Icon's Demise Exaggerated

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After Icon reported that they were raising the price of a new A5, my inbox came alive with predictions that this was Icon’s last gasp. Comparison were many to Eclipse Aerospace, and its CEO Vern Raburn. One person described it as a corporate “suicide.” My favorite email on the topic from a reader ended: “You're an idiot and I can't wait till you go under.” (“You” in this context seems to be some hybrid of Icon Aircraft and its CEO Kirk Hawkins.) The predictions accelerated following Roy Halladay’s death at the controls of one of the first production A5s, though with somewhat less glee on the part of the prognosticators.

An analogy could easily be drawn to Cirrus. The Duluth airframer is now king of the light aviation world, selling almost twice as many piston singles as its closest competitors. In 1999, the first factory demonstration SR20 took the life of the company’s chief test pilot, Scott Anderson. The crash was the result of a design defect, corrected prior to any customer deliveries, that caused the ailerons to bind against the wing in flight. There was also a baseball star who died in a Cirrus. In 2006 Cory Lidle was killed when his Cirrus SR20 crashed into a New York City apartment building. 

The Cirrus comparison is actually somewhat unfair to Icon. There’s no suggestion that the crash that killed Icon’s chief test pilot, Jon Karkow, was the result of a design defect. While the cause of Halladay’s crash remains under investigation, the NTSB preliminary report and mainstream media accounts don't seem to implicate the aircraft. 

Hawkins likens the A5 to a new class of motorsport toy, like a jet-ski, dirt bike or snowmobile. To say that the A5 can be dangerous if used inappropriately is like saying the same about a motorcycle—profoundly obvious. People still buy motorcycles. 

I’ve only spoken to one A5 deposit holder since the price increase. After a chance encounter, I helped him find some hangar space at Palo Alto. He’s buying two, one for his East Coast home and one for his West Coast home. If not for the price hike, perhaps he’d have bought three, but I doubt it. 

Even if Icon went bankrupt, they may be too big to fail entirely. The very significant investments by Icon’s investors would be wiped out, but what Icon has built is probably worth more than the sum of its parts. Someone would acquire the assets in bankruptcy and keep making airplanes. (Tecnam would be a natural suitor.) Does anyone even know how many times Mooney has gone bankrupt? 

So why the giddiness and certainty of those predicting Icon’s demise? It could be the company's swagger, especially when it started. The company has hired a lot of fighter pilots and CEO Kirk Hawkins is an archetypal former F-16 pilot. I don’t think any of those rooting for Icon's demise have met Hawkins personally, but his reputation precedes him. I’ve met a lot of fighter pilots, and they’re generally more pilot than fighter. Confident, to be sure, but also a little introverted and slightly nerdy. Hawkins, a former F-16 pilot, is a caricature of a fighter pilot—big dude, square jaw, “strong” personality. He's also articulate, thoughtful, self aware and clearly passionate about his mission to make aviation attractive and accessible to a new generation of pilots. I still don’t understand the naysayers’ excitement, but Hawkin’s personality is likely a factor. 

The type of change Hawkins is trying to lead comes with challenges and sometimes tragedy and there are some parallels to Cirrus's experience. Cirrus wanted to change the safety calculation in general aviation with the parachute but it found that all the gear in the world was irrelevant unless pilots were trained properly to use it. Icon has taken some steps in the same direction with its low-level flying guidelines and it's likely the recent accidents will have an impact on its in-house training program. Aviators and aviation are always learning and sometimes the lessons come really hard.

You don’t need to like the Icon, and you don’t have fly their airplanes, but I predict they have many more left to sell.



Comments (30)

Just like Cirrus, Icon is different from the Cessnas and Pipers that most traditional GA pilots came from. Sure, everyone WANTS GA to expand, but heaven help us if it CHANGES in order to do it! Most GA pilots are waiting for the world to come around to their way of thinking, which isn't how the world actually changes...

Like you said Russ, if you don't like it, don't buy it!

Posted by: JEFFREY SMITH | December 11, 2017 2:14 AM    Report this comment

If the average house in your neighborhood sells for $200K and some builder comes in and tries to sell quirky specialty homes at $400K, he's gonna have a problem. Now then, if that same builder builds a higher quality, larger, better equipped home on a larger lot for that delta ... they'll likely sell once they define the market and its desires and the efficiency of production numbers produces a profit

There will ALWAYS be well heeled people who will buy things irregardless of price. A solo buyer from Palo Alto (who is likely a silicon valley millionaire) who buys two Icons is NOT going to make that Company solvent. Cirrus defined a market niche, built a high performance airplane for a market ready for such a machine and became both successful and profitable. I don't see any way that Icon can expect to remain solvent at the prices they're now asking for their niche market limited use machines. I don't wish to see their demise but I DO see a lack of reality in their entire business model.

Posted by: Larry Stencel | December 11, 2017 3:31 AM    Report this comment

Maybe you can compare the esthetics of Cirrus and Icon planes, but otherwise their mission is completely different.

What we did learn from the Halladay Icon crash was that even a current pilot with 750 hours total time can't do low-level aerobatics safely despite whatever "enhanced" safety program Icon promised.

Not really surprised, but promoting the A5 as a "new class of motorsport toy, like a jet-ski, dirt bike, or snowmobile" horribly underestimates the risks of low-level aerobatics - it's invariably fatal, even at the elite level. I'm ok with solo pilots making that decision, but the non-pilot passenger has no way to evaluate that kind of risk before climbing into the cockpit.

Posted by: James Briggs | December 11, 2017 4:02 AM    Report this comment

Going with Larry on this one. There's no way this company can justify charging what they are charging---especially when they promised the planes for around $150,000.00 max when they originally pitched it....charging as much as a new Cessna 172(!!) is not going to win them any friends, even mega rich ones. I never wish the worst on anyone, especially in GA which is in enough trouble as it is, but this is one company I wish would just either sell to a more reputable owner or just stop it already with the exaggerated claims of what it is (it really is no better, or different, than the already well made and established Progressive Aerodyne Searey...). To paraphrase the great Jack Nicholson, this company needs an enema...

Posted by: Michael Livote | December 11, 2017 8:18 AM    Report this comment

Icon's chances of surviving may depend on their 2018 aircraft deliveries. That's the enema.

Posted by: Rafael Sierra | December 11, 2017 8:43 AM    Report this comment

It seems to me that Icon is playing out of their league. They have a bunch of folks with high powered credentials *in*other*fields* but not in general aviation. They've paid essentially no dues in water flying, as witness by (1) they will help their new hire CFI checkout pilots get a seaplane rating and (2) their low flying guide does not mention wires over rivers. And there's the 200# monkey in the room, the fact that they needed an exemption to get their plane approved as an LSA. Add on an angle of attack indicator that is fine in calm air, but with no procedure for determining an appropriate AOA based upon reported winds. They've got lots of money, and great marketing, but it remains to be seen if those will see them through till their corporate hubris is replaced by competent experience.

Posted by: Ed Wischmeyer | December 11, 2017 9:04 AM    Report this comment

The market is the ultimate judge. Icon may find enough buyers at the high prices to keep the company going for a while. When the novelty wears off and a few more less than diligent pilots have news worthy crashes, the company will have to come out with a new idea, pitch or product to be sustainable. Then too, Bugatti, and other niche auto makers soldier on with a production backlog.

Hopefully, Icon will really dig down to develop a worthwhile and safe training program. Perhaps they can start by turning back the ads showing dangerous flying practices.

Posted by: Leo LeBoeuf | December 11, 2017 9:14 AM    Report this comment

That Icon continues to occupy column inches in the aviation dailies confirms that they are succeeding in their mission to change aviation. Change always upsets us incumbents.

Who cares what their price is as long as their customers are prepared to pay it. Honestly, is a new C172 worth $400k. It's first flight was in 1955. I'd say no but I'm proven wrong every year as a hundred or so leave Cessna.

Imagine if Icon existed in 1955. We'd be on the fifth generation of comfortable, user friendly airplanes instead of the second. Who knows, maybe with Icon's purchase contract we wouldn't have had to endure the litigious runaway and innovation stifling 1970's & 80's.

I laud their effort and hope they succeed.

Posted by: Serena Ryan | December 11, 2017 10:50 AM    Report this comment

I think Kirk Hawkins is trying to sell the company now. Kirk is a "get it done" developer type of CEO. He probably doesn't know what to do next now that the aircraft is certified.

Time to let the Chinese and Saudis bid over the company and look for the next challenge. It won't be long and EAA will be looking for another celebrity CEO to be president.

Posted by: Klaus Marx | December 11, 2017 12:03 PM    Report this comment

It's all about mission, demographics, and marketing.
Cirrus learned about the safety-consequences downside of selling a high-performance aircraft that exhibited some less-than-benign characteristics, to pilots (and lots of pilot gonna-bees) who thought of them ( ! ) as personal all-weather mini-airliners. Even their Vision personal jet isn't quite that. Once pilots confronted the limits of the vehicle - and of themselves - the SR-2x safety record improved dramatically.
Like Cirrus, Icon's problem isn't its vehicle. It's what pilots do with it. But unlike Cirrus, Icon is MARKETING their bird as a low-altitude fun machine. Recipe. For. Disaster.
If Icon wants its company - and its customers - to survive, it's going to have to sing the praises of aeronautical adventure at 1,000 feet AGL and above. Plenty of fun to be had.
What are the chances?

Posted by: Tom Yarsley | December 11, 2017 3:16 PM    Report this comment

.....and we continue to be our own worst enemy. If you don't like a model or manufacturer or segment, don't buy it. Why do people think anyone gives a darn about your opinion or mine? Seems to be a large segment of pilots that are envious of others ability to spend money. If you enjoy aviating in your particular model, have fun and let others enjoy what they like.

Posted by: jay Manor | December 11, 2017 6:36 PM    Report this comment

I think Klaus may have hit on one avenue for success for Icon. Sell the Company to the Chinese who will have hoards of poorly paid Chinese workers make the things, paint 'em red and name 'em "Hercules and market them through Harbor Freight tool stores at realistic prices. OR ... pay Bell and Howell or Polaroid for use of their name and market them thru Amazon and advertise on late nite TV. That guy Mike who sells coins could be their spokesman. What do you think, Raf?

Posted by: Larry Stencel | December 11, 2017 6:44 PM    Report this comment

"An analogy could easily be drawn to Cirrus"

Nope, the Cirrus was a serious plane for serious money.
The Icon is NOT a serious plane (because it's slow, has limited range, and limited instruments).
If you have $400K to throw around then you can get planes with a LOT more fun, versatility, and cool factor than an Icon !

Posted by: Mark Fraser | December 11, 2017 6:54 PM    Report this comment

"So why the giddiness and certainty of those predicting Icon's demise? It could be the company's swagger ..."

To put it another way, the Icon company aims to be "disruptive", in modern biz jargon. They're not deferring to the traditions and nostalgia that have built up in GA over the last 80 years. They didn't quietly advertise in flying magazines and at air expos and expect customers to find them. They're going after a market of well-heeled thrill seekers who won't put up with inconvenience or poor human-factor design in the name of tradition or stoicism. They're not deferring to old-school GA pilots who take pride in overcoming difficulty.

Their product is equally disruptive. It redefines cool, as an unabashed luxury toy for the 21st Century. It makes no pretense of being a practical flying sedan like the Cessnas and Beechcrafts of yore, and doesn't evoke the nostalgia of the J-3. There's nothing endearingly quirky or dinky about it. The new price is squeezing out all but the well-to-do, but there are plenty of them around.

An Old Guard never likes disruption of the established order. They paid their dues and earned their spurs on the old days, and are sure that the disruptive interlopers Just Don't Understand. But times change, and what was viable or accepted 40 or 80 years ago may no longer cut it.

Icon still may fail, as so many beloved aircraft manufacturers have done. But they've already changed the concept of what recreational aviation can be like.

Posted by: Rollin Olson | December 11, 2017 8:53 PM    Report this comment

Thank you for asking Larry. I think that YARS is somewhat correct , Fraser is correct, as you are, and that Rollins is being nice to Icon but not going with their hype. I also think that AVweb has promoted Icon long enough to deserve giving PB a chance to fly the damn thing before it goes ass down. Merry Christmas to all.

Posted by: Rafael Sierra | December 11, 2017 9:13 PM    Report this comment

My impression is that it's a great aircraft marketed in an irresponsibly-dangerous way. So while the aircraft definite deserves to survive, I'm not so sure about the company.

Posted by: David Megginson | December 11, 2017 9:27 PM    Report this comment

Icon does not and will not exist in a bubble. A few more celebrity crashes, and Congress will rush in "to help." Think Colgan. The rest of us will pay for Icon's "disruption." THAT is why THIS non-owner of an Icon has his panties semi-bunched in disapproval and warning. It ain't envy or conceit. And with 43 years of bleeding-edge design engineering behind me, it isn't a lack of appreciation for innovation. Prudence may go out of style, but its practitioners outlive those of folly.

Posted by: Tom Yarsley | December 12, 2017 4:30 AM    Report this comment

I was going to comment, however, it makes no sense after Yar's. Tom, you pretty much hit the nail on the head, time to close the book.

Posted by: Thomas Cooke | December 12, 2017 4:48 AM    Report this comment

Rollin ... I don't know how you've arrived at the position that Icon is "disruptive" but that isn't what makes companies successful. Profitability makes them successful. And SO far, Icon isn't profitable because their product is too expensive and doesn't offer any sort of performance other than being able to land on water. Raising the price to nose bleed levels makes no sense. In the early days, Toyota and the other Japanese car makers sold cars at a loss in order to gain a foothold in the US market. Airplanes work a bit different but an Icon isn't THAT much different than any other Rotax powered LSA. As others have pointed out, I'd sooner buy a 914 powered SeaRay.

IF I had $400K to drop on ANY airplane ... it sure as hell wouldn't be an Icon. For that money, a slightly used C182 would be at the top of MY wish list. With the advent of BasicMed, the allure of LSA has seriously diminished, too.

And -- as Raf points out -- if Icon wants to make a "splash," ... they need to let PB fly it and tell us about it with one of his videos !!

Posted by: Larry Stencel | December 12, 2017 5:10 AM    Report this comment

The Icon is kind of a neat little airplane, but there is nothing "disruptive" about the plane itself, no new technology, not really impressive performance, no efficiency breakthrough, no magic aerodynamics, It has nice fit and finish but so do lots of other planes and with the price increase the bang for the buck is just short of a Piper Tomahawk. The Icon is merely another basic airplane with the same old bits and pieces rearranged for improved sex appeal. The only disruptive or bleeding edge feature is the marketing hoopla and the idea that what has for so long been considered as dangerous and irresponsible flying is now great fun to be had for inexperienced pilots. If they can keep the body count down it may work.

Come on Icon...as Larry says, let Paul fly your airplane!

Posted by: Richard Montague | December 12, 2017 7:47 AM    Report this comment

"If Icon wants its company - and its customers - to survive, it's going to have to sing the praises of aeronautical adventure at 1,000 feet AGL and above. Plenty of fun to be had."

C'mon guys. We're in danger of turning into a bunch of old women. Are we trying to squeeze out what little adventure is left in aviation so that reality is a magenta line on a moving map and we clutch our pearls in fear that another Icon crash or five will tank the entire industry? I'm arguing here for getting a collective grip.

Two weeks ago, I spent a day flying the Searey--two Seareys, actually. And while we were buzzing over lake Apopka at 300 feet, we both agreed that this is just the way these airplanes are flown. This is why people buy them. It is why I would buy one. Yeah, you can get killed doing it, just as you can perish driving to the airport or fooling around in the pattern.

Can we, you know, be allowed to do that without running afoul of the hidebound collective? Let your hair into the breeze once awhile.

Posted by: Paul Bertorelli | December 12, 2017 10:40 AM    Report this comment

The problem is the reaction that non-aviation people have toward such antics.
People on the shore and in boats may not share in the pilot's low level enthusiasm.
The Roy Halladay cellphone video is a "colorful" example of what non-pilots might be saying.
Sure it's a blast, but I don't want to tick off all my neighbors by playing real life-or-death adventure games over their heads.

Posted by: Mark Fraser | December 12, 2017 1:30 PM    Report this comment

So don't. There are 700+ Seareys out there flying around and somehow the Republic has survived and the earth still spins on its axis.

Posted by: Paul Bertorelli | December 12, 2017 1:43 PM    Report this comment

I've followed this blog for some time now over the years. It seems the pattern here is for the same half dozen or so people to complain about anything not made by old line manufactures. You guys must be a riot at parties.

Posted by: jay Manor | December 12, 2017 2:41 PM    Report this comment

"The Icon is kind of a neat little airplane, but there is nothing "disruptive" about the plane itself, no new technology, not really impressive performance, no efficiency breakthrough, no magic aerodynamics...The Icon is merely another basic airplane with the same old bits and pieces rearranged for improved sex appeal."

That's actually all the iPhone was when it was first released, but the "sex appeal" seems to be what the masses want.

What, actually, is the goal in downplaying Icon? GA is losing today's young people because flying around in the pattern in a J3 or making a $100 hamburger run in Cirrus just doesn't hold excitement compared to visiting some far-off location or mountain biking on a new trail. If we keep with the mindset that GA should be all about stick-and-rudder in difficult-to-fly aircraft or simply programming an FMS and hitting "go" to get to some other destination, it will continue its slow downward spiral. Flying low over the water is exciting (c'mon, even the fuddy-duddy killjoys can recognize that, even if it's not your cup of tea), and that's what people today want.

So the question is, do we push out that potential crowd, or welcome them in and try to teach them how to do it as safely and responsible as possible? Some of the mountain bike trails I've seen are far riskier than low-level flying over the water in a seaplane, but you don't see bike manufacturers discouraging that sort of behavior.

Posted by: Gary Baluha | December 12, 2017 4:45 PM    Report this comment

"There are 700+ Seareys out there flying around and somehow the Republic has survived"

The tolerance level, like most things, is mainly based upon perception.
If you built and flown a Searey, you'd be a connoisseur.
Icons are for self-Indulgent wieners with too much bloody money.

Posted by: Mark Fraser | December 12, 2017 6:42 PM    Report this comment

Gary, to your point, my coworkers have supercars they'll never own as their computer desktop backgrounds and on their cubicle walls. Does ANYONE have a picture of a 172 up as their dream machine? I used to have a DA-42 on my computer (it looks COOL), and I could see a SR-22 or SF-50 filling that role too. An A5 looks cool. While I won't be buying one myself, at least the A5 is something worth wanting. It does have the appeal to draw new people into aviation, even if they don't ever fly it.

Posted by: JEFFREY SMITH | December 12, 2017 6:50 PM    Report this comment

Some here see a golden egg. I fear someone recklessly murdering my goose. There go the eggs.

Posted by: Tom Yarsley | December 12, 2017 7:00 PM    Report this comment

@Serena Ryan:
"I laud their effort and hope they succeed."

I agree -- I hope they succeed. A little disruption is good for most markets. Likewise, the market will pass judgment on the A5, so we shall see. I think they look like fun.

Success may bring problems though ... all the new buzzing about waterways may lead to increased regulation by states and local governments. Regulating seaplane activities on the water is certainly within the purview of states (with a star here for the details matter, but there is not full federal preemption in this arena).

Posted by: DON HUDDLER | December 12, 2017 7:49 PM    Report this comment

"The Icon is kind of a neat little airplane, but there is nothing "disruptive" about the plane itself, no new technology, not really impressive performance, no efficiency breakthrough, no magic aerodynamics, It has nice fit and finish but so do lots of other planes."

Every new version of every plane has more speed, more power, more range, greater payload, new avionics, better aerodynamics. That doesn't make them "disruptive".

It's not the A5's tech specs that make it disruptive; it's Icon's business concept and how they are executing it in ways that defy GA tradition. As Yarsley says, "It's all about mission, demographics, and marketing." I'd add that the real disruption comes from a combination of the three:
- The "mission" is pure recreational flying. No long journeys carrying people and stuff from point A to point B, just the fun of being up in the air and enjoying the view.
- The target demographic is well-heeled fun seekers who are accustomed to paying handsomly for having their wants and needs catered to. The ergonomics, the cosmetics, LSA category, handling and safety features of the A5 are intended to maximize pleasure and minimize downsides. (No cure yet for the Halladay Effect.)
- Icon aimed their marketing way beyond the traditional limits of airplane magazines and fly-ins, hyping their product wealthy non-flying public and journalists, not for its tech specs but for its fun factor.

The Klapmeyer brothers made a similar decision in designing the Cirrus to be a disruptive plane at the high end of the single-engine piston market. It wasn't the cruise speed or payload that caused such a splash; it was the sleek airframe, the concept that the cabin should be as comfortable as an automobile - and the parachute. Plus the massive marketing hype.

Aeronautical enthusiasts can pick over the technical details of this or that plane, but there are many current and would-be pilots who just want to enjoy flying. The A5 is intended to give that experience to those who can afford its luxury features and price.

Whether or not Icon will succeed in creating a new generation of recreational flyers, is another question entirely. But there's no question that they've disrupted the traditions of the General Aviation business.

Posted by: Rollin Olson | December 12, 2017 8:08 PM    Report this comment

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