An Automobile Company Designing Airplanes

Michimasa Fujino, the president and CEO of Honda Aircraft Company.

(Tim Loerkhe/USA Today)
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Automotive giant Honda Motor Company caused a sensation in the aviation world last year when it threw its hat—and considerable reputation and resources—into the business jet ring with the eight-seat HondaJet, for which the new Honda Aircraft Company in early 2007 had more than 100 orders. At 483 miles per hour, the HondaJet is the fastest aircraft in the light jet class (under 10,000 pounds) with a respectable 1600-mile range, a performance advantage designer Michimasa Fujino credits to its natural laminar flow wing and unusual placement of the engines: on top of the wings. Air & Space Editor Linda Shiner spoke with Fujino in February 2007.

A&S: Why did an automobile company like Honda begin a project to design an airplane?
Fujino: In 1986, Honda started the new fundamental technology center. There were several projects: airplane project, jet engine project, and humanoid robot project. I was called by my boss to transfer from the automotive division to the airplane division.

A&S: Were you happy with the transfer?
Fujino: At the time, I was surprised. I didn’t expect Honda to start an airplane project.

I graduated in aeronautical engineering from the university, but in Japan there is no major aerospace industry, so it’s not so exciting in Japan so I had decided to commit myself to work on the automobile when I decided to join Honda. At first I tried to decline the transfer. I wanted to work for the automobile division. But company is company, so I was automatically transferred from the automobile division to the airplane project.

A&S: What was your first project?
Fujino: The first project was to build the experimental aircraft called MH-01. The MH stood for Mississippi Honda. Honda partnered with Mississippi State University in a project to modify an existing airplane—a Bonanza A36—with composite material. We purchased the airplane, and we replaced the wing and empennage with composite material. We completely modified the airplane [at MSU’s Raspet Flight Research Laboratory] and compared the weight, structure, and flight characteristics [with those of an unmodified Bonanza].

Honda management was looking for a place where we could fabricate an airplane and conduct flight testing in the United States. They were seeking for many possibilities—to work with a company or a university. The company wanted to work with a university rather than a company because a university could keep a secret better. And the facility was unique; even though it’s a university, it’s just like a shop where you could build an airplane. This kind of facility was only at Mississippi State.

A&S: Did you work alone or with a team?
Fujino: Five engineers were sent to Mississippi State Raspet Flight Research to build airplane by ourselves with some support from technicians in the United States. But we fabricated the airplane by ourselves and learned by ourselves.

A&S: Had you had experience in composite fabrication?
Fujino: No, I majored in airplane stability and control, so my background was more theoretical. I studied aerodynamics. In Japan, it’s hard to get [practical experience] with an airplane. I had never touched an airplane before. So when I went to Mississippi State, it was the very first time I had the opportunity to touch an airplane—and it was a very different experience.

It was kind of interesting, but for the entire first year, I was just sanding a mold. So at the end of the one year, I thought it was a very hard experience, a very hard job, from a physical standpoint. Long hours and more like fabrication.

At first I didn’t see that fabrication itself would be so important for an airplane because I majored in very advanced theory at the university. But after I learned to fabricate the airplane on my own, I started to understand the importance. Until I understood the importance of building the airplane by my own hand, that experience was a very tough experience for me. But now when I take a look at a part, I can read it: I know the proper weight and thickness. So sometimes those experiences are very pure. Many designers in the United States do not have experience in building parts by themselves. So now when I take a look back at my experience, I think it’s a very good combination with theory and practical fabrication. It’s very helpful for my airplane now.

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