Md. pilot set to loop South Pole

February 06, 2004|By Tom Dunkel | Tom Dunkel,SUN STAFF

The Ice Land cometh.

Think it's cold here? Sometime this morning, Gus McLeod, a 49-year-old gonzo adventure pilot from Laytonsville, will point the nose of a pencil-thin, fiberglass fuselage toward Antarctica and embark on the most daunting leg of a planned 28,000-mile, pole-to-pole, first-ever solo flight around the world in a single-engine plane.

Ah, Antarctica. The Great White South. The place even Eskimos regard as forlorn and where a trillion penguins waddle without fear.

While Marylanders are busy braving icy sidewalks, McLeod is leaving behind the comforts of Ushuaia, Argentina, and taking the 30-hour risk of a lifetime.

He must cross Drake Passage at the tip of South America - arguably the most treacherous body of water on Earth with 50-foot, roller-coaster swells a regular occurrence - and then play tag with the South Pole; for logistical reasons, his plan is to loop around the pole rather than fly through to New Zealand.

McLeod will be praying that he makes it back to Argentina without encountering serious mechanical difficulties. If he is forced down in permafrosty Antarctica, his survival hopes pretty much hinge on those penguins organizing a rescue party.

"Nerves are on edge but still ready to go," McLeod said Wednesday in an e-mail pecked out on his laptop computer. "Trip has been eventfull [sic] to say the least. Lots of aircraft problems and red tape."

McLeod lifted off from College Park on Dec. 29, then spent three weeks in Florida fine-tuning his plane. The Firefly is a 17-foot-long experimental aircraft designed by Korea Aerospace Research Institute, South Korea's answer to NASA.

In April 2000, McLeod became the first person to pilot an open-cockpit biplane around the North Pole. That expedition presented its share of challenges, among them frostbitten fingers, mid-air hallucinations, and a frozen instrument panel. But his global-hopping marathon, expected to take two months, seems jinxed by comparison.

McLeod was going to make the trip in a larger, twin-engine plane, but it was damaged by an airport snow plow. Enter Firefly.

Just how experimental is this plane? McLeod took it on a cross-country test spin and had to make four emergency landings. En route to Argentina, he had electrical problems, and the primary global positioning system failed.

Mechanics have been tinkering with his auxiliary fuel tanks during the layover in Ushuaia. During a quick check flight the other day, those tanks leaked, sloshing fuel all over him and causing him to vomit, for the first time ever, in his cockpit.

There have been other glitches. He stopped to refuel in Peru, and the ground crew forgot to put a gas cap back on. McLeod had to lower his right wing and fly to Chile cockeyed in order to keep from spilling precious fuel. He was briefly detained in Ecuador because his flight plan had been mistakenly filed as "military."

Most people might figure luck's not on their side and catch a nice, cushy Delta flight home. Not McLeod.

"He dreams big dreams and has the tenacity to follow through on them," says Josh Brooks, vice president and director of marketing for 3 Roads Communications, a Frederick company that's making a film of McLeod's bid to make 'round-the-world history. "I don't know if this time he's bitten off more than he can chew."

Sometimes you push the envelope. And sometimes the envelope pushes back. Josh Brooks insists he's not pre-hyping his film when he says "it's more likely" the star may be lost at the bottom of the world than return safely from Antarctica.

"Nobody's ever done this before," Brooks notes glumly, "and the South Pole is a deadly, deadly place."

E-mail dispatches and progress reports on Gus McLeod's around-the-world flight attempt can be found online at www.gusmcleod.com.

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