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Training in sport plane comes under scrutiny following death of pitcher Halladay

By Tony Marrero
Roy Halladay posted this tweet on Oct. 13 after purchasing the ICON A5 he was flying at the time of his death. [From Twitter]

TAMPA — Spirits were soaring last year when an airplane manufacturer named ICON opened its new flight center at Peter O. Knight Airport.

At a grand opening on a clear November day, guests gawked at the company’s new A5 airplane and company executives gushed about the location . They were marketing their product as a Jet Ski with wings and their new second home in Tampa was surrounded by water.

"If I were to actually take a clean slate and design a flying environment for us, it looks about like this," company chief executive Kirk Hawkins said at the time. "This is a fantastic place to be."

PREVIOUS COVERAGE: Former MLB star Roy Halladay dead in plane crash in Pasco County

One year later, the California-based company is reeling from a series of crashes that have killed three people, including the plane’s lead designer. The most recent came Tuesday, when retired Major League Baseball star pitcher Roy Halladay plunged into the Gulf of Mexico off Pasco County.

The crashes are the latest blow to a company that has laid off workers and raised prices as it struggled to meet production goals, and the mishaps have drawn attention to a plane designed to make flying easier and more affordable.

"One accident is one accident too many in this business," said Mark Rosenker, a former chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board, "and any loss is a huge loss to a new company like this."

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Hawkins founded ICON in 2006 in Vacaville, Calif., with the goal to, in his words, "democratize" private flying.

He was inspired by the Federal Aviation Administration’s creation, two years earlier, of a new "light sport aircraft" classification. A corresponding sport pilot license requires 20 hours for certification, half the time required for a general certification to fly planes such as Cessnas or Pipers.

"We realized there are a lot of people in the world who said, ‘Man, I would love to learn to fly if you made it easy, you made it safe, you made it fun, you made it cool — sign me up,’" Hawkins, a former fighter pilot, told the Times last year.

The result is the A5, a 23-foot-long two-seater that can land and take off from the water. Its 46-inch cockpit is reminiscent of a sports car, though its more roadster than racer: Its 100-horsepower engine and single rear-facing propeller can push the plane to speeds of about 120 miles per hour. The plane’s compact size and folding wings means it can be stored in a garage and towed to a beach or boat ramp.

ICON delivered its first plane in 2015, earning rave reviews from the aviation press. With an initial price range of $207,000 to $270,000, deposits from eager customers poured in — about 1,800, company officials have said.

The company has struggled to get the plane to mass production, delivering about 20 planes in 2016, down from the previously announced 175. In May of that year, the company eliminated 60 full-time jobs and 90 part-time and contract positions. ICON recently announced that to remain viable, it had to hike the price of the A5 to $269,000 for the base model and $389,000 for a fully loaded model.

Eager to expand its reach to the East Coast, ICON executives said they looked at several locations before settling on Peter O. Knight for its new flight center, where it provides sales, service, flight training and plane rentals. ICON leases hangar space from Atlas Aviation, the Hillsborough Aviation Authority’s fixed base operator at the airport, and pays the authority $20,460 per year for about 680 square feet of office space, according to a lease agreement.

Joe Lopano, the authority’s chief executive officer, said at grand opening that he was "thrilled" the company chose Peter O. Knight. An authority spokesman said Friday that Lopano was unavailable for comment.

It’s unclear how the flight center is faring now. An ICON spokesman told the Times that company representatives were not available for interviews and declined to answer questions submitted by email. Company spokesman Brian Manning said in an email that the company was focused on investigating Halladay’s crash but that "great things" are happening at the Tampa flight center.

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When the Tampa flight center opened, company officials boasted about the A5’s spotless crash record.

That changed six months later when the man who led the plane’s design, Jon Murray Karkow, and another ICON employee, 41-year-old Cagri Sever, died while flying an A5 over California’s Lake Berryess. The NTSB blamed the May 8 crash on pilot error, saying Karkow mistakenly entered a canyon while flying too low, causing the plane to strike the wall.

The previous month, an A5 made a hard landing in the water off Key Largo, injuring the pilot and his passenger. The pilot told investigators the plane descended faster than he expected.

Then, on Tuesday, Halladay crashed.

A number of witnesses reported that Halladay’s plane was flying low over the Gulf of Mexico off New Port Richey before it plunged into the water about noon, according to the National Transportation Safety Board. The father of two, who has a home in Odessa, had just taken delivery of the special edition A5 a few weeks earlier.

The gossip website TMZ published mobile phone video that it claims was shot by nearby boaters, showing Halladay’s plane in a steep, descending turn, then leveling off a few feet above the water before the crash.

An NTSB spokeswoman said a preliminary investigation report could be released as early as next week. Investigators will use the A5’s flight data recorders to recreate Halladay’s final moments and determine if he was testing his new plane’s limits, said Rosenker, the former NTSB chairman.

"If you try to fly these things like a fighter jet, you could get yourself in trouble," Rosenker said.

Dave Hirschman, editor at large for Pilot, a membership magazine, called the airplane a precision instrument that’s easy to fly and inspires confidence.

"The handling qualities are so sublime that you don’t think about the mechanics," Hirschman said. "You just go."

Critics say the ICON promotes risky, low-altitude flying. Stephen Pope, editor-in-chief of Flying magazine, said encouraging novice pilots to fly close to the water is "a recipe for disaster."

ICON’s purchase contract requires all buyers to satisfactorily complete company-authorized flight training that ICON has said emphasizes the dangers of low-altitude flying. Twenty hours of training are required for the sport pilot license, but ICON tacks on another seven hours for a seaplane endorsement.

Hirschman took part in the company’s training program and said the curriculum addresses in detail the hazards of low-altitude flying in a variety of terrain.

The FAA recommends flying at least 1,000 feet above congested areas and 500 above people or structures on the ground or water. Three weeks before the crash, Hawkins released new altitude guidelines for the A5 that said flying 300 feet above water or undeveloped ground "provides a reasonable margin for a pilot to make decisions and maneuver the aircraft away from terrain or stationary hazards."

Hawkins said the company would incorporate the guidelines into its existing training programs and would develop advanced low-altitude training courses "for those who want even more skills in this unique environment."

Halladay had logged about 700 hours since earning his pilot’s license in 2013, according to the NTSB, but it’s unclear how many of those hours were in an A5 cockpit.

Experts suspect Halladay’s inexperience with the plane contributed to the crash.

"It takes a while for any pilot to learn his or her aircraft," said Ross Aimer, a retired airline pilot and chief executive officer of Aero Consulting Experts. "Unfortunately, Mr. Halladay didn’t have the luxury."

It’s possible that a design flaw or equipment malfunction contributed to the crash, Aimer said.

"A lot of airplanes initially go through that," Aimer said. "They may have some problems in production or design and it takes a while for a manufacturer to perfect the aircraft."

Aimer said he doubts the Halladay crash will cause long term damage to the company if the cause is not a catastrophic flaw in the plane.

"If somebody really loves to fly and likes this aircraft, they’re not going to be dissuaded by it," he said.

But as a company that has built its business model on marketing new technology to novice pilots, ICON probably needs to bolster its training requirements, said Ken Qualls, a Wellington flight instructor and aviation safety consultant.

"This is a sad opportunity to find a way to strengthen the program," Qualls said.

This report includes information from the Associated Press. Contact Tony Marrero at [email protected] or (813) 226-3374. Follow @tmarrerotimes.