This post has been updated to correct an impression that the manufacturer made a presentation to Sun ‘n Fun. I fact it was a discussion with pilots at an exhibit of the aircraft.
Kirk Hawkins, chief executive of Icon Aircraft wants to disrupt aviation with his company’s new versatile, light sport A5 amphibious aircraft. Nearly a decade in the making, this little plane has a big price tag and even bigger mission. Hawkins wants it to change the way individuals think of flying and on a larger scale, to set the extremely litigious general aviation industry on a different course.
But if there are to be revisions, they may have to include the plans of the former fighter pilot turned airplane designer and business man. Hawkins’ company flew into a public relations tail spin shortly after it sent a lengthy and highly restrictive sales contract to would-be purchasers of the A5. A harsh attack in AOPA Pilot magazine and other flying publications was followed by a badly-handled presentation at the Lakeland, Florida Sun ‘n Fun, all of which has forced Hawkins and his team to re-think just how far they want to go to control their product and the people who buy them, after the airplane has flown off the lot.
The A5 is a technically advanced, highly-intuitive, 100 horsepower pusher that feels like a jet ski on the water, a small plane on the runway and a helicopter in the air with a cockpit modeled after a sports car. Because neophytes can be certified to fly the plane in as little as 20 hours, forty percent of the 2000 people who have put deposits on the 200+ thousand dollar aircraft are not pilots, Hawkins says. A demonstration flight is all that is needed to understand why.
Lucky girl that I am, I often am invited to take the controls when flying with pilot friends or in simulators when touring airlines or flight schools. Most of the time, I fail to get a feel for the controls. But after ten minutes in the left seat of the A5 with Hawkins as my co-pilot, I was capably keeping the plane steady, executing turns, banking sharply to make a circuit around a bald eagle’s nest, skimming above the surface of Lake Berryessa in Napa Valley, California and even making a landing and takeoff. Yes, in that order.
We had been in the air only a few minutes when Hawkins took the controls to demonstrate the airplane’s spin-resistant capability, the result of a slight twist in the inboard wing and a wing cuff outboard. He pulled back on the stick and held the plane nose up inviting the angle of attack indicator to move into the red zone and the stall horn to shriek. I could feel the buffet.
“Spin resistance requires you to be spin resistant in a stall which we are, and we’re controllable,” Hawkins said. The airplane climbed slightly as he continued with backwards pressure on the stick for 90 long seconds. “This is really bad flying. This isn’t even flying. I’m being a really bad pilot, this is horrible flying but the airplane is saying, ‘You’re being a bad pilot but I’ll be a good airplane, I’ll take care of you.’”
Tackling and achieving FAA certification for spin resistance is key to understanding what motivated Icon to take on civil liability, the other difficult problem in aviation. The company sent a tone-deaf contract to purchasers that sought to restrict them on many fronts from where they could take their training to how long they can operate the airplane and to whom it can be sold.
AOPA magazine castigated the company. At the Sun ‘n Fun gathering, discussion of the purchase contract dominated a conversation between an Icon representative showing off the plane and pilots gathered there, according to my friend, GA pilot and plane builder David Paqua. The pilots were concerned about Icon’s plans to install a camera in the airplane. David is not a potential purchaser of the A5 but he like many others also wondered how practical it would be to buy a plane with a rigid end-of-life limitation.
This is how a company with plans to make flying fun, and with a product that certainly makes piloting accessible, wound up in the doghouse with so many in the aviation community who might otherwise be its biggest fans.
“There’s a lot of mis-understanding about the terms,” Hawkins said about the contract it sent out to customers with no preamble. “It’s our fault if you misread it because we didn’t present it well. But we’re going to re-set this.”
Hawkins told me some terms of contract will be revised, though he would not give me details saying the changes were not firmed up at present though they would be within the next few weeks. Still, he made it clear A5 customers should continue to expect that the company will do all it can to limit customers’ ability to sue.
Lawsuits against airplane manufacturers is a problem not unlike the spin/stall problem, Hawkins explained calling it “an aviation issue not being dealt with aggressively.”
“The elephant in the room is right there. What’s the problem and how do we fix it? Let’s not assume the status quo is how it has to be.”
Having successfully conquered a tenacious aerodynamic challenge Hawkins may have thought the changing the legal situation facing airplane makers would be an easier task. He is about to find out if that is the case.