Md. pilot's pole-to-pole adventure is delayed

Plane is grounded by mechanical problems


Gaithersburg -- In his effort to circle the world, aviator Gus McLeod didn't get out of Maryland yesterday.

Minutes after a morning departure from Montgomery County Airpark, McLeod felt a strange vibration in the nose of his single-engine plane and landed at the Frederick Municipal Airport. As the plane touched down, its front wheel cover broke off, flinging debris onto the runway.

When he tried to resume the flight without the cover, the nose gear collapsed, leaving the plane's nose flush against the runway and McLeod 23 miles from his Gaithersburg home.

As of last night, his daring plans for circumnavigating the globe pole-to-pole were, as they say, up in the air. "But I'm going," he insisted, speaking by phone from Frederick. "I ain't going to quit."

To complete the trip, he needs to pass over the South Pole between Dec. 1 and Jan. 30; anything later is too dangerous, he said. Civilian airbases there close and the weather turns impenetrable.

"It's so bad it becomes even riskier than I am willing to attempt," he said. "It gets to the point of suicidal."

His schedule had called for him to travel to the North Pole then to the South Pole in early December. But with yesterday's indefinite delay, he might reverse course, he said.

The trip's itinerary has now absorbed at least nine delays because of mechanical difficulties and bad weather. It already had shifted to place McLeod in the North Pole during its dark season, forcing him to navigate a dangerous stretch by instrument.

"It's still doable," McLeod said, "but we have to hurry."

Yesterday evening, McLeod was e-mailing photos of the plane's damaged gear to its makers in South Korea and making arrangements to have the plane trucked back to Montgomery County. He didn't know yet what caused the gear to break or how long repairs would take.

"We could be just three days out from having this fixed," he said.

Or it could be three months.

"Yeah, there's that chance, too," he said.

McLeod, a 50-year-old father of three, wants to become the first pilot on record to go pole-to-pole in a single-engine plane. Five years ago, he was the first to fly solo to the North Pole in an open-cockpit aircraft.

A successful trip this time would establish a time record for a C-class plane (2,205 pounds to 3,858 pounds) traveling across both poles. Yesterday, McLeod's experimental plane, dubbed Firefly, weighed 3,150 pounds with a new customized turbocharger that's expected to give him extra lift. When McLeod attempted this same trip last year, he was grounded when the Firefly couldn't climb through an ice storm near the South Pole.

To set the record, McLeod must begin and finish from the same spot. Yesterday, Michael Pablo of the National Aeronautic Association, the official U.S. arbiter of aviation records, logged the plane's weight and began the trip's clock as McLeod ascended into Gaithersburg's clear skies.

McLeod also is attempting to establish a record time from Resolute, in the Canadian High Arctic, to the North Pole, and from the North Pole to Point Barrow, Alaska. Pablo set his silver Pulsar watch to the nation's official time at the U.S. Naval Observatory and said, enthusiastically, "I won't cut it off until he lands back here."

But no one foresaw the quick landing. A small group of well-wishers had braved the morning chill for McLeod's sendoff, including members of the famed Tuskegee Airmen, the first group of black U.S. military pilots, and Stevens Pearce, McLeod's chase pilot during his historic open-cockpit trip to the North Pole.

"I feel like I've let everybody down," McLeod said yesterday evening. "When I get this fixed I'm just going to leave; I'm not going through [all the goodbyes] again."

Elgen M. Long is the first person known to have flown solo around the world over both poles, beginning and ending in San Francisco in 1971. Long traveled in a twin-engine plane, allowing him a redundancy in safety that McLeod's single-engine plane lacks.

But, Pablo said, "Mr. McLeod has the advantage of far better navigational and communication equipment."

If only he had a workable nose gear.

Before climbing into the cockpit yesterday morning, McLeod said, "My primary purpose is to get back home."

Last night, he was being driven home by a Florida Atlantic University professor who is helping to track and document the feat.

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