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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)

Meet the Grunts

Behind the scenes, they make airshow stars shine.

When Norris got to the field, Tucker was fine, but the airplane was demolished. “It was awful,” Norris recalled. “As I hooked chains to what was left of it and dragged it through this guy’s dirt field, it hit me in waves and I broke down. We had spent 12 years perfecting that airplane, rebuilding it every year, always making it a little bit better. And now it was scattered in pieces for hundreds of yards.”

Leader of the Pack
It was a few days into the show, and Carl Paris, a high-time jet pilot, was worried. He looked at the weather radar in Goulian’s truck. “There’s a lot of wind in those clouds,” he said to Chris Porter and Matt Chapman, Goulian’s mechanic. “Better get the plane out of here.” They pushed the Extra through the crowd until Porter could jump into it to taxi toward the hangars. Chapman followed in the crew car.
Suddenly the sky darkened and the wind whipped up. Other crews leapt into action. Bruce Turner ran out of the Aeroshell Team’s motor home to snag a billowing tent.

The rain fell in curtains. On the taxiway, Porter could not see past the Extra’s nose, so he stopped, pivoted into the wind, stood on the brakes, and ran up the throttle. Still the airplane skittered, so Chapman hopped out of the car and onto the airplane’s tail. Nearby, the wind was so strong it smashed two parked airplanes together, but the ground crews kept the show airplanes safe.

Chris Porter dreams of becoming an airshow performer himself. Before he hired on with Goulian, he competed in aerobatic contests and managed a flight school. Then he read a piece Goulian had written on how to have a career in airshow flying, and contacted him. Later that year, Goulian offered Porter a job as his media and sponsor relations coordinator, and Porter grabbed it.

Like everyone on the team, he does grunt work from sunrise until late at night: stocking the hospitality area, busing tables, emptying the trash, filming Goulian’s flight, shopping for supplies. But he also ferries the Extra, and some of his happiest moments have been in the team’s Bonanza, taking reporters and photographers on flights. By late July, he had been with Goulian for only six months, but already he had flown formation with Sean Tucker and Rob Holland, two of his heroes.

At the Dayton, Ohio show, he, Goulian, and a cameraman climbed aloft with the Blue Angels behind them. With constant speeds and steady hands, Porter focused on his mission: to be a stable platform for the camera and a solid lead for the flight. The Blues flew past, turned, and caught up again while the cameraman snapped away. “Mike was following me and the Blues were following him,” Porter told me. “And suddenly it hit me that technically, for those few moments, I was leading the Blue Angels.”

Bs and Ts
Grunts Bruce Turner and Teresa Beardsley specialize in logistics. For about 10 years, Turner, who is retired from the insurance business, and a group of other pilots owned and operated a hospitality motor home for the Aeroshell Team. They followed the team to shows, and over the years Turner found more ways to help the team at their biggest shows, AirVenture and the Sun ’n Fun Fly-In. The team has about 40 sponsors, and at these two shows they have an overwhelming number of things they need to do to satisfy the sponsors’ requirements. As logistical director, Turner schedules autograph sessions at sponsors’ booths, speeches and appearances, mandatory evening social events, rides for sponsors’ guests, and the party they host during their Saturday night airshow.

He makes up a detailed schedule for team members, drives them from event to event, and shows up at their airplanes every morning at 7:45 a.m. with people who will go up for the morning’s aerobatic rides. His favorite ride is in the slot airplane, the one behind the leader. “You see everything,” he said. “All the other airplanes are right there, and you feel like you could reach up and grab the tail of the one in front of you. Then I watch the aileron move on Mark [Henley]’s airplane and the ground goes by overhead as we roll.”

Teresa Beardsley is one of my favorite grunts. I worked with her and her husband, Big B (Bill Beardsley Sr.), when I flew the Bud Light Microjet. They were the ground crew from 1989 to 2000, having taken the job when Big B’s son Burner (Bill Beardsley Jr.), a former Navy Blue Angel pilot, started flying the little jet for show pilot Leo Loudenslager in 1989. Teresa, who we call Little T, loves the logistics and administrative details, and Big B loved everything else, especially the long road trips from show to show, and teasing us all when we took ourselves too seriously. About 20 years ago he decided that the ground crews needed an identity. They needed to band together for power and strength—to form a union. He and Brian Norris spearheaded the United Airshow Grunts. It costs 25 cents to join. The members meet every year at the International Council of Airshows convention to—among other things—drink beer and make fun of performers.

The Beardsleys both retired from long careers in law enforcement. Big B was director of the Georgia Bureau of Investigation during Jimmy Carter’s governorship, and Little T was a corrections officer and a parole officer for the Florida Department of Corrections. They managed the little Microjet, trucking it to shows and getting there early to assemble it in television studios, malls, and all kinds of places where they helped promote the airshows. In 2001, after the jet stopped flying in shows, both the Beardsleys went on to other ground crew jobs.

Big B died in 2011; Little T still volunteers at AirVenture. On Saturday evening, Little T joined us at show center, where she was one of the cooks and hosts for the performer party. We sat on the grass; near us, several grunts prepared for the night show, tweaking fireworks on Bill Leff’s T-6 and Gene Soucy’s Show Cat. Another couple checked the lights on the Aeroshell Team’s tails, which illuminate the smoke trails like streams of fire.

Ground crewman Chad Rumchik custom-built the fireworks he loaded on Soucy’s airplane. Rumchik is a contractor who builds bombs and is a research-and-development detonation expert at Eglin Air Force Base in Florida. Earlier in the day he primed the fireworks with electric matches and loaded them into pods mounted on the metal wingtips. Watching the other acts, he was tense, just as any performer is before he flies. He was waiting for Soucy to fly and for his fireworks to perform.

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