The HondaJet has caught the eye with its raised engines – and it has the elevated performance to back up its promising looks, writes Ben Griffiths
‘Mike delta alpha – what kind of aircraft are you?’ It was the first time in more than a decade of regularly piloting an aeroplane that I can remember an air traffic controller enquiring purely out of curiosity about the type of machine I’ve been sitting in. However, checking in to the en route radar control frequency as we made our way from Cornwall’s Newquay Airport to London Luton at 27,000 feet, it was soon clear there was a fair amount of interest in our aeroplane – the beautiful HondaJet.
It’s fair to say this slick machine has what’s known in the aviation industry as ‘ramp presence’, or a certain visual appeal. Mike Finbow, the demonstration pilot in the left-hand seat of the light jet’s cockpit, turned to give me a knowing smile, clearly revelling in his near-celebrity status as the captain of this unusual machine.
He quickly rattled off some of the aircraft’s performance figures in response to our inquisitive controller. ‘She’s got a rate of climb of 3,990 feet per minute, can cruise at up to 422 knots at 30,000 feet, has a maximum ceiling of 43,000 feet and a range of more than 1,200 nautical miles, all on a wing that’s just under 40 feet in span,’ Captain Finbow said. ‘Phew!’ whistled an appreciative EasyJet pilot listening to the conversation on the same frequency.
Our test aircraft is unusual because it is one of just 42 HondaJets flying today. The marque has suffered some criticism, having been 20 years in the making since Michimasa Fujino, the founder, CEO and president of HondaJet, woke up in the night with a brainwave for his latest project. Why not put the engine pods on pylons above the wing, instead of hanging them underneath or stuck on the rear fuselage like a conventional design?
This spark of genius means there’s a significant reduction in engine noise for those travelling inside the cabin. Not only that, it creates more space so a larger luggage compartment is possible, along with a roomy cabin with four club seats and one facing sideways behind the cockpit for a crew member. There’s even a small WC in the rear with a privacy screen and sink with running water – very novel in this size of jet.
The aircraft boasts a very efficient, thin wing with winglets at the tips which also provide lift, meaning the wing itself can be shorter in length. But there’s no penalty in performance – the HondaJet has a sprightly takeoff that I hadn’t experienced since last flying a military training jet. The acceleration is rapid, thanks to the two 2050lbf engines developed in a joint venture between Honda and GE.
All this makes for a fun machine to fly and something that looks fantastic from the outside, with its distinctive, curvy appearance said to be inspired by a stiletto shoe. Passersby as well as hardcore enthusiasts seem to agree. As we were departing that morning, a man had appeared on the balcony of the control tower to snatch a quick photograph. Later, in the Cornish sunshine, an aircraft spotter snapped away from outside the fence as we taxied into our parking slot.
More importantly, the HondaJet offers a lot of bang for your buck from a $4.9 million base price. Although there’s a significant waiting list, for the right customers an order can be fast-tracked as the jets come off the Honda production line in North Carolina. According to Honda’s PR, one customer loved the HondaJet so much she waited almost ten years to take delivery. In that time she had taken flying lessons to get her licence and converted to flying jet aircraft specifically because she wanted to fly her own machine home from the factory when it was finally ready.
So what is it like to fly? The cockpit is a masterpiece of modern ergonomics and touchscreen technology. The impressive Garmin 3000 presents key flight data intuitively and is instantly recognisable for anyone used to glass cockpits. Three large screens are arrayed across the instrument panel. Our setup comprised primary flight displays in place of the old-style dials indicating airspeed, altitude, attitude, turn and slip, rate of climb and heading. A central screen was set up with moving map and our route overlaid. The autopilot control panel resides in its usual spot at the top of the panel, while push-to-talk switches for the radios are cannily installed under the coaming in easy reach instead of on the yokes.
Beneath these screens and in front of the throttles are two smaller touchscreens to allow inputs to the flight management system, radios and navigation pages, along with engine performance, fuel loading and other data. As Captain Finbow demonstrated, when setting up instrument approaches the HondaJet’s systems can display full Jeppesen approach plates with an outline of our aircraft superimposed, making it easy to see where and at what height you’re meant to be as you proceed towards the runway. It makes for a lighter workload than a lap full of charts and Jeppesen pages and remembering to set stopwatches to get your timings bang on.
The HondaJet also makes missed approaches or holding patterns easy. We set up both in the computer while still en route, then it’s a simple case of activating what’s needed by pressing a few buttons and the aircraft immediately does what it’s told, giving the pilot more time and headspace to consider his or her options if plan A goes out of the window.
Flying is all about thinking ahead. And operating this aircraft visually is also straightforward. Captain Finbow conducted a visual circuit at Newquay to demonstrate and the HondaJet performed impeccably, remaining stable throughout the landing and leading to a ‘greaser’ (a perfect landing) on the airport’s runway 30.
All in all, the HondaJet represents an exciting alternative to rival light jets such as the Cessna Citation Mustang. Compared to the Mustang it feels much more comfortable in the cabin and is certainly quieter in the cruise. Owner-pilots will love its simplicity of operation, and it’s fair to say Mr Fujino has come very close to achieving what he set out to do by opening up private jet travel to a wider pool of people – just as Honda did years ago for motor transport with the humble scooter.
With adequate training (the HondaJet course is known to be comprehensive and exacting), even low-hours pilots will feel confident in taking the little jet on their travels.
Ben Griffiths is a private pilot and journalist specialising in aerospace and defence
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