Tuesday, January 27, 2009
Down & dirty in the spectacular Utah Canyonlands
The Katmai deftly rounds the corner...holds the turn, clean and smooth...the inside main drops lower...lower...then its big 29-inch balloon tire drags up some dirt precisely as the 182 comes into line with the "runway" and drops briskly onto the other main. The nosewheel settles firmly, and the plane rumbles by to stop 200 feet down the strip. Whew. You've got to see one of these to believe it. This is a Wichita Tin cruiser? Only in appearance, brother. Todd Peterson built this STOL-bred King Katmai precisely to enable such thread-the-needle landings. But this is a tricycle-gear airplane, not a taildragger. A Skylane, for Peterson's sake. How does he get it to perform like that? I trot past the sun-blackened old miner's cabin and hop in. Once, this Utah badlands region sheltered outlaws and ancient Indians from posses, hostile tribes and the elements. Now, as we arc up and away, I'm having my own High Noon moment. For the next dirt-strip landing, at Angel Point, I'll be at the controls.
Getting The Point
Normally stories like this come from writers with tons of Skylane hours and lots of wilderness landings under their belts. By contrast, I just got my sport pilot ticket in a Flight Design all-composite LSA. I've got maybe 250 hours total in Wichita Tin types, most of it straight and level en route to photo shoots. But here's the notion: Peterson figures if I can handle strips like this one, with no landing experience in a C-182, it will be a great testimonial to the King Katmai's bush-optimized chops.
Meanwhile, I'm calculating that with Peterson riding shotgun and talking me through it, what do I have to lose? Other than bladder control, that is.
Heading toward Angel, I notice that the controls feel more responsive than those of a conventional Skylane, notably in pitch. That's due to the moveable high-lift canard up front, sticking out of the cowling on either side.
Ah, that canard. It's the secret to the Katmai's incredible slow-flight performance. But first, let's get to know the Kingmaker—then his King.
Todd Peterson became a pilot 41 years ago, at age 15. He claims he never flew professionally other than eight years spent on the air show circuit with wife Jo doing inverted ribbon cuts and such, which sounds professional enough by half. "No, I'm a mechanic by trade," he insists as desolate rivers of convoluted red rock slide by below. "I got my A&P certificate in 1970 and my IA in '73."
Several years later, Peterson segued from engine overhauls and aircraft annuals to produce the Wren 460. An evolutionary offshoot of Jim Robertson's Skyshark, the Wren was a STOL conversion of the Cessna 182. Both models sported full-span, double-slotted flaps, spoilers to aid aileron roll control...and that cool little moustache of a canard.
Robertson earned an STC, but his Wren business eventually went bankrupt. "Once I acquired the STC," says Peterson, "it took three more years to get the Wren back into production. A good backcountry airplane, it lacked cross-country cruising speed and altitude. Useful load was low too, and it was a bit complex but very sophisticated in terms of the lift systems on it."
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