Small Business Takes Flight

From 2,500 feet above Downtown Lansing, it’s not hard to see why Peter Kamarainen’s charter flight business is doing well, even as the national airline industry struggles.

Kamarainen owns GrandAir Aviation, a flight training and charter business in Grand Ledge with six planes and a passenger list that reads like a Who’s Who of the Lansing area’s professionals.

“We’re coming off our best first quarter ever,” he acknowledges, “even with that harsh winter we’ve had.”

At its most basic, his business pitch goes like this: Imagine you need to get to the Upper Peninsula for a business meeting. “You want to spend 12 hours in a car, hit a deer, get a speeding ticket, all that?” he asks. “If you want to stop for smoked fish, yeah, that’s great. But if you just want to get there, we’ll get you there.”

The Almond King

Kamarainen proudly carries five varieties of almonds on every flight, a perk he mentioned several times during our short pre-flight passenger rundown (He particularly likes to push the wasabi and soy sauce flavor.)

He’s also justifiably proud of the service he offers, which he says can frequently beat airline service on price as well as convenience, comfort and safety.
“If something pops up and you’ve got to go visit a customer in Dubuque, or you’re trying to get to Ironwood. . . .  I just got back from Escanaba: An hour and nine [minutes] up there, an hour and 17 back—Boom!”

“At one point, it was kind of seen as this luxury for the fat cat executives to be flying around," he says. "But it’s really not like that. It’s a business tool that enhances your productivity and saves you time. It’s a time machine.”

Business Class

The biggest, most successful piece of Kamarienen’s company is the charter service: flying passengers and freight around the Midwest and East Coast.

“And that could be anything,” he says. “It could be picking up a liver in Pittsburgh and flying it to South Carolina; it could be an executive going to a conference on Mackinac Island; it could be a big vacation golfing event in Hilton Head."

He credits the popularity of his business travel service partly to the ragged state of the national airline industry, mentioning long lines of executives with their shoes off in security lines. He compares that to his own service: “They walk through the door, they get on a plane, and they’re going. They’re not waiting.”

For Kamarainen, Lansing-based Wieland-Davco Corporation is a “perfect example of how somebody uses business aircraft successfully.”

He explains that the president, Craig Wieland, and vice-president of operations, Rob Krueger, were once his flight students at GrandAir, and the company recently bought their own airplane that Kamarainen’s company crews for them.

“Last Wednesday, we flew Craig—to get a proposal in—down to Gulfport, Mississippi,” he says. The report was due at 5:00 p.m., but “they wanted to work on it till about 12:30. Boom! They got it done, flew it down to Gulfport, turned it in. That’s how you can see the advantage of using business aircraft.”
“And Rob Kruger?” says Kamerainen, “Right now he’s in the airplane, with the other pilot, running in the Boston Marathon. He’ll be home for dinner.”

Take Off

A Grand Ledge native and graduate of Michigan State University, Kamerainen does the bulk of the flying for the company. He got his pilot’s license in 1989 and started his first company, Lansing Aviation, at Lansing’s Capital City Airport in 1991.

“Usually, guys like me move on to the airlines pretty quick,” he says. “Back in ’89, when I got out of flight school, the airlines weren’t hiring, so I started the business because I wanted a flying job.”

He moved the business to the tiny Abrams Municipal Airport in Grand Ledge in 1992. He and his staff provide everything for the airfield, including flight training, fuel sales, charter services, mechanical services and pilot supplies.  

“Somebody could walk through that door, learn to fly, go through all their ratings, buy an airplane,” he says. “Just about everything aviation-related, we’re into.”

Aerial Oddities

In addition to the passenger charters, Kamarainen also flies freight—a mixed bag of auto parts, human parts and anything else that needs to be somewhere quickly and dependably.

For the "last couple of weeks" he’s been shuttling little cannisters of Fuji film—the kind that people drop off for development at local drugstores. “So for two weeks, every night, we’d go to Minneapolis, drop this film off.”

I ask him why, suddenly, film had to be in Minneapolis on such short notice.

“You know,” he says, “I stopped asking why a while ago. . . . I can only speculate why they need to fly this to Minneapolis. If your film is not developed on time it’s free or something, you know? So time is a factor.”

He also he reminisces fondly about flying Federal Reserve checks last summer. “Almost every day, I would leave Grand Ledge and go to Lexington, Kentucky, pick up a load of checks that had to get to the Chicago Federal Reserve Bank. So, you can imagine, you’ve got $5 million or $10 million worth of checks in the back.”

“That’s the kind of stuff we’re doing. There’s stuff that people don’t even realize move in these small airplanes that keeps the economy going.”

The Prop Set

 “I’m lucky,” Kamerainen says. “I have the opportunity to travel all over the country. And people complain about Michigan, people are moving out, all that. But I tell you what: this state is it. Winter is a month too long; other than that, it’s great.”

He lists things he likes, mentioning golfing, the steelhead running on Michigan’s rivers, and jet skiing on Lake Michigan. “We do free-ride jet skiing, which means barrel rolls, back flips. We have a group of people who go do that kind of stuff.”

“Flying into the Upper Peninsula is great,” he adds. “Houghton-Hancock, Ironwood, Iron Mountain are great. We’re in Ironwood in an hour and thirty minutes. You want to drive there? Boom! You’ve got to drive across the whole U.P.!"

I press the issue and ask if he ever thinks of leaving. “I think about it once in awhile, making the jump to airline or doing a corporate thing,” he admits. “But I really enjoy what I’m doing. . .  I like it here. It beats working.”

Brad Garmon, Managing Editor of Capital Gains, enjoyed the aerial tour of Lansing Peter Kamerainen provided in his Cessna 310. And the wasabi almonds. 

Dave Trumpie is the managing photographer for Capital Gains. He is a freelance photographer and owner of Trumpie Photography.


Pete Kamarainen and Grand Air Aviation

All Photographs © Dave Trumpie

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