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, 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 backcountry 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, 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 non-airborne access to the area. As we crested the high ridge line 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 Pratt & Whitney PT6 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.
So what is the Kodiak? In a giant-sized nutshell, it’s a big sheet-metal, PT6-powered single with long beefy landing gear and a voluminous interior that seats up to 10 or hauls 248 cubic feet of cargo (or 310 cubic feet with an optional bottom-mounted cargo pod). Topped off with 320 gallons of jet-A and up to max weight, it will take off in around 750 feet, fly better than 1,000 nautical miles, cruising at right around 180 knots along the way, and land in less than a thousand feet.
The ballpark cost of the Kodiak, with good standard equipment, including the G1000 suite, and a cargo pod, is just over $1.5 million, a bargain for a turbine airplane with this kind of capability.
The key to the Kodiak’s capability is its power-to-weight ratio, an impressive 9 pounds per horsepower. Even though it weighs just 6,750 pounds, the Kodiak is outfitted with a monstrous 750 shp (700 shp continuous) Pratt & Whitney PT6A-34 engine. With that kind of power it can get itself out of tight spots even while fully loaded. With tanks full the Kodiak can haul 800 pounds. But with tanks only slightly less than half full, which still gives you almost 500 nautical miles of range, it will carry a literal ton of people and/or cargo. That kind of capability gets missions done, and many of those missions save lives.
The centerpiece of the Kodiak design is the wing, a one-off invention that features a discontinuous, cuffed leading edge, like on the Cirrus airplanes. The idea is ingeniously simple. When the stall comes, the leading edge design forces the root, or inboard, part of the wing to stall before the outboard section, which is where the ailerons are. With the outboard wing still flying, the pilot retains control down to and into the stall. As I’d soon find out, when you’re bringing a near-7,000-pound single into a tiny grass strip with little margin for error, every knot counts.
Flying the Bear
The Kodiak flies very much like what it is, a big, relatively heavy single. At the same time, it’s remarkably honest in its response to control inputs, making it, I dare say, an easy airplane to fly. Even though it weighs almost as much as two 182s (and you feel that bulk) it’s certainly no wrestling match to get the airplane to do what you want it to. Indeed, the control feel will be a pleasant surprise to many, even those moving up from true lightplanes. I hopped into the Kodiak with a 20-minute briefing and proceeded to fly it for a couple of days, putting several hours and a handful of landings on it. There’s simply no mystery there.
There was doubtless some luck involved, but my first landing, at Lewiston, was one of my best efforts. Despite a slight crosswind, I was able to set it down right on the aiming point and make the first turnoff with only moderate braking and no use of beta. Our ground roll was about a thousand feet, right around its published ground roll number. And with a little determination and spirited use of the big hydraulic wheel brakes, I’d venture that I could have cut that figure by a lot.
There are several reasons for its good landing manners. First, the visibility is very good out the sides, and to a slightly lesser degree, out front. The flaps, huge true Fowler-type flaps, are assisted by the trim system to automatically compensate for a nose-up pitching moment when the big flaps take effect. With full flaps, the stall speed gets down to just 59 knots. And once you’re on the ground, the powerful brakes give you all the stopping power you’ll likely need. If you need more, you have the advantage of using the beta setting on the propeller, which helps get rid of any residual speed.
The confidence that I got from those first landings at Lewiston was reassuring on my next approach, to an Idaho backcountry strip called Big Creek. Real Northwest backcountry pilots reading this right now are probably rolling their eyes, because Big Creek, with its 3,550-foot-long, 110-foot-wide strip, is child’s play to genuine connoisseurs of outback flying. But to a newbie like me, it was an exciting proposition. Moreover, it had the real advantage of being the only mountain strip the weather would let us get into that day.
While the Kodiak is a no-holds-barred bush plane, it’s also one of the few small-production airplanes to be equipped with the Garmin G1000 avionics suite. Strangely, when Quest first announced the avionics package, some of its customers expressed disappointment. But I was reminded that a lot of these folks are dyed in the wool backcountry types for whom the idea of flat panels in a bush plane is heresy. The good news, I’m told, is that it typically takes about half a flight with G1000 to change their minds. And the advantages in redundancy, dependability (forget about vacuum pumps and mechanical gyros) and ease-of-replacement make for clear advantages when the nearest repair station could be half a continent away.
On our flights the technology advantages were crystal clear. By the time we got to the Bitterroots, the tops of the peaks were obscured, or worse. We were navigating valley to valley, working our way toward Big Creek, popping a hundred feet over the ridgelines when necessary, but never once feeling as though we had anything but lots of options. That’s because on the G1000 we had a beautiful TAWS display right there, with clear depictions of where the terrain was high and where it was lower. Through the XM Weather utility, we had constantly updated weather conditions at what few airports there were around us. And should all else fail, we had the ability to go emergency IFR, aim in the direction of lower terrain and climb at better than 1,000 feet per minute, even at an altitude of 10,000 feet. Who could fail to love the safety edge that G1000 gives you? And it’s only going to get better at some point soon, as the Kodiak gets a number of Garmin-related enhancements, including WAAS and the GFC 700 autopilot.
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 PT6 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 he added, “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 feet down the strip. I held the nose off, as we bam-bammed along, 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.
After an excellent home-cooked meal at Big Creek Lodge—sadly, the lodge burned down a few days after we visited—we headed back for Sandpoint, Quest’s Northern Idaho home.
The takeoff from Big Creek, an accelerating downhill, rollercoaster ride of an affair, was a lot of fun, and before we knew it, we were snaking our way out the same canyons we’d used to get in. But for the hour-long trip back home VFR looked impractical, if not impossible, so I gave Seattle Center a call, air filed, and headed north at 12,000 feet between layers as evening approached.
It was barely above freezing at that altitude, and there were no reports of icing even in the clouds, which was good. The current airplane doesn’t have any icing equipment on it, though Quest is far along in the process of getting flight into known icing (FIKI) approval for it using the TKS “weeping wing” system.
Another system that’s not quite there yet is the G1000 in the current Kodiak. It’s a first generation system, so there’s no GFC 700 autopilot and there’s no WAAS. For an autopilot, the Kodiak is currently outfitted with the S-Tec 55X. It does a passable job, but if you’ve flown with Garmin’s autopilot, you’ll be pining for it. And WAAS will be a much desired upgrade, as well, as VNAV GPS approaches will come in handy in an airplane like this that regularly finds itself heading into remote destinations that are 100 miles or more away from the nearest ILS.
As we broke out of the clouds, Kenny pointed out the airport to me, I gave Seattle a call to cancel and we continued the approach. It was quiet on unicom as we descended, and the touchdown on Sandpoint’s single paved runway seemed a bit anti-climactic. I wondered aloud if there was a gravel strip or fire road around somewhere we could have used instead.
The Quest Continues
Part of Quest’s unique and smart business plan was to ramp up production slowly. The company was planning to produce only a handful of airplanes in 2008, with around 35 expected to come off the line in 2009 and around one per week in 2010. These are numbers that can easily be accommodated at Quest’s 84,000-square-foot plant. That said, the delicate balancing act of ramping up production to even modestly high rates is perhaps the single most difficult feat for startup manufacturers to pull off. There are many costs, expected and not, and dozens of potential pitfalls. But given Quest’s track record of designing, type certifying and then producing and delivering an airplane that almost no one, me included, ever thought would see the light of day, I’d be the last one to bet against them, especially now that I’ve flown the airplane.
The Kodiak is, in short, everything the company says that it is, a good flying, powerful, heavy hauling bush machine that can do double duty as an air taxi or executive flyer. And it’s only going to get better as it receives additional refinements, including known ice protection and new avionics capabilities. And if its promised operating economies come to pass, which seems likely, it will undoubtedly prove popular with backcountry operators and in the process help a lot of needy people in some of the hardest to reach places on earth.
For more information, visit questaircraft.com, and be sure to check out our web gallery of the Quest factory on flyingmag.com.