Up, up and away

Erin Wood
Erin Wood and Greg Poe float above Peoria Thursday morning.

Editor’s note: In advance of the Prairie Air Show,TimesNewspapers reporter Erin Wood flew with pilot Greg Poe in the Fagen MX-2. Below is her account of the flight.

As I strapped on my parachute and situated myself in the front of the two-seater aerobatics plane, the obvious question to ask was “What should I expect?”

“It’s kind of a light-your-hair-on-fire, good time kind of a ride,” said Greg Poe, 55, the pilot who would be manning the ethanol-powered Fagen MX-2.

“It’s a do-it-yourself roller coaster,” said Dax Wanless, Poe’s operations manager.

Every discrepancy and every bump in the pavement made the 1,350-pound plane rattle, as we taxied down the runway at Byerly Aviation in Bartonville.

“Don’t worry, we’ll take good care of you,” Poe reassured me. “ You just need a good sense of adventure.”

We quickly sped up as we were cleared for takeoff, and the plane’s wheels separated from the long stretch of runway. Soon, it seemed as though it was just us and the clouds, with nothing but air surrounding the glassed-in cockpit.

Poe took it easy on me at first, as my nerves and my stomach grew accustomed to the unfamiliar feeling of traveling nearly 200 miles per hour, thousands of feet above the Illinois River.

But that feeling was easy to get used to. As I became more relaxed with the flight, I pointed out landmarks on the ground below, fascinated by the scenic bird’s-eye view.

Possibly sensing my relaxation, Poe asked if I was ready for some aerobatics.

“Let’s do it,” I said, grinning from ear to ear but meanwhile tightening my seat belt.

Poe positioned the plane just right over the river and with a sharp turn of the steering wheel, we were flying sideways. Instead of the water beneath me, I could see it out of the corner of my left eye.

We soon straightened out, and I laughed in excitement.

“That was so cool,” I said.

“You want to fly upside down?” Poe asked me.

After an enthusiastic approval from me, we flew a few miles up the river and repositioned the plane under the clouds.

I had about thirty seconds to brace myself. I again tightened all the straps harnessing me to my seat, knowing that only they and a thin piece of glass separated me from the ground thousands of feet below.

Before I could take a deep breath, the plan flipped over, and I was hanging from my seat. Gravity pulled me down, but I felt weightless at the same time.

Miles of farmland stretched before me, and we continued gliding upside down for what seemed like minutes. Then we flipped back around.

After experiencing a view like that, I should have had something poetic to say.

“That was awesome,” is what came out of my mouth instead.

“You’re doing good,” Poe said, then decided to kick it up a notch.

The gravitational pull was strong when we were upside down, but that was nothing compared to what was next.

After asking my permission, Poe sent us into a loop. The next few things my body did were out of my control. My chin pushed into my chest, my eyes closed and my heart sped up.

That’s when I realized, it is like a do-it-yourself roller coaster. No tracks, but plenty of dips, loops and adrenaline.

And a bit of motion sickness, too. After we straightened out from the loop, I found that my stomach did not agree with that trick. I remembered being told before we took off that if I felt sick, I was supposed to open the air vents.

When Poe noticed me reaching for them, he asked me how I was feeling. I told him I needed some time for my stomach to settle before we did any more aerobatics.

But that was our last trick, he said, and we were headed back to the runway. The roughly 30 minutes we spent in the air felt like mere minutes.

“What’s your favorite part of flying?” I asked Poe during the last few minutes of our flight.

“What we’re experiencing right now,” he said. “This is freedom. You get to move all over the sky three dimensionally. Then look at this view we’ve got. This bird’s eye view of the world. I don’t know how to do anything better than this.”

That was just a taste of what Poe, a 36-year pilot from Boise, Idaho, will display this weekend at the Prairie Air Show. He assures the audience they will see “extreme tumbling” in the sky.

“It’s like a 3-D aerial ballet,” he said.

Prairie Air Show, if you go

What: Aerial entertainment, educational displays and children’s activities.

When: 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. July 11 and 12. A preview night will start at 5 p.m. July 10 on the Peoria riverfront. Aerial performances will start at 5 p.m. There will be live music, food and beverage vendors.

Where: Gen. Wayne A. Downing Peoria International Airport

Admission: Two-day passes are $18 for adults, $10 for children. A one-day pass is $12 in advance for adults, $7 in advance for children. Flight deck tickets (which include food and beverages) are $45 per person. Advance tickets can be purchased at Kroger stores or online at www.cometobuy.com/prairieair. Parking is $2 per car and $20 per bus and recreational vehicle.

More information, including a list of performers: PrairieAir.org.