Estimated reading time 20 minutes, 8 seconds.
New products in the aviation industry are released with predictable regularity. Throughout the tradeshow season, any number of new and improved wares will be debuted. While these unveilings can often be significant upgrades or even completely novel goods, rarely are we treated to the introduction of an item that has the promise to not only provide an increased level of pilot safety but also has the potential to save lives. One man’s innovation is well on its way to revolutionizing the way instrument training is conducted for the entire industry. The man is Nick Sinopoli, and his creation is the ICARUS Device.
Becoming an aviation inventor and possibly changing the long-standing methods for instrument training was certainly not on the radar for Sinopoli. The Austin, Texas-native aspired to become a military helicopter pilot, following in his father’s footsteps and earning the same aeronautical engineering degree from Purdue University. He specialized in design, an unexpected harbinger of what his future life would hold in store.
“That was over a decade ago and I never could have imagined that I would be doing this today and that my degree would play such a part in it,” Sinopoli told Vertical Valor.
Following graduation, he was commissioned into the U.S. Navy and was off to Pensacola, Florida, for flight training. His initial instruction was in the then brand-new Beechcraft T-6 Texan II. He continued the quest for his helicopter-flying dreams by choosing the rotor-wing path in the military. Then he was back to Pensacola for training in the Bell TH-57 Sea Ranger, the military version of the Bell 206. Sinopoli soon discovered his limitations, which he readily admits.
“I realized rather quickly that I’m not the most adept instrument pilot,” Sinopoli explained. “What I like about flying helicopters is that it is visual flying, and flying on instruments was not my strong point.” It was at this point in his flight training that a string of events would mold his future endeavors.
During his final approach on his last instrument checkride of Naval flight school, the flimsy piece of paper that Sinopoli was required to use as a view-limiting device (VLD), to block external flight cues and force reliance on instruments during training, got caught up in the visor of his helmet, creating some confusion in the cockpit.
“One knot. I failed my final Navy checkride by one single knot of airspeed. The CTS [course training standards] limitation was 112 knots [207 kilometers per hour] and my Naval flight career ended when I exceeded that to 113 kts [210 km/h],” Sinopoli recalled.
For many, that would have been the end, but not for Sinopoli. This “failure” became an inspiration, along with other impactful life incidents.
“My father was a huge Stevie Ray Vaughan fan, which he passed on to me. His death was caused by an IIMC [inadvertent instrument meteorological conditions] situation. Then there was JFK Jr. and most recently, Kobe Bryant. I also lost a good friend to a spatial disorientation incident,” he related. “It was then that I leaned back on my studies from school. At the time, the Boeing 787 Dreamliner had recently begun flying. If you’ve flown on one, you’re familiar with the windows that have no physical shade, they use an electrochromic film. I thought, if Boeing can figure out how to make this both cost and weight effective and safe, why was I using a piece of paper to train in my helicopter?”
Sinopoli turned to the internet to begin his experimentation of a VLD that would allow for a user-controlled level of clarity to simulate entering poor visibility situations.
“I found a demo kit of PDLC [polymer-dispersed liquid crystal] film for $300,” he said. There was a lot of trial and error, including many electrical shocks, as he ironed out the voltage requirements. “I got a C- in electricity and magnetism in college, so this was a crash course for me, but I knew the potential was there for something that would help pilots fly safer.”
On April 24, 2015, six months after the end of his military flying career, Sinopoli took to the skies with the first flight-ready prototype.
The initial version was a far cry from what is available today. The first attempts involved two sets of safety glasses, similar to standard VLDs, with the PDLC sandwiched between them. The initial patent was approved in June 2016, and in early 2018, Sinopoli got another crack at military flying, this time for the Army National Guard in Lakotas and Black Hawks. During that time, he continued the advancement of the prototype and abandoned the goggle approach.
“We moved away from the traditional goggle style that I had begun with in favor of a visor-style approach,” Sinopoli stated. What he envisioned would allow for a much wider field of view to be covered and would also be versatile in its application to different aircraft. “That was over the summer of 2019 when the basic design and development were close to what you see today. At that same time, we had the app and the power control unit [PCU] configuration dialed in.”
The final form that Sinopoli came up with is a semi-rigid curved visor, constructed with the PDLC and a wraparound carbon fiber frame for strength and weight advantages. Sinopoli also designed it to be used in both airplanes and helicopters. Because very few fixed-wing pilots wear helmets, the device can be attached to the brim of a hat. For helmet-wearing pilots, it mounts to a standard night vision goggle (NVG) mount.
“We listened to the early adopters and found that there was a need for different views for different aircraft. For example, most helicopters are flown from the right seat, but MDs are flown from the left,” he said. “That means that the portion of the pilot’s view that needs to be obstructed during training varies. Also, airplanes have specific needs based on the type and style of the instrument panel. Because of this, the visor can be custom cut to meet your individual requirements.”
The device incorporates a PCU “about the size of a deck of cards and can run for about six hours on a single charge and has controls for manual manipulation of the visor opacity,” Sinopoli explained. The PCU provides both Velcro and clip attachments for various mounting positions.
“The app allows the instructor to wirelessly control the opacity. It has four presets, from clear to almost no visibility, and can be programmed to transition at set times. It also logs IMC time for the trainee.”
As any entrepreneur knows, you need a good name for your product, one that relates to the item and also sticks in the mind of the consumer. For Sinopoli, he created an acronym while incorporating the Greek myth of Icarus, who infamously flew into unfavorable conditions. The result is the Instrument Conditions Awareness Recognition and Understanding System, or ICARUS.
Now Sinopoli needed one more item to make his product a success: customers. Helping immeasurably was Erik Sabiston, best-selling author, U.S. Army helicopter veteran, and now commercial airline pilot. Sabiston said the device is a game-changing revolutionary solution to stop spatial disorientation accidents.
“I’ve punched into IMC five times in my career, so I take this extremely serious,” Sabiston said. “Nick knew of my experiences from my book, Dustoff 7-3, and he saw my work through the RTAG [Rotary to Airline Group] charity. He asked me to join him as his media and marketing guy. It’s the perfect partnership as we’re both true believers in the fight against these accidents.” With the device built and named and the team assembled, Sinopoli would soon realize that the real work was still ahead.
“I knew I had a great idea and a great product, but I faced the challenge of getting it to market,” Sinopoli related. That effort was boosted when he was contacted by Ben Tong of Michigan Helicopters, a tour and training facility located on the fringes of Detroit.
Sinopoli took one of his half-dozen beta versions to Michigan Helicopters as one of his first trials. The success of his efforts was shown when the flight school’s first instrument student using the ICARUS earned her instrument flight rules (IFR) rating in September 2020.
Sinopoli knew that one flight school was not enough, so he took a trip to Texas. “October 2020 was a pivotal time for me. That’s when I dropped a device off at the Bell Training Academy in Fort Worth and flew with one at the Austin Police Department. That’s also when I met Randy.”
Randy Rowles is a well-known name in the helicopter industry. He’s been flying for nearly 40 years, the vast majority of that time as a commercial helicopter pilot. He is also a certified flight instructor – instrument (CFII) and FAA designated pilot examiner (DPE).
As a lifelong advocate of training, Rowles is now the president and director of operations at Helicopter Institute, the preeminent aviation training facility located in Fort Worth. Rowles quickly realized the revolutionary impact this device could have on flight training and has now partnered with Sinopoli and Sabiston.
“I first saw the device by happenstance at an industry meeting and realized it was exactly what was needed,” Rowles related to Vertical Valor. “I believe the ICARUS Device is the premier smart VLD in the industry today. This amazing tool builds a simulation into the actual aircraft and is standardized across multiple models, at one low price. We use the ICARUS at Helicopter Institute, and we love it.”
After years of efforts, in March 2021, the ICARUS Device officially went to market. It didn’t take long for word to spread and the offering to be sought after. One of Sinopoli’s early sales was to Matt Johnson, FAA DPE, Airbus EC145 check airman, and pilot for Metro Aviation. Johnson had purchased one himself for evaluation.
“To say that the ICARUS device is a game-changer would be an understatement,” Johnson said. “It has been the absolute perfect complement to our training and instrument proficiency program.”
Johnson did over 20 hours of testing before committing to the device, and the feedback from his pilots since then has been overwhelmingly positive.
“It has been so rewarding to see a noticeable improvement in pilots’ hand-flying skillset after using the ICARUS Device,” he said. “Like Metro Aviation, Nick Sinopoli and the ICARUS Device comes from humble beginnings and a passion for doing the right thing. His story gives creed to the American dream, all while delivering an unparalleled level of realism for instrument training that can’t be achieved otherwise.”
Sinopoli saw a great opportunity in Metro Aviation. “At that point, there were maybe 30 to 40 of them out in the hands of customers. I remember heading to their headquarters in Shreveport, Louisiana, and going into that meeting thinking, if I sell 10 of these, I’m having a great day. I walked out with a deal to provide them with 60 devices. And they’ve bought even more since then.”
Even with this early success, the journey from idea to production was no walk in the park. Sinopoli said the costs of research and development, components, testing, building the app, delivery, warranty repair, and so on, can all be overwhelming.
“Until recently, everything was done in my own house,” he said. “On top of that, one of my first governmental sales was double-charged by the payment app. That is not a good look for a new company.”
After some of those initial hiccups, government and law enforcement sales began to roll in. One of the first was the Delaware State Police (DSP).
“I saw this device on Facebook and thought it looked like a great concept and wanted to give it a try,” DSP Sgt. Bill White told Vertical Valor. He is also the chief pilot and CFII for both helicopters and airplanes. “I reached out to Nick and got two of them for helicopters and one for the fixed-wing.”
With the challenging coastal weather in Delaware, instrument training is vital for the safe operation of the aircraft. DSP set up scenario-based training involving the entire flight crew, utilizing crew resource management (CRM) to decide if it’s a go or no-go situation.
“That’s where I like the ICARUS and its applicability to our training. Real-world flying can change at a moment’s notice and this device allows us to initiate those weather changes but in a safe, controlled environment.” White said. “We recently had one of our newest PICs [pilots in command] on a flight where the weather was predicted to be fine, but 10 minutes into the flight, things went bad. The training kicked in and the young pilot had a conversation with the medic, and they decided to get an IFR clearance and flew the approach back with no issues.”
Ed Van Winkle, vice president of law enforcement sales and OEM projects with CNC Technologies, is another user and proponent of the ICARUS Device. Van Winkle is also the former commander of the Gainesville Police Department Joint Aviation Unit and a longtime helicopter CFII and airplane pilot, who continues to actively fly and train.
“This VLD is the most revolutionary instrument flight training aid to hit the market in decades,” he said. “It combines the benefits of a flight simulator with the ability for the student pilot to experience reduced visibility in the aircraft that they actually fly.”
Van Winkle has utilized the device during IIMC training for numerous LE agencies across the country with consistently positive feedback from both students and other instructors. He recommends a variety of techniques to get the most from its use.
“Using the gradual transition period, starting with reduced visibility versus full IIMC, and integrating its use into LE orbits are just a few of the methods that will provide the maximum benefit,” he said.
While Metro Aviation continues to be Sinopoli’s largest customer, the U.S. Army is a close second. As of April 2023, after a two-year process to achieve the Army airworthiness release, ICARUS is being dispersed fleet-wide for Black Hawk and Lakota training. “Before the end of 2023, they will be our leading customer in terms of the number of units in use,” Sinopoli declared.
A testament to Sinopoli’s desire to make a product that will have the widest range of applicability is the recent release of the NVG version. “We have a lot of customers that utilize NVGs in their daily flying and training, so we developed an add-on that attaches directly to the goggles,” he explained.
In an attempt to make acquiring the ICARUS Device easier and more streamlined, Sinopoli addressed models and pricing. “Initially, we had an airplane version for $1,000 and a helicopter version for $1,500. We simplified that and it’s now one single model priced at $1,250.”
When purchased, the customer orders the device for the aircraft it will be used in, then Sinopoli will provide the correct size based on his extensive research of panel configurations. The NVG version add-on costs an additional $500.
When asked about the long-term outlook for his company, Sinopoli circles back to his purpose for starting this adventure.
“The goal has always been to get a reduction in the fatal accident rate for pilots flying into IIMC, but not just in America. I would like to see our international sales increase,” he said. “I am always working toward getting more devices out there so that it becomes the training standard. I want to take a real, sizable bite out of the fatal accident rate.”
His intentions also include more segments of the flying community. “Currently, we are heavily involved in the military and LE market. I would like to take it even further into the general aviation world.”
Unfortunately, aviation weather-related accidents may never be eliminated completely. However, all who have flown with the ICARUS Device seem to agree that it can make a difference. And that is exactly what Sinopoli wants, to make a difference, and most importantly, to save lives.