Honda Aircraft welcomes visitors to open house

 - July 31, 2011, 6:40 AM

If anyone doubts Honda Motor Company’s commitment to the general aviation industry, a visit to Honda Aircraft’s new 623,000-sq-ft factory at Piedmont Triad International Airport in Greensboro, N.C., underscores the significant investment the company has made. The $100 million spent on the new facilities doesn’t include how much has been spent on personnel (700 now, expected to grow to about 1,000 as production ramps up), equipment and the development and certification program for the light HondaJet. Honda Aircraft gave members of the media a tour of the new facility on July 12.

It is interesting to draw a comparison between another company that achieved some success in the very light jet marketplace, Eclipse Aviation, which built 260 jets before going bankrupt. (Eclipse Aerospace has resumed support for the program and plans to resume production at some point.) Eclipse Aviation founder Vern Raburn boasted of orders for thousands of EA-500 jets, yet the Albuquerque, N.M., facilities that were to have made that possible spanned a fraction of the area covered by the new Honda Aircraft campus. And Honda Aircraft president and CEO Michimasa Fujino, who never brags about the HondaJet, has acknowledged only “more than 100 orders” for the new jet. Fujino projects production ramp-up to 70 to 100 airplanes per year two to three years after certification and first deliveries, which are scheduled to begin in the third quarter of next year. Honda is clearly serious about aviation and putting the necessary money into the HondaJet program.

Flight and Ground Testing

While Fujino has been working on designing new aircraft since 1986 and first sketched the HondaJet with its unusual (but not pioneering) over-the-wing engine mounting configuration in 1997, Honda founder Soichiro Honda had always wanted to enter the aerospace business. The company made several attempts, beginning in the 1960s, but the founder never saw his dreams come to fruition.

Now, Honda Aircraft is accelerating toward next year’s planned first delivery, and much of the new production facility is being prepared for the ramp-up. The campus includes three main buildings, the headquarters building in the center, flanked by the R&D facility and the production facility, both of which face the airport’s runways.

Inside the R&D facility, technicians are busy assembling FAA-conforming HondaJets for flight and ground testing. Two airframes have been completed, the first flight-test jet (F1), which took to the skies on Dec. 20, 2010, and a static-test article (ST1) that is currently ensconced in the R&D’s facility’s structural test apparatus. Two more flight-test jets (F2 and F3) are nearing completion. F2 will fly shortly and F3 later this year, followed by ST2 early next year, to be used for additional static and fatigue testing.

Cockpit and Cabin Design

Also housed in the R&D facility is the design studio, where Chris Osborne, manager of the interiors group, is refining the HondaJet’s cockpit and cabin layout. The production interior has been finalized and is on display in one of two fuselage mockups in the design studio. Visitors to last year’s NBAA Convention or this year’s Ebace show saw the production interior. “Customers have been impressed,” said Osborne. “A lot of customers have been programmed that the mockup is not the same as the final product [on other jet programs].”

The interior mockup is used in the certification program but also to help production personnel train for completions, which will be done in the production facility. Honda Aircraft has also been able to use the interior mockup for human-factors evaluations, both of the cabin and cockpit. “The FAA is impressed at how we [evaluated] human factors early,” Osborne said.

Osborne, who has worked for Honda for more than 20 years, primarily in automotive interior design, is obsessive about the tiniest detail. One example is the B/E Aerospace crew seats in the cockpit, which feature thigh adjusters to set the amount of tension on the forward portion of the seat, which can tilt down as the pilot applies pressure to the rudders or brakes. This is a normal feature on much larger jets, but Osborne felt it was important for crew comfort. The crew seats also have lumbar adjustment, and the seat back is vertically adjustable so that pilots can get the positioning of the lumbar pressure just right.

Another cockpit example is the bezel around the Garmin G3000 touchscreen controllers, which Honda Aircraft engineers helped design. The bezel provides a fixed location for the pilot’s fingers, aiding the targeting of the correct icon on the touchscreen and providing an anchor for muscle memory so the pilot can find a touchscreen location easily almost without looking. The mockups benefitted from Honda Aircraft’s use of a simulation program that renders the interior in mind-boggling detail, four times that of a high-resolution monitor, allowing engineers to evaluate the play of light and shadow across every element.

The HondaJet’s over-the-wing engine mount design (first seen on the 1970s VFW-Fokker VFW 614) eliminates the narrowing of the aft fuselage needed for aerodynamic optimization on traditional business jet designs, making room for an enclosed lavatory and large external baggage compartment. Combined with Honda Aircraft’s own natural laminar flow airfoil, the over-the-wing mount delays drag rise much later than even a clean-wing design without any engines, according to Fujino. HondaJet F1 has borne out the performance projections, including 43,000-foot maximum altitude and a climb rate of 3,990 fpm. The $4.5 million GE Honda HF120-powered HondaJet, with room for seven occupants, exceeded Honda Aircraft’s 420-knot maximum speed target by five knots.

The tour also included the structural test facility, the delivery center and the aircraft systems integration test facility, which simulates the aircraft’s systems and performance, including the G3000 avionics. In the telemetry room in the headquarters building, engineers displayed recorded images from previous test flights (none were being conducted at the time of the tour). The telemetry systems record thousands of data parameters and multiple video feeds in real time. Engineers can see into the cockpit via the video feeds, including observing the position of the test jet on the jet’s G3000 moving map.

The final-assembly section of the production facility building is being prepared for volume production, with setup of jigs under way. The HondaJet’s composite fuselage is manufactured by GKN Aerospace in Tallassee, Ala., and the aluminum empennage by Hampson in the UK. Honda Aircraft is manufacturing wings in-house for now, but might yet choose a supplier, according to Fujino. Honda Aircraft is doing all avionics, paint and interior completions in Greensboro. The paint booths feature the latest technology, including elevators that rise from the floor to facilitate painting the underside of the jet. There is enough space to build 18 jets at a time in the production facility during two shifts, but that could be expanded to 24 if necessary.

For Fujino, the imminent certification and first delivery of the HondaJet will be a dream come true. “Not all engineers have the opportunity to design a new airplane,” he said. “[Soichiro] Honda had a dream of aviation. My dream has become a dream for Honda and even for the Japanese people and later for the American people.” While it was too late to show the founder of the company what Honda Aircraft has accomplished, Fujino visited Honda’s wife after he died and showed her a model of the HondaJet. “She said if he was alive, how happy he would be,” Fujino recalled.