Icon Gets Tested


Sooner or later, Icon was going to get tested and the test came this week, probably sooner than any of us might have expected. The fatal crash of an Icon A5 owned by retired baseball star Roy Halladay dwelled above the fold on some newscasts and websites. It’s a big deal in the sports world because of Halladay’s exceptional pitching career. It’s a big deal in aviation because yet another celebrity has died in the crash of a GA airplane.

And it’s an even bigger deal for Icon, both because it’s just ramping up production to deliver the much-buzzed-about A5 and because, as is its wont, it promoted Halladay’s purchase with a slick, expensively produced marketing video. I’ve never been impressed with celebrities promoting or being involved in aviation, but the attraction persists.

Ignoring for the moment the cause of the Halladay crash—we don’t have enough detail yet—I think the tests facing Icon are multifold. First, how will it respond to the immediate bad press? Will it look inward and examine its training program for potential oversights? Just as the company announced large price increases on the A5 (now $389,000 fully loaded), will sales be affected? The really interesting test will be how Icon’s iron-clad sales agreement that’s supposed to protect it against litigation holds up against a legal challenge. And I’m betting it will be challenged, just as Cirrus was after the Corey Lidle crash in New York in 2006.

Recalling how Icon responded to the furor over the sales contract two years ago, I don’t expect a circle-the-wagons mentality. The company has too much at stake. I’ll be surprised if they don’t figure out a way to thread the PR thicket. The A5s are equipped with cameras and data recorders so it won’t be long before the cause of the crash is known. The first fatal crash of an A5 occurred only last May, and by August, the NTSB determined the cause to be pilot error. So give it a few weeks.

I encounter a lot of negativity about Icon in the “established” aviation community. Much of this relates to Icon being a self-declared change agent intent on “democratizing” aviation. To be fair, Icon has been long on promotion and short on delivery. It seems to be getting there, albeit slowly. As I’ve said before, I don’t share the negativity because I like the concept of drawing new participants into aviation through non-traditional channels, specifically high-dollar motorsports and extreme sports players.

I’m not skeptical of the business thrust, but I’m also mindful of the fact that human factors complicate it. Is it realistic to train people from zero time, give them low-altitude hazard awareness doctrine and turn them loose? Is the Halladay crash a leading indicator that this is iffy, or just an unfortunate one-off? No one knows.

The closest paradigm I can imagine is a look at the Searey, lately an LSA amphibian but a kit built before that. I can see no reason to believe the A5 shouldn’t have a similar accident pattern as the Searey because they are similar aircraft. The A5 has the benefit of a stall-resistant design.

I swept 17 years’ worth of Searey accidents and found 46, only five of which were fatal. That’s about 11 percent, which is well below the GA average of about 21 percent. Based on these numbers, my impression is that the Searey is quite crashworthy and I have no reason to believe the A5 would be any less so.

Common patterns? You can guess. Pilots land in the water with the gear down. The airplanes generally don’t flip and the occupants are rarely injured. But they always get wet because the airplanes sink as result of structural damage. Next up, pilots submarine the things by landing in seaways the airplanes can’t handle. Same results: a swim to shore or a boat ride. The rest of the accidents are a mixed bag of hitting things in the water, loss of control or engine failures.

What may separate the Searey accidents from the A5 future accident pattern is low-flying incidents, or lack thereof. I only found a handful of Searey accidents in which low flying was implicated, and one of those was a wire strike on landing, another a tree strike on takeoff. Those sorta don’t count, right? So if Icon really encourages low flying by giving low-time pilots enough training to think they understand it, will that result in a different accident pattern? Dunno. Check back in five years.

For the time being, Icon’s two fatal crashes are too few to support any judgments. Recall that Cirrus had a similar rocky start and although it took the company more than a decade to figure out training, it eventually did and now Cirrus has a remarkably good safety record. Icon may get there, too. We just have to give them the chance to prove it.

Almost forgot. For 837 days, I have not been allowed to fly an Icon A5.