Automobile sales at Honda, the only one of Japan’s Big Three automakers to end its lastest fiscal year in the black, are down and its 2009 third-quarter profits are off 56 percent from Q3 2008, but the company is still bullish — aggressively bullish — on the HondaJet.
Having recently completed an FAA Interim Type Certification Board Meeting and successfully conducted key tests of the twin-jet VLJ’s rejected take-off braking performance, crew and-cabin-seat crashworthiness and other critical structural systems, Honda says development and production of a conforming prototype is on schedule for a maiden flight early next year.
According to Honda Aircraft Company President & CEO Michimasa Fujino, construction of the conforming prototype’s fuselage, wing, empennage, landing gear, and other major structural components was completed in September and FAA-monitored assembly of the prototype is now underway at HondaJet’s world headquarters in Greensboro, North Carolina.
That’s the good news.
What’s the bad news?
There isn’t any, but there is some news that’s even better.
The better news is that Honda, despite the overall state of the U.S. and global economy and dismal condition of the aviation industry in particular, has not only kept the Hondajet program going at full speed, it has significantly upgraded it with major investments in more advanced technology, expanded U.S.-based production facilities and strategic initiatives designed to guarantee HondaJet owners and pilots world-class service and support.
Item: Honda recently completed and “flew” its state-of-the-art, Honda-designed Advanced Systems Integration Test Facility, which encompasses both a “real” aircraft test lab and something called a Real-time Test and Simulation System (RTSS).
To use Honda’s words, the RTSS “incorporates actual aircraft systems hardware and software, installed in a spatially-representative manner, and interconnected with actual aircraft electrical harnesses. The RTSS provides systems, environmental and aerodynamic simulation, supported by dSPACE® real-time hardware and Honda-developed high-fidelity 6-DOF aerodynamic and real-time engine models.”
Translated into English, we believe that means it’s a simulator that blurs the line between virtual and reality into near invisibility.
“The HondaJet ASITF has successfully integrated the best attributes of a systems test lab, engineering simulator, and ‘Iron Bird’ in one facility,” said Fujino. “This facility allows thorough evaluation of all systems integration for enhanced aircraft safety and will significantly support accelerated development of both systems and conforming aircraft.”
Item: Honda has opened its checkbook even further by making massive upgrades to the HondaJet’s original avionics suite. The conforming prototype will now fly off with a glass flight deck featuring three 14-inch landscape-format displays, dual control-and-flight-plan-entry touch screens, satellite weather, graphical synoptics, split-screen MFD capability, and — optionally on production models — Synthetic Vision.
Based on a Honda-specific variant of Garmin’s next-generation G3000 system, the HondaJet Avionics Suite “represents a significant enhancement in both capability and user experience.” Fujino said. “The large-format displays, advanced features, and intuitive touch-screen multi-function controllers provide a low-workload user interface that is ideally suited to our high-performance light jet aircraft.”
Item: Honda is continuing to invest heavily — very heavily — in both its still-under-construction 250,000 square foot Greensboro production facility and its fully operational 187,000 square foot R&D lab.
A recently added five-axis CNC milling machine (typical high-end CNC units can only rotate material on three axis) that provides, Honda says, “maximum efficiency and the highest quality in the creation of detail parts for conforming aircraft fabrication” is now in service and a structural test system (STS) designed exclusively for the HondaJet is nearing completion.
Based on MTS FlexTest computer technology, the STS will use 61 hydraulic load-simulating actuators, a 2,600-channel data-acquisition system and a hot-and-wet environmental simulation chamber to evaluate static and fatigue strength and stress levels under numerous in-flight and on-the-ground scenarios.
Item: Honda recently unveiled a ground-breaking program designed to take the sticker-shock out of scheduled maintenance costs.
Customizable to provide owners with a fixed hourly maintenance rate based on their individual usage patterns, the three-tiered Flight Ready program — powered in part by a logistical partnership between Honda and FedeX — also promises to provide HondaJet operators around the world with virtually on-demand factory parts and authorized service.
So much for the progress reports, now for the billion-dollar question. Will the $3.9 million HondaJet be the high-flying success Honda clearly expects it to be?
Will corporations and well-healed professionals line up to buy a $3.9 million VLJ even if, as some analysts predict, the economic skies stay gray for another two, three or even five years? Is Honda’s investment — surely near or over the billion buck border by this point — in high-performance, luxury, personal air transport going to pay off?
Nobody really knows, of course, but from our point of view, the answer to all those questions is a resounding “yes.”
With substantial deposits for more than 100 HondaJets already in the bank, Honda spokesman Steve Keeney says “demand has been so strong that our original workforce estimate may double” by the time the aircraft goes into production. Even today, almost certainly more than a year before HondaJet S/N 00001 is delivered, Greensboro is employing 15 percent more people than were initially expected to be working on site at the start of production.
Another good omen for the HondaJet is the reassuring performance of its closest competitors, the $3.6 million Embraer Phenom 100 and the $2.8 million Cessna Citation Mustang. The Phenom, despite having slightly higher weight and operating costs than early VLJ proponents envisioned for the class, is expected to hit 100 sales in 2009, its first real year of production (two planes were delivered in December 2008.) As for the Mustang, which in 2006 became the first VLJ to earn FAA certification, all it’s done is become what is arguably the brightest star in the business aviation skies.
We’ll talk about the Mustang’s international success story in the next post. In the meantime, visit HondaJet.com and be prepared to drool.