Hands On: Icon A5 a Surprisingly Satisfying Airplane

 - October 5, 2015, 6:15 PM

Nine years after its founding, Icon Aircraft delivered its first A5 amphibious light sport aircraft (LSA) to the EAA Young Eagles this past summer. The type passed its FAA audit in June, and the A5 delivered to the Young Eagles was the first production model to receive its special-LSA airworthiness certificate. The audit approval opens the door for the next phase in Icon’s journey: building and delivering the more than 1,500 aircraft for which it holds deposits. Particularly noteworthy: 40 percent of these buyers are non-pilots. Clearly, this noteworthy entrant in the arena of fun flying has captured people’s imagination, and it’s an airplane that could appeal to professional pilots who yearn for a return to flying’s simple pleasures (and who have the disposable income to handle the $197,000 price tag, or $247,000 fully loaded).

At AirVenture, Icon invited the aviation media to fly the A5; my demo pilot was Kirk Hawkins, CEO and founder of Icon and a former Air Force F-16 and American Airlines 767 pilot who also holds a master’s degree in mechanical engineering.  

Sitting in the water on a gorgeous summer afternoon, the A5 looks like it wants to go–flying, camping on a beach, carving liquid donuts on the smooth lake’s surface.

The most prominent instrument on the panel is a large angle-of-attack (AOA) indicator, smack in the center of the pilot’s field of view. The actual AOA is depicted by a wing shape instead of a needle.

After water-taxiing away from the dock, Hawkins unleashed the full 100 hp from the Rotax 912 four-cylinder four-stroke piston engine, entered a graceful water turn and lifted the A5 off the water at about 40 to 45 knots. Unlike those of other light sport aircraft that I’ve flown, the A5’s controls are highly harmonious; pitch and roll forces feel natural and well matched, and the pitch control is not too sensitive.

Spin-Resistant Features

Hawkins demonstrated some of the spin-resistant airframe features that should make the A5 safer for the average and new pilot. The A5 can be stalled, but three key design goals dictated what happens at the stall. First, it must resist spinning; second, it must remain controllable in a stall; and third, it must have a low descent rate during a power-off full stall to allow a crash to be survivable.

When he pulled the power back, the A5 remained fully controllable in the stall while descending at about 600 fpm. The fact that the A5 doesn’t react to a stall by dropping a wing suddenly, even when the pilot steps on the rudder, is a significant accomplishment.

Hawkins also demonstrated an accelerated stall right into the buffett, and the A5 didn’t drop a wing and remained solidly stable as he unloaded the wing and recovered from the stall. He also showed me how the A5 will climb in a full stall with full power applied, and he said it would do so even at mtow. The bottom line for the spin-resistant features, he said, is that even at a high AOA, the outboard one-third of the wing remains flying, which is what allows the pilot to still have control of the A5 in a stall. “The key is not to punish people if they’re not perfect pilots,” he explained. “It’s an extraordinary safety benefit.”

I flew around some more and landed and took off a few times. With the flaps set at full (30 degrees) and the gear up, I brought the power back and let the A5 gradually descend. The touchdown on the water was a little anti-climactic; the hull made contact briefly, skipped back into the air, then touched down again and stuck. I pulled the power back and the hull grabbed the water more firmly and we were down.

“Airplane development is super challenging,” Hawkins said after the flight, and the A5’s gestation took “longer than planned. The downturn hurt.” When he first committed to bringing a new airplane and company to market, it was a soul-searching moment, and little did he know it would take 10 years. But thanks to the huge backlog, he added, “Our goal is to hit break-even next year. Financially we’re in great shape.”