AVweb Flies the Icon A5

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An amphibian built for adventure.

The Icon A5 has been, for years, a press darling. Experienced journalists fresh off assignments flying multi-million dollar jets gushed over a pre-production light sport airplanes. Seriously? Icon said I could try to answer that question for myself, but only if I really flew the airplane and understood the customer experience. “Spend four days at the Icon training center doing the transition course that a new owner would do, then write whatever you want,” Icon told me.

Fair enough. What I was just as interested in as the airplane itself is how Icon is approaching training new owners. Faced with the huge challenge of bringing a new aircraft design to market, Icon has become a flight training company to boot. The flight training business provides an even worse customer experience than today’s general aviation airplanes, says Icon CEO Kirk Hawkins.

Built for Adventure

Like everything else at Icon, training is a clean-slate design. They made their own syllabus and wrote their own textbooks. Flight Operations Manager and my instructor for the week, Mike “Tina” Turner tells me that’s partly because Icon expects pilots will fly the airplane differently. Icon wants to teach pilots to safely operate out of lakes and rivers. It’s built for adventure, not for travel. That means more time on reading the wind in an off-airport environment and less on Class C radio procedures.

Transition from landplanes is the most common Icon training program, and they have the formula dialed in. Six flights including the final checkout is about what it takes to get a single engine sea, sport pilot endorsement in the A5. Every flight includes at least one takeoff and landing at the home airport, plus a handful of water takeoffs and landings. Each flight introduces a new skill, which will generally be included on all subsequent flights. Flight two adds water taxiing and emergency procedures. Flight three adds glassy water landings and beaching. Flight four adds rough water operations and sailing and flight six is a practice for the proficiency check. That last flight, six, is the proficiency check itself, hopefully ending in a Sport Pilot ASES endorsement.

Icon built its ab initio sport pilot training program with a specific number of flights and weeks, in the mold of military flight training. But it quickly found variation in student aptitude, preparation and the weather made it hard to set a fixed schedule. That’s a problem, because people who can afford airplanes tend to have fixed schedules. Icon is working on ways to allow pilots to continue their training closer to home while maintaining a tight grip on quality control.

Training Materials

Icon’s in-house training materials come several weeks in advance of training as a spiral bound four-volume set. Volume 1, Course Guide, is the syllabus for each of the three Icon training programs—full sport pilot, land transition, sea transition. Volume 2, Sport Flying Academics, fills the role of a traditional sport or private pilot ground training textbook, except that it includes the necessary seaplane knowledge and emphasizes Icon-specific features like AoA indications. Volume 3, Sport Flying Operations, is the manual on how to fly the airplane, and most useful of the set for a pilot transitioning to the A5 who is current on aeronautical knowledge. Volume 4, Sport Flying Supplement, is essentially the extras-for-nerds  volume—derivation of performance formulae, knot tying diagrams and appendices.

On my first flight in the A5, we head north and start with stalls and steep turns. A full departure stall in the A5 is impossible by some definitions. The elevator won’t produce enough downforce to get the angle of attack high enough to stall the outboard portion of the wing, so under most CG, weight and density altitude conditions, the A5 will continue to climb with the stick full aft while maintaining good roll control through aileron use alone. While Icon is confident in the airplane’s spin resistance, they’re not encouraging customers to attempt intentional spins, so I didn’t do any high angle-of-attack rudder mashing.

From there, Turner and I head west to approach Lake Berryessa over the dam. Once past the last set of power lines, Turner had me point the nose at the water and I couldn’t stop smiling for 15 minutes. Smiled until my cheeks hurt. Smiled like a circus clown. My only comparable aviation experience was my first exposure to aerobatics. I flew over the water along the hills at 50 feet. Because there’s no engine or prop in front of you, the visibility is much better than any other piston single I’ve seen.

Water Handling

Unexpectedly, the safety feature that permits low-level flying is the A5’s water handling. An emergency landing can be made from extremely low altitudes on the water without heroics in the A5. We practiced them again and again and again. Icon’s instructors don’t advocate flying low over anything other than water, because without an ejection seat, post-engine failure options are limited and unpleasant.

When it comes to hiring instructors, Icon has a type. Of the four instructors at the Icon West training center, one flew the Tomcat, another the Super Hornet, a third the Harrier, and one the Strike Eagle. Turner, my instructor for the week, formerly the Super Hornet pilot, is still in the Navy Reserve, teaching air-to-air combat as an F-5 adversary pilot. Icon says they’re not seeking military aviators per se.

Derek Tam-Scott, Icon’s Head of Communications, told me, “It’s very important that our instructors are extremely comfortable with low-level dynamic contact flying. This is consistently available in certain types of military pilots, but we are enthusiastic to hire any instructor with this profile.” Tam-Scott also says referrals have played a big role in the composition of the Icon instructor corps. Military pilots tend to know military pilots, so diversification into other aviation backgrounds happens slowly.

Low-level dynamic contact flying.

Turner doesn’t dwell with me on his time at Top Gun, which has precious little applicability to flying the A5. One military technique he does want new A5 pilots to adopt is “chumming the chart” for obstacles. Icon expects owners will want to fly the A5 close to the ground. The Icon’s well-marketed, docile stall behavior will help with ham-fisted flying, but won’t do much for power lines or box canyons. Flying safely down low requires slavish review of VFR charts for obstacles and mid-altitude observation passes. The A5 may only go 90 knots at full power, but that’s plenty fast for unexpected obstacles or terrain to sneak up on the unprepared or distracted.

While we discussed the importance of preparation for low-level flying, we never actually practiced by inspecting the chart, planning a route, surveying the route from above, then flying it. Each flight to Berryessa followed the same entry and departure procedures, which probably maximizes the safety of training and rental operations, but doesn’t leave new owners as well equipped as they could be for exploring new bodies of water on their own, in my view.  

It's an Amphibian

New students in the A5 will perform their first landings on the water, generally on their first lesson. Unlike an amphibian on floats, the flying-boat hull tolerates a wide range of landing attitudes and sideslip without skipping, slapping or other scary behavior. With a hilariously wide and long touchdown target, it’s hard to go wrong, assuming you don’t put the gear down. Turner held firm on making me do different pre-landing flow checks for land and water every landing, because there’s no practical way to fit a gear position alert in an amphibian without either sophisticated avionics or near constant nuisance alerts. Avionics in the A5 are basic by design, so pilots will have to get it right on their own. Flying boat designs are inherently less prone to flipping than amphibians on floats, because the gear is located closer to the center of mass, so this may be a survivable mistake in the A5. Icon hasn’t tested whether the A5 would flip if landed gear down, and declined to speculate.

The factory is turning out A5s.

One handling characteristic that new pilots may find annoying is hard surface taxiing. To make the A5 spin-resistant, Icon gave the light sport a big vertical stabilizer. In flight, the big tail keeps the airplane decently coordinated even with sloppy rudder use. On the ground, the big tail and free-castering nosewheel make the A5 eager to weathervane. Pilots who have flown the free-castering Cirrus or Diamond aircraft won’t find it particularly bothersome, but most everyone else will need to adjust to using a high power setting and differential braking to keep the A5 on the yellow line around tight downwind turns. Icon says nose gear on the production aircraft will have easier ground handling, so if I get invited back to fly the final production aircraft, we’ll report back on the changes.

I came to Icon to answer why the press who have flown the plane think it’s so good. I left thinking there was a different question needing an answer. “At what is it good?” It’s not better or worse than something like a Cirrus or even a Carbon Cub on floats. CEO Kirk Hawkins is adamant that this is a totally different type of machine. Like the first dirt bikes presented to the motorcycle world or snowboards to the skiing world, the A5 is of a different breed, says Hawkins. Asking whether the A5 is a good airplane is like comparing a jet ski to fishing boats. It’s not a good fishing boat, but that misses the point.

Whether you’ll like the A5 comes down to your reason for flying. If you fly as a way to travel with your family between distant airports, the A5 is terrible. As a way to get out of town for the long weekend, fly low over the water, then camp by the lake, particularly for a seaplane newbie, it’s without peer.

Icon's Kirk Hawkins and Consumer Delight

It’s hard to understand the A5—or its production delays—without some understanding of Icon’s CEO, Kirk Hawkins. My first afternoon at Icon, I spent an hour with Derek Tam-Scott, Icon’s Head of Communications. Tam-Scott has been with the company since 2011. “Kirk doesn’t really believe in the 80/20 rule,” Tam-Scott told me. Hawkins is a former F-16 pilot, Stanford Business School graduate, and makes no apologies for a culture of aggressive goals and expectations. “Every start-up worth a damn is aggressive,” says Hawkins. If something can be improved, Hawkins wants it done.

Quick release tie-down rings.

For example, the tie down rings on the A5 are fitted with a quick release pin that mates to a receptacle on the wing, so they’re removable when not in use. It probably costs 50 times as much as the cast steel tie-down ring you’re used to, but it does make for a more elegant airplane. Most any cost-benefit analysis would point to the cast steel tie-down, but that’s not how the A5 was built.

There’s a term in the consumer research field to describe when a customer gets their hands on a product for which they have positive expectations and those expectations are exceeded—consumer delight. “It’s not any one thing with this airplane. It’s the high density of thought that went into this product,” says Tam-Scott. Icon’s engineers and designers have put a staggering amount of time and energy into making the A5 equal parts airplane and objet d’arte. It’s a good-looking airplane, and that matters. The A5 is meant to be a toy, so design that evokes an emotional response is a must-have design criterion.

If you really put the hammer down, the A5 can get up to about 90 knots. It is not meant to go far, fast or carry much load. If that’s what you need, Icon will happily give you the number for your local Cirrus dealer—or Southwest Airlines. The A5 was designed for fun—and to qualify as a light-sport aircraft, which it barely did by getting a waiver to increase its maximum takeoff weight. There are other new airplanes designed principally for fun, mostly other light sports, but in comparison to the A5, they sometimes feel like really nice kitplanes.