Jun 12, 2008

ICON A5 Folding Plane Looks Like Sportscar, Costs as Much as Maserati

A California startup revealed an aircraft on Wednesday evening built for an increasingly popular new kind of pilot—the weekend aviator with a jones for expensive toys.

Loaded with features like folding wings (so you can keep it in your garage) and seat belt-like parachutes (so you can ease the whole thing down to the ground), ICON Aircraft’s new light sport airplane (LSA), dubbed the A5, might just be the ultimate joyride.

“We designed it so that people who don’t know airplanes know that something has changed,” Kirk Hawkins, ICON’s chief executive officer, told Popular Mechanics.

What’s changed are federal regulations, which created a new form of airplane and a new kind of pilot licence that requires less training and no medical check to obtain. The Federal Aviation Administration created the Sport Pilot category in 2004, but only now are players large and small entering this virgin market. At the “Sun ’n Fun Fly-In,” an aircraft festival held in Florida earlier this year, manufacturers showcased 75 LSAs, up from just 20 in 2006.

For ICON, reaching new customers meant a design that borrowed heavily from automobile marketing. “The product has to have sex appeal and be aesthetically inspirational,” Hawkins says. “It not only has to perform well, it has to look like it performs well.”

ICON faced another design hurdle in ensuring that aspiring pilots were not cowed by the risks of flight. The A5’s cockpit gauges look like they belong on a sports-car’s dashboard, while curved structures guard against accidental contact with the propeller whenever the plane is on the ground. Perhaps most crucial to this goal is that increasingly common parachute: no delicate maneuvers are necessary if the airplane is distressed—it can simply float to the ground.

Engineers at ICON also built the A5 to be a lot less of a hassle than other small aircraft, allowing owners to have a lot more fun. The wings can fold for storage in a large garage, and the airplane even comes with its own trailer. Amphibious models have platforms that connect to docks or piers. Versions of the A5 that can’t land in water will have automatic, rather than manual, folding wings.

Hawkings isn’t shy about his attempt to make flying small airplanes the luxury motor sport of the 21st century. “The passionate consumer will not use these to get to grandma’s house quicker,” he says. —Joe Pappalardo

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