Arriving at a private hangar after being shuttled through a security gate at Martha’s Vineyard Airport had the feel of being on a secret mission. Then catching a glimpse of the Icon A5 — part plane, part speedboat, and sitting on a boat trailer at the empty hangar — made the James Bond fantasy all the more real.
The Icon A5 amphibious plane looked like it had time-traveled here from the future, so it was surprising to learn from company pilot Chris Mason that it isn’t even the company’s latest model.
Mason has been a pilot for 13 years, and has been flying for Icon for three months. He is traveling to 19 different locations to give people a taste of the aircraft as part of the “Angle of Attack Tour.” He said in all his years of flying, he has never experienced anything like the A5. “I always dreamed of what it would be like to fly when I was a kid, and I think this plane defines what my early ideas of flying were,” Mason said. “I feel like a fully-grown kid with a new toy.”
Mason took The Times on a ride to demonstrate what makes this plane so special. Although flying the A5 requires the same amount of care and caution as operating a larger aircraft, Mason said it makes operation simple, so the pilot can focus on having fun.
With easy-to-use yokes (steering controls in a plane) on either side of the cockpit, two pilots can easily take turns flying the plane, and relinquish the controls when they want to take in the view.
Mason was so confident in the plane’s responsiveness and user-friendliness, he let me take the controls to see for myself. “This thing is so easy to operate, I let people take it for a spin and they don’t want to give me back the controls when it’s time to head in,” Mason said.
Never in my life did I expect to be operating a plane almost singlehandedly, without any prior experience or instruction.
The yoke of the plane operates much like a flight simulator at the local arcade; I almost forgot I was actually flying an airplane at 120 miles per hour. Pedals on the floor control pitch and yaw, but Mason says the pedals are only normally used for landing and other aerial maneuvers beyond steering the aircraft.
One of the most innovative features of the A5 that sets it apart from other light sport (two seats, easy to operate) planes, is its ability to take off and land without using a runway. With a custom optional amphibious trailer, the A5 folds back its 34.8-foot wingspan and can be towed virtually anywhere. Unload the A5 at the local boat launch and unfold the wings in just a couple of minutes. From there, raise the landing gear and start the Rotax 912 100-horsepower engine. With a base weight of only 1,000 pounds, paired with elevated wings and hydrodynamic “seawings,” the A5 needs only 840 feet of water to turn from speedboat into airplane.
With a range of 427 nautical miles (491 miles), the plane provides hours of fun; and because it runs on 91-octane gasoline, traveling pilots can touch down on pretty much any body of water or landing strip to top off the tank.
Mason described some of the never-before-seen safety features of the A5 that put it in a class all its own. Two design elements that give pilots peace of mind are the easy stall recovery and a spin-resistant airframe. These two work in conjunction with each other to add predictability to a sometimes unpredictable realm. According to Mason, stalling is a “pilot’s worst nightmare.” A stall occurs when lift created by air moving around the airfoil shape of the plane wing is lost. Essentially, the plane changes from a forward-moving aircraft to a heavy hunk of metal falling in midair. After demonstrating a stall and subsequent recovery, Mason explained how most planes spiral downward after experiencing a stall. In this case, Mason simply tilted the nose of the aircraft downward, cranked the throttle to maximum output, and pulled back on the yoke to even out. “There you go: That is one of the most terrifying things that can happen to a pilot, and we made it look like standard operating procedure,” Mason said.
Another feature, called the “angle of attack indicator,” is an Icon exclusive that, according to Mason, is changing the way pilots engage with their environment. The angle of attack on an airplane is the angle at which wind meets the airfoil of the wing. The indicator (a small dial with a wing shape in the center of the dash) has three colored zones — a green zone, a yellow zone, and a small red zone. These zones represent the amount of lift the plane has at any given time. Mason described the green zone as being the optimal amount of lift, while the yellow is the “you’re all right” zone. If the dial points to the red zone, such as when in a stall, the plane has no acting force to lift it into the sky. This easy-to-read dial gives pilots confidence, knowing they are flying with enough wind beneath their wings.
When flying, it is good to know there is a last resort if things get dicey. Jet pilots have an ejector seat and parachute, and while the A5 doesn’t have an ejector seat (probably a liability issue), it does have a parachute. The chute, according to Mason, deploys from the top of the aircraft, and is a final option for pilots who experience unexpected complications. Mason said one scenario is if a pilot flies into a cloud and is not experienced enough to navigate safely through it. “If people lose spatial awareness, it usually takes an inexperienced pilot about 11 seconds to lose control of the aircraft,” Mason said. “People can panic or lose sense of angle and direction.”
One thing that stuck with me about the A5 is its comfortable and modern interior design. A Garmin GPS system allows pilots to plot points on a touch display, similar to the way someone would when driving a car. The interior is designed by BMW, and is reminiscent of a current-model Mini Cooper. The Icon A5 breaks barriers as a relatively affordable aircraft ($389,000 fully loaded), with all the safety and usability that both veteran and fledgling pilots can appreciate.