ICON Publishes Low Altitude Guidelines For Deposit Holders & New Owners Of A5’s
Kirk Hawkins, CEO if ICON Aircraft sent emails out to A5 deposit holders announcing guidelines for Low Altitude Operations conducted with ICON’s aircraft. ICON considers flight below 300AGL as such, stating that there is little formal training required by the FAA or provided by traditional transportation-focused aviation training programs to adequately prepare pilots for low altitude flying. The stated goal is to take a proactive, leadership role in the flight training process by developing own low altitude guidelines from lessons learned over decades of military, seaplane, and bush flying. In addition to incorporating these guidelines into the current training programs, ICON will also be developing advanced low-altitude training courses for those who want even more skills in this unique environment. While pointing out that the Pilot in Command (PIC) remains ultimately responsible for their own safety and that of their passenger as well as for operating their aircraft in accordance with FAR 91.3 and any local regulations, there are other points worthy of sharing.
ICON Low Altitude DefinitionICON considers flights below 300′ AGL as operating in the “low altitude” environment for the ICON A5 aircraft. What is “low” is relative to an aircraft’s speed, turning ability, climb performance, as well as each pilot’s ability and reaction time. Given the A5’s excellent handling qualities, Spin-Resistant Airframe, slow flying speeds, and tight turning radius, 300′ AGL provides a reasonable margin for a pilot to make decisions and maneuver the aircraft away from terrain or stationary hazards that are visibly detected based on environmental conditions, initial aircraft conditions, and proper pilot inputs. At 300′ AGL while level at normal flying speeds, the A5 is also able to execute an engine-out, 180-degree turn to a landing under normal conditions with proper pilot inputs. Pilots should always use their best judgement and fly in a way that is legal, within the aircraft’s operating limitations, and within their own qualifications and comfort level.Soft Deck ManeuveringThe use of a soft deck is central to ICON’s Lowalt flying philosophy. The idea is that when in the low altitude environment, the PIC should shift a significant portion of their attention to terrain and obstacle avoidance (like towers, power lines, etc.) while also maneuvering more benignly. This conscious shift should be observed below a prescribed altitude or “soft deck.” While good judgment and airmanship always takes precedence over any guidelines, the following maneuvering limits should generally be observed:
- Above Soft Deck: Normal, non-aerobatic maneuvering (+/- 60 bank +/- 30 pitch)*
- Below Soft Deck: Benign maneuvering (+/- 45 bank +/- 10 pitch)
*60/30 is a reference. The current FAA definition is ambiguous. In the past, the definition included 60/30 limits. FAR 91.303 currently states “… aerobatic flight means an intentional maneuver involving an abrupt change in an aircraft’s attitude, an abnormal attitude, or abnormal acceleration, not necessary for normal flight.” Today, parachute FAR 91.307(c) still states, “Unless each occupant of the aircraft is wearing an approved parachute, no pilot of a civil aircraft carrying any person (other than a crew-member) may execute any intentional maneuver that exceeds— (1) A bank of 60 degrees relative to the horizon; or (2) A nose-up or nose-down attitude of 30 degrees relative to the horizon.”
ICON Soft-Deck Training Qualifications
- Standard (300′ AGL): Appropriate for all ICON graduates. ICON SPL, TXL, TXS, ICON IP
- Advanced (100′ AGL): Requires advanced ICON Lowalt training and ICON check ride
Confined-area operations (takeoffs, landings, approaches, and departures) are requisite skills for seaplane pilots in the FAA practical standards. Some bodies of water may require confined-area maneuvering for access. PICs should maintain enough lateral turning room to safely abort operations in any confined area. The A5 can execute a 180-degree turn in approximately 500′ based on environmental conditions, initial aircraft profile, and proper pilot inputs. 500′-1000′ lateral turning room should be maintained at all times to allow a course reversal in a confined area.
Box-Canyon Reversal (Emergency Terrain Escape)
There are dedicated books on mountain flying and this paragraph is not a substitute for advanced study and training should one choose to fly low in mountainous terrain. The term “box canyon” is frequently used to describe a situation where a pilot has inadvertently flown into narrowing, confined, and often rapidly rising terrain where the aircraft may not be capable of climbing over that terrain. Step one is to avoid these situations by appropriate knowledge and briefing of the areas being flown and to always preserve enough lateral turning room to easily reverse course if needed. However, should the conditions ever arise where a pilot is suddenly faced with the need for an immediate reversal of course in a box-canyon scenario, the following technique is recommended in the A5 to minimize the turn radius while simultaneously preserving altitude.
Box-Canyon Reversal (requires ~500′ diameter):
- 50-70 knots
- Full power
- Pitch up slightly (5-10⁰)
- Max AOA pull 180 degrees (mid yellow/stall horn – out of buffet)
- Keep nose above horizon
Note: In no-wind conditions and properly flown, this maneuver can reverse the A5 direction at gross weight and at sea-level conditions in approximately 500′ diameter. However, ICON recommends maintaining 500′-1000′ lateral turning room to account for human error. Further, at high density altitudes and with adverse wind conditions, turn radius increases significantly. Bottom line: there are no absolutes. Use your best judgement and immediately reverse course and exit any area where you are in doubt.
Low Altitude Briefing Items
For A5 flights below 300′ AGL, PICs should conduct a Lowalt briefing to include:
- Proficiency: Assess pilot proficiency & comfort level
- Weather: Lowalt weather effects (wind shear, boundary layer, density altitude, water conditions)
- Review: Route, terrain, people, structures; known hazards (e.g., check if paragliders are present at Berryessa)
- Soft Deck: (300′ standard/100′ advanced) acknowledge when below soft deck (“soft deck”)
- Turning Room & Box-Canyon Reversal: Know procedures cold
- Terminate: Cease Lowalt and climb or land in the event of any unusual, distracting, or dangerous situation
Note: To reduce redundancy, once items are understood, they can be briefed as “standard,” and only areas that are different and relevant to the flight may be called out specifically.
ICON Lowalt Limitations
Lowalt should only be flown in day, Visual Meteorological Conditions (VMC).
If unplanned low altitude flying is desired during a flight, the PIC should overfly the area above 300′ AGL to identify hazards and assess risk before flying Lowalt.
Represent yourself and the aviation community well. All pilots should maintain at least 500′ separation from boats, people, or structures, except when required for takeoffs and landings. Additionally, fly politely. While many may wave and like the A5 (waters skiers, jet skiers, etc.), others may not (most fishermen prefer quiet). Always maneuver your airplane away from them to signal that you see them and are being respectful of them. Do not show off. While flying, be aware of who is around you and empathize with how they may perceive your flying.
Editors Note: Anticipating some debate and discussion on this announcement, we look forward to seeing what our readers have to say. Post it in the comments or simply send us a Email to firstname.lastname@example.org