Investigators don’t know what caused the fatal plane crash last week of the new and highly-anticipated light-sport Icon A5, but in a statement on the company website, Icon’s director of flight, Shane Sullivan suggests pilot error was an issue.
“We’re unsure why the plane flew into such a narrow canyon that had no outlet,” Sullivan wrote. Such speculation by an interested party during the investigation is highly unusual and frowned upon by the National Transportation Safety Board.
On May 8, aeronautical engineer and chief test pilot Jon Karkow was piloting the two seat amphibious A5 with Icon’s new director of engineering, Cagri Sever on board as a passenger. For reasons not yet determined, the plane crashed into the side of a canyon in a cove on Lake Berryessa. This large lake is where Icon regularly tests its planes. During my visit there last May, this is where company founder and CEO Kirk Hawkins demonstrated the airplane.
If a jet ski married a helicopter, the Icon A5 would be their love child. Who wouldn’t want to fly that? When Hawkins gave me control of the plane, I was impressed by its intuitive controls.
This is by design, he said. Hawkins had an idea to build a recreational airplane that was easy to learn, so that would-be pilots might get a feel for flight before tackling more complex planes in more complex airspace.
The A5 took a decade to create, partially because Icon engineers pressed on to add a spin/stall resistant wing that received FAA certification. This added a year or more to the program.
Initially, the general aviation community was smitten by the A5. Last year, Hawkins claimed two thousand buyers had placed deposits for the quarter of a million dollar airplane.
But soon Hawkins was forced to apologize for a startling lack of appreciation for the many ways accidents can happen. 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.
Suing airplane manufacturers was “an aviation issue not being dealt with aggressively,” he told me by way of explanation. The pressure in the GA community forced Icon to dial back from many of the restrictions in the sales contract.
So the company statement that 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.
He and the others at Icon would do well to remember something Wilbur Wright said at a meeting of the Western Society of Engineers in Chicago in 1901.
“If you are looking for perfect safety, you will do well to sit on a fence and watch the birds; but if you really wish to learn, you must mount a machine and become acquainted with its tricks by actual trial.”
Credit is due to Hawkins and his clever engineers who worked long and hard on the A5. Now they must be open to learn what tricks caused the loss of their colleagues and the plane. That can’t happen by deciding early on that the pilot was to blame.
Author of The New York Times bestseller, The Crash Detectives, I am also a journalist, public speaker and broadcaster specializing in aviation and travel.