Pole vaulter

Risking death, a Gaithersburg aviator is again trying to circle the Earth solo


Gaithersburg -- Adventurer Gus McLeod says he can't help himself. He seems unable to stop taking risks with his life. His family and friends agree that something is wrong with him - or more importantly, could go seriously wrong for him.

"I've got to think I've got a problem," he said, sounding somber, but determined to endanger his life on a novel flight that even he's not convinced will succeed. "I can't seem to stop myself."

Tomorrow, or later this week, the 50-year-old daredevil aviator from Gaithersburg plans to embark on a solo pole-to-pole round-the-world adventure that will likely cause his pulse to soar like the single-engine plane he's testing. If the trip is anything like his others, he will face deadly cold, mechanical failures, emergency landings in desolate, other-worldly places and ice storms that inspire poetic awe.

"It was a curtain of death covering the gateway to the pole," he said, recalling the ice that contributed to his downfall last year off the Antarctic Peninsula as he attempted the identical pole-to-pole feat. "It was a beautiful sight."

This time, like last time, McLeod will place his fate, his trust and his beefy, NFL lineman's body in a plastic-coated fiberglass composite aircraft that's not much longer than a speedboat. He will surround himself with 300 gallons of fuel in a cockpit so small there's no wiggle room to change clothes. He is, basically, "strapping on fuel tanks and an engine," he said.

If the 27-stop, three-month trip is successful, it will be a historic coup for McLeod and a financial coup for South Korea.

No one has ever circumnavigated the globe alone in a single-engine plane. Dubbed the Firefly, the 1,600-pound plane was built by South Korea's version of NASA. It is "experimental," meaning that it is not certified as safe by the Federal Aviation Administration.

"That only means we can do lots of things we couldn't do otherwise, like jump over to the hardware store and buy some new fittings and install them," he said last week while making last-minute adjustments to the plane at the Montgomery County Airpark. "With an FAA-registered plane, you couldn't do that."

In effect, McLeod is the guinea pig asked by the South Korean government to show the world that its plane can survive every weather condition from the North Pole to the South Pole. If it does, the prototype can be packaged into assembly kits and sold worldwide as a plane that can withstand any variance of temperature or turbulence, said McLeod's friend Jerome Hodge, president of Baltimore's AvDyne AeroServices.

"They stand to make a lot of money on this," Hodge said of McLeod's sponsors, the government-run Korea Aerospace Research Institute. "Like any corporation, I think they only have their own best interests at heart."

McLeod defends South Korea, and says he pursued the trip because he has faith in the plane. "In a way, I approached them," he said of the institute's engineers. "I let it be known that I liked the specs of this plane and that I wanted to try it."

Last week, the South Korean engineers had returned home after helping prepare the plane and left its final adjustments to McLeod, who has postponed his departure five times in the past week. There have been various complications, including an axle that broke last Sunday, and a lot of anxiety.

"You just dread the day that you get up and look around at your house and at your wife and your kids and realize that you may never see it all again," said McLeod, a father of three. "It is the depth of misery."

Since the plane's failures last year, first in the Antarctic Peninsula as he approached the South Pole, then during a refueling stop in Argentina, the Firefly has been modified.

A turbocharger was added that enables the engine to receive oxygen at higher altitudes and maintain full power up to 28,000 feet, high enough to leap curtains of ice. Last time, the engine's strength waned at 7,000 feet. Ice formed on the plane's wings and forced him down on a short runway on a spit of an Antarctic island that appeared like a blessing out of nowhere.

McLeod, the son of a Mississippi preacher, said, "When you're out there alone, you are constantly cycling through three states of mind: boredom, loneliness and terror. And I'm not talking about fear - sheer terror."

The remote runway was 1,800 feet long. The plane, with all its fuel and equipment, weighed 3,600 pounds and required 3,000 feet to land. Or so McLeod thought as he descended. He landed the plane flatter than usual and was able to stop before the runway's end.

Later, during a refueling stop in Argentina in preparation for another pass at the South Pole, six gallons of fuel tainted with water contaminated the plane's entire supply and grounded McLeod. He came home safe but defeated.

"The reason I'm going back this time is because it beat me last time," he said. "Antarctica really beat my butt."

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