If Quest erred at all in the design of the Kodiak, it was consistently in favor of beef and sheer power. You can see that when you walk around the airplane on the ramp. Its massive gear, huge struts, outsized tail and pie pan-sized brakes are intended to do the job, and a lot more. And when I had a chance to tour the factory and see the airplanes in various stages of construction, it was even clearer. From the industrial-scale milled wing spars and gear boxes, huge flap tracks, and oversized tail feathers, to the minute attention to detail on prepping and corrosion proofing just about every part that goes on the airplane, it's obvious that details matter. When you're arriving at dusk at a mountain strip in Ecuador that's a two-day donkey ride from the nearest town, you can't afford a broken part. And Quest never forgets that its airplane is going to live its life getting beaten up in the rough.
The downside is, you have to be careful about weight. Airplanes like the Kodiak are intended to carry heavy loads on an every flight basis. Every ounce that goes into the airplane gets subtracted from its useful load. Based on the numbers, the aforementioned 2,000-pound useful load with around half tanks, Quest clearly paid attention to weight where it counted.
Inside, the airplane is functional yet matter of fact. Even in the cockpit, things aren't built for appearance but for function and with constant attention, again, to weight. The result is a clean, no-nonsense cockpit that might seem underbuilt to those used to flying King Airs and Otters. But I think that it's just another example of Quest's design philosophy, namely, that more is better only when it makes a functional contribution to the mission.
The plan had been to make an afternoon tour of a few Idaho backcountry strips, but because of the low weather, there were few, if any, that looked landable.
As we flew into the area of mountainous terrain, I began to think about a few pertinent facts. First, the Kodiak has one engine. Second, if you have an engine failure here, you're going to be lucky to find a place to put the airplane down and survive. Third, it's tremendously reassuring to have a PT-6 up front. Not that they can't fail; it's just much less likely to happen than with a piston engine.
As we flew, we began to wonder if we'd even be able to get into Big Creek. In fact, it didn't look likely. But as things progressed, we kept on finding one new opening after another. Big Creek was open.
As we descended below the ridgelines and approached the airport (and "airport" is a stretch), we were dwarfed by the near-10,000-foot peaks on either side. We wound our way first left, though a big mountain valley, and then right. "Aim right at that notch in the mountain, "Kenny instructed, local knowledge apparently being everything, "then make a sharp left turn. You'll start to see the strip then."
I approached the notch (a scar from a massive, recent landslide), waiting for the lodgepole pines to grow large in my view, and then banked left. At first there was nothing, then -- sure enough -- there it was, Big Creek. It didn't look quite as unlikely as I'd feared.
We were approaching from the north, so we'd be straight in for the south runway, a wide, bumpy but well-groomed grassy strip that rises at a steep, 3-degree grade. I clicked in a notch of flaps, pulled back the power and started down. Another flip of the flap switch, airspeed good, heading right for the "numbers." Final notch, 75 knots, 70 knots, sink rate good, trees rising high on either side.
"Good flare, not too much, "I reminded myself, knowing that the rising runway would make it look as though my attitude was too low. The wheels touched, maybe a hundred down the strip. I held the nose off, as we bam-bammed down the strip, the uphill grade helping slow us, using a little brake, then letting off and letting the airplane's momentum take us the rest of the way uphill toward a grassy parking area at the crest.
When it comes to accommodating a heavy load, whether cargo or passengers, the Kodiak offers a lot of flexibility. To start with, there are three doors, one for the pilot, one for the copilot (a spot sure to be occupied on a regular basis by a nonflying passenger), and a big clamshell door in back for passengers and cargo loading. Because it's nonpressurized, the Kodiak can have big doors (and windows, too) without undue weight penalties. The rear clamshell cargo door, in particular, is very light and ingeniously designed, with automatically retracting and extending steps built into the lower section. To allow for quick reconfiguration, the seats are attached to a track system that allows them to be removed quickly and then stowed, allowing for a wide variety of layouts.
While the airplane I flew was outfitted with the mid-level Timberline interior, an attractive and rugged choice, there are two other options. The utility interior is the Tundra, which is light, tough and minimalist. And Quest is working on an executive interior, called the Summit package, which will include a club seating layout. The upscale interior, expected to be available by this summer, will offer several new amenities, including improved sound proofing -- it's not a quiet airplane by any stretch -- and upgraded materials, including leather for the seats.