It was a cruddy day to go mountain flying. A ragged gray overcast stretched over Western Washington State, high enough to make for good VFR under the deck near Spokane, but it promised to be a more complicated journey to the east, where the spine of the Bitterroots juts out, rising to 10,000 feet at the highest peaks.
I was finally right where I'd wanted to be for the past couple of years, sitting in the left seat of the big Kodiak single, a new turboprop single from a startup company that's focused not so much on the bottom line as on helping others.
Our cruising altitude of 5,500 feet looked like a workable altitude for the time being, though it was only a matter of time, I knew, before we'd have to climb in order to top the real terrain beyond Lewiston. Luckily, the bases were forecast to climb too. We'd see how things looked as we got farther down the line.
I was flying with Quest engineering test pilot Kenny Stidham and sales director Lynn Thomas. Lynn was in back and had eight seats all to himself. The plan was for me to get a few landings in at Lewiston, a paved, tower-controlled airport, before we hit the back country and its optimistically situated little grass strips along the river canyons. As I'd never even set foot in the Kodiak before, a few practice laps before jumping in with the piranhas sounded like an excellent idea.
As we approached Lewiston, Idaho, right on the Washington state line, the terrain rose up below. If you're ever flown in the Inner Northwest, you know that these are some of the most extreme and inhospitable lands in the Lower 48. Lewiston, situated along the aptly named Snake River, is an outpost, and just a few, improbable roads give nonairborne access to the area. As we crested the high ridgeline just beyond the river, the airport finally came into view, put down in probably the only spot of land it would fit, still thousands of feet below and looking as improbable as the early explorers' dreams.
But one of the great things about a turboprop is that it's easy to lose altitude. Pull the power lever back, point the nose down, and hope that your ears can keep up. I did just that, and the big 96-inch Hartzell prop flattened out, as we headed down at 1,500 fpm.
As I leveled off the big single at pattern altitude, the tower controller at Lewiston asked, "What's the designation on that Kodiak? It's not in my database."
Airplane as Journey
Flashback to 1998. Tom Hamilton, founder of kitplane success story Stoddard-Hamilton Aircraft, makers of the Glasair lineup, and Dave Voetmann, a veteran of the mission aviation world, came up with a plan to create an airplane specially suited for mission use. In their mind that meant an airplane that could haul a large load in and out of short, rough strips while burning jet fuel and complaining very little about the abuse.
Not that those kinds of bush planes didn't exist; they did and do. But costs and/or age are major concerns. The mission fleet is filled with standout designs such as the Cessna 185, Helio Courier and de Havilland Beaver that were first built 50 years ago and last produced a quarter of a century ago. And those airplanes, while legendarily rugged and capable, depend on hard-to-find 100LL. Moreover, they are often expensive to keep in the air, and they can't typically carry the kind of load a turbine-powered airplane can. More modern and powerful models, like the Cessna Caravan and Pilatus PC-12, while remarkably capable and rugged airplanes, are simply beyond the means of most humanitarian organizations.
There did seem to be a niche for Quest, and by 2001 the company had begun operations in Sandpoint, Idaho, a budding resort town 45 minutes by SUV north of Coeur D'Alene. Today Quest, headed by CEO Paul Schaller, is a for-profit company with 250 full-time employees controlled by a not-for-profit trust. Most of its customers -- there is about a three year backlog -- are private individuals, air taxi companies and governmental operators. The company has even certified a jump-plane version that has sparked a lot of interest from parachuting schools and military training groups.
But without mission and humanitarian users, there wouldn't be a Kodiak, for more reasons than one. For starters, the company has financed the development and certification of the airplane largely with money put up by mission groups. In return, those organizations get attractively discounted airplanes. Every 10th Kodiak, in fact, is financed by the other nine airplanes that are sold at regular price to Quest's retail customers.
An Airplane Named the Kodiak
Let's get this out of the way. Yes, the Quest Kodiak bears a passing resemblance to the Cessna Caravan. You're not the first one to think it. It is, in fact, almost without exception the first thing that the folks from Quest hear from prospects when they initially see the airplane. And it's a natural reaction. The airplanes do resemble each other. But before you jump to any conclusions, ask yourself this question, "How can you create a tricycle gear high-wing 10-place airplane with a PT-6 up front and not have it look at least something like a Caravan?"
The dimensions are all different, too. The Kodiak is actually substantially smaller than the Caravan, and it's lighter and more bare-bones than the big Wichita single, too. But admittedly, the general look and feel is very much in keeping with Cessna's remarkable bruiser.