Growing “Out of the Box”
A large number of current pilots
have some sense of foreboding
regarding the dwindling numbers
of the pilot population. Many feel powerless
to change this fact, what
with our airports often surrounded
by a 10-foot-high
with barbed wire
plus prices for training
and airplane ownership
out of reach for many
An Eye for the New
Airshow visitors with an
eye for the new may have seen ICON
Aircraft and their gleaming silver-and-accent-red A5 seaplane at
Oshkosh AirVenture ’08. The company’s displays have attracted as
much attention as their aircraft design.
ICON’s A5 is a handsomely stylish Light-Sport Aircraft design.
Airshow visitors had good reason to pay it attention. Many gawking
attendees found A5’s “wow factor” off the charts.
But the story here is much more than the aircraft, fetching though it
is. The real ICON story is that of a company trying to bring aviation
and flying to people who don’t have a pilot’s license.
ICON certainly isn’t the only company reaching out. EAA’s Young
Eagles and AOPA’s Project Pilot are doing great work, but too-few airframe
builders are looking outside that box we all hear about so frequently.
Using research techniques taught in business school, the Californiabased
company has identified two distinct segments of population that
it hopes to reach: aviation-interested persons who let their intrigue
languish, and nonaviators with an identifiable predisposition for flying.
The former group is comprised of more than two million Americans
who once spent money to start flying lessons. FAA’s database of fewer
than 600,000 pilots is limited to those who have a license today, mostly
Private or higher. But many hundreds of thousands more started flying
lessons and then stopped, for a wide range of reasons.
The latter group – boat buyers, snowmobilers, motorcyclists, plus
adventure sportsmen and women – is comprised of several tens of millions
of individuals, and that doesn’t even count people outside the
USA. Arousing even the tiniest sliver of interest in those groups could
sharply increase the number of pilots.
ICON has set up to reach out further. Yes, they’re pouring resources
into designing the right airplane that will please existing pilots, and that’s what
attracts a sea of visitors to the company’s exhibit at airshows. Pilots are important
to ICON’s success, but the company’s organization is built to do more. This broader
horizon is one reason people like Eclipse Aviation’s former CEO Vern Rayburn have
agreed to serve on Icon’s Board of Advisors.
ICON, the Project
Stanford University is one of America’s most prestigious schools. U.S. News and
World Report ranked Stanford business school’s MBA program Number One, counting
among its professors three Nobel Prize winners among many other awardees.
Sanford Business School’s $1 billion endowment puts it in the same well-heeled class
as Harvard University.
As an Apple computer user, I observe that particular tech company broadening its
market by designing elegantly styled, assuredly cool products and marketing them
creatively and enthusiastically. To some degree, I see ICON Aircraft emulating that
While attending Stanford, ICON founder Kirk Hawkins was able to delve deeper
than many aviation business start-ups as he created a strategy to achieve his goals.
Hawkins looked at the U.S. population and identified various portions that he feels
are worth pursuing. Then he began building a business plan to seek those potential
aviators as well as the investors whose funding could make the plan a reality.
While the company is presently focused on providing an intriguing new aircraft,
they’re looking beyond the existing pilot market. According to 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.
“Our research has shown that there is an enormous yet untapped consumer interest
in aviation. To help unlock this potential, the Icon A5 is not only designed to deliver
an amazing and safe flying experience, but is designed by some of the brightest
minds in both the aviation and automobile industries to truly inspire us the way all
great consumer products do.”
ICON, the Airplane
A seaplane combines the beauty of airplanes and boats into a single package.
Using world-class aeronautical engineers to make the airplane viable (see end of this
report for details), and leading auto stylists to make the shape appealing is not
entirely new. Cirrus Design did something similar (and look how well it worked out
for them). In the world of LSA, ICON is taking this tactic to a higher level.
ICON says their philosophy in regards to cockpit instrumentation is “to optimize
the essential information the pilot needs, for readability in an aesthetically pleasing
package.” By removing what they feel is nonessential instrumentation, the company
feels the Icon panel affords the pilot more time to interact with his passenger and to
enjoy the scenery outside. “This is not a head down, transportation-oriented cockpit
for flying in marginal weather or in congested airspace,” explains Hawkins. “This is
a fun-to-fly, look-out-the-window type of plane.”
In a new approach for Light-Sport Aircraft, ICON will include an angle of attack
indicator (AOA). Hawkins found this instrument valuable in his jet flying experience
and wondered why it is rarely placed in lighter aircraft. In addition, the A5 will
include an airspeed indicator, altimeter, fuel level, tachometer, oil temperature, oil
pressure, cylinder head temperature, and caution lights. The center console will have
a GPS, VHF radio, intercom, transponder, landing gear and flap switches, pitch trim
indicator, and environmental controls. In addition the panel will include various
switches for ignition, battery power, lights, etc.
But what about “glass”? ICON says an available option package includes an
enhanced cockpit with LCD screen (glass panel) for night IFR flying. This option
replaces the pilot’s side gauges with a computer screen displaying the same indications
plus a few others necessary for night flight.
Visitors to the sleekly styled A5 on display in ICON’s exhibit saw the wings of the
new LSA fold at the push of a button, James Bond-style. “The A5’s wings can be manually
folded one at a time in as little as 5 minutes or, with the available automatic
option, the wings can be folded by engaging the mechanism from inside the cockpit
in less than 30 seconds,” reports ICON.
Questions are periodically raised regarding the safety of folding wings. “U.S. Navy
wing-fold technology has been around for years as a proven and reliable technology
with an extremely low risk of failure,” ICON says. The company’s engineers optimized
basic wing-fold technology and painstakingly designed it so that it only operates
on ground and water when not flying. “The wing-fold mechanism is designed
so that the folding elements are separated from the structural elements carrying
flight loads,” ICON elaborates,
ICON, the Creators
CEO and founder Kirk Hawkins leads the ICON team, and is supported by fellow
entrepreneur and Stanford business schoolmate Steen Strand, CFO David Crook,
and VP of Marketing Paul Crandell, who came to ICON from Red Bull. The management
team and corporate headquarters are near California’s Los Angeles airport,
in an area densely populated with aerospace companies and aviation resources
of all kinds.
Before graduating from Stanford Business School in ’05, Hawkins flew F-16s in
the U.S. Air Force and 767s for American Airlines. After earning a degree in
Mechanical Engineering from Clemson University, Hawkins was the Director of
Engineering at an aerospace contractor before returning to Stanford University in
’95 for his Masters in Engineering, specializing in manufacturing.
An avid sport and flying enthusiast for 25 years, Hawkins says he has built and
flown ultralight and Experimental aircraft, and has logged nearly
1,000 skydives. Hawkins is also a seaplane instructor pilot with
hundreds of hours bush flying in Alaska. After founding ICON,
Hawkins turned his attention to management duties and overseeing
the engineering effort.
ICON engineering is directed by CTO and Vice President of
Engineering Matthew Gionta and supported by a tight team, all
from the famed Scaled Composites company. Jon Karkow (who also
serves as test pilot), Scott Bledsoe, and James Crocoll are all names
closely associated with SpaceShipOne and the Global Flyer, plus
other significant Scaled Composites projects. In addition to the engineers,
ICON’s development unit based in new facilities at the Tehachapi, California,
airport employs several Scaled Composites technicians with long experience building
unique airplanes designed by Burt Rutan.
ICON’s engineers have worked in sync with outside automotive designers through
several design phases as they perfected the consumer-oriented A5 aircraft. The first
phase was completed in-house. The second phase involved numerous designers from
some of the world’s top car brands, including BMW, Porsche, Rolls Royce, and others.
The final detailed phase was completed by Nissan’s advanced design studio, creator
of the award-winning 350Z sports car. Troy Lee Designs, the leader in motor sports
racing design, applied final aesthetic touches and graphics.
Any true-blue pilot eyeballing the svelte A5 will quickly ask, “How does it fly?”
ICON first flew the proof-of-concept aircraft in July ’08 and is now building hours to
discover flight qualities. Prior to real-life flights, earlier trials of a radio-controlled
model confirmed some design elements. To assure it would meet
certification requirements, ICON engineers participated on the
ASTM standards committee; the company expects to receive an
airworthiness certificate during the production ramp-up in ’10.
Only a month after the shapely machine was unveiled at a
glitzy Hollywood-style event, the A5 first took to the air, exactly
on the schedule ICON had announced at their gala debut
party. By the time the machine arrived to make a splash at
Wisconsin’s Oshkosh summer airshow, the seaplane was accumulating
hours. For the next few months into ’09, all flying was
done by engineering team member and test pilot, Jon Karkow.
A serious and capable pilot with similar experience at Burt
Rutan’s Scaled Composites company, Karkow is a disciplined
aviator well suited to early test flight work.
But Karkow’s sole occupancy of A5’s pilot seat had to arouse
a deep desire in Hawkins. The fighter jock and ultralight pilot
was anxious to climb into the left seat of his creation. Hawkins
was ready to go flying and it finally happened in March ’09.
Hawkins says, “On my first takeoff I actually did not touch
the stick until rotation. The A5 smoothly climbed up onto the
step and accelerated effortlessly and quickly to takeoff speed.
This is not typical for many seaplanes. They often require
pilot finesse as the hull transitions from displacement to
plowing to planing modes.
“In the air,” he adds, “the responsiveness and control
forces while flying were uncharacteristically smooth and
easy. The aircraft responded just like you’d expect a ‘sport’
plane to respond: light, predictable, fun.”
Hawkins also is quick to add that the company has to do
a lot more test flying before they prepare for production in
ICON, the Success Story?
I’ve found the folks at ICON to be a breath of fresh air.
They have a young, impressively educated and experienced
team, an attractively styled aircraft with a long list
of features, and a well-researched and -conceived approach
to business. Since funding appears to be proceeding apace,
do all of these components equal success?
According to business schools, books, or motivational
speakers, ICON would appear to be headed toward a profitable
conclusion. They already report more than 350
orders at $139,000 each before the first customer has
flown one. Yet the first deliveries won’t be made until the
end of ’10, and a lot of spending and effort must occur in
Despite the impressive human resources the company
can boast, they’ve embarked upon a big project. Several
hurdles need to be met.
Manufacturing – Though the design work is complete
and the prototype flying, it’s a long flight to manufacturing.
ICON is forecasting first deliveries in late ’10 and that
would seem to ensure enough time. But as the last tumultuous
year has amply demonstrated, a lot can happen to a
fresh aviation start-up, though the task is much more
approachable by virtue of the industry consensus standards.
Infrastructure – As with all other LSA producers,
building infrastructure for service, maintenance, training,
and more is essential to building a larger company. ICON
is enlisting the right employees or outside services to figure
this out, but it is a big task.
Continued Funding – Every start-up company, aviation
or otherwise, spends a fair amount of time merely
raising the capital to get to a point where sales
start paying the bills. As with other aspects of this
well-orchestrated enterprise, ICON seems to have
this well in hand, but it is an ongoing effort. The
current climate of economic uncertainty makes
this job much harder.
Despite the many challenges of being an aviation
start-up in a sluggish economy, ICON is
wealthy with assets to use in achieving their goals.
Founded in ’05, ICON seems to have rapidly
attracted an array of the best and brightest talent.
With investors who continue to see the future,
ICON is certainly off to a good start and shows the
promise of being able to maintain momentum.
It appears beyond question that pilots will buy
some A5s. However, it’s the company’s success at
attracting those languishing ex-Student Pilot certificate-
holders and the legions of power sports and
outdoor equipment enthusiasts that will realize
the most potential for this new California aerospace
|Gross weight||1,430 pounds|
|Useful Load||530 pounds 1|
|Cabin Interior||46 inches|
|Fuel Capacity||20 gallons|
|Baggage area||60 pounds 1|
|Notes:||1 Depending on optional choices|
|Standard engine||Rotax 912 ULS2|
|Prop Diameter||Woodcomp 3-blade|
|Max Speed||105 kts/120 mph|
|Rate of climb at gross||1,100 fpm|
|Takeoff distance at gross||750 feet|
|Landing distance at gross||750 feet|
|Range (powered)||300 nm. (with reserve)|