wing will stall first around 55 percent semi-span with the separation expanding inboard. At the stall angle of attack, the wing root between the fuselage and the nacelle does not stall and there is adequate stall margin over the outboard portion of the wing, making the aircraft controllable well into the stall. Test data also found the OTWEM has no effect on the stall characteristics of the wing.
As I found, the aircraft is docile and handles predictably in slow flight, with the aircraft’s stick shaker giving me a wake-up call that a stall was imminent. A stick pusher prevents a full-out stall and keep pilots out of the low-speed danger zone.
Next came the fun part of the demo: an emergency descent. Gould instructed me to pull back the throttles, deploy the speed brakes and point the nose downhill. The deployment is indiscernible, with no buffeting or obvious increase in noise, and as Gould promised, we were quickly doing 10,000 fpm.
As we leveled off and reoriented ourselves for the flight back to ATW, Gould pointed out another handy single-pilot feature. Placing the aircraft back on autopilot, he showed me how to dial a speed and watch the engines’ FADEC choose a power setting to maintain that airspeed. You can see how this could be especially helpful when negotiating complicated arrivals and step-downs in busy airspace.
As we flew back into the beehive at KATW, the G3000 made easy work of loading the ILS to Runway 30. The system has a number of intuitive shortcuts that lessen the number of keystrokes and button pushes. The impressively large windscreens provide excellent visibility and were especially useful as we searched for traffic and maneuvered onto the final approach course. Before I knew it, the HondaJet was crossing the fence at 108 kts., and settling softly onto the pavement, requiring only about a 3-degree nose-up attitude.
Make Friends With the HondaJet
As the newest kid on the block, the HondaJet is eager to make friends with those interested in moving up to an entry-level jet. For the owner-pilot segment, the HondaJet offers a number of compelling single-pilot features that contribute to lower workload, simplicity of operation and of course, safety. In the back, passengers will not be disappointed, with a spacious, comfortable cabin and a private aft lavatory as a bonus.
HACI has been patient in its development of the HondaJet, as they care about getting it right. In my opinion, they succeeded. Keeping true Fujino’s original intent, the aircraft achieves a good balance of efficiency, performance and payload/range. In fact, the final performance numbers didn’t creep significantly from the initial concept introduction more than a decade ago.
With one of the biggest companies in the world to back it up, the HondaJet isn’t going anywhere. Honda has made a sizable investment in its Greensboro, North Carolina production facility and has built out a strong network of dealers and service infrastructure inside and outside the company. And while there are more established light jet brands in the marketplace, the HondaJet has an opportunity to grow its foothold in the light jet arena, specifically with the owner-flown segment. This summer, the company announced they delivered two dozen aircraft the first half of 2017, more than any other jet in its category.
Anyone considering a step-up to a turbofan should fly the sleek, striking light jet that turns heads everywhere it goes. While its ramp presence may be unconventional by legacy jet standards, what truly makes the jet remarkable is what it can achieve where it matters most: in the air.