The sky’s the limit at air show

Mike Costanza

This weekend, the sky above Monroe County should fill with the thunder of engines and the shriek of planes diving through the sky at the 2008 ESL International Air Show.

The show at the Greater Rochester International Airport features the U.S. Air Force’s Thunderbirds aerobatics team, which includes Maj. Samantha Weeks, a native of Rome, N.Y. Nine other airborne acts are scheduled as well, and as many as 65 civilian and military aircraft.

Greg Poe is scheduled to cartwheel through the air in his Fagen MX-2 monoplane. As the audience watches the red-white-and-black monoplane’s aerobatics, they might not guess that Poe is flying “green.”

“We’re powered by 190-proof alcohol made from corn,” said the owner of Greg Poe Airshows.

Fueling with ethanol helps the engine run cooler, is more environmentally friendly than fossil fuels, gives the MX-2 about 5 percent more horsepower, and helps give the plane its 275 mph top speed. That’s an important point for stunt pilots.

“We’re always looking for more performance,” Poe said.

Those on the ground also might not imagine the look on his face as he puts his plane through its paces. Poe has performed aerobatics since he became a pilot at the age of 19. Thirty-five years later, he still enjoys his time in the air.

“What I like about flying is the freedom of it,” Poe explained. “You can move three-dimensionally, and it’s a means of expressing yourself.”

His company, which is based in Boise, Idaho, is scheduled to fly in 22 air shows this year. One maneuver you might watch for this weekend is Poe’s “cartwheel,” in which he makes the MX-2 spin repeatedly, like a helicopter.

An aircraft from the Cold War might appear in the sky over Gates this weekend, if Jon Blanchette can get it off the ground. The Fairport resident and a few technicians were working hard to prepare his vintage MiG –17PF fighter jet for the air.

“We worked until midnight last night,” Blanchette said when reached at his home Monday.

The retired 74-year-old mechanical engineer has been working on the plane largely alone since he bought it over 14 years ago, and that day it was nearly ready.

According to Blanchette, the sleek MiG-17PF started life in 1960 with Communist Poland’s armed forces. At that time, the fighter jet was the equal of most others in the air. It saw service with the air forces of most Communist countries, and met U.S. pilots over Vietnam, though you might not have thought that when Blanchette’s craft arrived home. It was in pieces in a packing container, looking the worse for wear.

“What wasn’t rotten got beat up in transit,” he said.

Nonetheless, the man who’d restored many cars and volunteered at Geneseo’s National Warplane Museum relished the idea of restoring the plane.

“The bigger the challenge, the better I like it,” Blanchette said.

One challenge was that of finding the manuals he needed to repair and reassemble the plane. Once he had them, Blanchette sometimes had to find people to translate them for him.

“I use Nigerian manuals, Russian manuals, Polish manuals,” he said.

While he’s sometimes turned to others for assistance with the plane, Blanchette said that he’s done about 95 percent of the work himself, putting in so many hours that his wife, Beverly, calls the plane his “aluminum mistress.”

Down at the Wings of Eagles Discovery Center at the Elmira Corning Regional Airport, the only facility close enough to home at which he could work on the plane, the MiG-17PF has taken shape through the years. Though it’s complete, the old components had to be tested, and some have had to be replaced.

When it’s ready, Blanchette plans to watch from the ground as his plane takes off. Though he can fly, he knows he’s not up to piloting the MiG-17PF.

“You have to think way ahead of the action,” he said.

Randy Ball, head of the air show company FIGHTERJETS INC, will take the tiller of Blanchette’s craft for its maiden flight, and at the upcoming air show, Blanchette said.

Ball, who has helped restore the plane and flies his own MiG, said he’s looking forward to taking the craft into the air.

“It’s like strapping on a hotrod,” Ball said.

A representative of air show organizer LeBeau Productions said 55,000 attended the ESL Air Show in 2005, the last year that the Thunderbirds appeared.

If you go

What: ESL International Air Show

When: Saturday, July 26, and Sunday, July 27, 9 a.m. to 6 p.m.

Where: Greater Rochester International Airport,1200 Brooks Avenue, Rochester

Tickets: $15 for 12-years-old and older, $8 for 6-to-12-years-old at the gate, under 6 free. Discounts for tickets purchased ahead of event.

For information or to purchase tickets, go to

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