This Plane Is Slick as a Sports Car, Portable as a Jet Ski
EDITOR’S NOTE: Icon Aircraft is starting production of its A5 light sport aircraft, which we took for a spin over New York. With deliveries slated for next year, we’re bringing back a feature we wrote about the company in 2008.
On the shore of Lake Isabella, about 150 miles north of Los Angeles, a crowd of flight techs, most of them either pierced or tattooed, swarms around a small white airplane. It’s called an Icon A5. It’s a collaboration between an F-16 pilot and a skateboard designer, and it looks like an odd, rakish sea monster.
Today is the plane’s first flight. Aeronautical calculations, computer simulations, and wind tunnel tests have been performed, of course. And yet … every maiden flight is a dance with death. If all that math was foolproof, after all, no one would need test pilots. At 6:30 am, the winds are calm. Jon Karkow pulls a parachute over his shoulders, hugs his girlfriend—a long embrace with whispers exchanged—and clambers into the cockpit; the A5 is remarkably stable on the water for something with a knife-edged underside. The tech crew chief closes the cockpit and gives the carbon-fiber skin a few pats; Karkow fires up the propeller and taxis the A5 out onto the lake.
Back on the beach, a square-jawed guy with closely cropped hair watches, frowning, his arms crossed. Kirk Hawkins started Icon Aircraft, and he has spent the past five years designing and building the A5. It’s a plane like no other—the wings fold at the push of a button, making it easy to store and trailer. The side windows pop out so pilots can feel the wind, and the cockpit has just a few gauges. Meant to evoke something sporty, like a jet ski, instead of a lumbering Cessna or a tough-to-fly experimental kludge, the plane is supposed to let anyone who can afford the $139,000 price tag become a barnstormer. In a few weeks, a prototype will be on display at the Experimental Aircraft Association’s annual show in Oshkosh, Wisconsin—mecca for air enthusiasts. If the A5 flies today, and flies well, it could create a new market for airplanes.
In a way, the A5 was made possible by the Federal Aviation Administration. In 2004, the FAA implemented the most far-reaching change to aviation rules in 50 years by creating an entirely new category. Dubbed light-sport aircraft, the category is a sort of intermediate designation between those small private planes parked at every regional airport in the country and flimsy-looking, ultralight “experimental” craft, which are built from kits and flown by the seat of the pants. Hawkins’ A5 is cheaper than the former and more consistent than the latter, and if the economy doesn’t put an end to the purchasing of expensive toys, Hawkins thinks A5s are destined for the top of the wish lists of the Ferrari-and-speedboat crowd. “Those kit-built airplanes are like early PCs,” he says. “They’re cool, but there’s nothing easy or intuitive about them. The Icon A5 is going to be completely different.”
The FAA has long had strict certification rules for aircraft and pilots. Anyone who wants to sell a new type of plane has to spend tens of millions of dollars on tests and paperwork for the Feds. At the same time, becoming a pilot takes fortitude and a big bank account: A certificate to fly a private, single-engine piston aircraft requires a complete exam by an FAA-certified physician and a minimum of 40 hours of instruction (running almost $10,000). And why would you want to? The myth of barnstormers in open-cockpit machines landing and taking off at will, of flying as the ultimate expression of freedom—like Denys Finch-Hatton soaring over the Great Rift Valley in Out of Africa—is mostly a lie. Even small airports are surrounded by chain link and security gates, and private pilots in “controlled airspace”—above 18,000 feet near busy airports—have to file flight plans and do what air traffic control tells them. It has all the charm of driving on a freeway.
Over the past few decades, all that regulation and cost have nearly killed innovation in the small aircraft market. In 1978, the US produced more than 14,000 single-engine, piston-powered airplanes. As of 2007, that number was 2,000. A classic of the genre, the Cessna Skyhawk, is a slow, ugly beast that, save for a few refinements, looks today just like it did when it was introduced in 1955.
Luckily for wing nuts, the FAA also certifies experimental planes. Pilots can fly just about anything, as long as they build it and fly it themselves. This is where most of the innovation in small-craft aviation has come from in the past couple of decades: fabric-winged two-seaters and carbon-fiber kit planes with clean aerodynamic shapes and customized performance. Today, one in seven single-engine piston airplanes is experimental. Putting one of these kits together is hardly a minor project, of course, and when you’re done you still have to get a pilot’s certificate.
The new light-sport category makes it much easier for amateur fliers to take to the air. Planes in this class must have just one engine, and maximum airspeed is 138 miles per hour. Sport pilots must stay below 10,000 feet (lower than most jetliners) and fly only during the day, in clear skies and away from busy airports. But that’s still a lot of room to barnstorm. And wannabe pilots need only 20 hours of instruction to get certified.
Giants like Cirrus and Cessna are rushing to bring out light-sport airplanes; Cessna has already taken more than 1,000 orders on its new SkyCatcher, which won’t be delivered until the end of the year. It costs about $112,000, half what the next-lowest-priced Cessna does. Unfortunately, it also looks like a baby Cessna, and most of those orders are headed straight to flight schools as entry-level models. Meanwhile, the light-sport designation has been a magnet for entrepreneurs. In just five years, a flock of upstart companies have introduced almost 90 planes that meet the new standards.
Hawkins wanted a piece of that market. To explain why, he offers to take me flying. “Look,” he says, muscling a tiny airplane off the beach in his bathing suit and Nike water shoes, “flying is fun! Or it’s supposed to be, anyway.” Our aircraft is an Aventura II—it’s amphibious, like the A5, but made of aluminum tubes covered with fiberglass, Dacron, and Kevlar. It looks a little like a 7-foot-tall ostrich head.
And Hawkins looks a little like someone dreamed up by the guys down in marketing. As a boy, he wanted to be an astronaut. He grew up racing motocross and jet skis, then spent a summer as a bush pilot in Alaska. After the first Gulf War, he flew F-16s over southern Iraq—and came home to get master’s degrees in engineering and business from Stanford. He’s 41, frequently wears untucked striped dress shirts and Diesel jeans, and possesses the smooth, fighter-pilot cool that’s tough to pull off unless you actually are a pilot.
We squeeze into the cockpit, just big enough for the two of us, and when I rest my elbow on the open window I notice that it’s a mere 8 inches down to the waterline. Hawkins fires up the 100-horsepower motor. In seconds we’re airborne, skimming over the lake at 85 mph, the wind in our hair. Hawkins yanks and banks in crazy circles, flies 2 feet over the ripples, plays chicken with brown hillsides, and falls into formation with a flock of pelicans. “When you see hawks, they’ll engage with you!” he shouts over the noise of the prop, climbing toward a pair of vultures at 500 feet. “We could go camping at the next lake over! We could land right there and have a picnic!”
Hawkins dives toward a dirt road that runs alongside the lake. He’s grinning, laughing; we both are, and for the first time in my life I feel like, well, like I’m really flying and not just cruising in a tin can.
“Flying like this is easy. Anyone can do it,” he says, giving me the stick and telling me to bring the Aventura into a level buzz above the water. “Night. Weather. Flying into LAX while working the radio and avoiding traffic. Those are difficult,” Hawkins says. “Stick-and-rudder basics are easy. I could teach you to solo in five hours. You couldn’t fly at night or in congestion or in the fog, but you wouldn’t take a jet ski out at night in a shipping lane, either.”
Actually, the Aventura is one of those kit planes, just one step up from ultralights, and it’s anything but easy. You have to devote hundreds of hours to building it yourself, and it still costs $70,000. Getting it from your garage or hangar to a body of water for takeoff means putting on and taking off the wings, a process that can take two people four hours. And although it’s a simple airplane, it’s fickle to fly, looks and feels flimsy, and is uncomfortable. Hawkins’ plan, then, was simple: Keep the fun. Fix the rest.
On a balmy night in Los Angeles a month before the A5’s maiden flight, 500 people gather in Icon’s parking lot. The bar is seeing a lot of action, and motocross videos loop on big LCDs. This is the official unveiling of the A5, wrapped for now in black silk.
Olympic snowboarder Shaun White, the Flying Tomato, is knocking back beers in skintight black leather pants and skater sneakers. Further contributing to the X Games vibe, Troy Lee, a celebrity in the world of motocross and mountain biking, is chatting with fellow Icon board members. There’s tech guru Esther Dyson, an early Icon investor. And there’s Dick Rutan, brother of aviation visionary and X Prize-winning SpaceShipOne designer Burt and the first person to fly around the world nonstop on a single tank of gas. None of them have seen the plane yet.
When the FAA announced its new rules, Hawkins was getting his second Stanford degree, in the Sloan business program. His engineering experience had left him infatuated with the power of design, and the light-sport changes made him think he could build a truly sexy airplane—one designed for a high-end consumer instead of a traditional pilot. Why have a complicated instrument panel and glass cockpit when all you were going to do was fly around a lake on a beautiful day? “Flying had this complex, regulated-transportation mentality,” Hawkins says, “but the best flying I’ve ever done was always at low altitudes with the window open. I wanted to make a great flying airplane that creates an emotional response but isn’t intimidating, that makes you want to fly it, like driving a great sports car.”
Using his biz school assignments as an excuse to do market research, Hawkins became convinced of an “enormous pent-up demand” for light aircraft, and the industry naturally welcomed his enthusiasm. “Cessna wants more share of the same old market,” says Dan Johnson, president of the Light Aircraft Manufacturers Association. “Icon wants to break into a whole new one.”
Hawkins’ approach to starting an aerospace company was more Boing Boing than Boeing. In a class called Ambidextrous Thinking, he met an ex-banker named Steen Strand, who would later invent a skateboard that could slide and skid like a snowboard. Dubbed the Freebord, it went on to sell 70,000 units; Hawkins brought him in for that cult design expertise. “I wasn’t a pilot, and that seemed a big no-no to me,” Strand says. Before he can explain how he got over that obstacle, our conversation is interrupted by pulsing music and flashing lights; it’s time for the unveiling. Hawkins whips off the black shroud. There’s the A5, painted in gleaming silver and red.
“Every switch and button on the plane became a product of design exploration,” Strand says, giving me a tour of the plane a few minutes later. “Airplanes have always been about form following function, but if you look at a snowmobile or a jet ski, there’s a lot of stuff that has less to do with function than with aesthetics and the way it makes you feel. A Cessna is the product of a completely different culture.” Which is clear the minute Shaun White steps up to the plane. “Dude, I so want one of these!” he says, tossing his mane of red hair. “I’ve always wanted to fly, and I could get to Mammoth in, like, an hour. Then I’d really be the Flying Tomato!”
Back on Lake Isabella, as the A5 motors out to the middle of the water, Steen Strand and his design team watch with surprising calm. “To design an airplane that consumers want in a flight-weight vehicle is hard,” says Matthew Gionta, Icon’s VP of engineering. He spent 13 years at Scaled Composites, Burt Rutan’s aerospace company. He was slated to lead the design of SpaceShipTwo when Hawkins brought him to Icon.
First of all, the A5’s cockpit had to be roomy, but the fuselage aerodynamic. As an amphibian, it needed a tapering, knife-edged lower hull so it could hydroplane quickly, but it also had to be stable and wide enough to swim and jump from. Then, making it trailerable meant giving it folding wings, which add weight and complexity the same way a hardtop convertible weighs down a car. “The laws of physics don’t change,” Gionta says. “And a lot of airplanes aren’t very easy to fly. With this, every force has to be the same in pitch and roll so it’s smooth and fun and predictable.” Gionta looks out at the water and the taxiing plane.
Seconds later, the A5 rises up on its hull. And then, with no apparent effort, it lifts from the water like a gull. “Nice,” Strand says.
Behind the stick, Karkow makes a long, wide loop, just 10 feet above the lake’s surface, and then slides smoothly back down onto the water. It takes all of 90 seconds. “Totally badass!” Hawkins barks. “We’ve got a Porsche 911!”
Two hours later, Karkow takes the plane up again. It’s another short hop, but this time he rises 70 feet off the lake and swings a lazy circle around us. The A5 looks steady and smooth, a solid piece of professional engineering. Karkow brings it lower and banks into a gentle turn, taking one more small circle before dropping back onto the lake with a splash, to more cheers and whoops. “No surprises at all,” he says as he climbs out of the cockpit. Which is what every engineer wants to hear.
There’s a long test program ahead, but for now Hawkins is armed with prototypes and a video that he can take to Oshkosh to generate buzz and orders. (He’ll get 70 at the air show a couple of weeks later.) Despite his market research, no one knows if fun-loving guys outside the Oshkosh crowd will actually buy A5s, especially in the midst of a global financial meltdown. “The economy is terrible right now,” says Joel Peterson, chair of JetBlue Airways and an Icon investor, “but there are enough pilots out there that even if he gets a small market share, it’ll be enough. And anyway, Kirk is an extreme-sports guy, and no one personifies the market like him.”
As the airplane slides from the lake onto its trailer, Hawkins splashes around the shore shaking hands. Then he gathers his staff for an important announcement. “We’re out here on the water,” he says, “and we’ve got two jet skis and a speedboat. Anyone wanna go wakeboarding?”
View original –