WINDSOR, Ontario – He may be the youngest pilot in the Red Bull Air Race World Championship but 26-year-old Pete McLeod from Canada has shown some of the older pilots this year that age doesn’t always equate to success. While many of the 15 pilots can boast tens of thousands of hours in the skies over decades, flying airliners and military jets in their previous lives, McLeod had something of an exceptional introduction to flying as he sharpened his skills in the challenging Canadian wilderness as a teenager.
Preparing to race in front of his home crowd for a second year on 5 and 6 June, McLeod hopes to build on the success he achieved in Windsor in 2009, where he picked up his first ever championship point. After three encouraging results so far in only his second season, the ambitious Canadian is sitting comfortably in 5 th place overall with 19 championship points way ahead of many of the veterans of the sport.
“I couldn’t have asked for a better start to the season, the results we’ve seen in the first three races put us right where we want to be,” said McLeod in the week before the Windsor race, which takes place over the Detroit River. “Support from Canadians across the country continues to grow but the way residents of Windsor, London and Red Lake rally behind me and the team for the Canadian stop is something special.”
Why age isn’t always a factor
Despite no airline or military jet experience, the level-headed pilot from Red Lake, Ontario, has racked up an impressive amount of hands-on flying time in particularly inhospitable conditions. Used to making decisions under pressure McLeod says he’s totally comfortable in the racing environment and has kept his cool so far this year where others have failed. Without the comfort of skilled rescue divers and emergency crews on standby if something goes wrong, flying over the rugged Canadian landscape can be intimidating and requires immense pilot skill as well as a strong ability to assess a situation quickly and accurately. What McLeod lacks in years, he appears to have made up for in terms of intensive training and he’s putting this invaluable experience to good use as a race pilot.
In the first race of the 2010 season, the team celebrated a 5th place finish as high temperatures played havoc with many of the teams. Later, in Perth, several pilots were caught out by the changing winds in the track over the Swan River and penalties soon mounted. Not so for McLeod, who laid down a clean run to finish just outside the Final 4 for a second consecutive race. It could have been three in a row in Rio, but torrential rain put a stop to that and McLeod had to rely on his off-pace Qualifying performance to secure a 7th place result.
“I think it’s something to embrace,” says McLeod of his ability to do well in the more challenging tracks, such as Windsor last year, where tough conditions kept the pilots on their toes as the penalties stacked up. “Windsor was one of my favourites; very tight and unforgiving. I like it when there are different conditions and it really doesn’t bother me. I look at the track and make my analysis on race day and put those changes into my planning before the first flight of the day. I suppose the biggest boost for me is that you can see historically that some of the guys have trouble with track conditions. It’s not going to be like that for every race but I suppose that puts added pressure on some of the guys and in a way that helps me.”
The right mindset
As a third generation pilot, McLeod was flying aeroplanes with his dad and grandpa while most of us were struggling to tie our shoelaces. Since the age of 16 – when it’s possible to start officially recording flight time – he has racked up around 2200 hours in total with around half of that time spent navigating the unforgiving terrain of his homeland. There is a definite shift in the average profile of a Red Bull Air Race pilot in terms of their background as the sport evolves but there remains a common thread regardless of the type of flying the pilots bring to the table – a mature approach to flying in general and the conviction to call it a day when things aren’t going right.
“I have a huge amount of respect here for a lot of the guys and if you can imagine the résumés that are in each hangar, it’s phenomenal,” adds McLeod, aware that he’s now in the company of many boyhood heroes. “Chambliss and Goulian were the guys I watched when I was young at airshows and they were the big guys back then. So it’s an honour for me to be able to compete against them and fly with them. When it comes down to it though, you have to prove yourself in the track and that takes time. You’ve got to show you can make the right decisions too and these guys will have respect for you whether you’re 25 or 55.”
Balancing youth with wisdom
While the headstrong twentysomething is quite capable of running his race team, McLeod looks to one key mentor for advice. McLeod’s father, Dave, is assisting his son throughout the 2010 season as team manager, bringing the kind of wisdom that can only be accumulated over time. An experienced pilot himself, McLeod’s father has been a solid and invaluable influence in his son’s career progression and continues to feature highly in McLeod’s bid to win the championship by the time he’s 30.
“I think it’s great that he’s reached this goal,” says McLeod’s undeniably proud dad. “He’s been flying his whole life and from a fairly young age, set substantial goals. He’s been able to achieve those goals all the way along. Early on while at university, he became aware of the Red Bull Air Race and that became the major focus. He’s worked really hard but how he’s conducted himself has been really important to us as a family. He made sacrifices and has done all the things any parent would hope for in terms of growth and development. That’s been really important to us.”
Often praised for a maturity way beyond his years, McLeod appears to have inherited some of his dad’s attributes and isn’t easily distracted by the glamour of participating in the high profile sport. “The other side of the coin is how Pete’s prepared himself over the years,” adds McLeod senior. “It’s not only about developing his skill set, but also his mental attitude and there are no stars in his eyes. He’s calm and he really thinks about what he’s doing and plans accordingly. That gives us huge comfort as a family. Flying in such a tough environment at home, it’s inhospitable out there and if you make a mistake you’re gonna pay for it. Having to make decisions about survival – that all prepared him for this world.”