SINGAPORE – His aerospace engineering professors taught him that it was wrong to mount anything atop an aircraft wing. Industry peers dismissed his design as ugly.
But Mr Michimasa Fujino, 57, chief executive of Honda Aircraft, defied convention and naysayers and his bold vision paid off.
After almost three decades of development, the first HA-420 Hondajet – a light aircraft with engines mounted over the wing instead of on the fuselage like other business jets – was delivered in late 2015.
Today, 73 Hondajets are in the skies and the factory has a “very good” backlog, Mr Fujino said.
On Thursday (Feb 8), Honda Aircraft announced its single largest order to date – 16 Hondajets for European air taxi operator, Wijet. The deal was inked by both companies on the sidelines of the ongoing Singapore Airshow 2018.
Interest in the five-passenger Hondajet has been picking up.
Twenty four were delivered to customers in the US, Canada, Mexico, and Europe in the first half of last year, making it the best selling aircraft in its class, according to the General Aviation Manufacturers Association.
Discussing the Hondajet’s design with The Straits Times on Thursday (Feb 8), Mr Fujino, who holds a doctorate in aeronautical engineering, said that the size of a plane’s cabin can be maximised by mounting the engines over the wings instead of on the fuselage.
“Engine vibration and noise do not transmit to the fuselage directly, it goes to the wing. That’s why the Hondajet is very quiet,” Mr Fujino said, adding that he also managed to reduce drag after finding the optimum position to mount the engines.
The Hondajet marks Honda Motor’s foray into the aviation market, a surprising move for a company well known for its motorcycles and cars.
But Mr Fujino said: “We see Honda as a mobility company. We start from motorcycles to automobiles… now we want to create new value in the aviation industry.”
Honda began researching into aircraft design in 1986, and the Hondajet project took off proper in 1997.
Reuters news agency, quoting aerospace consulting firm Teal Group, estimates that the company has spent about US$1 billion (S$1.3 billion) on the Hondajet programme since the early 2000s.
When asked when the company would recoup the cost or how many planes he would need to sell to do so, Mr Fujino declined to give any hard numbers.
But he said: “First, I like to get the trust and confidence of customers. Once the fleet of Hondajets increase, the profits obtained are not only from selling aircraft but also after (sales) service, such as maintenance or parts.”
Mr Fujino said Honda Aircraft, the subsidiary of Honda Motor, produces four jets a month, but will ramp this up to five in the next few months to keep up with the demand.
The company has set its eyes on China and Southeast Asia even though the markets for private jets are more developed in Europe and North America.
“In China, there is a young generation of businessmen, who are pursuing efficiency and productivity. They can use Hondajet not for luxury, but a productive tool for point-to-point travel to enhance their business by saving time,” said Mr Fujino.
In support of its plans, Hondajet opened a facility in Guangzhou in January and appointed a dealer in Thailand last year .
Although a newcomer, the Japanese-owner plane maker based in the US is already making its mark in the industry, competing against the likes of more established names like Brazil’s Embraer and US manufacturer, Cessna.
Wijet will be replacing its fleet of 15 Cessna Citation Mustangs with 16 Hondajets over the next 18 months.
Wijet chief executive Patrick Hersent said: “The range of the Hondajet is longer, it’s more silent and more fuel efficient. Our customers are mainly corporate customers and high-net worth customers and they are looking for the latest generation of jet.”
He said Wijet, an on-demand air taxi service, now serves about 1,200 airports across Europe and, with the Hondajet, this will expand to 1,500, stretching from the Nordic to the Baltic countries and to Northern Africa.
Mr Fujino said his ambition to design a plane was sparked when, as a 26-year-old, he saw many private jets while visiting a National Business Aviation Association convention in Orange County, California.But his dream would have been shattered if he had not persevered with his over-the-wing engine design.
Mr Fujino noted that a friend had asked him not to submit a research paper on his unconventional design to the Journal of Aircraft for fear that his credibility in the industry would have been tarnished if it received an unfavourable review from experts.
“The paper reviewer said these were relevant findings to the airplane design community. and in only a few months, it was published. That was one of the pivotal moments – from (it being) a ridiculous design to a high-tech design,” Mr Fujino said.