Death and Daring
Pilot to Carry Friend's Ashes on Flight To North Pole They Had Planned Together
By Michael E. Ruane
They flew together on weekends, shared aerial mishaps and jawed around the hangar about the romance of aviation. Gus wanted to be the first to fly to the North Pole in an open-cockpit aircraft. Doug pledged to go along in a chase plane for support.
But today, as Gustavas A. McLeod, 45, of Gaithersburg, loads his blue and yellow Boeing Stearman for the historic flight to the pole, his cargo will sadly include a container of his friend's ashes.
Seventeen months ago, as the expedition was being planned, Doug Loring Duff, 42, of Alexandria, was killed when the traffic plane he was piloting crashed in fog near Bowie.
McLeod mourned his friend, but vowed to make the trip anyhow, and this week promised that if he reached the pole, his buddy would, too.
Gus McLeod, the son of a Methodist preacher from Corinth, Miss., is undertaking 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.
Scheduled to depart this morning, he plans to fly in 10 stages from Montgomery Air Park, in Gaithersburg, about 3,500 miles to the North Pole, exposed to the elements in the biplane's cockpit.
His refurbished Stearman, a former crop duster built as an Army trainer in 1939, flies at about 90 mph. McLeod will be swathed in special mittens, mask, boots, pants and parka against temperatures of 45 below.
The trip, chronicled by National Geographic and detailed at northpole2000.com, will take about 10 days. It will carry him--at times just 100 feet above the ground--over remote spots like Resolute and Weather Station Eureka in Canada, places "overwhelming" in their vast beauty, he said.
McLeod, who will be accompanied by his new chase pilot, Steve Pearce of Durham, N.C., will eat and drink only at night after they stop flying for the day. He will stay strapped into the plane's hard wooden seat for hours.
McLeod, a chemical engineer by trade who also served as a CIA agent and a designer of submarine components, hopes to land at the geographic North Pole.
He made a test flight last year to the magnetic north pole, 1,200 miles closer, and almost crashed into Hudson's Bay.
He tried to leave on this trip Sunday, but returned to the airport after a landing gear fairing came loose and damaged a wing. Weather delayed a second try until today.
The geographic North Pole, at the Arctic Ocean meeting place of the planet's lines of longitude, was first reached in 1909, via dog sled, by American explorer Robert E. Peary. Explorers Richard E. Byrd and Floyd Bennett are credited with first getting there by air--in an enclosed three-engine Fokker--in 1926.
"I've always been a fan of the guys in the great days of aviation, Admiral Byrd and Lindbergh and all those guys, who could go out on their own wit and take on the elements, take on the challenges," McLeod, a bearish man who hums oldies as he flies, said Monday as he prepared to patch the hole in the fabric skin of the wing.
"Through some quirk in the records, this one hasn't been done," he said, a claim corroborated by Smithsonian Institution aviation expert Tom Crouch. " . . . And we're doing it in an airplane that the first aviation explorers would have used."
McLeod's Stearman, made of wire, fabric, aluminum and spruce, is one of aviation's classic machines. Designed in the 1920s, it is powered by a seven-cylinder, 220-horsepower radial engine turning a two-blade propeller.
Technically, the plane is a two-seater, but the front seat has been taken out to make room for two more gas tanks, adding a capacity of 110 gallons to its usual 46, stored in a tank in the upper wing, just over the fuselage.
"This is the airplane that made Boeing rich," McLeod said as he showed it off Monday. "They won the contract to build these for Army trainers. . . . This one served throughout World War II, at Randolph field, Texas."
After the war, the plane dusted crops, wound up in a barn and then underwent restoration before McLeod bought it for about $75,000 in 1995.
Despite its age and frail look, McLeod said, it is a rugged machine.
"There's nothing you can do to this airplane in the air to make it come apart," he said. "Absolutely nothing. That thing is tough. It defines the word.
"A Stearman is sort of the soul of a pilot," he said. "Every pilot dreams of flying a Stearman. It represents aviation when it was at its purest. It's just stick and rudder. You fly it by feel.
"It's a pilot's plane," he said. "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."
If all goes well, McLeod hopes to land on the polar icecap late next week. He plans to leave the container of Duff's ashes in the snow, a fitting tribute from one pilot to another.
"They'll be there for a while," he said.
Then he will fly home.
© Copyright 2000 The Washington Post Company