First Word: 01/07


Automotive quality guru Sandy Munro once told me that airplane manufacturing was about the goofiest thing he had ever seen in his professional life. On a visit to a major airframer, he said he was shocked to see the “whole damn thing built with a -inch drill and a screwdriver.” As does everyone else in the automotive industry, Munro knows we’ll the axiom that low-volume manufacturing coupled with non-automated assembly procedures invite quality lapses that can absolutely kill a product.

Michimasa Fujino knows this too, so during our visit to the HondaJet developmental center in Greensboro, North Carolina, in November, I was surprised to learn that Honda wont and probably cant automate much of the HondaJets assembly procedures. When I asked about the fuselage section, Fujino said it will be a hand lay-up of pre-preg material, just the way Cirrus and Diamond do it, albeit with a more sophisticated process, according to Honda.

I found his comment illuminating on two counts. First, Honda is realistic about the sales volume on the order of 200 a year, not 500 or 1000 airplanes. Second, like every other airplane maker, Honda will be forced into non-automated processes because of that low volume. It will be a fascinating chapter in industrial history to see how Honda pulls off the consistent quality trick. Notice I didnt say “if” but “how.” Nonetheless, I suspect this will be a bit of an internal culture shock for a company accustomed to building several thousand cars, or motorcycles or generators before the factory breaks for lunch.


Some years ago, in the early days of GPS, a group of researchers at Stanford University figured out a way to mount GPS antennas on the wingtips of a light aircraft and, sucking enough computer power to dim the lights in Las Vegas, they

Aircraft Control Display

could display the airplanes attitude in real time. I remember seeing a technical paper on this and thinking it was a grad student curiosity that would never have commercial application.

Fast forward five years to 2002, when Garmin introduced the GPSmap 196, with the clever flight instrument display that did what the Stanford project did, but in a battery-powered portable. This led to the infamous Spuds McKenzie incident, in which Garmins Dave Brown I swear this is true sat himself in the left seat of a Baron covered entirely in a Spuds McKenzie beach towel. He then proceeded to fly the Baron to within mile of a runway and land, never so much as peeking from under the towel.

The stunt worked because the 196 did an impressive job of conveying aircraft attitude information based solely on three-dimensional GPS position. But throughout the demo flight, its pseudo turn coordinator hunted and the wings oscillated gently. Control was never in doubt, but it wasnt smooth. The GPSmap 396 improved that and the latest iteration, the GPSmap 496, with five-times-a second position updating, makes it better still. We have reported on the 396/496 capability as a backup attitude source, but our conclusions have been lukewarm. Like the rest of the aviation world, we simply cant tear ourselves away from the notion that an iron gyro is a better backup than this little portable. Starting now, Im changing my tune.

As part of our ongoing trials of the GPSmap 496, we doused the instrument lights entirely on a dark Florida night and put a pilot under a hood in the left seat, the beach towel being no longer available. Conclusion: You could fly all night in hard IMC using only the 496 for attitude reference. And the scan is easier because everything is there in a few square inches. You do need the remote antenna to guard against momentary signal loss, but this thing really works well.

Recalling the Stanford project, I have an inkling of what it took to make a commercial product work at all, never mind this well. So as the old Budweiser beer commercial used to say, to the Garmin 496 design team, this Spuds for you.

Paul Bertorelli is Aviation Consumer’s Editor at Large. In addition to his valued contributions to Aviation Consumer, his in-depth video productions on sister publication AVweb cover a wide variety of topics that greatly contribute to safety, operation and aircraft ownership. When Paul isn’t writing or filming, he’s out flying his J3 Cub.