PORTLAND, Ore. — Larry Blackmar knew more about prize curtains than the Iron Curtain when his TV game show was canceled, but now he has his hands on a new jackpot: bringing Soviet fighter jets to American air shows.
The aviation buff was overwhelmed by the success of this summer's four-city visit by four sleek MiG-29s. With two years of a three-year contract to go, Blackmar is busy lining up sponsors and bids for next summer's tour, expected to visit about eight cities. Up to 10 cities will be on the 1992 schedule.
"Except for the air shows, no one made a lot of money, but no one lost much, either," Blackmar said. "The point was to prove the feasibility and demonstrate the popularity of Soviet participation. We certainly did that."
He said he hopes some of the proceeds from the shows can go to a Soviet children's hospital.
Blackmar, president and founder of Leading Edge Productions in the Portland suburb of Lake Oswego, said the Soviets are offering several planes for future shows, including the world's largest aircraft, the 275-foot-long Antonov 225.
Just two of the six-engine behemoths were built to carry the Soviet version of the space shuttle. Filling the fuel tanks cost at least $200,000 every time--and that was before the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait pushed up gas prices, he said.
Blackmar began his aviation video production company a year before a Portland TV station pulled the plug on his local game show "On the Spot" in 1988.
But the road to the fighter jet visits really began when Blackmar's group met up with Soviet TV producer Yuri Salnikov. Both were working, coincidentally, on the same idea: a documentary on helicopter inventor Igor Sikorsky.
"It came down to me saying, 'I'd give my right arm to have some Soviet aircraft at the (Portland) Rose Festival Air show,' " Blackmar said. "He said, 'I know a lot of people in the industry--let me go home and talk to them.' "
Salnikov did more than that. He showed some of the company's documentaries to Soviet aviation officials. When Blackmar went to Moscow in April, he figured it would take at least a year to work out all the details.
He was wrong.
"They came back to us after the initial discussions and said, 'Why don't we do it this year?' And I said, 'Are you kidding?' " Blackmar recalled. "It takes them a great deal of time to get to the point where they trust you. But once they are committed, they are absolutely tenacious."
Bringing front-line Soviet fighter jets to the United States and Canada for a few weeks can involve as much maddening red tape as one might expect. But Blackmar said the first tour came off without any big hitches, even though there was not enough time before the shows to land big sponsors to help foot the bills.
The plane's designer, the Mikoyan Design Bureau, worked with Blackmar's staff to keep costs to a minimum and still expose the Soviet visitors to Americana.
The Soviets visited Ottawa, Canada; Kalamazoo, Mich.; Rockford, Ill.; and Dayton, Ohio, drawing record-breaking crowds at each event.
One tour highlight came at Kalamazoo, when Soviet fliers and the Navy's famed Blue Angels swapped flights in their two-seater jets.
"It wasn't just a ride--they got quite a bit of 'stick' time in each other's planes," Blackmar said.
At one point during their travels, an FBI agent visited the Soviet fliers' Dayton hotel. Thinking there might be big trouble, Blackmar and the others rushed to the lobby--only to find the agent holding a stack of restaurant menus, translated into Russian.
"It seems the local FBI office had heard that the Soviets were having difficulty ordering food from the all-English menus and took it upon themselves to help make our guests more comfortable," he said.