Greensboro Hopes HondaJet Expands Current Test Site

A Honda career man, Michimasa Fujino observed a kind of cordial secrecy this week when answering questions in his first local interview about the small jet that is the culmination of his life's work.

But he knows that with Honda Aviation now based at Piedmont Triad International Airport, his every move is news - here and around the world.

Since 2000, Honda has quietly developed the HondaJet in windowless buildings at PTI. It hasn't named a factory site, but the company said Tuesday that it expects to build 70 jets at $3.65 million each beginning in 2010. By Friday it had already logged 100 orders.

State and Triad officials are clamoring to attract the factory. If it landed at PTI, it would bring several hundred jobs, millions in investment and priceless prestige.

So Fujino offered a teasing glimpse into Honda's shopping list for a factory site. And PTI just might measure up.

Fujino said PTI was the ideal place for building the jet back in 2000. "I checked the climate for flight testing and also I checked the privacy environment because our project is very confidential," he said.

He also liked PTI's central location. From Greensboro, executives can catch flights to Japan from Atlanta or Washington and work with Federal Aviation Administration officials in Atlanta.

The jets are unique because of their design, with the engine mounted over the wing. They enter a crowded market of new jets that carry only six to eight people. The price of a HondaJet makes it relatively affordable for businesses, rich individuals and "air taxi" services that hope to begin taking average folks on short, flexible trips.

Honda needs a strong group of engineers to build the planes, but what else does it need?

"We have to have a very good skilled worker," Fujino said. "That is very important for Honda to create high-quality products."

The company also needs a good location to bring in and manage parts for the planes, and likewise a good place from which to send finished planes to customers.

PTI has several factors going for it.

First, GTCC has an aviation technology school at PTI that can teach every process needed to build a jet, except for the advanced composite materials in the plane's body.

Cargo transportation will be good: FedEx is building a regional hub here. FedEx also operates a massive hub in Anchorage, Alaska, that serves as its Asian gateway. Such a link could speed components that Honda may need from Japan.

Finally, PTI has plenty of land and the freedom to donate it as an incentive to any industry related to the airport, said Ted Johnson, the airport's executive director.

Honda would be a perfect candidate, Johnson said Friday, but he declined to say whether any such incentive is being considered.

When Fujino came to PTI from Japan, he brought a team of 15 to 20 Honda engineers with him. He decline d to say how many people work there now, but he did say they perform every element of aircraft design and testing. The only thing he doesn't have, Fujino said, is a wind tunnel. Those are in Japan or at Langley Air Force Base in Virginia.

Honda's interest in jet engines dates to 1986, about the time Fujino began his career with the company.

"I proposed the concept for HondaJet to top management in 1997," he said earlier this year. "The project was almost terminated on more than one occasion."

His design of mounting jet engines above the wing persuaded Honda. The mounting saves space under the wings and enables Honda to build the cabin larger while keeping the overall body compact and cheap to operate.

"The original concept is I wanted to design a very efficient airplane which can be used by very many people. Not just by very rich people but by more people to improve their life," he said.

Last week, the company said it has begun the three-year federal approval process. The highly detailed process involves inspections and approvals for almost every facet of the new plane's design.

Although Fujino flies to Japan for frequent meetings, he views Greensboro as home now for him, his wife and three children, ages 12, 8 and 6.

"I committed myself to the project," he said, "so I think Greensboro's now my home."

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