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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Rudd is a full-time aircraft mechanic specializing in aerobatic airplanes; he also is a part-time grunt for a number of performers. He likes to work when all the distractions of the busy day are gone.

“It minimizes your chance of making a mistake,” he said.

At airshows, “airplanes get pushed to the maximum limits, so when I check these airplanes, I always focus on the controls,” he explained. “There is a whole lot these pilots can overcome, but a control failure at low altitudes is not one of them.”

Rudd started crewing six or seven years ago. “I was at Sun ’n Fun [in Florida] when Patty Wagstaff’s crew chief hot-started her plane [restarted the fuel-injected engine after if was hot from running at full power], and it popped up on its tail and scared him,” he recounted. “He got out and said he would never get back in it again. I happened to be standing there and had done work on her plane. She looked over at me and said, ‘Think you can fly this thing?’ I said, ‘Sure I can.’ Two days later I was in it on my way to Branson, Missouri.”

Back then, he had only 250 hours of flying time. Now one of his favorite parts of crewing is the cross-country flying: seeing wild horses racing across the high plains, making a knife-edge flight above the Grand Canyon (photographed by Wagstaff), riding the extraordinary up- and downdrafts of a mountain wave in the Pacific northwest.

His grunt training with Wagstaff required meticulously following rules and a checklist every flight. When her grunts complete the list, they sign it, then make sure she signs it. It is her way to acknowledge the shift of responsibility from crew to pilot-in-command. “It takes the pressure off the grunt,” Wagstaff told me. “Then if something happens, they can say, ‘Well, she signed it off,’ and they don’t have to feel terrible the rest of their lives.”

All of the ground crew I watched seemed solid, reliable, and compatible with their performers, but it does not always happen that way. “Sometimes you hire someone and they have a vision that it is going to be so exciting and glamorous,” said Wagstaff. “Then after a few months they make friends and become sort of a star themselves and they forget to take care of you, especially if they are young, inexperienced, and haven’t traveled a lot. All of a sudden they are part of this carnival/circus atmosphere, and it goes to their heads. I’ve had that happen a number of times.”

The Baker and the Farrier
Tim Fowler and Denise Decker are two part-time grunts with careers outside aviation. Decker, who works in accounting and employee benefits, befriended the Blue Angels and many civilian show performers in 1995 at MacDill Air Force Base in Florida, where her father flew hurricane hunting missions, and afterward, she started arriving at shows with suitcases full of homemade cookies for the fliers. They gave her the nickname Cookie Lady and an invitation to help whenever she could. Since then, she frequently holds poles for ribbon-cutting acts, wipes down airplanes, helps wash and wax them, puts in fuel and smoke oil, or helps on a brake change or an aircraft assembly.

Fowler is a career farrier—he shoes horses; he met Wagstaff at a horse show. Like all grunts, his job is to keep his pilot safe. A couple of years ago in Honduras, that turned out to be a challenge. “The crowd control was crazy there,” he said. “When Patty did her inverted ribbon cut, the crowds swarmed onto the grass, the taxiway, and the end of the runway. It was like a rock concert. Skip Stewart [a fellow show pilot] took a handful of brochures into the crowd and came back with pieces of clothing missing. The crowd swamped all the performers. It was claustrophobic. We had to isolate Patty because they would rush forward, grab at her, and try to pull her into the crowd.”

One Sad Day
Brian Norris may be the quintessential grunt: He does just about anything a ground crewman can possibly do. In 1990 he saw airshow superstar Sean Tucker fly an aerobatic performance and said, “I’ve got to be part of that.” He introduced himself to Tucker, who handed him a rag and a bottle of cleaner and pointed him toward his destiny. He began working part-time jobs and following Tucker to shows. He believed Tucker would hit the big time one day, and he wanted to be on hand.

During the first two years, he learned to fly and earned his pilot’s license. When Tucker got his first sponsorship, he was able to pay Norris and buy a Cherokee 6 for a support plane. Norris was thrilled with the Cherokee, but as the sponsorships got better, so did the airplanes. Now Norris is operations coordinator for Team Oracle, handling contracts, press kits, scheduling, car rentals, and motel rooms. He flies the camera airplane, ferries the show and aerobatic-ride airplanes, and gives rides to the sponsor’s guests. He has a long list of pilot and aircraft mechanic ratings, and every winter he helps tear down and rebuild the showplane.

Some years back, at the beginning of the show season, he was monitoring one of Tucker’s practice flights when suddenly the aircraft had a control failure. A defective bearing was severed and the control stick broke loose in Tucker’s hand. Using throttle, rudder pedals, and elevator trim, Tucker got the airplane above a farm field. Just before he bailed out, he said over the radio, “If I don’t make it, tell Colleen and the kids that I love them.”

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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