Tag Archives: Feathercraft Aironaut inflatable kayak

Feathercraft Aironaut IK

Discontinued
Updated summer 2020
Early owner’s review

Feathercraft’s short-lived Aironaut IK was a breath of fresh air. As with their folders, FC managed to turn the usual IK sow’s ear into a very silky looking purse. With all kayaks, it’s the sensation of gliding or responsiveness to forward paddle strokes that’s as much appeal as being in the outdoors, and judging from looks alone, the Aironaut did that better than other IKs even if the concept may have been flawed and the boat was discontinued.

fcassem

The Airo was pitched as a convenient, nippy recreational day boat for folks who find Feathercraft folding kayaks a faff to set up on the spur of the moment (left) and a pain to store or transport assembled.
It’s the relative assembly effort and complexity as well as assembly time that can kill spontaneity, especially if you’re at an age when you’re no longer as supple as a leaping salmon. I’ve also encountered the hard rock fragility of ally-framed folders to which IKs are immune, though both are susceptible to cuts and abrasions. With an IK you just tip it out of the bag, fit the skeg, pump up three chambers and get in ~ about ten minutes. But for sea touring I still suspect that once assembled, a Feathercraft Kahuna is easier to manage in strong winds, something which I’ve found can limit an IK.

A few years ago I briefly owned Feathercraft’s Java, what they rightly call a ‘sit on top’ IK, but I didn’t get on with it (read in the link). The Airo was a conventional sit in IK, complete with a fixed deck like the long discontinued but very hefty Gumotex Seakers. By IK standards, even the Aironaut name is clever too, suggesting a light, cutting edge boat. From the images it’s got to be the slickest-looking IK out there, though the competition isn’t that great.

The magic numbers are: 4.5m  (14’ 9”) long,  66cm  (26”) wide, a weight of just 9kg (20 lbs) and a modest payload of 136kg. The rest you read here is my usual speculation based on those details and the photos I have pinched from the Feathercraft Aironaut webpage and ebay.

airotop

airoside

airomen

As with my old Incept K40, using ‘plastic’ coated fabrics means it can all can be heat-welded together which you presume is cleaner and less expensive than gluing by hand and then squeezing in a press. Urethane-coated nylon may not sound such a ‘high quality, technical fabric’ (to quote the FC blurb), but pack boat manufacturers are notoriously cagey about fabric specifics. As with Alpacka packrafts, exactly what type of urethane is key, as is the composition of the nylon base. Both may be custom specified from a source manufacturer to deliver certain properties. A nylon weave base fabric is supposedly more stretchy than polyester which is good against spikes, but less good in containing a rigid inflatable form. That’s why it needed to run a high pressure.

airohull

My Incept was a fast IK, aided by a notably slick PVC-urethane coating over a ‘1100 polyester dtex’ (= about 1000D)  base. Knowing that, suddenly the Airo’s 420D doesn’t sound so robust, but that’s how Feathercraft managed to halve the weight of a K40 which otherwise has very similar dimensions. Another clue might be in the payload given at 136kg; the Airo’s many tubes may add up to a relatively small volume. The Incept by comparison was rated at 160kg.

airocalm

They achieve that amazing weight by fabricating the Airo from 210D urethane-coated nylon on the deck and multi-tubed black sides – and 420D in the hull (hard to tell the later two apart in most pics). So it’s a regular three-chamber IK. When I recall December’s Supai packraft was made from 75D polyester, triple that for the sides and six times for the hull sounds reassuring, though direct denier comparisons are misleading. It’s about weave density not final fabric thickness.

airoroof

The Airo had Halkey inflation valves like the Incept, and pressure-release valves on all three chambers. PRVs are vital so the seams won’t stress and pop if it gets hot (as happened to my Java). I’m always a little perturbed that my high pressure Grabner had no PRVs and added them to my Gumotex Seawave’s sides for protection with higher pressures.

However, see the link at the bottom of the page. It seems the combination of a long, solo IK made from a thin fabric needed a high 5psi rating to not fold in the middle, but even with PRVs all round, there were reports of a couple of Aironauts blowing apart irreparably which may be why it was discontinued (FC claimed ‘high costs’) before FC actually closed down for good. You might think: fit lower rated PRVs to spare the hull, but if the boat was designed to work at 5psi, anything less would see it sag like a Sevylor bloat, especially with a girthsome paddler.

Airo+Seawave

Also like my old Sunny, Incept, Grabner and Seawave (left, alongside and Airo), the Aironaut is a European-style ‘tubeless’ IK with no slip-in sponsons (‘inner tubes’) to give a hull shell its form. Perhaps that was necessary to run a high 5psi (0.34 bar) pressure, something which requires a good pump as well as good construction if it’s not to leak at weak points. Once on the water though, high pressure hulls have real benefits in terms of hardshell-like hull rigidity and paddling efficiency. Look at the pictures and see how straight the kayaks appear, even allowing for light paddlers (and compare to my Java here). Then factor in the Airo’s Java-like cheese-cutting bow and I suspect this may a fast IK, and all without clumsy and bulky stiffening rods or D/S floors. It’s no great surprise that it was Feathercraft who managed it, but it seems it was flawed.

FC seem keen on you using their sea sock insert which fits around the coaming and stops the boat filling right up in a capsize. I must say the thought of snagging that while trying to get out in a hurry would be a worry.
It’s also a little unnerving that they include a paddle float in the package (left), admitting perhaps that the 26-inch wide Aironaut is a relatively tippy IK and getting back into the cockpit will be tricky on the high and buoyant Aironaut. I tried it with the Incept once, but as we know, practise near the shore with a mate taking photos is not the same as tipping over out at sea, especially when alone. You would be better off getting the knack of eskimo rolling with this boat.

At 75cm long (26.5 inches) the Aironaut’s cockpit hatch is the same as my mate’s ally-framed Big Kahuna. In all my clobber and fluctuating girth I wouldn’t want it any smaller, though I imagine there is more’ squidging’ space and no Kahuna bars getting in the way; instead there are the thigh straps – essential for rolling and bracing. You also get a spray skirt plus a detachable, low profile skeg which is also a good idea at sea; the latter in my experience is much less faff than a rudder which I’ve found to be inadequate anyway once a tailwind gets beyond a certain strength. Good on FC for including all this in the package. Grabner and others take note.

The Feathercraft Aironaut was made in Canada and went for around CAN$3000 or the same price as the otherwise similar Incept K40 which is hard to find in Europe now.

airoflot

Compared directly with the K40, the Aironaut was nearly half the weight, had a fixed deck which to me limited the appeal, had a simple skeg instead of a complex rudder, was a little narrower but a little longer, ran less payload and was supposedly tippy which, however they did it, the K40 never really was. Judging by other FCs I’ve tried and owned, I bet the Airo was better made than the K40 too, though that weight-saving fabric choice appears to be at the a cost of durability.

Airo flaws; a discussion thread – Paddling impression

Feathercraft Java kayak review

In early 2016, Feathecraft dropped the Java/Gemini and Aironaut to stick with folding kayaks.
In 2017 Feathecraft closed for good.

javasectionIn 2007 I was looking to move on from my Sunny to something a bit longer and self-bailing. The two boats that appealed to me at the time were Aire’s hefty and wide Super Lynx and a Feathercraft Java (since then many new contenders have come on the scene). I decided to treat myself to the more expensive but lighter Java and picked one up from the clued-up FC dealer in Durango a few weeks after originally ordering it from a less reliable counterpart in NYC.
Set up is pretty straightforward: you slot in the keel- and skeg pole and then the side poles, velcro it all in place, attach the seat by seemingly too many straps, pump up the four sponsons and off you go. Realistically, 20 minutes is a good assembly time.
It’s a sleek-looking boat for an IK; still today nothing else comes close, but one of the biggest hassles are the inflation valves: basic turn-and-lock elbow valves seemingly off the end of a cheap Thermarest (or indeed an Alpacka where they work fine javahullto top up, not inflate). The thin plastic hose on the hand pump supplied pushes on, but when it’s hot or wet it twists off, or if you pump too hard it blows off and the air leaks out. As there’s no one-way valve, you have to screw it shut quick.
I thought for a while there was some component missing from the pump but no, this was it. I found holding the hose onto the valve with one hand while pumping the two-way pump with the other was an awkward but more effective way of inflating. Even if it’s bigger, give me a foot pump any day. Or regular one-way valves and a K-Pump.
At 28 inches (71cm) wide, it’s just 2 inches narrower than the Sunny but feels much narrower – chiefly because you sit high ON it, rather than in it. FC are right in describing the Java as an inflatable sit-on-top. As you can see in the pics, under my 95kg weight, the poles are more there to aid the hull profile than enable longitudinal rigidity. It’s 15 feet 4 inches (4.65m) long but you can’t get much into the last foot-and-a-half at each end; the usual problem with IKs.
I took it out for a scoot across the Vallecito reservoir in Colorado one evening with the two inner (floor) sponsons not too firm and was relieved to find it not too tippy. On the way back I struggled with the pump some more to firm up the inner sponsons and found it a bit less stable but still OK, and probably faster. And before I got caught out, I practiced getting back in off the water; as long as I crawled aboard without any sudden movements it could be done in calm flat water. But who ever falls out in calm water?

The retractable skeg is a great idea that’s only really possible on a bailer, but with the middle sponsons firmly pumped up the actuating string which comes up between them gets jammed. It’s best to manually make sure the skeg is fully down before setting off which partly negates the retractable feature. At least you know that if it snags on the river bed it will just pivot up (but then won’t come down again). A good fix to help the skeg pivot with the string lever would be to have the string passing through a short section of thick garden hose or plastic tube jammed between the sponsons so enabling it to slide freely. The slot through which the skeg passes is also the bailing hole, designed I am told, to suck water out of the boat with a venturi effect as it moves over still water (less effective in a current going with the boat). Can’t say I noticed water rising as I stopped, but it sounds plausible.

Paddling without the skeg was OK on flat water but with it deployed you can power on. The solid footrests, thigh straps and comfy seat (also inflatable) all help here. One problem with the footrests is the angle they sit on the poles forces your knees outwards into the paddle arc. I also wondered how secure they were, screwed down to merely butt against a protruding rivet in the pole. A flat rather than pointy end to the securing screw pin sitting against the 2mm-high rivet might be better and could easily be done. Anyway they never shifted during the easy paddling I did.
The Java has neat cargo nets: easy to use and secure. I’ve since bought a pair for my Sunny. Inflation valve design apart, workmanship is what you’d expect for over $2000 with good attention to detail. The ‘envelope’ or hull doesn’t really need to be sealed in any way as the four sponsons or bladders slot into their respective hull envelopes and, with the poles, make this pile of nylon and rubber into the only IK I know that looks close to a proper sea kayak.
Next day disaster struck. I left the boat drying on the roof of the car in the forest camp – black hull side up…  and went out very early to Silverton on the steam train. It had been a week of huge storms in the Rockies and camped in the forest I figured it would be OK in the shade and probable afternoon storm. But on the way back, when the bus driver mentioned it was a hot afternoon in Durango I thought “oh dear, I hope it hasn’t…”
It had. The thick black hull rubber had caught the sun nicely as it passed over the clearing and ruptured three of the sponsons. My lovely new boat, not one day out of the bag was a floppy mess. I yanked out a limp sponson (easily done) and found the rather light, flysheet-like ripstop nylon cover material split, and pinprick holes in the airtight polyurethane that the nylon was bonded to. That was the end of my Java paddling in CO. (A happy ending. I ordered a full set of sponsons from FC in Vancouver and when they discovered the boat was nearly new they generously offered to supply them free of charge. Good on you FC.)
Back home with new bladders, we went to Scotland and I tried out the re-bladdered Java alongside my old Gumotex Sunny. G-friend’s first impression was that I was too big for it – probably due to its SoT stance she had a point – and that also it was too fiddly to set-up for my keep-it-simple prefs. She had a point again, and although it’s amazingly light for what it was, it’s still pretty bulky. In Denver I’d spend hours packing it carefully for the flight back for fear of having the near yard-long hull poles damaged in transit. On my bathroom scales in the blue holdall ready to paddle it weighs 17kg (37.5lbs). The boat’s envelope alone (no seat or tubes) weighs 9kg (19.8lbs). In other words, about the same as my Sunny but two and a half feet longer.


On the lochs the long, thin Java slipped along, with a speed of 10kph (6.2 mph) flashing on the GPS for a second, though 4mph was a more sustainable speed (video above). Let me tell you that is a very good speed for an IK, comparable with the Incept K40 I bought a few years later. There are more useful speed stats on inlotusland’s blog about a lake near Vancouver in a blue Java. The initial high speeds were with a backwind but seem only a little better than my Grabner. Coming back next day he was down to 2.5mph so that must have been a stiff headwind.
The Java kayak didn’t really feel right to me: the old problem of too narrow and me sitting too high for my weight. An experienced hardsheller would probably not javabailerhave any issues. We went on to a freshwater loch, a little windier by now. I tried to visualise myself in a fairly normal one-metre swell out at sea. The rocks hadn’t really added an impression of stability (as they can do on other tippy IKs) and overall, with the height/width relationship (left) I didn’t feel confident anticipating less than calm conditions I wanted to be able to face.
Back at the chalet the biggest hassle of all: the Java takes hours to dry – maybe even days. But dry well it surely must, especially when rinsed after a sea paddle. Sure, I’d read about this in some reviews, but it now dawned on me that the problem was common to all sponson/bladder IKs (like all Aires). Some water will always get in the hull sleeves/envelopes holding the bladders as well as other crannies, and once there will always take a while to evaporate.
A spin in my basic Gumotex Sunny reminded me what a great boat it was – quick to set up, fast drying and good enough performance. If only it bailed. The Java got itself sold on ebay. Lesson: try before you buy and if it’s not possible (as it wasn’t for me in the UK, short of flying to Vancouver), be prepared to make a mistake.
Another Java review by a Brit sea angler here. That must have been two Javas in the UK! And there’s some Java chat on FoldingKayak.org. This guy in BC also had a Java then got a Gumo 410C. Looking at his pictures, I’m struck how ‘perched’ he looks while still being high in the water.
In 2011 I gave my sun-faded Sunny away and got myself an Incept K40 Tasman (see stats at the top of the page). The K40 was less fiddly than the Java to set up, though the time taken is about the same, but I still miss the ‘pump and go’ simplicity of the Sunny. That is why I then got myself a Grabner Amigo. But I sold that and got a Seawave, my best IK yet. I’ve had it 4 years.