Meet the Grunts

Behind the scenes, they make airshow stars shine.

Pilot Greg Koontz (standing) flies an act that depends on the help of his Alabama Boys, Fred Masterson, Jason Hankins, and Walter Harvey (left to right, atop their mobile runway with Koontz’s Piper J-3 Cub). (Caroline Sheen)
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The airshow swirled around them, but they barely had time to watch. Two pumped smoke oil into Michael Goulian’s Extra and John Mohr’s Stearman. Several others filled pods with fireworks for Gene Soucy’s Showcat and wired Roman candles to the wingtips of Bill Leff’s T-6 for the night show. One had his head under the cowling of David Martin’s CAP-232; another, on his cell phone, confirmed sunrise flights; and a pair of them strolled by dressed as country bumpkins.

If it keeps airplanes flying and performers happy, they do it. They are airshow grunts: the ground crews who work behind the scenes at every airshow.

Some grunts join a team for a season, then go back to conventional jobs and lives. Others make it a career, falling in love with the airshow life, or with the performers themselves.

A number of my friends have served as grunts for their husbands. My own favorite grunt married me, in 1978, when I was flying shows in Bellanca Aircraft’s Super Viking and he was Bellanca’s president.

Last summer, when the show crews rolled into Oshkosh, Wisconsin, for the Experimental Aircraft Association’s week-long AirVenture fly-in, I was there to watch them work. Pilot Michael Goulian and helpers Carl Paris and Chris Porter covered the grass with plywood boards and non-skid tiles, raised awnings, and set out tables and chairs to build the hospitality area where they would entertain the guests of their sponsors. The performer hangar filled with grunts and showplanes. Extras, Edges, Pittses, CAPs, a Showcat, a Stearman, a glider, an MX-2: All got washed, serviced, polished, and preflighted by the grunts. The crews also brought support planes, motor homes, pickup trucks, and an 18-wheeler filled with baggage, tools, spare parts, and everything else it takes to keep their pilots and sponsors smiling.

It looked like the circus had arrived.

At the performers’ hangar, Greg Koontz’s Alabama Boys lifted yellow wings into place while Koontz fastened them to his J-3 Cub. Then they hauled black-and-silver wings out of Kyle Franklin’s trailer to help Franklin fasten those to his Super Cub. (Grunts from one team will help grunts from others, and some grunts work for multiple performers.)

The Alabama Boys—Fred Masterson, Walter Harvey, and Jason Hankins—drive Koontz’s truck; take care of his Super Decathlon; and help out in his comedy act, playing the parts of Uncle Fred, Grandpa, and Instructor Bob. When Koontz pretends to steal the Cub, they chase and shoot him down, then coax him onto a truck-top landing platform and deliver him and the Cub to the crowd.

To crew for Koontz, Masterson takes time off from his full-time job as an electrical engineer; Harvey is retired; and Hankins, who used to do lighting and sound for concerts, works full time as a groundskeeper for Koontz’s bed-and-breakfast.

“I used to go to airshows as a spectator, but I actually like working behind the scenes at the airshow more,” Hankins said. “Being in the airshow business is like being part of a big family, and working with Greg is so much fun. It gets me out of the ordinary 9-to-5 job.”

Later in the week, Koontz had a close call. In the middle of a low-level snap roll on top of a loop, his seat back broke and pitched him back onto the rear seat control stick. He managed to untangle himself and regain control of the Decathlon. When he landed, looking shell-shocked, his ground crew was there to help him troubleshoot the defect that could have caused a disaster.

Check and Double-Check
It was the end of the day, the crowds had left, and Chris Rudd was in the performers’ hangar. The sun, near the horizon, lit up the flame-colored paint on David Martin’s well-polished Breitling CAP 232 as Rudd checked its engine oil.

About Debbie Gary

Freelance writer Debbie Gary is a former Bede Jet Team pilot who still gets a thrill out of airshows.

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