Icon’s Low-Flying Guidelines: A Good Start
In May of this year, two Icon company employees flying an A5 made the error that has been the final mistake for too many seaplane, bush, backcountry and mountain pilots. They entered a canyon from the downhill end, starting below the surrounding ridges. By the time they discovered they were in the wrong canyon they didn’t have room to either climb over the ridges or make a 180-degree turn. They tried to reverse course, hit a canyon wall and were killed.
Icon’s response to the accident was a breath of fresh air. In an open letter from company CEO Kirk Hawkins last week, Icon reiterated that its A5 is built for fun flying and pilots like the thrill of flying low. The letter provided a link to Icon’s new Low Altitude Flying Guidelines. Those guidelines speak frankly about the risks of low-altitude flight, give guidance for flights in the “low-altitude” environment—which it defines as below 300 feet AGL—and recommends a “soft deck” of 300 feet AGL as the minimum altitude at which Icon pilots should operate their amphibians. Icon ground and flight training will include instruction in operations down to that altitude. For those pilots who wish to whistle around below 300 feet AGL, Icon is now requiring completion of its advanced “lowalt” training and a check ride. Because the purchase agreement for an Icon A5 requires that each owner and pilot who flies one agree, in writing, to comply with Icon’s operational guidelines for the A5 and each airplane has a flight data recorder installed, Icon is in a position to enforce its low-altitude operational guidelines and requirements.
When it comes to low flying, pilot flight training has almost exclusively consisted of telling pilots not to do it. Historically, that approach has been about as effective as telling teenagers not to have sex. Each month I research and write up the accident history of a specific model airplane for the Used Aircraft Guide in our sister publication, Aviation Consumer. Each month I average reading between four and 10 accident reports involving pilots who tied the record for low flying—few survive. I think that yanking the subject out into the open for discussion and formally teaching pilots how to fly low without killing themselves should have been done long ago.
As a side note, I think Icon’s low-altitude guidelines need more information on avoiding power lines because they are only visible to a pilot if the light is just right—most of the time it’s not—and they are often routed where least expected. They can be just above the trees right along lakeshores (in the glide path for landing on the lake) and over the water between the shore and an island. As a seaplane instructor, I teach my students to be suspicious of the airspace between an island and the shore of a lake. Often, the only way to spot power lines is to find the supporting poles, but even with that aid, the lines themselves may be invisible until you’re within 100 feet of them.
Power lines get strung across river valleys—with no supporting poles in the valleys themselves. When I was in Civil Air Patrol in high school our Wing Commander decided to take the Wing’s T-34 out to do vertical banks along the cliffs of the local river. He hit power lines and removed one wing.
Every summer in high school I worked ground crew for a crop duster. More than once I watched those professional pilots hit power lines they didn’t see when going into or coming out of a pass across a field. I kept track of the aerial application pilots I worked with. Every single one crashed. Most of the accidents were due to hitting an obstruction.
When I look at seaplane or amphibian accidents, there are always some due to hitting the water unexpectedly—usually in conditions of flat light (overcast skies and lack of color contrast over the ground or water) or glassy water. Often those accidents involve a pilot who was intentionally flying low over a lake and hit the water in level flight (usually just a lot of damage to the aircraft, but sometimes fatal) or stuck a wing into the water (almost always resulting in a fatal cartwheel). In my experience, until a pilot actually experiences flat light and glassy water conditions she or he simply cannot believe that it is absolutely impossible to tell how high the airplane is above the water within several feet. The first glassy water landing for a seaplane student is almost always a revelation—the airplane never touches the water when the pilot expects it. In my opinion, a pilot who has been trained in low flying and the nature of glassy water and flat light conditions is going to tack on some extra altitude because he or she is aware of the powerful visual illusions involved.
Bush and backcountry pilots know never to enter a canyon or fjord from the bottom because the differences between the entrances of the safe one and a box canyon are often too subtle to distinguish. They know that if they desire to fly between the walls of a canyon to first fly to the uphill end, staying above the ridges, and only descend into the canyon going downhill.
I’m also glad to see that Icon is addressing the FARs applicable to low flying as they have a serious gotcha for pilots. The FAA does not publish its definition of a “congested area” in the FARs. You have to read the cases where the FAA has gone after pilots for illegal low flying over a congested area to get a feel for its definition. For example, it’s been defined as four houses within a quarter of a mile, a small group of people standing on the ramp in front of an FBO and a busy interstate highway—much smaller assemblages of people than most pilots would expect. The rule of thumb for seaplane pilots is that if you see four or five boats in proximity to each other, consider them to constitute a “congested area” and stay 1000 feet above them and/or 2000 feet away horizontally. Icon encourages pilots to be courteous to people they are flying near. That’s wise. After all, not everyone on the ground or in a boat likes little airplanes and those folks have cellphone cameras that can be used to take photos for evidence against low-flying pilots. Plus, the FAA can subpoena the flight data recorder from the A5 to help make its case against a low-flying pilot.
I suspect Icon is going to be tweaking its low-altitude guidelines and training. It appears a bit weak on power lines and tower guy wires. However, I think it’s great that Icon has stepped up to squarely face the issue of protecting pilots who want to have fun flying low. I think the other manufacturers should consider doing the same thing because pilots are using their airplanes for that purpose. Flying low is a blast. The way to stay alive doing it is to receive formal training in how to do it right; not rely on information whispered in the back alleys.
Rick Durden is the Features editor of AVweb. He is a CFII, holds an ATP with type ratings in the Douglas DC-3 and Cessna Citation and is the author of The Thinking Pilot’s Flight Manual or, How to Survive Flying Little Airplanes and Have a Ball Doing It, Vols. 1 & 2.