It was a perfect day for flying. Greg Zackney—who served as a Harrier pilot for the U.S. Marines before becoming a contract pilot for Icon—powered up the Icon A5, popped open my passenger-side window, and started out over Manhattan’s Hudson River. The propeller whizzed and whirred as we zipped across the water like a Jet Ski, quick and agile, making hairpin turns with the greatest of ease. Then Zackney straightened out and, at full speed, headed directly for the George Washington Bridge. Suddenly, we were airborne, with nothing but sky above us and the great hulking steel bridge hurtling past beneath us.
We twirled through the air as if weightless, circling the Statue of Liberty twice, with a ferry-full of patrons below waving at us like spectators at an air show. At just below 10,000 feet, the air was free of traffic and we marveled at our aerial view of Manhattan before performing another handful of death-defying turns and settling gently back on the Hudson.
Though Zackney is an experienced pilot, the Icon A5 is hardly a complicated aircraft. Rather, the two-person amphibious plane—which measures a petite 23 feet in length and reaches airborne speeds of up to about 110 mph—is leading the way to a brave new world of recreational flying. Icon, the California company that invented the A5, first unveiled plans for the aircraft in 2008. Following years of test programming and development, the company began delivering the first examples of the aircraft (currently priced from $189,000) in July. Orders for the A5 are currently backlogged until 2019.
The man behind the A5 is Icon’s founder and CEO Kirk Hawkins. A former engineer and pilot (military and commercial), Hawkins realized that the world of power sports—boating, motorcycling, off-roading, and others—was limited to the earth and ocean. The sky, it seemed, was an untapped playground. “I grew up doing power sports and I also grew up flying, and I didn’t understand why these two worlds weren’t connected,” says Hawkins. In 2004, when the Federal Aviation Administration created a new light-sport aircraft category for flying, Hawkins finally saw his opportunity. “Up until that point, flying had always been a utilitarian activity—something to get you from point A to point B,” he said. “This gave us the opportunity to turn it into a recreational activity.”
The A5 is indeed a joyride, both inside and out. Hawkins enlisted top designers from Honda and BMW, along with programmers from Virgin Galactic, to create a cutting-edge aircraft with the sharp aesthetics of a sports car. Constructed mostly of carbon-fiber materials, the plane—which can take off from land or water—features water-resistant seating material on the interior and retractable wings on the exterior for easy storage and transportation. A simplified and intuitive panel in the cockpit adds to the aircraft’s sleek style and offers appeal to new pilots.
During my flight with Zackney I took the opportunity to fly the A5 myself. Though I have never been trained as a pilot, I found the joystick-style navigation hardly more complicated than driving a car—or playing a video game. Of course, certification is required to pilot the A5, which necessitates a sport-pilot license of roughly 20 hours of flight training. Owners can even obtain their license at Icon’s own pilot-training facility in Vacaville, Calif., about 50 miles northeast of San Francisco.
In the air, Zackney also demonstrated the A5’s proprietary spin-resistant technology. As we flew through the air, he intentionally slowed the aircraft to the point of a stall. An alarm shrieked and I prepared for a spin. But instead, the aircraft only glided through the air, losing small amounts of altitude (roughly 1,000 feet per minute—less than that of a descending parachutist) until Zackney once again took control of the plane. “A spin is often easy to get out of,” Zackney told me as he righted the plane. “But this technology removes the panic a new pilot might experience in that situation.” (The A5 also comes with a full-aircraft parachute that can be deployed in an emergency.)
A few loops later, we landed safely back on the water just beneath the George Washington Bridge. Zackney headed for the marina where we would dock, making a trio of figure eights along the way for good measure, and drawing more than a few envious looks from the pleasure boaters plying the still river waters around us. (iconaircraft.com)