Wings Magazine

Canada on Red Bull Air Race map

Sept. 25, 2009 – London, Ont. – Pete McLeod, the first Canadian pilot in the Red Bull Air Race World Championship, has been trying to absorb as much wisdom and acquire as much experience as possible during his rookie season flying against the world’s top pilots.

September 25, 2009  By Administrator

Sept. 25, 2009 – London, Ont. – Pete McLeod, the first Canadian pilot in the Red Bull Air Race World Championship, has been trying to absorb as much wisdom and acquire as much experience as possible during his rookie season flying against the world’s top pilots.

The 25-year-old newcomer from London, Ontario has handled the pressures of the high-speed, low-altitude precision flying race with aplomb in front of enthusiastic crowds as large as 720,000 – the number that watched the penultimate race of the season last week (Sept. 12-13) in Porto.

But the youngest pilot in the championships history has discovered the hard way that the 11 veterans are not quite as forthcoming with tips and suggestions for McLeod and his three fellow rookies from Australia, Germany and Japan as they had been in the past ñ for good reason after Austria’s Hannes Arch managed to win the championship in his second season after picking their brains when he was a rookie.

The veterans can give you tips but they can also deliberately mislead you if you’re not careful, McLeod said before the final race of the season in Barcelona, Spain on Oct. 3-4.


The really good tips are few and far between. But if you ask the right question at the right time, there is some good information out there. You always have to get a second opinion. And usually the best tips are the ones they don’t repeat. You get the feeling it was something that just slipped out by accident.

Championship leader Paul Bonhomme of Britain and the 10 other veterans all have reason to worry about McLeod. The 6-feet (1.85 cm) tall McLeod, not only towers over most of his more senior rivals physically; but the other pilots, all of whom are in their late 30s to early 50s, fear it is probably only a matter of time before the former hockey player, ends up towering over the championship as well.

McLeod, who grew up flying small float and ski planes across the remote north of Canada and took his first flight at the age of six weeks, has not been bashful about setting ambitious goals for himself: winning the championship by the time he’s 30. “I’ve now got a much better understanding of what it will take for me to become world champion,” said McLeod, who was born on Feb. 23, 1984 and raised in Red Lake, Ont. “It’s not just about one or two components. It’s everything. The race is so competitive that when I’m ready to win it all, every piece of the puzzle will have to fit perfectly. I’ve already started building those pieces.”

McLeod, who got his pilots license at the age of 16 even before he got his drivers license, is alongside Arch one of the few pilots who does not have a background either flying fighter jets in the military or jumbo jets for a commercial airline. He said growing up with float-planes in the rugged north of Canada was nevertheless an ideal training ground for the rigors of the Red Bull Air Race. “The type of flying up north, and not just in the float-plane but also in the aerobatic plane, is as good a preparation as any,” said McLeod, who also finished his degree in economics at the University of Western Ontario. “If you can feel the airplane and make it do what you want, then the rest is just risk-management and having a winning strategy. I don’t think there’s single training or experience that will give you those tools. But I do know that my background in aviation gave me the tools I need for the race.”

McLeod, who has impressed crowds around the world with a smooth flying style that belies his rookie status, went into the 2009 season not worried at all about getting good results. His goals were simple: learning, flying safely and flying as cleanly as possible at speeds up to 370 kph and up to 12g through the 20-metre-high Air Gates in obstacle courses set on rivers or open water. He got off to a confident start with several strong training runs at the first race in Abu Dhabi and San Diego but finished last, in 15th place, in both those races. Yet McLeod’s times were remarkably solid, rarely more than just a few seconds slower than those competing for spots on the podium. In previous season, rookie pilots were often 10 to 20 or more seconds slower than the leaders.

McLeod was nevertheless the only rookie without even a single point going to the third round, his home race in Windsor, Ont. on June 13-14. But rather than wilt under the pressures of flying at home and amid the heavy media demands, McLeod had the best race of his young career on the challenging course set up on the Detroit River in front of a frenzied hometown crowd of 290,000. He got one championship point in the race for 11th place after qualifying even stronger in 10th place.

Even though his Edge 540 is some 30 kg heavier than the planes of most of his rivals, McLeod was on track to finish 9th before getting hit with a 2-second penalty near the end of his run that dropped him to 11th. “It was awesome,” said McLeod, who used some brilliant flying on a turn-filled course overcome the disadvantage of flying a heavier, slower plane. “It’s a wonderful experience to race in Canada in my rookie season and to be the first Canadian in the world championship. It was something I’ll always remember. I could feel the pressure early and made an effort to up my intensity. I think another factor is the track gave less of an advantage to the faster planes and you simply had to fly well to do well.”

But after Windsor there was a two-month gap before the 4th round in Budapest and the long break seemed to disrupt his momentum. He finished 13th and out of the points in Budapest and a point-less 14th in Porto as well. “I didn’t like the break that long,” said McLeod. “Getting regular track time is the best environment to develop and that was all lost after Windsor. I would like to keep racing every couple of weeks all season.”

McLeod should get the chance for that in 2010 when it is likely that there will be eight races in a six-month long season. “On the one hand this season has been a real-life dream come true,” said McLeod, whose plane carries the number ‘84’ because it was the year he was born as well as the fact that eight was the number of his hockey jersey and his father wore 4. “So many things have been unbelievable and special. In a lot of areas I’ve exceeded many people’s expectations, including my own. But on the other hand, the season has been a challenge with my results and aircraft performance. I set goals early on focusing on learning and development. But it proved to be a difficult strategy at times, especially in the second half of the season. I’m competitive so the results have been frustrating at times. But overall, the season has been a huge success and there aren’t many things that I’d change even if I could.”


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