ICON brings fun back to flying

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HAVE WINGS, WILL TRAVEL

Recently, Lowcountry residents glancing toward the sky might have noticed something unusual soaring above Hilton Head Island.

The makers of the ICON A5 — a tiny amphibious plane meant to appeal to the same demographic that buys Ferraris — brought the uniquely shaped two-seater plane to the Lowcountry demo it to prospective customers.

At 23 feet long and weighing in at 1,510 pounds, it's known as a light sport aircraft — a class limited by weight, speed and a maximum of two seats.

The founders of ICON Aircraft are betting that flying-for-fun will be a growth sector for the private aviation market. Instead of going out for a Sunday afternoon drive, they promise, you can soar.

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The company’s CEO and founder, Kirk Hawkins, is a former Air Force pilot whose goal with the A5 was to make flying easy, intuitive and available to more people.  He designed the plane and oversees its production at the company’s headquarters near Sacramento. “Once you learn to fly, you will never be the same,” he told a reporter from USA Today last year. “You will look at the sky different, you will look at the planet different."

The carbon-fiber seaplane has a range of about 430 miles on a full tank of gas and is made for short getaways. It’s a James Bond-style aircraft that includes foldable wings and removable side windows. The shape is streamlined and svelte, with wings sprouting from the cockpit’s top rear. The propeller is behind the cabin. 

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The sight of the A5 made Don Allen, a retired physical education instructor who lives in Port Royal Plantation, take a detour to the Hilton Head General Aviation facility on Dillon Road on his way home one day.

“I had read about it and then I drove by and saw it,” he said. “I said, ‘Whoa, I’ve got to check this out.’”

Allen has a pilot’s license and frequently flies with a friend who owns a small plane. His questions to ICON sales director Tobias Kleff were both technical and admiring.

Kleff said most people can nail a water takeoff and landing on the first day of training, and even a novice can learn to fly the aircraft in less than 30 hours. This is not just a suggestion: buyers must complete a 30-hour training course. Pilots must have a sport license, which requires them to stay away from controlled airspace; and to fly during the day and only in good weather; and at less than 2,000 feet above the ground. Training to get a private pilot license is more intense and time consuming, but with these credentials, pilots can fly the A5 up to 15,000 feet and at night. 

The company says 40 percent of the roughly 1,800 people who've ordered an ICON A5 don’t have a private pilot license.

Safety features include a spin-resistant airframe, which means is if the pilot makes mistakes, the airplane doesn't lose control.  The A5 is the first airplane that the FAA deemed spin-resistant. As a backup, there's also a complete airplane parachute — so if things go really wrong, pilot and plane can float gently to the ground.

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Owners can park their A5 at a deep-water dock or in an oversized garage. They can also load it onto a trailer, fold the wings up and drive it anywhere they want to go. The A5 can land nearly anywhere — including on lakes, paved runways, dirt airstrips and grass.

 “On warm days, you can fly with the windows open,” Kleff said. “It’s like driving a convertible in the air.”

With a price tag of $389,000 for a fully loaded model, owning an A5 is only a dream for most people. However, a quick lesson is not. Novices and pros alike can test out the A5 at ICON’s flight-training facility at Peter O. Knight Airport in Tampa.

PHOTOS COURTESY OF ICON AIRCRAFT