Honda revs up its aerospace division

 - July 16, 2007, 8:36 AM

Honda added another element to the business plan for its aviation ventures last month, when the Japanese carmaker announced the formation of Honda Aero Inc., a subsidiary of Honda Motor Co. Led by Junichi Araki, the new business unit will employ only about 10 people and is scheduled to begin operations by year-end at a U.S. location to be determined. On the other side of the Pacific, Honda has consolidated its turbofan- and piston-engine research at the Wako Nishi R&D Center in Japan, combining the former Wako Research Center (turbofans) and the Asaka R& D Center (piston engines).

According to the company, Honda Aero will assume responsibility for commercialization, contract negotiations, procurement and preparation for production of the Honda HF118 turbofan engine. The new subsidiary “will take the lead in accelerating the development of business activities,” according to the company. Concurrently, the Wako Nishi facility will “accelerate research and development efforts in anticipation of mass production of the HF118 engine.”

Honda has targeted its 392-pound (dry weight), 1,670-pound-thrust HF118 for the very-light-jet segment, a market the company estimates will generate a minimum of 150 to 200 aircraft per year, and with potential for further growth should the anticipated air-limo concept come to fruition. However, all of the announced VLJs with a reasonable chance of success–the Adam 700, Citation Mustang, Eclipse 500 and Safire Jet–are powered by either the Pratt & Whitney Canada PW615 or Williams FJ33. Honda expects its engine to sell for less than $500,000 and show significant improvements in efficiency and reliability compared with currently available engines in its class.

The language of the announcements left out any mention of how Honda Aero will interface with Honda’s partner in engine development, General Electric. Honda and the U.S. aircraft engine maker announced in February they had agreed to jointly develop and market the HF118 engine and possible derivatives. That agreement is scheduled to be finalized by year-end, about the same time that Honda Aero is formally established.

Meanwhile, Honda has steadfastly maintained that it has “no business plan” for the HondaJet, a six-place, composite-fuselage twinjet that has logged about 40 hours of test flying (with a pair of HF118 engines mounted on unusual over-the-wing pylons). The HondaJet development team is based at a dedicated Honda research facility built by the carmaker on the leasehold of aircraft modifications specialist Atlantic Aero at the Greensboro (N.C.) Airport (GSO). Honda remains tight-lipped about prospects for the airframe portion of the project.

Some observers contend that Honda fears bringing the HondaJet to market could alienate airframers who are potential customers for the HF118. Still another concern for Honda is compromising the credibility of its other business units–automobiles, motorcycles, recreational vehicles and other motor products–should there be any negative press coverage associated with the aviation activity.