I’m hanging out with photographer Jeff Berlin and Quest’s chief demo pilot Mark Brown beside the stunning Green River, which through the millennia has carved a deep gorge flanked by dramatic red rock cliff walls through Canyonlands National Park in Utah. The river begins at the Wind River Mountains of Wyoming and feeds into the great Colorado River, which snakes through another rock cathedral — Arizona’s Grand Canyon.
We’ve parked at Mineral Canyon (UT75), a 2,000-foot dirt airstrip in a remote location that would take several hours to get to by ground transportation. The nearest town is Moab, home to a little more than 5,000 permanent residents and thousands of tourists from all over the world in search of the outstanding mountain biking, rafting, hiking and other outdoor recreational activities the area offers.
From the Canyonlands Field Airport (CNY), west of Moab, where we started our day, this stunning spot can be reached by air in not hours but minutes, and a local company called Redtail Air uses the strip for sightseeing and to bring rafters to and from the river, Redtail’s director of air ops Nick Lamoureux says.
We are reminded of the risks of backcountry flying by what looks like a newly finished Experimental airplane parked in the bushes, tied down with brand-new ropes. The owner is nowhere to be seen, and the reason why becomes evident upon closer inspection — the airplane has nosed over. The composite propeller is contorted, the spinner is cracked and the vertical stabilizer droops over like a wilted flower. The airplane is reminiscent of a character from the movie Planes, and it appears very lonely in the quietness of the canyon. I ponder briefly how the owner will get the airplane out.
The tranquil environment is suddenly disturbed by engine noise. Soon, a Cessna 207 crests the rock wall and drops in. While the piston-powered 207 is a terrific platform, we arrived in a much more modern bush plane with far superior performance and comfort — the Quest Kodiak 100 Series II.
The Kodiak is a single-engine turboprop designed for unimproved airstrips like Mineral Canyon. While the high-wing aluminum airplane is not designed for maximum speed, it is extremely versatile. It can be outfitted for cargo ops, VIP transport, medevac, charter or just about any other type of operation an owner might dream up. Redtail started beating up Kodiaks in the Utah backcountry in 2011, and now uses two of them for all of its missions, which include mostly transport of passengers and cargo, specifically for sightseeing, rafting and charter flights.
Being designed for remote areas such as Canyonlands, which provides limitless possibilities for backcountry flying since the Utah Bureau of Land Management has no restrictions on landings on open land, reliability was a major consideration when the Kodiak was designed. The Pratt & Whitney Canada PT6A-34 is a small version of a legendary turbine-engine series ranging from 500 to 2,000 shp, known for its superb reliability. More than 48,000 PT6As have accumulated more than 395 million flying hours since the engine was first introduced in the 1960s, according to P&WC.
Besides the Kodiak, the PT6A-34 has proved itself with several hardworking twin- and single-engine airplanes generally designed for transportation or skydiving operations, such as the Twin Otter, Piper JetProp and Pacific Aerospace P-750 XSTOL.
The Quest Kodiak has gone through a long list of modifications since it was introduced in 2007, but recent upgrades prompted Quest to announce a block change in 2018, naming the new version the Kodiak 100 Series II. The biggest change is the upgrade from the straight Garmin G1000 to the NXi avionics, which includes a faster operating system and some new terrific features, including visual approach guidance and an overlay of the HSI on the primary flight display that can present moving map, traffic, weather and more. The Series II also includes L-3’s ESI 500 electronic standby instrument, so the panel is free from analog gauges. A Safe Flight AOA instrument provides additional safety in environments where the dangers of stalls are lurking.
The jet-A that powers the Pratt & Whitney engine is stored in the wings, but the tanks only extend to the wing cuff. Single-port refueling is another Series II option that adds priceless convenience for the cost of 16 pounds of payload. Fuel gauges, which Brown notes are extremely accurate, pop out under the wings, so there is no need to climb around the airplane to check the fuel levels.
Several features make the Kodiak a particularly stellar backcountry platform. The ground clearance for the propeller is a full 19 inches, and the wingspan is only 45 feet, making it easier to squeeze through bushes and trees on narrow airstrips. The optional 29-inch main tires mounted on the airplane we’re flying help float the airplane on top of soft surfaces.
The oversize steps on the airstair door make it very easy to climb into the Kodiak’s cabin. To accommodate medevac customers and others needing to load bulky items, the airstair door can swing all the way beneath the fuselage. Opening and closing the cargo door is easy with the big latching mechanism, a pleasant surprise for a brawny bush plane. The demo airplane I flew had a nicely upgraded interior named Timberline. It is the middle-of-the-line choice of three interior options and includes a carpet, cup holders, LED reading lights, storage pockets and more to provide comfort for those in the back.
While the Timberline interior provides terrific comfort, it is also set up for the bush. The carpet is attached by small buttons, which allow for a quick and easy removal. The flooring beneath the carpet is slip-resistant and easy to clean.
Quest has been successful in making the interior sleek yet functional. For example, the access panel for the oxygen tank is attached with magnets, making it easy to remove for service. The Kodiak is not pressurized, and aft cabin oxygen ports are optional (they are included in the Summit interior).
All of the seats can be removed in minutes, and fit into the optional cargo pod (except for the Summit seats), which can be added underneath the fuselage. Yeah, I didn’t believe it either, but sticking my head inside a cargo pod of one of Redtail’s Kodiaks, which was parked next to us at CNY, I realized Brown wasn’t kidding. The fiberglass box is broken into three spacious compartments. An operator in Canada regularly brings passengers in one direction and 55-gallon oil drums in the other, Brown says. The seats fold flat and fit neatly in the cargo pod, and there is no trouble stowing the oil drums through the wide cargo door. While it fits a ton of stuff, the cargo pod doesn’t degrade the speed more than a couple of knots, Brown says.
Getting into the Kodiak’s cockpit requires some climbing skills, but once inside, I felt right at home. There is nothing utilitarian about the door-closing mechanism. Like the airstair door’s, it’s the smoothest latch I have seen in any general aviation airplane. The recently redesigned seats have multiple adjustments, making it easy to set up for the optimal sight picture. The four-point harness system adds safety for an airplane that is meant to be beaten up.
Much has already been written about Garmin’s terrific G1000 NXi upgrade. Each aircraft model has some unique features, and one of my favorites in the Kodiak was the weight-and-balance page, which includes a CG graph that provides assurance that the load remains inside the safe envelope for the entire flight (provided the airplane is loaded correctly).
Two glove compartments are hidden in the clean panel, and there are cup holders and USB ports as well. Though the Kodiak is unpressurized, there are door seals that engage automatically to cut noise and air leaks. The knobs and switches lean more toward utilitarian than luxurious, but then again, Kodiak customers are usually more concerned with dispatchability and maintainability than luxury.
Steering on the ground is simple. Like the Caravan, it’s like taxiing an oversize Cessna 182. Like any PT6-powered airplane, care must be taken during the takeoff and climb not to overpower the engine, so I kept an eye on the torque and ITT gauges as I powered up. With the high wings mounted slightly aft of the cockpit, the visibility is outstanding — a great bonus with the stunning scenery around us. Quest succeeded in installing windows both in front and back that allow the occupants of the Kodiak to look outside without having to contort their bodies.
The hot and sticky day resulted in a 7,200-foot density altitude at CNY, but we still got off the ground by the 1,000-foot markers on Runway 3 using short-field techniques. At about 6,100 pounds, we were far from max gross. I climbed out at 110 knots and saw 1,200 fpm — respectable for a day that was not ideal for performance.
While it is significantly slower than a TBM 900 series or a Pilatus PC-12, the Kodiak would have beaten my Mooney to Camarillo, California, by a full hour. I saw a true airspeed of 178 knots at 10,500 feet with all gauges in the green, burning 338 pph.
The airplane was a joy to fly at any speed. Slowing to 85 knots indicated, the Kodiak was easy to control. I slowed further. With no flaps, I brought the nose up to 58 knots, a full 12 knots below the start of the white arc, and still felt the ailerons respond. I could not get the airplane to break in the stall, but the 600 fpm descent showed that the wing was tired. With 20 degrees of flaps, I got a slight break at 44 knots, 5 knots below the red line.
The Kodiak’s benign stall characteristics can be credited to the wing design, which essentially consists of two separate sections, defined by the obvious wing cuff, to ensure airflow remains over the outer portion of the wing. The airplane definitely inspires confidence when flying in technical backcountry environments. Even though the seats in the Kodiak sit at least twice as high as in my Mooney, the landings were easy and smooth.
Did I mention that the Kodiak 100 Series II is versatile? For water ops in the summer, you can throw on amphibious or straight floats and go play. Seaplane flying sounded inviting on this hot afternoon. On the other hand, icing was far from our minds. But operators who fly in wintry conditions should know that the airplane supports the TKS weeping-wing system. A 16-gallon TKS tank can be mounted either in the center console, which was the case in the demo airplane, or in the cargo pod, if installed. Brown said the tank lasts for about 2½ hours at continuous operation, but there is generally no need to run the TKS fluid continuously. If there is, it might be best to stay on the ground.
You don’t have to fly in extreme conditions to justify the ownership of a Kodiak. It can carry more than 2,000 pounds on shorter flights, so you can easily put an adult in each seat. Another great mission is surveillance because the maximum endurance can be extended to nearly 10 hours with the power pulled back, Brown says. As much as I love flying, I decided to take his word on that mission.
About half of Quest’s Kodiak customers remain in the United States and Canada. While the Kodiak’s design and performance capabilities might appear perfect for the continent of Africa, Brown says Quest has not seen its best success there. With a lack of Kodiak sales representation in the area, the Cessna Caravan has marked that territory. But that might change with the recent announcement that South Africa’s National Airways Corp. has become a regional representative. Until now, the best overseas markets have been Indonesia and Papua New Guinea, and the areas around the Amazon rainforest, where airport real estate is harder to access and the Kodiak’s stellar short-field performance shines.
With more than a decade behind it, the Quest factory in Sandpoint, Idaho, where most of the components for the Kodiak are constructed and assembled, is busier than ever. Deliveries have increased almost every year and are hovering right around 30 airplanes annually.
While I have a good amount of backcountry flying experience, Brown did the flying at the technical Mineral Canyon airstrip, particularly since the demo airplane was on loan by its future customer: Clay Lacy. The approach was a bit hairy as we flew down the deep, narrow canyon to the 2,000-foot dirt strip. But Brown did a stellar job getting the Kodiak on the ground and stopped with plenty of room to spare with help from the beta, the brakes and those big, fat tires.
It is time to leave the canyon, and we climb back into the airplane. Brown turns the Kodiak toward the southeast end to prepare for takeoff. On this day, most of the dirt strip is a solid claylike surface, perfect for backcountry ops. He taxis as far south as he can to maximize the available runway. The bushes close in on the strip, which is not a concern, but what Brown doesn’t realize is that the ground near the end of the runway is loose and sandy.
As he attempts to turn the airplane around, the wheels start to dig in. But the turboprop easily solves the issue. The growl of the brawny engine echoes through the canyon as Brown powers up and swings the Kodiak around, showing off the excellent turning radius of the mighty bird. On harder surfaces, it almost spins around like a tailwheel airplane.
Soon, we are climbing through the breezy canyon. Just for show, Brown maintains two notches of flaps, slows the Kodiak and literally pivots the wingtip around a point at the base of the red-hued canyon. In no time we are pointed in the other direction and headed for home. It might not break any speed records, but the Quest Kodiak will do anything else you will ask of it, whether in the backcountry or not.
|Quest Kodiak 100 Series II|
|Price typically equipped||$2.36 million|
|Engine||Pratt & Whitney PT6A-34, 750 hp|
|Propeller||Hartzell, aluminum four-blade, 96 in.|
|Seats||Up to 10|
|Length||34 ft. 2 in.|
|Height||15 ft. 3 in.|
|Interior width||4 ft. 6 in.|
|Wing area||240 sq. ft.|
|Wing loading||30.2 lb./sq. ft.|
|Power loading||9.67 lb./hp|
|Max gross weight||7,255 lb.|
|Max ramp weight||7,305 lb.|
|Useful load||445 lb.|
|Max usable fuel||315 gal.|
|Max operating altitude||25,000 ft.|
|Max rate of climb||1,340 fpm|
|Fuel flow (max cruise)||48 lb./hour|
|High speed cruise||183 kTas|
|Long range (1,000 lb. payload)||1,132 nm|
|Range (high speed, nbaa reserves)||1,132 nm|
|Stall speed, MTOW||60 kcas|
|Takeoff over 50 feet||1,467 ft.|
|Landing over 50 feet||1,508 ft.|
|Engine TBO||4,000 hours|