Pete McLeod, the 24-year old aerobatics pilot from Canada who received his FAI super-license to fly in the Red Bull Air Race came to the University of Toronto to chat with me about a whole host of stuff regarding the Red Bull Air Race, his previous experience and a little bit about himself.
This week, Pete talks about his career as a professional aerobatics pilot, more about the Red Bull Air Race quali camp and we dip our toes into a bit of technological stuff!
Why and how did you first get into flying?
I don’t remember getting into flying. My first flight was with my father at six weeks old. I remember aviation being part of my life and an option. It was always an option to get into the airplane and go flying. Most people don’t remember how to walk, and that’s flying for me. I did do the licensing process but I didn’t do any learning there.
What do you find most exhilarating about flying and aerobatics?
Aerobatics for me is definitely the most exciting form of flying. I like to toy with different kinds of flying. I really like the “seat of your pants” type of flying. I never played around with a flight simulator. It never did anything for me. I like the whole experience and that plays into a lot of my flying style. Aerobatics gives me a three-dimensional sense when flying.
What is your favourite maneuver aerobatically?
Different gyroscopic maneuvers really interest me. They’re really technical and difficult to master to the point that you can do a wild maneuver like most people can’t imagine, take it, tame it and make it controllable so you can exit where you want.
Can you integrate any of those maneuvers into the Red Bull Air Race?
The thing with racing is that it’s becoming more pure-racing. It’s becoming a thoroughbred sport. The key instead of integrating aerobatic maneuvers is to fly to the limit and fly really aggressively without going past a hostile environment and you need consistency. If you watched (Paul) Bonhomme’s performance, it was all about consistency.
In your opinion, what makes this series more interesting than the Reno Air Race as an example?
Reno’s a cool display of high performance machines. It’s not a series nor an international event. It’s nowhere close to being a global motorsport like F1. It’s more where you have guys with cool toys like to go and play with them. I’ve never raced Reno and don’t know if they have plans to grow. I wouldn’t compare the two because I don’t know if an Air Race team can be successful in Reno and vice versa. It’s like monster truck racing vs. F1.
Is there anything that goes through your mind when you hit an air gate? Have you hit an air gate?
I haven’t hit an air gate yet! There were a couple of us that haven’t hit a pylon. I’m looking forward to experience that because it’s something you need to do so it can be one less question. What goes through my mind? It’s all about flying in the track. If your mind is somewhere else, you’re definitely not flying fast nor flying smoothly.
If you were to get a seat, what would be your preferred equipment?
I do like the Edge and I fly a Giles in the airshow world. It’s a derivative of the MX2 and MXS. I’m familiar with the construction and setup but it’s still different. Probably, one of those two but the reality is that for a rookie, when you have a top airplane, your setup is not going to be 100% for at least a year because it’s not just the pilot but the team that’s also learning. You don’t need the fastest airplane in the track in your first year because there’s so much to learn. I’m still on the fence as to what type of aircraft it’ll be.
Alejandro Maclean told me in Detroit that the MXS was a very responsive aircraft. So for you, how responsive is too responsive?
I fly the Giles in the freestyle world which is one of the more sensitive aerobatic planes in the world. I flew the Extra in the qualification camp. It’s considered to be a high performance aerobatic plane and compared to the Giles, the controls are half as efficient. I have experience with handling airplanes, but in the track environment, it’s important for me for the plane to be predictable. You don’t have the margin of altitude to realize that you’re five degrees off, etc. It’s a comfort thing that Alex talks about.
What does setting up an aircraft consist of?
Technical regulations limit quite a bit of stuff and keep things to a standard. A lot of it is about safety. In an airplane, you need the engine to get you through the racetrack and back to the temporary runway. I think the setup of the engine is one of the biggest things. In my opinion, there’s a lot of room to develop the aerodynamics like the wing tips, different wheel fairings, etc. Hannes (Arch) has a cool-looking but very aerodynamic canopy as an example.
Now that you have the super-license, do you feel that there’s a greater responsibility because of your young age? Usually the pilots who get this license are in their 40s and 50s.
The average age is something like 46 in the air race. It’s a good question because in aviation in general, it’s at a high level. If you’re high up in the airlines or airshow, there’s usually a higher age associated with that. Everything I’ve done in aviation has been remarkably early. I’ve faced the issue of “is he qualified” or “is he able to” because it is a challenge and you need the experience. You just can’t get the license because if something goes wrong, what do you do in that situation?
Part I of the interview can be found here.
Stay tuned for Part III in one week's time when we ask a few more questions about the Red Bull Air Race, five questions where we get to know Pete a little more and our friend here answers questions from fans from all over the world.