As investigators probe fatal Halladay crash, critics question plane's marketing

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The remains of an ICON A5 ultralight airplane are moved from a boat ramp in the Gulf Harbors neighborhood of New Port Richey, Fla., on Wednesday, Nov. 8, 2017. The private plane, which belonged to Roy Halladay had just been removed from the shallow waters off Ben Pilot Point in New Port Richey where it crashed Tuesday, killing the 40-year-old former Toronto Blue Jays and Philadelphia Phillies pitcher. (Douglas R. Clifford/Tampa Bay Times via AP)

In his brief time flying his brand-new $389,000 plane, former Phillies ace Roy Halladay could barely contain his thrill at piloting the futuristic aircraft.

“I keep telling my dad flying the Icon A5 low over the water is like flying a fighter jet! His response ….. I am flying a fighter jet!!,”  Halladay tweeted just a week ago.

That tweet took on an ominous cast Wednesday as the TMZ website made public cellphone video showing Halladay’s plane diving close to the sea before the fatal crash. One eyewitness wondered out loud for TMZ whether Halladay had been “showboating.” Another says, “That can’t be legal.”

As a National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) team arrived in New Port Richey,  Fla., on Wednesday to find an official cause for the accident, the video also provided an alarming coda to past warnings about how the Icon A5 had been marketed by its California manufacturer. The firm sold the plane as perfect for new pilots — and with flashy videos showing its ability to maneuver at low attitudes.

Investigators pulled the plane from the water Wednesday, placing it on a flatbed truck to be hauled away for further investigation. They said they had retrieved two flight data recorders and the plane had no cockpit recorder.

NTSB accident investigator Noreen Price declined to comment on the TMZ video at a news conference Wednesday, but said, “Generally a lot of witnesses have said that the plane was maneuvering at a low altitude.”

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Since the recreation-oriented plane first rolled out two years ago, only about 25 Icon A5s have taken to the air. Of those, three have crashed. The last fatal crash killed the plane designer. The NTSB blamed the designer’s piloting and not his machine for the accident.

Halladay, 40,  who lived near the crash site, died when the two-seat A5 crashed at 12:06 p.m. Tuesday in the Gulf of Mexico about a half-mile off the coast. The single-engine plane plummeted at low tide into water only a few feet deep in a “high-impact” crash, the NTSB said.

Halladay had owned the plane for less than a month.

Alone in the flight, Halladay took off without filing a flight plan, authorities said. Halladay likely took off from nearby Odessa, where he lived with his wife and two teenage sons, Price said

A methodical and disciplined ballplayer, Halladay pitched for the Toronto Blue Jays for 11 years before joining the Phillies in 2010. A two-time Cy Young Award winner, he threw a perfect game on May 29, 2010, in Miami against the Marlins and on Oct. 6, 2010, he hurled a no-hitter against the Cincinnati Reds in Game 1 of the National League Divisional Series at Citizens Bank Park. He retired in 2013.

Barred from obtaining a pilot’s license while in Major League Baseball, Halladay, the son of a pilot, had flown other planes in retirement, but raved about the A5. In all, he had about 700 hours of flying time on planes other than the Icon.

The A5 has folding wings. It is amphibious. In just two minutes, the sales pitch goes, its owner, working alone, can fold up the wings, put the aircraft on a trailer, and tow it to a lake or ocean for takeoff and landing. It does have wheels, however.

Unlike standard seaplanes, the A5 has no pontoons, a key factor that permits its streamlined appearance. Its fuselage serves as a hull when the plane is on water. The fuselage also comes equipped with a diving platform.

“The combination of folding wings, amphibious capability, and an optional custom trailer means you can own an A5 without ever setting foot on an airport,” the company says.

In May, the plane’s designer, John Murray Karkow, 55, was killed along with a colleague, Cagri Sever, 41, the company’s new director of engineering, when their Icon hit a canyon wall in California while flying low over water. The NTSB blamed pilot error, saying Karkow was confused about which canyon he was flying into.

The month before that, another A5 crashed off Key Largo, Fla., injuring the pilot and his passenger. The pilot told investigators the plane descended faster than he expected.

Even before Tuesday’s fatal accident, Icon had come under criticism for a marketing campaign that has sold the A5 as the ideal plane for new pilots, with its videos showing the craft at low attitudes. The company has said as many as 40 percent of those who put down money to buy the plane were nonpilots; Icon offers classes to obtain a pilot’s license on its website.

In a prophetic message, John Zimmerman, a pilot and aviation blogger, predicted in a post in 2015 that some pilots might find themselves in trouble with the plane.

“The most serious risk may be the A5’s safety record, which I predict will be poor, at least early on,” he wrote.

“This won’t be due to a flawed design: the airplane looks well thought-out and designed with safety in mind. But its job as a purely recreational airplane (and, let’s be honest, the flashy marketing videos) practically begs pilots to hot dog.

“Pilots who want to fly fast and low may think this is the perfect airplane, and it won’t be long before an A5 and a water-skier meet under less than ideal circumstances. Stay tuned for some idiotic YouTube videos.”

In an interview Wednesday, Stephen Pope, editor-in-chief of Flying Magazine, also raised questions about the company’s marketing and sales videos. “Icon very aggressively markets its planes to nonpilots,” he said. “If you look at the instruments in its cockpit, it looks like a  sports car.”

At the same time, Pope had high praise  for the craft itself. “There’s nothing wrong with this airplane,” he said. “The airplane design is very safe. It’s a good airplane.”

In a separate interview, James Campbell, another aviation journalist, said he also had been struck by the videos, depicting “really radical” turns, pitches and rolls, all “to increase the thrill factor.”

Perhaps reflecting those concerns, Icon only last month posted on its website a guide to “low-altitude flying.”  It reminded pilots that going below 300 feet is considered low.

Asked directly Wednesday about its marketing pitches, Icon said Wednesday it would have no comment. Instead, it referred reporters to its statement released Tuesday, praising Halladay as a “great advocate and friend of ours.”

Indeed, in his tweets and in a promotional video made for Icon (since pulled from its website), Halladay spoke highly about the plane. “What do clouds feel like? I didn’t know either until I got my new Icon A5! I’m getting bruises on my arms from constantly pinching myself!” he wrote in one tweet before his plane arrived Oct. 12.

At one point on the video, he said that  his wife didn’t want him to buy the plane.  “She fought me the whole way,” he said.

“Hard,” Brandy Halladay replied. “I fought hard. I was very against it.”

This article contains information from the Tampa Bay Times.