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Friday, Jun 9, 2023

Aviation Firm Tries to Deal With Loss of Founder

The line of succession was in place at Sun Quest Executive Air Charter the morning of Jan. 12. Frank Kratzer, a retired airline pilot, ran the day-to-day operations of the charter service company he co-founded in 1992. But it was understood that Mark Smith, a Los Angeles Police officer who serves as company president, would eventually assume Kratzer’s role. “It happened sooner than anybody here had wanted it to happen that’s for sure,” Smith said. Kratzer and Fernando “Chris” Fernandez were killed that morning when the twin-engine Cessna Citation they were aboard crashed shortly after take off at Van Nuys Airport. Initially, the company saw a drop off in business but it gradually returned. The other Cessna Citation kept in the hangars has been permanently grounded by agreement with its owner until the conclusion of the investigation by the National Transportation Safety Board. Internally, Smith reviewed the company’s safety standards and found nothing wrong. The real challenge facing the firm in the days and weeks after Kratzer’s death was that of guiding the company’s future and keeping up employee morale. The employees captains, first officers, mechanics, a dispatcher, office help — were unsure of the direction the company would take. To reassure them, Smith said he announced his retirement from the LAPD, where he spent many years as a detective and then later as a chopper pilot. That became the message from Sun Quest: We are here and not going anywhere. “We have 15 years invested of safe flight for southwest passengers,” Smith said. “We are committed to the company and committed to safety.” At a memorial service for Kratzer, mourners were asked to stand if they had been taught how to fly by Kratzer, a 30-year veteran of commercial aviation. Half the audience stood. Smith numbers himself among those who learned flying under Kratzer’s direction at the aviation school he started at Whiteman Airport in Pacoima. The pair hit it off and stated buying planes together. Their first was a piston twin engine used to shuttle visiting Japanese tourists to the Grand Canyon. After starting Sun Quest in 1992, Kratzer stopped instructing at the flight school and didn’t spend nearly as much time there as before. His wife Joanne took over the daily operations as Kratzer busied himself with the air charter service. Her husband had no plans to retire from Sun Quest, that he would keep flying as long as he was found medically fit to do so, Joanne Kratzer said. In December, Kratzer had a medical exam that he “passed with flying colors” and left the results for her to see on the kitchen counter, she said. “He took no medications for anything,” Joanne Kratzer added. “He was a healthy 72 years old that’s for sure.” A preliminary report by the NTSB made no indication pilot error led to the crash. Witnesses to the crash told investigators that they saw dark objects falling from the plane just before it crashed, although a check of the crash site found no “loose objects.” The report also found that “examination of the front left baggage door indicated that the key mechanism was in the unlocked position.” Kratzer and Fernandez were on their way to Long Beach to pick up passengers before continuing to Arizona. Shortly after takeoff, Kratzer and Fernandez radioed the control tower of an emergency and said they needed to return and banked right before the plane plummeted to the ground and exploded into flames. “We don’t know what happened,” Smith said. “I fly that plane too and I don’t understand what happened.” Smith was on a flight to Puerto Vallarta when the crew was notified there had been an emergency at the charter company. Smith who was on vacation with his wife immediately returned to Los Angeles. “It was frustrating I could not be here until later in the day,” Smith said. Smith now has the title of director of operations, a Federal Aviation Administration required position. He ceded the position of chief pilot to one of the company’s Lear jet pilots. Sun Quest leases its hangar space from Aerolease West, adjacent to space used by The Air Group and nearby to Elite Aviation and the Castle & Cook fixed-base operation. The firm charters its own aircraft, provides planes to other operators and rents space to offset the cost of their lease. Smith is moving ahead with expansion plans that had been in the works prior to Kratzer’s death. He is negotiating to add another plane that would require the hiring of two additional crew members, Smith said.

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