Quest to Daher

Transforming a company to marry two legendary turboprop lines.

Daher Kodiak 900 [Credit: Jim Barrett]

I’m still trying to figure out how they pulled it off, fielding an ideal complement of single-engine turboprops into the market during a calendar year. But that’s just the shiny part on the surface that we see—the mountainous iceberg of effort that went into bringing the TBM 960 and now the Kodiak 900 to certification in 2022 began years before, in both cases.

In the case of the 900, it started within Quest—and a desire to meet a clear need for a larger cabin and faster cruise speed. But underlying that project was another, greater challenge—to bring together two teams that not only differed on engineering mission but also in culture. The cranberry color of the airplane caused me to recall the Thanksgiving holiday I spent solo in Paris several years ago. I set out to recreate a handful of favorite dishes to mark the occasion. Finding a turkey leg to roast was easy—but for the life of me I could not find fresh cranberries with which to make sauce. But my dinner was far from ruined—I roasted chestnuts and had a tarte tatin for dessert, combining the best of my new locale and the heritage I brought with me.

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That kind of solution feels fundamental to the successful marriage of two distinct—and strong-willed—traditions. A good result brings out the best of both, harmonizing the differences. And that helps us under-stand what had to come together to create the 900.

On a Mission

A collaboration of humanitarian organizations originally ponied up the money to launch Quest Aircraft in 2001, after founders Tom Hamilton and Dave Voetmann dreamed up the perfect turbine-powered mount to serve the mission community. Hamilton came from Stoddard-Hamilton Aircraft, building the Glasair and Glastar experimental/amateur-built singles, while Voetman hailed from missionary aviation—specifically Mission Aviation Fellowship. Voetman left Quest in 2010, but remained with the MAF, from which he recently retired after 62 years of service, both flying and volunteering.

A town of less than 10,000 tucked into the pines at the top of Lake Pend Oreille in northern Idaho, Sandpoint might seem like an unusual place for aerospace development—it’s a resort town complete with restaurants, inns, wineries, taprooms, and a small sandy beach on the lakefront: quiet, remote, away from it all.

But it became home to that aerospace company called Quest, which purchased its original plant at Sandpoint’s municipal airport (KSZT), a 27,000-square-foot facility that would eventually expand to 84,000 square feet by the time the company was ready to ramp up production. The original Kodiak’s first flight took place in October 2004, and type certification on the utility starcame on May 31, 2007.

It took almost six years for Quest to go from delivering its first production unit in January 2008 to ticking over serial number 100 by the end of 2013. That slow ramp up served the company well. Since Sandpoint is not on any main thoroughfare, any buildup in personnel needed to take place incrementally.

EASA type certification came in April 2017,  just after Quest secured the ability to operate the Kodiak at night in IMC—critical for consistent commercial operations with the airplane. The original Kodiak 100 is certificated in more than 60 countries. The 900 gained FAA type certification in July, but as of press time was still waiting on the EASA sign-off.

Beginning in 2019, joining Daher and Quest, leadership has been critical to the process. Collaboration was already part of Daher's way of doing business, as evidenced by the transoceanic cooperation between the OEM and suppliers such as Pratt & Whitney. Chabbert joined Nicholas Kanellias, vice president of general aviation for Pratt & Whitney, as they opened up the cowl to show off the PT6E-66XT at Sun ‘n Fun Aerospace Expo last year, and it was the same at the unveiling of the new PT6A-140A at Oshkosh. The pair demonstrated the symbiotic relationship between airframe OEM and engine manufacturer, working through design, supply chain constraints, and other challenges together.

The Next Kodiak

Back in 2014, when FLYING flew the Quest Kodiak around south Florida, there was little indication the company was interested in fielding a larger model, other than the fact it made total sense. But it turns out that there was definitely something in the works.

Brown recalls the initial conversations at Quest,which began in 2015, “brainstorming, drawing on napkins if you will.” In 2016, the project was funded and started moving forward in earnest. “At that time it was not what you see today,” said Brown. “It was all about ‘how can we make the Kodiak faster?’” The company had had the original Kodiak and its incremental evolutions on the market for nine years when the project started. “We always felt like there was room in the market for a new airplane,” said Brown. “There was a hole in the market... [and the need for] a bit more room—but the big thing was speed.” The target? A 200-kt-plus true airspeed,

The Kodiak 100’s primary competition—the Cessna Grand Caravan and the Pilatus PC-12—boast of more room but also higher price tags. True to its roots as a cost-conscious problem-solver for utility and humanitarian markets, Quest sought to keep the airplane in the $3 million range, yet retain its excellent off-airport capabilities. Plus, it needed to hold 3,300 to 3,500 pounds of cargo and people. “That was the blue space that we were after in the market,” said Brown.

“We needed to break into what we considered to be special missions and commercial operators,” such as fleet-type sales used in Part 135 operations. “We thought we knew the answer” to the model differentiation, but no one in the market really knew about the 900 until the big reveal at Oshkosh, and at the show, there were some good surprises.

As Chabbert noted in our interview, “people were so excited to see an aircraft in this class, to cross the 200-knot [line], that they just came with their checkbooks and said ‘we want to order it.’" Indeed: The company sold out of its 2023 production slots by the end of the show.

Bringing Plans to Fruition

Translating the new model into production and first deliveries—slated for the first half of 2023—isn’t like flipping a switch. When I walk a production line at a general aviation manufacturer, I’m always struck by the hundreds of small elements that must come into the process at just the right point. In a smaller company, producing only a couple dozen units each year, it may feel like there’s more room for variation in when each component comes together, but anyone who has built even one airplane in their garage knows there are certain things that must happen in sequence.

It’s a highly intricate puzzle to solve—and it’s compounded if a manufacturer chooses to build more than one model on the same line. Daher has done this successfully for many years with the TBM series, and now the company works toward the same integration of the 900 within the 100 line as much as makes sense. The plan optimizes efficiency from the commonality of parts, including the wing, empennage, much of the fuselage, and the flight deck. “We knew we wanted to keep a lot of Kodiak 100 parts,” said Brown. The parts commonality is anticipated to drive efficiencies in production, as well as for fleet operators using both models.

But the integration involves a few points of differentiation that happen at the joining of the fuselage itself, the fuselage to the gear, and the engine hang and cowling stations. Two plugs in the fuselage stretch the 100 into the 900, and add a little more than four feet in exterior length, boosting cabin length by three and a half feet. “We knew that a commercial airline or special missions operator, that cost of operation would be very important to them. The Kodiak was already known for that, so we didn’t want to make this more complicated. And we were actually able to redesign quite a bit to make it less complicated, more maintainable.”

Initial production units are coming together on the same line as the 100, but will eventually command their own line, if production reaches a certain volume, according to Brown. And that’s a goal that feels very achievable, given the model’s success right off of the line.

Daher Kodiak 900 [Credit: Jim Barrett]

A Green Future… Now

Throughout the 2022 promotion of its new turboprop models, Daher has focused on the efficiency and economy of the series updates—building on an already solid foundation. 

The company reported at NBAA-BACE that it was working to provide sustainable aviation fuel (SAF) to all aircraft operating from the plant—building the infrastructure now so that aircraft flying out of the Tarbes base will be fueled with SAF as of late October, using a blend of SAF and jet-A as was available from partner World Fuel Services. “The path is quite clear for us,” said Didier Kayat, CEO of Daher, during a press conference at NBAA-BACE. But to have a wider use of SAF, Daher would need to have more visibility about SAF policy by fuel suppliers in terms of blending, pricing, and availability. The sourcing of SAF isn’t a straight forward problem, as supplies globally remain limited—in 2021, only 1/1000th of the total volume needed was actually produced. According to a report by the International Air Transportation Association (IATA) in early December, roughly 300 million liters of SAF were produced in 2022, with a path for the industry to produce 5 billion liters by 2025, and 30 billion liters by 2030.

That may sound like a lot of fuel sloshing around in the tanks, but, IATA said, “Airlines are committed to achieve net zero CO2 emissions by 2050 and see SAF as a key contributor. Current estimates expect SAF to account for 65 percent of the mitigation needed for this, requiring a production capacity of 450 billion liters annually in 2050.”

Airlines in the European Union are operating towards the requirement that they uplift 5 percent SAF at every European airport by 2030.

EcoPulse [Courtesy: Daher]

Answering the recent eruptions of climate change protests in France and around Europe, the trio of Daher, Dassault, and Airbus appears to be working together both on real efforts to innovate in sustainable directions and getting that message out to the general public.

Daher has integrated environmental concerns into its Me and My TBM application to assist its pilot-owners with operating in the most efficient manner. The scores generated by pilots include an “eco-ranking,” “because we do consider that we need to goto a decarbonization for oursector,” said Kayat, and the company is fully committed to achieving the net-zero carbon emissions standard by 2050.

EcoPulse Progress

The partnership with Safran and Airbus to develop the EcoPulse demonstrator—taking a TBM airframe and seeking to power it electrically—continues on track. Kayat reported that high-voltage testing was underway with the EcoPulse at Daher’s facilities. “We are learning a lot,” said Kayat. “We feel we need this first step of having a demonstrator before we can have a roadmap on products.”

Based in Maryland, Julie is an editor, aviation educator, and author. She holds an airline transport pilot certificate with Douglas DC-3 and CE510 (Citation Mustang) type ratings. She's a CFI/CFII since 1993, specializing in advanced aircraft and flight instructor development. Follow Julie on Twitter @julieinthesky.

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