Most of the cars I review are the product of a couple of years’ work by their manufacturers. From sketchbook to showroom, a family hatchback might take as little as 18 months to complete, or maybe up to half a decade if it's a brand new model.
But that’s never been the case with aircraft. In fact, the one I’m flying in today has been in development for longer than I’ve been alive.
I’ve come to Biggin Hill Airport to see the HA-420 ‘HondaJet’. It’s a small private jet – at under five tonnes fully laden and with seven seats in total, it’s what’s commonly described as a very light jet, or VLJ. A tiny wingspan of just over 12 metres and a total length of 13 metres makes it one of the smallest jet-powered aircraft you can buy. And today, I’m going to find out whether you’d want to.
Private jets are unwelcome at busy international hubs so most business aviation ends up at these smaller airports, with Luton, Northolt and Farnborough being among the most popular in London.
This is one of the main caveats of private jet travel – you have more flexibility than you get with scheduled flights but you’re normally forced to use general aviation facilities like this one.
That said, Biggin Hill is a wonderfully friendly antidote to the world of commercial flying. I'm greeted with a smile before walking directly onto the apron, where I encounter Honda’s automotive PR boss Simon Branney choreographing an elaborate mechanical ballet – a staged photo of Honda’s myriad products, from a tiny robotic lawnmower, to the NSX hybrid supercar, to the brand new jet. I can’t think of a manufacturer with more fingers in more pies.
This is my first opportunity to see the HondaJet up close. It’s awfully sweet, with a cute little nose apparently inspired by a Salvatore Ferragamo shoe and dainty winglets that make it look like it should flap its wings to take off rather than accelerate along a runway. It was first sketched by designer Michimasa Fujino in 1997 but the project dates back to the Eighties – this was one of the last major products signed off by company founder Soichiro Honda before he died in 1991.
The two GE Honda HF120 turbofans are situated on pylons mounted to the wings, rather than attached to the fuselage as is the norm; this has numerous aerodynamic advantages, including lowering the stall speed, as well as increasing interior space and reducing vibrations.
You barely notice this innovation from most angles but when viewed from the front, it gives the plane a unique silhouette.
I’m not just here to gawp – we’re taking the HondaJet to La Rochelle on the west coast of France. That’s about a day’s drive from London in a car, even the 191mph NSX or 177mph Civic Type R. You don’t need to worry about speed limits in the sky, though, and I’m excited to experience the HondaJet’s 483mph capability without looking out for the gendarmerie.
This aircraft has a useful range of over 1,300 miles, which means that Barcelona, Rome, Vienna, Reykjavik and most of Scandinavia is theoretically within reach. Trips beyond Europe would necessitate a refuel.
Climbing into the cabin through the small side door, I’m surprised at how roomy this aircraft feels in comparison to its dinky exterior dimensions. I’m a larger chap and don’t feel cramped at all, which is more than could be said for a lot of the six- and eight-seaters I’ve flown in.
In the cockpit there are two comfortable seats, in the main cabin there are four in ‘club’ format (two sets of two individual, adjustable seats, facing each other abreast of a narrow aisle) and one jump seat opposite the door. You could take four passengers in comfort, or six at a push.
The door closes. We’ve stowed some bags in the 255-litre luggage compartment in the nose, which itself is about the same size as the boot of a Kia Picanto. There’s over 1,800 litres of stowage space in total, comparable to an E-class estate with the seats down. It's worth remembering that these areas aren't pressurised, though.
Biggin Hill’s runway is 45 metres wide and 1,800 metres long, and our plane feels awfully small in comparison. The tarmac stretches practically to the horizon as the engines begin to wail and the little aircraft tenses up, held in place momentarily before lurching forwards. We reach 120 knots (about 140mph) seemingly instantaneously and the aircraft begins to rotate.
The runway, which was an impossibly large expanse of grey fifteen seconds ago, disappears below us. England’s grey winter air thins and stutters into cloud, giving us a few glimpses of London’s suburbs and the greenish fronds of the Kentish countryside before we’re enveloped in a cloud somewhere over Edenbridge. It’s immediate, far more so than in a passenger jet or light aircraft, and far more comfortable.
It’s also quiet. We raise our voices during take-off but otherwise hold conversation at normal volume. The only aircraft I’ve flown in that’s quieter was an experimental battery-electric one, and that could only fly for a few minutes at a time.
Simon has brought snacks and drinks. I’ve been specifically forbidden from using the fully enclosed toilet at the aft of the aircraft, but the fact that this aircraft comes with a lavatory (an expensive tick box in the options list) immediately makes it more practical than many planes in this strange little market segment.
And it’s a proper loo, rather than a potty with a curtain around it - you’d be surprised at what passengers have been expected to endure in smaller business turboprops.
One of my favourite moments of 2017 was riding shotgun in the HA-420 'HondaJet' on a day trip to La Rochelle. I was so excited, I filmed vertically. But why am I posting this now? Because it's quicker to embed a Tweet in an article than to publish video on the Telegraph's CMS. �� pic.twitter.com/hSMq0trrVf— Ed Wiseman (@edwisemanesq) February 5, 2018
Above the clouds – a special place where it’s perpetually sunny – the HondaJet becomes a time machine. We’re restricted to a lower altitude than usual so can’t make use of the plane’s best-in-class service ceiling, thus losing some of its speed and efficiency advantages, but we’re still hurtling across France at almost six times the autoroute limit.
But there’s more to this aircraft than the innate advantages of velocity.
The main problem with owning a private jet is that you can’t fly the thing yourself. If you buy a car, boat or light aircraft you can generally take the wheel, helm or yoke whenever you like, subject to the right training, but most bizjets require two people in the cockpit. Even if you have a licence for your jet, you’ll need to arrange (and pay for) a co-pilot before going anywhere.
It doesn’t sound like a dealbreaker on paper, but in reality this faff restricts the way small jets can be used. You can’t take the family on a weekend away like you can with a turboprop, and you’re not allowed to whisk your partner off for lunch in Le Touquet as you would in a little two-seater.
These limitations mean that owner-operator private jet travel has always compared unfavourably with first-class tickets on commercial flights, ad hoc bizjet charters or buying smaller GA aircraft.
The HondaJet joins the Phenom 300 and Citation CJ3 (among others) in being single-pilot certified. You can hop into the pilot’s seat whenever you like, as you would with a smaller propeller plane.
This versatility is relatively uncommon with jet aircraft at this price point and opens the HondaJet up to regular family users who might otherwise have bought a turboprop like the Pilatus PC-12, Piper M350 or Beechcraft Bonanza.
When we reach cruising altitude I clamber into the co-pilot’s seat, aided by well-placed things to hold onto. I’m training for a fixed-wing microlight licence and have a smattering of experience in other planes, such as the Grob when I was in the cadets and five minutes in the Harvard at Goodwood Aerodrome, but other than that my flying experience is virtually non-existent. I’m therefore hesitant when I take the controls of this £5m jet-powered craft, which I assume could get out of shape quite quickly.
That turns out not to be the case. It’s eminently easy to fly, and as I wobble around in the sky over France I’m surprised at how straightforward the controls are. Honda has utilised the ‘dark cockpit’ principle: everything’s taken care of by automated systems, unless a light is on, in which case you need to take a look at it.
The ergonomic experience of the cockpit is more than a little bit car-like – I’m looking as much at a dashboard as I am at an instrument panel.
We puncture the clouds somewhere over Nantes, a qualified pilot back in control. It’s taken less time for us to get here than it took me to get from Victoria to Biggin hill, a journey that involved a train, a tram and a bus. Compared to any other form of transport, including turboprop and larger, noiser planes, the journey has been utterly effortless.
I recently undertook a trip of similar length in a chartered Embraer 145, which was so rattly and loud I felt like I’d been travelling for weeks. Two hours in the HondaJet slipped by imperceptibly, thanks to the comfort, quietness and a mouthful of Simon’s Haribo.
La Rochelle airport is heaving with holidaymakers during the summer season, but in winter there’s a curious sense of calm. Enormous coach parks lie empty and the main passenger terminal, a smart modern building, is locked. As is often the case with proper airports, we go to the general aviation terminal, which is actually a portacabin. A gorgeously appointed portacabin, but a portacabin nonetheless.
My ears pop in the cab. Two hours ago I was in a drizzly Biggin Hill, and now I’m driving across the Île de Ré bridge on my way to a glass of wine and a specials board. Whenever I’ve flown privately before, be it in a corporate charter or a bizjet, it’s been for someone else’s convenience.
The HondaJet, with its low price, reasonable running costs and extreme ease of use, makes high-speed private jet travel as straightforward as driving a car, and just as attractive to own.
Honda has applied its automotive knowledge to a transport sector that needed it. In doing so, they’ve built what might be the first family jet. The HA-420 HondaJet is truly the Civic of the skies.
Honda HA-420 'HondaJet' – the facts
HA-420 with GE Honda HF-120 turbofans and Garmin G3000 avionics, equipped with optional leather seating, side-facing jump seat, electric pleated shades and external lavatory service port
PRICE/ON SALE: £5m, depending on options
POWER/TORQUE: 1,997 pounds of thrust per engine
TOP SPEED: 420 knots (483mph)
MMO: Mach 0.72
TAKEOFF RUNWAY: 3,934 feet
LANDING RUNWAY: 3,047 feet
SERVICE CEILING: 43,000 feet
FUEL ECONOMY: 3mpg on test, approx
VERDICT: Honda's first foray into the world of aviation looks like a successful one. By applying ergonomic principles already established in the automotive world, as well as the assumption of single-pilot operation, Honda has torn down some of the barriers to private jet ownership. This is an expensive machine, but its car-like ease-of-use makes it one of the few private jets you might actually buy – not bad for a first try.
TELEGRAPH RATING: Five stars out of five
Honda HA-420 'HondaJet' – key rivals
Cessna Citation M2
Perhaps the most obvious competitor is the Citation M2 from Cessna, a manufacturer best known for its single-engine aircraft. The M2 is a little slower and has a smaller cabin than the HondaJet, but needs less runway to operate. Both are certified for single-pilot use.
Cirrus Vision SF50
If the HondaJet is the 'Civic of the skies', this little Cirrus is a jet-propelled Jazz. Powered by just the one roof-mounted Williams FJ33 turbofan, it's the smallest and cheapest VLJ on the market. It's also the first private jet to come equipped with a whole-aircraft ballistic parachute.
It may seem unfair to compare a single to a VLJ, but the PC-12 is the Subaru Forester of aeroplanes – it's dependable, slow, slightly cruder around the edges than some rivals, and capable of extracting itself from a wet field. Yep, the PC-12 can land on a grass runway. The lavatory leaves a lot to be desired, however.