OSHKOSH, WISCONSIN - It was just over half a century ago that Honda Motor Co.’s founder, Soichiro Honda, made public his aspiration to eventually enter the aviation business. That dream is about to take off.
The HondaJet, a light aircraft developed by the carmaker’s aviation unit, made its public debut at a U.S. air show Monday, entering the final stage before delivery to customers begins next year.
The business jet, with a distinctive design in which the engines are mounted on the wings to minimize air resistance, made a demonstration flight at the EAA AirVenture show in Oshkosh, Wisconsin.
Soichiro Honda unveiled his ambition for the skies in 1962, announcing in an in-house newsletter that the firm was “now thinking about developing a light aircraft.”
Sixteen years earlier, he had met with success with a factory set up in 1946 to produce an auxiliary engine for a bicycle. He then grew the company into what is now Honda Motor Co., known chiefly for cars and motorcycles and possessor of a top Japanese brand recognized the world over.
Through the 1970s, the company had to devote much of its efforts and resources to tightened environmental regulations on automobiles. Serious research on aviation started in 1986, but the path was not smooth. Calls grew within the company for a halt to development when the company’s earnings faltered in 1996. This was after Soichiro Honda had died in 1991 at age 84.
Honda Aircraft Co., Honda’s U.S. aviation arm overseeing the HondaJet project, is expecting to acquire airworthiness certification early next year.
“We’ve finally come close” to that step, said Michimasa Fujino, the 53-year-old president and CEO of Honda Aircraft.
According to one estimate, the U.S. business jet market will grow 3 percent annually over the next 20 years on the back of demand from corporate executives and wealthy individuals who can afford the luxury of flying privately across the country.
Honda figures it can fight off sharp competition from existing private jet suppliers such as Brazil’s Embraer S.A., its confidence stemming from the expertise it can draw on from its decades of automobile manufacturing and marketing.
Its relatively spacious interior cabin with leather seats incorporates ideas from car designers, according to Honda Aircraft.
The firm also says the six-seat plane, which carries a price tag of $4.5 million, is roughly 17 percent more fuel-efficient than competing models.
“We have devised high-tech solutions for aircraft by drawing strength from our automobile know-how,” Fujino said.
Honda aims to offer fine-tuned customer service through a network of dealerships across the country like those for autos.
One U.S. executive who has already signed up to buy one of the jets is Michael Whalen, 60, owner of Heart of America Group. “The plane is revolutionary, not evolutionary” he gushed. “Honda is doing a total breaking away, and they will continually improve it. It’s a flying piece of art, it’s really beautiful.”
Fujino said he would “feel very honored” if the project “leads to what Mr. Honda wanted us to do.”
The jury is out on whether HondaJet can reach and maintain cruising speed in global sales. But one visitor to the air show Monday had little doubt. Jon Mckenzie, 63, of Menasha, Wisconsin, who owns a Honda car, was impressed. “Honda’s got very good reliability in everything they do,” he said.