Humans are notoriously bad in forecasting the future. We tend to simply extend recent trend lines in whatever direction they’re currently headed, whether that be up or down. So it’s not surprising that there’s been some doom and gloom associated with the recent spike in gas prices and the twenty-five year decline in the pilot population. While I’d be nuts to predict a drop in gas prices (these have happened, but don’t hold your breath this time) I do see some signposts that suggest the General Aviation skies are not as cloudy and gloomy as some might suggest (I've included a list at the end of this post).
One of those signs arrived over my fax machine two days ago. Mixed in with the offers for health insurance and bogus stock alerts that spam my fax machine was...
a press release from ICON Aircraft, announcing the launch of a “New Amphibious Sport Plane.” Buried near the bottom was the line that prompted me to re-read the release and visit the website. “A venture-backed, early stage company out of Silicon Valley, ICON Aircraft is now based in Southern California, which is a hotbed for aerospace engineering, automotive design and powersports activities."
I've lived in Silicon Valley most of my adult life and love the fast paced, innovative, can-do culture that’s brought us much of the high tech innovation we find in our daily lives. So hearing about an aircraft company that’s sprung up from this region had instant appeal. Moving the company to Southern California, which is one of the two largest markets for luxury goods in this country (the other is south Florida) also made inherent sense.
So the company has good backing and good marketing (more on that in a minute), but what about the airplane itself? Simply cool. Amphibious airplanes are synonymous with fun. I’ve flown a Lake Buccaneer on a couple of occasions and nothing beats plopping it down in the water on a warm summer day, cracking the canopy, and resting your hand in the water while still sitting in your seat (you’d need 6 foot arms to do that in a float plane). But the ICON has bested the Buccaneer in a number of ways.
The most practical thing they’ve done is make the aircraft trailerable. That may not seem like a big deal if you haven’t owned an airplane before. But start paying for tie down space and County possessory use taxes (don’t ask) and you’ll quickly realize that being able to keep your airplane at home—or even at a storage facility—will be less expensive than at an airport. Putting it on a trailer also makes it easy to take your airplane with you and may make it more of a family affair, particularly if there are more than two people in the family.
The key to making it trailerable is folding wings. Quoting from their website: “Using U.S. Navy technology, ICON’s team of engineers developed a practical feature that enables a single person to quickly deploy the Wing-Fold manually. An available option allows the mechanism to be activated automatically from the cockpit while taxiing.” Watching the founder fold the wings was one of the highlights of the company’s YouTube video.
The aircraft also contains a quick de-ploying “ICON Complete Airplane Parachute” or ICAP. Not too many years ago, that would have been a surprise, but thanks to Cirrus Design, parachutes are now becoming de rigueur in new aircraft. A quick tip of the hat and a thank you to Alan and Dale Klapmeier for this life saving innovation that they pioneered for the industry.
One of the biggest surprises is that the aircraft includes a patent-pending Wing Angle of Attack indicator. It’s the only instrument that can directly indicate when an aircraft is reaching it’s critical angle of attack, at which a stall begins. Typically, these were found only in military aircraft due to their expense, but they’re worth their weight in gold. Like the space program, I’m glad to see that our investments in military technology is having some spin off benefits in the private sector. In the future, all aircraft should include one.
ICON also claims an “intuitive, sports car-like cockpit with MP3 port.” I have to admit I did a double take while looking a one cockpit photo on their website, as for a moment, I actually thought I was looking at a car interior. There’s no question that the interior is sexy and will help sell planes. Calling the interior “intuitive” may be a bit of a stretch as race car driving skills probably don’t transfer directly to flying an airplane.
ICON does get big points on marketing, and that’s important for any company that’s going to ultimately survive. Their private unveiling in Los Angeles earlier this week looked classy. A well designed website includes a large section on getting a sport plane license and a seaplane rating. They even include links to specific pages at EAA, AOPA and Seaplane Pilots Association websites that provide more information on these topics.
They've also assembled an impressive team. According to the release, “product designers that have worked for leading automotive designers contributed to the ultra-modern industrial design of the ICON A5.” Also “former top engineers at Scaled Composites” comprise the engineering team.
ICON looks like they have the right elements in place to sell a lot of airplanes and encourage more people to become pilots. But what of the other signposts of blue skies ahead for General Aviation? It’s clear that AOPA has shifted gears from focusing on user fees to focusing on regrowing the pilot populations (though of course user fees will always remain on their agenda). Cessna has hinted at new initiatives among their Cessna Pilot Centers. While at an FAA meeting in Oklahoma City in January, I learned that the number of Private knowledge exams given last year was 8% ahead of the year before. Finally, in a stunning reversal of a twenty-five year slide, the total number of license pilots increased from 597,109 in 2006 to 624,007 in 2007.
So shed any blues about the future of General Aviation. We live in exciting times. Find a friend and encourage them to get their pilot’s license. Who knows, someday he or she may take you for a ride in their new ICON A5!