It’s been nearly impossible to miss ICON for the last five years. The sexy design of the company’s amphibian light sport airplane has been matched only by the company’s sexy marketing: flashy videos of their A5 chasing jet skis at 20 ft., big trade show booths staffed by impossibly fit young people, and bold promises about changing the future of aviation.
All this has been enough to make many pilots roll their eyes and dismiss the project: “we’ve seen this act before (flying cars, Bede-5, Eclipse), and we know how it ends.” As a lifelong cynic, it’s hard to disagree: I put a lot more stock in the number of airplanes that have been delivered to customers than in grand promises or famous investors.
But now that ICON has finally delivered the first A5, it’s worth revisiting the project with an open mind. I see reasons for both hope and skepticism, but maybe more of the former. That could be good news for pilots everywhere.
First, we should consider the radically simple mission of the A5. It’s one of the few airplanes – some might argue it’s the only one – designed for purely recreational purposes. True, an Ercoupe or a Cub is a very enjoyable way to spend an afternoon in the air, and no one buys such airplanes to fly long cross-countries in bad weather. But the ICON goes further, since you don’t even have to fly it to your playground – just load it on your trailer and drive it there. Who cares what the weather is between your house and the lake?
That’s a small difference, but it has huge implications. The old line about “getting there is half the fun” no longer applies, and many ICON owners will probably treat it exactly like a high-end boat. If the weather looks good, they’ll take it out for 20 minutes. No airspace to consider, no communications required. Many of the basic tenets of pre-flight planning change in this scenario. To take one example, crosswinds will be a rare event for some A5 pilots, since larger lakes almost always allow for landing into the wind. If this means pilots fly their airplanes more, that’s a good thing.
In fact, it’s likely that some ICONs will never see an airport. That may worry some long-time pilots, but it also has the potential to change the way the general public views small airplanes. They might become a little less frumpy and a little more lust-worthy. Could a flight school be located at a marina instead of an airport?
The airplane’s positioning, as a fun toy with little transportation value, explains some of the tradeoffs the ICON engineers have made. At about 85 knots, the A5 is pretty slow for an airplane – but it’s extremely fast for a boat. If your average flight is less than 100 miles and purely for fun, “faster than the boats” is all that counts.
One reason the airplane isn’t faster is its nearly stall-proof wing. Early pilot reports suggest the A5 is quite forgiving of low-and-slow shenanigans, which is a smart tradeoff. A design that prevents low altitude stall/spin accidents is worth 5 or 10 knots.
This modern approach to recreational flying has the potential to attract some truly new people to aviation. There are a far more boat owners than airplane owners (12 million vs. about 200,000), and while the ICON won’t come close to evening up those numbers, there is at least the potential for growth. In particular, flying clubs built around the A5 could be attractive. Five pilots could easily share an A5 without major compromises, especially if they’re based at the same lake, bringing the price down to that of a good ski boat.
ICON also hopes to change the way Sport Pilots are trained, with its own flight training program that emphasizes basic flying skills and plays down arcane trivia. Note that the airplane does not have a glass cockpit, for instance. While the Sport license has been a disappointment so far, there’s no doubt that the shorter minimum training time and the lack of a third class medical requirement are appealing to non-pilots.
In spite of this compelling vision, plenty of risks remain. First, and most obviously, the airplane needs to sell. While the order book looks strong (ICON claims over 1,200), many of those are backed up by $2,000 credit card deposits that say more about buyers’ emotions at airshows than their ability to pay or their long-term aspirations as pilots. In particular, some of these buyers may have a serious case of heartburn when they realize the cost has risen from around $130,000 to over $240,000.
The low price deposit program has succeeded in attracting plenty of non-pilots, which is exciting for the aviation industry, but it also raises the possibility that many of these buyers won’t actually take delivery. There is a significant training and insurance piece that may be a stumbling block for folks expecting a jet ski with wings. Earning a pilot’s license is often over-complicated, but it’s hardly something you learn in an afternoon.
Like any startup, ICON needs to morph from a marketing company into a manufacturing company. Can it really deliver the airplanes at a fast enough rate to satisfy its orders without compromising quality or financial returns? It certainly has solid funding behind it, but then again, so did Eclipse.
The most serious risk may be the A5’s safety record, which I predict will be poor, at least early on. This won’t be due to a flawed design: the airplane looks well thought-out and designed with safety in mind. But its job as a purely recreational airplane (and, let’s be honest, the flashy marketing videos) practically begs pilots to hot dog. Pilots who want to fly fast and low may think this is the perfect airplane, and it won’t be long before an A5 and a water-skier meet under less than ideal circumstances. Stay tuned for some idiotic YouTube videos.
There’s also the not-so-minor issue of water access. Many states are all but closed to seaplanes, so the airplane’s appeal will be limited by regulation as much as economics. An ICON on land can still be fun, but at that point it’s more an expensive 152 than a game-changing innovation.
In spite of these risks, I suspect ICON is playing the long game here. The future of mass aviation travel is low cost airlines (in the short term) and probably unmanned aircraft (eventually). At this point, and probably even before then, piston airplanes will take on a role akin to horses: once used for regular transportation, but now a throwback used for recreation and escape. Airplanes like the A5, which openly embrace this fun and impractical mission, will do well in such an environment. Not everyone wants to fly an antique airplane, after all.
There have certainly been seaplanes before and there have been plenty of LSAs. ICON has no monopoly on good design or confidence. But love them or hate them, the company is running a bold experiment that goes far beyond a few performance specs. Here’s hoping it works.