Belting up inside an Icon A5 light sport amphib airplane on the western shore of Lake Winnebago, Kirk Hawkins, founder and CEO of Los Angeles-based Icon Aircraft, and I completed a short demo flight on Sunday in an aircraft that promises to revolutionize recreational aviation. Serial Number 001, the aircraft we flew, will be donated to EAA’s Young Eagles program on Monday, July 20th, 2015. It’s one of the first 100 special “Founders’ Edition” aircraft that are chock full of optional equipment, including dual Bose A20 active sound attenuation headsets, a ballistic airframe parachute system, solid-state attitude indicator, night lights, cockpit heater, Garmin GPS moving map and instrumentation system and comm / nav / surveillance radios, among other upgrades.

Our goals for the aircraft are to make it easy, safe, fun, beautiful and versatile. We want to bring back the emotional dream of learning to fly without all the transportation overhead. It has to be viscerally exciting, emotionally in the moment, like the joy a 12 year old gets about flying. It’s dynamic and it’s social. It’s not about air mobility,” says Hawkins.

That assessment became quite clear as soon as we strapped into the left seat of the A5 at the dock at TJ’s Harbor Restaurant, south of Oshkosh. The quality of the carbon fiber construction, precision fit of parts and solid clunk of the canopy closing dominated our initial impressions. This is no bargain basement light sport aircraft. Fully equipped, Icon A5 runs $247,000, far more than most other LSAs. But, subjectively, it feels as though it competes in a higher class, more Ferrari than Fiat. It’s also heavy for an LSA, weighing in at 1,080 lb empty and taking off at 1,510 lb with its FAA exemption from the 1,430 lb MTOW limit for LSA amphibians.

It’s easy to board this flying boat. The large canopy swings forward to a nearly vertical position, so there’s no need to duck your head when boarding. Just step onto the sponson and then onto the cockpit floor.

The cockpit is wide and voluminous, visibility is great and the pilot’s hands fall naturally onto the stick and throttle. The side windows are removable, so you can fly with your elbow and arm out the window as though you were buckled into a roadster. The instrumental panel is especially impressive as the angle of attack gauge is mounted at the top of the stack, directly in front of the pilot.

“Fly the wing and you fly the airplane,” commented Hawkins. With 1,000 hours flying USAF F-16 Vipers, he finds it odd that all civil aircraft are designed with airspeed indicators and so few have angle of attack systems for low speed performance and stall protection. “Why be preoccupied with airspeed? The aircraft stalls on angle of attack.”

Hawkins said the flight would consist of a few “demo and do” military style training lessons, including the first water takeoff, full power-on and power-off stalls, cross control stalls and aggressive maneuvering at maximum angle of attack. We also would fly maximum performance turns at low altitude, make a few splash-and-dash touch-and-goes, and then fly some formation with second A5.

Clear of the slip, we switched on electrical power, checked FADEC channels A and B and the started the engine with a twist of the ignition key. The FADEC-equipped, four-cylinder opposed, liquid-cooled Rotax 912 iS engine sprang to life immediately. It’s relatively smooth for an opposed engine, no doubt because of its small displacement, high operating speed and reduction gear box. We water taxied out to Long Point Island, east of the shore and then turned west into the wind. The engine is rated at 100 hp continuous for LSA applications, but we were able to the full 123 hp to work turning the 3-blade composite pusher prop on takeoff. Using full 30° flaps, we lifted off in about 800 feet, accelerated and retracted the flaps. Suggested climb speed is 60 knots, but 4 o’clock angle of attack works even better. Max rate climbs can be flown at 2 o’clock angle of attack, the border between the green and yellow arcs on the gauge.

After takeoff, we accelerated and raised the flaps half way and then fully. Pitch moment transients with changes in flap position were quite mild. The aircraft has electric pitch trim and the rate of change is nicely balanced.

We climbed to 1,000 ft AGL – actually above lake level – using an altimeter that was set to zero before takeoff. One small nit to pick. The current production altimeter is calibrated in 1,000s of feet up to 10,000 ft AGL. It needs to be replaced with a sensitive altimeter calibrated in 100s of feet up to 1,000 ft. That would make it much easier to read.

At 1,000 ft, we flew several full stalls with full power. The aircraft bucked and rocked, but it still climbed slowly and it was fully controllable with robust left and right aileron inputs. It also performed admirably when we abused it with full aft stick and full aileron and rudder cross controls. There was never a hint that it might enter a spin.

Power-off stalls were equally benign. The aircraft bucked gently at full nose up stick input and then settled into a mildly oscillating pitch mode with an 800 to 1,200 fpm rate of descent. Recovery consisted of letting go of the stick and letting the aircraft resume flying.

Near Long Point Island, we next flew a series of maximum performance, relatively low speed steep turns at 300 ft AGL. Hawkins pointed out that if you get distracted and fly the aircraft well into the yellow warning band of the angle of attack indicator, an audio alert warns the pilot of the impending stall. If you continue to press the aircraft up to maximum angle of attack, stall buffet is very pronounced, all but whacking the pilot with an aluminum knee board to announce the stall. If that occurs, just release some of the back pressure on the stick and the aircraft recovers immediately with virtually no loss of altitude.

Splash-and-dash exercises are especially fun. Slowing to 60 KIAS, we extended the flaps. We set 3,000 rpm, flew the aircraft at 3 o’clock angle of attack and settled into the water at idle power just as the stall warning was sounding. There was virtually no pitch change as the hull settled into the water. Then, we added maximum power and noted very little pitch change. Soon, the hull jumped onto the step, we took off and departed for additional circuits. Conclusions? The only thing easier to land on and takeoff from the water is a Grumman Albatross.

After our last water takeoff, we formed up on a second A5 for photo work. The aircraft is easy enough to fly in formation, but it’s more difficult from the left seat as control stick is in the left hand and throttle is in the right hand, just opposite from most tandem seat stick-and-throttle aircraft we’ve flown.

Our final water landing came way, way too soon. We wanted more time with the airplane. Hawkins took over the controls to dock the aircraft, shut down the engine and coasted into the slip.

Lasting impressions? Icon A5 is considerably more expensive than most LSAs. But, it’s also one of the best built and easiest to fly. It was never designed to be flown between origins and destinations. It’s intended to be trailered between home and lakes or land runways, similar to a small boat or ATV. Think of it as a flying personal watercraft for two people, albeit an order of magnitude or so more expensive.

The Icon engineering team has mastered the balancing act between the A5’s aerodynamic and hydrodynamic characteristics, producing an aircraft that is as easy to fly and forgiving of errors as anything we’ve flown with conventional flight controls. If you don’t feel comfortable and confident in this aircraft after the first 30 minutes strapped into the left seat, then you probably just don’t like to fly. Icon A5 is pure joy in the air, generating the kind of excitement and emotion that kids have, such as EAA Young Eagles, when they first take to the air.