Following the dream of being an airshow performer can be a struggle financially.
“Only about 10 of the 300 or so people in the airshow industry actually make a living at it,” says Greg Koontz, who, to make ends meet, combines airshow flying with aircraft sales and an aerobatics school at his fly-in bed-and-breakfast in Ashville, Alabama.
Now 62, Koontz set his sights on a career as an airshow pilot at age 7 after his father, a corporate pilot, took him to see his first aerobatic performance.
In 2014, his many years of success in the industry were recognized when he was named the recipient of the Bill Barber Award for Showmanship, which was presented at AirVenture by the Barber family.
After soloing at 16 and getting his license at 17, Koontz quickly demonstrated his determination to have a career in aviation by investing in a basket-case J3 Cub, which he purchased for $1,400 and restored in his mother’s basement.
The Cub came complete with a spare engine, which Koontz sold right away. He then restored and sold the J3 for $3,000, but only after flying it for 300 hours to gain experience that would benefit him in his chosen career.
His opening to become an airshow performer came at age 20, when Koontz purchased a Cub from Ernie Moser of St. Augustine, Florida, who operated Colonel Moser’s Flying Circus.
When Moser called to borrow the Cub to use in one of his airshows, Koontz made himself part of the deal and was soon working for Ernie and Jim Moser at their Aero Sport flight school in Florida.
That’s where he learned low-level aerobatics and also perfected landing on the “The World’s Smallest Airport,” an airshow act which he continues to perform today during the “Alabama Boys” portion of his airshow offerings.
Starting with the famous “Flying Farmer” comedy Cub routine, Koontz concludes with landing on a special platform mounted on top of a moving pickup truck.
Koontz stayed with Aero Sport until 1981, when he decided it was “time to get serious work” and pursue a corporate flying job like his father. He flew for a Birmingham insurance company until 2002, when he “retired” and started flying as a contract pilot while pursuing an airshow career on his own.
With a partner, Koontz soon bought an American Champion Super Decathlon and developed an airshow routine with the basic aerobatics trainer. Since Koontz expertly demonstrates the full capabilities of the popular taildragger made in Wisconsin, including an inverted ribbon cut, American Champion Aircraft has been his main sponsor since 2003.
As an authorized dealer, Koontz orders a new Decathlon each year in time for the airshow season and then sells it in the fall.
For the past few years, Koontz has performed in a new 210-hp Xtreme Decathlon, which he says is seven knots faster and has better vertical penetration than the 180-hp Super Decathlon he keeps as a trainer.
By shopping carefully on the used market, Koontz typically buys a low-time, 10-year-old Super Decathlon at a good price and then tries to break even after flying it an average of 400 hours in his flight school operation.
To keep his overhead low, Koontz has no employees and, as an experienced A&P and IA, he does most of his own maintenance work. Also, several well-known aviation companies in addition to American Champion help with sponsorships, including David Clark and Champion Aerospace.
Located out in the country northeast of Birmingham, Alabama, on a beautiful 3,900-foot grass strip (AL60) with its own aerobatic box, the Sky Country Lodge serves as headquarters for Koontz, who moved there in 2004 after he and his wife, Cora, built their dream home and two hangars.
Although the nine acres of runway are not his, Koontz maintains the strip and holds an annual fly-in there for friends and fans each October.
“Since we’re so far out in the country, the bed-and-breakfast concept just fell together,” explained Koontz. “One wing of the house has two bedrooms that we rent to pilots who come for basic and advanced aerobatic instruction, plus spin training and tail wheel ratings.”
“Although I sometimes take on two pilots at a time, such as a father and son, most lessons are given on an individual basis and I stay totally swamped with bookings four to five months in advance,” he adds.
Spouses are welcome and Koontz often offers them a sunset ride in one of the three Cubs he owns.
“I’ve logged over 24,000 hours so far and now average around 400 a year, but I don’t log Cub rides any more,” he says with a grin. “I’ve told Cora that she’ll have to sell a Cub some day, because that will be the last plane I own.”
An all-inclusive two-day, two-night package to learn basic aerobatics is priced at $1,700, including accommodations and meals, which are often cooked by Koontz, who even lists recipes on his website. Students are typically booked on a Monday-Tuesday and Thursday-Friday schedule.
These days Koontz takes weekends off when his schedule permits, but he still managed to perform in 20 airshows in 2015, including several in the northeast. To keep travel costs down for those dates, he stored his airshow planes and the “The Word’s Smallest Airport” in that region and commuted back and forth as needed.
Although Koontz has succeeded in the tough world of airshows, he will never forget his roots.
“For years I didn’t have weekends or vacations with my family,” he remembers. “I had to make it work.”