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Friends in High Places: HondaJet’s New Engines to Power Legacy Cessna Business Jets

GE engineers helped inventor and aircraft designer Bill Lear create the business jet market in the 1960s, when they converted a fighter jet engine into propulsion for the first Learjet. But the company has been largely absent from the space since.

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Bill Lear’s Learjet used GE’s J85 jet engines originally developed for Northrop F-5 fighter jets. Image credit: National Museum of  USAF

Not anymore. In May, GE Honda Aero Engines, a joint-venture between GE Aviation and Honda, started manufacturing engines for Honda’s brand new HondaJet light jet.

The partners are not finished. Honda and GE just announced a joint project with Sierra Industries to develop a program that would use the HondaJet’s engines to retrofit legacy Cessna business jets, including the CitationJet, CJ1 and CJ1+. Sierra said that the engines would “provide the Citation Jet with improved performance and enhanced productivity.”

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Jet engines come in all sizes. Here a technician is measuring the fan blades on the HondaJet’s HF120 engine. Top image: An airborne HondaJet. Image credits: GE and Honda

Sierra Industries, which is based in Uvalde, TX, has been upgrading and modifying the hugely popular Cessna jets for three decades. Sierra calls the new upgrade program Sapphire. There are reportedly as many as 660 jets that could benefit from it. Sapphire includes overhauling the engines and avionics, interior and exterior modifications, and other changes.

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Scaled Composites’ White Knight used two GE J85 jet engines. Image credit: WP Pilot

GE and Honda spent the last decade developing the the HondaJet engine. With 18.5 inches in diameter and 2,095 pounds of thrusts, the jet engine, called HF120, is the smallest one in GE’s portfolio. By comparison, the largest GE jet engine, the GE9X, will have a fan diameter of 11 feet and projected thrust above 100,000 pounds.

But small GE jet engines have not been entirely missing from the skies. On October 2, 2004, two GE J85 engines, the same kind that powered the first Learjets, lifted Burt Rutan’s White Knight aircraft carrying the SpaceShipOne rocket to 43,000 feet above the Mojave Desert. There the rocket separated from the plane and became the first private manned spacecraft to reach space twice within two weeks. The feat made Rutan’s team the winners of the Ansari X-Prize.

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