Learning to Fly: A New Breed of Plane Makes Pilots of Us All

Tyson V. Rininger / Courtesy ICON Aircraft

Icon’s A5 aircraft, designed for amateur pilots, makes getting to your next getaway even easier—and all the more fun.

Pilots don’t normally plan to land in the Hudson River off the west side of Manhattan. But that’s what I’m doing. I’m in a new type of propeller-powered two-seater called the Icon A5, bracing for a water landing. For the record, this is my first time piloting a plane of any kind. My life isn’t flashing before my eyes, but that’s because the eye-catching Icon A5 is a perfect fit for newbies like me.

This new breed of flying machine, dubbed a light-sport aircraft by the Federal Aviation Administration, requires only 20 hours of training time—not as quick as a driver’s license, but half the time required for a private pilot’s. That shortened learning curve is largely due to the design and operational simplicity of the plane, which promises to expand the pool of amateur pilots.

The propeller of the amphibious Icon A5 is mounted directly behind the cabin, so it feels like stepping into a small, Florida Everglades–style airboat. Next to me in the passenger seat is an experienced instructor, and as we taxi across the water and begin our ascent, it feels like a Jet Ski that suddenly clears the water and just keeps going. (It’s a gentle ride, with a maximum speed of 110 mph when airborne; the range is approximately 450 miles.)

In the air, the Icon A5 is a throwback to the early days of stick-and-rudder flying: The wind gently buffets the plane, and I jiggle the stick to keep it level. While I had been expecting a bewildering array of dials and switches, the instrument panel on the Icon A5 looks only slightly more complex than an automobile’s.

It’s neatly divided into four sections: aviation, communication, navigation, and landing configuration (land or water). The key gauge, though, is a mainstay of military aircraft but rarer on private planes: Called the angle of attack, or AOA, it makes turning and landing safer and simpler by constantly measuring the orientation of the wing relative to the wind. In practice, this means that so long as I keep the indicator out of the red zone, I’ll remain airborne.

Courtesy Icon

Even if I should stray into the red, all is not lost. To demonstrate, my copilot puts the Icon A5 into a red-zone maneuver that would stall another plane and send us plummeting earthward. The Icon A5, however, features a spin-resistant airframe that keeps clawing at the air to stay aloft, allowing the pilot plenty of time to recover. (It's the first-ever conventional production aircraft to meet the FAA spin-resistance standard.) If all else fails, the plane is even equipped with its own parachute.

As we touch down on the Hudson, it turns out that the water landing is every bit as much fun as the takeoff, with welcoming spray coming in through the open window. Once out of the water (airstrip access and the plane’s retractable wheeled landing gear are all that’s needed to get you back on terra firma), the Icon A5 folds back its wings for easy towing and storage.

The Icon A5 is a perfect fit for those looking for a quick way to travel to a waterside vacation spot or second home. And with its amphibious ability, the Icon A5 also appeals to those who like to go places where roads don’t—like a remote lake for a camping or fishing adventure. It helps that production is now ramping up: After a slowdown earlier this year, Icon is increasing its production to meet the company's nearly 2,000 deposit holders. (18 A5s have been made so far.) And just last month, Icon officially began flight operations out of Tampa, Florida’s Peter O. Knight airport, the company's first East Coast facility and second flight center after its flagship location (and headquarters) in Vacaville, California. Courses offered at both centers range from a single introductory A5 flight to a full Sport Pilot License with water endorsement for zero-time pilots, open to A5 deposit holders and the general public. Whatever the destination, the thrill of getting there will certainly be a highlight of the trip.

$207,000; iconaircraft.com.