We circle above Lake Travis two times, locating power lines, wake signs and boats. Mark Brown, Quest Aircraft’s lead factory demo pilot, informs me the key to water landings is to plan the perfect landing zone then overfly it, allowing plenty of area to face variable winds, currents, debris and traffic.
It’s a hot Texas afternoon, with 10 knots of southerly wind and scattered clouds. (Fortunately, the afternoon’s predicted thunderstorms never formulated). Perfect weather to hit the lake. The numerous boats and jet skis we observe below confirm this sentiment.
In addition to Mark and myself, we are carrying two passengers and 850 lbs of fuel, sitting around 6,530 lbs total. Just minutes before, the Kodiak showed off its bush plane skills, easily lifting off from Austin Executive in 900 feet at a rotation speed of 55 knots. Mark then displayed a climb of 1,200 feet/min to reach our cruising altitude of 4,000 feet.
As I take the controls from the right seat, I can see why the Kodiak is often referred to as a beefed-up Cessna 172. I am immediately comfortable performing turns and adjusting power settings. Even with the size difference, the handling is similarly responsive. The main difference I am struck with is the stability and power. With 750 horses in front, it’s muscle I’ve never experienced before (and I wouldn’t mind experiencing again).
Turns out, simplicity is exactly what the founders and engineers at Quest sought when designing this SUV of the sky.
Once the New Comer
Certified 10 years ago, the Quest Kodiak is already cementing its position in the marketplace as the modern-day bush plane with a fleet of over 215 aircraft certified in more than 50 countries. Current production is approximately 40 Kodiaks per year.
The idea for the airplane originated in the late 1990s. Tom Hamilton, aircraft designer and entrepreneur, and David Voetman, veteran humanitarian aviator, joined forces after identifying the need for a new-generation short takeoff and landing (STOL) aircraft. Their mission: the ability to easily operate humanitarian missions throughout the most remote places in the world.
“At that time, everything was either piston driven, or an airplane modified for STOL operations,” explained Brown. “In order to achieve the performance, efficiency and safety they envisioned, a new (turbine) airplane was the only answer.”
So, Hamilton and Voetman, along with an early group of supporters, launched Quest Aircraft in 2001 upon landing investors and the company’s first chairman, Bruce Kennedy, who had previously served as the CEO of Alaska Airlines. Two short years later, the Kodiak made its first flight, followed by certification less than three years later in 2007. An impressive development schedule by modern standards.
Today, Quest – owned by Japanese companies Setouchi Holdings and Mitsui – is headquartered in Sandpoint, Idaho with just under 300 employees. Earlier this year, new Chief Executive Officer Rob Wells was appointed following the retirement of longtime CEO Sam Hill. Wells is a 40-year industry veteran with the majority of his career split between Piedmont Hawthorne (now Landmark Aviation) and Swiss business aviation firm, TAG Aviation where he rose to CEO.
The company’s core goal is to continue expansion into markets worldwide, growing the Kodiak name. The last six months has shown significant progress in that pursuit. So far in 2017, Quest has added three new authorized sales representatives spanning South and Central America, and achieved EASA certification in April.
Although the company’s founding is rooted in humanitarian aid, it did not take long for the aircraft to find its way into business and general aviation. Brown noted that the Kodiak’s popularity is rapidly growing within corporate fleets, charter operations and cargo haulers, as a cost-effective alternative to pricier turbine options.
“Helicopters and jets, though effective for specific missions, are upward of three to four times more expensive to operate,” said Brown. “The Kodiak fits somewhere in the middle, making it an economical addition to a corporate fleet.”
The slightly larger segment of domestic customers, however, are owner-operators moving up from high-performance piston aircraft such as the Cessna 206 or Piper Matrix.
“The simplicity of the aircraft has been a huge selling point. The average pilot who’s outgrown their piston can easily transition into a Kodiak,” said John Young, director of aviation sales at Mid-Continent Aviation Services, an authorized Quest Aircraft dealer. “Quest minimized the checklist, and everything is very simply laid out and obvious. For some, flying the Kodiak is a lot less daunting than other turbine aircraft.”
Quest also has their sights set on a developing segment within the owner-flown market, what they informally call the travel/adventure lifestyle segment (think “Jeep Life”). Given the airplane’s size and ability to get in and out of some of the most remote strips, the Kodiak makes a strong candidate for high net worth buyers seeking the aerial equivalent of a luxury SUV. It’s a market the Kodiak is well-suited for, with its impressive power-to-weight ratio; owners can easily load up passengers, golf clubs, dirt bikes, scuba gear or fishing supplies and go.
To get a feel for how the Kodiak performs in this travel/adventure role, I had the opportunity to experience the Kodiak in action on an “off-airport” jaunt. Walking out of the Austin Executive FBO to meet with Mark Brown and John Young, it was impossible not to notice the Kodiak. Towering above its neighbors on the ramp, the Kodiak seaplane on composite floats is undoubtedly a showstopper.
“We commonly have folks walk up to us immediately impressed by the size and ramp appeal,” said Young. “Usually, they have heard or read about the Kodiak, but never have seen it up close.”
Bolstering that first impression is the Pratt & Whitney PT6A-34 engine, which delivers 750 horsepower and boasts a 4,000 hour TBO. Prior to the Kodiak, the “dash 34” was used primarily in the agricultural market. Quest sought this specific version as it was (and still is) the most widely produced and proven of the PT6 series. Its relatively low operating costs (45 gph average fuel burn) and high rate of reliability are especially important in an aircraft intended to operate in and out of inhospitable terrain, where trained mechanics are rare and far between.
Mounted in front is a Hartzell 4-blade, 96-inch propeller. During the design phase of the Kodiak, one of the biggest criteria was for the propeller’s height to achieve at least a 15-inch ground clearance to avoid prop strikes and debris pickup on unimproved landing surfaces that aircraft with less clearance could experience. Quest engineers ultimately exceeded that number with the wheeled Kodiak, achieving a whopping 19-inch clearance. That extra height benefits the seaplane version as well, preventing contact with excessive water spray which can lead to prop erosion.
Contributing to the seaplane’s monstrous height is a pair of Aerocet 6650 amphibious floats, the largest composite floats available in the marketplace. Compared to traditional metal or aluminum models, carbon fiber floats are lighter, stronger and non-corrodible. And since the Kodiak was designed to accept floats from the start, no structural upgrades or aerodynamic adjustments are required to convert a land-version into its sea-faring cousin.
“The Kodiak is the fastest float seaplane in current production, with a cruise speed truing out at 162 knots,” said Brown. “And with the composite floats, you have the ability to go long periods of time without having to pump the floats like metal floats require. We haven’t pumped the floats in 10 days and we have been landing on water every day.”
It’s the extra storage capacity within the floats that soon caught my attention though. With six spacious storage lockers, four forward and two stern, pilots can load 150 lbs of equipment in each. An avid camper myself, I can imagine plenty of ways to take advantage of the additional cargo space.
Today, around 15 to 20 percent of the Kodiak fleet are mounted on floats, and that number is growing.
“Obviously, coastal areas in the Northwest and Northeast are heavy with seaplanes, but even flight schools in the Midwest are booked solid with seaplane instruction,” said Young. “So, something is definitely happening, and we are working diligently to get the Kodiak in front of that interest.”
Throughout our walk around, a theme emerges. I continually hear words like “overbuilt,” “rugged” and “robust.” Mark highlights the design features that make the Kodiak unique in its class, the wing, flap tracks, landing gear, and fuselage to name a few.
“The wing design is what really makes it stand apart from any other airplane,” said Brown. “No other Part 23 airplane has this same patented design.”
To increase safety and controllability during low and slow flight, the designers at Quest patented a “discontinuous leading edge” design, placing a break directly where the aileron begins. So, if the Kodiak were to stall, the pilot still has full aileron control, significantly reducing the chance of a spin. Mark demonstrated this unique feature during our flight (providing fair warning to our passengers prior to). Sure enough, the airplane continued to respond to Mark’s directional control despite stall conditions, a scenario completely new to me.
The Kodiak can seat up to 10, with eight in the back and two upfront. Quest offers three interior options, starting with the utilitarian Tundra, and then the increasingly outfitted Timberline and Summit interiors. The aircraft I flew in was equipped with the Timberline interior, configured with five roomy seats in the passenger area. Passengers can also find accessible USB ports, cup holders, reading lights and storage pockets.
Moving into the cockpit, the standard-equipped Kodiak features a G1000 avionics suite, arranged in a simple and familiar layout to those accustomed to Garmin glass. With a loaded standard panel, the option list is minimal. But customers have the option to order XM WX Satellite weather, weather radar, TCAS, Stormscope and Jeppesen-enabled Chartview. Though the aircraft is a single-pilot airplane, you’ll find a two-PFD suite that can be flown with a crew. A nice feature is that the pitot-static and AHRS system is fully redundant. Lose one side, you’ll have a backup on the other. Lose both, you have a third backup with the steam gauges.
“One of our mottos as a company is safety should always be standard. Everything with a direct correlation to safety is built into the base price,” said Brown. “We were actually the first single-engine turboprop with the G1000, and then also the first to have the full GFC700 autopilot with the level switch and safety enhancements like ESP and synthetic vision. There is a lot of value already added in the Kodiak when it comes off the line.”
Back to Lake Travis
We splash down onto the lake with full flaps and 70 knots. A glance outside, I see a tall wall of spray shooting out from below the wing. The floats smoothly glide us across the water as our speed reduces.
After approximately 1,300 feet, we come to idle and check our surroundings before Mark begins the shutdown sequence. We lucked out with there being little wind, the airplane bobs slowly in no hurry to drift. Mark hops out. I eagerly follow suit, unbuckling and making my way back through the cabin to the mammoth cargo door. A couple of seconds later I have joined the others outside on the float, standing just inches above the water and taking in the scenic views. Can’t help but think to myself – this is living life big.
For those who have not experienced a seaplane, it is an exhilarating feeling combining aviation and boating at first. The two worlds, both familiar to me, had yet to coexist. Now, I can’t wipe a smile off my face as I wave to boaters from a floating turboprop (wishing I had my swimsuit).
Soon, Mark has a camping hammock set up, with one end attached to the fuselage, the other to the wing’s bulky flap track. If I weren’t already sold, all it takes it one seat in that hammock and I idly start doing the math on when and how I can afford a seaplane of my own.