Pilot's pole-to-pole trek postponed until spring

Unknown fluid clogged plane's fuel line

November 07, 2005|By GREG BARRETT | GREG BARRETT,SUN REPORTER

Gaithersburg -- The pole-to-pole flight of Maryland aviator Gus McLeod has been indefinitely postponed by a strange contaminant that clogged his single-engine plane's fuel line and launched a whodunit mystery.

Three weeks after collapsed landing gear forced McLeod to delay his solo attempt to circumnavigate the globe, polluted fuel has grounded McLeod with a botched itinerary and a quart of suspicious yellow liquid. He said he drained about a quart of it from his fuel tanks after aborting a test flight to Smith Mountain Lake, Va., last week.

The liquid will be tested by a chemist this week, he said. Meanwhile, McLeod is taking apart the Korean-made plane's fuel line and fuel tanks to clean out a sticky residue that gummed up the engine's pistons and valves and splattered a black substance onto his rear props. Thirty miles into his trip to Virginia, McLeod said he had to turn the plane around and "milk it back to Gaithersburg."

The problem might have resulted from mixing too much alcohol with aviation fuel - to absorb residual water - which could have caused resin to leach from the fiberglass fuel tanks, McLeod said. But none of his part-time crew of seven owned up to the mistake and other plane mechanics at Montgomery County Airpark dismissed it as unlikely.

"I've been turning a wrench for 40 years and I've never seen anything like this," said Bob Hawkins, an airframe and power plant mechanic at the airpark.

Hawkins said he has confronted people near McLeod's hangar at the public airfield, and has scared one away. Airpark manager John Luke said yesterday that he does not suspect foul play, but he plans to ask Montgomery County lawmakers to authorize police to arrest people who enter the airpark without having business there.

The airpark is a public-access field with no security guards.

Luke described some visitors to the airpark as loiterers and said they have become a nuisance.

McLeod said his plane has been parked outside the secured hangar for weeks at a time, and recently some young people were chased away from it. The cap to the fuel tank has no lock and is as easy to open as a pop-top on a can.

"I don't want to think it was deliberate, but I've got the evidence all over my props and in my tanks," McLeod said yesterday from the plane's hangar at the airpark, four miles from his home.

After cleaning and reassembling the fuel lines, McLeod plans to move the plane to a friend's hangar at Baltimore-Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport. "It's very safe there," he said. "It takes an act of Congress to get into that area."

The delay has eliminated any chance of safely passing over the South Pole this year. After January, civilian airbases there close and the weather turns impenetrable.

McLeod, 50, hopes to restart his round-the-world attempt in the spring. He 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 would establish a time record for a C-class plane (2,205 pounds to 3,858 pounds) traveling across both poles. McLeod's experimental plane, dubbed Firefly, weighs about 3,150 pounds fully fueled and with a customized turbocharger that's expected to give him an extra lift.

When McLeod attempted this trip last year, he was grounded when the Firefly couldn't climb through an ice storm near the South Pole.

He's endured more than a dozen postponements in this latest attempt, but he says he doesn't consider the trip jinxed.

"Not jinxed - just difficult," he said.

greg.barrett@baltsun.com

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