ICON Aircraft: The Business of Flying for Fun

With the opening of the second Icon Flight Center, Icon Aircraft is offering the public the opportunity to get flight training in and rent its A5 light sport amphibian as part of its goal to bring fun flying to everyone.

0

Last month Icon Aircraft announced it had opened its second Flight Center to support its A5, a light sport amphibian (S-LSA). Based on Tampa’s Peter O. Knight Airport, the Center will provide flight training, sales, demos and service for the aircraft. At first glance, the announcement was generic good news that a general aviation manufacturer was expanding beyond its Vacaville, California home base to provide support to buyers in the eastern U.S.

Big deal, right?

Actually, yes—Icon is trying to go where no aircraft manufacturer has successfully gone before by turning flying purely for fun into a big business.

We’ve been following Icon Aircraft ever since it made its first, splashy announcements that it was developing the A5 to “democratize personal flight,” and are fully aware that the company and its founder Kirk Hawkins have consistently demonstrated a willingness to break from conventional thinking in general aviation. Not surprisingly, when we gave the announcement another look there was much more to the story: Icon’s Flight Centers were not only going to give flight training but they will do something that just isn’t done—allow those who check out to rent A5s and go have fun. For land planes; that’s no big deal, for seaplanes; it’s astonishing. To start with, there are not many places in the U.S. where a pilot can get seaplane training; of those, almost none allow the pilot to then rent the seaplane without an instructor.

We like flying seaplanes. A lot. It’s some of the most fun flying we’ve ever done. We do it as often as we can afford to and we have to travel 1000 miles to a facility where we can rent a seaplane without an instructor. Not surprisingly, Icon’s announcement got our undivided attention. It soon lead to a long conversation with Icon’s Kirk Hawkins about what we think is a gutsy move that has significant risk. The accident rate for seaplanes isn’t particularly good.

The Airplane

Before going into the flight training and rental that Icon is offering through its Flight Centers, it’s necessary to look at the airplane itself. Most two-place production airplanes were designed as trainers and/or to fly from point A to B and carry enough luggage for a weekend. There are a few that were built primarily for recreation—and most of those are for competition aerobatics.

The Icon A5 was specifically designed as a recreational vehicle to be marketed to non-pilots who want to learn to fly purely for fun—the folks who think of flying as a helmet-and-goggles world of adventure and excitement.

Kirk Hawkins and his team looked at the multi-billion dollar outdoor recreation market and the people who put that money into it—SCUBA divers, skydivers, off-roaders, dirt bikers—and decided to build an airplane that would appeal to those who wanted to fly for the adventure it can offer and have the money to do it.

Hawkins asked us to think about seaplanes generally. He noted, rightly, that they are lousy transportation machines—they are drag incarnate, with slow, inefficient cruise speeds. They are only used for transportation in areas of the world where the only alternative form of transportation is worse. The reality is that most of the time seaplanes are flown for fun, because they are. When you’re flying for fun, who cares if the cruise speed is modest? Fun is why the A5 is an amphibian—it can use land airports and instantly be ready for the fun stuff, water flying. As for the scope of the market for seaplane operations, our research indicated that it’s legal to operate a seaplane on most public waterways and lakes in every state except Colorado, and an activist group is making progress on getting Colorado into the fold.

In our conversation, Hawkins noted that the overwhelming majority of boats owned in this country are purely for recreation, so when you look at aviation as recreation, seaplanes are not a niche market, they are the market.

With the adoption of the Sport Pilot rating, someone wishing to learn to fly for the fun of it can become certified in as little as 20 hours. That rating opened the door for the formation of Icon Aircraft and the design of the A5. Targeting 20-hour pilots meant the airplane had to be easy to fly and safe because the those pilots are going to make mistakes—lots of them, many of which will be serious. It also had to provide information to the pilot about airspace where an LSA is not particularly welcome so the user isn’t constantly getting into trouble with the FAA. Current avionics technology made the airspace portion of the equation easy. Applying recent developments in aerodynamics to create a spin-resistant airplane was a little more difficult.

Human factors studies have long shown that when a pilot gets into a jam and/or is frightened, the most common reaction is to pull back on the yoke or stick—it’s a big reason why stall/spin accidents happen and why they are killers. 20-hour pilots make errors, so the A5 is designed that if the pilot responds to his or her error and yanks the stick all the way back, the airplane will not spin. It will stall, however, it will remain fully controllable. If the pilot then applies full power—even with the stick full aft—the airplane will climb (or hold altitude at high density altitudes) even though it is stalled.

It’s true. We checked. The A5 climbs with full power and full aft stick. We covered the airplane in some detail in the August 2016 issue of our sister publication, Aviation Consumer. We went into the flight evaluation more than a little skeptical after all the hype we’d heard and wondering if the A5 was just a modernized Ercoupe. It’s not. It’s an aerodynamically-sophisticated airplane that is so spin resistant that we suspect it cannot be induced to spin—we tried, repeatedly. With an angle of attack indicator as the centerpiece of the instrument panel, a pilot who has messed up and responded with full power and full aft stick and is slowly climbing away from the ground can easily transition into a much better rate of climb by moving the stick forward until the gauge shows that the wing is at the optimal angle of attack for climb.

The A5 has a tricycle gear because the runway loss of control accident rate for tricycle gear airplanes is lower than that of tailwheel airplanes by orders of magnitude—so the 20-hour Sport Pilot is less likely to have a takeoff or landing accident. As a seaplane, it is remarkably easy to operate on the water.

While we don’t think it’s possible to create a foolproof airplane because we’ve noticed that fools are incredibly creative, we think the Icon A5 is about as close to it as any airplane marketed to date.

Vertical Integration

Icon’s operating philosophy is to do all it can to minimize the risk that one of the airplanes it builds is going to be crashed by a pilot who doesn’t know what he’s doing. To that end the company drafted a purchase agreement that requires a number of actions by the purchaser to guarantee that the airplane will only be flown by a pilot who has gone through Icon-approved training and recurrent training. To the extent possible, Icon wants to control everything it can from the design of the A5 through the skill and judgment of each pilot flying one.

Hawkins told us that his team looked at the very real issue of turning adventurous outdoor sports risk takers into safe pilots without draining the adventure from flying and/or boring them so much that they drop out. He and his team went to the schools that specialize in teaching risk takers how to engage in risky activity without erasing themselves. They attended skydiving school, superbike motorcycle racing school and supercar, Formula and sports car racing schools. According to Hawkins, the team then created training materials designed to be interesting while transmitting knowledge, much as the outdoor sport adventure schools have been doing for years. He said that he wanted Icon’s training materials to “attack every pain point that keeps people out of aviation.”

We have not seen the current training materials, but the hard copy and online materials we were shown six months ago were well done. They had a definite military feel to them—a number of the team members, including Hawkins, were former military pilots—and contained what we considered more than adequate information for a Sport Pilot rating. We also noted that they were designed in layers—if a student wanted more in depth information on a particular topic beyond the normal coverage, it was easy to access.

Icon has tailored its training program to the level of experience of the student. Prices are not cheap, but it has to be noted that the airplane involved is as modern as it gets rather than a 60-year-old Cub on floats. We were given the following information about the courses and current pricing by Icon’s Brian Manning, head of PR and communications:

TX-S (Transitional Seaplane)—Transition training course for certified pilots who hold rating privileges for seaplanes. Pilots will be qualified for aircraft check-out and sign-off. Price is approximately $2,400

TX-L (Transitional Landplane)—Transition training course for certified landplane pilots who do not hold rating privileges for seaplanes. Pilots will be endorsed for LSA-ASES. Price is approximately $4,000

SPL (Sport Pilot License)—A complete training course for beginner pilots. The end qualification will be the Sport Pilot Certificate with endorsement for LSA-ASES. Price is approximately $13,000.

Manning told us that all pricing includes ground school, books/materials, aircraft time and instructors and are noted as “approximate” because it varies per participant based on a number of factors.

Once checked out, Icon’s website shows that an A5 can be rented for $300 per hour through what amounts to a flying club-type arrangement. There is a $500 initiation fee and $50 per month dues, which pay for insurance. Those who have made a deposit on an A5 have the initiation fee waived and get $50 per hour off of the rental rate. In order to make the rental arrangement work at the rates involved, in our opinion, each Flight Center will need to provide the concierge service one expects when going SCUBA diving or supercar racing—everything should be in great shape and ready to go when the customer arrives for his or her flight.

Icon has more stringent requirements for recurrent training as a renter than just meeting the FAA’s flight review regulation. Hawkins said that one of the ways Icon is planning to encourage recurrent training is by making it fun—and offering training building on recreational flying such as backcountry operations, open water operations and formation training. We noted that skydiving has levels of accomplishment for skydivers that are not regulated by the FAA, and it encourages skydivers to keep getting better at their sport.

Hawkins pointed out that a lot of outdoor adventure sports are “try before you buy” activities, notably SCUBA diving and skydiving. One of the aspects of Icon’s flight training and rental program is to provide more ways for nonpilots to get into flying and, potentially buy an A5. It’s also a way to provide adventure vacations or weekends, much as skydivers spend weekends at a particular drop zone or people travel to destinations to spend several days SCUBA diving or driving race cars—Icon wants to make having fun flying an A5 an adventure destination.

Currently there are four A5s operating at the Tampa Flight Center with one more scheduled to arrive soon, according to Hawkins. Icon’s training program in Vacaville and Tampa has six full-time instructors and nine part-time. Hawkins said that they are looking for more instructors and will be opening a third Flight Center, probably in Texas.

As professional skeptics, we admit to being impressed by the way the A5 flies. We know how tough it is to get a return on investment in the business of general aviation manufacturing and we’ve watched a lot of creative, well-financed ideas fail. Nevertheless, we have great affection for purely recreational aviation and we’re wishing Icon success.

Rick Durden is the Features Editor of AVweb, is a seaplane instructor and 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.