HondaJet Elite: More of a Good Thing

HondaJet Elite
Credit: HondaJet

Honda Aircraft delivered its first HondaJet Elite, serial number 126, in August 2018. Since then, more than 75 of the upgraded, or second generation, HondaJets have entered service in business aviation flight departments, fractional programs, charter operations and owner-flown roles.

The HondaJet HA-420, one of the few truly new business jets--developed over three decades by a new original equipment manufacturer with no previous experience in aviation--by all accounts has achieved positive market acceptance. Now the Elite builds on that success by inclusion of major performance and detail improvements. The most notable of these include:

  • An increase of maximum takeoff weight (MTOW) from 10,500 to 10,700 lb. This accommodates an additional 104 lb. of fuel, increasing range of the basic-spec (i.e., no options) aircraft by 200 nm with three passengers aboard. Typically equipped with options like speed brakes and an enclosed lavatory with belted potty, adding an average of 200 lb. or more to the aircraft, the range boost can settle out at up to 150 nm. With four passengers aboard, this can equate to a roughly 1,165-nm range.
  • Aerodynamic modifications to the empennage--specifically 7-in. additional span to the horizontal surfaces for enhanced pitch response and the elimination of vortex generators (VRs) on the undersurface of the stabilizer and the T-strip (“Gurney flap”) on the elevator trailing edge. This reduces V speeds and takeoff distance of the 10,700-lb. MTOW airplane at sea level, ISA by approximately 443 ft. and landing distance by as much as 600 ft. Elimination of aileron fences and gap seals as well as other VRs on the winglets are also part of a general aerodynamic cleanup.
  • An acoustic treatment of the General Electric/Honda HF120 turbofan nacelle inlets not only eliminates 40 lb. of soundproofing from the Elite’s fuselage but has reduced the already low interior sound levels.
  • The Garmin 3000 avionics suite--already popular with HondaJet pilots due to its automation features--has been enhanced to include higher-resolution displays, more computing power and a variety of functions to improve situational awareness and further reduce workload.

Among the notable detail upgrades are:

  • A flow monitor adjacent to the fueling port access door on the right side of the aft fuselage that tells the lineperson when fuel quantity reaches 335 gal. in order to reduce flow rate so that the last 17 gal. can be pumped in without overflowing. A common complaint of the HondaJet’s gravity-fed fuel system is the difficulty in tanking up the aircraft to full capacity; the annunciator--a simple, two-light indicator--assists line personnel in that process.
  • The nose luggage compartment door strut on the legacy HondaJet--a simple rod secured in a bracket with a pin--has been replaced by a gas-strut, à la the type seen on aft hatches of many SUVs.

A detailed pilot report and evaluation of the Elite by former senior editor Fred George can be found here or on page 50 of the October 2019 issue of BCA.

Legacy Owners Can Upgrade

Honda has not left owners of the legacy HondaJet behind. The OEM offers an upgrade program that adds the Elite’s improvements, bringing the older aircraft pretty much up to its successor’s configuration and enhanced performance. Termed APMG (for Honda Aircraft’s Advanced Performance Modification Group), the upgrade can be installed at Honda’s Greensboro, North Carolina, factory or its network of designated maintenance service centers. A Charleston, West Virginia, medical group, Mountain State Oral and Facial Surgery, which has been operating legacy HondaJet s.n. 101 to transport its maxillofacial surgeons throughout the Eastern U.S., was taking advantage of the APMG upgrade in January when we talked to aviation director Russ McMillan.

“Typically,” he says, “this mod takes about two weeks, but because of the pandemic, the work is taking us about four weeks. The cost of the upgrade is about $280,000, and when timed with one of the required inspection intervals, loss of utilization is minimal. The performance enhancement is rarely expected to help on most of our missions; the biggest benefit for us will come on the back end of ownership when we trade in for a new HondaJet Elite or simply sell it with less time on the market.” HondaJet agreed to lease Mountain State a factory-owned demonstrator while s.n. 101 was at Greensboro for the work. “The lease averages out to a fixed monthly fee of $32,000 and hourly fees totaling about $500, not including fuel,” McMillan explains.

Mountain State bought its HondaJet, built in 2018 but never delivered to its original customer, in June 2020 with zero time on its Hobbs and was logging 25-30 hr. a month on it before committing it to the APMG upgrade. The medical group, which also fields two Cirrus SR22T piston singles, employs four professional pilots including McMillan. “We are a Part 91 operation,” he says. “Our average trip is 300 nm, with direct operating costs for the HondaJet consistently running at $1,400 per hour. This includes fuel and maintenance reserve that utilizes the GE/Honda engine program hourly buy-in [a maintenance service plan]. We do not pay into the [MSPs] that support airframe or parts.”

With one pilot flying the HondaJet, McMillan’s operation can carry five passengers with one in the cockpit and four more in the standard cabin configuration. “Average load going out is three passengers carrying light day bags,” McMillan says. “Passengers have had substantial exposure to other light corporate aircraft and are pleased with the balance of cabin comfort and price point or purchase and direct/indirect operating cost of the HondaJet.”

Dispatch reliability for the med group’s first six months of ownership and 150 hr. of use since purchase was 99%. “The only grounding maintenance issue was resolved within 24 hr. by the factory sending a fully equipped maintenance-support van and two techs from Greensboro to Charleston to replace two tires, McMillan says.

The flight department carries a basic operating weight (BOW) of 10,600 lb. in the HondaJet with a few catering items, medical equipment, one professional pilot and engine/probe covers. “To reduce fuel cost,” McMillan says, “we typically are able to tanker fuel from our home base of KCRW [Yeager Airport], where we buy fuel at preferred pricing.”

He crews the HondaJet with one pilot on most missions. “If we have a long duty day, inclement weather, or are going to some airports in the Northeastern U.S., I’ll crew with two pilots. We train at the only provider, FlightSafety International KGSO [Piedmont Triad International Airport], voluntarily at six-month intervals instead of 12-month intervals to enhance safety. Scheduling of training with FlightSafety is unreasonably difficult because of availability, and it’s comparatively expensive compared to its competitors--$35,000 for 19-day initial and $20,000 for a two-day recurrent. This is a sore spot for most owners.”

Mountain State’s decision to acquire the HondaJet was made after “micro-dissecting comparative data with its closest competitors: acquisition cost, direct operating cost, indirect operating cost, performance that fits our mission needs without under-/over-performing, and confidence in the HondaJet team at the factory after spending a lot of time working with them. We would buy another HondaJet because of all of that and because the machine will perform to the actual data numbers used by HondaJet’s marketing,” says McMillan.

On the deficit side of McMillan’s HondaJet ledger are:

  • The aircraft’s maximum crosswind limitation of 20 kt. “This is a hard limitation,” he says, “not a demonstrated limitation, and it has caused [us] two inflight diversions over the last six months and 150 flight hrs. and is obviously problematic.”
  • The cost and difficulty of training at the Honda factory/FSI location.

Other than that, Mountain State has only to contend with “the typical maintenance issues that are found on factory-new aircraft during the first 100 hr. of use.” Grading the HondaJet’s systems, McMillan gives electrical and avionics both “eights,” pneumatics and hydraulics “10s,” anti/deicing a “seven” (because of “resetting data in the FMS during landing, when the system is being used, and during use of system flaps requiring that 50 must be used, thus eating runway on landing”), and fuel a “five” (because fueling is painfully slow for the last 100 gal. “due to a design flaw”).

The flight department has had no issues with the GE/Honda engines, “except N1 fan blades notoriously rub the shroud and frequently will catch and break out a small [10- to 20-mm] chunk, requiring an expensive $30,000 repair,” McMillan claims. Buying into the engine protection program at $160 per hour per engine covers the repair. Reportedly, GE and Honda Aero are working on a corrective action plan for the blade-rubbing issue, which other operators have said is rare.

OEM support is “strong,” McMillan emphasizes, “if you factor in that this is a well-funded, but very new, company and they are still developing. It’s always a nice experience working with the factory to address issues or just operational questions, as they are very responsive. This applies equally to airframe, engine and avionics. The OEM is professional and most HondaJet factory folks came from other manufacturers; Southern hospitality is noticeable, and there is always a genuine concern to resolve your issue.”

All in all, the HondaJet is “a strong fit for our missions when balanced against cost,” McMillan says. “From my perspective as a former airline guy flying Boeing widebodies worldwide, the HondaJet is a pleasure to fly and has a few quirks, but if the crew understands the big picture, reasonable exceptions are met on a daily basis.”