GREENSBORO, N.C. Honda (HMC), the Japanese giant that has given the USA motorcycles, cars, lawn mowers and weed whackers, puts its newest product on sale starting next month: a little $3 million business jet.
It's a sporty airplane that stands 13 feet tall at the top of its tail, seats six or seven people and flies faster than its closest rivals as fast as 480 miles per hour. Its distinctive look comes from top-mounted engines on the wings; an elongated, tapered nose; and a striking pearlescent dark-sky-blue color scheme.
How Honda got into jetmaking is largely the story of one doggedly determined engineer who has worked for 20 years to win over skeptics inside and outside the corporation about his unconventional theories on what will fly literally and in the highly competitive market for business jets.
Japanese-born engineer Michimasa Fujino has overseen Honda's jet unit here at the Greensboro airport since 2001, but his battle to get his employer into jetmaking started long before. It's a battle that has required obsessive attention to detail as well as a willingness to fight tirelessly to see his airplane produced and marketed.
After coming to the USA and finding inspiration in many Americans' personal connection with airplanes, the soft-spoken engineer developed an unconventional lightweight jet concept he believed could fly.
His vision: Place the engines atop the wings. On a typical jet, they'd be on the tail or beneath the wing, but Fujino's design maximizes cabin space. A German airplane maker tried but failed using a similar design in the 1970s.
"It was industry common sense that this was not a good idea," Fujino said in an interview.
Fujino faced other obstacles: internal skepticism about whether he could devise a cutting-edge airplane, his own impatience with the lengthy research process and a Japanese corporate culture that normally stifles individualism.
But the strong-willed engineer, who looks far younger than his age, 44, thrives on challenges. He stuck to his dream with an extraordinary mix of patience, persistence and perfectionism. It helped that he worked for an engine-maker willing to branch out in many directions from luxury sedans to snowblowers and that he had an American mentor who discouraged him from quitting.
Very light jets make headlines
In July, Honda announced it would produce the jet commercially. It plans to produce 70 per year in the USA but hasn't announced a location. Potential buyers can buy them through Piper aircraft dealers starting next month.
Honda declined to disclose how much it has spent on the project so far, or when it might see a profit.
Rivals welcome the arrival of Honda, the only carmaker in the jet competition.
"Their entering is strong confirmation that there's a strong market out there" for so-called very light jets, or VLJs, says Rick Adam, CEO of Adam Aircraft. Adam is making the comparable $2.3 million Adam A700.
In an e-mail to USA TODAY, Honda CEO Takeo Fukui said Honda committed to building the aircraft because it believes it has a superior concept and design. He also cited Fujino's "eagerness and motivation" in pushing the project.
In committing to the manufacturing of Fujino's plane, called HondaJet, the company is reaching for a share of a new category of private jets. So far, the only VLJs flying are manufacturers' demonstration planes. But they're coming. The Federal Aviation Administration predicts 4,500 VLJs in the skies within 10 years.
Most VLJs are priced in the $2-million-to-$3-million range, less than the least expensive jet now on the market. Honda says it plans to ask for $3 million to $4 million, though the exact price won't be revealed until next month. It expects to fetch a premium for a roomy interior, fuel efficiency, speed and a reliable brand name.
The small jets are expected to be a hit with several groups: owner-pilots who can afford new toys, businesses that can't afford bigger jets and air-taxi companies planning to sell private flights.
Honda says it will need three or four years to get the jet certified by U.S. safety regulators. Meanwhile, customers are expected to receive jets from Cessna, Adam Aircraft, Eclipse and Embraer before Honda's first deliveries.
Fujino isn't terribly bothered by the lag.
"That's what it takes," he says.
Obsessed with achievement
Contrary to the modesty typical in Japanese culture, Fujino clearly takes pride in his achievement. He refers to the Greensboro-based prototype the only HondaJet now in existence as "my plane."
In getting the program going, he obsesses over every detail, from its paint job to the rsums of test pilots. His obsession can be seen even in the stark-white hangar. It's meticulously clean, with its concrete floor polished to a mirror finish.
Fujino grew up the son of a history professor and a homemaker, one of two children. He took a liking to aviation as a child and, in college, studied aeronautical engineering.
He joined Honda's research and development unit after college in 1984 at age 24, initially working on power-steering technology.
In 1986, Honda picked Fujino and a small group of other Honda engineers to study advanced aeronautics at Mississippi State University in Starkville, Miss. Years before the VLJ concept emerged, their work led to the development of an experimental light jet constructed of man-made materials, called the MH02.
Arriving in small-town Starkville from metropolitan Tokyo was a cultural shock. But there, Fujino fell deeply in love with aviation. Even while studying advanced aircraft design in Japan, he'd never had a chance to actually touch an airplane. In Starkville, he met people who built aircraft in their garages.
Starkville also proved pivotal for Fujino because he met Leon Tolve, a retired Lockheed engineer working on MH02 as a consultant. Tolve was nearly a half century older, but the two would develop an almost father-son relationship.
Tolve set such high standards that Fujino recalls having to redo inch-thick reports because of a single mistake. His hard-driving work ethic set a tone for Fujino, as did Tolve's stories about aircraft designers' failed attempts at innovative design. Tolve remained a primary influence for Fujino, "many times" discouraging him from quitting Honda because he wasn't making progress as quickly as he'd wanted.
Honda ended the MH02 project in 1995, believing the research goals had been achieved. But the results were unimpressive.
The group returned to a corner in Honda's research-and-development center in Japan to work without a clear agenda or support. Facing such uncertainty, engineers who had worked with Fujino since the beginning began seeking re-assignment. Fujino remembers it feeling like "a sinking ship."
Fujino grew increasingly anxious over the lack of a significant design breakthrough, but he kept working. It was around this time that he informally sketched a jet with engines mounted over the wings.
By 1997, skepticism had begun to seep into the Honda boardroom in Tokyo. About half of Honda's directors were questioning why they should continue financing aviation research when Honda had other priorities. CEO Fukui said the company's main concerns a decade ago were auto-production technology and the fierceness of the North American pickup market, not aviation.
Fujino, then leader of Honda's aviation-research unit, prepared to face his fate at the December 1997 board meeting.
Honda's then-CEO, Nobuhiko Kawamoto, asked Fujino to make his case for continuing the jet project to the board. Fukui recalls that it "was not a smooth meeting" for Fujino, but ultimately his project survived. He showed board members his sketch and described how the overall design would bring new value to customers, almost like Honda's compact Civic did for U.S. roads years earlier.
Fujino left the meeting determined to return to the USA the biggest market to build planes for Honda.
One sign of his determination: When he and his wife started a family in Japan, he prepared their children for American life by giving them names easily understood in both countries: Erin, Mari and Mark. He moved his family to Greensboro in 2001 after years of laying the groundwork for a U.S. base from Japan.
Fujino and his team worked out of two hangars on the edge of the Greensboro airport. He chose the area because it was close enough to the FAA branch in Atlanta, where staff would handle certification, and to Fujino's American friends, such as Tolve. The off-the-beaten path location ensured privacy, yet not total isolation. He has a decent sushi restaurant a 10-minute drive away.
Unconventional design takes off
For the next two years, he worked to prove his concept: the peculiar engine position and the use of man-made composites, instead of aluminum, for the fuselage. He brought small models of the jet to world-class wind tunnels in France, in Japan and at a Boeing facility in Seattle. Each test vindicated his theories, yet in 1999, Fukui recalls, Fujino faced deepening skepticism from corporate leaders. "I knew how Fujino-san must have felt, but I never gave his project preferential treatment above other development projects," Fukui wrote. "It was his challenge. He was the one who would have to win it."
Fujino's project gained momentum with publication in 2003 of articles on his design theories in the journal of the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics, which is widely respected in academic circles. Starting in early 2003, he and the Greensboro staff worked on assembling the prototype by hand, piece by piece, inside Honda's white hangars.
Honda told Fujino to fly the jet before the 100th anniversary of the Wright brothers' first flight in Kitty Hawk, N.C. So, on Dec. 3, 2003, two weeks before the Wright anniversary, Honda's flight crew rolled out the jet, fully painted in a color scheme that Fujino chose himself over 50 suggestions from more experienced Honda auto designers in Tokyo.
The flight went beautifully, Fujino recalls.
'A mouth-dropping experience'
In the last few years, Honda has hinted that it was toying with the idea of selling its jet, announcing in 2004, for example, that it partnered with General Electric to manufacture engines for small jets.
And, before committing to production last summer, it teased aviators by having the jet make brief stops at major air shows.
Portland, Ore.-based pilot Dan Pimentel says it was "a mouth-dropping experience" when he saw the HondaJet at the Oshkosh, Wis., air show, shortly before Honda announced its plans.
"We pilots consider airplanes to be beautiful, but they just don't get as beautiful as the HondaJet," Pimentel says.
Fujino, now CEO of the aircraft unit, is still visibly moved by watching the jet. During a recent flight with visitors in a tracking plane to watch the HondaJet fly on its 185th experimental flight, Fujino watched it as if in a trance. When it rolled away to descend, he quietly whispered, "Wow."
Fujino also feels sorrow that his mentor, Tolve, never lived to see the day that Honda announced its intentions. He died at age 88 in May 2004. Fujino's eyes tear up when he talks about Tolve.
"If he stayed alive, this would make him very happy," he says.
From USA TODAY, a division of Gannett Co., Inc. Reprinted with permission.
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