“I’m going to stall the plane now.”
These aren’t words you want to hear from your pilot, but moments after Genesah Duffy speaks them, a bleating alarm fills our Icon A5 aircraft. Though Duffy is in control, I’m sitting in the pilot’s seat, a smattering of gauges and dials that I don’t understand staring back at me. The one smack in my field of vision is the angle-of-attack (AOA) which measures the health of the wings. The needle has flicked from green to red, a visual confirmation that bad things are imminent.
There’s not enough lift to keep the plane in the air, a fact the yelping alarm continues to hammer home. I glance down at the Port of Miami and the posh Star Island, some 1,000 feet below, wondering where, precisely, we’ll crash when the plane plummets. I try to remember Duffy’s briefing about the parachute system, a last resort mounted above our heads. What was the minimum altitude it can be deployed at? Which one of these dials is the altimeter?
My mind stops racing after a second. Wait, nothing’s happening. We aren’t dropping like a stone; we aren’t even dropping at all, just serenely floating like a leaf over Biscayne Bay. My eyes dart over to a smirking Duffy. “See? No drama and plenty of time to recover,” she says calmly into the comms system while she adds throttle and aims the nose of the Icon down. The AOA needle drops into the calmness of the green zone, the alarm ceases, and Duffy continues extolling the safety virtues of the A5 in my headset.
The last time I was in a small aircraft purposefully put into a stall, it was a Red Bull stunt plane and we immediately began a terrifying flat spin that left me nauseous. That harrowing maneuver served to showcase the impeccable skills of world champion pilot Kirby Chambliss, while Duffy’s exhibition aimed to prove that the pilot needn’t be an accomplished air racer, that the A5’s thoughtful construction afforded those new to personal flight a large safety net. After rigorous testing of the flight characteristics, with a particular focus on stalls and spins, the Icon A5 emerges as the first production aircraft ever to be recognised by the FAA as spin-resistant. That’s a massive accomplishment and something that affords A5 pilots and occupants huge peace of mind.
I’m not a pilot but those who are have explained that when a plane loses lift and begins to stall, if the craft has any decent amount of horizontal input (yaw, if you’d like to be technical), a spin is extremely likely. While recovery from each individual event is possible with a moderate amount of technical know-how, when both occur simultaneously, recovery is exponentially more complex. Stalls and spins are most common on landing approaches and after take-offs and at those low altitudes, with limited time, often little can be done. While the A5 is spin-resistant, it’s not spin-proof, but you can liken the certification to your car’s stability control system: it won’t ensure you avoid all crashes, but it’ll drastically reduce the chances you’ll have one.
The confidence gleaned from this knowledge emboldens me when Duffy motions for me to take control of the stick as we hum along near downtown Miami. “Your plane now,” she smiles, holding her hands up. I’m surprised at the A5’s responsiveness to the lightest of inputs. The teensiest of push to the left and the plane begins banking. “Are you using the rudder pedals to help us turn?” I inquire, but Duffy pulls her feet up, showing that it’s all stick.
Duffy invites me to release my white-knuckled grip on the stick and instead use two or three fingers. “The gentler you are, the smoother the flight,” she explains. Sure enough, you could probably fly the thing with one finger. She talks me through a climb and a (slight) dive, and some more banking. Initially, I laser-focus on that AOA gauge, trying to ensure the needle never leaves the green zone, but the plane feels intuitive. Relaxing and enjoying the moment comes easier than anticipated. I amble around the sunny Miami skies, a goofy grin affixed on my face because I have no business flying a plane and yet here we are.
That’s Icon’s aim—to make personal aviation ubiquitous, appealing and inviting to people like myself with no prior flight experience. The lithe fully carbon-fiber A5 is engineered to evoke a feeling of being in your car because familiar surroundings help nascent and bourgeoning pilots assimilate faster. With the Rotex 912 100-horsepower engine tucked out of sight above you, the view is unparalleled from the cockpit’s windshield. The removable windows enable you to dangle your hands and arm out the aircraft, feeling that same lift as the wings behind you.
The plush seats are comfy and spacious enough to accommodate the likes of my six-foot-plus frame, with familiar three-point seatbelts, plucked from any car, hugging you snuggly. The radio features Sirius XM or you can use the USB port to play tunes from your phone, and cupholders abound to stow your drinks. Replace the stick with a steering wheel and the sleek cabin wouldn’t feel out of place in any modern road-going machine.
Ninety percent of Duffy’s job is to fly demo flights like ours for prospective buyers of the $389,000 (around £300,000) aircraft, and as the chief pilot for the East coast with more than 1,500 hours of flight time—500 in the A5—she’s got it down to a well-rehearsed routine. After regaining control, she demonstrates the nimbleness of the A5 with a series of exhilarating maneuvers I can only liken to sky doughnuts. Using the rudder in addition to the stick, Duffy banks the plane hard while accelerating. The A5 deftly swings around in a series of tight circles, eliciting serious laughter from me. “Okay, let’s drop down for a water landing,” she says.
Because the A5 is amphibious, Duffy loves to plop down water and show off the plane’s moves in the drink. At 23 feet long, it’s comparably sized to a boat, and handles like one, too. Duffy uses the pedals to steer here, modulating the throttle to get us up on plane. Once it is, we skim across the beautiful Biscayne Bay, a bit of sea water spritzing into the cabin (comprised of water-resistant material) on sharper turns. Flicking a plane around the water like a jet ski is initially an odd sensation, but the deftness and maneuverability of the A5 lets you forget there are wings behind you. It feels rather similar to any power boat.
“It’s really meant for adventure, whether that’s in the sky or the sea,” Duffy says after we coast to a stop in the middle of the bay, shutter the engine and sit on the wings. “One of our first customers uses the A5 to go treasure hunting. He has a yacht with a submarine on board along with the A5 and he goes on three month trips around the Bahamas. He uses the plane to scout wreckage and then sends the submarine out for closer inspections.” Has he found any actual treasure? “That I couldn’t tell you”, Duffy laughs.
Icon’s delivered more than 100 A5 planes, with several hundred more on order keeping its Northern California manufacturing plant quite busy. It’s still actively looking for more yacht-owning, adventure-seeking buyers and is using some unconventional methods to reach those high-net worth individuals. Icon recently partnered with Brett David, owner of Prestige Imports in Miami, and literally parked a plane inside the showroom. “We sell Van Dutch and Tecnomar yachts and we sell Pagani and Lamborghini,” David says. “Beyond sea and land, we wanted to figure out a way to do air and since the A5 is the sports car of the skies, this was perfect.”
David notes Icon’s approachability is well suited for his demographic of clients. “A lot of customers would love to fly but are too scared or don’t understand it. The A5 it has all of the safety features and functions that you need to put an amateur behind a Sport Light and actually feel comfortable.” In the first three weeks that the plane was in his dealership, David has already generated a mountain of interest, including an Argentinean race car driver who had his test flight immediately following mine.
“That guy bought a Porsche 918 from me, and a La Ferrari,” says David. “He craves speed, and wanted to get his pilot’s license but when he saw the plane they wanted to teach him in, he said no way. It was too dated and complicated. Then he saw the Icon and fell in love.” Following his flight with Duffy, he brought David a cheque and bought one.
For those with the means, a plethora of other car-like attributes can help persuade interested parties to sign on the dotted line. The A5 features folding wings, meaning you could park it in your garage, and an optional $38,000 (around £29,000) trailer allows you to tow it to the runway or waterway. Plus, the plane will run on regular (high-octane) pump gas in addition to aviation fuel. “I’ve gone to Exxon Mobil stations and filled the gas tanks for the day,” says Warren Curry, senior director of sales and marketing for Icon.
Curry, a former Navy pilot, estimates about 40 percent of Icon’s customers are completely new to flying, which is a number he’s happy with. “Our goal is to make that percentage even higher because there a lot of obstacles when you get into civilian flying,” he says. Shouldn’t there be, though? “You absolutely you need to be trained and certified, and this is a FAA approved aircraft, so you need to be FAA-certified and that’s important. But some of these civilian aircraft are very complicated. By making this A5 simple, intuitive and fun to fly, we’re going to draw people in that have always wanted to but they needed something like this to push them over the edge.”
But the simplicity of the A5 must not be taken for granted, and training the A5’s pilots will be the most vital step in ensuring the company’s prolonged success. Icon has had two crashes that resulted in fatalities, including the company’s chief test pilot and director of engineering, and NTSB blamed both incidents on pilot error, with both flying at low altitudes. “We continue to emphasise risk management, situational awareness and good decision making throughout all phases of flight in our training programmes. Our Low Altitude Flying Guidelines are an example of this philosophy in application. These guidelines are a message we uncompromisingly deliver to all customers and reinforce throughout our entire flying community,” says Icon president Thomas Wieners.
In terms of training, to get your Sport Light license, a minimum of 20 hours of flight time is required (40 is requisite for a regular private pilot license), and you’re only able to fly the Icon during the day, in nice weather, with three miles of visibility and only up to 2,000 feet above the ground, or 10,000 feet above the sea. Icon evaluates each client and claims it waits until he or she is fully ready before signing off, occasionally asking the customer to complete up to another 20 hours. No one’s complained about the additional training.
The Icon A5 represents the start of an exciting future for personal aviation, and it’s a vision that’ll likely be welcomed with open arms by aviation enthusiasts and novices alike. Whether it’s flying over sunken Bahamian wrecks hoping to spot unearthed treasure or just carving doughnuts in the sky or sea, the A5 is happy to facilitate any adventures you can dream up.