By Eric Peterson | Oct 22, 2020
Light sports aircraft and contract composites manufacturing
CEO Kirk Hawkins founded ICON Aircraft after the Federal Aviation Agency (FAA) established the light sport aircraft category in 2004.
Previously a pilot for the U.S. Air Force and American Airlines who built experimental aircraft on the side, Hawkins "has the vision of creating this aircraft thanks to the FAA opening up a new space for novice pilots," says Amezcua. "Basically, it allows folks who have less flying experience to get in an aircraft that has certain restrictions on it. It allows you to get to the fun of flying a little bit quicker."
Starting at $359,000, the ICON A5 is an amphibious light sport aircraft, featuring folding wings, two seats, and a maximum speed of 109 miles per hour. The aircraft is capable of taking off from land and water, making it just the accessory for the lake house that has everything.
"We wanted to have an aircraft that was fun and exciting to fly," says Amezcua. "It all starts with the look and shape and feel of the aircraft. From there, it goes to the ease of use: We wanted to have entry-level pilots. We wanted to have a cockpit that looks more like an automobile's."
ICON facilitates pilot training through company-owned flight centers at the headquarters in Vacaville, California, and Tampa, Florida, as well as partner flight schools.
Safety is always a primary consideration, adds Amezcua The A5 features an industry-first spin-resistant airframe and a built-in parachute system. "Another one is the angle-of-attack device that helps novice pilots and guides them through the takeoff and the landing of the flight. That really drives home the ease of use."
Getting a product like the A5 to market required a vision as well manufacturing acumen. "This is a gorgeous airplane that's been designed, but how do you get that design on paper actually built?" muses Amezcua. "We have a rabid following, if you will, from our existing customer base, and that's really allowing us to go to the next level, not only designing the aircraft but practically doing all of the manufacturing in-house.
"If you look at the aircraft, it has this sexy, exciting, adventurous -- call it glamourous -- look and feel to it," says Amezcua. "To get to that initially, we had to outsource the manufacturing of composite materials. We realized, in order to have greater quality control and also to have more competitive pricing, we wanted to bring that in-house."
Beyond the first A5s that were outsourced and delivered in 2016, the company has manufactured every A5 (more than 120 aircraft and counting) itself. To accomplish the task, ICON built a 300,000-square-foot composites factory in Tijuana, Baja California, Mexico, in 2016. As of 2020, about 75 percent of the company's 200 employees work in Mexico.
"It required a lot," says Amezcua. "It required getting a state-of-the-art facility with climate controls 24/7. It required hiring employees and getting those employees trained. . . . It also required some high-speed automated machinery."
Amezcua says Tijuana was selected due to its proximity to California and the deep composites talent pool. He calls composites manufacturing an "artisanal" process that also demands technical skills to use lasers and other cutting-edge tools. "We've honed a precision, state-of-the-art environment," says Amezcua. "I think it starts with the people. . . . The training, the motivation, the dedication of our employees is number one, then having 3D-modeling software to make sure we're designing the parts correctly, to make sure there aren't any issues with interferences or fit or function issues."
ICON now is opening its manufacturing facility up to outside customers. Aerospace, automotive, medical, and wind and solar energy are top targets, as are any companies with needs for tight tolerances or complex geometries.
"We've become experts in composites manufacturing," says Amezcua. "We're prepared to look for potential customers that may require manufacturing of composite structures. . . . We have that advanced level of composite manufacturing that we're ready to present to the market and support other manufacturers."
He extends an invitation to potential customers: "We'd love them to come visit us so we can show them our capabilities."
Challenges: Scaling support and training networks in concert with growing manufacturing volume is one challenge for the A5.
For its contract manufacturing, awareness is the biggest hurdle. "Getting the word out that ICON is ready and open for business to work with other manufacturing companies that require composite components," says Amezcua. "From a contract manufacturing perspective, just making people aware of the amazing capabilities that we have -- our people, machinery, software, and expertise"
Opportunities: Exporting the A5, says Amezcua. "There seems to be a lot of interest from other regions in the world, so what's the smart way of growing our presence?"
He also teases new aircraft models beyond the A5, acknowledging the timeline is "way out there."
Contract manufacturing is another big opportunity, Amezcua adds. "It's incredibly strong and sturdy, but at an incredibly light weight point, so we're seeing more and more industries looking into composite materials as an option"
Needs: "I think the greatest need is just getting people up in the A5," says Amezcua. "I'm former military and I used to jump out of airplanes. That's a pretty cool experience, but to actually go up there and control the airplane and almost become one with the sky, if you will, is also another awesome experience. I think everyone needs to -- at least once in their life -- have a demo flight in an A5 and be introduced to this community. There's a lot of people who never dreamt they would fly a plane or become a pilot, and all of a sudden, because of the A5, it's within reach."