Icon's Demise Exaggerated

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After Icon reported that they were raising the price of a new A5, my inbox came alive with predictions that this was Icon’s last gasp. Comparison were many to Eclipse Aerospace, and its CEO Vern Raburn. One person described it as a corporate “suicide.” My favorite email on the topic from a reader ended: “You're an idiot and I can't wait till you go under.” (“You” in this context seems to be some hybrid of Icon Aircraft and its CEO Kirk Hawkins.) The predictions accelerated following Roy Halladay’s death at the controls of one of the first production A5s, though with somewhat less glee on the part of the prognosticators.

An analogy could easily be drawn to Cirrus. The Duluth airframer is now king of the light aviation world, selling almost twice as many piston singles as its closest competitors. In 1999, the first factory demonstration SR20 took the life of the company’s chief test pilot, Scott Anderson. The crash was the result of a design defect, corrected prior to any customer deliveries, that caused the ailerons to bind against the wing in flight. There was also a baseball star who died in a Cirrus. In 2006 Cory Lidle was killed when his Cirrus SR20 crashed into a New York City apartment building. 

The Cirrus comparison is actually somewhat unfair to Icon. There’s no suggestion that the crash that killed Icon’s chief test pilot, Jon Karkow, was the result of a design defect. While the cause of Halladay’s crash remains under investigation, the NTSB preliminary report and mainstream media accounts don't seem to implicate the aircraft. 

Hawkins likens the A5 to a new class of motorsport toy, like a jet-ski, dirt bike or snowmobile. To say that the A5 can be dangerous if used inappropriately is like saying the same about a motorcycle—profoundly obvious. People still buy motorcycles. 

I’ve only spoken to one A5 deposit holder since the price increase. After a chance encounter, I helped him find some hangar space at Palo Alto. He’s buying two, one for his East Coast home and one for his West Coast home. If not for the price hike, perhaps he’d have bought three, but I doubt it. 

Even if Icon went bankrupt, they may be too big to fail entirely. The very significant investments by Icon’s investors would be wiped out, but what Icon has built is probably worth more than the sum of its parts. Someone would acquire the assets in bankruptcy and keep making airplanes. (Tecnam would be a natural suitor.) Does anyone even know how many times Mooney has gone bankrupt? 

So why the giddiness and certainty of those predicting Icon’s demise? It could be the company's swagger, especially when it started. The company has hired a lot of fighter pilots and CEO Kirk Hawkins is an archetypal former F-16 pilot. I don’t think any of those rooting for Icon's demise have met Hawkins personally, but his reputation precedes him. I’ve met a lot of fighter pilots, and they’re generally more pilot than fighter. Confident, to be sure, but also a little introverted and slightly nerdy. Hawkins, a former F-16 pilot, is a caricature of a fighter pilot—big dude, square jaw, “strong” personality. He's also articulate, thoughtful, self aware and clearly passionate about his mission to make aviation attractive and accessible to a new generation of pilots. I still don’t understand the naysayers’ excitement, but Hawkin’s personality is likely a factor. 

The type of change Hawkins is trying to lead comes with challenges and sometimes tragedy and there are some parallels to Cirrus's experience. Cirrus wanted to change the safety calculation in general aviation with the parachute but it found that all the gear in the world was irrelevant unless pilots were trained properly to use it. Icon has taken some steps in the same direction with its low-level flying guidelines and it's likely the recent accidents will have an impact on its in-house training program. Aviators and aviation are always learning and sometimes the lessons come really hard.

You don’t need to like the Icon, and you don’t have fly their airplanes, but I predict they have many more left to sell.