HondaJet: Honda Sōichirō’s Dream Comes TrueEconomy Technology
Creating a Global Bestseller
For the second year running, the Greensboro, North Carolina–based Honda Aircraft Company’s HondaJet has won the title of the top-selling small business jet on earth. The company sold 37 aircraft in 2018, putting it in first place in its class, a repeat of its first-place finish in 2017 with sales of 43 aircraft. Cessna and a handful of other aircraft manufacturers had traditionally led the market for this class of jet until HondaJet, an offshoot of motorcycle and auto manufacturer Honda Motor Company, came along and vaulted to the top position.
HondaJet’s most remarkable feature is its over-the-wing engine mount configuration. By contrast, most other business jets’ engines are attached to the fuselage. HondaJet’s revolutionary design, which improves aerodynamic performance and fuel efficiency, made it possible to increase the aircraft’s range and speed. Mounting the engines over the wings also maximizes internal space and reduces in-cabin noise and vibration.
Another point in HondaJet’s favor is greatly reduced pilot workload, effected through the use of touchscreens similar to those for smartphones. The touchscreen makes flying intuitive by allowing the pilot to select icons and other indicators at the touch of a finger.
But the road to the top spot for Honda’s aviation business was long and hard. At times, there was even talk of scaling back the enterprise or shutting it down entirely.
Scaling Back After the Bubble
No story of HondaJet’s success can begin without mentioning Honda Aircraft Company President and CEO Fujino Michimasa. In 1986, three years after he began working for Honda, Fujino was assigned to the company’s Fundamental Technology Research Center in Wakō, just outside Tokyo. Although Fujino had earned a degree in aeronautical engineering from the University of Tokyo, he had decided to join an automaker, so this personnel assignment was a surprise. Little did he know that he would spend his career working on Honda’s aircraft business.
Fujino began research activities in earnest at Mississippi State University’s Raspet Flight Research Laboratory. During his time there, he created two experimental aircraft. But the bursting of Japan’s asset speculation bubble in the early 1990s changed the financial picture for Honda, which decided it could no longer devote generous financial resources to developing an aircraft. The research project was scaled back; in 1996 Fujino and the other overseas members of the research team were recalled to Japan, and the staff in Japan were assigned to other divisions. That should, by all rights, have spelled the end of the road for Honda’s foray into the aircraft business.
Inspiration in the Middle of the Night
As Fujino recalls, he was jolted out of a sound sleep, sometime toward the end of 1996 or early 1997, by a flash of inspiration. With no notepaper handy, he sketched out his idea—the over-the-wing engine mount configuration—on the back of a calendar. Fujino may not have known it then, but the HondaJet was born in that instant.
In the fall of 1997, Fujino, still in his thirties, by chance got to talk informally with Kawamoto Nobuhiko, then Honda Motor’s president. He took the opportunity to expound on the importance of Honda’s continuing in the aircraft business. Fujino’s passion must have struck a chord with Kawamoto, because he instructed the young engineer to bring the matter up at a management meeting. At the meeting, Fujino got approval to resume development of a prototype aircraft and was named project leader. Honda’s dream of reaching for the sky had been granted a reprieve.
A Successful First Flight
Fujino returned to the United States, where he threw himself once more into aircraft development and design. The first successful test flight of the experimental craft, which flew for one hour, took place in December 2003 at Piedmont Triad International Airport in Greensboro.
But Honda’s management had decided that the aircraft would not be commercialized. At the time, managers viewed the aircraft business as pure research intended to develop technologies that could be applied to automobiles. According to Honda, many within the company were opposed to commercializing the aircraft, foreseeing huge problems with certification, production, sales, and aftersales service and anticipating formidable barriers to market entry.
A Chance Encounter
A downhearted Fujino took time off and went to the Bahamas for a vacation. One day, as he was breakfasting with his family, an American man sitting at the next table remarked on how adorable his children were. As the two men chatted, the American commented that he had traveled to the Bahamas on his business jet. At that point, Fujino revealed that he was working on developing aircraft for Honda.
The American replied that he had read a news article about HondaJet and remarked, “The HondaJet is really cool. If you ever start selling it, I will definitely buy one, so let me be the first to know.” Those words gave Fujino much-needed encouragement.
Although the company had no plans to commercialize the aircraft, flight testing continued. The HondaJet was first unveiled at an air show in Oshkosh, Wisconsin, in July 2005. In front of several thousand spectators, the aircraft, with its innovative over-the-wing engine mount design, made a definite splash. But despite this, the company still viewed the aircraft as a means of demonstrating its technological prowess to the world, rather than something to actually market.
Selling Like Hotcakes
A change in fortune occurred in March 2006. After a personal appeal from Fujino, Fukui Takeo, Honda’s president at the time, agreed to take steps to commercialize the aircraft. In October the same year, Honda exhibited the HondaJet at the National Business Aviation Association’s business aviation show in Orlando, Florida, and began taking orders. The company promptly received orders for over 100 aircraft—the jet, in Fujino’s words, “sold like hotcakes.” It was a sweet reward for all the years he spent persevering in research and advocating for his creation.
Fujino was also in for another surprise. Hearing someone call his name, he turned to see the man he had met in the Bahamas. “Do you remember me? I came today because I told you I would definitely buy your plane,” he said, and signed a purchase order on the spot.
No matter how well an aircraft performs, though, no sales can go through without type certification. Honda obtained this from the Federal Aviation Administration in December 2015, paving the way for final delivery of the aircraft to customers, nine long years after orders had initially been received.
Fujino, Engineer cum Manager
Of course, success was not due entirely to Fujino’s efforts. At an August 2018 press conference at the Japan National Press Club, Fujino remarked that he kept meetings to a minimum in order to get the most out of his team. Initially, said Fujino, all team members gathered regularly, but the meetings soon started to feel like a chore and no new ideas were being generated. That’s when he changed his management style, reducing meetings to the bare minimum and tasking team members with gathering information on their own instead. In doing so, he succeeded in creating an environment conducive to thinking creatively.
Today, when the original 40-strong team has grown to 1,800 people, Fujino admits that it’s hard to run the company without meetings. But according to him, what’s important is to keep things flexible and practical. He has learned that shepherding a project from research and development through to sales requires capabilities not just as an engineer but also as a manager, supervising employees and keeping track of everything that goes on within the organization.
Passing On the Dream
For Honda Sōichirō, airplanes had always been a dream. As a boy, he had reportedly been fascinated by the aerial exploits of the stunt pilot Art Smith, who had come to Japan for exhibition flights. Fujino only met the Honda Motor Company founder once—an encounter made all the more memorable by the bright red Hawaiian shirt the legendary inventor was wearing—in the men’s room at the company’s research center in Wakō.
Fujino’s boss had warned him never to mention the aircraft project to Honda. At the time, Honda had already retired from all executive positions. But everyone knew that he loved aircraft, and they worried that he might insist on resuming an active role if he got wind of the aircraft development project. Fujino, as instructed by his boss, never said a word.
Two years later, in 1991, Honda Sōichirō died at the age of 84. Thirty years have gone by since then, and today HondaJet aircraft are flying around the world. Although Fujino never exchanged a word with Honda, the latter’s dream may have been passed on during that chance meeting.
(Originally written in Japanese. Banner photo: The Elite, the newest HondaJet model, went on sale in 2018. Photo courtesy of Honda.)