FLYING HONDA By Sandra Katzman

2013 Untold Story Winner – Silver Award Winner

A HondaJet made by Honda Aircraft, auto giant Honda Motor Co.'s aviation subsidiary, is shown during a test flight June 27 over Greensboro, North Carolina. HONDA MOTOR/afp-jiji

A HondaJet made by Honda Aircraft, auto giant Honda Motor Co.’s aviation subsidiary, is shown during a test flight June 27 over Greensboro, North Carolina. HONDA MOTOR/afp-jiji

Looking at the tiny red 1977 Honda Civic in the Smithsonian Museum in Washington D.C., Michimasa Fujino, future president and CEO of Honda Aircraft Company in North Carolina, thought, “I hope HondaJet proves similar,” having the same impact on the light business jet market that the Civic had on the automobile industry.

Honda Motor Co., whose Civic and its innovative CVCC engine met U.S. emissions regulations years before American carmakers said it could be done, has created wholly-owned Honda Aircraft in a bid to revolutionize global business jet travel with its new HondaJet.

Now in production, the 6-passenger HondaJet is the first light business jet to combine over-the-wing turbofan engines with a composite-material fuselage and natural laminar flow wings and fuselage nose surfaces that sharply reduce fuel costs and allow it to use short landing strips.

The HondaJet’s most visible innovation is its radical over-the-wing engine pods.  The unorthodox mounting helps keep the plane smaller while improving performance, says Masayuki Kubo, a senior expert in aerospace at Kawasaki Heavy Industry, Ltd. in Tokyo. “The wing design achieves a laminar (streamlined) flow of air over the wing, avoiding the boundary layer turbulence that usually plagues aircraft efficiency,” praises Kubo.  “This is an age-old dream of aerodynamicists.”

One benefit of HondaJet’s innovative aerodynamics is improved fuel efficiency on longer flights. Another is shorter takeoff and landing runs that enable it to land on almost any paved airfield, bringing business jet travel to airports that previously could only handle prop planes. While designers in the past feared that placing engines over the wing would result in “flutter” (like a flag in a strong wind), Kubo says,  “fortunately the engines are placed near the wing root where the rigidity of the wing is large enough that the adverse effect is limited.”

Less visible to the eye is the all-composite material construction of HondaJet’s fuselage. Honda Aircraft was already using composites for the entire fuselage of the prototype HondaJet in 2005. In contrast, Boeing Company’s 787, the first commercial airliner to use composites for structurally critical surfaces, was only introduced in 2012. Other aircraft have used composites for smaller components, and a handful of experimental aircraft and prototypes use them extensively. Honda, however, is unique in using composites for the primary structure of a business jet intended for mass production.

“The technological hurdle might have been a little lower because of the HondaJet’s small size,” says Kubo, “but it was still a big step for aircraft structural engineering” in terms of weight and cost reduction. Kubo warns that time will be needed to build experience in maintenance and repair of the novel materials: for example, the pressurized heat treatment used during manufacture might not be available where repairs are required.

Impressive as the technological innovations are, the HondaJet could also drive a different kind of transformation in the aviation industry itself.  If Honda mass-produces the jet like it does its cars, the production scale “would be an epoch-making change in the aircraft industry,” says Kubo. Whereas car interiors today are neatly designed and skillfully manufactured to customers’ satisfaction, aircraft interiors are still at the level of commuter trains, Kubo criticizes; aircraft makers have a lot to learn from the car industry.

The story behind the HondaJet’s creation is as interesting as its technological breakthroughs. At age 11, Fujino flew paper airplanes from his family’s 4th floor apartment, and went on to study aeronautical engineering at Tokyo University. After graduation, he checked out the few aerospace companies in Japan.  “But even if they said they did aerospace, the actual tasks were more supplier-type projects, so there was no opportunity for engineers to design airplanes from scratch.  My passion was to create from the concept up, to actually build an airplane.  So I wanted to look for a larger opportunity in Japan.  I finally chose Honda as the best company.”

As a new hire in 1984, Fujino worked in Honda’s automobile research division.  Then in 1986, Honda R&D launched an airplane project. It was just basic research; at the time there were no specific product development plans. Two years later Fujino was transferred to airplane research as part of a team told to develop a Honda-original airplane from scratch, and he has worked continuously on what became the HondaJet ever since.

At first, Fujino’s assignment was hidden under the cover of university-industry cooperation. He was sent to Mississippi State University, which has a strong aerospace engineering department. “I was not to say anything about the U.S. assignment; I was only allowed to tell people that I worked as a research engineer at the university,” Fujino recalls in a telephone interview. The project, Fujino says, was kept “very remote, so we could keep the secret.”

The idea of entering the business jet sector was not obvious to Honda’s senior management. It was particularly hard for the company to envision business jets’ potential because so few people in Japan used them at the time. Given Japan’s small size and the many restrictions on Japanese airports, it was hard to maximize the convenience of traveling by private aircraft.

While living in the U.S. and working on the airplane project, however, Fujino used commercial airlines, general aviation aircraft and business jets. He saw first hand the great potential for high performance, fuel-efficient small business jets, especially in the U.S. market.  Perhaps, he urged management, there could be significant demand for a low-cost, high-performance business jet in a country where light jets already serviced some 5,000 community airports.

It is difficult for a giant corporation in Japan to expand into a major new business area.  “As a public company,” Fujino says, “we need consensus to proceed. At the same time, however, Honda has freedom and a culture for new engineers to create, like my own research when I was young.  If we have good research results, we can speak to top management.”

After almost ten years of research, Fujino did present his project to top management in 1997 and received their consensus approval to start developing the HondaJet for commercialization.

In 1996 Honda returned almost all the aircraft design team to Japan to concentrate on the increasingly competitive auto industry.  Nevertheless, by 2003 Fujino’s remaining team delivered a prototype that proved the HondaJet’s concept and performance. The prototype was revealed to the public in 2005 at the famous experimental aircraft association event AirVenture in Oshkosh, Wisconsin. In 2006 Honda formally established Honda Aircraft to develop the business side of the project.

“If you create a new market, there is a big business opportunity, but if you just try to take a share of an existing market, there may not be. My goal is to expand the market,” says Fujino. “HondaJet is an icon for Honda to prove both innovation and a new market, and a business model not only for Japan but for the world.”

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Check-out The Japan Times news article: Honda’s first jet takes flight

Sandra Katzman, Lecturer in English at Osaka University and Kansai University, and Journalist with the Asia-Pacific Defense Forum and Platta Emission DailyKatzman reports on innovations: computer mouse (public radio), first hand-held computer therapy (Hearst San Francisco Examiner), chip-based mosaic immunoassays (Analytical  Chemistry), tissue-equivalent solid phantoms to estimate the diffusion microwave radiation (BioMedNet). Foreign correspondent clients include energy business Platts Emissions Daily.  She received her Masters in Communication from Stanford and has lived in Japan since 1996.