Is the Icon A5 the Ultimate Amateur Plane?
The flying bug is a common ailment, with symptoms including sudden head movements when aircraft fly overhead and an intense desire to be a pilot someday. Yet until recently, the cost to treat this condition had been out of reach for most people. A traditional pilot's license requires over 40 hours of flight training, with a total cost of about $10,000. Furthermore, a new, four-seat Cessna Skyhawk starts at $370,000, with typically equipped models selling for about $410,000 (used aircraft are plentiful, and much less expensive).
But now there's an easier and less expensive way to earn your wings. A new plane called the Icon A5 is designed specifically for first-time pilots, and it starts at a relatively low price of $207,000.
What's New About the Icon A5
The A5 is the first airplane produced by startup Icon, which has been working on design and certification of this aircraft for about 10 years. The A5 was designed from the beginning to have fresh styling and a simplified, automotive-style cockpit that would appeal to new aviators who already enjoy things high-performance (think cars, boats and motorcycles), not just to existing pilots.
Unlike most traditional small airplanes, the A5 is certified as a light sport aircraft, which limits it to two seats and a top speed of 110 mph. But since it's a light sport aircraft, flying it only requires a sport pilot's license to fly it, which you can get after just 20 hours of training for about half money as a standard pilot's license. Once licensed, sport pilots can fly any light sport aircraft, but only during daytime and in clear weather (which pilots call visual flight rules or VFR).
The A5 is also designed for simple and safe operation. For example, it has a large angle of attack indicator that helps you stay in control. Pilots always have to control the position of the wing in flight, in order to avoid a dangerous condition called a stall. Having this new kind of gauge prominently displayed in the cockpit makes it easier and safer to fly. Another important safety feature is the full airplane parachute, which can come to the rescue in the event of an in-flight emergency.
The A5 is an amphibious aircraft, which means it's equally at home taking off from a runway or a lake. Furthermore, a carbon fiber hull makes it much more corrosion-resistant than the aluminum construction found on many other aircraft. You can fold the wings back and transport it on a trailer, and even store it in a garage, just like having a boat.
A fully loaded version of the A5 runs $257,000. It's currently in production — a buyer today will take delivery in 2020. This delay is in part due to a backlog of 2,000 existing orders, but also because of financial difficulties that lead to a production slowdown.
Can truly anyone fly this plane?
There are currently about 170,000 private pilots in the United States, out of approximately 200 million adults under 65, which works out to less than 1% of the population. Throw in commercial pilots and the number reaches about 3%. This is unfortunate, as traveling by private aircraft is a refreshing change from flying commercially.
As a flight instructor myself, I would say that only a small percentage of remaining population has both the interest and the aptitude to earn a pilot's license. Piloting an aircraft will never be as simple as driving a car, but it's easier to earn a sport pilot's license than it is to earn the traditional airplane pilot's certificate. And while I haven't flown the A5 myself, I have no reason to doubt the company's claims of safety and ease of operations compared to other aircraft.
Is this a big deal?
The sport pilot's license has been available since 2004, and there are dozens of airplanes for sale that qualify as light sport aircraft, many at lower price points than the Icon A5. In fact, there are at least two other light sport amphibious aircraft currently in production: the SeaMax M-22 and the Progressive Aerodyn Searey. Yet these aircraft lack the angle of attack indicator and full aircraft parachute featured on the Icon A5, not to mention its sleek styling and innovative cockpit layout.
The sad fact is that the number of active pilots has been steadily declining for sometime, and the aviation world is hungry for new ideas and sexy new designs that can attract newcomers. While I wouldn't call the Icon A5 truly revolutionary, it does represent a new state of the art that's already proven its appeal to existing and new pilots alike. Icon has just begun production of the A5, but if it can help cure the flying bug and create a generation of new pilots, then I'd say it's a big deal.