At General Electric, the official corporate slogan is “Imagination at work.” At Honda, it’s “The power of dreams.” The two companies announced last month they have merged them in an alliance to develop, certify, market and support Honda’s 1,670-pound-thrust HF118 turbofan. The result could be one of the most innovative global alliances in business-aviation history.
Over the past several months, many within the industry have been speculating wildly on what Honda had in mind for its little turbofan and the unique HondaJet airframe on which a pair of them are mounted. Developed over many years with millions spent on research and development, both engine and airframe were kept under wraps and consistently downplayed by the Japanese carmaker. Honda insisted it had “no commercial plans” for the HondaJet, and the crystal ball remained foggy on its hopes for the small turbofan–until now.
All that time we spent wondering what Honda had on its corporate mind, David Calhoun, president and CEO of GE Transportation, knew many of the answers. On February 16, after GE engineers had spent thousands of man-hours evaluating the engine and Honda’s research, Calhoun and Honda Motors president and CEO Takeo Fukui joined hands at Honda’s corporate headquarters in Tokyo to seal a strategic alliance between the two companies. The planned 50/50 project is intended to develop, certify and market the Honda engine. Details and formalization of the alliance are expected later this year. While Honda’s marketing plans for its unusually configured six- to seven-passenger HondaJet remain a mystery, the two companies shed significant light on the future of the 392-pound (dry weight), 1,670-pound-thrust turbofan.
Calling the alliance “a spirit of equal partnership,” Fukui said, “We aim to commercialize our compact jet engine business by merging mutual strengths: Honda’s HF118 turbofan engine technology and GE’s technology, sales and support.” Calhoun said, “GE is very impressed with the careful, methodical approach Honda has taken in developing its HF118 jet engine for the business jet market. The technologies are first class and focused on critical customer requirements–affordability, light weight, fuel efficiency, reliability and low cost of ownership. The next step will be the transition of the HF118 engine from a research-and-development project into a mass-produced engine for future small business jets.”
As a co-branded engine, the HF118 would represent GE’s first foray into turbofans of this thrust range. The two-spool turbofan has a one-stage fan, a two-stage compressor and a two-stage turbine. With a fan diameter of 17.4 inches, its bypass ratio is 2.9/1. To date, the market for engines in this thrust range has been dominated by Williams with its FJ44 and FJ33. Pratt & Whitney Canada is making a run with its developmental PW600 series. Cessna has chosen the P&WC engine for its developmental Mustang, as has Eclipse for its proposed Eclipse 500 after severing ties with Williams.
GE Aircraft Engines is best known for its high-thrust, airliner-size turbofans, such as the 115,000-pound-thrust GE90-115B that powers the Boeing 777-300ER twinjet.
GE’s current experience with business aviation centers on its CF34 turbofan line, which powers the Bombardier Challenger 600 series, and the CFE738 (a joint venture with Honeywell), which powers Dassault’s Falcon 2000. The CF34 series also powers Bombardier’s CRJs, and it may be GE’s experience with the high-utilization aspect of the regional market that is a pertinent factor in the company joining Honda in developing the smaller turbofan.
The Air-taxi Market
In association with the announced joint venture last month, GE discussed its “very long-term view,” which involves “producing a new product for an emerging, and promising, future market.” Owner-operators and fractional-ownership programs are part of the anticipated customer base, but high-utilization air taxi programs could offer the greatest sales potential for engines in the thrust range of the HF118, said GE. The company maintains, “The ‘air taxi’ business involves micro jets flying passengers on short legs using the vast number of airports not serviced by major airliners. These applications are in their infancy, but will be driven by a suitable infrastructure and affordable jet aircraft.”
GE goes on to point out that current sales of aircraft powered by engines in the 1,000- to 3,000-pound- thrust range total 150 to 200 per year, absent any existing air-taxi ground-swell. “Over the next 10 years,” said GE, “we forecast a potential $3 billion market for jet engines in this thrust class, and that is a conservative view. The issue is not what applications exist today. Rather, the issue is producing the best engine for emerging opportunities.”
As an example, GE cited its experience with another joint venture, the airliner-engine builder CFM International. GE and Snecma of France began development of the CFM56 without a launch customer. The alliance had an initial goal of building 5,000 engines. To date, CFM International has sold more than 13,000. Though Honda and GE see promise in the emergence of the air-taxi market, they collectively maintain they do not depend on a future boom to be successful with their alliance on the HF118.
No decision has been reached on where the HF118 would be built. GE is so impressed with Honda’s work on the HF118 so far that Calhoun said the cost to complete development would be much less than the typical $1 billion it takes to develop and certify a new engine. Honda has already run the HF118 more than 1,400 hours, including 200 in flight tests. The engine first flew on June 10, 2002, on the left pylon of a Cessna CitationJet testbed. Since December 3, a pair of HF118s has been flying mounted on the HondaJet’s over-the-wing pylons.
Design goals include low acquisition cost (targeted at less than $500,000), low noise and emissions levels, improved reliability and increased fuel efficiency. Honda believes advanced materials and electronic technology borrowed from its automotive experience can improve fuel efficiency by as much as 30 percent compared with existing engines.
Jack Olcott, president emeritus of NBAA, told AIN, “It’s not easy to build a small turbofan. The two largest concerns are temperature and pressure ratio. With its lower mass, a small turbine engine has less material through which to dissipate heat. Also, the gap between the outer tip of the fan and the fan casing is critical to maintaining pressure. The smaller the fan diameter, the smaller the gap must be–and the closer the production tolerance needs to be. Still, with today’s computer-aided design and computational fluid dynamics, engineers have more tools to meet those challenges.”
What about the HondaJet?
Is the HondaJet a viable launch customer for the HF118? Industry analysts have expressed skepticism that the composite-fuselage, aluminum-wing HondaJet, in its present configuration, would be advanced for certification and sale. Olcott said it’s probable that Honda will produce a business jet, “but not this one.”
On the airframe side, even more so than with an engine, designing a marvel of a machine is only a small part of success. Might Honda be exploring a partnership among existing airframers to mirror the alliance it has forged with GE? Olcott doesn’t think so. He said in today’s global business environment, Honda could choose to have the airplane produced, piecemeal, by a number of international companies for final assembly in an uncomplicated factory. “It could be a true ‘world product,’” he said.
Another critical area is product support. Olcott said that the first customers’ initial operating experience must be successful. “That’s always a challenge, and it’s where a lot of other programs have not been successful.” He said the days of selling someone an airplane and then letting them fend for themselves for service and support are long gone. For an all-new airplane to be successful, he said, it will take “significant handholding by the manufacturer.”
Olcott and many other industry observers yearn for the day that an industrial giant, such as Honda, embarks on a project that would mirror its success in the automotive field. As to whether last month’s announcement is indicative of anything new in Honda’s plans for the HondaJet, perhaps the best voice to listen to is that of Honda Motor president Fukui himself.
He said in a written statement, “We have created a business jet with high performance, high fuel efficiency, low emissions and a spacious cabin. Sounds like a Honda, right?”
In January in Detroit, speaking at the North American International Auto Show, Fukui said, “Beginning with motorcycles, Honda has always been a company which has actively pursued mobility. Today, we can easily communicate with each other via the Internet and cellphones; however, we believe face-to-face meetings are still the starting point for communication between people. Mobility is a basic desire, right and joy for all people. Honda continues to pursue mobility from all dimensions. Mobility in the third dimension–the sky–was a dream we have had since shortly after our company was founded. Honda will continue our effort to attain the ultimate in advanced mobility to create joy and happiness for people.”