With Jon Karkow’s Passing, Aviation Loses a Star

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I flew with aeronautical designer and test pilot Jon Karkow on just one occasion, during a test flight of the Virgin Atlantic GlobalFlyer above the Mojave Desert in October of 2004, while I was covering the program for Popular Science. Millionaire adventurer Steve Fossett was at the controls of the single-seat experimental aircraft, which he commissioned for a record-setting round-the-world solo flight; Karkow and I flew chase in a twin-engine Beechcraft. The two pilots communicated by radio as Fossett steered the airplane through maneuvers meant to help him grasp its stability, handling and performance.

GlobalFlyer’s overall design was conceived by Burt Rutan, Jon’s boss at Scaled Composites and the visionary genius behind the Voyager around-the-world aircraft that flew with two pilots in 1981, multiple innovative recreational airplanes, and radical experimental designs for military and commercial clients. But while Rutan birthed the GlobalFlyer concept, Karkow made it real, as he’d done with many other projects at Scaled — including contributing to the SpaceShipOne suborbital spaceplane project and its successor, SpaceShipTwo, now in commercial development by Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic. He honed the aerodynamics, tuned the structure to accommodate nearly 20,000 pounds of fuel in a lean, gangly, glider-like configuration, and he flew it first. Because not only was Karkow a brilliant engineer, he was also a supremely capable test pilot. When it came time to try out the awkward, tricky beast, Scaled handed Karkow the keys. He executed all the test flights before handing it over to Fossett.

Not only was Karkow a brilliant engineer, he was also a supremely capable test pilot.

Karkow left Scaled in 2007 to join Icon Aircraft, an aviation startup developing a lightweight, amphibious recreational aircraft called the A5. There, the engineer achieved a remarkable feat — creating the first aircraft to be certified by the FAA as spin-resistant, an aeronautical Holy Grail of safety. Its uniquely designed wing remains stable even if the airflow around it is disrupted because of low speed or unsafe maneuvering. Because the A5 would be flown by relatively inexperienced pilots — it was launched to take advantage of the FAA’s less cumbersome Light Sport Aircraft certification — Icon wanted it to be far safer than the average airplane. I flew it around Manhattan for Gear Patrol, and it was a thrill — fun, stable, and easy to fly. If I had $200,000+ in disposable income, I’d go all in on an A5 over a Lambo or Ferrari any day.

Icon Aircraft has struggled recently, suffering financial and production setbacks as it works to bring the A5 to life. Yesterday, however, the company confronted abject tragedy. Karkow, 55, and Icon employee Cagri Sever, 41, perished in an accident while flying an A5 over Lake Berryessa in Napa County, California, near the company’s facility. Never mind the potential impact of the crash on the Icon’s future — a final report on the cause won’t be released for months, and little is known about what happened at the moment — the loss is staggering. Karkow was an exceptionally highly regarded engineer in the aviation industry, though a soft-spoken presence. He was the steady, guiding hand behind the innovation of many vehicles, and his absence will certainly be difficult for Icon to process.

He was the steady, guiding hand behind the innovation of many vehicles, and his absence will certainly be difficult for Icon to process.

But Karkow will be missed for many other reasons. While working with him covering GlobalFlyer more than a decade ago, I came to appreciate his reserve, his good humor, and his intellect. There are many personalities in aviation — cocky fighter-jocks, adrenaline junkies, strong silent types, loudmouthed blowhards, rich guys in pressed white shirts, techies — but Karkow was very much his own sort within that universe. He was quiet and bookish, but as inspired and passionate about aviation as any of his contemporaries. He was also rigorously professional; flying with him was a high-confidence experience with no worries that he wouldn’t ever have everything in hand, from takeoff to touchdown.

I also learned by talking with him how much he appreciated the broader adventure of aviation with which he was so deeply engaged. While we were flying above the Mojave, chasing Fossett, I asked whether he himself would want to make the three-day, nonstop round-the-world flight that Fossett was planning in Karkow and Rutan’s bird. He looked at me and nodded slowly. He could do it, quite easily, I’m sure — and without a lot of the mistakes that Fossett made along the way. The wealthy client, who himself was killed in a solo plane crash in 2007, had a bit of an absent-minded-professor reputation in the community. There were rumors about him leaving his business jet on the ramp without chocking the wheels, for instance, and on the GlobalFlyer flight, he placed a clipboard on a switch that vented his emergency oxygen supply early in the 67-hour mission. Karkow would never commit such aeronautical missteps. He was a pilot’s pilot to his core, but also an adventurer in his soul, regardless of whether he had any records under his belt. He designed airplanes, built them and flew them first. There are very few pilots in this world who can say that.

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