By Terry Stephens
Milton G. “Milt” Kuolt II, 80, was considered a Pacific Northwest aviation pioneer, although he never held a pilot’s license and spent most of his life in other careers. The founder of Horizon Air, a Pacific Northwest regional airline, died May 30 in Seattle’s Swedish Medical Center from emphysema complications.
Known as the founder of Thousand Trails, the nation’s first time-share campground resort network, Kuolt excelled in many endeavors during his lifetime. But it was his role in aviation that won him the Seattle Museum of Flight’s Pathfinder award in 2002, recognizing Kuolt’s significant contributions to the development of commercial aviation.
His partners in the Horizon venture were two close friends, winglet creator Joe Clark, chairman of Aviation Partners; and cell-phone industry pioneer Bruce McCaw. Clark helped with sales, service and the marketing side of Horizon’s business and McCaw, a pilot, helped with the technical development of pilots, airplane selection and maintenance.
“He left footprints—huge footprints—in all of our lives,” Clark said.
Born to missionary parents in 1927 and raised in a small town in India, Kuolt came to the U.S. in 1940, left high school in 1945 and enlisted in the U.S. Navy. After leaving military service, he enrolled at Central Washington University. Never focused as a student, Kuolt struggled to earn a bachelor’s degree in economics in 1950. Yet many years later, the university honored him with a distinguished alumnus award. Ironically, considering his lack of scholarly interest in education, in 1988 he presented the school with one of its largest donations, establishing an endowed faculty chair in the College of Business.
After college, he began janitorial work for the Boeing Co. By the time he left in 1969, he had worked his way up to business planning manager for the 737 program, learning the marketing and entrepreneurial skills along the way that helped him launch his own businesses. With a wife and seven children to care for, he also sold real estate during those years to supplement his Boeing salary. Divorced in 1976, he married Kathy Anderson in 1981; she died in 1998.
His contributions to aviation began in 1981, when he decided to start an airline, Horizon Air. The early years after deregulation of the industry in the late 1970s created new opportunities for entrepreneurs. He admitted he knew nothing about running an airline, but thought he could do a better job than his competitors by emphasizing customer service. He believed an airline’s real product was not its flights but its service to those who flew with Horizon Air. He liked to remind his employees that the customer is always right, even when he’s wrong.
His efforts, and his employees’ enthusiastic allegiance to his leadership and vision, earned Horizon consistent rankings among the nation’s most customer-friendly airlines. Known for his formidable work ethic, Kuolt is remembered for arriving at the airport at 4 a.m. with donuts for the aircraft crews before their first flight of the day.
Starting with two aging Fairchild F-27s and 36 employees, Kuolt inaugurated flights between Seattle and Yakima, Wash. Six days later, he expanded service to Pasco, in the southeast corner of the state. At that time, he was personally guaranteeing the loans he used to grow Horizon’s business.
Only three years later, he took Horizon public. Proceeds from the stock sale retired the airline’s debt and financed a new fleet of aircraft that included de Havilland Dash 8 turboprops and Fokker F-28 jets. Also in 1984, Kuolt purchased Elkhorn Resort, an all-seasons recreation center in Sun Valley, Idaho, to provide a destination to reward Horizon’s frequent fliers with golfing and skiing opportunities. The airline became so successful that another thriving Northwest enterprise, Alaska Air Group, the parent company for Alaska Airlines, acquired Horizon in 1988.
Kuolt was well known for his dedication to his employees, whether they were managers or baggage handlers, said Bill Endicott, an employee at both Thousand Trails and the airline. Later, Endicott became Kuolt’s biographer when he wrote, “Remember the Magic: The Story of Horizon Air.” According to one of the stories in Endicott’s book, Kuolt overheard a customer being rude to one of his employees at the ticket counter, leaned over the counter and told the man he wasn’t welcome to fly on Horizon Air anymore.
He also was known for his sense of humor, including telling jokes about himself, and his flair for being genuinely independent and unique. Bill Peare, a longtime friend of Kuolt’s and a vice president at Horizon Air, described him as a “character” that made a lasting impression on people.
Peare recalled Kuolt entering a room wearing cowboy boots and a duster coat, and shouting, “Yo!” That was his favorite expression, Peare said, whether at a party, in a meeting or on a golf course. Kuolt, he said, was always at the center of the crowd at any party or gathering.
Even in his retirement years, while living in Scottsdale, Ariz., Kuolt was involved as a lead investor or board member for two other airlines, Oregon-based AirPortland and National Airlines in Las Vegas. He also was chairman of the board of GlobeNet Technologies, a Tempe, Ariz., software company started by his son, Milton G. “Damian” Kuolt III, and Los Flamingos Villas, an executive golfing retreat in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico.
Kuolt is survived by seven children, Milton Kuolt III, Suzanne Kuolt and Sandra Kuolt, all of Scottsdale, Ariz.; Ronald Kuolt, of Switzerland; Randolph Kuolt, of Kent; Maria Kuolt Ottolino, of Burien; Jamie Milagro Kuolt, Cle Elum, Wash.; and 22 grandchildren.
Until last November, when his emphysema began worsening, Kuolt spent his days riding snowmobiles, golfing and driving his Hummer around Cle Elum, where he lived with his daughter Jamie, Peare said.