Want to get away but tired of driving to a crowded airport and cramming into an airliner? How about hopping into a two-seat propeller plane...
Want to get away but tired of driving to a crowded airport and cramming into an airliner?
How about hopping into a two-seat propeller plane that can be flown just about anywhere and land at the most remote places, including mountain lakes and desolate airfields. Better yet, a private pilot’s license is not required.
A Los Angeles company, hoping to get more people to fly planes for fun, is building a recreational flying boat that can take off and land both on airstrips and on water. But it’s not for the budget-conscious. The plane costs $139,000.
Icon Aircraft, a private company founded by a former F-16 fighter jet pilot, is hoping to exploit a little-known federal regulation approved in 2004 that opens the way for “light sport aircraft.” It is a new category in aviation that is designed to make flying easier for more people.
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Icon’s plane, dubbed A5, resembles a large canopied Jet Ski with wings. The cockpit interior with side-by-side seats is roomy and feels more like a sports car than a plane.
Designed for recreation rather than transportation, sport planes are not allowed to go faster than 120 mph, hold more than two people or fly above 15,000 feet.
And pilots only need a sport aircraft license, which is less onerous than obtaining the traditional private pilot’s license, requiring just half of the flight training.
Still, to address safety concerns, the Federal Aviation Administration created a training program for sport pilots that includes a minimum of 20 hours of flight instruction as well as a check flight with an FAA examiner.
Sports aircraft shouldn’t be confused with tiny, single-seat ultralight planes, which have limited regulations. The ultralights, usually flown by hobbyists, can fly only during the day in unpopulated areas, can’t go faster than 64 mph and can hold only five gallons of fuel, limiting their use to short recreational flights at low altitude.
Icon’s A5 is powered by a 100-horsepower engine with a red propeller mounted behind the cockpit. It can run either on aviation fuel or unleaded premium gasoline. Painted silver with red accents, the plane will be able to fly as slowly as 50 mph or cruise at its maximum speed.
For those who want to take the plane on field trips, the 34-foot-long wing can be folded and tucked behind the tail so the plane can be placed on a trailer (an optional feature), much like a boat.
The plane can also be fitted with a parachute (also optional), which can be deployed with a pull of a latch in the cockpit to help bring the plane safely back down to the ground.
The plane’s creators hope it will “help revitalize consumer interest in aviation,” said Kirk Hawkins, the company’s chief executive and founder. “We want to make the flying experience more accessible to the mainstream market.”
In a light test July 8, an A5 prototype took off from Lake Isabella three hours north of Los Angeles, flew for about 10 minutes and landed back on water.
The first production plane isn’t scheduled to roll out of a factory until late 2010, but the company has taken orders for more than 150 planes. Buyers for the first 100 “limited edition” planes have had to put down deposits of $100,000 for each aircraft.
“There is a large latent market” for sport aircraft, Hawkins said.
Hawkins says that most of the current generation of sport aircraft were designed and built mainly as transportation vehicles — a smaller and cheaper way to get people from one point to another.
Most of the planes have cramped cockpits with complicated control panels that can seem daunting for first-time fliers. “They lack the consumer appeal,” he said.
But Icon’s plane has been designed from the beginning to be a “fun and easy aircraft to fly,” he said. The control panel, for instance, has three large, circular gauges that display the plane’s airspeed, altitude and so-called angle of attack. At first glance, they look like the speedometer, the tachometer and the fuel gauge in a car.
The company contracted with automobile architects at BMW and Nissan to craft the plane’s sleek design. Instead of emulating aerospace giant Boeing, the company looked to Apple for inspiration.
But Michel Merluzeau, an aviation consultant at G2 Solutions in Kirkland, said the aircraft and the company faced several major head winds. Few new aircraft companies have been able to weather the lengthy FAA certification process and then produce planes profitably.
The general-aviation market is littered with failed attempts, Merluzeau said, mainly because funding usually runs out before production can begin.
The market for amphibious sport aircraft might also be limited, he said.
“It’s nice to take off and land on water, but that’s a niche market,” Merluzeau said. “It’s not in the thousands but a few hundred over time.”