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Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Backstage With A Rock Star

An exclusive look into flight-testing one of the most anticipated light-sport aircraft: the Icon A5

The Airplane
The sun is giving off a golden light as the team prepares the A5 for our air-to-air shoot. Karkow’s girlfriend, Cheryl, jokingly gives him a piggyback ride into the water so he doesn’t get wet. Karkow is even more reticent donning his parachute and processing the intricate checklist of critical items. I’ll follow the A5 in the Aventura, with Hawkins at the controls. At the appointed time and through practiced radio coordination, the A5 fires up and heads away from shore like a newly hatched duckling.

Gionta tells me the production version will have many innovations, such as wings that fold at the push of a button (“We already have that mechanism tested,” he says), an airframe parachute and an angle-of-attack indicator (a novelty for most pilots). “You’ll fly alpha, like in a fighter,” says Hawkins. As the A5 lifts off the water below us, I can see that this is a thing of beauty. All I can manage to say to Hawkins is, “Wow, it’s gorgeous.” He smiles, and I hope he heard me right.

As we fly formation with the A5—with Hawkins handling the Aventura every bit like a fighter pilot—I realize the magnitude of the A5. This is a machine that appeals in a big way to nonpilots and is changing the public perception of flying. Skimming just 20 feet above the water, I sense the fun and excitement that Hawkins is working to convey. I really do feel like I’m in a flying Jet Ski. As we land and take off from the choppy waters, all I want is to keep doing this.

“I’ve been fortunate to do all kinds of flying in my life,” says Hawkins as we glide above the whitecaps. “And my favorite is low and slow, with the windows open, interacting directly with the environment around me.” I keep that thought in mind as we land just behind the A5 after an hour in the air. With the sun setting, Icon’s team goes to work drying off the gleaming, white A5 and gently pulling it onto its custom trailer. Music starts pumping, food goes on the grill and the impossibly young team sends the day off with a little celebration. The show is over for now.

What Lies Ahead For Icon

Now that Icon has proven that its amphibious LSA design flies and floats, the real work begins. The team is completing the second phase of testing, in which aerodynamic and hydrodynamic evaluation is done, and refinements are made to the airframe and hull.

“This may be the most advanced light seaplane ever designed,” says Kirk Hawkins. In a recent video published on the Icon website, test pilot Jon Karkow deliberately digs the A5’s “planing” wingtip into the water during a hard water-taxiing turn. For most seaplanes, this would be dangerous. The A5 handles it uneventfully, gliding through the turn and cementing its docile character.

“The next phase gets into several other areas,” says VP of Engineering Matthew Gionta. One area of concentration will be the foldable wings mechanism. Though Gionta says they’ve built the actual mechanism, the implementation needs to be finalized. The feature will allow owners to push a button to fold the wings back—like the top on a modern convertible car. Foldable wings will allow the A5 to be stored in a garage and trailered to flying destinations.

Hawkins tells us that the next steps will involve refinements “in areas you’d see more in the auto and power-sports industries.” He says Icon will go deep into pilot-interface elements and what Hawkins calls the “the total user experience.”

“Currently, the rigorous flight-testing regimen and engineering refinement will continue through the second quarter of 2010,” adds Hawkins. The Icon engineering team is quietly ensconced in a workshop in Tehachapi, while the administration and marketing happen in Los Angeles. The team has worked tirelessly—frequently seven days a week—to ready the A5 for its public debut at Oshkosh and for subsequent video and photo shoots. Still, the pace is measured.

Production locations are being kept quiet, though we were told that initial production for the 430 airplanes on order will at least start in California. Gionta points to the difficulties of manufacturing aircraft in California due to high costs and environmental concerns, and says, “We’re currently evaluating other locations but haven’t released any final decisions at this time.”

So when do the first production A5s come off the line? Hawkins answers, “The first production aircraft are scheduled for delivery in the third quarter of 2011.” Stay tuned!


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