Humankind has sent a robotic dune-buggy-size rover careening across the red sands of Mars, yet a simple trip across any large city takes close to forever in stop-start traffic. It’s no surprise many of us wonder when the much anticipated flying car will finally arrive and allow us to soar above our congested environment. But other than constantly circling police helicopters and the occasional archaic prop plane, our urban skylines remain surprisingly empty.
It’s this quandary that brings me to an isolated lake in northern California. The sun is barely out, and I’m several hundred feet in the air, skimming above the treeline before heading into the sky. Next to me is a bulldog of an ex–fighter pilot, who abruptly releases the controls and says, “You fly now.” To be clear, I have never piloted any kind of aircraft before. The closest thing to thrill-seeking motor sports I’ve experienced has been driving the Hollywood Freeway while sipping a latte and blasting Led Zeppelin’s Physical Graffiti.
With its podlike design the Icon A5 looks more like a James Bond invention than a typical small plane.
But instead of soiling myself, I clutch the stick and bank into a sharp turn. A smile spreads across my face. The gleaming futuristic aircraft we’re in is called the Icon A5. With its podlike design it looks more like a James Bond invention than a typical small plane. The effect is of a vehicle that traverses the sky like a motorcycle does the road. The A5 can also take off and land on both water and solid ground and be towed behind a car.
The people behind the Icon like to talk about the democratization of flying and attracting new converts to the skies. It’s a hopeful scenario for a recreational-aircraft scene that has been stalled for several decades. There’s no denying that fewer people are learning to fly since a peak in the early 1980s. Current private pilots tend to be older white conservative men, which, despite the popularity of Fox News, is not exactly an exploding demographic. Couple that with the fact that the overall design of small planes such as the Cessna and Piper has remained largely unchanged since the 1950s due to a conservative marketplace and a Federal Aviation Administration approval process that has historically made innovation time-consuming and ridiculously expensive. Old guys and old-looking planes aren’t exactly a recipe for a thriving future.
Icon founder and CEO Kirk Hawkins isn’t worried. Sitting at the company’s flight school at Lake Berryessa in Napa Valley, he conveys the intensity of a man on a mission. Hawkins’s personal story reads like a superhero comic book. After earning a degree in mechanical engineering from Clemson, he was director of engineering at an aerospace contractor before getting a master’s degree from Stanford University. He then left to fly F-16s for the Air Force before returning to attend Stanford Business School and eventually start Icon. He is also handsome and has great hair. Although there are no reports of him donning a unitard and fighting crime at night, it wouldn’t come as a complete surprise.
“If I could get everybody in America in a big room and ask if they had ever dreamed of flying,” Hawkins says, “I guarantee almost everyone would raise their hands. But then ask who is actually doing it, and all the hands go down except for a small few. Now, why is that?”
Like so many in the aviation industry, Hawkins believes the reason is over-regulation. The FAA requires potential private pilots to undergo a minimum of 40 hours of flight training and demonstrate the ability to fly both day and night into any airspace in the United States. Basically, you would have to be able to steer a tiny Cessna into Los Angeles International or LaGuardia, on a busy weekend, in the dark. But what’s truly surprising is that the FAA agreed that its requirements were discouraging Americans from learning to fly. After discussions with various pilot groups, in 2004 the agency created a new category, light-sport aircraft, and an accompanying certification called sport pilot. The result: As long as you fly only during the day, stay under 10,000 feet, avoid bad weather and follow other basic rules, you can fly a lightweight plane with just 20 hours of instruction under your belt.
Hawkins says he had returned from the Air Force and was attending Stanford when word came of the sport-pilot category. “I’d led this circuitous life, following my heart,” he says. “Then I saw the rule change, and it felt like the planets were lining up, like my whole life had led to that moment. I thought, We’ve got to build a plane for the people, like the Mac Classic was for computers, a plane that gets you flying and shows that you can do it.”
The Icon A5 is a great piece of design. This is not a coincidence. The company recruited top designers including Klaus Tritschler, who previously worked at BMW’s prestigious Designworks. “I was never an airplane fanatic,” Tritschler says. “What attracted me to this project was the idea that flying could become a power sport. If someone knows nothing about airplanes but gets inspired looking at a fast car or motorcycle, they should have that same sensation looking at this plane.”
My first reaction to seeing the beautiful A5 soaring overhead: There’s no way I’m flying in that. A lifetime of newscasts detailing small private planes smashing into mountains plays in my head alongside equally objectionable images of myself vomiting in the cockpit. The night before, over cocktails, Tritschler talked about the concept of stall/spin. According to the National Transportation Safety Board, it is responsible for a significant number of airplane fatalities. Basically, it happens when you’re moving up and slowing down and the plane stalls. The spin part is, unfortunately, what comes next. In regard to this, the A5 has made some history. It’s the first production aircraft to fully comply with FAA spin-resistance standards. In essence, Icon has built a plane that’s spin resistant. For added peace of mind, the A5 also features a giant parachute that can float the craft back to earth.
That’s enough to get me into the plane, and soon it’s gliding across the water like a Jet Ski, then arching into the sky. The side window has been detached, and I rest my elbow casually on the opening’s edge, like a teenager cruising in his dad’s car. The nearly transparent cockpit offers an uncanny integration with the world outside. The resulting sensation is not so much of an adrenalized thrill ride as of just simply flying.
It’s hard to predict how many people will drop nearly $200,000 on a recreational vehicle, even one that flies. That said, the Icon is hundreds of thousands of dollars cheaper than a new Cessna, albeit with more limited speed and range. Icon’s Hawkins remains optimistic. “The outdoor-recreation market in the U.S. is huge,” he says. “That spans everything from skiing to backpacking to mountain biking, but what it tells us about human beings is that they want to get outside, have fun and explore the planet. Innate in us is this sort of adventurous freedom. If you make aviation accessible, it’s the ultimate expression of that freedom.”
Dick Knapinski of the Experimental Aircraft Association, an organization that played a significant role in lobbying for the light-sport aircraft category, agrees. “This will keep the flying world vital,” he says. “I don’t think it will ever be like George Jetson, with flying bubbles that we go around in. Time and money probably won’t let that happen, but there’s certainly room for a lot of growth.”
I’m not sure I completely agree with Knapinski. If anything, a plane you can store in a garage and tow behind your car offers a glimpse into a future where far more people will be up in the sky, whether it’s in flying bubbles or flying cars. Hawkins seems to envision this as well. “Look at the rate of innovation and growth in the human species,” he says. “Do you think we’re all going to be stuck in two-dimensional mobility? There will be a time when three-dimensional mobility is far more prevalent. I can’t imagine it not happening.”