Looks that Kill: The Icon A5

Photo Courtesy: General Aviation News
The cockpit of the Icon A5 showcasing its sleek minimalistic a and unique instrumentation layout.

Henry Neiberlien/Editor-in-Chief

When it was unveiled in 2008, the Icon A5 took the private aviation sector by storm. It was like a mix of an ATV and Jetski that flew and it had the looks of a high-end supercar. Its minimalistic and futuristic design is what caught the imaginations of pilots everywhere, and orders for the aircraft began to flood in. The Icon A5 was intended to fit within the weight and speed requirements for the FAA’s new light-sport aircraft category, allowing pilots with less training than the typical private pilot to fly the A5. Icon wanted everybody to get the chance to fly their recreational go-anywhere aircraft of the future. Unfortunately, all has not gone as planned.   

It has taken almost a decade and production on the aircraft is only just beginning to fill the 1,850 outstanding orders. The reasons why it has taken this long are numerous and mostly consist of how the aircraft barely fits within the FAA guidelines for light-sport aircraft. Not only has the FAA been reluctant to approve the A5, but it also has a mountain of technical problems, and the composite structure presents aerodynamic issues.  Even after the A5 finally received FAA certification, problems continued. There is also a major controversy that began around the absurd requirements for customers in the purchase agreement, which includes contractually required pilot training, covenants not to sue, and the requirement for factory airframe overhauls every 2,000 hours. Each aircraft would also be equipped with a camera to monitor pilot behavior, which is owned by the manufacturer but must be maintained by the owner and agree to be “supportive” of the company. These requirements almost hint to Icon being aware of problems with the aircraft and are trying to hide something.

Problems for this troubled aircraft came to a new height this year after killing two Icon employees including the lead engineer and chief test pilot in a crash during a test flight on May 8. While the investigation found no fault with the aircraft, it was still a severe blow to both the company’s and the A5’s reputation. Recently this aircraft has been featured in the news heavily after former MLB pitcher Roy Halladay was killed in a crash flying his A5 on Nov. 7. Video has surfaced of Halladay executing reckless maneuvers in the aircraft a day before the fatal crash, but the cause of the accident has not been officially released.

While these incidents happened under different circumstances they both have something in common; the aircraft crashed after maneuvers close to the ground resulted in an impact with the terrain. I am not to point the blame or trace the cause to one issue with the pilots or the aircraft, but it does bring up some important questions about the aircraft design and who is flying it. The cockpit of the Icon A5 is designed like that of a sports car, with large radial dials for speed and altitude. Early versions of the instrumentation also lacked an attitude indicator until a small digital one was added to the center of the panel before production began. The current version of the instrument panel consists only of a small attitude indicator, airspeed indicator, the angle of attack indicator, fuel gauge, and tachometer. These instruments are also not placed in the conventional “six-pack” that most aircraft follow and are instead laid out like a high performance race car in a pyramid formation. The small size of the attitude indicator and the lack of any vertical speed indication points to a troubling question. Did this aircraft’s lack of instrumentation or poor human factors consideration lead to the deaths of these people because they simply did not have or could not find the information they needed efficiently. The layout of this aircraft’s cockpit and the unique flight profile of the aircraft compared to more conventional layouts most pilots are used to could have factored into both of these accidents.

While the cause of the crash that killed the famous Phillies pitcher this past Monday may be completely unrelated, I believe that it is important that the FAA and Icon take flying this aircraft seriously and ensure that prospective pilots for this aircraft are properly trained and type certified regardless of the A5’s light-sport certification. The Icon A5 is a futuristic and innovative aircraft that will help to shape the future of aviation if it can survive these teething troubles. However, the aircraft has already had a part in three deaths in 2017, and as deliveries of the A5 continue, it is only a matter of time before another incident like this occurs. Unless, of course, Icon is willing to ensure the safety of its customers and not just have owners sign away responsibility when an A5 is purchased.