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Built for just plane fun

Times Staff Writer

Want to get away but tired of driving to a crowded airport and cramming into an airliner?

How about hopping into a two-seat propeller plane that can be flown just about anywhere and land at the most remote places, including mountain lakes and desolate airfields. Better yet, a private pilot’s license is not required.

A Marina del Rey company, hoping to get more people to fly planes for fun, is building a recreational flying boat that can take off and land both on airstrips and on water. But it’s not for the budget-conscious. The plane costs $139,000, or about the price of a new Maserati Quattroporte.

Icon Aircraft, a private firm founded by a former F-16 fighter jet pilot, is hoping to exploit a little-known federal regulation approved in 2004 that opens the way for “light sport aircraft.” It is a new category in aviation that is designed to make flying easier for more people.

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Icon’s plane, dubbed A5, resembles a large canopied Jet Ski with wings. The cockpit interior with side-by-side seats is roomy and feels more like a sports car than a plane.

Designed for recreation rather than transportation, sport planes are not allowed to go faster than 120 miles an hour, hold more than two people, or fly above 15,000 feet.

And pilots only need a sport aircraft license, which is less onerous than obtaining the traditional private pilot’s license, requiring just half of the flight training.

Still, to address safety concerns, the Federal Aviation Administration created a training program for sport pilots that includes a minimum of 20 hours of flight instruction as well as a check flight with an FAA examiner.

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Sports aircraft shouldn’t be confused with tiny, single-seat ultralight planes, which have limited regulations. The ultralights, usually flown by hobbyists, can fly only during the day in unpopulated areas, can’t go faster 64 miles an hour and hold only five gallons of fuel, limiting their use to short recreational flights at low altitude.

Icon’s A5 is powered by a 100-horsepower engine with a red propeller mounted behind the cockpit. It can run either on aviation fuel or unleaded premium gasoline. Painted silver with red accents, the plane will be able to fly as slowly as 50 miles an hour or cruise at its maximum speed of 120 mph.

For those who want to take the plane on field trips, the 34-foot-long wing can be folded and tucked behind the tail so the plane can be placed on a trailer (an optional feature), much like a boat.

The plane can also be fitted with a parachute (also optional), which can be deployed with a pull of a latch in the cockpit to help bring the plane safely back down to the ground.

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The plane’s creators hope it will “help revitalize consumer interest in aviation,” said Kirk Hawkins, the company’s chief executive and founder. “We want to make the flying experience more accessible to the mainstream market.”

In a light test July 8, an A5 prototype took off from Lake Isabella in Kern Valley, flew for about 10 minutes and landed back on water.

Icon plans to unveil the plane to the public Tuesday at the Oshkosh air show in Wisconsin, the world’s largest gathering of general aviation enthusiasts. The company plans to display the prototype that made the first flight next to a full-scale model crafted by Metalcrafters in Fountain Valley, the famed maker of concept cars.

Steen Strand, co-founder and chief operating officer, who is in charge of design, said the company wanted to get the test flight completed before the air show, an important general aviation marketing venue.

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“There is so much skepticism for new planes that we wanted to show that it can fly before showing it off at Oshkosh,” he said.

The first production plane isn’t slated to roll out of a factory until late 2010, but the company has taken orders for more than 150 planes. Buyers for the first 100 “limited edition” planes have had to put down deposits of $100,000 for each aircraft.

“There is a large latent market” for sport aircraft, Hawkins said.

Hawkins says that most of the current generation of sport aircraft were designed and built mainly as transportation vehicles -- a smaller and cheaper way to get people from one point to another.

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Most of the planes have cramped cockpits with complicated control panels that can seem daunting for first-time fliers. “They lack the consumer appeal,” he said.

But Icon’s plane has been designed from the beginning to be a “fun and easy aircraft to fly, he said. The control panel, for instance, has three large, circular gauges that display the plane’s airspeed, altitude and so-called angle of attack. At first glance, they look like the speedometer, the tachometer and the fuel gauge in a car.

The company contracted with automobile architects at BMW and Nissan to craft the plane’s sleek design. Instead of emulating aerospace giant Boeing Co., the company looked to Apple Inc. for inspiration.

But Michel Merluzeau, an aviation consultant at G2 Solutions in Kirkland, Wash., said the aircraft and the company faced several major head winds. Few new aircraft companies have been able to weather the lengthy FAA certification process and then produce planes profitably.

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The general aviation market is littered with failed attempts, Merluzeau said, mainly because funding usually runs out before production can begin.

The market for amphibious sport aircraft might also be limited, he said.

“It’s nice to take off and land on water, but that’s a niche market,” Merluzeau said. “It’s not in the thousands, but a few hundred over time.”

Hawkins said he came up with the idea for the plane while he was a master’s of business administration student at Stanford in 2004. He approached several Silicon Valley entrepreneurs about the idea and immediately got financial support from such Internet entrepreneurs as Esther Dyson and Ideo founder David Kelley, who designed the computer mouse.

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“It was a textbook start-up opportunity,” Hawkins said.

In 2005, he recruited Strand, an investment banker who had invented the Freebord, a new generation of skateboards, and then moved the company from Palo Alto to Southern California to be closer to the area’s aerospace research and automobile design centers.

“L.A. is ground zero for aerospace, and vehicle design centers are all here,” Hawkins said.

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peter.pae@latimes.com

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

Tracking a trend

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In 2005, the Federal Aviation Administration began issuing licenses for sport pilots, a new certification category that is expected to grow sharply as licenses issued for traditional private pilots decline.

Sport Pilots

2005: 134

2006: 939

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2007: 2,031

2008: 4,200*

2009: 6,500*

2010: 8,500*

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Private Pilots

2005: 228,619

2006: 219,233

2007: 211,096

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2008: 205,050*

2009: 201,400*

2010: 199,100*

*Projected

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Source: FAA


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