Honda taking mini-jet to market
By BARBARA DE LOLLIS
By BARBARA DE LOLLIS
GREENSBORO, N.C. — Honda, the Japanese giant that has given the United States motorcycles, cars, lawn mowers and weed whackers, puts its newest product on sale next month: a little business jet for $3 million to $4 million.
It's a sporty airplane that stands 13 feet tall at the top of its tail, seats six or seven people and flies faster than its closest rivals — up to 480 miles per hour. Its distinctive look comes from top-mounted engines on the wings, an elongated nose, and a striking pearlescent dark-sky-blue color scheme.
How Honda got into jetmaking is largely the story of one doggedly determined engineer who has worked for 20 years to win over skeptics inside and outside the corporation to his unconventional theories on what will fly — literally and in the highly competitive market for business jets.
Japanese-born engineer Michimasa Fujino has overseen Honda's jet unit at the Greensboro airport since 2001, but his battle to get his employer into jetmaking started long before.
It's a battle that has required obsessive attention to detail as well as fighting tirelessly to see his airplane produced and marketed.
After coming to the United States and finding inspiration in many Americans' personal connection with airplanes, the soft-spoken engineer developed an unconventional lightweight jet concept he believed could fly.
His vision: Place the engines "atop" the wings. On a typical jet, they'd be on the tail or beneath the wings, but Fujino's design maximizes cabin space. A German airplane maker tried but failed using a similar design in the 1970s.
"It was industry common sense that this was not a good idea," Fujino said in an interview.
Fujino faced other obstacles: internal skepticism about whether he could devise a cutting-edge airplane, his own impatience with the lengthy research process and a Japanese corporate culture that normally stifles individualism.
But the engineer, who looks far younger than his age of 44, stuck to his dream. It helped that he worked for an engine-maker willing to branch out in many directions — from luxury sedans to snowblowers — and that he had an American mentor who discouraged him from quitting.
In July, Honda announced it will produce the jet commercially. It plans to produce 70 per year in the United States but hasn't announced a location. They can be ordered through Piper aircraft dealers starting next month.
Honda declined to disclose how much it has spent on the project so far, or when it might see a profit.
Rivals welcome the arrival of Honda, the only carmaker in the jet competition.
"Their entering is strong confirmation that there's a strong market out there" for so-called very light jets, or VLJs, says Rick Adam, CEO of Adam Aircraft. Adam is making the comparable $2.3 million Adam A700.
In an e-mail to USA Today, Honda CEO Takeo Fukui said Honda committed to building the aircraft because it believes it has a superior concept and design. He also cited Fujino's "eagerness and motivation" in pushing the project.
In committing to the manufacturing of Fujino's plane, called HondaJet, the company is reaching for a share of a new category of private jets. So far, the only VLJs flying are manufacturers' demonstration planes. But they're coming. The Federal Aviation Administration predicts 4,500 VLJs in the skies within 10 years.
Most VLJs are priced in the $2 million-to-$3 million range, less than the least expensive jet now on the market. Honda says it plans to ask for $3 million to $4 million, though the exact price won't be revealed until next month. It expects to fetch a premium for a roomy interior, fuel efficiency, speed and a reliable brand name.
The small jets are expected to be a hit with several groups: owner-pilots who can afford new toys, businesses that can't afford bigger jets and air-taxi companies planning to sell private flights.
Honda says it will need three or four years to get the jet certified by U.S. safety regulators. Meanwhile, customers are expected to receive jets from Cessna, Adam Aircraft, Eclipse and Embraer before Honda's first deliveries.
Fujino isn't terribly bothered by the lag.
"That's what it takes," he says.