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The future of flying

From 3500 feet up California is a glorious patchwork quilt of green and gold, textured by rippling mountains and shining water. Ahead of us we see the Carquinez Bridge and the Bay; behind us, the fingers of Lake Berryessa curl into the steep hills. Twenty minutes ago I stood barefoot in the soft grass on the bank of one of those narrow coves, many miles from any road. Twenty minutes from now I will be driving to Five Guys for lunch.

“Hey,” I think to myself, “even a flying car couldn’t do this.”

Last year I became a Valley cliché, took up pilot training, and wrote about the experience — and the decrease in pilots worldwide, and the looming pilot shortage — for TechCrunch. ICON Aircraft, the manufacturers of a radically new kind of light airplane, the amphibious ICON A5, saw that and invited me to come to their Vacaville headquarters to experience a few days of their training. (At no cost to me, I should disclose, aside from paying the TSA $110 because I am a suspicious Canadian.) I turned up fearing that since, for tedious reasons, my training has been on hiatus since last July, I’d be so rusty I could barely fly.

It turned out that wasn’t a problem at all. Maybe I wasn’t really rusty at all … or maybe I was, but the A5 is so easy to fly that it didn’t matter.

I ended last year’s piece with “I think flying seems like a very 20th-century activity in the popular imagination.” That obviously isn’t true of ultramodern commercial jets, but it is of general aviation. It’s not at all unusual to learn to fly in a “six pack” airplane whose instruments and controls have basically not changed in 50 years or more. Sometimes they are actually are 50 years old.

Even the more “modern” “glass cockpit” light aircraft have screens with weirdly complex, user-hostile dials-and-knobs controls rather than a simple touchscreen. Even the vintage-2000 Diamond aircraft with which I started my training “features” a starting procedure which involves combining the mixture and the throttle in just the right way; significant left-turning tendencies such that you sometimes have to perform high-speed differential braking just to take off in a straight line; manual fuel-tank management; etc.

Individually these things are not such a big deal. Eventually these things are not such a big deal. But learning to navigate three-dimensional space, and land safely at busy airports — especially while dealing with restricted airspaces and air traffic control — is complicated enough that anything which adds to the initial cognitive load is a big deal.

Worse yet, most individual training is by independent Certified Flight Instructors with very different attitudes, beliefs, and curriculae. Some like to start students doing landings quite early, and some save it for quite a bit later. Some like to demonstrate, some like to instruct. It’s more a master/apprentice experience than an actual school.

Flight schools are obviously more consistent, and, in retrospect, probably a better way to learn, not least because you fly a lot in a short period of time, rather than trying to schedule with a capable but overcommitted CFI and ending up flying only every couple of weeks, which significantly retards your progress. Not that I’m speaking from bitter experience or anything.

Aaaaanyway. Let us not dwell on the unfortunate past. Let us talk about ICON, because both their aircraft and their training feel like a big step forward, right down to their instrument panel. On the A5, that panel is dominated by an Angle Of Attack indicator, which describes how much bite your airplane’s wings are taking out of the air. This is is insanely useful, especially when you are landing, when AOA is critical.

This instrument doesn’t even exist on other light aircraft. In my previous planes, Diamonds and Cessnas, landing was a complicated dance of carefully watching and managing speed, power, and seat-of-the-pants feel, while also mostly looking outside, such that one arrives at the runway at just-the-right-angle, then, a few feet above ground, rounds out at just-the-right-time to the next just-the-right-angle.

In the A5, you just set your power, make sure the AOA gauge is pointing the right way, and then glide happily down, occasionally glancing down at that single instrument, before bringing it up a notch for the round-out. Sure, you still might have to make adjustments for wind or height or whatever. But it’s a lot easier. Again, the cognitive load is so much less.

Military aircraft have AOA indicators, because, well, they’re so very useful, but no other general aviation airplane comes with one. You can buy them aftermarket, but that’s not the same. Why don’t other common general-aviation aircraft have them? Once again: because most general aviation has been stuck in the bad old days.

That extends to a slew of other things, too. The A5 is built for simplicity. No mixture to mess with; no manually controlled propeller RPM to adjust mid-flight; no magnetos to check in the run-up. In fact, if you cover the AoA gauge, altimeter, and attitude indicator, the controls look a lot like a car’s. This is by design.

You don’t even need high-octane aviation fuel; it actually runs better on standard 91-octane gasoline. (Although you can use either, or both.) The two-person cockpit, designed by BMW designers, is remarkably comfortable, and the view from its canopy is unparalleled, since its 100-horsepower engine and propeller are behind you rather than on its nose.

Perhaps best of all, it is fully amphibious. Its carbon fiber hull resembles a Jet Ski with wings, and on the water it can basically behave like one too (although that’s frowned on in excess, because the spray can wear at the propeller, and if you get crazy with it you risk dipping a wing into the water.) Takeoffs and even landings on sizable bodies of water in good conditions are ridiculously easy, courtesy of that AOA gauge.

You can even lower the landing gear, wheel it down/up a ramp to/from the water, and fly it for years without ever having to land it on a runway. What’s more, the wings fold back, which takes one person 10 minutes, so that the entire airplane can easily be stored in a nine-foot-wide trailer and driven to and from the water.

That really changes one’s perspective on flying. Instead of being limited to point-to-point flights between a fixed set of runways, anywhere on any reasonably large body of water can be your destination, weather permitting, and you can gas up at any marina. (It would be especially great in Canada, which is riven by countless lakes; the A5 is still classified as an experimental airplane there, but hopefully that will change soon, because e.g. Northern Ontario is practically made for it.)

On one flight this week we landed in a broad channel of water, navigated down a little winding side cove, beached — well, “grassed” — the plane on the shore, walked around a bit, then got back in, pushed off, restarted the engine, taxied out to the open water, and flew back to Vacaville … all very casually, keeping one eye on the wind and terrain to ensure it would be easy to get in and out of course, but really no big deal.

Let’s talk about stalls, because stalls are dangerous, and tend to happen when your plane is most vulnerable, i.e. taking off or departing. They are especially dangerous (PDF) when they progress into a spin. The most aerodynamically remarkable thing about the A5 is its stall resistance. It is the first production aircraft certified as spin resistant by the FAA, courtesy of a wing which is essentially divided into two sections, one of which stalls before the other, meaning the outer wing retains authority even when the inner wing is stalling.

Honestly, having flown it, I’m not sure how you would get it into a spin even if you wanted to. I put it into a power-on stall and held it there for full 15 seconds, banking from side to side, while the warning horn blared at me … and it gained altitude. In a power-off stall it lost height, but only at circa 10 feet per second, and was still amenable to banking. An “accelerated stall,” i.e. one while banking sharply at high speeds, is a maneuver sufficiently sketchy that student pilots have it demonstrated to them but do not usually attempt it themselves. I did one in the A5 and, just like the other stalls, it was anticlimactic in the extreme.

Oh, and if you were to get into serious trouble aloft, it also comes with a Complete Aircraft Parachute — although, to be honest, that seems to exist more to reassure your passenger than because you might use it in any conceivable circumstance, other than suddenly being struck blind or suffering an in-flight stroke.

ICON’s military background (its founders and early employees were largely Marine Corps pilots) has informed its training philosophy, too. They stress humility and being quick to volunteer your mistakes. Their training materials are much more accessible than the dense standard FAA tomes, and just the existence of a consistent curriculum across trainers is a big step forward. Their training focuses on a “sport pilot” license, which is restricted compared to “private pilot” — you can only fly light aircraft (nothing bigger than the A5), by day, in good visibility, below cloud cover — but it also requires less training, and is a very viable step towards the latter.

It will by now be more than apparent to you that I loved this airplane, and also really liked ICON’s training. Having established that, though, let’s talk about some downsides and concerns.

First, it would be disingenuous to write about ICON without mentioning the cloud of tragedy which still hangs over the company. Two years ago ICON’s lead engineer and another employee were killed in a crash on Lake Berryessa. According to the NTSB, the crash was due to pilot error, apparently when mistaking a dead-end canyon for one which led into the main body of the lake while flying at low altitude over water.

Later that year they released new low-altitude guidelines … and three weeks later, one of their first customers, former Major League Baseball superstar Roy Halladay, crashed his A5 into the Gulf of Mexico while flying at low altitude, and died. That too was declared pilot error; Halladay apparently had “high concentrations of morphine and amphetamine” along with Ambien in his system at the time.

On the one hand, even expert pilots (the chief engineer in question had flown F-16s in the Air Force) can make mistakes, and obviously one should never, ever, ever do drugs and fly. On the other, one can’t help but wonder if the fact that the A5 is so easy to fly in and out of water — landing it on a lake in good conditions is objectively easier than, say, docking a powerboat in a slip on a windy day, and takeoffs are easier yet — breeds a dangerous complacency when over water. Obviously the way to combat this is with training, and I can attest that ICON’s training today has a heavy focus on humility and caution, especially at low altitude … and yet, that kind of complacency will remain a risk factor.

Second, there’s no question that none of this comes cheap. Airplanes are expensive in general but the A5’s list price of $389,000 is noticeably more than that of, say, a new Cessna 172, the world’s most popular starter / training aircraft … which carries twice as many passengers and almost twice as much weight. The A5 is very much a light aircraft; my CFI and I’s combined 410 pounds meant we could only fill the tank halfway to stay within weight/balance restrictions, although it’s also miserly enough with fuel that that wasn’t any problem. It’s a great little airplane, but there’s no question that you’re paying more money for a smaller plane.

Their intent is to lead off as the Ferrari of light aviation, and eventually build something more like — well, not a Honda, but maybe a Maserati, in terms of relative price. They burned through some goodwill by initially claiming the list price would be $189,000. Right now they’re ramping up their production facilities in Tijuana (where all the carbon fiber components are made) and Vacaville (where those components are assembled along with everything else.)

One can imagine the price diminishing as production quantities achieve economies of scale … but it’s still never going to be anything like the price of, say, a used Cessna 172, which can easily drop down into five figures.

The A5, and its easier/improved flying experience, and ICON’s more consistent training, and the simpler sport-pilot license associated with it, all do combine to make flying substantially more accessible … to the rich. It certainly won’t help the pilot shortage, though. Anyone who can afford an A5 doesn’t need to start flying professionally.

The big question is, will its advances — simpler & touchscreen cockpits, a built-in AOA gauge, spin-resistant wings, consistent training, etc. — filter down to the more affordable end of the industry, and/or into more affordable ICON aircraft? I optimistically think it will. Not anytime in the next few years, no. But much faster than we’ll get, say, affordable hex-rotor VTOL flying cars.

When people imagine flying they imagine it as a magical, dreamlike experience, and it frequently is — but at the same time, learning to fly can sometimes be more Type II fun than Type I. (I suspect that this, more than the admittedly high cost, is why a lot of student pilots peter out and never finish their certification.) Whatever the price point, the ICON people deserve kudos for building an aircraft which makes flying reliably far more the latter than the former. If that experience can scale semi-affordably — admittedly two huge ifs — then instead of facing a pilot shortage we’ll have a happy, excited, adventure-seeking glut of pilots out there, soaring from runway to runway and from lake to lake. May you try it yourself and enjoy it as much as I do.

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