The hype that accompanies new aircraft announcements is so seldom matched by reality that aircraft customers can be forgiven for being jaded. Skepticism about extravagant performance claims and grandiose marketplace projections is almost always justified. And frankly, the years-long drumroll that preceded Icon Aircraft’s first delivery of its A5 Light Sport aircraft had the hallmarks of another disappointment in the making. The company has been showing off a sleek concept for a folding-wing amphibian since 2008 and collected 1,250 deposits for future aircraft—but so far it has produced mostly glitzy promotional videos and Facebook likes.
But after finally getting a chance to fly the first fully conforming Icon A5 in June, I can say with confidence that this airplane is for real. It’s extremely graceful on the water and in the air, offers exceptional control harmony and visibility, and absolutely will not spin no matter how much it’s provoked.
“We had very specific design goals going into this project, but we think you’ll agree that we achieved them,” said Icon President Kirk Hawkins. “It’s taken longer than we wanted. Much longer. But it was important that we take the time to get it right.”
My first flight is at Northern California’s Lake Berryessa with Hawkins in the right seat. After starting the 100-horsepower Rotax 912 iS engine and pointing toward the placid middle of the lake, he advances the throttle, neutralizes the elevator, and lets the airplane rise on the step on its own. We accelerate to 45 knots in about 14 seconds covering roughly 900 feet. Then, a slight tug on the stick gets the A5 airborne.
Raising the flaps 10 feet above the water causes no sink, and we accelerate smoothly to 90 KIAS in level flight. The view over the down-sloping nose is expansive, and with side windows removed, the mild, sweet-smelling, 70-degree California air swirls through the cabin and accentuates the sounds, sensations, and sense of connection to the airplane and these idyllic surroundings. Ground and water pass by in a rush, giving the impression you’re flying through an IMAX movie of your own creation.
Even though we’re moving slowly by airplane standards, we’re fast compared to personal watercraft—and the A5, in essence, is a personal watercraft with wings.
Icon set out to create an aircraft so different it would attract an entirely new market. Instead of focusing on traditional GA buyers, the company aims at youthful, adventurous consumers who have propelled the “power sports” industry (which includes fast boats, motorcycles, sports cars, and personal watercraft) to $30 billion in annual sales. And by designing the A5 to comply with Light Sport aircraft rules, new adherents can fly it with as little as 20 hours of flight training instead of private pilots with a minimum of 40.
Icon rejects the staid GA pitch that flying is a transportation-oriented, time-saving tool for busy executives that adds to a company’s bottom line. Their product is purely about good times on the water.
To succeed in its chosen outdoor/recreation market, Icon knows the A5 has to be easy and safe for new pilots, and capable of operating at lakes and marinas far removed from busy airports, which the company regards as stressful, unfriendly, buzz-killing places. The A5 must be aesthetically pleasing, so design considerations trump all others—including traditional aircraft performance measures such as speed, range, and payload. A stall-resistant wing was essential, along with an instrument panel that looks like it came from a new Audi. The Rotax engine is devoid of propeller and mixture controls. Folding wings allow boathouse and dock storage, or trailering.
Icon has made many design changes during its years of flight testing and development. The original wing was scrapped in favor of a larger, thicker, spin-resistant version, the tail was enlarged and beefed up, and a planned electronic wing folding mechanism was scrapped to save weight. The FAA granted a weight limit exemption in 2013 that allows Icon to add up to 250 pounds to the normal amphibious LSA weight limit of 1,430 pounds to incorporate the spin-resistant design. But the A5 weighs in at just more than 1,510 pounds and doesn’t use the full exemption.
“It’s a completely different airplane than our proof of concept model,” Hawkins said.
My introduction to the A5 takes place under ideal circumstances: a gorgeous lake, blue skies, calm winds, and an isolated beach.
Climbing aboard the airplane with wet feet, I step on the flat, composite, water-resistant floor, move to the left side of the broad, 46-inch-wide cockpit, and search for a hand-hold to lower myself into the molded left seat. I don’t see the recessed handle because my right hand covers it. It’s precisely where my hand naturally fell.
I buckle the automotive-style, three-point seatbelt, lower the tilt-up canopy, and lock the oversized knob. Starting the engine is a simple matter of turning on the electrical master, turning the key through the A, B, and Start positions. (There are no fuel pump or magneto switches.) Once the three-blade prop is turning, I monitor the pressure, temperature, and rpm on round gauges at the bottom of the panel.
The cockpit is organized into four sections: Aviation (for the flight instruments), Navigation (for the Garmin aera 796 GPS), Communication (radio and transponder), and Configuration (landing gear and water rudder positions). The control stick feels right, and the throttle lever in the center console moves smoothly with enough resistance to give meaningful tactile feedback. A T-tail keeps the elevator and rudder in the propeller slipstream, so steering on the lake surface is effective even with the shark fin water rudder retracted. Pitch and roll controls are light and responsive during the water takeoff and in flight. The rudder is authoritative with moderate pressure.
With two bigger-than-FAA-standard bubbas aboard and 10 gallons of fuel (half a tank), we’re near this tricked-out A5’s 430-pound useful load. Still, the airplane climbs 800 fpm at 60 KIAS to 1,000 feet where Hawkins demonstrates a seemingly suicidal series of maneuvers in which he repeatedly commands the airplane to stall and spin—and it steadfastly refuses. Steep turns with full aft stick cause the wing to buffet and shake, yet the outboard wing panels (with their lower angle of incidence, and vortex generators) keep flying and the ailerons remain effective.
Not even full aft stick, full rudder deflection, and cross-controlled ailerons can force a departure. The nose bobs in protest of the abusive handling, but the airplane remains fully controllable. When the mishandling ends, the A5 doesn’t hold a grudge and returns to its obedient, sweet-tempered self.
On the water
Setting up for a water landing, I confirm the landing gear handle is up, and that the position indicator shows a blue fuselage profile (with wheels up), and select full (30 degrees) flaps. The largest, most centrally located instrument on the panel is an angle of attack indicator of Icon’s own design. The pilot descends at maximum lift over drag until the airplane settles into ground effect, then raises the nose slightly and lets the V-shaped hull slide into the waves. The result is a series of smooth, consistent, and satisfying splashdowns.
Ramping the A5 requires lowering the electro-mechanical tricycle gear and taxiing up the incline. A 180-degree turn at the top of the ramp brings us back down, and the A5 slides into the water like a duckling. (Boaters actually stopped what they were doing and clapped as the A5 went by.)
Hard-surface landings with or without flaps are non-events. Rudder pressure on the ground, as in the air, is heavier than the ailerons or elevator. The A5’s free-castering nosewheel allows impossibly tight turns.
In cruise with landing gear retracted, the A5 flies about 85 knots KTAS at 5,000 engine rpm while burning four gph of premium car gas. That airspeed seems low given the airframe’s sleek appearance. But the three-blade propeller’s pitch is optimized for takeoff and climb, and the thick airfoil and broad sea wings are draggy. Icon engineers are willing to give up speed for comfort, styling, and water stability.
The A5 has a 9:1 glide ratio, and simulated engine-out water landings result in manageable approaches with descent rates at LD/max of about 900 fpm. These simulated emergencies are a stark contrast to traditional float planes, which have so much drag they require the pilot to dive aggressively to maintain enough energy to flare.
One of the A5’s more surprising characteristics is the near total absence of pitch/power coupling related to its high thrust line. Unlike other amphibians with high pusher props, adding power doesn’t create a noticeable nose-down moment, and reducing power doesn’t raise the nose.
Icon asked for my criticisms and I came up with a few: The rudder pedals are too slippery for wet feet; the non-sensitive altimeter isn’t sensitive enough; and my aging eyes would prefer a larger inclinometer ball. Also, although the normally aspirated Rotax is more than adequate near sea level, an A5 operating at high elevations would be a good candidate for a turbocharged engine. And, being a minimalist, I personally look forward to future A5s that do away with the weight, complexity, and cost of amphibious landing gear and the airframe parachute. (Airframe parachutes are wonderful, but truthfully, few A5 pilots are likely to fly high enough to use one.)
My nits are minor, however, compared to my overall enthusiasm. I’m dazzled by the design, exquisite ergonomics, and materials. And I can’t agree more with Icon’s primary use of AOA (rather than airspeed) in all phases of flight. This airplane is a winner.
Icon’s immediate challenge—and it’s a huge one—is becoming a manufacturing firm. The company plans to produce 60 A5s in the next 12 months, and then rapidly ramp up deliveries to 500 the following year. That would make Icon the world’s largest GA piston aircraft manufacturer in unit volume terms at current rates. No mean feat.
Hawkins said he’s convinced the Icon factory, now under construction in Vacaville, California, can support the rapid expansion—and that demand for the aircraft will accelerate, both in the United States and abroad.
“The power sports market is big enough to support the kind of growth we’re anticipating,” he said. “It’s much different, and much larger, than the traditional general aviation piston market.”
Icon also intends to reinvent Sport Pilot training through its own flight school, and create a worldwide community of owners and pilots whose values include adventure, independence, and continuing education. Icon plans to require all buyers to meet its training standards. About 40 percent of the people who have put down deposits aren’t yet pilots. They intend to learn to fly in order to buy an A5. Icon has developed its own training curriculum that, breaking with convention, could allow student pilots to solo on the water before ever flying from an airport, and do the bulk of pre-solo flight training at low altitudes over large waterways.
“Flying on the water, a student doesn’t have to deal with crosswinds,” Hawkins said. “The runway here is two miles long, there are no traffic conflicts with other aircraft, students don’t have to talk on the radio, and they can get tens of minutes flying in the flare in a single flight—a total that would take months to accumulate at hard-surface runways.”
Perhaps the biggest danger for Icon is that its pilots will be too impulsive and lack sufficient judgment and self-discipline. It’s easy to envision inexperienced, adventure-seeking new pilots attracted by the A5’s adrenaline-infused marketing being particularly prone to low flying and other risky flying behavior. The company says it will address that concern forthrightly through school, and community peer pressure.
Another as yet unanswered question is whether the A5 will overturn in a water landing with the gear inadvertently left in the down position. The company is planning to find out in an upcoming flight test.
For the struggling GA industry, the A5 seems like a lifeline. With a base price of nearly $200,000, the A5 is an expensive toy that relatively few can afford on their own, but one that could lend itself extremely well to flying clubs, flight schools, and shared ownership. During a long summer day at the lake, multiple owners could fly a single airplane. And doing so would be the best advertisement for others to buy in and share the experience.
In sum, the A5 is a unique and exciting airplane that seasoned pilots will enjoy, and has the potential to attract many new ones. Expect to see A5s at lakes, marinas, boat ramps, and yes, even airports, in the United States and abroad as Icon begins to fulfill its multi-year order backlog.
And when that happens, savor the irony that a company whose message is completely at odds with traditional GA marketing may just be the best pilot recruiter to come along in decades. AOPA
Email [email protected]
Never exceed speed | 120 KCAS
Top speed | 95 KIAS
Cruise speed | 85 KTAS at 8,000 feet
Gross weight | 1,510 lbs.
Useful load | 430 to 550 lbs.
Baggage capacity | 60 pounds
Fuel capacity | 20 gallons
Fuel consumption | 3.8 gph at cruise
Range | 427 nm at economy cruise with 45 minutes reserve
Endurance | 5 hours
Stall | 45 KCAS with flaps up; 39 KCAS flaps down
Max demonstrated crosswind | 12 knots
Water takeoff distance | 920 feet at sea level and standard conditions; 2,000 feet at a density altitude of 7,000 feet. (Decrease takeoff distances by 10 percent for each 8 knots of headwind)
Water landing distance | 840 feet at sea level
Hard-surface takeoff distance | 710 feet at sea level
Hard-surface landing distance | 530 feet using short-field landing technique
Extra: View the video.