Ethanol Takes to the Skies

Ethanol is the fuel of choice for Greg Poe but rather than use it in his flexible-fuel vehicle he uses it to fuel up his high-performance aerobatic Fagen MX-2 airplane.
By Rona Johnson | June 02, 2008
When air show pilot Greg Poe cartwheels across the sky in a maneuver he calls the Poe Pinwheel, the last thing he needs to worry about is the fuel that's powering his airplane. His Fagen MX-2 plane was built for aerobatic flying and it runs best on 85 percent to 95 percent ethanol. "There are times when I'm flying the airplane literally upside down 15 feet above the runway, pulling a lot of g-force and tumbling the airplane nose over tail," he says.

Poe became aware of the benefits of using ethanol when a mutual friend introduced him to the Fagens, who own Fagen Inc., a designer and builder of fuel-ethanol plants based in Granite Falls, Minn. The Fagens were looking for a way to promote and educate the public about ethanol and their company, and Poe was in the market for someone to sponsor his air show. "We were introduced and spent some time talking about what they wanted to accomplish, and what my needs were in order to do that," Poe says. In June 2006, they entered into a long-term contract. "As we did that I had a new airplane built, one that we thought would really serve Fagen's needs and what they are trying to accomplish and let me demonstrate aerobatic flying and the use of ethanol better," he says.

Poe flew that airplane in 26 air shows in 2007. "We did some minor modifications," he says. "We increased the size of the fuel supply lines, and we increased the size of the fuel pump so it had a little more output and that's really about it." The engine is considered a flexible-fuel engine because it can run on standard aviation fuel (100 low lead) and ethanol blends. "When we are at a show and actually performing we try to run a mix of anywhere from 85 [percent] to 95 percent ethanol," he says. "We mix just a little bit of 100 low lead with it but we try to run with a majority of it on ethanol because the engine runs so much better. We're so much happier when we can run ethanol fuel."

Although Poe and his team are more than satisfied with their airplane's performance using ethanol, making the switch wasn't something that they did lightly. "We took it a step at a time knowing that I was going to launch an airplane on ethanol fuel," Poe says. "You need to know that it's right." Poe relied on his operations manager, Dax Wanless, who has about 16 years experience in aviation aircraft mechanics and inspection, and research from Baylor University in Texas and the University of South Dakota. "We very carefully would just use a small mix of ethanol at first and continue to change that ratio using less aviation fuel, and then we looked at the numbers from the engine monitoring equipment that would give us the temperatures and the fuel flows, and those kinds of things that we needed to know," Poe says. "Our engine runs significantly cooler on ethanol than it does with regular fuel, we get more horsepower than we do with regular fuel and, of course, it is just so clean."

The aerobatics are just one aspect of Poe's air shows, the other is education. People who attend the air shows get pamphlets filled with ethanol facts and they have an opportunity to talk to Poe. "The questions are simple and very straight forward," Poe says. "Where do I get it? How does it work? What does it cost? What are the mileage differences? Why should I not use it? Why should I use it?"

He also fields questions from other pilots. Although there are a few other airplanes that run on ethanol, they aren't doing the same kind of aerobatic flying maneuvers that Poe is doing. "We are the only ones at this time on the circuit that you would call an unlimited aerobatic airplane," Poe says. "The airplane that I fly might be likened to an Indy car or a Nascar in that it's made specifically for very, very aggressive unlimited aerobatic flying." He believes, however, that more pilots would use ethanol if they had access to the fuel and were set up to use it. "People in the industry are watching what we're doing and hear us talking about how much we like ethanol but we're set up for that, we have support from our sponsor to help make all of that happen," he says. Fagen not only sponsors the air show pilot but also secures the denatured ethanol that's used to fly the airplane from plants where they have a relationship. The fuel is carried from show to show in a 24-foot support trailer. Poe believes it's just a matter of time before the infrastructure is in place to make the fuel more readily available for airplanes.

Inspired by Space Travel
Poe's interest in flying started in the 1960s when he was in grade school in Boise, Idaho, where he has lived most of his life. "The space program was getting heated up and that captured my imagination," he says. "I followed it, really paid attention to all the missions on television and I would read all I could."

When he was a teenager he saved up $2,000 from part-time jobs to go to a local flight school. By the time he was 19 years old he had completed his flight training and was ready to get into some serious flying. "I became a commercial pilot, an instrument pilot, a flight instructor and did anything I could to fly," he says. That included odd jobs, such as towing gliders and aerial banners for advertising. Then he became interested in aerobatic flying and started to get into some competitions and honed his skills. He also trained under a flight instructor and learned the basics, and worked as a test pilot for a company in Wyoming. "Beyond that it's a matter of how far you want to take it," Poe says. "It's up to the individual to determine how much gas do you want to buy to put in that airplane. And you have to keep practicing, just out of a love and a passion for it."

Poe's goal was to get into doing air shows, which not only costs a lot of money but also takes dedication. "There is no such thing as an overnight sensation in this business," says Poe, who is 45 years old and has been flying in air shows for 15 years.

Although Poe's job may look dangerous as it is meant to thrill and entertain audiences, he doesn't consider himself a daredevil and he doesn't like the term stunt pilot. "The word stunt conjures up the notion that you are going to go try something and you hope it works," he says. "If I was that uncertain about what I'm doing, I think I'd go fishing instead.

I'm not a set your hair on fire, jump off of a building type of guy." What Poe does takes a lot of practice and it's highly choreographed.

Reaching the Public
Poe is confident that his message about ethanol is being heard as he will be performing in 22 air shows across the country for several million live audience members. "While I am flying there's an air show announcer who explains to the crowd that I am running on ethanol fuel, so at the very least you raise the awareness level."

He also works with the local media in the communities where he has air shows, going so far as to take journalists up in the air with him. "We just flew the Columbus show and we were on the front page of the local newspaper with a very large story about our use of ethanol, Fagen's support of us and what we are doing," he says.

Although Poe practices his craft to perfection that doesn't always make his job easier. He says the hardest maneuver he does is one he developed about 10 years ago called the Poe Pinwheel. "The reason it's the hardest is the speed of the airplane, the angle of the airplane, they have to be just right and then the way that you input the controls needs to be just right or the airplane won't go into that maneuver," he says. "You really have to finesse the airplane to make it work or you will botch the maneuver and then it's not very interesting looking."

The one thing he doesn't have to worry about when he does that difficult maneuver is his fuel. "We've reached the point now where we just started being very cautious about ethanol to where we're sure we've got enough for every time I fly," he says. "We don't want to get stuck with standard aviation fuel because the airplane just doesn't run as well."

For more information about Greg Poe Air Shows visit his Web site at www.gregpoe.com.

Rona Johnson is the Ethanol Producer Magazine features editor. Reach her at rjohnson@bbibiofuels.com or (701) 738-4962.