To understand the crucial difference between the Icon A5 and a commercial airplane, look no further than the cockpit. In your average 747, it's is a psychedelic patchwork of switches, lights, and gauges. The A5's cockpit is as sleek is as a sports car. In fact, it looks a little too easy. That's the point. "It's designed to be ingeniously simple," says Kirk Hawkins, a former Air Force pilot and CEO of Icon Aircraft. "And trust me, that takes genius, and it ain't simple."
Hawkins and his co-founder, designer Steen Strand, founded Icon in 2006, after the FAA created a new category of airplanes called "light sport aircraft," designed for recreational aviation. Now, everything about the A5, from its retractable wings to its ability to land on water, is designed with recreational pilots in mind. In fact, Hawkins insists the A5 is even safer than commercial planes, because they rely on the pilot being highly trained. At Icon, Hawkins says, "The obligation is on us to make the machine work for you."
Getting Los Angeles-based Icon off the ground--pun intended--was no easy feat. "This isn't the kind of thing you can bootstrap with $100,000 and a couple friends," says Hawkins. "It takes $50 to $100 million before you can even test the market."
Fundraising in a market that's accustomed to quick returns and software startups has been the biggest obstacle standing in Icon's way, and though the company closed a $60 million round--its largest to date--last summer, Hawkins says not having enough access to capital is still his biggest fear. "You just think, of all the reasons we could fail, running out of fuel is not the one you want to have," he says. "It'd be like a patient dying from heart surgery because of lack of oxygen."
Of course, Hawkins will also have to overcome the challenge of creating a market of recreational pilots that doesn't yet exist. "Icon is looking to 'invent' a powersports category for aviation that reaches beyond the existing pilot base to introduce entirely new people to the opportunity to become a pilot," says Charlie Becker, communities director at the Experimental Aircraft Association. "If they can develop the right value proposition, they could tap into man's historical desire to fly."
After eight years of planning and fundraising, this year, the $189,000 A5 will finally go into production, with 1,000 pre-orders already lined up. It's a big step, says Hawkins, but only the beginning of a much longer mission to democratize flight. "We're a long way from the The Jetsons," he says, "but I feel confident in saying in the future, we will move in three dimensions."