ICON Aircraft Founder Kirk Hawkins Disputes Post on Pilot Error in A5 Crash

June 8, 2017 / 3 Comments

A5 Crash scene at Lake Berryessa

Having experienced its first fatal crash last month, the founder of ICON Aircraft Kirk Hawkins is understandably on edge. I’m to blame for some of that, apparently. In a previous post, I suggested he was pointing the finger at the pilot of the A5 that crashed on Lake Berryessa on May 8. Here’s why.

On the day the National Transportation Safety Board issued its preliminary report into the accident, ICON published on its website, a statement that offered even more information than the NTSB.

“We’re unsure why the plane flew into such a narrow canyon that had no outlet,” the company statement read.

Knowing Hawkins’ off-stated opinion that most accidents are the result of pilot error, I criticized ICON for implying with that statement that pilot error was a factor in the crash.

“the company statement that (test pilot Jon) Karkow flew into a cove from which he could not exit, is a troubling reminder that Hawkins still harbors the notion that his airplane is perfect and won’t crash unless the pilot screws up.”

Kirk Hawkins demonstrates the A5 to me in 2016

Hawkins says my interpretation was flawed.

“What you’ve done is jump the gun and you have speculated not us,” he said. “You’ll understand it a lot better,” he said, when the probable cause is released.

Hawkins wants to be clear; the comment that pilot Karkow was in a canyon with no outlet, was “an attempt to describe the events,” and not a judgment. “Why were we flying in that area? It’s a dead-end cove. If you can’t land in there, why are you in there?” he asked me.

But stay with me now, because when Hawkins says no exit, he means no way for the amphibious aircraft to land, because he acknowledges the plane could have flown out of the cove.

Whether other readers of the statement might conclude as I did, that the ground work for a pilot error scenario was being laid, who can say. And I can only wonder why ICON was releasing information beyond the facts released by the NTSB in its preliminary report. That said, the NTSB did approve the company statement.

“The NTSB PR department looked at it,” Hawkins said. “Nothing was released that was not run by them so for you to implicate we’re going rogue and we’re making implications when were not, is wrong.”

This also surprised me because if there’s anything folks know about an NTSB investigation it’s that the agency gets riled up when its not the one doing the talking. But sure enough, the NTSB investigator-in-charge, Joshua Cawthra and the communications specialist Peter Knudson say they approved the statement even though it contained information not in the public report.

However,  about the flight into the cove, “we did not say there was no exit,” Knudson told me. “We did not put that in our preliminary report. He (Kirk Hawkins) has said something and opined about his take on that.”

Whether the plane could have exited the cove was not established to the certainty the investigation required at the time it was posted on ICON’s website.

“He raised something he believes is a legitimate question they’re wondering about. Looking at that, it is not in conflict to the party agreement.”

In 2014, the NTSB rescinded the party status of UPS and its pilots’ union for making public their own analysis of a flight that crashed in August of that year. And in 2011, the board booted NATCA, the air traffic controllers’ union off an investigation into a mid-air collision in New York when the union issued a press release trying to correct an error made in the NTSB’s report.

The board position is that it has “sole responsibility for disseminating aviation accident investigation-related information, a practice designed to “prevent any party member from unfairly influencing the public perception of the investigative findings.” But in this case, the NTSB apparently feels differently about letting a party member chime in with an opinion.

Enough about that.

ICON Aircraft A5 – Lake Berryessa

Hawkins also found fault with my reporting about the A5 sales contract. Many words have been written about this contract but in my story I said,

“In the initial sales contract, buyers were obligated to hold ICON harmless in the event of a crash. Hawkins explained he was trying to do away with the legal liability issues that hamper innovation in general aviation.”

Hawkins says I’ve left out a key qualifier. The contract requires buyers to hold the company harmless in accidents, “that NTSB determines is not the fault of the airplane.”

I regret the error.

I’ll add though that it reinforces what I’ve written about Hawkins in previous posts; when it comes to safety, he is inclined to believe pilots are the problem.

“It’s very rare that wings fall off,” he told in in a phone conversation. “Almost every accident you can track to the pilot. If the pilot didn’t cause it, there was a chance the pilot could stop the accident. The human is the most fallible thing in the system. That’s why we have gone above and beyond,” he told me. Hawkins is referring to the FAA certification for spin-resistance  granted to the A5.

In response to my statement that Hawkins had a startling lack of appreciation for the way accidents happen, he said,

“We have a startling appreciation for just how error-prone humans are, which is why we have gone to great lengths to foil bad pilots, as far as we possibly can.”

It is Hawkins desire that I correct the record. I hope I have done so here and I invite him to weigh in further in the comments section if I’ve left out relevant points of our discussion.

 

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3 responses to “ICON Aircraft Founder Kirk Hawkins Disputes Post on Pilot Error in A5 Crash”

  1. Mason says:

    Thanks for correcting the earlier error about the ICON contract. It seems pilot error leads crash causes in General Aviation. I think this article is a good recap of causes. https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/morning-mix/wp/2014/12/09/why-small-planes-crash-more-often/?utm_term=.111845cdbfca

    Karkow was a tragic error and he probably thought he was in another cove. I’m guessing Halladay pushed the AOA too low and crashed upside down. Terrible losses. The article mentions the seat problem I remember far to well when I took some lessons.

  2. Mason says:

    to clarify, the article I’m reffering to is the Post article about seats that slip out of place and cause crashes, nothing to do with the ICON A5, which I’ve never flown but would love to.

    Also, I wonder how the AOA technology and flight instrument, which seems great, takes into account a pilot the size and weight of Halladay flying alone and in a tight low left turn, which is what I’m just speculating caused the crash.

  3. Lance says:

    I think the better question to ask is why Hawkins allows this sort of flying within his pilot team. Icon captures data for every flight and it would be apparent through an independent review of the record whether this event was a mysterious one-off with only the pilot to blame, or part of a larger pattern of aggressive, risky, and arguably reckless flying similar to the kind they heavily promote in their marketing efforts. The tightest turn you can make in an amphib is on the water, so in a box canyon Plan A should be to land immediately. The pilot began his fatal turn when he still had over 1700 feet of water distance remaining before reaching the shore at the north end of the cove (look at the maps in the NTSB Electronic Devices Factual report). The aircraft only needs 700 feet of water run to stop, even less to slow to survivable beaching speed. Additionally, with conservative performance figures, the aircraft could have climbed out by proceeding northward up the canyon. There was no mistake in entering Little Portuguese Cove – the pilot aimed straight for it and watched it coming for a whole minute before entering what was clearly a steep and narrow canyon, so he had probably done this many times before. I suspect Hawkins knew well how his pilots flew and tolerated it, perhaps even encouraged it, because it serves the image he is trying to create, regrettably at their expense.

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