Although two years behind its original development and delivery schedule, HondaJet certification testing is underway and the manufacturer hopes to begin deliveries of the light jet—Honda’s first commercial aircraft—in late 2012.

“We’ll try to keep this momentum to keep to the schedule,” says Michimasa Fujino, president/CEO of Honda Aircraft Co.

The first production-conforming HondaJet launched on Dec. 20 on a 51-min. flight out of Piedmont Triad International Airport in Greensboro, N.C., where the airplane company is headquartered. Two more aircraft are to join in the flight-test program by summer, while another pair will be devoted to structural testing. Construction of the first of the latter pair is completed.

According to Fujino, the aircraft’s GE Honda HF120 turbofan engines, rated at 2,095 lb. thrust, are expected to receive FAA certification this year, with the aircraft and its production facility gaining their respective authorizations next year.

The company, a wholly owned subsidiary of Honda Motor Co., reports orders in hand for “well over” 100 of the $4.5-million jets, and Fujino says plans now call for delivering 30-40 within the first six months of certification.

Some 20+ years in development including more than 500 hr. of flight tests in a proof-of-concept aircraft, the HondaJet is distinctive for mounting its engines on pylons atop the wings, a configuration its designers maintain improves aircraft performance and fuel efficiency by reducing drag. The design also allows for a more spacious, five-passenger cabin while reducing ground detected noise, they say. The natural laminar flow wings are aluminum, while the fuselage is composite construction. The cockpit features a three-screen Garmin G3000 avionics suite with touch-screen controllers.

Honda created the airplane subsidiary in 2006, and broke ground on a large headquarters, research and development, and manufacturing complex in Greensboro the following year. The offices and R&D center are now in place; the 266,000-sq.-ft. production facility is expected to be completed early this year.

Initially, HondaJet deliveries were to begin in 2010, but that target slid as a result, the company says, of unspecified vendor difficulties. The delay happens to coincide with one of the steepest sales declines in business jet history, with light jets suffering the most.

Fujino says that despite severe erosion in order backlogs among rival manufacturers, HondaJet orders have remained pretty much intact, with relatively few cancellations offset by new sales. “Even in this very tough market, we don’t have any significant cancellations,” he says. Furthermore, he expects the overall economy will have strengthened by the time HondaJet deliveries begin in earnest, boding well for further sales.

HondaJet competes most closely as an entry-level jet with the Phenom 100, which entered service in 2008, and the CJ1+, manufactured by well-established jet makers, Embraer and Cessna, respectively. At program launch, Piper Aircraft had agreed to collaborate on HondaJet sales and service. However, Piper subsequently began development of its own light jet, the $2.5-million Altaire, powered by a single Williams FJ44-3AP, and the arrangement with Honda has apparently been dissolved.

Asked if other models are planned, Fujino says, “we cannot sustain a company with one product,” but declined to speculate on what might be the next aircraft. He did say that future models might not feature the engine-over-wing design, but would likely incorporate concepts that are equally innovative.

Honda Aircraft now employs about 550 people and expects to add 150-200 incrementally as it ramps up for full production.

Original plans called for the HondaJet to be powered by the HF118, a small turbofan developed by Honda. However, engine performance was considered less than ideal, prompting Honda to partner with General Electric and create GE Honda Aero Engines in 2004 with the express purpose of developing and manufacturing turbofan engines in the 1,000-3,500-lb.-thrust class. The HF120, the first product of the 50/50 partnership, will be initially manufactured at GE’s Lynn, Mass., plant, but then transfer to Honda Aero Inc.’s facility in Burlington, N.C.