Any pilot will tell you there’s nothing in the world like the sensation of flying. The months of unglamorous training, procedures, writing checklists, and scanning weather forecasts usually goes unmentioned. And that's not even considering how arduous and expensive it is to get a license to begin with. Icon wants to change all that, not only with this its new amphibious personal aircraft, but also with the accompanying training program.
First, a little backstory. In 2005, the Federal Aviation Administration established a new category of small aircraft and an entry-level license to go with it. That “Sport Pilot” license requires less training, with the idea being to expand the appeal of aviation to more people. Icon’s founder, Kirk Hawkins, saw that as an opportunity to create a totally new product specifically targeted at hobbyist pilots. After 10 years of development, we finally got the chance to fly the final product. And we can confidently report that the Icon A5 is not your uncle’s Cessna.
The sleek, fully-carbon composite fuselage was designed with styling, as much as safety, in mind. (Lead designer Klaus Tritschler used to pen BMW motorcycles.) In a world populated almost exclusively by garage-built, cobbled-together light aircraft, the A5 looks even better up close than it does in photos. Better yet, its form follows function—those cool-looking wings are designed to prevent stalling or spinning, and, should all else fail, there’s a parachute hidden between them.
I hopped in the A5 for the first time, windows removed, with Kirk in the right seat. We fired up the Rotax 912, pulled away from the dock, and throttled up. Before I even had time for a second thought, the plane bounded into the sky. The Icon breaks freely from the water in these calm conditions. In your standard Cessna, you’d be climbing for all you’re worth at this point, and were your engine to go out, you would plummet back to earth. But here in the A5, with the safety of water beneath us, we uneventfully leveled off at 100 feet to go soaring around the lake. With an astounding field of view through the canopy, you feel like you're in the front car of the world’s best roller coaster—just here you’re in control.
One of the key goals of the A5 is its ability to avoid stalls and spins, even in the hands of inexperienced pilots. And man, this thing just cannot be coaxed into losing lift. If you haven’t experienced one, a stall is a sudden loss of lift and it is scary as hell. In general flight training, you’re taught a “steep” turn that maxes out at 45 degrees: any further and you risk stalling. But in the Icon, you can fly circles that would fit inside a football field. And through all that, the controls remain friendly and light. If you can’t enjoy flying this A5, you should probably stick to terra firma.
All of our takeoffs and landings in the plane occurred within 1,000 feet. That’s short enough to land at just about any airstrip, no matter how remote, and gives you access to relatively small bodies of water. But its top speed of 109 miles per hour will get you from home to lake pretty quickly. A full, 20-gallon tank of av gas (it can also run on regular automotive gasoline) will get you about 450 miles. That’s enough to get you from San Francisco to Los Angeles, but if that’s the kind of flight you regularly need to take, you’re better off just buying a ticket. Save the Icon for experiencing the fun of flight, not the formality.
How do you normally fly an airplane? In a word: cautiously. You’re constantly running your eyes over every instrument, listening for strange noises, and otherwise trying to stay within your envelope of safety. The Icon does a good job providing you all the tools necessary to do that job, right up front, in an uncluttered dash, where you can easily keep an eye on them. And they’ve added a high-tech Angle of Attack indicator that you wouldn’t typically find on other light aircraft. That helped me keep the plane out of the danger zone—I wish I’d had such an instrument when I was learning to fly. Data like this will be a key part of the company's new training program, arming beginner pilots with the information they need to learn to fly safely.
I completed my own Private Pilot license a little over a year ago, and have rented a bunch of different light aircraft ever since. I may not be the most experienced airplane reviewer out there, but I can state categorically that flying the Icon is an entirely different experience than piloting any other light aircraft out there. I was able to stop thinking about the mechanics of what was taking place and just enjoy the ride. I mostly found myself wishing there were a couple extra panes of glass to expand my view of the earth sliding past below. Can you imagine using this thing to reach remote lakes and campsites that flightless adventurers will never experience?
At over $190,000, I don’t think I have enough organs to sell to buy one, but that didn’t stop me from fantasizing about folding the wings up and trailering it home behind my car. My garage has just enough space, even if my bank account doesn’t have enough Franklin's.
We may not have reached the era of the flying car, but with the Icon A5, I think we have at least reached the age of the easy-to-fly airplane. It allows you to focus on where you want to go, not just how you plan to get there.