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A nobody; a nitwit; a pilot; a motorcyclist; a raconteur; a lover...of life - who loves to laugh, who tries to not take myself (or anything) too seriously...just a normal guy who knows his place in the universe by being in touch with my spiritual side. What more is there?

12 October 2011

History Repeating Itself? (Updated)

When my former boss was looking to buy a jet, we focused on a mid-1990’s Cessna Citation V/Ultra. It’s a wonderful airplane. Dependable, tough, economical, can carry a big load and go a long distance…what’s not to love? Well, Citations are not sexy. They have a straight wing (not very jet-like) and they sit low to the ground (no fancy airstair to use getting in and out). My boss ended up buying the equally-unsexy Westwind jet.

Cessna Citation


Cessna has been in the jet game for a long time. The first Citation, the model 500 came out in 1971. The original was a small, slow jet. Over the years, Cessna made many nice improvements. They stretched it and put larger engines and better wings on it. The fact that the same basic airplane (the “Ultra”) was produced right up through 2008. Cessna is still making derivatives of the Citation…newer, better versions.

There are a lot of people making business jets. Gulfstream (nee Grumman) still builds the crème de la crème G-550 (as well as other, smaller jets). Lear is still in business, unbelievably, although it was bought some time ago by Bombardier of Canada which has its own line of bigger jets, the very successful Challenger series.

Legendary airplane maker, Beechcraft merged with British company, Hawker. Hawker has produced a business jet forever, the incredible -125 model. Over the years, Hawker improved and improved it; the new model 1000 is a far cry from the original, but the heritage and lineage is unmistakable. Concurrently, Beechcraft also produces the Beechjet 400 and a small jet called the Premier.

South American airline maker Embraer has also recently entered the business jet market, not only with corporate, plus versions of its ERJ line, but an all new small jet called the Phenom 100 and 300. And let’s not forget the French company, Dassault who have been building the well-respected Falcon line of jets forever as well.

The trouble is, nobody is really selling any jets- new or used. The market is in the toilet. So it is very odd that, of all companies, Honda is entering the field with a new business jet. And this is no ordinary jet. For one thing, Honda decided to mount the engines on the wing – but not under the wing as would be typical. Honda mounted the engines on pylons above the wing. Not only that, but wind tunnel testing caused them to make the shape of the fuselage very…well…odd. The bug-eyed look is usually disguised by the paint scheme. See here.


In the 1990’s, nearly everyone in the aviation industry knew that Honda was working on the design of a small jet. We’d seen pictures and we’d puzzled at the, um, unconventional look. The HondaJet program was announced officially in 2006. Certification should begin sometime in 2013. The date has been pushed back a couple of times already. Maybe they're waiting/hoping for the economy to improve?

Two things will work against the success of the HondaJet. The first of course is the name. Honda? Puh-leeze. Couldn’t they at least have called it the AcuraJet? Can you imagine a businessman at a party…a CEO or something. And he tells the pretty young blond that he’s leaving in the morning on the company jet for…somewhere…Barbados. Pretty blond widens her big, blue eyes and says, “Oooooh, a jet! What kind do you have? A Gulfstream?” And Mr. Ceo shuffles his feet, downs his drink and says, “No, actually, it’s a…well…a Honda.”

Yeah, right. Pretty young blond won’t be joining him on the jet to Barbados, much less back to his house tonight.

Secondly, the unusual look of the plane will inhibit sales. People like things that look “normal,” and the HondaJet does not look normal. Seriously, it looks strange.

In 1990, Beechcraft came out with a new, revolutionary turboprop design which they called the Starship. It had a little wing up in the nose (called a canard), swept main wings, no vertical tail/horizontal stabilizer at all, just rudders on the end of the main wing, and…get this…turboprop engines that were mounted backwards! on the wing.

Beechcraft Starship

Guess what? It didn’t sell. Beechcraft eventually ended production and tried to buy them all back and scrap them. Sad, because it was a great airplane. The buyers of business aircraft are fickle. I wonder if the same thing will happen to the HondaJet?

P.S. I found this little 3.5 minute video of the HondaJet on its maiden flight in December of 2010. Sure is a curious-looking little bugger.


Greybeard said...

In '85, when Beech was marketing the Starship, the (AStar) helicopter I was flying for a construction company was housed at the Beechcraft Dealership's hangar.
Salesman hated the thing because it was as expensive as a bizjet, but never performed competitively with them. It failed because for that reason. Shame too 'cause you're right... it looks like a "Starship".
(Last time I flew past Pinal County airport in AZ there were about 30 of 'em parked on the ramp there.)
Piaggio makes the equally neat looking Avanti, and I've seen a few of 'em at airports but don't know much about the performance of the airplane.

When Honda motorcycles first hit our shores they were made fun of by "real motorcycle" riders. That lasted until the CB 750 blew the doors off everything and ran, and ran, and ran... smoothly, quietly, efficiently.
I agree Honda is swimming upstream in this market, but if their aircraft are made with the same quality as their cars and bikes, don't be too sure the Boss man won't be proudly saying "I own a HondaJet" in a few years.

Bob Barbanes: said...

The Starship was the first big airplane made out of composites. The FAA didn't know how to deal with composites, so they required construction techniques that made the plane extra-heavy...heavier than it "needed" to be and certainly much heavier than Beech could have safely produced it. There went the useful load - D'OH! Which also made it slower than projected. Hamstrung!

Then too, the FAA knew nothing about canards, and so they mandated a conventional "stall speed" for the Starship even though it basically could not stall. In practice the canard stalls first, before the main wing; when the canard stalls the nose drops and you're automatically back in business. That's the beauty of the canard: It's safer.

The Avanti (and we looooooove the Avanti!) actually has *three* lifting surfaces: the canard in the front, the main wing, and a tailplane that also provides lift instead a downforce that opposes the natural pitch-up moment of the wing (like the horizontal stabilizer does on a conventonal airplane). This renders the Avanti capable of jet-like speeds on turboprop fuel burn. It's an amazing aircraft! Trouble is, it looks...well...odd. And that oddness has inhibited its penetration of the market.

I suspect and fear that the HondaJet's similar oddness will hold it back. Unless a fleet operator like NetJets buys them, I think most CEO's are going to imagine themselves stepping out of a HondaJet and say, "Ahhh, no." But like Chuck Berry wrote so many years ago, "It goes to show you never can tell." And I may be singing those lyrics a few years hence when the HondaJet is a huge success. Fortunately, I love that song!