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First Look: Honda HA-420

PUBLISHED: 17:35 05 June 2017 | UPDATED: 17:35 05 June 2017

PIL Honda

PIL Honda

Archant

Like the great Japanese manufacturer’s NSX hybrid supercar, Honda’s jet has been long in gestation and is short in supply. Our flying motoring journalist is the first to experience it

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A wave of relief has washed through Honda UK’s headquarters in Bracknell: Goodwin has flown the HondaJet!

For years at launches of new Honda road cars, while other motoring journalists have been asking learned questions about final drive ratios, I have been sticking my hand up to ask when I could have a ride

In the jet.

The badgering was intense in 2015 when the production HondaJet toured Europe but hit maximum pestering force in May last year when the HA-420 (for Honda Aircraft and 420 knots) gained its EASA certification. Since then the people at Honda haven’t had much peace. Perhaps it has been a nice change from being asked for goes in the new NSX hybrid supercar−a Honda, like the aircraft, long in gestation and short in supply.

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So here we are at Marshall Aviation Services at Hawarden near Chester, where Airbus bits are made and Belugas land to collect them and take them to France. Inside a warm and bright hangar is Marshall’s HondaJet demonstrator. No one is going call this aircraft by its letters and numbers; it’s always going to be the HondaJet. In its red and white paint scheme and sporting the ‘M’ (Isle of Man) registration M-HNDA, it looks new, lovely and desirable.

The plan was to join sales and demonstration pilot Mike Finbow for a flight to Luxembourg where he was going to show off the jet to a potential customer. Unfortunately the person in question has had something come up and can’t make it. Nothing short of a seriously debilitating illness would have kept me from Hawarden today−and only death would have got in the way if I was actually looking at the machine with a view to purchase. Anyway, Luxembourg is off but instead we are flying to Stansted, having a cuppa and then going from there to Marshall’s base, and the HondaJet’s home, at Birmingham airport. No matter, two takeoffs and landings are a bonus.

With us are two motoring journalist colleagues, neither of whom flies, although both have been bored to tears by me telling them that they should. Although their hearts are not as near to the rev-limiter as mine they’re pretty excited and both think the HondaJet looks terrific. Veterans of many bizjet flights to press junkets, they’re clued up enough to know how different Honda’s approach has been. Also along is a photographer and pilot Jon Corley. Although the HondaJet is single-pilot certified, Marshall’s in-house rules state that there has to be a second pilot on board. No matter; he will be in the back and I’ll get to sit in the right-hand seat.

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Logic in the over-wing engine mount

There’s much to discuss about the HondaJet, its design philosophy and its gestation, but since we’re having a tea break at Stansted, we decide to go over it in more detail there, once we’ve actually flown in the thing. One of the advantages of the Honda’s distinctive over-wing engine mounting that is apparent right from the start is that it frees up space in the cabin that would otherwise be taken up by the mounting reinforcement and structures required by conventional fuselage-mounted engines.

There is thus plenty of baggage space in the rear locker even for a photographer’s paraphernalia and we don’t need to use the additional locker in the aircraft’s nose.

I climb up into the aircraft via a combined door/stairs, complete with beautifully crafted guide ‘rope’ in leather and turn left into the cockpit. Here I find a quality of fit and finish that is echoed everywhere in the cabin. Finbow is already in place and advises on the method of getting into the right-hand seat without doing damage to his $5m demonstrator. A bit of a squeeze but the seat, once adjusted for height and reach, is very comfortable. First impression? It all looks incredibly simple to operate.

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Three Garmin G3000 screens dominate the panel. Developed especially for the HondaJet but now in use in other aircraft, the screens are billed as being very easy to use. Unless you drive a Tesla, your car will have more switches and knobs than the HondaJet. A flick of one of them and the screens come into life. Although my RV-7 has a little bit of glass (a Dynon FlightDek 180) I’m very much an analogue man. That’s perfect for VFR flying in a pretty basic aircraft with brisk performance, where the less time spent with eyes in the cockpit the better. For IFR flying in a complex and very fast aircraft, the simplicity and massive capability of a full glass panel are obvious benefits.

Few sounds in the world are as exciting as that of a gas turbine starting. In the HondaJet it is a bit of a non-event. Finbow presses a silver button down on the centre console labelled START (one for each engine) and the FADEC system does the rest. Wearing ANR headphones, I can’t hear the engines start, the only giveaway being graphics on the screen showing the N1 indication going green and the revs increasing.

Mike Finbow’s access to the G3000s is via a touch-screen pad (there’s one for me, too) through which he can control virtually everything. It would take a 10,000 word feature at least to explain one tenth of what this avionics system is capable of, but only a couple of words are needed to describe what it cannot do; not much.

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Mike’s loaded our flight plan, all the Jeppeson plates are lurking digitally in the background and he’s running through the checklist, scrolling down the items in front of him via a button on the control yoke and ticking them off with the same. When we’re ready to go, the parking brake is released, takeoff flap set (the brake

and flap controls, and those for the undercarriage and throttles are about the lot, as far as operating levers go) and we taxi out to the runway.

Nosewheel steering is ‘fly by wire’ and, as I discover later, the HondaJet has an extremely compact turning circle which is helped when manoeuvring by its stubby, forty-foot wingspan (only five feet or so wider than a Piper Cub−Ed). Releasing the parking brake automatically switches on the taxi lights, and opening the throttles turns on the strobes and landing lights. You can operate all of them manually

as well.

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Impressive acceleration – and nimble footwork

Finbow presses the brakes, pushes the throttles up to takeoff power and removes his toes from the brakes. I’m following through and, apart from the impressive acceleration, I’m surprised by the amount of footwork going on. There is a bit of a crosswind and those OTWEM (over-the-wing engine mount) turbines−a marriage between a car maker and aviation is bound to give birth to plenty of acronyms−bring with them extra keel area. The result is a crosswind limit of twenty knots (not a ‘demonstrated’ figure−this is the limit).

We’re off the ground quickly and Finbow surprises me by handing the climb over to me. ATC has cleared us to our first reporting point at 4,000ft and in the HondaJet that’s only a minute in the climb. It seems merely seconds before we pop out through the cloud and I level us off. It’s not possible to form profound opinions on handling from a very short time in control−that’s going to have to wait until we have the opportunity for a full flight test−but the HondaJet feels surprisingly responsive in pitch and roll. The stick forces required to maintain cruise altitude and wings-level are impressively low−it’s lighter than a Bonanza and nearer a Cirrus.

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From now on we’re on the autopilot. I’m only an IR/R holder but I’ve spent hours up-front on charter flights so understand this flying in controlled airspace game. The HondaJet doesn’t have autothrust but it does have Cruise Speed Control, which does exactly what its name suggests. Press the CSC button on the autopilot panel and it will hold speed accurately by slight adjustments via the FADEC system.

At FL170 we’re flashing over the ground at 385 knots. Despite the speed it couldn’t be simpler. What a contrast to a very recent IMC renewal taken in a ninety-knot PA-28 using horrendous NDBs and fiddly VORs. It’s hard to think how the HondaJet could be made simpler and more straightforward to operate. An experienced Cirrus SR22 owner with IR experience would find the upgrade to this aircraft straightforward.

Honda planned it this way. The whole philosophy behind the company’s first aircraft is simplicity, right from the buying, training, maintenance to the actual flying. This is the Honda way, and how the company has approached all its engineering challenges. The original NSX sports car launched in 1990 was intended to be all of the above, substituting driving for flying. The NSX wouldn’t be as fickle as a Ferrari, nor as temperamental or as costly to run. Honda’s bikes are the same, as anyone who has owned a Fireblade or VFR750 will know.

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Later, on the leg to Birmingham, I will discover what it’s like for the passengers, but up in front the word for it is serene. There is hardly any noise, it is a smooth day and only breaks in the cloud and a view of the ground give any sense of forward motion. We’re not in icing conditions but the HondaJet has all that in hand automatically. The windscreens are heated electrically and the wing leading edges by hot air from the engines. The leading edges of the tail are protected by a clever system of electrically-powered actuators that in effect hammer the skins to dislodge ice. It’s called EMEDS−Electro Mechanical Explosion Deice System. The wings and empennage, by the way, are metal but the fuselage is composite.

Loading up the en-route and Stansted’s ATC frequencies and ILS details takes seconds, and after what seems an extremely brief flight (less than thirty minutes) we are turning final onto Stansted’s Runway 22 and picking up the localiser. The HondaJet is slippery and doesn’t like slowing down but fortunately it’s fitted with speed brakes. These are fitted to the tail and fold out like petals. There’s no sound as Mike deploys them. Again I follow on the controls as we cross the threshold at around 110kt. I’m anticipating the flare but there isn’t one to detect, at least not with a feather touch on the yoke. “You pretty much fly it onto the runway,” says Finbow. The brakes are carbon and the stopping distance is mighty impressive.

At this point I’m usually tapping away on my iPad to get up the airport diagram so those “taxi via November and Papa to Quebec crossing Romeo” kind of instructions from the Tower make some sense. In the HondaJet it is already displayed on the centre Garmin G3000 and what’s more, so is our position. It couldn’t be easier.

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Honda’s kind of customer

It’s going to be interesting to see who buys the HondaJet. Techno junkies and those with an eye for detail will love things like the composite fuselage mated with an aluminium wing that features spars machined from billets. Everyone will appreciate the way the unusual placement of the engines above the wings not only increases interior space but cuts noise and vibration.

I discover just how quiet and smooth it is in the cabin on our short hop to Birmingham. Four passengers are seated in pairs of facing seats on either side that can be slid sideways towards the aisle to give more headroom for taller individuals. The fifth passenger sits further forward, facing the door. In single-pilot operations, a sixth passenger can be carried in the right-hand seat up front. Even though my head is right beside the engine intake, I find it’s still possible to talk without raising my voice.

Behind me is a loo with wash basin and a curtain. Handy when you’re operating the aircraft to its maximum 1,200nm range. In a compact aircraft of this size you’re never going to be able to fit a luxurious bathroom that offers the privacy of home. The curtain that slides across is solid but using the thing is still going to be unnervingly public for many people.

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The aircraft’s cabin environment is controlled from the Garmin 3000 with simple on-screen heating and air conditioning controls. For such a compact aircraft the Honda’s passenger cabin feels spacious. It’s tastefully done, too, with none of the ’70s Cadillac Seville thick carpet and over-the-top upholstery you find in some bizjets. The leather feels high quality and is nicely trimmed. Passengers will have to bring along their own entertainment systems as there are no flat screen tellies or monitors.

I would guess that most owners, even those who can fly, will want the convenience of a second pilot. I know several successful businessmen who are pilots but don’t fly themselves in their own jets because combining an important meeting and a cross-Europe flight is too taxing, with a risk of fouling up both jobs. Even though the HondaJet is very easy to operate, planning both an IFR journey between, say, Luton and Vienna and the details of a business meeting at destination is asking for trouble.

The HondaJet has a couple of direct rivals: primarily Cessna’s Citation M2, which has the same G3000 avionics.

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The Embraer Phenom 100−another one of the original group of very light jets that remains in production−is a further contender. However, I suspect that the HondaJet’s main rivals are not jets but turboprops like the Socata TBM 930 and Pilatus PC-12, both of which not only need less tarmac but can also operate from grass airfields.

The HondaJet’s ace card is that it is not just new but that it comes from a debut manufacturer. When we landed at Stansted the ground controller said over the radio “Wow, a HondaJet. We haven’t had one of those in here before”. Mike Finbow says this kind of reaction is normal. It’s an aircraft that looks different and is different. That alone gives it appeal to the ultra-wealthy, who love exotic toys that don’t need an explanation. You never have to describe the appeal of a Bentley or Lamborghini, and the HondaJet falls into the same bracket.

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