Is spin resistance a big deal? Well, yes!

On Memorial Day I had a chance to visit Icon Aircraft and spend some time with CEO Kirk Hawkins. We met seven years ago — just after the Sport Pilot/Light-Sport Aircraft (LSA) rule was released — near the beginning of his ambitions to create an entirely clean-sheet LSA amphibian.

Recently, Icon released a video to tout its spin resistant airframe (SRA). I reported work toward this earlier and it’s been some time coming. Why the wait? From my first-hand experience with Cirrus Design and the development of the SR20, I have a bit of inside knowledge on this subject.

Cirrus also tried to grab the golden ring of SRA, as did it then-close competitor Columbia Aircraft (the two companies won their Part 23 Type Certificates within days of one another). Neither succeeded. Cirrus turned to an airframe parachute under what’s called Equivalent Level of Safety. Columbia chose a rudder spring mechanism to lessen the likelihood for loss of control. The parachute proved to be a marketing bonanza for Cirrus.

Many feel SRA is vitally important if we are to grow aviation by making aircraft that are truly easier (and therefore safer) to fly. If you could create a design that would allow an overwhelmed student pilot to end up safely on the ground even when he or she keeps the stick buried in their gut, you’d truly have something. Cirrus deployed the parachute concept, and indeed, many lives have been spared.

Now, Icon officials proudly note they achieved the extremely rare feat of designing a mainstream, conventionally-shaped aircraft (meaning no canard or other unorthodox solution*) that is genuinely spin resistant — not merely spin recoverable.

You’ll have to watch the company’s video, maybe a few times, to grasp what I learned in several hours of conversation with Kirk. This is quite something! An Icon can be flown slowly to stall, with the stick remaining full aft and still have roll control, plus the A5 will descend, in essentially straight flight, all the way to the ground or water at about 1,000 fpm. This descent rate, combined with a safety cell and other devices, could allow the occupants to walk away despite their effective loss of control (in that the pilot did not allow the aircraft to resume normal-airspeed flight).

In truth, a parachute is more certain to deliver an aircraft safely to the ground than a stalled aircraft. Both can descend at survivable speeds — but the stalled-yet-controllable aircraft still has a forward motion component whereas the parachute has only a vertical descent plus whatever wind motion is created.

Neither Cirrus nor Columbia created a spin-resistant airframe. Likewise, the video shows a Cessna 150 can’t match A5’s result. No one else has done this either, except for some “specialty” designs, such as the twin-tailed, no-rudder-pedals Ercoupe, several canard designs, and the Kasperwing — with only the Ercoupe reaching serial production.

That’s why I consider this a big deal and one that could help aviation find a broader market. For that I salute Icon and its talented team.

When combined with careful pilot training, an SRA aircraft has real potential to change the student pilot paradigm. If you are an experienced pilot, you’ve learned to avoid entering a spin and you may know how to safely recover from one. Wouldn’t it be better if you simply never got into one?

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  1. Dave Abate says

    No doubt about it, the Icon is a beautiful and exciting new aircraft design. But from an aeronautical engineering perspective, the Icon video merely creates their own ‘spin’ on the subject, because they did not show the aircraft’s behavior in a full stall or actual spin. That’s right, the “mushing down” they display is not a full aerodynamic stall. So while it’s nice that the aircraft may seem to be stall and spin “resistant”, that doesn’t guarantee saftey; let’s see what happens when the aircraft is abruptly pitched up past critical angle of attack and then deliberately cross-controlled. Is the aircraft even recoverable? Will it recover hands-off? how much altitude does it need to recover? Will it flat-spin?  Fundamental questions asked of any new aircraft design. BTW, by forcing their aircraft into these maneuvers is how Cessna discovered that their first Skycatcher LSA design had unrecoverable stall/spin characteristics resulting in two crashes at the hands of a professional test pilot.  So to Icon  I would say, great-looking design but if you want to claim having an extraordinarily safe aircraft then show us the ‘real’ video of your plane’s behavior under a broader set of real-world conditions otherwise I, for one, don’t buy it. 

  2. Sebastien Heintz says

    Dan, other popular light sport aircraft designs, such as our Zenith STOL CH 701 / 750 equipped with wing leading edge slats, have had “spin resistant airframes” for many years.  What continues to impress me about Icon Aircraft is their marketing, rivaled only by Terrafugia.

  3. says

    Dan, please explore the dry weight of Icon A5 in a greater detail. You have the weight in the industry to explain to us if this is a problem, and if Lotus-engineered structural interior parts are just a way to accomplish the objective or the last-ditch grasping-at-straws effort to save the project. The cuffed wing is great, no doubt about that, but it’s not the only thing that gates the production start, isn’t it?

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