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
This is unreal. How can he land coming in like that?
True, the reddish, sandy dirt strip is 1,400-feet long. But a good bit is brushy, rocky or too soft. Most pilots would say, "Pass," unless they fly a jeep with wings, a super bushwhacker like a Husky...or this plane, the King Katmai.
Massive sediment-layered buttes, burnished to rich maroon-gold by the morning sun, vault 1,000 feet into the clear, calm blue all around me. But the austere beauty doesn't change reality: This strip, called Happy Canyon, is one unforgiving desert scratch in the desert.
Yet Todd and Jo Peterson's Cessna 182-on-steroids is about to touch down, one way or another, from a dramatically unusual approach. Near the end of a base leg flown just eight feet above ground, he banks left now at almost 30 degrees into a ridiculously short final, straight toward me.
Airspeed's around 50 knots; his inside wingtip anchors the turn, a foot or two above the scrub brush. What's strange is the way the airplane isn't nose-high, hanging on the prop like most planes shooting a near-stall, short-field approach.
No, it's level, nose to tail, as if in a cruising turn at altitude. Very cool. Weird, but cool.
I raise the camera and fire away, wondering how long it will take to walk out of this Butch and Sundance outlaw terrain if he prangs in. A long time, pardner. A real long time.
Down & Clean
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.
Down & Clean
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.
Not Your Daddy's 182
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."
Over time, the Wren evolved into the Peterson 260SE, which sports a fuel-injected, 260 hp Continental engine for added up-front muscle. En route, the slotted flaps and spoilers went the way of the dodo. What remained was a true STOL airplane that stalled at 35 knots—yet cruised at 150.
Immune to general aviation's sales doldrums, Peterson's Performance Plus (www.katmai-260se.com) racked up an impressive 500+ sales in 14 countries over the next two decades.
"Who would have thought," he marvels, "there was so much interest in backcountry flying?"
Peterson continually refined the 260SE. But eventually, he envisioned a bush plane built just for himself. "I added three feet of wingspan to the 260 and began testing it out on backcountry strips in Idaho and Utah. I've just beaten the tar out of it since. That's how I evolve all my airplanes. And I'm now happy with the configuration. It's a real good machine."
He named it Katmai. The most recent addition to the breed, the King, differs from the others only in its 300 horse, fuel-injected Continental IO-550 mill. Other bushworthy features and options for all Katmais include:
• anti-abrasion stainless-steel strips for the landing gear's leading edges.
• heavy-duty brakes, and brake lines routed behind the gear to avoid snagging ground obstacles.
• custom interior configurations, including an eight-foot cargo area with a flat floor and 12 tiedowns. (Bring on the camping gear!)
• custom, tailorable avionics including full IFR packages.
• an onboard generator to recharge the battery, preheat the engine, refill a flat tire or power a campsite.
The only difference between all the Katmai models and the 260SE is that extra three feet of span, which reduces stall speed by four knots. That may not sound like much until you realize it cuts landing and takeoff distance by 20%—to under 300 feet! [The Katmai wing extensions are provided by Wing X/Air Research Technologies: www.wingxstol.com.]
"Even at 6,000 feet with no wind, sitting on a supersoft surface, when I see 300 to 400 feet of strip ahead of me, I know I'm in plenty good shape," says Peterson.
Ze Canard Eez Not A Duck, Monsieur!
Now to that canard. In a nutshell, the little wing up front works in conjunction with the tail (i.e., canard elevator up, tail elevator down) to hold pitch attitude, especially at low speeds, pretty much level.
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.
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.