Two of the best-promoted and most interesting LSA projects – and two of the most delayed getting to market – are back in the news. Icon Aircraft, a startup company created to produce the sexy composite A5 amphibian, just snagged $25 million in funding to help complete remaining design issues, tool up for production and begin cranking out airplanes. *** The company reports around 500 A5 orders on the books, at $139,000 per. A few months of flight testing remain to be completed, along with a new wing (reportedly for better spin resistance and directional stability), which means the production target date has been pushed back again, this time to the last quarter of 2012. *** Reported among the new crop of investors are Eric Schmidt of Google, Satyen Patel, formerly of Nike and Phil Condit, former CEO of Boeing, and some “undisclosed” Silicon Valley entrepreneurs. The initial infusion of greenbacks will be $15 million, with an option for $10 million more.
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Most of the 118 Special Light-Sport Aircraft have been developed on a very modest budget… not that there’s anything wrong with that, of course. By far, the highest figure I’ve heard was about $2 million to create a new SLSA model. Yet that number doesn’t include starting a company from scratch and going all the way through to a new production facility with airplanes ready to fly away. So, what’s the total investment? Well, that depends on a thousand variables. It can be done quite inexpensively. Or, you can shoot for the moon. *** “Icon Aircraft recently closed a $25 million round of U.S. and U.K. venture financing from several high-profile consumer-product and aviation investors,” the company announced today. “The [money] takes Icon through the completion of the A5 development program and into the production phase.” *** So, one thing seems certain. Before gaining SLSA status or building a single production airplane, Icon is already the LSA market leader… in fund raising.
Right in line with Icon’s high-viz marketing push for its A5 amphib LSA comes the announcement that iconic big-ticket shopping purveyor Nieman Marcus has the futuristic waterplane as the number one (and priciest) fantasy gift in its 2009 Christmas Book. *** The Icon is currently in extensive flight testing at Tehachapi, Ca, one of the soaring meccas of the west but also near Lake Isabella, so both the land and water chops of the A5 can be thoroughly wrung out. *** An interesting sidenote mentioned in the piece: Matthew Gionta, ICON’s chief technical officer, is quoted as saying 33% of the A5’s current customer base has “never flown before.” *** That’s a testimony to the vision of the company’s founder, Kirk Hawkins, who believes the ICON will bring new pilots to aviation with its glossy marketing of the A5 as a kind of flying jet-ski you can easily trailer to your holiday getaways.
In its first year as the AOPA “Summit” (versus “Expo”), the 70-year-old, 415,000-member organization made lots of changes large and small. Among the most notable under capable new president Craig Fuller was much greater attention to LSA. Here’s the fast-read update… *** AOPA announced their 2010 Sweepstakes airplane is a Remos GX; the company had multiple displays and aircraft. Cessna brought a Skycatcher for selected reporters to fly. Craig Fuller had Icon A5 developer Kirk Hawkins on the center-hall stage. EAA’s Earl Lawrence led a LSA panel of FAA and industry experts (including yours truly). LAMA operated an LSA Mall area and had fruitful discussions with AOPA to advance goals of the LSA industry. SeaMax USA showed off their simulator seaplane running on MS Flight Sim. Tecnam North America, with several aircraft on display, announced new service centers for the popular Italian line of aircraft they now represent.
Earlier it appeared that the Flight Design MC would be the first Light-Sport Aircraft ever displayed at the giant National Business Aircraft Association show. NBAA is the organization representing business jets plus a large range of exhibitors serving executive transportation. The trade show happening now in Orlando is a stupendous event with many more exhibitors than Oshkosh. Numerous displays are fantastic creations that cost more for a three-day show than LSA producers spend to market themselves for an entire year. *** So it is fascinating indeed that any LSA would be present at this event. And, in fact, two are seen by the bizjet crowd: the MC and Icon‘s handsome amphibious LSA project, the A5. Icon mounted their own display and reported good response, especially when one of their team hits the auto wing fold button. Even jaded aviators tend to have a jaw-drop reaction to this feature.
I’ve rarely promoted watching a YouTube video in a blog post. And this obviously isn’t the first SLSA (candidate) to make a first flight. But I’d repeat this many times if all first flights were as well documented as the first flight of the Icon A5 LSA seaplane. *** The L.A. company has shown unusual levels of professionalism and showmanship. So their creation of a quality video for a first flight comes as little surprise. *** Icon engineering team member Jon Karkow made the first flight on Wednesday, July 9th. Beside his engineering duties, Jon is an accomplished test pilot with a slate of first flights including the late Steve Fossett’s GlobalFlyer from Scaled Composites. *** “Everything went as well as an initial test flight possibly could go; so I was very pleased,” said Karkow. “The aircraft flew exceptionally well and met or exceeded our design expectations.
Most aviation participants have been wringing their hands over the declining pilot population. FAA’s database of active pilots has dropped from 825,000 when I began flying to less than 600,000 today…all while the U.S. population has grown by 50 million. We are clearly doing something wrong, and have for too long had a too-inward focus. *** We have some worthy efforts of outreach. EAA has their fine Young Eagles program. AOPA has its Project Pilot. Companies like Cirrus rove from show to event with their mobile display. Yet we need to do much more. *** L.A.-based Icon Aircraft is one such company that is doing so, recently introducing their new Icon A5 LSA. While the company is presently focused on providing a fascinating new aircraft, they’re looking beyond the existing pilot market. According to their CEO Kirk Hawkins, “Icon’s mission is to bring the freedom, fun, and adventure of flying to the thousands of others who have always dreamed of it.
Despite an economic slowdown shared by all of aviation, the LSA industry is rich with entrepreneurs. Innovative new designs hit the market regularly. Consider this: In just over three years, the industry has certified an astounding 81 aircraft designs and several more are on the horizon. One hundred certified LSA might be available by 2009, in less than four years since the category was created by FAA. No one remembers anything close in FAA history. *** All Light-Sport Aircraft presently total about 1% of the U.S. piston engine fleet including all FAA registrations of all aircraft types and models. Yet three LSA years compare to 80+ Cessna years, so the new segment remains in its infancy. Consequently, the LSA industry may be acting precisely as needed — focusing on innovation and diversity as proven by the number of new models meeting ASTM standards. Big sales will follow, many experts believe.
One glance at almost any view of the Icon A5 will tell you this isn’t like any Light-Sport Aircraft you’ve ever seen. Oh, the Nexaer was shapely and showed innovative thinking. And certainly, we have many fine LSA on the market. Yet nothing I’ve seen compares to the Wow! factor that comes when your eyes feast on A5. *** In a grand ceremony attended by 550 invited persons at company headquarters near LAX airport, Icon finally pulled the concealing drapery off their new LSA. Unless you’re a contractor assisting Icon, you’ve probably never heard about the project, a tightly-guarded secret. *** This idea was given birth at Stanford University by F-16 fighter jock, Kirk Hawkins. He’s enlisted as impressive a team as I’ve seen since Cirrus burst on the market exactly 10 years ago. For example, Icon’s engineering staff is composed of the top people from Burt Rutan’s Scaled Composites.