Tuesday, May 31, 2016

We Go for a Flight in the Amphibious Icon A5 Airplane

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It’s time to face fact: The flying car will probably never happen. But here is a carbon-fiber flying boat that is intended to be as easy and natural to operate as the family Camry, if about eleventy-billion times more fun. The Icon A5, which started as a napkin sketch more than ten years ago by ex-F-16 fighter jock and company founder Kirk Hawkins, flushes airplane convention down the commode with its carlike dashboard, simple controls, and ultra-stable flying manners. If you ever wondered what it’d be like to fly out of a swimming pool in a Mazda Miata with wings, this is as close as you’ll ever get.

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Granted, you have to be doing pretty well in life already to afford one. At its current price of $257,000 (less-expensive versions will come later, we’re told), the A5 is likely to be the umpteenth vehicle in your household(s), best suited to your isolated lakeside estate where it can serve as a joyous runabout or go-into-town vehicle. A fuel-injected Rotax 912 four-cylinder engine making 100 horsepower turns a three-blade fixed-pitch prop that pushes along the stupendously entertaining amphibious two-seater, which weighs a feathery 1080 pounds empty and has a max takeoff weight of 1510 pounds. It’ll cruise at around 98 mph for up to four hours on its 20-gallon tank (either 91 octane pump gas or aviation 100 low-lead), and when the flying is done, the wings slide outward and fold back manually so the plane is easily put on a trailer.

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There may be no flying car coming, but the car industry has its thumbprints all over the Icon. Key members of its creation team came from the industry, including design vice present Klaus Tritschler, formerly of BMW Designworks, and Dong Tan, who worked in Honda’s advanced design studio on the NSX and Civic. There are other ex-industry people working in production at the company’s 250-employee Vacaville, California headquarters.

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Traditionally, airplanes have been highly technical vehicles designed for highly technical people, says CEO Hawkins. The A5 is intended to take advantage of new FAA rules that ease the restrictions on general aviation, aiming to move planes out of the mega-regulated realm of airliners and into the recreational powersports realm, where things need to be simpler if more people are to enjoy them. “The car has evolved to fit the human, but the plane hasn’t,” says Hawkins. “In a plane, the human serves the vehicle. We didn’t intend to make a car cockpit; we wanted it to be human-centric and it evolved into a car dash.”

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Climb onto the A5’s wide side sponson, unlatch the large forward-tilting canopy (the side windows remove if desired, but don’t try it in flight), and plop into the sculpted pilot’s seat. The automotive inspiration is obvious. The “panel,” as they say in planes, looks like a modernized version of the dashboard in a Lamborghini Diablo, with a vertical stack of big, carlike analog gauges—Hawkins prefers old fashioned needles to digital displays for their easy legibility—leading up to an angle-of-attack meter at the top. The AOA, as it’s called, is intended to convey in one simple gauge how healthy the state of lift is at the wings. Keep it in the green and all is good—as long as you stay out of power lines and trees. In the center is a detachable Garmin 769 tablet with aviation-style GPS navigation and additional flight data.

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As in a car, you twist a small key to start the overhead Rotax—which has a gear-reduction output and thus a distinctly gravely voice—and off you go. Once a seaplane is started on the water, it moves; there is no way to brake except to turn it into a stiff wind. Icon fits a small deployable water rudder in back to help you steer, and the overall lowness of the design means the waves are practically lapping at your elbows.

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A sliding lever between the seats is the throttle. Push it forward, put in a little left rudder with the pedals to keep it straight against the torque reaction, and the Icon easily comes up on “the step,” or the bow plane. You can skate along a smooth lake like this for hours, the world’s biggest and coolest jet-ski, but ease back the Icon’s slim, delicate stick and you’re aloft.

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Nothing is idiot-proof, but Icon aimed for and has achieved high idiot-resistance. Yank the stick back into a stall, which in most aircraft is followed by a heart-stopping plunge, and the A5 just hangs there, the inboard part of the thick, asymmetrical wing stalled but the outboard portion still generating lift. The A5 also resists spinning, another dangerous situation. If all else fails, there’s a rocket-powered parachute that will bring the plane down under canopy.

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When you’re not intentionally trying to crash it, the A5 hums along, skimming the water or the treetops at eye level with the seagulls, which you should avoid. Though it’s heavy for its class of light-sport aircraft, it’s highly maneuverable, with a surprisingly fast roll rate that will stand it on its wing in a 60-degree bank, you pressed into the seats by 2 gs. If you’ve flown light aircraft before, it takes about 15 minutes to learn how to land it in smooth water and just a little longer to land it wheels-down on a strip. Icon’s 30-hour, $9500 training course, conducted at its own school in Vacaville over two weeks, is designed to get spring-chicken rookies through the FAA-mandated sport-pilot licensing, although some pilots may need a few extra hours. If you’re already a rated pilot, Icon offers a $2500 seaplane transition course or a $1250 checkout course for seaplane-rated pilots.

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After that, the Icon will carry you and a companion aloft on airborne adventures not imaginable in any car. Well, not for the foreseeable future, anyway.

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