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Sun, Dec 28, 2003

Gus McLeod Plans Polar Flight

Hopes To Fly Over Both Poles In Velocity Firefly

Gus McLeod has a dream. The Gaithersburg (MD) pilot wants to set a record for flying over both the North and South Poles in a single-engine piston aircraft. He wants to show "there's still magic in aviation." The 49-year old father of three leaves Monday in his one-of-a-kind, Korean-built Velocity Firefly.

McLeod, who became the first man to ever fly over the North Pole in an open-cockpit aircraft, will make the flight in a Velocity "Firefly," obtained from Korean Aerospace Research. "It flies like a little race car," said McLeod, who owns a medical supply company. "It's just a little rocket sled." The pusher-prop canard aircraft is designed for long-range flight at more than 200 kts. "They told me the writing said 'Korean Aerospace Research,' " McLeod said. "It could say 'This is one nut.' "

But McLeod has something to prove. "I think if I do it, I'll bring value to a lot of people who don't see themselves in aviation and will see it can be a part of their life," he said in an interview with the Washington Times.

McLeod says he's especially concerned about the South Pole overflight. After all, those who've tried it lately haven't had much luck. Earlier this month, Australian explorer-adventurer Jon Johanson was stranded for a time at the McMurdo-Scott base in Antarctica. He had overflown the South Pole in a modified RV-4, only to be forced to land at McMurdo after figuring he didn't have enough fuel to make the complete New Zealand-Argentina flight. American and New Zealand officials refused to give him the fuel he needed to complete the journey. But British pilot Polly Vacher came to his rescue, offering him fuel she had stockpiled nearby for her own circumpolar flight -- one she abandoned at the last minute because of rough weather.

Shortly after Johanson made it back to New Zealand, another British team -- Jennifer Murray and Colin Bodill -- crashed their Bell 407 after crossing the South Pole on their own circumnagivational flight. Bodill suffered a fractured vertebra and collapsed only after making sure that the 63-year old Murray, who suffered a dislocated arm, was safe and warm.

"There's something down there going on this year that's really ugly, and I'm flying right into it," said McLeod. But in spite of his misgivings, McLeod plans to press on. The trip has been three years in the making.

There are major last-minute details to be sorted out. McLeod is still negotiating with a rescue team in Chile. The team wants $60,000 to conduct SAR missions if something "really ugly" does happen.  "We got to get it down, because if it's $60,000 my wife is going to have to say: 'Leave him.' " McLeod said.

After leaving College Park (MD), McLeod will travel to Florida, where his experimental aircraft will be outfitted with extra fuel tanks. Then, flying eight to ten hours a day, he'll sojourn south toward the pole. He'll make stops in Belem and Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, as well as Ushuaia, Argentina.

From Antarctica, McLeod plans to fly to New Zealand, across the Pacific to Fiji, then to Hawaii and Alaska before crossing the North Pole. There, his open-cockpit Stearman was abandoned after he got a batch of bad fuel in Canada more than three years ago.

This, says McLeod, is his last record attempt, at least on a polar route. After years of planning and attending to the last-minute details, he says the whole thing is just too stressful.



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