August 2016 Issue
Icon A5: A Sophisticated and Fun Aircraft
Will designing a spin-resistant amphib and instituting a mandatory training program safely turn people into enthusiastic pilots? We hope so.
If there’s anyone in the aviation community who hasn’t heard about the Icon A5 S-LSA, she or he probably lives under a rock. The two-place, Rotax-powered amphib has been the subject of more breathless excitement in the non-aviation media than we can conveniently recall. In the aviation world, the level of coverage and the fact that Icon is assertively targeting its marketing to induce non-pilots to discover the excitement of flying has resulted in a level of outspoken opinions about the airplane and company that we haven’t seen since the hype and meltdown of Eclipse and the BD-5.
We were invited to find out for ourselves whether the “spin-resistant” A5 is just a remake of the “unstallable” Ercoupe and whether Icon’s goal of producing a highly safe, and exciting, sport plane can help increase the pilot population.
We came away impressed. While Icon hasn’t made a revolutionary breakthrough in aerodynamics, its engineers have nevertheless taken what is known about low-speed handling, stability and control and control effectiveness and created an airplane that dramatically reduces the risk of inflight loss of control to a level we think was previously unattainable without active computer/autopilot involvement. The combination of a cuffed outboard leading edge with VGs, appropriately located strakes, tightly controlled center of gravity and rudder travel selection have resulted in an airplane that has fully satisfactory control in yaw for all flight operations. Yet, when the wing is stalled, full pro-spin rudder will not generate an abrupt wing drop, incipient spin or spin.
Aircraft Flight Trial
We think that the aerodynamic design decisions incorporated into the A5, combined with emphasis on the use of angle-of-attack instead of airspeed reference for all pilot decisions regarding pitch inputs at speeds below cruise, make this one of the easiest to fly and safest airplanes we’ve experienced. We don’t know if it will help increase the pilot population—we hope it does.
The A5 was developed as a recreational airplane targeted at people who just want the fun of flying whether or not they are currently pilots. That philosophy underlies the entire design of the A5—it is for fun, with personal transportation a lesser design goal—although it can be used for that purpose.
To meet the overriding recreational nature of the airplane, it was essential that it be designed to be flown safely by a very low-time pilot—the sport pilot ticket only requires 20 hours. That meant that the design must allow for the mistakes humans make in airplanes and not penalize them with a crash. The most serious of those mistakes is pulling back on the stick, hard, when faced with something that doesn’t look or feel right—because the human is frightened and wants to get the nose up, away from the ground. As a result, the A5 is fully controllable at the stall and will generally either hold altitude or climb with the stick fully aft and full power.
It is a tricycle gear amphibian because a) seaplane flying is hugely fun and b) there’s far less risk of losing control of a nosewheel airplane when on the ground than of a tailwheel machine.
Icon decided to integrate a focused training program and stringent owner/operator purchase and operating contract with the sales of its A5.
Icon recently announced a delivery delay as it tools up for high-volume production.
When we visited the factory, it appeared to us that the company is in the midst of making the often painful transition from development to production. Company CEO Kirk Hawkins told us that Icon has 2000 orders on the books. We saw strong indications that it’s on its way to establishing a production program that is intended to turn out 37 airplanes a month within the next two years.
The production facility covers 144,000 sq. ft. in two buildings adjacent to Vacaville, California’s, Nut Tree Airport. The company has an additional 24 acres of land available for expansion.
One building is devoted primarily to creation of the carbon fiber fuselage. New CNC equipment had just become operational and, we were told, was helping to reduce the time involved with some of the steps of deburring, prepping and positioning the fuselage halves and composite components for assembly from hours to minutes.
In the second building, we saw a modern assembly line with 20 stations that had a supply system for getting the correct parts to the correct places at the correct times. It was similar to lines we’ve seen at Cessna, Piper, Beech and Cirrus after updates had been made.
We looked at six completed airplanes and were impressed by the quality of the fit and finish.
Specs and Systems
Certified in the S-LSA category, the A5 has a maximum takeoff weight of 1510 pounds—a dispensation from the normal limit of 1430 pounds for seaplanes because, per Icon’s application to the FAA, of the weight requirements associated with the spin-resistant wing. Useful load, according to Icon’s current materials, ranges from 430 to 550 pounds depending on equipment ordered and the type of paint. The top-of-the-line, automotive quality paint adds 15 pounds to the empty weight. In most cases, operation with two moderately obese adults aboard will mean going with something less than the full 20 gallons of available fuel.
The A5’s Rotax 912 iS can burn either 100LL or 91 octane mogas. The fuel is stored in a Kevlar box aft and below the occupants. From a crashworthiness standpoint, we think the tank design is robust and its positioning several inches above the base of the hull should minimize the risk of post-crash fire.
The gear retracts into the hull into “wet wells.” The gear doors do not seal water out during operations on the water—the wells themselves are sealed off from the inside of the hull. Any water leakage into the hull is removed via a bilge pump.
The wings on the A5 can be folded for storage or trailering (on an Icon-designed trailer). The process takes about 30 seconds per wing to fold or unfold. We watched a first-timer take a minute to unfold a wing and lock it into position. To fold, a latching handle in the wing root is unlatched, the wing is pulled outboard via a handle at the tip, then rotated 90 degrees, moved aft 90 degrees and attached to the horizontal stabilizer inboard of its removable tip. To unfold, the process is reversed. The attachment latch will only lock if the wing is lined up correctly. The ailerons and flaps connect automatically through cam-type pushrod connections. An annunciator on the panel warns if the wings are not correctly locked into position. We’ve wrestled with time-consuming folding-wing mechanisms in gliders and were pleasantly surprised at how easy and fast the A5’s system worked.
The triangular instrument panel is obviously designed for VFR, with a Garmin Aera796, plus a Trig Avionics comm and transponder. Starting with the AOA indicator, the most important stuff is at the top for easy viewing. When maneuvering or setting up for landing, eyeballing the AOA indicator requires only glancing down a short distance. We also liked that it is large and easy to interpret.
The skid/slip ball is tiny. In fact, we didn’t see it until head of flight training, Greg Zackney, pointed it out. While the airplane doesn’t require much rudder in most ops, there are times it does require a significant input, especially when maneuvering and climbing—and it can matter as uncoordinated flight can adversely affect rate of climb. We think a more easily seen skid/slip ball would be a good idea.
The annunciator panel is set up so that it should have all lights off prior to takeoff. We like that if there something is seriously wrong with the engine a “Land Airplane” light annunciates in red. No fooling around, no questions asked, land. Now.
The interior is attractive at a high level while being functional for a seaplane. There are no materials that can’t be dripped on when stepping inside after wading out into the water to launch after beaching the airplane. To control the center of gravity, the seats are fixed and the rudder pedals adjustable. Our review pilot is 6 feet 4 inches tall and fit comfortably. We were told that pilots as short as five feet tall have flown it.
Rather than have wingtip floats for stability on the water, the A5 has fuselage sponsons it calls sea wings. We prefer sea wings over wingtip floats because floats create issues in congested docking areas, beaching and the risk of breaking them off when hitting a boat wake. With some effort, it’s possible to stick an A5 wingtip into the water once the airplane is going fast on the step, so the wingtip is designed to deflect itself upward on touching the water rather than dig in and cartwheel the aircraft.
Flying the Icon A5
Taxing on land is via differential braking, although the prop blast over the tail is effective for minor directional changes. Takeoff on land is standard issue nosewheel; rudder forces are predictable and responsive without being twitchy. All land-based takeoffs and landings are done flaps up. Raising the nosewheel slightly at 50 KIAS allows the Icon to fly itself off.
Water takeoffs are the easiest we’ve ever experienced in a seaplane. They can be done hands off until time to rotate because the A5 gets itself onto the step without pilot input. All water takeoffs and landings are made with full flaps (30 degrees).
It was over 97 degrees the day we were flying. The A5 took what we estimated to be 1500 feet and showed no reluctance to unstick from smooth water.
Once in the air, the flaps are reduced by half, to 15 degrees, immediately (before reaching 50 KIAS). There is no pitch change with flap deflection or retraction. In nearly 100-degree heat at 2000 feet MSL and gross weight, the rate of climb varied between 300 and 400 FPM.
In cruise at 4800 rpm, we saw a true airspeed of 90 knots in level flight.
The controls are well-harmonized, with a moderate need for rudder to coordinate any rapid rolling maneuver. Steep turns are easy. The A5 is designed to forgive pilots who screw up a steep turn by entering an accelerated stall. The airplane clearly tells the pilot it is stalled via an unmistakable buffet, warning light, buzzer and AOA in the red. In the stall it remains fully controllable. All the pilot has to do is glance at the AOA indicator to know that the nose needs to be lowered to get out of the uncomfortable mess he’s gotten himself into while rolling out of the turn.
Using the AOA indicator, astonishingly tight radius turns can be made safely. Rolling into a steep bank, sliding in full power and pulling on the stick until the needle was well into the yellow arc resulted in turns with a radius of less than 200 feet.
The stall is unremarkable in that no matter the rate at which it is approached, flaps up or down, the airplane flies straight ahead and stalls without rolling off so long as the ball is near the center of the race. Power off, holding the stick fully aft causes the airplane to remain stalled and sink at 800 FPM. The rudder and ailerons remain effective and turns can be made in either direction. However, the rudder is not effective enough to cause the airplane to enter a spin. The wings can be held level easily despite full rudder deflection in either direction.
We held the stick fully aft when stalling the airplane with power on as well. With the airplane near gross weight, at an altitude of 1500 feet MSL and a temperature of 97 degrees F, the airplane climbed at just over 100 FPM. It remained controllable in roll and yaw. The wings were easily held level with small opposite aileron deflection. We think this design characteristic is excellent in an airplane that is to be flown by inexperienced pilots—and experienced pilots—because everyone makes mistakes.
An inadvertent stall in the traffic pattern should not be fatal in an A5 if the pilot applies full power and gets the wings more or less level—even if he is panicked and continues to lock the stick all the way back trying to get the nose up. The nose will come up and the airplane will climb away from the ground.
Using the AOA indicator to make precise, safe landings is something the U.S. Navy figured out decades ago and we think should have been applied in general aviation airplanes at the same time. Setting up for landing in the A5 means lowering the gear and keeping the flaps up for land operations and lowering all the flaps and keeping the gear up for water operations.
The approach is flown with the AOA on the approach line and adjusting power as needed to get to the desired touchdown point. That’s it. The airspeed indicator is ignored. The AOA has no lag and automatically adjusts for the weight of the airplane—it tells the pilot what the wing is doing and any deviation from the correct angle of attack can be corrected instantly.
One of the most common causes of runway loss-of-control accidents is approaching too fast. A pilot trained to fly AOA is less likely to do so because the ASI is ignored and the approach is made at the appropriate speed. Once flare height is reached, the flare is initiated, any power carried is wiped out and the airplane is landed near stall speed, so the risk of RLOC due to being unable to manage extra energy after touchdown is minimized.
We found the A5’s water manners to be excellent. It will turn tightly on the step—full rudder deflection can be used. A turning takeoff followed by a tight circling climbout can be performed safely.
If a rapid stop is desired while still on the step, all the pilot need do is bring the stick full aft, apply full rudder and a little aileron in the direction of the turn. The A5 comes off the step while turning sideways and stopping in short order.
With the price for a well-equipped A5 approaching $300,000, the idea of buying an airplane as a purely recreational vehicle may take some adjustment. However, in speaking with Rod Rakic, principal of OpenAirplane (Aviation Consumer April 2015), his comment about looking forward to being able to go to a resort and rent an Icon A5 to do a bunch of fun flying stuck with us.
After all, families make extended resort stays so one of the members can go through scuba training—why not go to a resort to go flying for fun, especially in a seaplane? Why not do a group rental to go air touring, just as motorcycles are rented for tours?
We can’t predict how Icon’s decision to create an airplane for what is effectively the aviation motorsports market will turn out. Icon says 40 percent of those who have deposits on the A5 are not pilots. We think that the A5 is the easiest to fly and most forgiving of mistakes of any airplane we’ve ever flown. If there is a way to get nonpilots into the world of flying quickly and safely, the A5 should be able to do it. Technology has allowed development of the aircraft and Icon is mandating the training—we’ll be interested to see how the market responds.