The dirt strip at Magee (S77), near Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, looks impossibly rough and short. To my citified eyes, the state-owned airstrip looks nothing like a place where I would want to land an airplane as large as the Quest Kodiak. Quest test pilot, Kenny Stidham, isn’t even breaking a sweat, and is talking about the great fishing in the area as he dumps more flaps to slow the beast down and make it in over a huge hill.
All I can focus on, though, are the enormous trees on either side of the strip and the giant mountains that surround the backcountry strip like sentinels guarding a precious treasure. With the softest of thuds, the Kodiak meets the turf and come to a nimble stop with so much runway ahead that I’m embarrassed to have even worried about it. The Kodiak is completely at home.
If you’re talking about humanitarian aviation and utility flying, it’s only seconds before the Quest Kodiak enters the conversation. Probably the foremost aircraft of its kind, the Kodiak is equal parts cargo hauler, luxury passenger transporter and rough-field do-it-all. Eighty-four of the muscular turbo-props have been sold in 15 countries around the world. With the Quest factory in Sandpoint, Idaho, humming along at full production, the company has a winner here.
I have to confess that, before I came to Sandpoint, I wasn’t all that familiar with the Kodiak.
Most of us don’t really have the opportunity to rub elbows with a utility airplane like the Kodiak very much—at least not in Southern California. Walking around the factory, and later getting to know the Kodiak from the pilot’s seat, I began to realize what an amazing and special aircraft it is.
On A Mission
When evaluating a unique airplane like the Kodiak, you have to get beyond the glossy brochures and marketing-speak used to sell the airplane to get to the true nature and heart of the company. The Kodiak seems to have been born from the very needs that it fulfills, and from the experience and ideas of those who conceived it, not from the need to turn a profit. The heart of Quest is the desire to accomplish a mission.
Visionaries Tom Hamilton and David Voetmann are responsible for bringing the Kodiak to life. Hamilton is an entrepreneur and aircraft designer well known for introducing the Glasair kitplanes to the world. Voetmann had 40 years of flying experience with humanitarian and relief organizations, flying Twin Otters supplying food and grain across the harsh bush land of Eritrea and Ethiopia. The two met in 1985 and began planning and designing, launching “Idaho Air Group” in 1998, planting the seeds of Quest Aircraft.
From the beginning, Quest has been a different kind of aircraft manufacturer. The idea for the Kodiak was to create a new-generation aircraft to serve both humanitarian and backcountry commercial aviation needs. Along with a group of early supporters, Hamilton and Voetmann went out in search of funding.
In May 2001, the company was officially launched with Bruce Kennedy, retired CEO of Alaska Airlines, as Quest’s Founding Chairman. The company was built on a unique model: Profits from sales of the Kodiak would subsidize roughly every tenth airplane produced. That aircraft would then be delivered to a participating not-for-profit humanitarian organization.
Quest has kept true to that ideal, and much of the company’s character is imbued with this altruistic sense of purpose. Even the workers on the assembly line have a different attitude. There’s a joy there, and I would guess it comes from knowing that the aircraft they’re riveting, wiring and painting are doing good around the world.
Examine organizations like Mission Aviation Fellowship (MAF) in Kalimantan, Indonesia, or Mercy Air in Mozambique, and leading the charge is the noble Kodiak.
Whether it’s hauling full sheets of plywood to rebuild structures, bags of cement to build schools and homes, or 55-gallon drums of fuel to heat villages, the Kodiak is right there: 7,305 pounds of airplane and cargo that can land in 700 feet on just about any surface.
Of course, the truth is that not all Kodiaks are flown to build orphanages or feed villagers. Plenty of people with enough resources use the Kodiak as the superlative family wagon and vacation transporter. The 10-place airplane is as much at home on floats as it is on tires, and its unique flight characteristics make it ideal for personal use.
If you can afford the $1.775 million price tag, the Kodiak is the perfect family airplane. If you can’t picture the sleek-nosed beauty kissing the aquamarine waters of a Bahamian island and taxiing up to your private dock for a week’s immersion in paradise, then you have no imagination. In fact, if you peruse the colorful travel brochures of the world’s most exotic vacation destinations, chances are you’ll spot a Kodiak.
Into The Backcountry
For our adventure, we take the Quest Kodiak to some real backcountry strips, courtesy of Northern Idaho. This part of the country is known for the best mountain flying outside of Alaska, and its picturesque mountain meadows and craggy granite peaks hide some pretty rough airstrips that require real skill to get into and out of. To make it authentic, we take a real-life camping trip: five adults, two Honda CRF 230 and 250 dirt bikes, tents, sleeping bags, multiple coolers, hammocks, chairs, dual sets of camera gear, full off-road riding gear, camping supplies, gasoline for the motorcycles and enough fuel to allow us a good four hours’ flight time.
Quest’s Ken Stidham, Amber Phillips and Jon Barksdale enjoy the fruits of their labor at the Magee airstrip in northern Idaho.
The first thing that strikes you about the Kodiak is its size. It’s a big airplane, and it’s full-travel, side-swing pilot door is gaping. If you’ve ever climbed into the driver’s seat of an 18-wheel semi, this is about the same. The 10-seat interior can be configured in different combinations of seats and cargo space. The seats slide out easily, and the whole aircraft can be converted from passengers to freight in a few minutes.
In the western United States, high altitudes and soaring temperatures rob piston engines of their power. One of the many aces-in-the-hole of the Kodiak is the time-tested Pratt & Whitney PT6-34 turbine engine that delivers 750 hp and has a TBO of 4,000 hours. One of the most reliable engines out there, it also has one of the highest power-to-weight ratios you can find. Even at full gross weight, the PT6 gets the Kodiak off in about 1,000 feet—more than impressive for an airplane this size.
Surprising to me, the Kodiak handles much like the larger Cessnas. It’s neither ultra nimble, nor lethargic. The airplane has great control harmony, and wrist movements are all that are needed to make things happen. As expected, the visibility is ample, although the exhaust stacks do block some downward visibility at the nose.
Quest offers an option to change the exhaust position for search-and-rescue applications. The cabin is spacious at 54 inches—even loaded with motorcycles and camping gear—and can accommodate larger-than-average adults with aplomb. Three levels of interior are available—from Spartan to downright luxurious, and can include a 10-place oxygen system if you like. Nineteen inches of propeller clearance means you can get in and out of the roughest fields without too much worry.
Once in the air, the Kodiak is a pussycat, not doing anything unexpected. I would prefer a lower instrument panel, or seats that would adjust just a little bit higher, but average folks won’t have that complaint. The cabin is as quiet as one would imagine for a utility airplane, and the seats are quite plush and comfortable. Kudos for the captain-style armrests.
On our trip to Magee, we were seeing 170 KTAS at a fuel flow of about 45 gph. While the book says sea-level climb-out is 1,371 fpm, at our altitude we were seeing about 900 fpm; not bad for a hot August day at full gross. Kodiak’s 320-gallon fuel tanks will get you about 5.8 hours endurance at max cruise with a reserve. The PT6 engine maxes out at 25,000 feet.
But the Kodiak is a workhorse, and it has all the tools that make it one of the best out there. TKS ice protection is a useful option, with titanium porous panels on the wing leading edges that weep a mixture of glycol and alcohol. A 16.3- gallon fluid reservoir and redundant pumps give the Kodiak true all-weather capability. Kodiak’s STOL performance comes courtesy of its discontinuous leading edge technology that brings remarkable control at slow speeds. It’s unnerving to see a Vso speed on such a heavy airplane at around 60 knots, but it handles just fine at those speeds. All in all, the Kodiak is a docile and well-behaved airplane, even loaded to the gills.
The main reason you buy a Kodiak, of course, is its hauling capacity. The airplane’s 248-cubic-feet cargo area, along with the optional 63-cubic-feet belly pod, offers over 300 cubic feet of space to carry just about anything you can fit into it. The Kodiak is even equipped with a special tail stand that you mount when loading heavy weights so the tail doesn’t hit the ground while loading. A useful load of 3,535 pounds is just that: useful.
Our adventure plane loaded with motorcycles and people, we head out for the backcountry. With us are Amber Phillips and Jon Barksdale, two Quest factory employees who are also expert dirt bike riders who could do some riding for our cameras. They know these airframes better than anybody and sometimes get to ride in the aircraft they build.
Pushing the dirt bikes up the loading ramp into the Kodiak, Phillips explained, “Oh, this airplane can haul a lot more than this,” she smiled, “A lot more.” Like everybody we met at Quest, she and Barksdale seemed to love their jobs. “We get to build these airplanes,” remarked Phillips.” That’s pretty cool.”
Bouncing around in the mountain-induced turbulence and making our way into Magee, I hardly noticed the Garmin G1000 panel in front of me. Here in the backcountry, it seemed somehow out of place. Stidham reminded me of the varied missions this airplane fulfills; from search-and-rescue to loading skydivers. “It’s made for humanitarian missions,” Stidham explained, “but it does everything you can think of, and buyers configure it in all different ways.”
Although it’s made for rough environments, the Kodiak uses technology to enhance safety. In addition to the aircraft’s FIKI certification (with the anti-ice option), the G1000’s Synthetic Vision option brings unprecedented situational awareness to the cockpit—especially in mountainous environments. On the same front, Garmin’s GTS 800 TAS and TCAS system can be fully integrated into the Kodiak’s G1000 panel along with efficiency add-ons like Jeppesen’s ChartView to get rid of paper from the cockpit. Digital color radar is another option via Garmin’s GWX68 real-time weather radar, and to keep track of the really nasty stuff, StormScope can be added into the Kodiak’s panel. Because of the airplane’s multiuse mission profile, the ability to add technology is essential to its success.
Once at the Magee airstrip, we really did set up the gear and play for a bit. Phillips and Barksdale put the motorcycles through their paces while Stidham flew several sorties for our cameras, always touching down in precisely the right place. The soft breeze with just a hint of fall in it whispered through the tall Douglas fir, Phillips even taking over the hammock for a time. Looking out at the Kodiak against a field of columbine flowers I knew that, at that moment, in some remote corner of the world, a Kodiak was working hard helping somebody.
Where The Kodiak Is Built
|A quick peek into Quest’s manufacturing plant in Sandpoint, Idaho, gives you the immediate feeling that you’re looking at a healthy, thriving company. The 84,000-square-foot facility is set against a backdrop of towering mountains and verdant hillsides covered in pine forests, so it’s unlike most aircraft factories.
Sandpoint is also the home of SilverWing Airpark (www.silverwingatsandpoint.com), a luxury development of hangar homes that has been rejuvenated by the FAA’s recent ruling to allow “through-the- fence” agreements for homeowners. Sites are selling and the idyllic community is taking shape. It seems the whole area is teeming with life.
Next door to SilverWing, Kodiaks are being built on a humming assembly line that, on this day, has 13 aircraft in some stage of manufacturing. The Quest factory is a high-tech facility, employing the latest technology to create the special airplane that is the Kodiak. In one area, all the aircraft’s parts are machine-dipped into vats of anti-corrosion compounds, while finished components await drying on special, rolling assemblies. Elsewhere, wiring harnesses are pre-made, while other workers route them through wings and fuselages like multicolored snakes.
At each stage, the airplane starts to take shape, and near the front of the factory, technicians install the Kodiak’s Pratt & Whitney turboprop engine. Looking like giant grasshoppers in their green zinc-chromate base coat, the fully assembled Kodiaks will get their final paint schemes, then will be on their way to appreciative customers all over the world.
In the middle of the factory is a huge American flag—a reminder of our country’s reputation as one of the manufacturing giants in the world. These Kodiaks are proudly made in the United States, and it’s easy to see that pride is a thread that runs through the entire company. Everywhere, smiling workers are busy doing their jobs—something the community of Sandpoint is grateful to do. The Quest factory employs 176 workers. It’s a testament to Quest that they offer public tours on Thursday afternoons that are so popular they require a reservation to attend. I can imagine every grade school teacher in the area must bring their classes on these tours to see how the unique Kodiak is built.
Although the company had its start in 2001, it wasn’t until 2007 when the Kodiak received full FAA certification, and December of that year before the first airplanes were delivered. That makes Quest a young company in the aviation industry, and it continues to grow at an impressive pace. In December of 2012, Quest brought Samuel Hill on board as the new Chief Executive Officer. Hill is a veteran of Honda Aircraft Company and Embraer, among other companies, and he’s an ATP-rated pilot with a lifetime of experience in the aviation world.
The airplane is, of course, popular throughout the world for its multi-mission role, and it has received 11 international certifications. Quest recently signed a deal with Blue Eagle Aviation in Beijing, China, for 12 Kodiaks—a move Quest hopes is just the beginning, since the Kodiak is an ideal aircraft for the emerging Chinese market.
Quest took the Kodiak on a tour of several South American countries as demand expands there. The company has also partnered with Northrop-Grumman in developing the Air Claw, based on the Kodiak aircraft platform and intended for government and private surveillance missions. For more information, visit www.questaircraft.com.