On a beautiful spring morning in Greensboro, North Carolina, it was with great familiarity and joy that I stepped into the exquisite cabin of a deep red HondaJet with company pilot Stefan Johansson, senior manager of flight operations. As I slid into the soft leather seat on the left side of the cockpit, my first thought was that, other than the color, it looked just like the airplane I flew a bit more than two years ago. But a long list of small changes on the surface and beneath the aluminum skin have added up to significant improvements for the light twinjet.
Since the day Kenny G wowed a large gathering of people with his mastery of the soprano sax at the certification ceremony at the factory in December 2016, the HondaJet has seen great success, becoming the most delivered airplane in its class in 2018, according to numbers from the General Aviation Manufacturers Association. It also became one of FLYING‘s Editors’ Choice Award winners for 2016 and went on to win the inaugural FLYING Innovation Award, which then-Editor-in-Chief Stephen Pope handed over at EAA’s AirVenture in Oshkosh, Wisconsin, in 2017.
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With a quest for continuous improvement, Honda Aircraft set out almost immediately to tweak the design to make its customers ever happier with their airplanes. The changes started with serial number 11, which ended up serving as the test platform for a new model—the HondaJet Elite. The first true Elite is serial number 126, and the airplanes that came before can be upgraded with what has been named the Advanced Performance Modification Group, APMG for short, which adds all the key Elite changes for $250,000. Before the end of 2018, Honda Aircraft delivered the first HondaJet Elite to a customer in Japan. The Japan Civil Aviation Bureau approved the certification on December 7, and it has also been signed off by authorities in a long list of other countries, including our FAA.
Reaching this level of success was neither easy nor quick. The first trace of the HondaJet emerged in the early 1990s, when Honda Aircraft’s president and CEO, Michimasa Fujino, started drawing up the design. The road from that day to the cold winter evening in December 2016 when he received the certification documents from the FAA required enough dedication that Fujino has referred to the airplane as his third daughter.
The HondaJet is easily recognizable for its over-the-wing mounting of two GE Honda Aero Engines’ HF120s. Fujino claimed that one of the benefits of the unusual design is a quieter cabin. As someone who has flown the airplane a few times now, I can attest that the claim is no hogwash. On the ground, you can’t hear the engines at all up front even without a headset on, and in the air there’s just a quiet buzz.
The general dimensions of the HondaJet Elite are identical to the original’s, with the exception of the tail. The horizontal section has been stretched, resulting in reduced rotation forces that are easier to control, Johansson says. This allows for rotation at slower speeds, which in turn makes the airplane capable of taking off from runways 500 feet shorter than before, bringing the shortest takeoff distance to 3,491 feet.
With only one flight in the airplane after more than two years, it was hard for me to really feel the differences. However, while in Greensboro I had a chance to go through FlightSafety’s recurrent course. Unfortunately, the simulator had not been updated to Elite status, so I couldn’t experience the differences. I did, however, have a chance to talk to experienced HondaJet operators about their experiences.
One pilot who had just flown an original HondaJet from Europe to replace it with an Elite version walked into the classroom wide-eyed with excitement after testing out the new version for the first time. He was particularly excited about the changes that have been made to the brakes. With the original system, the hydraulics would grab the brakes, making it challenging to control the airplane on the ground. But with a few tweaks, the brakes are now smoother, and the British pilot felt they were more effective too. However, Johansson says the modification had no effect on braking power.
Mark Leavitt, who took delivery of the very first customer airplane, didn’t experience a dramatic difference when his system was upgraded. “Some people have come out and said it’s remarkably different,” Leavitt says. “Our brakes were a real problem when we first got the airplane, but then they balanced them so well that I wonder if ours were so well balanced that the change was not as dramatic as it would have been for others.”
HondaJet Elite versions are easily distinguished from the original airplanes. While Honda Aircraft only offered base colors—green, yellow, blue, red and silver—the new models come in Ruby Red, Ice Blue and Monarch Orange.
When digging beneath the surface, other differences can be observed even before the preflight inspection. A gross-weight increase, along with some weight reductions, have resulted in a total increase in the useful load of 226 pounds. Most weights for the airplane (max ramp, max takeoff, max landing, max zero-fuel weight, for example) have been increased by 100 pounds. The total baggage capacity has also increased by 100 pounds. The aft baggage compartment is still limited to 400 pounds, so all the extra weight must be added to the nose compartment, which is a good thing because the space between the engine and aft compartment is not huge, so it’s easier to load things up front. However, really bulky items won’t fit. Adding more weight up front also helps keep the airplane inside the CG envelope, which could be an issue with too much gear in the back.
During our walkaround, I noticed that the airplane is aerodynamically a lot cleaner than I remembered. While pilots were previously forced to count dozens of vortex generators, T-strips and triangles on the bottom of the horizontal stabilizer, winglets and upper surfaces of the wings, most of these are now gone. One of the stall fences on each wing was also eliminated. The cleaner surfaces reduced drag and resulted in a slight range increase.
However, the bulk of the range increase is due to the increased fuel capacity. The capacity was upped by more than 100 pounds by adding a tank in the fuselage, stretching the legs of the jet by more than 200 nm to 1,437 nm. There is no additional work for the pilot to worry about as far as fuel management goes.
Some ramp workers have not been thrilled with the HondaJet. While there is only one fuel port to fill the tanks, which makes it quick and efficient to fill the airplane, there was a tendency for an air bubble to form, causing fuel to rush out of the port onto the person servicing the airplane. Ramp workers will be happy to know that Honda Aircraft has added a switch-light button that annunciates “fuel slowly” when the tank is near capacity to prevent a jet-A shower. The fuel port was also moved higher up on the fuselage due to the additional tank.
The flight-plan display on the MFD shows the destination including the amount of fuel that will remain when you arrive, based on conditions within the system and entered figures. We decided to see if we could get to Denver. The FOD feature—not foreign object debris, but Fuel Over Destination—in the G3000 has been modified to take entered data into consideration as well as current conditions. This is extremely useful since you can play around with values at different altitudes. You also have the ability to add a standby flight plan as an initial planning tool or to check different scenarios in flight if you need to divert. Another fabulous change is that the flight plan doesn’t get purged when the master switch is shut off.
Our Denver plan proved slightly overambitious. With our conditions, we saw that we would have needed full tanks and a decent tailwind to make the trip. Regardless, a cross-country trip with one stop is certainly possible in the HondaJet Elite on most days. A two-leg coast-to-coast trip would have been more difficult with the original HondaJet.
Pushing the thrust levers forward, the GE Honda engines spooled up to give us more than 4,000 pounds of thrust. I felt a noticeable push in the backside and saw a consistent climb rate of well over 3,000 fpm through 28,000 feet. We climbed all the way up to the service ceiling—FL 430—in about 23 minutes, not including a forced level off. While the HondaJet gets the best range at its 43,000-foot service ceiling, the best speed can be found at around 31,000 feet.
Though our flight was only a bit more than an hour, I had reason to visit the lavatory in flight. I was happy to see that the Elite version kept the skylights in the bathroom. The lav now also has as an option for a belted seat. To get this option, the cabin had to be configured with galley rather than the side-facing seat initially, but now owners can choose to add both belted seat options.
While most Elite upgrades are pretty well-hidden, others are quite evident. The cabin got not only a face-lift but also an improved sound system. While Stefan and I were playing with the toys in the cockpit, Jessica Ketner, Honda’s corporate communications lead, and photographer Chris Carter rocked out in the back. It’s no wonder I thought the system was named after the infamous rocker Jon Bon Jovi. It is actually designed by the Bongiovi Acoustics Lab. A number of powerful transducers are incorporated into the sidewalls of the cabin, creating a smooth, sophisticated look.
Like many electronics these days, the sound system can be managed through an app that also gives passengers the ability to darken the cabin through electronically dimmable windows, and to change the lights and temperature. You can manage SiriusXM channels on the tablet too.
Passengers will also enjoy new seats with dual-toned leather. New storage compartments and coat hooks come standard. I have only experienced the cabin in cruise, and I find it very quiet; however, some passengers were bothered by a high-pitched sound during the climb phase. This has been addressed by adding an acoustic engine inlet liner.
USB power outlets, something that customers have come to expect during all forms of traveling, have become standard both in the cockpit and the cabin so that pilots and passengers can satisfy their addictions to screens. Previously only the pilot had power, and only through a standard power outlet.
Satellite connectivity is available through Iridium and Gogo Business Aviation’s Gogo Biz, providing internet service, the ability to make phone calls, and send and receive text messages within the Continental U.S. and some portions of Canada and Alaska. These services require additional equipment and a subscription plan.
It’s not just the passengers who will experience more tech while flying the Elite-upgraded HondaJet. Several improvements have been made to the Garmin G3000 flight deck, in addition to those already mentioned. Just like the new NXi version of G1000, the graphics processor is crisper and a lot quicker than its previous version. For preflight purposes, the weight-and-balance page now includes a graph that gives a quick indication of whether the airplane will be within the safe CG envelope. It also projects a CG curve for the entire flight, so you can see whether the weight and balance will remain inside the envelope for landing. The weight changes with the Elite also expanded the CG envelope by a full 1.5 percent MAC, and the ability to put an extra 100 pounds up front has made it easier to stay in the envelope too, Johansson says.
There are a host of standard features for the G3000 suite that were not even optional in the original HondaJet, such as plain-language TAFs and metars; takeoff- and landing-distance management; VNAV during the climb, cruise and descent; CCD VNAV on the vertical situation display; visual approaches; ADS-B In and the enhanced HSI map that Garmin users have grown to love.
Unlike most systems, ADS-B In in the HondaJet Elite does not provide subscription-free weather. It only provides the additional benefits of trend vectors to the traffic targets. For the G3000, weather will still have to come from SiriusXM.
However, you get the full benefits of ADS-B In on the iPad. Garmin’s Flightstream 510 enables wireless communication between the panel- mounted screens and an iPad through Garmin’s Pilot app. ADS-B traffic targets and weather can be shown on the moving map, and flight planning can be done on the iPad app and streamed directly into the panel-mounted system along with database updates.
Part of my HondaJet type rating training included learning the painstaking process of determining the V speeds for takeoff and landing by using paper booklets. Elite streamlines the process by calculating the takeoff-and-landing-data numbers for you, including distances and climb gradients, based on database information and pilot inputs on the touchscreen controllers.
During the descent, Johansson and I played around with the edge of the envelope. Stalls are a nonevent in the HondaJet. But what’s new with the Elite version is an angle of attack indicator that pops up beneath the speed tape of the PFD if the airplane gets near a stalled condition, serving as a reminder to reduce the angle of attack. The approach to stall, where the stick shaker activates, is indicated by a red-and-white barber pole, and the stall pusher activates at the red line.
Pilots who prefer to have the AOA gauge on all the time can select the feature in the PFD settings on the bottom of the PFD. Additionally, at the top of the PFD, there is a new icon that looks like a comb that has been bent at an angle. It is called the pitch-limit indicator, and it shows the pitch angle for which the stall shaker will engage in the current configuration. Johansson says it is also helpful to use as a guide for the pitch attitude in case you get into wind shear.
Another helpful new feature is the automatic speed-bug feature. The speed bug is at the top of the speed tape and can be manually set as well. The auto-speed bugs are driven by the speed schedule in the performance section, including the climb, cruise and descent schedule, waypoint speed constraints, and aircraft configuration. There is an aural alert when the speed target changes, unless it is a direct result of a pilot action, such as putting the gear or flaps down.
A. An AOA gauge will pop up at the bottom of the speed tape when the airplane starts getting too slow. B. The weight-and-balance page has been revamped to include a CG graph that shows the CG for the entire flight. All you have to do is to fill out the weights for each station. C. Rather than determine V speeds from paper documents, the system calculates them for you based on data entered in the touchscreen controllers. D. Like all of Garmin’s latest flight decks, the HondaJet Elite’s updated G3000 system has crisper screens and faster processors. E. Garmin’s Flight Stream 510 can be added to connect the system with an iPad, allowing for flight-plan transfers, wireless database updates and more.
|Base Price||$5.25 Million||Typically Equipped Price||$5.65 Million|
|Engines||GE Honda HF120 (2)||Thrust||2,050 lb.|
|Seats||6||Height||14 ft. 11 in.|
|Length||42 ft. 7 in.||Cabin Length||17 ft. 10 in.|
|Cabin Width||5 ft.||Cabin Height||4 ft. 10 in.|
|Wingspan||39 ft. 9 in.||Wing Area||176.7 sq. ft.|
|Wing Loading||60.6 lb./sq. ft.||Power Loading||2.61 lb./thrust lb.|
|Max Takeoff Weight||10,700 lb.||Casic Operating Weight||7,153 lb.|
|Fuel Capacity||440 gal./2,948 lb.||Useful Load||3,627 lb.|
|Max Rate of Climb||4,100 fpm||Max Operating Altitude||43,000 ft.|
|Max Cruise Speed||422 ktas/Mach 0.72||Max Range||1,437 nm|
|Takeoff Distance||3,491 ft.||Landing Distance||2,795 ft.|
Because there are no autothrottles in the HondaJet, there is a possibility of under-speeding the airplane if you forget to apply power when leveling off during a descent. The software in the Elite eliminates the chances of a stall by announcing an audible “airspeed” alert and showing a yellow “MINSPD” caution in the speed-bug box and nudges the nose down to a safer speed. This Under-Speed Protection mode activates at the pitch limit indicator and only if the flight director or autopilot is engaged; USP is an optional feature.
Another feature that reduces the chances of loss of control is CCD VNAV, which calculates a smooth path for climbs and descents that require multiple level offs. Rather than making stepdowns during a descent, the G3000 calculates a smooth path that the automatic flight control system can follow, taking all altitude constraints into consideration. This can be particularly useful in busy environments where STARs and approaches can command multiple stepdowns and altitude restrictions.
There is also a new visual-approach feature, which provides vertical and horizontal guidance. The visual approaches behave identically to an RNAV instrument approach as far as guidance on the PFD and MFD, and they will couple to the AFCS.
I also had a chance to test out the Electronic Stability and Protection system, which automatically nudges the nose down without the AFCS system engaged when the airplane gets slow and rolls the wings back toward level when exceeding 45 degrees. Two solid-white lines, which are normally at the 45-degree line, move to the 30-degree mark when the system engages and roll mode disengages automatically below 30 degrees of bank.
The roll mode can be disengaged by pushing and holding the red autopilot/trim disconnect button and, while it took a little force, I was able to overpower it without disabling it—which is the way the system is intended to work. Unless disengaged, the roll force required to remain in a steep bank get stronger the steeper the bank gets.
The HondaJet Elite is a speedy airplane with a clean airframe, and the speed brake comes in very handy during descents. However, it remains an option. If you can’t quite afford to take all of the options you desire, this is not one you should skimp out on.
The last new optional feature in the G3000 that I had a chance to check out in the airplane is the coupled takeoff/go-around feature. This means that I no longer had to hand-fly the airplane during our simulated missed approach. Instead, I pushed the TOGA button, and the autopilot automatically pitched for the flight director. All I had to do was to push the throttles forward, come around the pattern and bring the airplane back to land, easy as can be.