As the old quip says, nothing succeeds like success. Just weeks ago, ICON Aircraft made their first customer delivery of a production airplane—the innovative A5—and in doing so launched what might be a new direction for general aviation. And they did so by breaking every mold held dear by the GA world.
An amphibious seaplane 10 years in the making from napkin-drawing concept to delivered product, the ICON A5 is a story that takes us deep into a different world—a place where design and form triumph over profit margin, and where flying is an emotional experience instead of one measured with graphs and ledgers. It’s a fascinating journey that begins where pure stick-and-rudder flying left off and where the most advanced engineering in aeronautics begins. At its essence, it’s a love story between human, machine and sky.
The ICON story is also one of transformation. It’s a tale of firsts that recalls aviation’s great period—that era of Howard Hughes and Kelly Johnson and Glenn Curtiss, when aircraft were created with passion and a sense of adventure.
Quite a bit has been written about ICON since former Air Force pilot and Stanford graduate Kirk Hawkins formed the company with his friend, entrepreneur and Harvard grad Steen Strand, in 2006. The catalyst for forming an aircraft company was the FAA’s decision to create the light-sport category. Hawkins’ and Strand’s idea was to inject fun back into general aviation through a unique light-sport aircraft. They envisioned an airplane that would appeal to an untapped market of non-aviators with a penchant for adventure. Hawkins asserts, “Many airplane companies design a plane and look for a market for it—we started with a market and designed a plane for it.”
And what a different market it was. On one of my early visits to ICON’s facility in Los Angeles, they displayed a board where they named five target consumer profiles for the A5, along with their characteristics. I remember there was a “Blake.” Blake was a young, successful guy with lots of disposable income and an attraction to technology. He did hip things in cool places with equally cool friends. “Blake” indulged in hard work—probably a young executive or entrepreneur—and craved adventure: fast watercraft, fast motorcycles, fast cars. Blake is one of the key profiles around whom the A5 was created. It’s a potential $30 billion dollar market.
A defining element of ICON is the company’s design philosophy. An almost fanatical devotion to design drove the looks of the A5. Yes, it was drawn roughly in its present form on a napkin, but ICON’s focus on design was paralleled only in the worlds of high-end sports cars and motorcycles, not airplanes.
So meticulous is ICON’s concentration on design that entire meetings can be devoted to seemingly insignificant items like handholds and switch placement. The result is an aircraft that’s based on flowing, dynamic design with functionality worked into it. It’s art in a functional sense. One look at any current GA airplane, and you’ll notice the lack of true design, especially in legacy aircraft. It may be debatable, but the last great soul-stirring GA aircraft designs were made, perhaps, in the 1930s and ’40s.
Hawkins has looked to companies like Apple, BMW and Oakley for their consumer-driven innovation and design philosophies. “Everything about this airplane is measured by its benefit to the user,” Hawkins tells a handful of us pilots. “What drives our design is the total user experience: everything from how you feel when you look at it, touch it, move a switch, get in it, to the flying experience itself.”
An entire book could be written just about ICON’s design focus, but suffice it to say that a close-up look at the A5 will reveal the nuances in design that were led by ICON’s Klaus Tritschler, former BMW Designworks Creative Director and respected motorsport designer. “Usually, when a prototype goes to production, it is a disappointment,” says Tritschler. “I wanted the opposite.” The result is a visible labor of love, and a beautiful marriage of design, function and aerodynamics.
I wanted to dislike the A5. So much rumor has flowed through the industry—and nine years is a long time to deliver a two-place airplane—that I wanted to believe the negative hype and find an airplane that was a dog—underpowered with nothing more than a pretty face. What I found rocked my stick-and-rudder world.
Just as ICON focused one eye on pure design, the other was laser-focused on aerodynamic innovation. What they’ve accomplished with the A5 from an engineering perspective is as interesting as anything the Skunkworks could have conjured up. Volumes could be written about the A5’s Seawingsâ¢ and how they keep the airplane from tipping. Or its planing wingtips, removable windows, spin resistance or foldable wings. It’s different from anything that came before it.
If you’re wondering about range, speed and payload, then you already don’t get this airplane. The A5 is purely about fun. It makes no claims otherwise. And, to get the elephant in the room out of the way, it’s an expensive toy—one in the same category as a Ducati motorcycle or top-of-the-line Sea-Doo or sports car. “We’re competing with sports cars, RVs, second homes,” Hawkins explains, “We’re telling the consumer, ‘Flying is accessible to you for fun.’ It’s not just about transportation.” The A5 appeals 98% to vanity and ego, and 2% to utility, and that’s just fine.
Flying The ICON A5
First, the cockpit is completely different from what any pilot is used to. It doesn’t look like an airplane cockpit—especially the panel. In keeping with ICON’s philosophy, the interior was designed in conjunction with sports-car maker Lotus and other top designers. From the seats to the canopy, to everything in between, this isn’t your grandfather’s GA airplane. Other than a stick (which was beautifully designed with a curve that reminds one of the figures in Titian’s best paintings) and rudder pedals, you wouldn’t know you were in an airplane. The most prominent feature is an angle-of-attack indicator, which is the primary instrument.
Everything is ergonomically designed, with the seats reminding me of the Recaros installed in expensive sports cars. The view through the one-piece canopy is breathtaking, with the vast expanse of Lake Berryessa in California’s wine country splayed out before me. The lake is calm and sparkling in its deep-green hues, and the stark white and red of the A5 is impressive against it. It looks like something Batman would fly—both aggressive and graceful.
The A5 wing is thick, with marked differences along its leading edge. It isn’t a plain wing, but includes cuffs, drooping tips, dropped leading edges, air dams and vortex generators along a small section. I note that it looks heavy, and I wonder how the 100 hp Rotax engine will handle the airplane. After startup (which was nothing special), we water-taxi to get a feel for the A5 on the lake.
For the full evaluation, I’ll fly with both Hawkins and Jeremy Brunn, ICON’s Director of Training. Brunn is a former US Navy F/A-18 and military test pilot and is creating an entire training program for the A5 which, like the airplane itself, will stand flight instruction on its head and deliver a completely different experience.
Takeoff, like everything in the A5, is simple. Seaplanes (the A5 is technically a flying boat) are finicky at takeoff. The airplane has to be maneuvered onto “the step,” which is a location on the hull where an ideal pitch angle for takeoff is reached. Then the airplane is coaxed into the air, while the pilot finesses a lot of control inputs. Brunn, however, had me keep my hands completely off the stick and add full power while keeping the airplane straight with rudder. With my hands at my side, the A5 rose onto the step, then gracefully into the air. Not a finger.
The view is spectacular, with the pilot and passenger sitting well ahead of the wing. To my surprise, the A5 climbed easily into the 85-degree day, even loaded with Brunn, myself and plenty of fuel. We were headed to an asphalt strip to experience the A5’s runway handling, and we were climbing at a good 500 fpm and cruising at an honest 85 knots with the side windows out and each of us resting an elbow on the sill. This is seaplane flying at its absolute best.
The A5 handles like silk cloth on polished brass. Control movements are made with your fingers and wrist, not your shoulder. Slight pressure on the controls, and the A5 obediently acquiesces. We did flap and no-flap landings and power-off glides. In each case, it performed like a pilot’s airplane. It should be noted that Chief Test Pilot and Engineering Fellow Jon Karkow has really created something beautiful here. The control harmony is exquisite and sensuous. Kudos to the entire engineering team.
Then came the real fun with Hawkins in the airplane. “Pull the power and ease the stick back all the way,” he instructed. With the nose at 25 degrees above the horizon and the altimeter reading 800 feet AGL, he added, “Now, as you feel it buffet, put in full rudder and hold the stick all the way back.”
I’ve been flying for a long time, and what Hawkins told me to do—especially this low—went against everything in my being. I looked at him and hesitated, while visions of life played like a film reel in my head. “Go ahead,” he pressed. I did as he said, expecting the A5 to roll over to the left—as any airplane would—and begin autorotation in a spin. Instead, it just bucked and protested like an annoyed horse and kept on flying. With full power applied, the stick in my gut and a full leg of left rudder, it even showed a slight climb. All the while the ailerons were fully effective. Crazy.
Landings are so simple a beginner can do them. Normally, seaplane landings can be “an event” with all the possible variables. But using just the AOA indicator as Hawkins suggested, the A5 came down like Sully on the Hudson (I can’t wait till he flies this thing). A perfect coda of spray ended our 90 minutes of flying.
Forty percent of existing orders for the A5 are from non-pilots. Like everything else in ICON’s world, a customized training program is being built for the A5 by Brunn and his team. Training will be mandatory for all buyers regardless of their expertise. The program will use a military-inspired approach (a large part of the staff is ex-military) and will break skills into basic components.
Training for a new pilot will consist of 22 to 27 “events,” with each event being a desired skill, such as water-taxiing, or landings. ICON’s goal is to train a new pilot in 14 days. The program will use advanced training materials and simulations, with a proficiency-based outcome. ICON won’t allow a pilot to operate the A5 without passing specific proficiency milestone—this includes rated and current seaplane pilots. The training philosophy, syllabus and manuals are all being built from the ground up.
Now, ICON’s real work begins. They’re relocating all their facilities to a dedicated campus with two 140,000-square- foot state-of-the-art buildings at Nut Tree Airport (KVCB) near Vacaville, Calif., by Q4 of this year.
ICON plans to complete 60 aircraft by EAA AirVenture 2016 and 560 in 2017. They plan to stabilize at about 500 aircraft per year (industry-wide, only about 1,000 airplanes per year are delivered). The first three years of production are already sold out. In another industry first, ICON created custom tooling that’s generations ahead of most advanced tooling in use today. Cirrus Aircraft is providing the carbon-fiber sub-assemblies. Hawkins says they can assemble an A5 in about nine days once the facility is at full capacity.
What ICON has done here is special. From their focus on design, to their engineering obsession, to their first-of-its kind training program, to their marketing approach and custom AOA display, ICON has done things in a wildly different way. The A5 is an absolute kick in the pants to fly, and even ignoring all the marketing-speak and entrepreneurial hype, it does put the fun and passion back into flying. ICON has created a safe airplane that may foretell a new way to design, market and sell aviation to a largely uninterested public. We may be talking about this moment for a long time.
All About That Angle Of Attack
One of the most-talked-about features of the A5 will be the integrated angle-of-attack (AOA) indicator. ICON created their own (of course) and placed it in a prominent spot on the panel. It’s intuitive, clear and one of the most useful instruments I’ve ever used. If you’ve never flown with an AOA, you need to try it. It’s a transformative experience. The military has been flying AOA (they call it flying the “alpha”) for decades and for good reason: It ignores the effects of weight and temperature. AOA is a direct indication of “lift health,” whereas our current measurement—airspeed—is really only a secondary indicator. Once you fly AOA, you’ll find yourself not looking at airspeed much. It’s a liberating feeling, especially when it’s much safer.
To review, angle of attack is the angle between the wing’s chord line and the relative wind. More simply, it’s the angle between where the airplane is pointing and where it’s actually going. In a pull-up from a steep dive, for example, the airplane could be moving straight down from inertia, even though the nose is almost level with the horizon. In that case, the angle of attack is very high. All aircraft have a critical angle of attack that’s part of their design. It’s the angle at which the wing will no longer produce lift due to a separation of airflow from the wing. Lift is lost, and a stall occurs.
An AOA indicator displays this angle of attack in a visual way. ICON’s AOA displays the familiar side view of an airfoil, just like all the FAA drawings from our private pilot days. That airfoil pivots around a scale (like a speedometer) that’s graduated in green, then yellow, then red. The airfoil depiction pivots as the airplane is maneuvered—just like your real wing—and shows the pilot exactly what the wing is doing in real time. Keep it out of the red, and you won’t stall. Simple as that.
It’s transformative in a number of ways. First, you can land the A5 using just the AOA and nothing else. I did that by covering the entire panel except for the AOA. It’s easier than the most basic video game you can think of. There’s a line depicted on the instrument face where you place your airfoil icon for approach. You simply move your stick until the airfoil is even with that line. Then, you hold that airfoil on that line until you’re 10 feet or so above the water. Then you ease the stick back to the middle of the yellow band, and your A5 kisses the water like a seasoned pro.
Keep in mind this is a VFR-only airplane, so we’re not addressing instrument flight. Still, the AOA functions as your primary instrument. By placing the wing at a specific AOA as depicted on
the instrument, your airspeed takes care of itself.
We all know that a steep angle of bank increases stall speed. How many of you can recite your stall speed in a 50-degree bank? That’s just it, many pilots have no idea. So when they’re in a steep turn down low, they have no idea what the margin above stall is. Now imagine an instrument that tells you that. You can crank the wings over to whatever bank you like, while keeping that indicator well away from the red. You can be heavy or light; it doesn’t matter. The AOA compensates for those variables.
For my part, I’m a strong believer in AOA indicators. Rather than debate it, I suggest all pilots try an AOA-equipped airplane for themselves. It really changes how you fly. ICON’s AOA is particularly intuitive and easy to use.