ICON: A Jetski With Wings (Can You Tow It With A Prius?)
Last week, ICON Aircraft introduced its A5 amphibian LSA, promising "a new dimension in sport flying" and to usher in a "sport flying revolution." The crowd at the Los Angeles venue was suitably chic and monied, so the grab for $5000 deposits to hold a place in line before the unwashed general public would be allowed to join the elite list the following day was probably both expected and sufficiently below the economic radar as to not even register. At least judging by the cars parked out front that cost much more than the $140,000 airplane being, er, launched.
The assembled guests were wowed by the A5's electrically folding wings, which promise putting the amphib on a speedboat trailer when your day in the sun is done. They were impressed by A5's sleek lines and comforted by the clear road-vehicle influence in the design, from the twin "headlights" to the motorcycle-inspired instrument panel; this was not some kind of odd animal whose language you would need to learn, but just a jetski with wings! Cool.
ICON is headed by an impressive list of people, including some serious design talent. None other than Eclipse's Vern Raburn is on the board of directors. Chief Technical Officer is Matthew Gionta, ex of Scaled Composites. You want more names? How about the Nissan Design Center, which was credited for "getting this group together," and BMW's DesignworksUSA, the design house in Southern California partly responsible for the new Mini. (A quick aside: As a motorcycle journalist, I attended a BMW bike intro that included a tour of Designworks. The staff was in the early stages of a design study for a light airplane, which one our hosts wouldn't say. The Piper rudder pedals and drawings of the then- [and still-] current Cherokee might have been hints. Probably figuring motorcycle scribblers wouldn't know a rudder pedal from a rubber pencil, BMW didn't think we saw too much.) Troy Lee, motorsports-design maven, is on board, as is Paul Crandall, who was Red Bull's Director of Sports Marketing.
If I've learned anything from 20 years in the industry, it's that those who talk the loudest usually have the least to say. And, stemming from that, my spidey senses indicate that ICON has a huge number of very high priced, talented people who could be pulling in obscene amounts of money from larger companies—so why are they here? (If you buy the "for the love of it" angle, you're ignoring how talented people get to be high priced.) The ICON effort strikes me as using a nuke to take out a garden snail infestation. Impressive names calm investors, but it'll be the rank and file who will have to get this design into the air. (Oh, you mean it's not flying? Uh, no; maybe next year…) Will they get the chance?
The garage engineer in me also questions how ICON is going to get the weight down to the legal limit. LSAs have a minimum useful load based on horsepower; using the 100-hp Rotax 912S, the A5 will have to carry 430 pounds, making empty weight no more than 1000 pounds. Good luck, with the electrically retracting tricycle gear and wingfold mechanism—on a strutless wing design, to boot! LSA Cubs are doing welll to come in under 900 pounds. The current horizontal stabilizer—I say current in the sense that it's the current spec, as a real one hasn't been shown—is 8 feet, 6 inches wide, right at the legal limit for towing in the state of California. What happens if it needs more tail? Plus, can you tow it behind a Prius? The Range Rover shown pulling a trailered ICON in the website illustration is into the leisure-suit realm of uncool in L.A.
But I'm still hung up on the money. How much could you possibly make from a lightweight, two-seat amphibian LSA that you've pegged at under $140,000? How many do you have to sell to make the business plan work? Which leads to this: Just how big could the LSA market possibly be, now or ever? Cessna, likely to be the market leader by 2010, plans to make "only" 700 units a year in China. This is Cessna, with a great reputation and service facilities around the world—in other words, the drop-dead easy choice of a skittish pilot population coming into LSA.
What undoubtedly sets off my skeptic alarm is the overbearing sense that these guys have it all figured out and that traditional aviation companies, like Cessna, have it all wrong. All you need to succeed is a great idea, the right people, an unconventional approach and enthusiasm. The rest will work itself out.
I'll believe it when I see it.