By Sarah Sekula, published on usatoday.com
TAMPA — As #bucketlists generally go, mine is ridiculously long and highly specific. It includes things like hanging out with gorillas in Rwanda, parahawking over Nepal and camping on the ice in Antarctica. However, piloting a plane — as cool as that sounds — has never been on the list.
Until now, when I’m hundreds of feet up in the air in a fancy two-seater aircraft and the pilot asks if I’d like to take over the controls. My answer is a resounding yes. Partly because this isn’t your average plane.
The ICON A5 is made to be so intuitive that nearly anyone can learn to fly it in less than 30 hours. A James Bond-style piece of machinery, it has sports-car style and maneuvers on water with the quickness of a jet ski. The plane sports LED lights, foldable wings, a stylish dashboard and removable side windows.
It also helps that the guy sitting next to me, Kirk Hawkins, CEO of ICON Aircraft, can take over at any time. I reach for the center stick. The instruction is simple: Mimic the movements of the A5 soaring next to us. Surprisingly, we continue to glide through the air quite smoothly and for the most part I’m able to keep the plane steady and execute turns with ease.
“You’ve had no training, and for the most part, right now, you’ve figured out how to stay in formation,” he says. “That’s one of the harder things for a pilot to learn.”
Undoubtedly, I’m hooked. Not to mention, fascinated to find out that most people can nail a water takeoff and landing on the first day of training, sometimes within 30 minutes. The ultra-fast learning curve is all thanks to the fact that the cockpit is non-intimidating and looks very much like a car’s dashboard.
It also helps that the plane was designed with simplicity in mind and ICON has a non-traditional approach when it comes to flying lessons. In fact, about 40% of the folks who’ve put down deposits for the ICON A5 are not pilots.
But here’s the kicker: After you’ve landed, the fun continues. “Once you’re on the water the A5 turns into a (personal watercraft) with wings and you can play around in the waves,” she says. “In most seaplanes, pilots have to be very careful when making turns on the water. While there are limitations, the A5 is capable of safely making much sharper turns on the water without tipping due to its seawings.”
Focusing on the fun of flight
“The average human being can learn to fly this plane,” Hawkins tells ms. “If you stay away from controlled airspace and fly in good weather only, then a lot of the complexity is removed.”
He drives home the point by explaining that for those who opt for a sport pilot license, they would only be allowed to fly the plane during the daytime, less than 2,000 feet above the ground and with a minimum visibility of 3 miles away from busy airspace. Training to get your private pilot license is more intense and time consuming, but once you have those credentials you’d be able to fly the A5 up to 15,000 feet and at night. Ultimately, he says, it’s all about inspiring people.
“It’s a visceral, pure experience that captures the essence of flying as a sport, the romantic parts of flying instead of the TSA-delays parts of flying,” he says.
That said, it’s not hard to be mesmerized by the whole adventure, especially the 180-degree views. A quick peek out the side window, and I can see a fisherman waving. A glance upward, and I’m treated to an extreme closeup of the other A5 crossing above. As we swoop over Florida’s Fort De Soto Park just after sunrise, I revel in the surroundings. Untouched sand dunes to my right and waters so turquoise you’d swear we were in the Caribbean.
“On hot summer days you can fly with the side windows open,” says Bergqvist. “It’s like driving a nice convertible Mercedes on a twisty road, but scaled up by an order of magnitude.”
No hangar or runway needed
With a price tag of $207,000, owning an A5 is only a lofty dream for many. However, a quick lesson here and there is not. Novices and pros alike can test out the A5 at ICON’s flight-training facility at Peter O. Knight Airport in Tampa, or at the training center in Vacaville, Calif., where ICON is headquartered.
If you can foot the bill, however, this plane could change your weekend camping trips in a big way. With a range of about 430 miles on a full tank, it’s ideal for quick excursions. Better yet, you can land it nearly anywhere, including lakes, paved runways and grass. At the end of the day, you can fold the wings back, load it onto a trailer and park it in your driveway.
With Hawkins now back on the controls, we do some 360s just for fun and land smoothly on the water. He pops the roof and we crawl out onto the wings and continue to chat. The thrilling plane ride has suddenly transformed into a serene beach day.
If you go
A sport flying introduction class will set you back $595. To get a sport pilot license so that you may fly solo, the pricing varies, but plan to spend 20-plus hours completing the course.
ICON has nearly 1,800 deposits for the A5, and is ramping up production at its 300,000-square-foot facility in northern California.