In 2010, I traveled to Haiti to deliver medical supplies in the aftermath of the powerful earthquake that leveled much of the area in and around impoverished Port-au-Prince. It was no surprise that the crew of a Quest Kodiak beat me there. After all, the Kodiak was created to serve as a primary workhorse for missionary and humanitarian organizations in the harshest environments they fly. It’s been doing that job, and many others, exceptionally well in the more than six years since Quest handed over the keys to the first customer airplane.
Even though I’d been hearing and reading quite a lot about the Kodiak since it arrived on the scene as a certified airplane, it still offered up a few surprises when I finally got the chance to fly it a couple of months ago. Among the eye-openers was the rotation speed I was quoted: 50 knots. In this hulk of an airplane, I asked? Lynn Thomas, Quest Aircraft’s sales director, assured me the number was correct. I knew the Kodiak had a penchant for getting in and out of some impressively tight places, and even though we were quite a bit lighter than the Kodiak’s max allowable gross weight of 7,255 pounds, I was still a little skeptical about a VR that matched that of a stock Cessna 172.
With half fuel, no passengers and our weight tipping the scale at around 5,000 pounds, Thomas noted we’d be rotating closer to 40 knots if we were departing from a rough strip in some inhospitable corner of the world — precisely where the STOL-minded Kodiak was born to excel. Wow.
We had 6,000 feet of smooth, hard-surface runway ahead of us as I swung the Kodiak onto the active at Fort Lauderdale Executive Airport (KFXE) in Florida — in other words, I wasn’t sweating the takeoff. With a healthy dose of right rudder trim dialed in and 20 degrees of flaps, I advanced the throttle to takeoff power and let her rip. The Kodiak catapulted forward with impressive eagerness, courtesy of the 750 shaft horsepower Pratt & Whitney PT6A-34 bolted to the front. I didn’t even have the chance to blink before the airspeed was coming alive on the Garmin G1000 display and spooling toward the magic 50.
Pulling on the yoke, I noted its heaviness in my hand. Just as I’d suspected — she wasn’t quite ready to fly. As quickly as that thought ricocheted through my brain, our speed was passing through 60 then 70 and headed for 80. We were climbing — briskly, I noted. I was pulling harder until we were climbing sharply at 85 knots indicated. To my satisfaction, I noted that the vertical speed readout showed better than 1,500 fpm.
Before I even had a chance to decide whether I thought the control feel was heavy or light, balanced or not, we’d reached our initial level-off altitude, and I was swinging the Kodiak west to keep us away from Miami’s busy Class B airspace. It was a gorgeous day for flying, with fat cumulus clouds casting big shadows over the Everglades. There were a few bumps, which the Kodiak soaked up easily. The control feel, I finally decided, was just right. This was a nice airplane. Life was good.
I couldn’t help but recall the “fun” I’d had a day earlier swinging a snow shovel like a pickax and chipping an inch of black ice from my driveway after a nasty winter storm clobbered the Northeast. Now, I was sitting comfortably in the Kodiak’s left seat, one hand gently cradling the leather-wrapped yoke as the Everglades’ inhospitable sawgrass marshes slid underneath. Content with the knowledge that the alligators were down there and I was up here, my only real concern was where we’d have lunch once we got to Key West.
Heading to the Keys had been my idea. After all, when somebody offers you the left seat in a brand-new, $2 million turboprop that you’ve been itching to fly and asks where you’d like to go, you’d better make it someplace good. The plan was to meet up at the Kodiak’s temporary home base at the Banyan Air Service FBO at KFXE early in the morning. Since we didn’t have any high-country airstrips nearby — what with the Bitterroot Valley situated many thousands of miles to the west — Key-hopping seemed like a perfect choice to put the Kodiak through its paces.
“Great,” Thomas said when I suggested Key West. “I was afraid you’d want to just go out over the Everglades and do steep turns and stalls.”
Well, I wanted to do that too, but I was eager to use the Kodiak in a way I might if I owned one. The Kodiak is not a common sight in the Keys just yet (three different controllers needed help figuring out just what type of airplane they were dealing with), but it’s starting to become less rare as more people realize this brawny single, an airplane that was created to serve a higher calling, can make one heck of a nice personal airplane too.
If you’re unfamiliar with how Quest Aircraft came into existence, it is a pretty amazing story. It all started with some back-of-the-napkin-type conversations between Tom Hamilton, co-founder of Stoddard-Hamilton Aircraft (former maker of the experimental Glasair and Glastar), and Dave Voetmann, a veteran of missionary aviation. The pair felt the world needed a modern turbine-powered airplane that could allow missionary and humanitarian organizations to perform their demanding work. The Cessna 185, de Havilland Beaver and Helio Courier could all get the job done, but with avgas growing scarcer and costlier in remote places, PT6 turbine power just made sense. That’s when they hatched a plan to develop a clean-sheet airplane specifically suited for humanitarian duty.
Quest Aircraft was founded in 2001 with investment money from missionary organizations that agreed to buy early airplanes. The fledgling company soon built a 27,000-square-foot factory at Sandpoint Municipal Airport in Idaho and started work on a prototype. Two years later to the day, in October 2004, the Kodiak made its first flight. Just two and half years after that milestone, in May 2007, the FAA certified the airplane. Six months later, Quest delivered the first customer Kodiak, an impressive development timeline. Since then, Kodiaks have operated across the globe in places like New Guinea, Indonesia, Africa and elsewhere. The airplane I flew was on its way to its new owner in Brazil.
Turboprop on a Mission
Lately, Kodiaks are also being snapped up by entrepreneurs who are using them as jump planes and floatplanes and for on-demand charter. Governments have bought them for special-mission use, and a number of wealthy individuals have come to view the Kodiak as an ideal aerial SUV, equal parts workhorse and plaything. That’s long been a niche owned by the Cessna Caravan and Pilatus PC-12 — but after flying the Kodiak, I have to admit it can play in the dirt just a little harder than its contemporaries from Kansas and Switzerland.
Besides offering shorter takeoff and landing distances, the Kodiak is also stubbier than either the Caravan or PC-12, allowing it to turn around in tighter places. While it might resemble a Caravan, the Kodiak has a shorter fuselage and wingspan. In fact, the Kodiak can land and turn around in just about the same footprint as a Cessna 206. That’s not a coincidence; it was a key design parameter.
It’s not surprising that some people mistakenly assume there are similarities galore between the Kodiak and the Caravan. After all, they each seat 10 in an unpressurized cabin, have a high wing and strong tricycle gear, sit at about the same ramp height and get their power from a PT6A. But rather than being a Caravan knockoff, Thomas says the Kodiak should really be thought of more as a modern-day de Havilland Beaver — the original heavy-hauling bush plane. The Kodiak can do things a Caravan was never designed to even attempt, such as land on the side of a mountain in a thin strip of cleared jungle with a full load of supplies.
That’s not an indictment of the Caravan — which is in some ways a more capable humanitarian airplane because it has the room inside to carry more — but rather a testimony to the Kodiak’s versatility.
Once we were well out over the Everglades and had climbed high enough, it was time to try some maneuvers. I started with left and right steep turns to get a feel for the airplane, which I noted had a satisfyingly heavy feel while still being quite responsive, without a hint of adverse yaw. The Kodiak comes equipped with an S-Tec 55X autopilot, but we didn’t use it much. Except for a brief few minutes turning it on just so I could say I did, I never touched it again. The more I hand-flew the Kodiak, the more I realized what a pilot’s airplane it really is.
Power-off stalls in the Kodiak were truly impressive. The airplane incorporates a cuffed wing similar to the design on a Cirrus — as angle of attack increases and the burble of air migrates outward, full aileron control is maintained deep into the stall. At max gross weight, the Kodiak stalls at 48 knots indicated. We were reasonably light, and so the stall didn’t break until the low 40s. A wing dropped and the nose fell through the horizon, but that’s about as dramatic as it got before I recovered. On the next stall, Thomas suggested I hold the airplane in the stall and try some shallow turns. With a rate of descent of around 700 fpm, I was able to walk the Kodiak left and right with the stall-warning horn blaring. Talk about a confidence booster.
Once we finished playing over the Everglades, I pointed us south toward the Keys. We joined up with the chain around Islamorada, showing 168 knots true along the way at our relatively low altitude, and then hung a right turn to follow the string of islands that connects the mainland with the Conch Republic. We scanned the turquoise water for manatees but didn’t spot anything other than the occasional sailboat. It was hard to say who was having a better time, but let’s be honest — it was us.
Cheeseburgers in Paradise
Approaching bustling Key West, we swung south out over the water to avoid the Class D airspace surrounding the Naval Air Station Key West on nearby Boca Chica Key. I reduced power to bring us to 110 knots for the downwind and then turned base, putting in a notch of flaps and slowing to 90 knots. Final was flown at 75 knots, a speed that seemed more suitable for a Cessna Skylane than a big, bulky turboprop. Perhaps I forgot what a long-legged airplane I was flying, because the flare didn’t last long before the mains touched. At least we didn’t bounce.
With a fistful of beta thrust and light braking, I turned us off the runway and headed for parking at the FBO, where we grabbed a cab and headed over to Duval Street for cheeseburgers. We shared a ride with three gentlemen who’d flown to Key West from France in their TBM 700 — all they wanted to talk about on the way was the Kodiak. What speed did Thomas usually flight plan for? One hundred seventy-five knots. What was the fuel burn? About 40 gallons an hour. What was the takeoff ground roll? Today, probably about 600 feet. They seemed impressed, as were we with their epic journey. In the end, we all agreed both the TBM 700 and the Kodiak are really cool airplanes.
After grabbing lunch and iced teas at the Rum Barrel Bar and Grill and taking in some of the sights, we headed back to the airport and prepared to depart. During the preflight, I had a chance to explore some features of the Kodiak I’d missed back in Fort Lauderdale. It was easy to understand why aviation mission fliers, humanitarian organizations, doctors and others love this airplane. The cabin is essentially a big aluminum-wrapped box measuring 54 inches wide, 57 inches high and almost 16 feet long. There’s room for eight passengers in back in the midlevel Timberline interior installed in the airplane I flew. The utility interior is the Tundra, which is designed for light weight and durability. There is also an executive interior called the Summit package, which includes a club-seating layout.
Entry and exit is a cinch thanks to the Kodiak’s three big doors — one for the pilot, one for the copilot (or nonflying passenger) and a large clamshell door in back for passengers and cargo loading. The rear door includes automatically retracting and extending steps built into the lower section. Another hallmark of the Kodiak is the cabin floor track system that allows for quick reconfiguration of the seats, which can be removed swiftly and stowed, allowing for a variety of layouts. Once the seats are out (a process that takes one person about 10 minutes to complete), the floor panels can be lifted to reveal all the mechanical and electrical components that might need attention. From an ease-of-maintenance standpoint, it is abundantly clear that the Kodiak was designed by pilots and mechanics who had spent considerable time living with their airplanes in the bush.
Starting the Kodiak’s PT6 is a simple and straightforward affair. The normal procedure involves switching on the master and aux fuel pump, hitting the igniter and introducing fuel at 14 percent N1. You keep the starter engaged until reaching 50 percent and then switch off the igniter and aux fuel pump and turn the generator and alternator on, all while monitoring the gauges. On the way out, we taxied past a Key West Seaplanes Stationair on floats. I couldn’t help but imagine a couple of Kodiaks on floats serving as great additions to the fleet. (Quest offers Wipline 7000 floats to buyers, and an additional float option is coming soon, Thomas says.)
We took off to the east, retracing our path until we reached Marathon Key, the location of the only other public-use airport in the Keys. From there, we headed north toward Florida Bay, climbing over some showers that had moved into the area. The Kodiak, by the way, loves to climb. We went as high as 9,500 feet, a touch lower than the altitude where the airplane normally cruises. Though it’s certified to a ceiling of 25,000 feet, the low teens are more typical. Negotiating the Florida airspace as we approached Miami was no trouble thanks to the G1000, which in the Kodiak comes standard with synthetic vision, electronic checklists, TAWS and available options, including Jeppesen charts, traffic and XM weather, plus Garmin weather radar, icing protection and air conditioning.
On the way back into Fort Lauderdale, I shot the ILS to Runway 8 with a 10-knot wind right down the pike. At our light weight, Thomas suggested a power setting of 420 foot-pounds of torque to put us at 72 knots indicated inside the marker. This would be a simulated short-field landing, and I’d be using the numbers as my imaginary touchdown point. By now, I was much more accustomed to sight view in the flare. We touched down right on the centerline after minimal float, and I exited the runway at the second turnoff, again using braking and beta thrust to shorten the ground roll.
Quest’s biggest challenge now will be in continuing the good thing it started with the highly capable Kodiak. I wondered if that might mean introducing another airplane at some point (maybe a twin?), but that discussion has barely started, Thomas insists. Quest is simply too busy at the moment delivering on its promise of building a reliable, simple, powerful and good-flying bush plane that is as equally adept at carrying a load of doctors and medicine into a disaster zone as it is alighting on a fun quest for a cheeseburger in paradise. With additional options and refinements on the way — and more capability being added to the Garmin cockpit with each new software release — the Kodiak will remain a potent performer for years to come.
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