A sport plane for the masses? Fun, sure -- if you have $189,000 to spare

One startup wants to turn flying into the new motor sport, and it already has an impressive backlog of orders. I got to go for a spin.

Roger Cheng Former Executive Editor / Head of News
Roger Cheng (he/him/his) was the executive editor in charge of CNET News, managing everything from daily breaking news to in-depth investigative packages. Prior to this, he was on the telecommunications beat and wrote for Dow Jones Newswires and The Wall Street Journal for nearly a decade and got his start writing and laying out pages at a local paper in Southern California. He's a devoted Trojan alum and thinks sleep is the perfect -- if unattainable -- hobby for a parent.
Expertise Mobile | 5G | Big Tech | Social Media Credentials
  • SABEW Best in Business 2011 Award for Breaking News Coverage, Eddie Award in 2020 for 5G coverage, runner-up National Arts & Entertainment Journalism Award for culture analysis.
Roger Cheng
5 min read

NEW YORK -- The sun shone and the wind raced as I leaned back in my seat, my elbow hanging out the window. It was a typical summer day spent cruising around the city.

Only I was 500 feet above the Hudson River.

Earlier this week, I had a chance to take a flight in a diminutive airplane called the Icon A5. For someone whose air travel has typically meant an economy-class seat on a commercial airliner, sitting in the pilot's seat of the A5 stoked a mixture of reactions. It was exhilarating, crazy, a little scary and, above all, a lot of fun.

At $189,000 for the plane, it would be an extremely expensive hobby.

Vacaville, California-based Icon wants to turn aviation into the next motor sport -- think the logical progression from an all-terrain vehicle or powerboat to a plane. The startup's debut aircraft, the A5, is the first mass-produced light plane designed for recreational use. A "light sport aircraft," the A5 is accessible to regular people because it doesn't require a full pilot's license or extensive training.

The Icon A5 sport plane can take off from land or water. Sarah Tew/CNET

It has already drawn a healthy amount of interest. More than 1,500 would-be pilots have put down a $5,000 deposit on an A5 as the company ramps up production. You think the backlog for a new iPhone 6S is bad? If you order an A5 today, you'll get your plane in 2019. While the ceremonial first plane was delivered in July, the first consumer deliveries won't begin until next year.

Will it be worth the wait? Yes.

I spent more than half an hour in the A5. Jeremy Brunn, a former Navy pilot who's now director of flight training with Icon, sat next to me in the co-pilot's seat. (There are control sticks for both seats.) The craft is amphibious, able to take off from and land on ground or water. The plane was docked on the Hudson River, so we took off from the river near North Manhattan with the goal of heading to the Statue of Liberty and back.

After a bit of formation flying with a sister A5, and a few fancy turns to demonstrate the ease of the controls, Brunn headed us south.

We started our test flight with formation flying with another A5. Sarah Tew/CNET

One of Icon's challenges is to persuade people that flying isn't just a means of transportation, that it can be fun.

"People are taught to believe flying is dangerous," said Klaus Tritschler, vice president of design for Icon.

That fear admittedly got to me a bit when we first breezed over the George Washington Bridge. The A5 already seemed small when docked, but aloft the cockpit felt downright tiny, with the windows removed so you can stick your arm out (not that I would recommend it). You're in what's essentially a small box suspended in the air, with the occasional air pocket as a jarring reminder that it's a long way down.

Then again, it is a sharp-looking box. Tritschler, who previously worked in design at automaker BMW, said he aimed to create a sleek, "badass" look for the plane. Mission accomplished.

My fears subsided when I took the control stick after we settled into a cruising altitude of about 500 feet. I felt a lot more comfortable on the return trip as I pulled back on the stick and watched the plane elevate to 800 feet over the George Washington Bridge.

The plane was responsive, deftly banking left or right as I moved the controls -- not that I have experience flying planes. The best analogy I can provide is that the controls work a lot like those of a video game. They're intuitive and easy to pick up.

Icon's director of flight instruction, Jeremy Brunn (left), runs through the controls with me. Sarah Tew/CNET

Indeed, the dashboard sported few dials and meters. It seemed everything about the cockpit was streamlined. For the most part, Brunn said, you need to pay attention to only one gauge: an indicator called "angle of attack." It's essentially a look at the state of the wings and how safely you're flying. Green is good, yellow is not so good and red means you're likely to stall.

But even stalling doesn't necessarily mean crashing. In the most harrowing and exciting moment of the test run, Brunn actually pulled the craft up to stall the plane, putting the angle-of-attack gauge deep into the red zone and setting off a disconcerting alarm. Other planes in this state might flip over, he said, but the design of the A5's wings allows it to remain stable.

Brunn wrapped up the run with a few high-velocity banks, as well as some hops and skips over the water as he showed how easy it was to land and take off.

By the time we were done, I was mentally trying to calculate how long it would take me to save enough for an A5. Conclusion: It's pretty much never going to happen.

The A5, even among other light sport planes and full-fledged planes, is expensive. Icon CEO Kirk Hawkins said that his goal is to eventually decrease the price, but he warned he could go only so low.

"I mean, it is an airplane," he said.

Icon's A5 light sport plane takes to the skies of Manhattan (pictures)

See all photos

The A5 offers other advantages. You need only a sport pilot license, which is easier and cheaper to obtain than a standard pilot license. Icon requires that you take a three-week course before you fly off with your plane.

The craft is also relatively portable, with wings that fold back, allowing you to haul it with a car or park it at home. It doesn't require an airport. You just need to find a long field, track or body of water.

Hawkins isn't concerned by the prospect that these sport planes might crowd the skies. "The airspace can absorb a lot of crafts," he said. "It's a giant public park."

This class of aircraft can go up to only 10,000 feet, while commercial aircraft fly above 20,000. Just avoid the areas near airports and you're good to go, Hawkins said.

Still, the sight of an A5 flying around will continue to be pretty alien. Later that afternoon, two police officers stopped by the restaurant where Icon had set up for the demonstration. Neighbors had called about two strange aircraft flying around the river. After a brief explanation, the officers chuckled as they walked down to the dock to check out the planes.