Wheels Up | The yacht-friendly Light Sport Aircraft evolution takes flight with the Icon A5.
By Mark Masciarotte
It’s early May, a dream day for boating on Lake Berryessa, which at 32 square miles is the largest body of water in Napa County, California. The leading edge of a cold front has pushed a thin layer of high clouds in from the west, affording us comfortable, dry conditions and welcome respite from the blazing sun. The water is glassy calm, and we’re carving a tight 360-degree turn to the right immediately after finishing an identical maneuver to the left at just below 40 knots. Behind us, the wake is a pair of perfect circles etched into the mirrored surface.
Still in the turn, I add power, and with nothing more than the subtle sensation of the hull being freed from the water’s surface tension, we depart the lake. The houseboats, bays and islands below us grow ever smaller as we ascend.
Beside me, Greg Zackney, call sign Groucho, commands “Flaps 15” as we pass through 45 knots. I reply with “Flaps 15,” selecting the appropriate detent on the flap control switch. At 50 knots, Groucho intones, “Flaps zero.” I acknowledge, retracting the flaps fully as I trim for 60 knots in the climb.
Moments later, we’re 800 feet above the lake, where I level off, trim the elevator and begin to carve slow turns to the left and right, mimicking the maneuver we’d just performed on the water. With the wind slipping past the open windows at 85 knots, it occurs to me that in less than 15 minutes, I have been smitten by this aircraft, one that is at the vanguard of what I am certain will be the next popular wave of sportcraft for yacht owners. I am already lusting for the Icon A5.
Based in Vacaville, California, Icon Aircraft has brought to market the first two-place amphibious airplane that has been certified under the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration’s Light Sport Aircraft (LSA) regulations (see “How LSA Works”). The remarkable success of the Light Sport movement—and the prime focus of Icon’s business plan—is that this market segment appeals not only to existing pilots who are searching for a simpler and, in many cases, more fun way to fly, but that it also attracts an ever-growing number of powersports enthusiasts, non-pilots whose passions include fast cars, boats, motorcycles, snowmobiles, ATVs and personal watercraft.
The A5 offers what many yacht owners have often dreamed of having to explore the world while cruising: a two-place amphib with performance and handling that will delight even the most jaded pilot. Although docile and safe, thanks to having been certified by the FAA as spin-resistant and being equipped with a complete airplane parachute system, the A5 handles like a sports car, with smile-inducing acceleration and crisp, authoritative control response.
Indeed, the A5 was designed to have the allure of a luxury automobile by Icon’s lead designers, whose backgrounds include stints at BMW and Honda and who ride high-performance Aprilias and Ducatis to unwind. The styling inside and out is aggressive yet refined, with nary the smallest detail overlooked. Then, there is the A5’s engineering, led by veterans from Audi and Bombardier Recreational Products and the plane’s aeronautical design, the product of a team managed by veterans of Scaled Composites, whose history-making aviation projects include Voyager, Virgin Atlantic GlobalFlyer and SpaceShipOne.
To meet the stringent weight requirement set forth in the LSA regulations, the A5 is built almost entirely of carbon fiber and outfitted with custom hardware that is corrosion-resistant for use in the saltwater environment. The hull is stepped and incorporates a wide, structural appendage just above the waterline on each side that provides stability when the A5 is at rest, and a convenient platform for cockpit ingress and egress. Equally important, these “water wings” obviate the need for floats on the cantilevered wings and assist in water operations, allowing step-taxi maneuvers that, to an old floatplane pilot like me, are out of this world.
The cockpit itself might best be described as “sophisticated Spartan,” where everything needed for flight is well-arranged and easily reached, and where seating and control placement are comfortable and intuitive with neither frills nor encumbrances. The view through the canopy is fighter-like: panoramic, unobstructed and optically perfect.
The centerpiece of the instrument layout is the Angle of Attack indicator, a device found in most high-performance military aircraft that, at a glance, assists the pilot in maintaining the aircraft within a safe flying envelope during all phases of flight, especially steep and accelerated turns, slow flight and landings.
Like water operations, ground ops are benign. Gear extension occurs with little pitch change, and once on the pavement, steering is accomplished by differential braking and a castering nosewheel.
In short, the A5 could well be the perfect “air tender” for yacht owners who aren’t interested in a lengthy, complicated and expensive training process—and who want a sexy machine in their toy collection that is versatile, easy to operate, safe and, most important, really fun to fly.
For more information: 704 564 4000, iconaircraft.com
Sport Flying: On The Horizon
When compiling the models we showcase in this story, we employed some admittedly arbitrary selection criteria. To wit, the aircraft must be certified under LSA or SLSA regulations (not experimental); capable of taking off and landing on the water with two persons; capable of being launched and retrieved with a conventional crane or davit that could also launch and retrieve the yacht’s tender; designed with the saltwater environment in mind; and have folding wings so as to eliminate the problems associated with fixed wings that might hinder docking. Here’s what we found on the drawing board (in alphabetical order):
Vanessa Troillard, marketing manager for Lisa Aircraft, says the Akoya is “tailor-made and matched with services, equipment and accessories adapted to our clients’ tastes, desires and uses, including options such as an electric actuation of the folding wings.” Akoya is semi-custom and offers three design themes with a variety of interior options. The aircraft is designed to operate on land, water and snow, thanks to a pair of “Seafoils” that are incorporated into the hull and skis that are integrated into the landing gear.
For more information: Lisa Airplanes, lisa-airplanes.com
MVP Model 3
Steve Pugh, CEO of MVP Aero, says the company expects to begin building its MVP Model 3 prototype in 18 to 22 months, with production starting in four years. Like all aircraft in this report, the Model 3 will be trailerable and is designed for use in the marine environment. In addition, it has a hard point for lifting and a compact footprint.
For more information: MVP Aero, mvp.aero
Company CEO Paul Vickers says the Wave is the only LSA amphibian that has automatic folding wings and a water thruster that will allow for on-water maneuvering without the engine running. Vickers also says the Wave’s hull design will allow the aircraft to operate in rougher water than any other amphibian on or coming to the market. FAA LSA certification is expected in late 2016 or early 2017. Standard equipment will include a BRS full aircraft parachute, Dynon avionics and the water thruster. Options include air conditioning, transport trailer and superyacht configuration that includes a davit hook and extra protection against corrosion. For more information: Vickers Aircraft Company, Ltd., vickersaircraft.com
How LSA Works
In 2004, the Federal Aviation Administration introduced a category known as Light Sport Aircraft (LSA) and a pilot’s certificate called Sport Pilot. Since that time, momentum has built, even in the face of the worldwide economic slowdown during the period.
For yachtsmen with a yen to fly, the good news is that LSA offerings have increased exponentially since the rules were promulgated and include amphibious aircraft with structures that are lightweight, strong and resistant to the elements that lend themselves quite well for use as “air tenders” for yachts.
Light Sport aircraft must meet the following criteria:
- Single reciprocating engine
- Fixed landing gear (retractable gear approved for seaplanes)
- Unpressurized cabin
- Fixed or ground-adjustable propeller
- Maximum capacity: two persons
- Maximum gross weight: 1,320 pounds (1,430 pounds for seaplanes)
- Maximum speed in level flight at maximum continuous power: 120 knots
- Maximum stall speed: 45 knots
To earn a Sport Pilot certificate, a student need only log a minimum of 20 hours. In addition, the rules:
- Require FAA knowledge (written) and practical (flight) tests
- Credit sport pilot flight time toward more advanced pilot ratings
- Require a Third Class FAA medical certificate or a valid U.S. driver’s license as evidence of medical eligibility (provided the individual’s most recent application for an FAA medical certificate was not denied, revoked, suspended or withdrawn)
- Do not allow carrying passengers for compensation or hire
- Do not allow flights in furtherance of business
- Allow sharing (“pro-rata”) operating expenses with another pilot or passenger
- Allow daytime flight only
- Allow sport pilots to fly certain vintage and production aircraft that meet the definition of an LSA