Mike Cranston

From contract painter to Afghan delivery pilot

May 1, 2013

Photography by Mike Fizer

Mike Cranston

Mike Cranston may have taken a while to spool up to turbine flying, but he’s certainly racking up the hours these days. Cranston, who lives northeast of Wichita at Lloyd Stearman Field (1K1) in Benton, Kansas, started a painting company—Paintmasters Inc.—right out of college. Then it was on to buying distressed properties and apartment complexes, fixing them up, and turning them around for a profit. But in the back of his mind was the desire to fly.

It started with a lesson in a Paraplane—an early version of today’s powered parachutes. He felt out of control and feared hitting power lines during that pivotal lesson, but he also learned something about himself. “I learned I don’t cave under pressure,” he said. Soon, he moved on to commercial-airplane and -helicopter certificates with instrument ratings.

A fateful moment came when he first flew a Diamond DA40 in Denver. “It was just like a helicopter in that you have a great view and a control stick—but it’s also easier on the budget. In terms of maintenance and other costs, you can fly a DA40 six nm for the same cost as flying helicopter one mile,” Cranston figured.

In 2003 he made a bold move. Cranston heard that a Diamond dealership opportunity was open for Kansas. Without the benefit of any experience running an FBO, he wrote to Diamond asking for a franchise. Six months went by, and then Diamond answered. “We’ve never done this before, but we’ll try it with you,” the company said. In short order, Cranston ordered three DA40s, a DA42 twin, and a D-JET. In the next five years Cranston sold 25 Diamonds.

But in 2008, the economy started its slide, sales slipped, and Diamond didn’t renew its contract with Cranston. Then he tried selling Czech airplanes in the Light Sport aircraft (LSA) category, but sales were disappointing. “I ordered six of them, but with prices over $100,000 they didn’t really move,” he said.

Mike Cranston

So he decided to do what he always wanted to do—contract flying. He already had a Hawker 800 second-in-command type rating thanks to work managing a Hawker for Dwayne Clemens of Clemens Aviation. Later, a chance meeting with Andre Grosvenor, president of Aviation Dynamix, led to a friendship—and a deal to get Cranston his Airline Transport Pilot certificate. Then came training to fly Cessna Caravans. Soon, Cranston was on his way, doing some very interesting ferry flying—after passing background checks for the U.S. Air Force.

At last count, Cranston had racked up six ferry flights taking Caravans to Afghanistan. The Caravans are fitted with two 180-gallon ferry tanks and have 15-hour endurances. After crossing the North Atlantic, Europe, and the Middle East he typically lands at the Shindand Airport in Herat Province. He’s also flown a turbocharged Cessna 182 to Afghanistan.

“My drill is to position at Ankara, Turkey, and then take off at eight in the evening for the 1,650-nm leg into Shindand. Then it’s a climb to 21,000 feet on oxygen to clear the mountains, about a 12-hour flight through the night, and a dawn arrival to beat the strong daytime surface winds,” he said.

“I always wanted to be a pilot, but this is way beyond my wildest expectations,” Cranston said. Now he has 3,000 hours total time, of which 300 are as pilot-in-command of Caravans. Last we heard, he was gearing up for yet another flight to Afghanistan. The entire trip, from Wichita to Shindand, will put another 45 hours of turbine time in his logbook. He’s definitely on a roll—and in a very specialized field.

Email tom.horne@aopa.org.