Look beyond the hype – ICON just might help aviation

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.

Icon A5
It looks great – can it live up to the hype?

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.

Icon A5 on trailer
If you can tow it to the lake, does your preflight planning change?

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 A5 cockpit
It looks high tech, but there’s no glass cockpit here.

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.

21 Comments

  • I find myself blowing hot then cold over this aircraft design. I love the innovative spin resistant wing … hate the minuscule payload … love the emphasis on cool fun … hate the minuscule range … love the intuitive AOA display … hate the high and growing sales price … love the versatility of amphibious design and trailerability … hate the slow cruise airspeed.

    Whether this model proves to be the game-changer its maker claims it to be, or if it becomes the latest market failure like the Eclipse 500, who can know? If the Icon A5 becomes the first of a long line of innovative and exciting aircraft that draw legions of new pilots then it will be a great thing. My greatest skepticism, however, is that a purely fun recreational aircraft that has practically zero transportation benefit can achieve market success.

    Flying is fun for sure but safe, comfortable, efficient and speedy transport has always been the principal economic driver and justification for most aircraft sales, especially at sales prices of a quarter million and up.

  • I think you are being presumptuous of who will really buy this plane. In my opinion, the core of the buyers will be current pilots who want, and can afford a recreational plane. I’m thinking Cirrus owners…they like composites and the forward looking styling.

    I can’t see any non-aviation enthusiast seeing one of these at the lake and saying to himself “boy, I gotta get one of those!” Those that are aviation enthusiasts that are looking to learn to fly, will probably choose a traditional flight school route.
    And it’s even less likely that they will see one being operated recklessly as you state. GA pilots overall are pretty serious people, and I think your comment is disrespectful of that fact.

    Now clubs may be a real option, as it fits that model perfectly. As for seeing on the water flight schools open up, I would be surprised to see few, if any. Existing seaplane trainers may add a few to their fleets, but I doubt you would see any new ICON only bases open.

    Remember, you can get an old J3 Cub on floats for $30 to 50K and have a blast on the water! And they are really not prone to spins or stalls any more than this new ICON. Will people buy this new plane? Surely…but not nearly as many as you would think for $250K.

    • Blad – agreed that one can have a blast flying an old J3 Cub on floats (or wheels). The difference in performance (cruise speed, climb rate, payload, and range) between the Cub and the A5 is not very much. The differences are in the visual “wow” factor of high tech, modern design vs. 1930s classic low tech (different strokes for different folks) and the spin resistance of the A5.

      Any aircraft can and will stall at its critical AOA, from a J3 to a B787 to the Space Shuttle … the differences in design come in on what happens during and immediately after the stall. The test flights of the A5 that I’ve read report that the A5 never drops a wing or enters a spin, no matter how you wrench around the flight controls. That can a big lifesaver for inattentive pilots, since merely stalling out isn’t usually what kills pilots … it’s the spin that turns your aircraft into a very big lawn dart that kills pilots and their passengers.

      Of course, even the test flights don’t prove that it’s impossible to spin an A5. If one loads it way outside the approved weight and balance envelope, as some pilots have been known to do, I imagine it’s still possible to spin it in to the ground. No airplane or machine of any kind can be made totally idiot-proof (or “sailor proof” as we used to say in the Navy). That’s why it’s been certified as a “spin resistant” aircraft and not “spin proof”.

      Bottom line for many of us, though, is that if we can have just as much fun flying an old J3 for under $50K, why spend the quarter mil on an aircraft that does basically the same things?

      • Thoughtful analysis Duane. I just hope they can sell enough A5s so that one day we have 70 year old ICONs like we do Cubs. Then the price might come down!

        • A 70 year old composite aircraft? You make me laugh!
          Let’s see what the first generation Cirrus planes look like as they come up on their 20 year mark…

          • There’s no particular reason to make you laugh about the durability of composites.

            Composites have been used in at least some airframe components, such as some portions of commercial jet aircraft like Boeing 737s as well as military aircraft for decades (ie., back to the early 1980s). Cirrus may have not built their first SR20 and SR22 models until the early 00s, but other manufacturers of gliders and very light aircraft (such as Flight Design) have been building light aircraft airframes out of composites since the 1980s.

            Does that mean a Cirrus will last for 70 years? Not necessarily, of course, but there is no reason to believe, based upon 30+ years of airframe experience, that composites are going to disintegrate any time soon. Laboratory durability tests have indicated that composites hold up very well under cyclic stress designed to simulate tens of thousands of hours of flight.

            I mean, who would want to design, build, deliver, and own a 787 Dreamliner at a price per unit of over 150 million bucks if they expected it to fall apart in a couple years?

            Besides, those 70 year old J3 Cubs are still around only if they’ve been well maintained, restored, and/or completely rebuilt perhaps multiple times. The original cotton or linen fabrics in the 1930s only lasted relatively few years if left outside.

          • True. But the J3 can be repaired quite affordably. Composites are basically a one time use. Sorry, I’m just not a fan of them.

            And big birds are not a good comparison, because they go obsolete for different reasons…

          • The durability of composites is dependent on application, the same as any other construction material. They perform well in most environments but metal does better in others. I site the upper & lower cowl on my 48 year old Piper Cherokee 180, constructed of composite fiberglass, no sign of needing repair. Yes, composites are repairable, I trained in (Wichita State U) and have since repaired or commissioned composite repairs of everything from Fiberglass, carbon to aramid (Kevlar) fiber cloth construction. I have seen some very poor applications; the engine cowl doors of a CH-53 Super Stallion comes to mind. The constant vibration, movement to open & close and the hydraulic and synthetic engine oils combine to make a mushy mess. The fibers and layers are so contaminated the repairs don’t last as long. One of he things that is not commonly known is that a component made using composite construction will not always net a savings in weight but typically is stronger. The weak link is usually where the composite construction transitions to conventional construction.

  • So the FAA allowed this airplane with a gross weight in the 1500 + lb. range to be classed as a LSA, but………no other one better gross at more than 1320 lbs. Seems to me if its good enough for the Goose, it should be good enough for the Gander too. I’m sure it will be a fun flying, floating machine. Wish I could afford one.

  • There are few things more annoying than a jetski on a lake — and after the learning process is over, few things more boring than riding a jetski on a lake.
    If the same people who ride jetskis too and fro, having “fun” doing so, are the same who buy the Icon, expect a huge backlash against aviation generally.

  • It seems like a lot of good engineering and design have gone into the plane. Well, that and a lot of pretty good promotion too. It will be interesting to see if all that can make it a success.

    Mr. Piper did not target the consumer market with the first Cubs because he felt that it would not be significant compared to the training market. In those times he was ultimately proven right. Do these different times call for the opposite strategy? Perhaps.

  • To even entertain the idea that this company will take flight is pure stupidity. We might as well be talking about selling UFO’s from area 151.

    • Well the company has already taken flight, the question is if they can stay in business which I hope they do.

      I hope they sell hundreds of them to wanna be pilots who quickly get bored (or give up getting their certificate) and dump them on the market…at a much lower price of course :^)

      As far as poor performance I’m sure it won’t be long for the turbo charged Rotax to find its way onto the plane.

  • Begs to be hot dogged.

    I’ve never hot-dogged in my life and I can already feel the temptation after circling the lake at 500′ AGL for the 100th time.

    • Andy,

      Yup. Either there is temptation to do dumb stuff in an airplane out of boredom, or the owners will quit flying because the airplane simply doesn’t carry enough payload, fly fast enough, or fly far enough on a tank (well, actually a half tank is about all you can carry legally with two aboard and more than an ounce of luggage or gear) to be of much use for real recreation.

      Real recreational flying involves going somewhere at a reasonable speed and carrying some stuff.

      In its current configuration, the A5 is really just a toy and a concept demo, unfortunately.

      Now if Icon built an A5 that flew at 120+ knots, could carry two 200+-pound adults, and about 200 pounds of gear, and fill the tanks and have a range of over 500 nm … that would be a real recreational aircraft. In other words, build something like a Husky or a SuperCub on floats, but with all the other characteristics of the A5, and then you’d really have something!

      Unfortunately, Icon allowed itself to be punked by the Light Sport limitations, on the theory that Sport Pilots who are minimally trained are their natural target market. That was their principal conceptual error. I just don’t see masses of people anxious to spend a quarter mil on a toy that allows them to be barely-qualified pilots and not kill themselves spinning into the dirt.

  • “Pure recreational flying” is on its way out – except for THOSE who see and find a UTLITY value in an aircraft. And, although the Icon 5 is superior in many areas – another EXAMPLE of some “subjective”, bias, emotional, or just a “Viagra Moment” on the part of the founder perhaps?

    The days of pure “fun” are closing in on GA; too many OTHER more cost/benefit alternatives today than were available 45-70+ years ago.

    But we’ll always have a “passionate” pilot (non-pragmatic type?) who, will try to PROVE a “demand” exist for concept that has “ZIP” marketability!

  • After earning my license in 1968 , my whole focus was on going places in my plane, so naturally the Ercoupe and Tri Pacer gave way to a Mooney. I can understand the lure of a A5 but at this price, and cruise speed can they sell enough of them to stay solvent. When I learned to fly I would observe numerous airplane owners on a Saturday morning take off and make a couple laps of the airport and land. Every one of those pilots are now non pilots. My point is, if you don’t get some utility how long will the novelty last. There will always be the owners who will use their aircraft strictly for recreation, but I think they are the minority. I hope the A5 is a success and wish them well.

  • Who is spending $250k on this thing? Yes, there’s a cool factor, but so what? At some point the numbers need to make sense.

    Think about it like this; a non-pilot is going to look at one of these and be interested in it based on its looks. But it’s not a car; this isn’t an impulse purchase — and not just because of the price tag. Even if the Light-Sport license is less stringent than the PPL, it’s still a hurdle. So the potential buyer does what anyone who has $250k in disposable income does — research before taking the leap. And surprise, he figures out that what a whole lot of people already have — that the Light-Sport certification isn’t really worth it, and that his time and money might be better spent on a PPL and a three year old SR-20 or even a 182, rather than on a novelty that has extremely limited use (no matter how cool it looks in the brochure). Or he decides that aviation really is too expensive and involved after all and just walks away from the proposition altogether.

    The customer for this aircraft needs to be very rich, very bored, and want one more than a second or third Ferrari. Does this person exist? Sure, of course he does. Will ICON be able to connect with these customers enough to meet their sales quotas? I have no idea.

  • From what I’ve understood, the Icon is being marketed to the “milleniums” who will say that “this is one cool airplane and I have to become a pilot and buy one”.

    However, when they realize that there will be WORK involved in learning how to fly an airplane including the book WORK involved, and then have to RESPECT, LEARN and ABIDE by FAA regulations airspace and weather REQUIREMENTS, they won’t think it’s so cool anymore.

    This new generation of people were spoiled by their parents and led to believe that they were special—even if in reality they were just average. They received awards for just participating in sports and other activities—even if they lost.

    Previous generations of kids knew they had to WIN to get the trophy and if they lost, they accepted the fact and knew they would just have to try harder next time and that there was no trophy for trying harder. They were brought up to be good losers and did not expect accolades for just participating.They knew that work, time, patience and dedication would be involved if they wanted to be winners in life and achieve goals such as becoming a pilot.

    The reality is that this new generation will not be attracted to aviation of any sort because there is no instant gratification in aviation. If they have to really work on learning how to fly and even “worse” learn, respect and follow regulations, they will suddenly realize that this flying thing is too much of a hassle and go buy a boat, motorcycle, or quad instead. Result with this alternative to flying?– No learning needed, very little attention or regard for safety and instant gratification.

    Bottom line—even if they have the money for an Icon, they won’t be attracted to flying because learning to fly takes work and dedication (no instant gratification here) and they will have to follow rules regarding operation of an aircraft not to mention abiding by approved maintenance requirements of the aircraft itself.

    Reality will set in and they will realize that in flying, there are no prizes in just for participating, the work is just too much of a hassle and time consuming while “big brother” will be regulating, controlling and watching them. They will say,”Who needs the hassle man? I’ll just go buy that boat instead, train myself how to “drive” it and won’t have to put up with “The Man”. No hassles or effort! Now THAT’s for me Dude—how cool!! I don’t need to buy that airplane and become a pilot after all”!!!!

  • After playing with a really good simulator at Wings Over Colorado, I got a lot more interested in cheap planes. Research showed this was an oxymoron. What has been extremely disheartening is all the hype surrounding aircraft under development. Most journalists seem to trust the assertions of a new aircraft company as much as they trust those of our police–which is way more than I do. My research showed that about 85-100% of all very light jet companies eventually go out of business. The trusting articles about the Lilium Electric “Jet” are particularly galling, since there is no such thing as an electric jet. It’s sort of like an electric diesel. These 20-somethings believe they can bring their plane to market in just 3 years (when most companies take ten years just to fail). The so-called journalists blithely echo every implausible statement, such as “first electric plane developed,” when in fact, any research at all would show that the plane is not out of development at all. Lilium–one of the more egregious self-promoters, claims its plane will be ready in January of 2018. SURE. And it will cost only 25,000 dollars right?

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