Creating a light sport Icon

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With its black-curtained marquee and slick, surround-sound, Hollywood-style presentation, Icon Aircraft stood out among the ranks of recreational aircraft manufacturers at July's AirVenture show in Oshkosh.

Judging by the appreciative crowds, the southern Californian start-up's light sport Icon A5 was making a big impression too.

A two-seat amphibian with a sports car-style cockpit and folding wings, powered by a Rotax 912 and rear-facing propeller, the Icon A5 looked unlike anything else at Oshkosh.

The aircraft is pitched at brand-conscious urbanites keen to connect with the great outdoors - many of whom may not yet even be pilots.

icon a5, icon aircraft
 © Icon Aircraft
The A5 is aimed at brand-aware lovers of the great outdoors

Icon's co-founder and chief executive Kirk Hawkins - an engineer and Stanford Business School graduate, who has also flown Lockheed Martin F-16s for the US Air Force and Boeing 767s for American Airlines - dubs his invention the "ultimate recreational vehicle", an airplane that is also a "consumer product".

The message is that the $139,000 A5 - which comes with features such as retractable landing gear, removable side windows and planing wingtips - is not just another light sport aircraft (LSA).

ACCOLADES

The Icon A5 has featured at the world's biggest general aviation show several times since Hawkins founded the company in 2005, following the creation of the new LSA category by the Federal Aviation Administration.

Although Icon has been ­showered with accolades, almost 700 deposits have been collected and the prototype has flown 200 times since 2008, the company has faced the same challenge as countless aviation start-ups: ­finding the millions of dollars needed to bring the programme into production.

"We had planned to be manufacturing by 2009," says Hawkins, who set up the company with business partner and former Stanford colleague Steen Strand. "But the markets fell apart. It was impossible in 2009 and 2010 for start-ups to find financing."

However, a corner has been turned. In late June, the company secured $15 million of equity funding - with an option for a further $10 million - allowing Icon to triple its contingent of engineers to more than 20, complete the flight test programme and begin production from the end of next year. By 2013, Hawkins hopes to be making more than 100 units, scaling up to 200-300 the following year.

icon a5, icon aircraft
 © Icon Aircraft

The firm's financial backers include some big names in aviation and Silicon Valley - former Boeing chief executive Phil Condit, JetBlue Airways chairman Joel Peterson and Google chairman Eric Schmidt among them.

Eclipse Aviation founder Vern Raburn, whose Eclipse 500 defined the very light jet category, is a director.

In Icon's publicity brochure, Condit is quoted saying that he looks forward to flying the Icon A5. Peterson states that, although he is not a pilot, the A5 "is an airplane even I'd learn to fly". He compares the company to Apple Computer, "leveraging great design and engineering to deliver revolutionary products".

One next step for Icon is selecting a manufacturing site, from where it will also run flight training. Currently based in Tehachapi, California - near the Mojave base of Scaled Composites, where many of Icon's engineering team began their careers - the company has narrowed its choice to the states of Arizona, California, Florida, Nevada and Texas.

VACATION AREAS

Requirements include a climate that permits year-round training, nearby lakes to allow amphibious take-offs and landings and "the proximity to appealing vacation areas for Icon customers and who are visiting the facility".

Economic incentives offered by each state will be another key factor. Icon expects to make a decision by the end of the year.

Despite its high-profile appearance at Oshkosh - where it took "a record" 143 deposits - the Wisconsin event remains Icon's only air show outing each year, and Hawkins says the firm relies almost entirely on word of mouth publicity. The market response looks like it will ensure that the A5 will join the modest list of off-the-wall aircraft designs that have proved commercially successful.

icon a5, icon aircraft
 © Icon Aircraft

With a prototype using a ­production wing design making its debut flight at the end of July, one of the most innovative light aircraft may finally be approaching production.