It was almost exactly 20 years ago that Michimasa Fujino, a young engineer with a doctorate in aeronautics who at the time was working for the Honda Motor Company, first sketched his idea for an advanced lightweight private jet. His concept was unusual in that it proposed mounting the plane’s two engines not at each side of the rear fuselage – as is standard practice for business jets – but on pylons above the wings.
Fujino’s logic was that the wing-mounted turbofans would not only drastically cut interior noise and vibration, but also maximise cabin space in a small aircraft designed to carry seven people at most (which would include two pilots). The prevailing wisdom, on the other hand, was that overwing engines would have a tendency to tip over and thus be inherently unstable, and that they and their pylons would negatively affect airflow over the wings’ aerodynamically sensitive upper surfaces.
Fast forward to 2017 and the gorgeous red-and-white aeroplane parked in a hangar at Hong Kong International Airport’s Business Aviation Centre serves as convincing proof of the soundness of Fujino’s original concept. Indeed, as the still-youthful engineer and businessman – who, in his capacity as president and CEO of the Honda Aircraft Company, now stands with us as we admire the first production Hondajet to land in this city – modestly but neatly puts it: “We found the sweet spot.”
The Hondajet isn’t beautiful in the conventional sense. Its proportions are odd, with an elongated and slightly bulbous nose that suggests a duck or platypus bill, and it still jars to see the pods of its General Electric/Honda engines protruding upwards rather than downwards from the wing, as they would on most commercial jetliners. (Swept-back pylons, however, mean that the power units don’t obscure the view from the cabin windows.)
No matter: there’s an innate perfection about this little plane that makes it both covetable and thrilling, whether that frisson derives from the exquisite finish both inside and out (the fuselage and its outer skin are constructed from smooth, light hybrid composites), the lustrous exterior paintwork, the sleek and contemporary cabin, or the suite of ultra-advanced avionics. And then, of course, there’s the sheer bravado with which Honda opted to take on existing aerospace giants not only by starting from scratch but also by taking a radically different approach.
That wasn’t easy. Although a prototype Hondajet first flew in 2003, and Honda decided to commercialise the project three years later – when it set up the aircraft company that would be headquartered on a new campus at Greensboro, North Carolina – deliveries of production models only began in late 2015 after the US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) awarded its all-important type certification.
In the interim, however, the aircraft set about establishing its credentials in other ways, demonstrating a maximum airspeed of 425 knots (almost 790km/h) at 30,000 feet in early 2011 and, a few months later, achieving its maximum cruise altitude of 43,000 feet, a height it can reach from sea level in around 20 minutes. These impressive numbers comfortably exceed those offered by any direct competitor, as well as Honda’s own performance projections.
With its range of around 1,200 nautical miles (around 2,200 kilometres), the Hondajet clearly isn’t designed for crossing continents, though with a single pilot on the flight deck it will get you and three other passengers from Hong Kong to, say, Bangkok or Beijing in a single hop. As the company also claims the plane’s lightweight construction and advanced aerodynamics lead to vast reductions in fuel economy and emissions, you may even feel a little smug – in a fuzzy, eco sort of way.
You’ll be travelling in considerable comfort, too. The plane is extraordinarily quiet and smooth – the latter partly thanks to the ugly-duckling nose, which enhances laminar flow over the fuselage, and partly because its cruising altitude takes it well above bad weather (not to mention the riffraff flying commercial). There’s more legroom than in the competition and even a proper toilet in the rear – an amenity unique to the Hondajet in this light-jet segment (and would you contemplate a three-hour flight without one?).
Drawbacks? Aside from the caveat emptor implicit in the US$5 million purchase of a high-tech toy that’s still largely unproven (and from a manufacturer with virtually zero track record in this particular industry), we’re absolutely gobsmacked by the Hondajet, as apparently is everyone who’s been fortunate enough to fly – or fly in – one. It won’t be available in Asia quite yet, as Honda is still working on the dealer, service and training package that’s all part of the sales proposition, though you can expect that to be in place in the coming months. However, as the brand’s automotive efforts (its woeful current Formula 1 engine sadly excepted) have all garnered an enviable global reputation for excellence and reliability, we can’t see that kudos being willingly squandered.
Petrolheads still rave about Honda’s original NSX super-sports car, which was beautifully overengineered and whose interior was inspired by the cockpit of an F16 fighter plane. To our eyes the Hondajet has similar appeal. So, do we want one? Oh yes we do – a thousand times, yes!