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Learning to fly the Icon way

Your first flights in the Icon A5 will involve lots of low-altitude maneuvering to build stick-and-rudder skills. Takeoffs and landings take place almost exclusively on water. And the angle of attack indicator is your primary instrument for climbs, slow flight, stall avoidance, and approaches.
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Photography courtesy Icon

The Icon method is designed to streamline the process of becoming a sport pilot and safely flying an amphibious aircraft on land and water. It’s also meant to prepare experienced pilots for one of the most original and highly anticipated new aircraft to come along in years.

Icon has established two company flight schools: one at its central California manufacturing facility in Vacaville, and the other at scenic Peter O. Knight Airport in Tampa, Florida. The schools follow the company’s own curriculum spelled out in four books: a course guide, academics, operations, and an optional supplement.

Icon courses are designed for three types of pilots: brand-new students who haven’t flown at all, land pilots transitioning to seaplanes, and seaplane pilots checking out in the A5. I fit the last category and was paired with Icon instructor Greg Zackney, a former Marine AV–8B Harrier pilot and the company’s director of flight training. The checkout consisted of three roughly 90-minute flights, and each one began with a detailed preflight briefing and ended with a thorough review.

“The course is very structured,” Zackney said. “We won’t ask, ‘What do you want to do today?’ and just head to the airplane. We’ll brief, fly, and debrief to make sure we cover all the material and there are no gaps in a student’s knowledge.”

Schoolhouse

Icon’s California facility is meant to look like a schoolhouse. It’s painted red, and inside the classrooms are equipped with whiteboards, flat-screen TVs, and computers. There’s an open lounge area, unlimited coffee and snacks, and sliding glass doors facing the runway at Nut Tree Airport. A half-dozen A5s are outside.

On our first flight, we’ll take off, climb to 2,500 feet, and fly straight to Lake Barryessa about 15 miles away for water landings.

Stepping into the carbon fiber airplane feels like climbing into a sports car. The instrument panel is low to enhance the expansive outside view, and round gauges give it an automotive feel. An angle of attack gauge of Icon’s own design is the most prominent—and its placement is intentional. AOA is at the heart of Icon’s method of flying (see “Why Don’t We All Fly This Way?” below).

A Garmin 796 in the center of the panel is the sole means of navigation, and showing the “panel” view provides gauges that include a GPS-based vertical speed indicator—something we’ll rely on during glassy water landings.

White Line Fever

Think DifferentAfter starting the Rotax 912iS engine, we taxi to the active runway for departure. An electric switch controls the flaps and there are three settings: up, half, and full. We use half flaps for a normal takeoff.

I ask Zackney what speed he’d like me to fly during climbout, and his reply is “white line.”

He’s referring to the white line on the AOA gauge that shows the maximum lift over drag angle, which produces the airplane’s best rate of climb. The beauty of AOA is that the optimum angle doesn’t change with aircraft weight, configuration, or density altitude—so flying the white line at full power on takeoff will always result in the best rate of climb.

“Don’t obsess about airspeeds,” Zackney says. “The AOA gauge will give you a lot more relevant information in every phase of flight. After a while, you won’t pay much attention to the airspeed indicator at all.”

After takeoff, with landing gear and flaps up, Zackney has me perform steep turns and stalls—although an actual aerodynamic stall is elusive in the A5. Idle power and full aft stick produce a mildly buffeting descent where the inboard wing panels are at or near their critical AOA, yet the outer wing panels (and ailerons) aren’t. The outside portions of the wing are still flying, and the airplane responds normally to aileron and rudder inputs. Increase the power and relax back-pressure and airflow over the wing reattaches and it flies normally.

The surface of the lake is mirror smooth as we set up for water landings. I ask Zackney for the recommended approach speed, and he repeats “white line.”

Then we review the checklist: Wheels up, flaps full down, and water rudder up. The white line on the AOA gauge with partial power results in 60 KIAS and a 500-feet-per-minute descent. About three feet above touchdown, I bring the power all the way back to idle, flare, and the airplane touches down gently as I bring the stick full aft and we settle into the water.

Think DifferentI can’t wait to do that again. I move the flaps to the half setting (about 15 degrees), neutralize the stick, and add full power. The airplane moves onto the step by itself, and slight back-pressure on the stick has us flying again. We climb at white line to 500 feet above the lake, then turn downwind and repeat the process.

Focusing on AOA produces consistent approaches and landings as well as a fuller understanding of the wing in flight. Every wing has optimum angles for climb, cruise, maximum range, turns, and descents—but it’s practically impossible to identify them without an AOA indicator, so general aviation pilots make do with airspeed indicators that only tell part of the story. Icon’s AOA gauge gives pilots the whole picture graphically in a way that’s easy to understand.

Focusing on AOA produces a fuller understanding of the wing in flight.“The beauty of the AOA gauge is that it removes all of this complexity since stall AOA remains the same regardless of angle of bank, load factor, or aircraft weight,” Icon says in its training supplement. “It’s difficult for a pilot to know in real time how stall airspeed is varying with load factor because [stall speed] changes with the square root of the load factor. Multiplying square roots to figure out stall speed is not where we want to go.”

The AOA indicator is relevant in every phase of flight. In cruise, the pilot can continue to fly the white line for maximum endurance, or accelerate to the green line for a faster cruise that delivers the most speed in terms of fuel consumed. On approach, or for the most efficient glide, the pilot flies the white line regardless of flap or landing gear position all the way to the flare. For minimum-radius turns, the pilot banks 60 degrees and pulls to the yellow line. Pilots also target the yellow line for rough-water and short-field approaches.

By the end of our third flight, we’ve covered all aspects of operating the A5 on land, water, and in the air, as well as emergency procedures. The airplane inspires confidence.

To the airport

Think DifferentOnce a new pilot gets the feel of flying the airplane and operating off the water, Icon instructors introduce airport operations and the signage, radio terminology, and other aspects involved in operating in that traditional environment. Zackney said students learn those procedures quickly since they’re already comfortable in the airplane. “They’re not learning to fly and learning a new language at the same time,” he said. “They’ve already got the basics of flying down pat.”

Icon students solo at the airport, then return to the water for the rest of their training. And that training emphasizes safely operating in the hazardous low-altitude environment where amphibious airplanes are meant to fly. They concentrate on flying by feel; looking outside; avoiding obstructions; reading the water for wind, currents, and waves; and making sound nautical and aeronautical decisions.

Despite its training program, Icon has suffered two fatal, high-profile accidents. Jon Karkow, the A5 designer and lead test pilot, was killed in 2017 along with a passenger when, as the NTSB determined, he made a navigational error and flew into a blind canyon. Six months later, baseball great Roy Halladay died when his A5 hit the Gulf of Mexico during a series of aggressive, low-level maneuvers. An autopsy also found trace amounts of amphetamine, morphine, and an insomnia drug in his system.

Some in the aviation community criticize Icon for its testosterone-heavy, action-packed marketing videos, saying the low-altitude flying and aggressive maneuvering promote risky flying. But Icon’s training program emphasizes the hazards of the low-altitude environment in which A5s are built to operate. Icon delivered 44 aircraft in 2018 in spite of the accidents and other setbacks, including certification and production delays.

About 40 percent of Icon buyers aren’t pilots—and Icon founder and former CEO Kirk Hawkins said the company has to build pilots faster than it produces airplanes.

“We set out to make an airplane that was easy to fly, safe, and fun as hell,” Hawkins said. “It’s an exceptional airplane, and now we’re producing exceptional pilots to fly it.”

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Think Different

Why don’t we all fly this way?

AOA doesn’t lie


Once pilots start thinking about flying in angle of attack (AOA) terms, other formerly fundamental considerations—such as indicated airspeeds—become almost trivial.

Ask U.S. Navy pilots, for example, what airspeed they fly on approach to carrier landings, and you’ll likely get a puzzled look. The airspeed indicator isn’t even part of their scan on final.

Navy pilots are trained to rely on the AOA indicator to ensure they’re approaching at the precise angle where the wings produce the most lift at the least speed. And that angle remains the same even though aircraft weight, density altitude, external loads, flap settings, and other factors cause indicated airspeed to vary widely.

And AOA is for every phase of flight—not just final approach.

There’s an optimum AOA for climb, cruise, maximum range, and power-off glide. Icon flight training hammers these concepts into both new students and experienced pilots checking out in the A5—and the process is so helpful, you can’t help wishing every GA airplane had an AOA indicator.

The Icon AOA indicator is the most prominent gauge in the instrument panel. It graphically depicts how much lift the wing is capable of producing, and how close it is to the critical angle at which it stalls, throughout every flight.

Icon pilots learn to fly the white line on the AOA indicator for climb, maximum-endurance cruise, approach, and power-off glide. They fly the yellow line for short-field approaches, rough-water and glassy water landings, and minimum-radius turns. The green line is for economy cruise.

The indicated airspeeds for each of these operations can be difficult to calculate, or even remember, during flight as aircraft weight, configuration, and atmospheric conditions are constantly changing. But the optimum AOA is available to A5 pilots at a glance, and it allows them to fly with remarkable simplicity, accuracy, and consistency.

Icon pilots consult the airspeed indicator (ASI) before lowering the landing gear or flaps. Other than that, the normally essential ASI is an afterthought. —DH

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*Remember: The relative wind is opposite the airplane’s flight path—not necessarily level.
Dave Hirschman

Dave Hirschman

AOPA Pilot Editor at Large
AOPA Pilot Editor at Large Dave Hirschman joined AOPA in 2008. He has an airline transport pilot certificate and instrument and multiengine flight instructor certificates. Dave flies vintage, historical, and Experimental airplanes and specializes in tailwheel and aerobatic instruction.

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