Tuesday, January 27, 2009
Down & dirty in the spectacular Utah Canyonlands
|If you’re coming down that canyon thinking, “I can do this three out of five times,” you’re going to be scared to death. Because you don’t know if this is one of the three—or one of the two.—Todd Peterson|
|In 2006, Todd Peterson first introduced the Katmai, which followed the 260SE backcountry performer. |
“Tail download,” says Peterson, “aerodynamically balances an airplane in flight. But it’s dead weight. The canard provides lift, which doubles the pitch coefficient because it also removes that tail download. It’s what gives the airplane its ability to fly level at slow speeds. That’s where the buoyant feel comes from. The flight controls remain highly effective even near stall because of the lower angle-of-attack airflow over the wingtips.”
He has me dial in 55-knot level flight by throttling back to 16 inches and trimming to hold altitude. And even though we’re down near a normal Skylane’s 49-knot stall speed, there’s no mushy feeling at all. It handles like power steering in a big car. The Point
Angel Point sits at 5,287 feet atop a flat mesa with steep cliffs all around. Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid rode the Outlaw Trail right by here en route to their hideout at Robber’s Roost.
The strip’s plenty long enough for a newbie—but 20 feet wide. It looks like a foot trail.
We descend and overfly at 400 feet AGL, scoping out whether there’s a posse waiting for us in the form of rocks, animals, wind or mud patches.
“Information is your friend,” my mentor reminds me. “The more information you have, the more likely you are to make good landings and use the airplane properly.”
Everything looks good below. Here we go!
On downwind, Peterson lays out the Katmai Holy Grail: “The airplane itself is relatively easy to fly. You just have to get used to coming in with a lower speed.” I’m a sport pilot. No sweat. Next?
“The key is to always set up a stabilized approach.”
That means 20 degrees of flaps—for minimum stall speed—and about 16 inches of manifold pressure. That always leads to 55 knots straight and level: “The most efficient loitering speed of the airplane. Think of 60 knots as your maximum approach speed,” says Peterson.
“Most bush planes land way behind the power curve. But the farther behind the power curve, the less safe you are—if you lose power, you have big problems in a hurry. In the Katmai, we’re right at the top of the power curve or slightly on the backside. So if we need to arrest descent and climb back out in a hurry, response is immediate.”
With approach stabilized, Peterson urges me to keep speed at 50 to 55 with the yoke, and to use throttle to control glidepath. “Now, when you throttle back, you’ll immediately get sink—so make power adjustments small.”
I throttle back to 13 inches, and pretty quickly, we’re approaching 400 fpm down. I eyeball the strip: we’re high. I pull off more throttle—too much. Descent jumps to 500 fpm. I ease on power, and we’re back at 400 fpm.
“Good. Get used to working throttle to control descent all the way down,” says Peterson.
The touchdown spot slides toward us. Back, easy on the yoke. The level attitude gives great visibility over the nose. Back a bit more, there’s the stall buzzer, and with a minimal flare, we settle on well below 40 knots, if a bit sooner than I expected—those bush tires are tall!
I brake firmly, and we stop in no time at all. That was a lot easier than I had expected—what a sweetheart.
I back-taxi, turn around and throttle up to full power. “Pull back now,” he says. I pull. The Katmai surges forward, and the nosewheel immediately lifts completely off the dirt, less than a fuselage length after we started rolling. Up a slight rise we surge, thanks to that big IO-550. Five seconds and 300 feet later, the Katmai floats off at 35 knots!
“Just ease the yoke forward,” he cautions. The airplane quickly transitions to level flight as we pass through 45 knots. “Okay, give her a good turn right now!”
At just 10 feet above the ground, I crank; she banks to 30 degrees, smooth and solid, and we’re quickly in a max-efficiency climbing turn at 60 knots.
This is the beating heart of the Katmai: You can hold a steep bank and watch the wingtip just skim above the brush with complete confidence. Consider the possibilities.
Feeling its nimble strength through my own hands, I can readily imagine winding out of tight spots such as blind canyons, or carving tight turns on takeoff and landing to avoid obstacles that wouldn’t even be possible in a conventional bird. Of Ancient Dreams
I shoot a few more landings at other remote spots, and with each strip, I get a better sense of just how much the King Katmai can do. It truly is easy to fly, not unlike an ultralight or LSA in the way it gets you in and out of just about any place imaginable.
Peterson talks about his shortest backcountry strip ever: 150 feet! “It took 100% of the airplane,” he says with a smile, “and 90% of my skill to pull it off.”
We finish our Canyonlands fun tour all too soon at Mexican Mountain. Taking photos of Anasazi rock petroglyphs a short walk from our landing site, I’m taken by a scratched-in symbol of two hands, reaching for the infinite blue above. Later, cruising home, I ponder that ancient yearning immortalized in rock. How they would have thrilled, those primitive people, to lift off from their walking trails with such ease, to stretch up their own hands and grasp the sky. And how lucky we are, to live their ancient dreams.
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