Now is hardly an ideal time for a new aircraft manufacturer to ramp up production of its first model. But Quest Aircraft is a company with a mission.

Idaho-based Quest was established in 2001 with backing from 14 missionary and humanitarian organisations requiring new utility aircraft to access short airstrips in rugged and remote regions. It formally launched the 10-seat Kodiak in 2005, secured US certification in May 2007 and began deliveries at the end of that year.

Quest has since delivered 20 aircraft and is producing three a month, up from only one at the beginning of this year and one every two months this time last year. Chief executive Paul Schaller says Quest's ramp-up is continuing as planned despite the economic slowdown and will reach one a week by the end of this year: "We're really going through the ramp up phase. Trying to do that in an economy that is really struggling is difficult."

But Schaller says Quest's backlog has remained at a healthy 18 to 24 months with some deferrals but no cancellations. He credits Quest's success at attracting a wide mix of customer types for helping weather the economic downturn: "We only have one product, but the market for our aircraft is rather diverse."

Quest Kodiak
 © Quest

Two segments, personal use and skydiving, are now suffering. "Hobbies, especially expensive ones, go out the window when the economy is bad," Schaller says. But he adds that the humanitarian market is not impacted and demand from the government sector is increasing: "They are the ones printing money so of all the market segments that makes the most sense for us to address."

The US Department of Interior has already signed a contract for five Kodiaks to support its mission measuring wildlife populations and migration patterns. "We're talking about possibly expanding the contract," Schaller says. "They're interested in having them on floats as well."

There are no Kodiaks operating on water, but Quest sees potential in the amphibian market, particularly in Alaska, and has begun working with two float suppliers.

Only two of the 20 Kodiaks built are operating outside the USA, but Schaller says missionary organisations are planning to deploy aircraft later this year or early next year to Papua New Guinea and Iran Jiya and Kalimantan in Indonesia. Quest secured certification from Papua New Guinea authorities in June and expects Indonesia and Canada to follow soon.

The Pratt & Whitney Canada PT6A-powered Kodiak was designed for missionary and humanitarian organisations seeking to replace piston-powered Cessna 182s and 206s with a larger aircraft that does not rely on leaded avgas, which is not readily available in remote regions.

Unable to find a suitable aircraft, 14 non-profit organisations backed the launch of Quest by each paying for one Kodiak upfront to cover development and production ramp-up costs. In exchange, they get one of every 10 Kodiaks produced, which amounts to a three-year wait for those 14 deliveries. Quest's plan is to make a profit on the other nine to pay for the tenth.

Three of the founding organisations have bought 26 Kodiaks commercially. Scheller says so far 35% of the deliveries have been in the humanitarian sector, but over time he expect this segment to account only for 15-20% of deliveries. For the model to work, Quest needs to sell a total of 400 aircraft. "It's a unique kind of situation. At the end of the day it's been a walk of faith to put this together," Scheller says.

He adds that Quest is already one-third of the way toward meeting its 400-aircraft target without having to engage in any marketing. "Word of mouth is the best kind of marketing," he says.

The word that Quest is just about the only aircraft manufacturer in the USA hiring this year also has spread fast. Schaller says Quest, which has 315 employees, will add another 35 by year-end and has able to take advantage of the overall downturn by hiring workers furloughed by other manufacturers.

Source: Flight International