McLeod, Gus(tavus) 1955–
Gus(tavus) McLeod 1955–
Amateur aviator Gus McLeod made history in 1999 when he became the first person to fly over the North Pole in an open-cockpit plane. He endured below-freezing temperatures and numerous mechanical and guidance-system malfunctions before achieving his goal. But McLeod, who had been piloting vintage aircraft since his teenage years in Mississippi, had only gone as far as the magnetic North Pole, and in the spring of the following year, he set another record when he became the first such flier to make it 1,300 miles further to the geographic North Pole. The Maryland business owner has been hailed as an adventurer of the bygone mold, and his second flight was helped immensely by the National Geographic Society, which filmed it for a television special. Washington Post writer Michael E. Ruane described McLeod’s achievement as “what may be one of the last feats in aviation adventure, an exploit reminiscent in its daring of the golden, and often deadly, days of flying.”
McLeod was born in mid-1950s and grew up in Corinth, Mississippi, where his father was a Methodist minister. Dancing, drinking, and even secular music were prohibited in the devout household, and McLeod chafed at these rules. He fantasized about a world far removed from the rural Mississippi boyhood of the 1960s, a place that was also home to some of the fiercest opponents of federal civil-rights legislation. He became fascinated with explorers, especially the men who had ventured to the North Pole early in the century. There had been one notable African-American name associated with first successful trek there: Matthew Henson, who accompanied explorer Richard Byrd in 1909. Much later, in 1926, Byrd claimed to have flown over the North Pole in closed-cabin plane. Scientists later questioned the record-setting flight after calculating evidence taken from Byrd’s flight data and fuel use. A decade later, other aviators lost their lives trying to complete the flight over a spot on the planet so far “north” that compasses become useless.
McLeod flew in his first plane as a thirteen-year-old in the late 1960s. He had found refuge from his strict home life at a local airfield. It was managed by Telford Norman, a pilot who ran a crop-dusting business, and one day Norman asked McLeod if he wanted to go up in the open-cockpit plane. “The smell of that engine
At a Glance…
Born c. 1955, in Corinth, MS; son of John (a minister); married Mary Alice Lockmuller, 1976; children: Laura. Education: Earned degree from Catholic University.
Career: Chemist for the Central Intelligence Agency, and for the Raytheon Corporation; owner of a surgical-supply business, Gaithersberg, MD, and a beer distributorship.
Addresses: Office—c/o SMRosenberg & Associates, 5600 General Washington Dr., Suite 214, Alexandria, VA 22312.
will be in my mind for the rest of my life,” McLeod recalled in an interview with Ruane in the Washington Post about his first time in the type of plane he would later pilot to the North Pole. “The air blowing back of that prop....Man. That was magic.” The aviator eventually began letting McLeod take the controls, but his first solo flight came when he showed up at the airfield one day and found the manager gone. He cranked the plane up and took it out himself, terrified, and managed to successfully land it without any damage.
Yet McLeod’s father worried about his son, and in order to get him away from the dangers of the airfield, moved the family to Washington, D.C. There, McLeod enrolled in Catholic University on a scholarship, and graduated with a degree in chemical engineering. In 1976, he married a fellow student, Mary Alice Lockmuller. The new graduate was recruited by the Central Intelligence Agency, and became a chemical engineer who designed submarine components. He worked in the same field after he left the CIA and worked for the Raytheon Corporation in New England. McLeod and his family eventually moved back to the Washington area, settling in Gaithersberg, Maryland. There he bought a surgical-supply company and owned a beer distribution franchise.
McLeod had always been an amateur pilot, and in 1995 he finally purchased the plane of his dreams: the same type of vintage open-cockpit aircraft in which he had taken his first solo flight. He spent $75,000 on a Boeing Stearman biplane, originally built in 1939 from spruce wood, wire, fabric, and aluminum. He spent several thousands of dollars more refurbishing it. Boeing had made its fortune building such planes for the U.S. military, which used them to train pilots. Many were later converted to crop-dusting aircraft. “Every pilot dreams of flying a Stearman,” he told the Washington Post. “It represents aviation when it was at its purest....You sit in there and you smell all the smells around you. You can smell the oil burning. You’re kind of at one with the environment.”
McLeod liked to fly—even during cold weather, and in 1997 saw a television documentary about pair of closed-cockpit planes who had tried to reach the North Pole and failed. He began discussing it with his friend, a fellow aviator named Doug Loring Duff, who piloted a traffic helicopter for a local news outfit. McLeod thought that he could try it in his plane. No one had attempted a North Pole flight in an open-air plane in almost seventy years, when a Russian pilot and his crew disappeared in a storm in 1937. As McLeod began planning the trip in earnest, Duff planned to join him in what is called the “chase” plane, an aircraft that would follow to provide navigational support and an array of parts and supplies in case of mechanical failure.
But the trip seemed doomed from the start. In late 1998, Duff died when the traffic helicopter he was piloting crashed in foggy weather. McLeod faced bureaucratic obstacles and a large financial outlay as well; he needed permission to stop at remote Canadian government weather stations normally closed to non-military personnel, and was expected to pay runway fees each time he landed at all airfields. But in the spring of 1999, McLeod successfully made the trip in his Stearman, the passenger seat of which had been removed to make room for a larger gas tank. The aircraft had also been fitted with a state-of-the-art global positioning system (GPS).
The Stearman, however, did not have a heater, and the air-cooled engine did not generate enough heat to provide any source of warmth. McLeod had a suit designed for him made from Thinsulate and foam, but it was a tight fit for the 300-pound pilot in the tiny cockpit, so he wore only part of it. The temperature reached 28 degrees below zero, and, combined with the wind-chill factor, it made McLeod’s endeavor a fearsomely cold one. “But I’d acclimated at home to it some by sleeping a lot in the winter with my window open and no covers,” he told John Lang in an article published in the Detroit News. On the flight, McLeod nearly died over the treacherous Hudson Bay when his engine failed at 2,800 feet; he and the Stearman plummeted to 600 feet, but fortunately he was able to start it up again. He landed on an ice shelf, but decided it was too risky to stay there, and flew at an altitude of 50 feet for the next eighty miles. He made it to the North Pole, and immediately began planning his next trip: a journey to the geographic North Pole, where the actual axis of the Earth lies.
This historic flight took off in April of 2000, and McLeod was trailed by a chase plane whose passengers included a film crew from the National Geographic Society, which also funded part of the flight. McLeod took off from the county airport near his home in Gaithersberg on April 5th. His next stop on the 3,500-mile trip was Hamilton, Ontario; from there he landed in subsequent evenings at airfields in Manitoba and then Nunavut, the eastern part of what was once known as Canada’s Northwest Territories. Again, a long part of the journey forced him to fly over the icy waters of the immense Hudson Bay, and McLeod’s global positioning receiver began to fail in the extreme temperature. The cold also took its toll on the pilot. Strapped into the plane’s wooden seat, McLeod was outfitted in a specially designed parka, mittens as well as two pairs of gloves, boots, and a face mask; nevertheless, he suffered from frostbite on his chin and hand and was even burned on the stomach by the heating coil in his suit. Once, when he and the chase plane stopped for the night, he had to be helped from his plane because he was so chilled.
McLeod reached the geographic North Pole on April 17, 2000, but it was a close call. When he awoke on that day, he knew the last leg of the trip was ahead of him, and thought to himself, “God, let this day be over,” he recalled in the interview with Ruane of the Washington Post. Ten minutes off the ground, his GPS receiver froze once again, and he was forced to return. As he told Ruane, the chase crew suggested he give up, since flying without a navigational system in this white, signpost-less part of the world was not just foolhardy, but impossible as well. But as he sat in the cockpit and thought about his options, “a strange sensation” came over him, as he recalled in the Washington Post interview. It was as if “there’s a presence in the cockpit with me,” he told the newspaper, “and it says: ‘We can do this. It’s no problem. Just go. We’ll make it. Everything’ll be okay.’”
So McLeod left the ground once again, and used the sun to help him find his way north. He flew past what he told Ruane was “the most awesome scenery in the world. Seven-, eight-thousand-foot mountains dropping vertically to the Arctic Ocean. Glaciers going into the horizon. Huge, winding glaciers.” About ten hours later, in a part of the world where there is no nightfall in the spring, the chase plane radioed him and stated their position as 18 miles from the North Pole. They asked his location, so he took off his three pairs of gloves to start up his GPS receiver. When it came to life and the needle rotated wildly, unable to find due north, he realized he had made it to the North Pole. He circled it three times, and landed at a National Science Foundation airstrip twenty miles away, where he called his wife from a satellite phone.
Thankful that he had achieved his lifelong dream, McLeod was eager to return home. But the flight back proved even more perilous: his Stearman broke down not long after he began the flight back when its gas line froze and the engine failed. He planned to stay with the plane until he could fix it, but bad weather was coming, and the chase plane urged him that it was going to leave, and he needed to come with them. He assumed he would never see his beloved Stearman again, and left behind Duff’s ashes in it as a memorial to his departed friend.
McLeod made its safely home and was feted in a press conference at the National Geographic Society headquarters in Washington, D.C. He began planning to return and retrieve his plane. The Canadian government, with jurisdiction over the fuel depot spot where he had been forced to land it, threatened to fine him for littering. He returned a few weeks later and found that the Stearman had been vandalized, but he was able to repair it and take off once more. Bad luck again visited the pilot: a storm arose, and he was forced to land at a military base called Alert on Ellesmere Island; this required permission from the Canadian government, however, because it is a restricted-access communications station. McLeod phoned public-relations colleagues in Maryland, who then contacted the Canadian Embassy, but time was running out. Finally, his public-relations person called an Edmonton newspaper asking for help, and they in turn contacted the Canadian Department of National Defence.
But high winds at Alert made it impossible for him to get off the ground in the tiny plane when it came time to leave, and once again he was forced to abandon the Stearman. Canadian authorities ordered him to remove it by August 31, 2000, and help came when the New York Air National Guard offered to bring it back inside one of their large transport planes. McLeod then donated it to the College Park Aviation Museum, located at an airport where the Wright Brothers had taught aviation in the early years of the twentieth century.
Detroit News, December 16, 1999.
Jet, May 15, 2000, p.20.
National Post (Edmonton, AB), May 13, 2000, p. A10.
Washington Post, April 5, 2000; October 1, 2000.