All in the family
The San Joaquin Valley is situated about a two-hour drive south from the diverse and progressive Silicon Valley and historic San Francisco. Although only a short distance apart, the geography and culture change significantly. The hubs of Google, Apple, Microsoft quickly give way to vast farmlands filled with an excess of 20 crop varieties; from onions and pistachios to cotton and soybeans.
Long before the technology wave of the 1990s and the beginnings of this computing mecca, Al Grouleff was establishing the roots of Grouleff Aviation and it would bloom into the multi-generational agricultural aviation operation it is today.
Al served in World War II, flying ”The Hump” in C-46s (powered by two R-2800s). Never having flown before, he joined the Air Force and applied for the Cadet program. While waiting to be assigned to flight school, Al decided it might be a good idea to take a ride in an airplane just to make sure he would like it. He found an old timer who volunteered to take him for a ride in a J-3 Cub.
From that point on, Al knew aviation would be his lifelong career. Although Al applied for P-38 training, the Air Force decided they needed C-46 pilots. It was getting late in the war, 1944, and Al figured active duty in a C-46 was better than waiting for the P-38 slot that may never come to be.
With less than 300 hours of total time, 20 years old, and after a checkout in the C-46, Al piloted from the left seat in a C-46 formation headed east from the United States, through Africa and India, into China. From China, the missions over “The Hump” originated, crossing the Himalaya Mountains into India. Navigation consisted of primarily an ADF. Loaded with cargo, fuel, troops and munitions, the C-46 aircraft crossed ”The Hump” at 19,000 MSL and returned at 21,000 MSL, barely clearing the mountains and in most cases in IMC conditions.
After the war, Al figured he could get hired by the Chinese National Airway Corporation. That was before Communism stepped in, derailing any such plans. He returned to his home in El Centro in the Imperial Valley. Finally, he landed a seat flying 220 horsepower Stearman dusters for Growers Service. In 1947, Jim Vedder helped him land a seat at the fast growing, newly formed in 1946, Agair, Inc. that was amassing a fleet of Stearmans.
In July of 1948, Agair, Inc. opened an operation in San Joaquin. Al moved to San Joaquin to run the operation using several Stearmans. He quickly converted the 450-horsepower Stearmans to 600-horsepower Stear-Cats. The wings were modified at Vern’s Wing Shop to the 4412 airfoil. Vern also added aileron servos and aileron gap covers (seals). These modifications made the Stear-Cat a real performer that was light on the controls and could carry 275 gallons.
In 1973, in one giant leap, Agair, Inc. took delivery of two AT-300s, serial numbers four and six. And, the following year, serial numbers 20 and 21. The first two were powered by P&W R-985s with 300-gallon hoppers. The second two were delivered with P&W R-1340s. The original two were converted to 600-horsepower engines. Al bought the San Joaquin operation in 1976 using their secondary name of Aerial Chemical Corp. Mrs. Grouleff couldn’t stand the name and within a year the company became Grouleff Aviation, Inc.
With a fleet of five AT-301s with 350-gallon hoppers, planting, fertilizing and controlling weeds in grain, along with the regular fare of cotton and alfalfa work, Grouleff Aviation found themselves working the piston Air Tractors 1,200 hours a season. Al sold one of the AT-301s and converted the fleet to two factory Bull Thrush with four AT-301s. The company needed the extra speed and hopper capacity of the Bull Thrush. Grouleff Aviation was constantly pushing Air Tractor for a 400-gallon aircraft that could fly with the hopper full on 600 horsepower.
In 1985 Grouleff Aviation became an Air Tractor dealer. Greg Grouleff, Sr. had pestered Leland Snow so much for a 400-gallon Air Tractor to sell, that they had to take the first one in 1986 for their spray business. When, in fact, they wanted the first AT-501. It turned out the AT-401 became one of the best piston ag aircraft Air Tractor ever built.
From that point, Grouleff Aviation upgraded their equipment with Air Tractors, through the AT-802 and now operate two AT-502Bs and two Robinson R44 Raven II helicopters.
Grouleff Aviation is a multi-generational operation. Al is still at the office along with sons Don and Greg. Greg manages the day to day office operations and since 2011 they have had the help of Greg Grouleff, Jr.
Greg, Jr. is on his sixth season of ag-flying. Starting off his career in the AT-502, Greg did his first two seasons strictly in the airplane. After a push from local growers and PCAs (Pest Control Advisor), Grouleff Aviation added a Robinson R44 Raven II to their fleet. In the fall of 2016, Grouleff Aviation added a second, brand new Robinson R44 Raven II. Greg, Jr. transitioned to the helicopter and has spent the last three seasons mostly flying the Robinson at night.
Night flying is not unique to the San Joaquin Valley, but a necessity. Matter of fact, night aerial application was thought to be pioneered in this location. George Willett is given credit for making the first night aerial application in 1947 in a Stearman he modified with two 450-watt lights mounted on the “N” strut. This caught the attention of Greg, Jr.’s granddad, Al, and soon enough most all applications were completed during the dusk-to-dawn period.
All Grouleff Aviation fleet have additional equipment (i.e. lights) to safely and effectively perform nighttime aerial applications. The AT-502s are uniquely setup for liquid and dry work, including sulfur dust. Grouleff Aviation applies about 500,000 lbs a year. The entire fleet of airplanes and helicopters have SATLOC Bantams with AutoCal flow control units.
San Joaquin crops are as diverse as the big city of San Francisco to the north; onions, garlic, lettuce, tomatoes, alfalfa, cotton, almonds, pistachios, grapes…over 20 different varieties.
“There are nights when I have 10 jobs, each a different crop,” comments Greg, Jr.
Over 90% of the work is flown from the Grouleff’s home base in San Joaquin. The operation “leap-frogs” nurse trucks (using two with one always ahead of the other for the next job) for the helicopter, so downtime is minimized. The helicopter can continue to operate and not wait on support equipment.
Grouleff Aviation has a long history in agricultural aviation. From the 1940s to today, Al Grouleff was a pioneer in nighttime aerial applications, an integral part of the Air Tractor development and real-world testing and a voice for the eventual use of SEAT aircraft for firefighting. His sons, Don and Greg, Sr. and his grandson, Greg, Jr., continue his business alongside him.
Greg Jr. and wife Heather have just welcomed the fourth generation into the Grouleff Aviation family, Adelie Eve Grouleff. However, the young Grouleff’s are going to have to share! Greg Jr. met Heather Stone (as the Stone in Southeastern Aircraft, an Air Tractor dealer in south Florida) during an NAAA convention in Savannah, Georgia. The two met at random on River Street, then realized not only were they in the same business, but that their grandfathers were close friends, as well as knowing their parents. Heather is the granddaughter of the late Mr. Chuck Stone, and the daughter of Rick and Mary Stone. Heather and Adelie are regulars at the office of Grouleff Aviation, where they truly are keeping it in the “family”.