The NTSB released earlier this week the final report on the crash of an Icon A5 amphibious LSA at Lake Berryessa, California, on May 5th of this year. The findings were consistent with what Icon suspected early on in the investigation, that the pilot accidentally flew at low level into a canyon with no possible exit. In its report, however, the Board made barely a mention of what is the most important factor behind the tragedy.
May 5th was a a beautiful day at the Icon headquarters in Vacaville, California, when longtime employee Jon Karkow, an experienced pilot with a good deal of time in the A5, took new hire, Cagri Sever, who was not a pilot, on a flight to help familiarize him with the A5. After an uneventful departure and climb to 4,500 feet, Karkow descended the A5 down to low level over the lake and then entered a small canyon. As it turned out tragically, the canyon was surrounded by high terrain on all sides, terrain which the NTSB concluded could not have been out-climbed by the A5. Karkow attempted to make a 180 degree turn in the canyon, but there was insufficient space to make the turn, and the airplane hit high terrain before it could complete the turn. Both Karkow and Sever were killed in the crash.
The authors of the report share the widely held speculation that Karkow thought he was flying the A5 into a different canyon, one presumably that he had previously successfully flown through. The report suggests that once the A5 had entered that box canyon, there was no way for the plane to have been flown back to safety.
In its findings of probable cause, the report lists the pilot’s judgment as a primary factor. But the accident and the report should give the industry and Icon in particular pause to rethink the way that sport planes are presented to potential customers. It’s critical that we not model behavior that we know carries with it a great risk of tragedies like this one. For years, Icon has been suggesting through its marketing that the A5 is the aerial equivalent of a sport boat. At AirVenture 2016, the company showed video of the A5 being maneuvered aggressively at very low level over terrain and water. The clear implication, which this publication took exception to at the time, was that such low-level maneuvering was within the acceptable operating range for the A5. With expert pilots who know the plane and are willing to accept the great additional risk of low-level maneuvering, one could argue that this could be the case. It’s much harder to make the case to take along passengers not knowledgable about the increased risk with low-level maneuvering flight.
For decades, the NTSB has pointed out that low-level maneuvering flight is one of the riskiest things that a pilot can do in a small plane, because all it takes is one mistake for things to take an unrecoverable turn for the worse. If this could happen to an experienced pilot who made just one error, mistaking the entry to one canyon for another, then just imagine how much riskier such flight is for pilots brand new to aviation who buy a new LSA to go have fun at low level over water and terrain. The loss of two employees, including Karkow, who was a founding designer of the A5, must be a crushing blow to Icon. Hopefully it will give the company and all of us in the sport aviation world occasion to think about how we present sport flying to people who are not fully aware of the high risk associated with flying low.