Grouleff Aviation, Inc: 40th Anniversary Story

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San Joaquin, California

For the past four decades, three-generation families of pilots and ag operators have been living remarkable stories that chronicle the history of agricultural aviation and the role Air Tractor played in their business growth.

To mark Air Tractor’s 40th anniversary, we’ve collected stories from Air Tractor operators from across the country. We offer their recollections of the early days in the business, the perspective they bring to today’s industry and what they see the future may have in store for us.

How many of the Grouleff family have been involved in the business?
GREG GROULEFF: Well, my father Al started the business. He’s still active and flies a bit. My older brother Don has been an ag pilot for a number of years. He’s slowly been stepping out of that. We have 80 acres of almonds that he pretty much takes care of. Greg Junior flies our AT-502B, but he mostly sprays with our Robinson R44 helicopter. I take care of the books, the orders, and the business. I fly, but I don’t do aerial application.

How did you get into the business and flying Air Tractors?
AL GROULEFF: I was discharged from the service in December of ’46 and wanted to continue flying. I couldn’t stay in the service because I was a reserve and didn’t have a regular Army commission. So I ended up back in the Imperial Valley of California, where I was born and raised. Crop dusting was just getting started then. After the war, we were buying all the Stearmans we find. Eventually I got me a seat with an operator, flying a little 220 Stearman duster. I stayed with that operator for almost a year.

Then AgAir from Dos Palos moved into the Imperial Valley with sprayers and I managed to get a seat with them. With sprayers, you could work all day instead of just dusting in the morning and the evening. I learned AgAir was going to start another operation in the San Joaquin Valley. So I moved here with my wife and son Don and established this little operation here in San Joaquin. I worked for them and became a stockholder in AgAir Corporation. We went from the 220 Stearman in the Imperial Valley to the 300 Lycoming. When we got settled down here in San Joaquin, we started flying the 450 Stearman. And eventually we went to the 1340 Wasp engine.

So when did Air Tractor appear on your horizon?
AL GROULEFF: After some years, I split off from AgAir and operated this place here until about 1977 or 1978. Just before I left AgAir, we had bought Air Tractors. A trade magazine said Leland was gonna start building this new AT-300 airplane with a 450 on it, and a 300 gallon tank. I ordered four of those right off the bat on the strength of Leland’s history. I’d got to know him fairly well and had a lot of faith in him. The first two I got were AT-300 #004 and #006. Leland wanted to spread his airplanes around a bit, so then we got #020 and #021 to finish off our order of four.

I operated them for awhile, and about that time I bought AgAir out. Then I added an AT-301. We were doing night work with the first two AT-300s, and at night with that 300 gallons in there it was hard to turn in the field and feel comfortable. So we got Leland to develop that conversion to a 1340 engine, which made a heck of a good airplane out of it. Numbers 20 and 21 came with the 1340 engines. They were AT-301s.

You liked Air Tractors so much you became a dealer. How’d that come about?
AL GROULEFF: We were operating the first Air Tractors on the West coast. We had quite a few hours on them, when an operator from Australia came into our Association office in Sacramento and wanted to find out more about this new airplane. They sent him down here to me and we let his chief pilot fly one of them, and he fell in love with it. He said to his boss “we gotta have a few of these aircraft.” He asked me how to get them. I told him to go back to Olney, Texas. I got a map out and showed him where to go. On his way home to Australia, he called me and said to me “I’d like to inform you that we’re now Air Tractor dealers from Australia.”

We kept in touch with him and eventually Jim Vetter, another operator in the Imperial Valley, and I got together and went to a crop duster convention in Australia. We contacted Ray Mackay, with Field Air Ballarat. Boy, he set us up good; we had a good time over there. He ended up being a tremendous dealer. Later on, Peter came over here with his sister and Kevin Howard, and spent a few days with us here, and then went on to the NAAA convention in Reno.

Just before we went to that NAAA convention with Peter, we took on the Air Tractor dealership here. Leland offered it to us, and we got along well with Peter, as we both had helped each other become Air Tractor dealers. We were an Air Tractor dealer for 10-12 years. We filled up the market here, and the airplane was so good that people didn’t have to replace ’em unless they wrecked one. We sold ourselves out of a job!

The Air Tractor is comfortable and easy to fly. Visibility is really good. I guess I’ve got about 7-8,000 hours in Air Tractors.
— Don Grouleff —

What was it like to transition to turbine aircraft?
AL GROULEFF: Leland had me back in Wichita Falls and set me down by the pool one day. I told him we couldn’t pencil it out [a turbine engine Air Tractor] for our spraying operation. He got a pencil, a pad of paper, did the math and showed me where we could make it work. Our first turbine engine Air Tractor was an AT-502, before they made the B model. We operated that 502 about a year, then sold it to an outfit in Clarksdale Mississippi.

We operated a 402 for a while; we sold it to an operation in Greece. I think we had the 802 at the same time. But the 802 was too much airplane for the size of fields we had. We had an opportunity to sell it to John Hunt in Stafford, Arizona. He was flying an AT-400 at first; then we sold him a 402. And the BLM people wanted him to get a bigger airplane. So we sold him the 802, and we replaced it with two 502Bs.

GREG GROULEFF: We’ve worked with three 502Bs for quite awhile. But the row crop business has fallen off so badly in the last several years that we sold one of the 502Bs. We had to add a helicopter in here; the PCAs were pushing them quite a bit. There’s more and more tree work coming in so we got a Robinson R44. It’s working out pretty good.

So there are three generations of Grouleffs flying Air Tractors…

AL GROULEFF: Don spent a few years in the Air Force on B-52 maintenance crews. After he was discharged, I started him in the business. I think I had the AT-301s by that time; I was running four 301s and two Ag Cats. I broke him in running the Ag Cats with me.

Grandson Greg Junior is in his third year of the business. He’s coming along real well. He runs both fixed wing and helicopters. He gives us a lot of versatility to adjust with changing cropping patterns.

You bought the first AT-802?
DON GROULEFF: Yeah, we bought the first ag version of the AT-802. It worked out pretty well except that it was more airplane than we needed for our operation. We got along better with two 502Bs. We couldn’t utilize that 800-gallon load like we should.

Since the AT-301, you’ve flown just about every Air Tractor made. What is it about Air Tractors that keeps you flying them?
DON GROULEFF: It’s just the ease of the controls. The Air Tractor doesn’t work ya to death like some other airplanes. The Stearmans we had would give you a pretty good work out if you had to sit in one all day. A couple of Thrushes we had were a handful. The Air Tractor is comfortable and easy to fly. Visibility is really good. I guess I’ve got about 7-8,000 hours in Air Tractors. In the early days we put a lot of hours on those 301s and 401s.

The Air Tractor was the biggest thing to happen to this industry, I think. It made the California Central Valley a wonderful place to be.
— Al Grouleff —

So, what does the future look like for the Grouleffs and the San Joaquin Valley?
DON GROULEFF: Greg Junior is probably gonna have to deal with more state regulations as the industry moves forward. In the last couple of years, the cropping patterns are changing rapidly. They’re moving from the typical row crops – like cotton was king out here forever. This year we’ll probably grow the least amount of cotton this year that we ever have. And typically this San Joaquin Valley area, it’s quality is second to nowhere in the world. And it’s going away because of the water issues. Not so much as the lack of water as the cost of water. So everybody is moving to more permanent crops: vineyards, almond trees, and pistachios, that sort of stuff out here. We still have a pretty fair mix of vegetables, but even the tomato contractors, the cotton industry, they’re having to compete for these acres. Farmers can typically net more per acre from some of these permanent crops. So they’re not gonna stay with cotton or tomatoes or whatever.

Our family has 80 acres, and I have 10 acres of my own in almond trees. It’s been good to us. It’s not gonna make us rich, but it’s helping out.

What’s changed with your business here in the valley during the past 40 years?
AL GROULEFF: We moved here in July 1948, and I’m working with third-generation farmers now. When the Air Tractor came along, it was the biggest thing to happen to this industry, I think. It made the California Central Valley a wonderful place to be.

GPS came along toward the end of my career. It’s sure been a blessing, though; a wonderful thing for us.

When we first started running Air Tractors, we covered about 375,000 acres/year. Today, probably 125,000 acres is the most we do any more. Row crops have just gone away. And there’s the water situation that’s been cut back. What water farmers get now, they’re using on their trees, not on annual row crops.

After all the Air Tractors you’ve flown over the past 40 years, does one Air Tractor model stand out from the others?
DON GROULEFF: The 401 series… we were pretty instrumental in Leland building that airplane. Around that time we were an Air Tractor dealer. We worked with Leland to get a 400-gallon airplane, which is what our customers out here wanted. For a round engine airplane, I don’t think there’s anything out there to compete with it—with the 1340, it just won’t happen. Of course we were flying a lot of hours back then. We were changing engines about every 1,200 hours, and we were getting an engine on each one of them every year for several years. Aero Engines that did our overhauls down in Los Angeles, they loved us. If you couldn’t afford to go turbine, that’s what I would have. It’s just a sweet flying airplane right from the get-go. Everything about it seemed like it was right on. If I had to go back to a round engine airplane, the AT-401 is what it would be. The 401 made us enough money that it allowed us to move into turbine 502s.

We got into turbine Air Tractors in the late 1980s. We had a 402 for awhile, and then we moved up to a 502. And I flew the first 802 out here. Al helped Leland develop that aircraft for the firefighting industry. Then we bought an ag version 802. It was a good airplane, very productive, but it just didn’t fit our area as well as a 502. We have competitors 30 miles away that the 802 is a better choice for them. But for our size of fields in our area here, the 502 seems to be the best choice.

Any changes you’d like to see with the Air Tractors?
DON GROULEFF: No; I think Air Tractor has it figured out. I don’t know how you could improve on it much. If there’s a wish that I had, it might be to spend a little more time on pattern testing and sorting them out. I think there’s always room for improvement. But having said that, I realize that everybody’s operation is different all over the country.