A light aircraft revolution takes off

Editor’s Note: For more innovations that let us experience the world in thrilling new ways, go to cnn.com/adventure

CNN  — 

Inside a hangar in the San Francisco Bay Area, a young French entrepreneur is busy readying a small, odd-looking, bubble-shaped aircraft.

Not far away, on the way to Sacramento, less than 100 miles away, another start-up is rolling out the first serially produced units of a new concept of amphibious foldable aircraft so compact they can be kept in a standard car garage.

Further north, in the mountains of Idaho, inventor and aviation legend Burt Rutan is preparing to fly to distant lands on the latest of his creations, a weird-looking seaplane with retractable skis, powered by a single roof-mounted propeller.

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Small aircraft are all the rage
01:26 - Source: CNN

These planes are all part of a new generation of groundbreaking light (or small) aircraft models aiming to disrupt an industry that hasn’t changed much in decades.

The U.S. Federal Aviation Administration defines “small” (also called “light”) aircraft as “an aircraft of 12,500 pounds or less maximum certificated takeoff weight.” (Depending on the category, according to the FAA, small airplanes can reach up to 19,000 pounds maximum takeoff weight.)

The Cobalt Valkyrie-X

Cobalt Valkyrie-X: Available for pre-order.

The Cobalt Valkyrie-X is a futuristic-looking but piston-engined aircraft that French-born California-based entrepreneur David Loury is about to launch.

The Valkyrie is designed to impress at first sight: sleek and beautiful, you could compare it to a high end sports car.

Or, maybe, an Apple product.

As Cobalt’s founder and CEO, Loury explains that his idea of a design-centric aircraft is rooted in the realization that, in the iPhone era, making beautiful products is no longer a choice but a mandate.

The light aircraft industry is ripe for upheaval, he says.

It’s time for new concepts.

Piston-engine technology

The Valkyrie-X isn’t a toy.

Its main purpose isn’t recreation, but moving people around over relatively long distances.

For example, the aircraft makes it possible to reach most of Western Europe from London without refueling.

It’s being marketed as an affordable way to travel in style.

Its piston-engine technology keeps costs low, Loury says.

An operational cost of $150 per hour is an affordable proposition for many in the growing amateur pilot community, even more so when you factor in that the Valkyrie-X can carry up to five people.

The price starts at $699,000 – more if the client wants to customize it with extras.

Cobalt is currently rolling out its first test aircraft and aims to produce about 50 a year.

Loury says strong pre-launch interest means he’s ready to double production if necessary.

Icon A5 foldable seaplane

"Awesome comes standard," proclaims the Icon A5's website.

Another newly launched design-led aircraft is the two-seat Icon A5 foldable seaplane, from California-based Icon Aircraft.

The first production units were delivered in July 2015.

Unlike the Valkyrie, the Icon A5 is primarily a recreational aircraft.

It can be flown by anyone holding a sport pilot license – which takes about half the time to get as a standard license.

In addition to a sleek, compact design and intuitive high-visibility cockpit, one of the Icon A5’s selling points is its foldability.

It also fits in most car garages and can be towed behind a vehicle for overland transport.

Icon Aircraft claims to have already received more than 1,800 orders for the Icon A5.

That amounts to about a $400 million order book, which is likely to make investors happy – an illustrious roster that includes Ross Perot Jr. and Google’s Eric Schmidt.

The base price of the aircraft is $197,000, rising to $247,000 with additional features.

Burt Rutan’s SkiGull

Yep, those are skis.

Burt Rutan, of SpaceShipOne fame, has also joined the fray with the SkiGull, his own light aircraft concept.

Like the Icon A5, the SkiGull is a small amphibious aircraft that fits in a single-car garage, after having folded its wings.

But it’s the plane’s unusual configuration – a single engine located directly above the cockpit that is itself suspended from the wings in a gondola-like cabin – that’s drawing instant interest across the industry.

Future of Adventure

  • For more innovations that let us experience the world in thrilling new ways, go to cnn.com/adventure

    Then there’s the SkiGull’s retractable, flexible ski system.

    The skis provide five times the shock absorption deflection of a typical land plane, making it possible for the SkiGull to operate in considerably rougher environments than most other seaplanes.

    This includes the ability to perform water landings on beach waves and ocean crests.

    Small wheels protrude from the bottom of the skis, making it possible to land on surfaces such as snow or grass.

    Unconventional structure

    According to Rutan, the SkiGull’s all-composite structure means he can avoid conventional structural design and fabrication methods.

    No specific details have been made available yet, although he does give an intriguing hint: “For now all I can say is that its structure is more like nature than conventional.”

    The SkiGull might well be the last of Burt Rutan’s creations.

    “It will be the last time I design and build an airplane, since I want to enjoy this one for myself,” says the 72-year-old Rutan.

    He’s already planning to fly the SkiGull from Idaho to Hawaii.

    It’s a trip that comes with its own planned moments of bliss.

    “To avoid flying in darkness on the Hawaii trip, we will fly during a low sea-state. (We’ll) land and sleep on the ocean in two hammocks stretched from the two wing-fold fittings to the tail.”

    After Hawaii, he’ll take the SkiGull on a world tour.

    This is where the aircraft’s unique capabilities will come into play.

    “I will explore the world with it, visiting the places you cannot easily get to any other way,” he says.

    “Imagine being able to land in large swells near any ocean shoreline, ride the waves to the beach.”

    Miquel Ros is an aviation blogger and consultant. An economist by background, he’s worked for Flightglobal and Bloomberg. He currently covers the airline industry through Allplane.tv.