After nine years, a major redesign and a lot of patience, Icon Aircraft finally began making aircraft deliveries on 20 July with a donation – worth $239,000 – of the first A5 light sport amphibian to a US youth group called the Young Eagles.
The long-awaited delivery comes a month after Icon passed a US Federal Aviation Administration audit of the company’s current production facility in Tehachapi, California, which allowed the start-up company to receive a special-light sport aircraft (S-LSA) certificate for the A5.
Icon launched the project in 2006 with the bold promise to not only deliver a new product, but to re-energise the general aviation industry. Emphasising safety, easiness, fun, versatility and style as design goals and originally a very low, $139,000 price point, Icon’s flashy marketing approach always stood out among their peers in the general aviation industry.
“We believe that flying is like the ultimate metaphor for human freedom,” says Icon chief executive Kirk Hawkins. “It has nothing to do with transportation, and it has everything to do with inspiration.”
Two common design goals not on Hawkins’ list for the A5 – speed and range – are intentional. The A5 is intended to be used mainly for recreation, not utility. Above all, Icon’s recreational vehicle must be very safe: the targeted market for the A5 is a casual flier, perhaps transitioning from a speedboat or a race car.
That design criteria led Icon to incorporate several unusual features for a general aviation aircraft, including an angle of attack indicator in the cockpit and a spin-resistant wing. Both features are aimed at preventing the conditions that lead to the number one killer for general aviation pilots: loss-of-control at slow speeds.
A flight demonstration provided for a Flightglobal journalist over Lake Winnebago in Wisconsin suggests Icon’s safety-related features work as intended.
At 1,000ft, the pilot, Icon vice-president of sales Craig Bowers, slowed the A5 to about 45kt, or about 5kt below stall speed, and pitched the nose up slightly. The angle of attack indicator flashed from green to red, just as a sharp buffett developed. With the stick pulled to the back-stop, Bowers shifted the ailerons to the left and – in a seemingly suicidal move – applied right full rudder. Instead of entering an unrecoverable spin, the A5 instead remained in controlled flight, although sinking in stall at a rate of 1,000 feet per minute.
As brash as Bowers’ manouevre seemed, he was not relying solely on the aircraft’s aerodynamic characteristics. The wing is spin-resistant, but not full-proof. If somehow the aircraft entered a spin, Bowers would deploy a nose-mounted ballistic parachute, which would deposit the A5 into the water at 1,500 feet per minute.
Such safety-inspired protections can seldom found in general aviation outside the light sport category, a phenomenon some assign to the complexity of more advanced certification standards, such as Part 23.
Former Cessna chief executive Jack Pelton, who now leads the Experimental Aircraft Association, finds that situation “embarrassing”.
“It is the modern airplane that we need,” Pelton says. “We need this in the Part 23 world.”
The A5 amphibian is officially now in the S-LSA world, where the industry will closely monitor its sales progress.
Despite the programme’s many delays, Icon claims to have a sold-out order backlog for the first three years of production. The company plans to deliver 35-40 A5s over the next 12 months, 100 aircraft over the next 18 months, and 600 aircraft after 30 months.
The $239,00 price tag applies to the first 100 aircraft off the assembly line. Subsequent aircraft pricing is expected to decline to under $200,000. That is still far above Icon’s initial projection under $140,000 and makes it among the more costly of the aircraft occupying the light sport category.
“There’s no plan right now for a Part 23 variant. But that’s not to say in the future, you know, if the rewrite brought it closer to the [consensus-based LSA standards], then one could logically assume that it might make sense to start looking at that,” Bowers says. “I’m not trying to be cagey there. There is nothing there right now. But if you connect those dots it’s actually a pretty compelling picture.”
Photos courtesy of Icon.