ICON A5 Seaplane

reviewed by Philip Greenspun, ATP-CFII in August 2010

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The ICON A5 light sport airplane is a two-seat carbon-fiber amphibious seaplane with a 100 HP Rotax engine. The company says that it has taken orders for 500 and will begin delivering them late in 2011 at a price of approximately $180,000 (includes option and CPI escalation).

This review is based on talking with the chief engineer of ICON at Oshkosh and observing a demonstration flight at the Oshkosh Seaplane Base in 2010.

Payload

An amphibious Light Sport aircraft is restricted by statute to 1430 lbs. gross takeoff weight. Based upon the empty weight, the ICON is limited to 100 HP. Despite all carbon-fiber construction, the ICON A5 with typical options is going to be heavy. This will result in a full-fuel payload of approximately 300 lbs. ("useful load" is about 420 lbs.; the fuel tank holds 20 gallons and gasoline weighs 6 lbs. per gallon).

Two corn-fed Americans plus headsets, life jackets, an oar, and the other miscelleneous equipment required to operate on land and water is very likely to weigh much more than 300 lbs. An aircraft operated over gross weight will not deliver its book performance. Typical customers flying with a companion won't be able to rely on any of the book numbers for runway length and stall speed. The engineers seem to have anticipated this and the most prominent instrument in the panel is a military-style angle of attack indicator. This will show how close the wing is to stalling, irrespective of how overloaded the plane is.

Landing Gear Down in the Water

More than 37 percent of ICON's existing position-holders have never flown an aircraft. Very likely that means that they don't know that an amphibious airplane is the most expensive kind of aircraft to insure. Insurance company requirements and fees are more stringent for a $200,000 amphibious seaplane than for a $400,000 helicopter.

Why are amphibious seaplanes so expensive to ensure and so dangerous to operate? Aside from the two-pilot crews of a jet, pilots have a bad track record of failing to use adjustable landing gear correctly. In a land plane, this results in embarrassing gear-up landings in which the plane slides down the runway on its belly. The prop is destroyed; the engine is torn down and inspected; the belly is repainted; $30,000 later and the plane is ready to fly again. In a seaplane, putting the landing gear down and hitting the water at 60+ mph almost always results in the plane flipping over. Occupants may be killed on impact or be trapped in the plane and drown.

This kind of accident has afflicted pilots with thousands of hours of experience and advanced ratings. For example, Telford Allen, who had been president of the Seaplane Pilots Association died on August 1, 2010 after landing gear-down in Moosehead Lake (story). Mr. Telford was 64 years old and had nearly 50 years of flying experience, most of it as a commercial pilot.

What does ICON say about the training that will be necessary to operate the A5 safely? The brochure says 20 hours. The folks working the booth at Oshkosh said 25 hours. Jon Karkow, the chief engineer and test pilot, when asked what would happen if the plane were landing gear-down, said "you'd probably flip over".

Could technology help? Terrain awareness systems know the location and orientation of every runway at public airports worldwide. They keep this in order to suppress warnings when pilots are landing. The same database could be useful to warn an ICON A5 pilot "it looks as though you're preparing to land with wheels down and I don't see a runway ahead". One challenge is that it may be tough to distinguish between "intending to land" and "intending to fly low for a while". Perhaps ICON could install a button that the pilot can push to hear an annunciated pre-landing checklist (this would be a very useful feature in a lot of land airplanes as well!) The checklist would then be augmented with "wheels are down, so let's hope this isn't a water landing".

ICON has not announced that the plane will include any innovative aids to prevent owners from succumbing to this classic amphibious seaplane flying mistake.

Changing the Industry

Despite rapid population growth and growth in the number of airline jobs, the number of pilots in the U.S. has declined roughly 25 percent since 1980 (source; FAA statistics show 692,000 active pilots in 1990 and 594,000 today). The U.S. population has grown from 226 million to 310 million while the number of Americans capable of operating an aircraft has fallen. If a grandfather is a licensed pilot, chances are that his grandchildren will be ground-bound. Light aircraft manufacturers fight over the scraps of what remains of the U.S. market and pin their hopes on sales to growing countries such as China, Brazil, and India. A typical scene in aviation is an old white guy from a manufacturer whose sales have been declining for 40 years trying to sell an old white guy who is flying a 30-year-old airplane on the idea that he needs to replace it. Often the proposed replacement is with the identical model. The Beechcraft Bonanza was introduced in 1947 and is still in production today. The Cessna 172 was introduced in 1956 and will likely celebrate its 60th anniversary with no significant airframe changes.

ICON, by contrast, brought an assortment of trim multi-racial LA-styled young men and women to Oshkosh. The founder and CEO Kirk Hawkins was straight out of Central Casting for "square-jawed business executive who used to be a fighter pilot". He stood up and gave a talk reminiscent of Tom Cruise's motivational speeches in the movie Magnolia. The booth was thronged at all hours of the show. ICON intends to market the A5 at boat shows and other venues where toy-loving semi-rich people hang out. Currently, therefore, ICON is probably the only company with a reasonable chance of expanding the market rather than simply taking share away from another manufacturer.

Compared to Existing Seaplanes

As pointed out by grizzled seaplane pilots at Oshkosh, the ICON stacks up rather poorly to existing certified amphibious seaplanes. For example, a 1979 Cessna Skyhawk XP has a 210 HP engine, has four seats and a payload of perhaps 450 lbs., is available for purchase today, can be flown at night or in instrument conditions, and is a completely debugged design. The Cessna on amphibious floats might cost just over $100,000 and much less than that on straight floats.

In the ICON's favor are the facts that it isn't 30 years old, is somewhat simpler than the Cessna, and there is much less risk of chopping off someone's arm with the propeller when approaching a dock.

Who Funds This Stuff?

It is not hard to see who would want to buy a fun toy like the ICON A5, but one has to wonder who funds a company like this. Suppose that ICON sells al 500 airplanes and collects $200,000 in revenue from each customer. That's $100 million. Suppose that two percent of those 500 aircraft are involved in fatal crashes in which a jury finds ICON liable, either for telling unlicensed pilots that they could learn how to fly an amphib in 20+ hours or for not including a gear-down-in-water warning system. That's 10 crashes. Suppose that each crash costs $10 million. One hundred percent of the company's revenue has thus been paid out in legal awards.

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About the Author

The author has more than 3500 hours of flying experience and a single-engine seaplane rating, but less than 10 hours on floats.
Text and photos (if any) Copyright 2010 Philip Greenspun.
philg@mit.edu