Bits and Pieces
Interview With Pete McLeod, Red Bull Pilot
By Ian Brown, Editor Ė Bits and Pieces, EAA 657159
Hello Pete. Itís a pleasure to meet you. How was the trip from Bagotville?
I came in this morning and the weather was nice, just headwinds, thatís it. Things were fine for my practice this afternoon. The clouds are high enough, I only use 2,500-3,000 AGL even for my high show and we need a minimum of 1,000. Itís got to be just socked in and raining to be unable to do our show. The permissions for the show are ďfree of cloudĒ but weíre typically doing 2,000 feet AGL vertical penetration.
Apart from needing good weather, what qualities do you think it takes to be a good aerobatic pilot?
Probably some of the same qualities as being a good golfer. Being able to put up with frustrations and keep practising. As you know, I come from the competition aerobatic background. It can be extremely tedious at times because I mean itís not just about going up and burning holes in the blue sky and saying, ďI had fun doing that.Ē Youíre learning to fly the airplane from the outside because all that matters is what it looks like. The marginal return on your practice diminishes all the time. It takes some of the same persistence. You have to learn good spatial awareness. Just like a gymnast needs to be able to visualize where that beam is and how to land on it, I can visualize my entire flight sitting here on the couch. Obviously my primary inputs inside the cockpit are not so much what control inputs I make so much as what I see. So much of it is reference, too. Controls make the airplane do what you want.
Do you rehearse physically on the ground as some aerobatic pilots do?
Yeah, I do. Some pilots do it with their hands. Others use their hands and arms as the wings. You just get one chance at it. Itís not a marathon race or anything. So if you make a mistake on a line or you over-rotate something, or even for a second, pause to think what direction you need to do something, youíve probably already lost the spacing or the line, and youíre going to start losing points. So that practice over and over on the ground works.
The trick on how to make things look really comes into play with the wind. You can learn to fly a perfectly round loop in a no-wind condition, but on a day like today with a strong wind pretty much down the runway, if you fly it the same way, youíre going to get an oblong. You never really know what the wind is going to do to you, so itís feel. That just comes from a lot of practising, with someone on the ground to give you feedback, so you start to learn whatís required with different winds. Then you start to learn whatís required side to side. The really interesting thing with some of the top aerobatic pilots is not to watch them on the X-axis but on the Y-axis. Then youíll get to understand how they can move the airplane depth wise in the box, and thatís not obvious to the crowd. But theyíre doing that to position things without changing the shape of things for the judges or the crowd.
I noticed when you were climbing up straight you had the aircraft inclined into the wind.
Yeah, yeah, if you want to hold it in a wind like this for sure.
What would be your dream plane to fly if you were to pick one that you donít have access to right now?
Well, first off, in so many ways, I get to fly my dream plane every day. Iíve always been into aerobatics and racing, and the Edge is just the perfect plane for me. But if I was to think outside of that, Iíd love to fly a CL415, the water bomber. I grew up in Red Lake, Ontario, and they were stationed there. And thereís a big fire base there. Theyíre amazing airplanes. If youíve ever seen them do a demo, when theyíre empty they are quite impressive. You could probably do some decent aerobatics with a plane like that, and they are huge.
I grew up flying floatplanes, but a flying boat would be interesting, too. Not so much the little ones like a Buccaneer or something, but like an Albatross or a PBY would be amazing planes to own.
What would you do with one?
Oh, just go off and have adventures with friends. One of the drawbacks with a small floatplane is that obviously youíre limited to small lakes. If you were to get into the ocean with bigger swells and so on, you need a bigger plane. I like the idea of old-school design and the great load-carrying capacity, but maybe not the huge fuel cost!
Yes, maybe youíd need lots of friends on board to share the avgas bill. Can you tell us about your status with Red Bull?
Yes, Iím what they call a Red Bull-branded athlete, so they have just over 300 athletes worldwide who do anything from cliff diving, aerobatics, to soccer, to hockey.
Öand the Crashed Ice races in Quebec!
Yes, but the difference is that those are not athletes who are contracted to Red Bull, so itís an open event that you can qualify for. The event is very cool, but thatís the difference. Thereís F1 of course. They have a couple of teams and have won a couple of championships. Itís a great company to be part of, and they certainly share a passion for aviation, not only on the performance side but also on their warbird collection. They like to fly just like the rest of us.
How many Red Bull pilots like you are there?
Um, I think there are five or six worldwide. Thereís one in the states, myself in Canada, a couple in Europe, one in Japan.
I suppose theyíre all eager for the resumption of the air races?
Absolutely. Itís something that the racing itself is an amazing sport, and you can have so much fun on that track. Itís remarkable that they were able to create this playground that we get to use. Itís unbelievable, being in that racetrack. I mean I get to do wild flying all the time, but the racetrack is a lot of fun for sure.
I think theyíve invested a lot in the technology of the race. Is there any likelihood that theyíll change the format at all?
You know, when it comes back I think youíll see something that looks very similar to what youíve seen. Theyíre not really overhauling so much on the sport side. I have heard some talk of slightly higher pylons. That being said, theyíre not going to be towers, you know. They might add 10 to 20 feet maybe. In my opinion the format and the sport were great as it was. People understood it. From the competitorsí point of view it made sense. It made sense to go from a 12 to an eight to a four format instead of the head-to-head brackets. The problem with head-to-head is that if the guy ahead of you makes a mistake and clips a pylon or something you could just throttle back the finish. Just donít hit a pylon and youíre good. Whereas with the format now, in the final four, anyone can win. In that format youíd have to have all three ahead of you muck it up, and if that happened it would probably be due to the conditions, meaning youíd be at fairly high risk of having the same thing happen to you. It makes it exciting right to the end for sure.
When are the Red Bull Air Races going to resume?
Well, right now the status is that theyíre still restructuring. Thereís a lot of interest in bringing it back, and thereís been a lot of work done on it. Weíve been told that there should be a new calendar announcement no sooner than 2013. Obviously weíd all like to see a calendar announced in 2012, but hopefully weíll see one announced in 2013. But that doesnít mean that we wonít be in the track training exhibition-wise. I donít know how that would play out but for us, and for me as a race pilot, the sooner the better for me.
Have any decisions been made about future locations for the Red Bull Air Races?
No. I think from a public standpoint theyíll announce a calendar with locations at the same time. All I can say, all I know is that everyone both on the organization side and the racing guys like to race in Canada, so Iím confident that weíll be back somewhere in Canada. I donít know that for a fact, and maybe some of that is wishful thinking, because I like to race in Canada. I think youíll see a similar schedule, not necessarily the same cities, but definitely global. But for me I hope that we get a race in Canada.
Yes, Iím sure weíre all feeling the same way about the restart of the races and especially about a location in Canada. I guess those places that qualify are places on the water with a big a population close by?
Yes and no. One of the last races was held in Germany in the middle of a speedway. A lot of people were under the perception that being on the water was a requirement, but the only absolute necessity really is the space. Of course they like to have it with a nice setting, visually, so no buildings. And thatís one advantage of water.
Yes, water is space really, isnít it, if they can just stop shipping?
Exactly, and thatís an issue in a lot of places also, where you have shipping lines. But the big factor is markets for attendees at the races, so population is important. There are only a handful of Canadian cities capable of attracting a big enough crowd.
Detroit/Windsor, Toronto, Vancouver, Montreal?
Yes, thatís about it, really.
So, changing topic completely, are you married? Do you have kids?
Not married, no kids! I have a girlfriend that puts up with my flying and my being away quite a bit on the road. You know I grew up flying, but I got into aerobatics while I was still at university, and things were going well. And I made the decision to try to do it professionally as soon as I graduated. So I basically went from the classroom, for my economics degree, finished my last exam, and I basically got in my airplane. And Iíve been flying round the country and round the world doing silly things since then.
You know, Iím 28 now. I started this when I was 21 to 22, so itís amazing how time flies. I spent a year or so in Europe doing that and then a couple of years in the air show circuit.
It must be a bit like the life of a professional golfer, too, is it? Being away a lot.
You know, any athlete that is doing stuff on a high level, your life is not normal. Normal being maybe a 9 to 5 job, a couple of weeks vacation, and youíre normally around home. When you compete internationally the boundaries of the world shrink. You learn, well, for me, small-town kid, Red Lake, Ontario, the world is a big place when you grow up there. I mean, Asia, Europeótheyíre just place names on the globe. Then you start to see that theyíre just an airline ticket away, so now I have colleagues and friends that are worldwide. And I think Iím going to call my buddy, but I have to think about what time zone heís in. And it could be like a day later and four in the morning. Sometimes you just donít notice and you call anyway. But itís given me a real appreciation for other athletes and the immense amount of effort they put in.
You know, the London Olympics are coming up, and you realize what those athletes have given up to get that good. It takes focus and dedication on just that one thing. The only way they do that is to scrap a lot of other things. My golf game is nowhere near as good as it should be, if I wasnít doing this.
Do you play golf? How much?
Iíll get maybe a couple of games in the flying season. I play a little bit in the off-season, say, late fall. There are definitely a lot of days that Iím driving to the airport and Iím not going there to have fun. Itís like I have to go practise today, and it becomes like a task at that time. Itís still fun, butÖ
Itís like Tiger Woodsí dad telling him to go out and practise if itís raining because he needs to know how to hit balls in the rain?
Yeah, yeah, I mean there are certain things that you have to do, so there is a ďjobĒ element to it for sure. But thereís a passion that fuels that.
Have you had any aircraft building experience or got involved in the hands-on side of it?
You know, definitely not building, but for sure the hands-on side. You know itís a bit like learning at the school of hard knocks, with most of my aircraft maintenance knowledge, because Iím on the road all the time, a lot of the time by myself. Fixing the problem is important, but whatís even bigger is assessing whatís wrong. And of course in the racing world, weíre always trying to make the plane even better and faster. So weíre changing things, and you make those changes a little bit at a time. Youíre fabricating things, and I have an interest in it. So I keep myself closely involved in it. Some of the guys who are doing the same as me, I do know that they distance themselves more from the mechanical aspects of the aircraft, and they just want to get in and fly. You know, I grew up around equipment. I really like composites, and maybe sometime in the future Iíd like to build a composite plane. But really, right now I donít have the time.
I guess you know every inch of your aircraft, regardless of whether you fix it yourself or not.
Thatís for sure. Iíve always maintained that the best inspection of a plane is cleaning it. Iíve always felt that a guy who doesnít clean his own airplane doesnít know enough about his airplane. I mean, equipment will talk to you. Rarely do failures just happen. They develop over time, and itís the little things that slowly amount to bigger things.
You know, for us, we run our equipment really hard, and of course we have to be on top of things in a preventative way. And so I like to know whatís going on with my airplane all the time.
Do you have to do more maintenance on your aircraft than a regular plane in terms of hours?
Well, I do more inspections for sure. I take my cowls off quite a bit and look for signs of anything developing. I donít just let it go a hundred hours and not see whatís under the hood. But you know, weíre probably going to overhaul a motor after 500 hours, and itís a 2,000-hour TBO engine. Mind you, we have it pumped up, more power, and thatís going to bring down the life cycle of your engine. You know, with the aerobatics, there is a lot of force on the crank and the bushings and bearings insideótemperatures run up higher. Pretty much all the aerobatic competitors run the Lycoming 540. Theyíre a pretty good motor that just keeps turning for the most part.
How old were you when you first got into aerobatics?
Sixteen, I got into it for some safety training. I grew up flying floatplanes. I had to be 16 to get my licence. My dad sent me out to Harvís Air in Steinbach, Manitoba, and they put me in a Citabria there to start me right off in a tailwheel right off the bat. I had been flying the family 180 on floats and then on skis in the wintertime. At 16, getting my licence was more of a formality rather than ďOh, this is how you fly.Ē I already knew how to fly. I did my private at 16, and they gave me a recreational permit which automatically turned into a private pilot licence at 17. And then I went back at 18 and did my commercial. When I was there they taught some aerobatics at the school, and I was flying the Citabria. Just a 7-ECA, non-inverted, 115 hp, and my dad wanted them [to] work on some basic aerobatics and some more advanced departure stalls stuff and more spin work than would normally be in a private course at that time. And I just got hooked with it. I grew up flying, so the flying part was not abnormal to me. So for me it was just like sitting on a couch. I always had a passion for speed and performance. I rode a snowmobile like a crazy man ever since I was little. So I just got hooked on it.
That was my first introduction, and I wasnít really able to get into aerobatics until 18 when I came down to London, Ontario, to go to school. Then I was able to get more instruction with the guys at Fighter Combat International out of St. Catharines, Ontario, who were flying a Decathlon. I got my aerobatic instructors rating and was able to get into competition aerobatics.
So 16 was when I got my first taste of aerobatics, but needless to say, around Red Lake there were no aerobatics. If it didnít have floats on it or it couldnít carry minnows and beer, it didnít fly out of Red Lake.
So were you able to begin aerobatic practice in Red Lake?
Yes, the big step obviously for most people is access to an aerobatic aircraft because flight schools donít even have them. Itís not like you can just go and rent an aerobatic aircraft and go practise. The best you can get is maybe some dual.
After two-and-a-half years of begging and pleading, my parents said, ďOkay, weíll get you a Pitts Special.Ē And you know, weíd had airplanes in the family, so having an aircraft was not new to the family. They said, ďYou can start competitions,Ē but it was really there as a form of education for me, not as a toy. It was not as if I could just go flying when I wanted to. It was a case of ďWell, if youíre gonna do this, you have to be serious about it.Ē
Red Lake actually turned out to be a great spot to practise. I would spend a lot of time in the states competing, practising, and getting coaching, and every once in a while weíd bring a coach into Red Lake because theyíre just watching you from the ground. The airport is quite busy, but not busy with flight training or anything. Only just a few scheduled flights and then a few cargo planes going up north and a lot of float traffic around obviously. Red Lake can be one of the busier airports in Canada on some days with float traffic, but whatís good about it is that people are used to airplanes. So I was up there for hours and hours practising just basic stuff, producing the typical drone of an aircraft just going up and down. The community just got used to it, and it didnít seem to bother anyone. Thereís Norsemen taking off downtown in the bay, and theyíre almost breaking your windows with the noise. As a result, I was in an environment where I was able to practise a lot without much interference. Knowing what I know today, there are a lot of places where I have to be careful where and when I practise just because of noise issues, and thatís in Canada. Weíre about as tolerant to noise as they come. But even so, there can be someone five miles away, and they donít want it to happen.
Is your Edge 540 your cross-country ride, too?
Well, it is and it isnít. Iíd love to have something like a Mooney or a Bonanza. Something I can get in with a couple of people and have some IFR capability, even if itís light IFR. And spend money on one of these fancy headsets they make that make the world quiet and comfy and just cruise. The Edge 540 is not cut out for cross-country. I liken it to going cross-country on a motorcycle. It gets you there, but youíre far from refreshed when you arrive.
So you can probably do a couple of hours and then you need to stop.
Oh, yeah. By then your buttís pretty sore and youíre half deaf. Itís a pretty loud airplane. Weíve taken all the compromises out of it for performance. Things that make an airplane smooth and quiet, like interiors and comfy seats.
Öand soundproofing, I imagine. So you just need a good headset instead?
Yes, really the helmet with ANR is the quietest thing for me. ANR is like standard issue. If you donít have it, your ears are ringing after about half an hour, but it is fast. I cruise pretty fast so if I have good weather I can cover ground.
Yes, for me, Bromont to Barrie, Ontario, is maybe two-and-a-half hours. I imagine itís a lot faster for you.
Thatís true. It would probably take me about an hour and a half, two hours to London.
Thatís a nice ride, too, along the lake over Toronto Island.
Yes, itís a nice spot. From London, there is a guy with an F1 Rocket that I do some flying in, and thatís a nice cross-country plane. Itís sporty and fast. Itís not really that far off the concept design wise of what Iím flying, but itís very quiet and smooth relative to the Edge.
I guess unless theyíre going to Reno, they donít really have to make the kind of compromises you do.
Thatís right, and for most guys if you have an airplane that is doing 185 to 190 knots, then youíre going to put some instruments in it and make it comfy. Itís only you that knows about that extra 5 knots anyway.
Öand you donít notice the difference when youíre doing a cross-country.
Exactly, and that only saves maybe a minute or two on a long trip. So Iíll go flying into Toronto Island Airport. Itís a blast to land there, but itís getting busy.
Have you had any scary moments?
Yes, if you fly long enough, you will. Iíve had a few things break on me mechanically. And sometimes youíre lucky that youíre practising at an airport, so you can just come in and land. Iíve done a pretty good job of not getting myself into too much trouble on my own with flying. Really, Iíve had excellent, excellent coaching, and mentoring along the way. Iíve been able to learn quite a few things without learning them the hard way. Itís like any industry, but mentoring has been huge for me. In Canada, youíve probably heard of Bill Carter. He flew the Imperial Oil Pitts for 20-something years. Heís been a real great help in the air show world. There have been a lot of people, and thatís been a big thing for me as far as being safe and not making the same mistakes as other guys have.
Speaking about safety, do you always practise near an airport?
No, not always. But I like to practise near a place I can land, and the reality is that itís not always possible to practise near an airport. I do limit the amount of time that I do aerobatics practice in a spot where I have no option for a good landing. You know, Iím based out of southern Ontario now, and there are so many fields with grass strips now that itís not so bad. After you grow up flying around Red Lake, any field looks good compared to just trees.
Well, thanks for coming to Bromont and flying for us. Weíre delighted to have you here. Weíll be looking out for that Red Bull Air Races calendar in 2013.