By MIKE FERGUSON
Of the Baker City Herald
Under the watchful eye of a Federal Aviation Administration inspector, Saturday's air show and fly-in gave the large crowd exactly what they turned out for: neck-craning, pulse-quickening, suck-in-your-breath excitement.
Some of it just 10 feet above the runway at the Baker City Municipal Airport.
For the first time in the show's three-year history, organizers obtained an FAA waiver to allow the featured aerobatic pilots to perform in easy view of the gallery estimated at 800 people. The roar of the high-performance engines helped build the drama as they swooped down close; the smoke that billowed out the planes' exhaust, tracing their pinwheel and loop-the-loop designs, was almost close enough to smell.
Greg Poe of Boise and Kathy Hirtz of Springfield were the highlighters, piloting their aerobatic airplanes directly over the center line of the runway in performances that left young people in particular wondering how they'd done it.
andquot;Wow!andquot; one young boy told Poe while the pilot signed the boy's program. andquot;For a minute there I thought you'd crash for sure.andquot; andquot;No,andquot; Poe said, scribbling away and chatting amiably just minutes after he'd landed his 385-horsepower Edge 540 aircraft to a roar from the crowd, andquot;I made a promise to my wife and daughter that I'd never do that.andquot; andquot;Crashandquot; might still be a painful word for Hirtz, a Springfield physician who practices family and sports medicine when she's not piloting her Pitts S-2B above appreciative crowds.
Just three months ago, Hirtz crash-landed a glider into a field of four-feet-tall fescue grass. She suffered a broken back that required two surgeries.
andquot;I was that close to being a paraplegic,andquot; the doctor said, indicating two inches between thumb and index finger. andquot;Give me the power of my Pitts any day.andquot; Caught in a weather anomaly with andquot;no lift whatsoever,andquot; Hirtz said she had no choice but to set her glider down in the field. The height and thickness of the grass made her light airplane pinwheel before it came to a stop in a field about two miles from the Creswell airport, near Goshen. The fuselage was torn in half so too, it seems, was the pilot.
Fortunately for her, a farmer witnessed the accident and summoned volunteer firefighters. Unfortunately, the grass was so tall that firefighters initially couldn't find the crash site.
The fact that she was back in her airplane just weeks after her one and only crash is a testimony to her courage and strength, said air show organizer Mel Cross.
Strength was also on display during Poe's show. He performed at least two maneuvers he invented: the Poe Pinwheel and something called andquot;Newton's Folly,andquot; during which he flies his plane, for a short time, tail-first.
Poe even took over for announcer Dale Dixon for a minute during his performance, thanking his family and ground crew and explaining to the crowd from his cockpit radio what maneuver he was about to perform.
andquot;I'm going to try to make my airplane look like a helicopter,andquot; he said, climbing rapidly and stalling with the nose pointed straight up.
andquot;How great it is to be a part of a good old-fashioned American air show,andquot; he told the crowd, his voice crackling through the radio.
andquot;If this were an Olympic sport,andquot; Dixon excitedly told the crowd, andquot;Greg would be in Athens right now.andquot; Once he'd landed, Poe said that elevation helps dictate what he can offer to each of the 15 or 16 air shows in which he participates each year.
The Portland International Air Show last week offered him almost unlimited possibilities, since the air is thicker at sea level. Conversely, the Reno Air Races next month will be held at 5,000 foot elevation.
Baker City is somewhere in between, he said.
He's andquot;totally focusedandquot; when he climbs into the cockpit. andquot;You put on your game face, and you go to work. If you can't focus, you're in the wrong business,andquot; he said.
And the most important thing to remember while performing?
andquot;Knowing where the ground is,andquot; he said, smiling. Poe's airplane, the only one of its kind in the world, sports a clear plastic window near his feet so that he andquot;always knows where Mother Earth is.andquot;
After completing his show and fulfilling dozens of requests for autographs, Poe talked for about 15 minutes about making positive choices in life. He focused on the death of his son, Ryan, a victim of drug abuse. Poe has a long history of working with DARE, the Drug Abuse Resistance Education program.
andquot;We were lucky to have him,andquot; Cross said. andquot;People in Ontario have begged him to come, but he's just too busy.andquot; In addition to the featured performers, skydivers from Skydown Sports Skydiving of Caldwell, Idaho, got the show off to a dramatic start by parachuting into a field near the runway. The last skydiver was to have delivered the American flag, but it wrapped around his parachute and he had to jettison Old Glory before landing. A volunteer sped in an off-road vehicle to offer rides to the skydiver and the flag.
Cross praised the work of the 18 volunteers who handled everything from directing air traffic in the morning for the 60 or so pilots who attended the event to ferrying them to Durkee for the steak feed.
During that event, Cross ate next to a member of the state's aviation tourism commission, who promised to highlight the local event during his next talk on the state's airport system.
andquot;He said the airport's really come a long way in the past three or four years, and people I talked with couldn't believe we could put on a show like this in Baker,andquot; Cross said. andquot;The guy putting on the show in Ontario told us, 'We can't hold a candle to you guys.'andquot;
Cross said while he's happy to host an event devoted to aviation, he's hoping for additional financial help for next year's event. A drop in the grant from the Transient Room Tax Committee contributed in a $3,000 shortfall in this year's $10,000 event, Cross said.
If you'd like to help with planning for next year, phone Cross at 523-4539.
andquot;We all want this event to grow,andquot; he said, andquot;but to do that, it's going to take a little more help.andquot;