In the summer of 2007, there were two things at Air Venture creating a buzz. One was the emergence of many new “inexpensive,” easy-to-fly Light Sport aircraft that promised to transform General Aviation, entice new pilots into aviation and bring cost-weary older pilots back into the fold. The other news-maker was the presence of VLJs or Very Light Jets like the Cirrus Vision Jet and the Eclipse 500, which were going to transform the way people fly.
That was almost nine years ago! A lot has changed since.
In case you forgot exactly what a VLJ is, here is a brief definition: these are jet aircraft costing less than $5 million (originally less than $2M), weigh under 10,000 pounds and capable of taking off from runways as short as 3000 feet – making the majority of General Aviation airports available to them for point-to-point travel. When compared to the limitations of commercial airline routes that utilize only thirty or so major airports, going point-to- point in a VLJ would be very attractive indeed.
The idea of the Very Light Jet was first promulgated by Eclipse Jet in the late 1990s when the economy was steaming along and it seemed the increasing pool of new millionaires would never end. Who better than the Nouveau riche to snatch up these new VLJ time machines for their own personal and business use?
In March ch 2008 article in Air & Space Magazine, jet propulsion expert and advocate Gerry Merill was predicting the age of private jetting was upon us. Mr. Merill went so far as to say he believed a single- seat light jet could be sold for as little as $150,000 and 4-seater about the size of a Cirrus SR22 could be marketed for a price competitive with high-end piston-powered airplane. As far as the single-seat jet prediction is concerned, you can currently buy a Sonex JSX-2 for between $135,000 and $150,000, but that’s a self-build kit and not a production model. The prediction of $400,000 to $600,000 four-seat very light jets? That ain’t happening.
The Sonex Jet meets the VLJ criteria but in very personal way – as a kit plane
Why aren’t the skies filled with VLJs?
The simple answer should sound familiar, “The economy, stupid!” By the summer of Air Venture 2008, signs of the coming economic collapse were beginning to be felt. A year later the Great Recession was in full force crushing global economies like a worldwide tsunami. Corporate Jet usage was under attack and the private jet market, along with the funding for VLJs, was rapidly vanishing.
Eclipse Jet, at the vanguard of the VLJ charge in the late 1990s with the promise of a light jet by 2003 for less than $1.5 million, filed for bankruptcy and closed shop by February 2009. Cirrus announced plans for their VLJ in June 2007, got a prototype in the air by July 2008 but never went into production.
Cessna forged on with its Mustang. Embraer continued with its Phenom series. But Diamond and Piper put their VLJs on the back burner. Then there was Honda, the little jet that wouldn’t be stopped – not even by a recession or grueling certification hurtles.
In the past few years, the general aviation market has rebounded as global economies recovered some from the Great Recession. Bombardier Jet, in its most recent 10-year forecast, indicated steady growth in the business jet market with more robust sales in the middle and lower ends of the market and sluggish sales in the upper, large cabin market. These predictions, however, do not include VLJs.
The VLJ that was 30 years in the making.
Up until Honda Jet, most of the players in the VLJ field were and continue to be established aircraft companies. Not so with Honda. Honda was a motorcycle builder, who became a car builder, who became a marine motor maker, who became a lawn mower maker, robots and more. The Honda philosophy is if you make it – and make it well enough – they will buy it. Honda’s desire to get into the aircraft business goes back to its founder, Soichiro Honda, who believed his company had the right “stuff” (engineering and manufacturing) to build aircraft.
The guy at Honda who had the right vision, however, didn’t come along until 1986 when Honda gave a young engineer named Michimassa Fujino the go ahead to start developing an aircraft. As with most Honda products, the emphasis was on getting it right, not making it quickly. They certainly didn’t rush to market, as the Honda Jet concept was first shown at Air Venture 2005 and the first production model didn’t appear until 2014.
Mr. Fujino’s jet is a departure from conventional wisdom. Its engine pods emerge from its wing tops and are not mounted from the sides of the back fuselage as has been the norm for biz-jets since Mr. Lear put his moniker on one in the 1960s. Dispelling concerns about disturbing airflow over the wings, Mr. Fujino stuck to his belief that his formula would work, which it does without sacrificing lift or creating excess drag – claiming a quieter and more comfortable passenger experience.
The Honda Jet seats up to four passengers with two pilots up front and is wider than competitors like Cessna Mustang. Its power plants are made in partnership with General Electric, which adds to its credibility. The design’s drawback at the moment seems to be a smidge shorter range than the average VLJ, and a price tag that is quite a bit higher by $1 million to $1.8 million. The Cessna Mustang, for example, goes for about $3.5 million, the Honda for $4.5 million. What’s more, Cessna has responded to the increase in competition by offering reduced avionics packages. Honda Jet has the highest service ceiling in its class, upwards of FL40. That puts it well into airline territory. While the Honda Jet and its VLJ brethren will be sharing air space with airliners, the key advantage they have is that they will be able to land at smaller airports where airliners can’t.
What makes Honda’s VLJ exciting and worrisome at the same time?
While this kind of accessibility sounds fantastic to business types and those with enough money to make a VLJ a personal aircraft, it presents issues for smaller airports that don’t see much jet traffic on a regular basis, or on any basis at all for that matter. For one thing, these aircraft use Jet-A fuel, which many smaller air strips don’t have available. It will also mean faster aircraft in the traffic pattern of non-towered airports.
Then there is the matter of pilot training. You don’t just go from a piston single (even a Pilatus PC-12 turbo) to a jet without training. In fact, even if you do have jet time, you probably want to get familiar with whatever VLJ you choose, including the Honda.
What makes the Honda a threat to traditional aircraft manufacturers?
In the ensuing years between Eclipse Jet’s Air Venture 2000 announcement of a VLJ for under a million dollars and now, the players that have succeeded in this market segment have been aircraft companies that know the costs always go up, hurtles never stop coming and announcement dates are never set in stone. Cessna and Embraer, both old hands at aircraft development, manufacture and delivery, have managed to stay the course and deliver while others could not.
Despite the many obstacles to certification and the fact that VLJ sales remained flat going into 2015, there has been a resurgence in the number of competitors coming into 2016. Cirrus has returned to the scene with their Vision Jet; Eclipse, too, has re-entered the market with their 550 model and, of course, Honda has finally emerged with a certified ship ready for deliveries.
Because Honda is not a traditional aircraft manufacturer, they’ll be the one to watch carefully. With over 100 orders to fill, they’ll be busy. Can they outstrip their older, more experienced brethren? More importantly, how will they do after the sale? The supply chain is just as important as the development and manufacture of the aircraft.
According to a Forbes article in December 2015, the now certified, trial-tested, FAA-certified Honda Jet is about to take its first deliveries (Honda has a respectable 100 orders for the little jet). What happens next depends largely on how well Honda Jets perform in the real world. Most other VLJs in the past have been plagued by system bugs and pilot inexperience issues. Honda could experience the same… or not.
Honda has one thing going for it – nearly thirty years of preparation. If they approach production, support and service with the same diligence and fervor they’ve shown in their other product categories, they will no doubt prove to be a formidable competitor in the aviation business. Only time will tell if Honda Jet will take off and rewrite the history of the VLJ market. From the looks of things, however, Honda is no rush to get anything wrong.