For my test flight in the Quest Kodiak I brought along an upright piano and my friend Norbert, an adult male moose. What could be more iconic than a moose for Canadian Skies’ flight evaluation of a bush plane? Quest’s demonstration pilot and director of technical marketing, Lynn Thomas, gave me a quizzical look as I loaded the piano and gestured to the moose to climb on board. As Norbert settled at the keyboard and proceeded to play, albeit badly, I remarked that this was an impressive payload indeed for a single-engine light airplane.
Okay, I admit that I brought neither a moose nor a piano to the test flight, but the remarkable thing about the Kodiak is that had I done so, Quest’s capable hauler could have carried them – and a whole lot more. Designed as a back-country utility airplane, I was to discover that the Kodiak combines impressive payload, friendly handling and capable performance.
My opportunity to evaluate the Kodiak came at the Canadian Business Aviation Association (CBAA) convention in Vancouver in June. The Kodiak was a singular sight on the ramp amidst the sleek business jets; reminiscent of a pick-up truck parked in a lot of sports cars. I found myself eager to take it for a spin.
Quest’s Thomas led me on a pre-flight inspection that revealed an airplane that was solid, functional and conventional. Some instinct inspired me to thump on the side of the fuselage with my fist. My very unscientific test was rewarded with a reassuring dull thud. The airplane appeared very solid, and the fit and finish were excellent.
Eager to emphasize its robust functionality, Thomas described the design as incorporating “leading edge but not cutting edge technology.” That seemed appropriate. As a strutted high-wing, tricycle-gear tractor monoplane, the Kodiak is hardly revolutionary technology. What is most impressive about the Kodiak is perhaps a bit subtle to appreciate. The wings feature generous inspection panels. The cowling opens to fully reveal the aircraft’s Pratt & Whitney turboprop engine at convenient working height. Fuselage inspection panels open through the floor rather than under the belly, allowing technicians to stay out of the dirt as they work. Easy supportability in the field is evident in the design.
The Kodiak sits high on its sturdy tricycle landing gear, providing generous 19 inch (0.48 m) propeller clearance with the standard tires. The main cabin door, at 49 ¼ inches high by 49 ¼ inches wide, is large enough to load 4×8 foot sheets of plywood, fuel drums, a Harley-Davidson, a snowmobile, or, of course, an upright piano – to offer a few examples. A moose, I hasten to admit, would have to slouch.
A Bush Plane on a Mission
The Kodiak design has interesting origins. Quest’s founders had extensive experience in humanitarian relief operations, and sought a replacement for their aging aircraft. Their Cessna 206s were getting long in the tooth, and avgas was often unavailable in the bush. Twin Otters, also aging, were very capable, but expensive for relief mission operations. Thomas described the design specification as a requirement to access any airfield where a Cessna 206 – equipped with a short takeoff and landing (STOL) package – could operate while carrying two to three times the payload. A long wish list of features and a clean sheet of paper begat the Kodiak design.
Mission aviation operators were more than spectators in the process. The company was established specifically to provide aircraft to what Quest calls its “mission partners.” Their business model is based on the intention that commercial sales of the Kodiak would subsidize roughly every tenth airplane built for their humanitarian partner organizations. In case you missed being impressed, let me reiterate: Quest’s business model was to use a commercially viable product to subsidize a humanitarian need. A laudable goal.
At the risk of oversimplifying, the purpose of a bush plane is to haul “stuff” safely and cheaply. They are typically “no frills” designs, but must be flexible enough to meet a wide variety of mission needs. To fully appreciate the utility of the Kodiak, let’s revisit our notional mission scenario: we need to provide airlift for my moose, Norbert, and his upright piano. It so happens that both moose and pianos are heavy and bulky, and the list of airplanes that could carry such a payload are quite restricted. When we add a limited budget and a requirement to land on a short unprepared runway, the list of candidate airplanes becomes select indeed.
Quest’s well-equipped demonstrator aircraft, N78KQ, had an empty weight of 4,000 pounds, including the optional 63 cubic foot external cargo compartment. With a published maximum takeoff weight of 7,255 pounds, that left a payload of 3,255 pounds; an impressive capacity to lift 81 per cent of its empty weight. For our scenario, let’s add a single 185 pound pilot. A broad shouldered adult male moose without any carry-on luggage weighs about 1,200 pounds. Trust me. I looked it up. His favourite piano weighs an additional 500 pounds. That would leave 1,375 pounds for fuel. In this scenario, let’s plan on a 10,000 foot cruise altitude for the unpressurized Kodiak. (Of course, cruise performance would be even better at higher altitudes, using the standard two-place oxygen system, but it might be unwise to attempt to fit a moose with an oxygen mask.)
The flight manual data for a maximum-range power setting shows a fuel flow of 228 pounds per hour at 131 knots true airspeed (KTAS). The resulting range in this scenario is an impressive 675 nm, plus VFR reserves. If moose were impatient, cruise speeds up to 175 KTAS are possible, consuming 350 pounds per hour, while still realizing a range of 590 nm. Further to our scenario, upon arrival, at a landing weight of 6,000 pounds, the Kodiak’s published landing ground roll is a mere 550 feet (assuming sea level, standard conditions, no wind, and a compliant moose). Pardon the protracted scenario, but what other airplanes come to mind that will do that?
Strap in. Fire up.
Enough theorizing. It was time to go flying. A hefty step up into the left seat revealed a cockpit that was comfortable and well equipped, but with few frills. Although dual controls were fitted, the switches were arrayed for use from the left seat, indicative of the fact that the vast majority of Kodiaks are operated single-pilot. A three-tube Garmin 1000 avionics suite is standard equipment. The demonstrator had all of the optional Garmin bells and whistles, including synthetic vision, radar, airborne traffic display and an S-Tec 55X autopilot. Overall, the avionics provide impressive instrument flying capability for a bush plane. I wondered what a Beaver pilot would think. Times have changed.
The Garmin 1000 system also features electronic checklists, but they are hardly necessary given the procedural simplicity of the airplane. Under Thomas’ direction, I selected the battery master and boost pump on. We turned on the avionics bus switch, and waited for a moment while the Garmin screens awoke. The starter was then engaged, and as the engine gas generator speed passed 14 per cent, the fuel condition lever was advanced to the LOW IDLE position. When the engine stabilized at idle, the starter was selected off. That’s it. Starting the Kodiak is almost as easy as starting your car.
For reliability in the bush, the flight manual prescribes three ways to start the Kodiak: “Hi” starts, as described above, use the two batteries in series to provide higher voltage, and consequently cooler and faster, starts. If battery condition is suspect, then a “Lo” start may be performed with the batteries in parallel. Alternatively, the aircraft may be started from external power.
Taxiing the Kodiak was simple and pleasant. The field of view was generous, allowing me to scan from wingtip to wingtip as we negotiated the busy CBAA ramp. The mechanically-actuated nosewheel steering allows the Kodiak to literally pivot on a wheel while turning. Taxi speed was easily regulated with intermittent use of BETA mode (reverse thrust) in lieu of brakes.
With two humans and – just to be clear – not a single moose onboard, and with 1,600 pounds of fuel, our takeoff weight was just shy of 6,000 pounds. We had a 10 knot headwind under a sodden West Coast overcast. It was a cool 15C afternoon. The published minimum takeoff ground roll for those conditions was an impressive 615 feet, with a distance of 1,020 feet required to clear a 50 foot obstacle. Cleared for takeoff from Vancouver’s Runway 08-Right, I shoved in the throttle and awoke Pratt & Whitney’s 750 horsepower PT6A-34 engine, necessitating a hefty boot of right rudder against torque to track the runway centreline. Thomas advised me to rotate at 60 knots indicated airspeed (KIAS). The takeoff roll was over before I realized it. My takeoff was perhaps a bit pokey owing to throttle sensitivity. In fact, we had accelerated through our rotation speed before I was finished fussing with the power setting. The published performance numbers are certainly achievable in more qualified hands.
Settled into an enroute climb speed of 120 KIAS we turned out toward the beautiful British Columbia Gulf Islands. Flap retraction, a bit of a slow business, also caused the pitch trim wheel to spin. The Kodiak features an automatic flap-trim interconnect to reduce the pitch forces associated with flap actuation, and although it reduces workload to an extent, some residual pitch trim adjustments were required. A pitch trim cut-out switch on the control column ahead of the left yoke protects against trim runaway. These unusual features – flap compensation and trim cut-out – are post-certification artifacts of a design with a wide speed range and powerful flaps. Power or airspeed changes also necessitated rudder trim adjustments to keep the ball centered, a minor task that mainly betrayed the fact that the Kodiak has plenty of installed power.
The control response in cruising flight was a pleasure. The roll rate was a happy surprise, allowing 45°-to-45° roll reversals in three seconds, equating to a satisfying roll rate of 30°/second. Curious about the presence of a yaw damper switch, I selected it off and made a small left-right rudder input to watch the lateral-directional dynamic response. Only one overshoot was observed, making me question the need for a yaw damper. With a maximum certified operating altitude of 25,000 feet, it’s safe to surmise that the certification authorities required the yaw damper for high-altitude cruising, although the Kodiak’s natural directional damping is certainly sufficient at lower altitudes. I recalled Thomas mentioning that, due to the nature of their operations, Kodiaks are often flown by pilots with modest experience. Although admittedly constrained by weather, I could find nothing about the Kodiak’s handling that would present a challenge to any pilot, even if the ink were still wet on their licence.
In cruising flight at 1,000 feet under ragged overcast clouds, I configured for high speed cruise, selecting 1,670 foot-pounds of engine torque at 2,000 propeller RPM. The outside air temperature was 12C. The indicated airspeed was 167 knots, which equated to 168 knots true airspeed, burning 410 pounds per hour fuel flow. This compares very closely to the published performance figures. At higher, and consequently more efficient, cruise altitudes, the flight manual claims a maximum cruise speed of 183 knots true airspeed, burning 339 pounds per hour fuel flow. If one’s idea of a bush airplane is a Beaver or an Otter, then the Kodiak’s cruise performance would be a breath of fresh air. In fact, I might venture that the Kodiak is among the fastest designs that would merit the term “bush plane.”
I took a moment to admire my surroundings. The cockpit was comfortable and functional. Removing my headset, I noted a cabin sound level that was more Hummer than Lexus, but certainly not objectionable.
Learning to STOL
In short order, our meanderings through the Gulf Islands took us to Victoria, where we had planned a few circuits. The first approach was conducted to Runway 09. With full flaps (35°), and using a conservative 80 KIAS approach speed, I found the Kodiak easy and predictable to land. Smoothly reducing the throttle to idle produced only a gentle deceleration. The flare was broad and touchdown on the main wheels predictable. For the next approach, instead of Victoria’s paved runway I imagined a short stretch of gravel in a dried riverbed; better to test the Kodiak in the sort of conditions for which it was designed. For a short field landing technique, Thomas recommended an approach speed of 74 KIAS, full flaps, with the propeller selected to fine pitch, reducing power to idle as we passed over the last imaginary obstacle. Upon touchdown, I was to promptly lower the nosewheel and apply reverse thrust and heavy braking as required.
The landing happened faster than the time it took you to read the foregoing. I estimated the landing roll at 700 feet, but my technique was hardly optimal. The published performance at our 6,000 pound landing weight, at roughly sea level standard conditions with a five knot headwind, was about 520 feet, achievable with a bit of practice.
Quest quotes a base price of US$1.775 million for the Kodiak, with a typically equipped price closer to $2 million. That price buys an airplane with capabilities that few others can offer, and certainly not at a comparable operating cost. It has turned out that designing the Kodiak specifically for the humanitarian mission resulted in an airplane with broad appeal for many operators. With available options that include wheels, amphibious or fixed floats, an external cargo pod, flight into known icing capability, and interior options ranging from 10 seats to a single pilot and 248 cubic feet of cargo volume, the Kodiak can tackle a breathtaking variety of missions.