Welcome to The Amphibious Future –
Thanks to the launch of Microsoft’s new version of a ‘flight simulator’ (R.I.P. MS-FS), I became aware last year of an aircraft company called Icon Aircraft. At first I thought that this plane showcased in Microsoft’s latest game (it’s a game) was just a cool fictional vehicle from an imaginary future world. Then I found out it was real! I have also come to find that it’s the result of an interesting combination of talents. The Icon A5 is the love child of a hot shot fighter pilot and a biz-geek product designer. Sounds like it’s got potential.
So is this kind of aircraft what the aviation industry needs to reinvent itself and kick-start interest in the recreational segment? It might be. It’s a great looking plane, it’s amphibious, and it’s expensive but not completely out of reach. It also has some amazing features that all private aircraft should probably have. In fact, forget the flying car, I think Icon A5 is the next, best alternative, for our present pre-Jetsons flying environment.
The Icon A5 is the love child of a hot shot fighter pilot and a biz-geek product designer.
The Icon Aircraft Company: Apple of the Sky?
Icon Aircraft was founded in 2004 after the passage of the Light Sport Aircraft (LSA) type certification by the FAA that same year. Formed by the pairing of a former F-16 and United Airlines pilot, CEO Kirk Hawkins (henceforth to be known as Captain Kirk), and an apparently non-aviation oriented product designer, Steen Strand, this business marriage at the time (in ’04) seemed pretty odd. But these days, in the post Jobs-ian consumer products environment, ‘odd’ is often what works. While Hawkins provides the aviation credibility and general badass-ness as the face of the company, Strand provides the business experience and right-brained design ability. Then throw in some other highly qualified professionals in engineering and business, and you might have the expertise to really get behind the vision and make it a success. And as the computer and iPhone maker Apple Corp. has shown, odd pairings, like oil and vinegar (or Steve Jobs and Steve Jobs), can go well together. At least where product design is concerned.
iPhone Icon A5
Soon after forming, Icon began development on their first product: the Icon A5. The A5 is an amphibious two-seat aircraft with a useful load up to 530 lbs (1240 kg), and a 100hp Rotax 912 flat-four power plant. It’s a high-wing design that looks like a cross between an ultra-light and a sports car — that can float. It has retractable landing gear, foldable wings, is trailer-able, and can be equipped with a parachute. And then it gets innovative.
The interior of the plane is designed to be functional and elegant. It’s sleek, simple in layout, and although it’s almost too spartan to be an aircraft cockpit (in some ways it reminds me of a jet-ski or snowmobile dashboard), it’s somehow beautiful to have these serious avionics presented in such a mundane package.
Another reason I made the comparison of Icon Aircraft to Apple Corp. above, is that this plane reminds me a bit of an iPhone. It’s elegant, it can do multiple things, and most importantly it boils the main thing it does (flying) down to its simplest form to make it easy. As the iPhone lets non-tech savvy people use an incredibly sophisticated device, the A5 allows practically anyone (with a Sport Pilot cert) to fly it. And the most striking similarity of the A5 and the iPhone in my opinion is one little instrument that I’ll mention next.
With the iPhone, no matter how many apps or complicated things you run, you can always get your bearings back easily with a single input: pushing the ‘home’ button. While the A5 doesn’t have a literal home button (it won’t self-land, although that would be nice one day), the pilot’s equivalent when things get crazy is the AoA or ‘Angle of Attack’ gauge.
As Icon states: “The Angle of Attack (AoA) gauge provides a direct readout of the lift performance of the aircraft regardless of vehicle speed, weight or maneuvering.” And if it behaves as expected, it is also, in fact, brilliant. Although many larger aircraft have a version of this type of instrument, a typical AoA indicator is not common in light aircraft. This device can help eliminates the mental math necessary to determine if your plane is still flyable by boiling it down to the basics. It answers with one glance the critical question of: “is my current orientation and trend promoting continued flight?” Or put simply, “is what I’m doing right now really stupid”? Either the needle is in the ‘green/good’ range, or it isn’t. It’s the ‘home button’ of flying.
Now, I have found some mention of this type of ‘smart’ AoA indicator in other places, but they are not common on general aviation aircraft (feel free to correct me if I’m wrong). (Also I have no idea how well this instrument would work in practicality during extreme maneuvers, such as flying inverted.)
Disclaimer: I have no experience with this device, nor this aircraft, so these are my assumptions about how the gauge operates. This means that what I’ve said here is devoid of any real-world experience and probably something I just made up based on the description.
Other Safety Innovations
As mentioned above, the A5 can be equipped with an optional air frame parachute. That’s also great, but not entirely innovative these days. (BRS has been installing them since the ’80’s.) More incredible is the A5’s performance in a stall, and the fact that it actually has some (performance in a stall). The company recently reported that the aircraft can be called ‘spin resistant’ and it completed a safety test that proves that. This means that in a stall, the plane can’t (or probably won’t) enter a spin and completely lose control effectiveness. The video below is a demonstration of that capability. The plane in a powered stall basically retains some input control, even if the pilot tries to lose it. Of course there are additional questions to be answered, such as what happens when the engine is off (it’s running in the video), but still, this spin resistance seems like an amazing design breakthrough.
Why Icon Is So Promising
In the 1980’s it seemed that light aircraft development peaked with the Cessna and Piper. In the ’90’s, it seemed to peak again with Diamond and Cirrus, as composite materials were new. But in the years since the 2004 LSA/SP ratings, there has been a new boom of sorts. Many new companies such as Terrefugia (the new ‘flying car’ people) and Synergy (the cool plane made by the company with the cliche name), have introduced some amazing new designs. So why then is the Icon A5 a stand-out? In my view, it opens an entirely new market niche, and may even create a lot of new pilots.
A company that wins is a company that doesn’t just take market share from a competitor, it expands a market solely with its products. In the LSA segment, on one hand you have the Terrefugia flying car, which is primarily a road worthy airplane that needs an airport to take off. I don’t think you’ll see it parked at many local airports (you could just own a standard plane if you keep it there), and I doubt we’ll see it in many home garages (since you can’t take off from the street). It fits a niche for the rich. On the other hand, with the Synergy aircraft, I foresee wider adoption, but primarily among current pilots who want a better airplane. But I don’t think the Synergy craft itself will bring new pilots into the fold necessarily.
Seriously, but Not Too…
I think the A5 is the first LSA-rated plane that we’ll see start to enjoy wide adoption. The main reason Icon will be successful is that they do not appear to take themselves too seriously. They’re selling fun. Think boats. Boats are also relatively easy to run, they’re fun, they’re expensive. People still buy them en-mass. Meanwhile the nearest competition for Icon such as the Terrefugia, are kidding themselves about the practicality of their aircraft. And with Synergy, I think they might be successful, but only by taking market share from existing companies. And both aforementioned companies target primarily the rich or eccentric current pilots. I believe neither company will substantially grow the sport pilot/general aviation market by much.
Whereas the Icon A5, as a primarily recreational vehicle that’s easy to fly, fun, and capable of landing nearly anywhere, has fewer limitations. It has a huge advantage because it’s specifically not being billed for its practicality. It’s being sold for recreation. It’s well-engineered, well-tested, and safe fun. At least that’s my perception after a thorough review of the plane and the company from what information is online. And not to belabor the point, but why else would you get an sport pilot license in the first place? It’s not exactly useful for anything but.
So if fun is the game, I think Icon may have winner. People might try to get their sport pilot licenses specifically for the ability to fly this plane. I think you’ll see it in bays, marinas, lakes, and rivers around the globe. Like the iPhone. Or, maybe not like the iPhone; the iPhone doesn’t like water…. but you know what I mean.