BY LINDSAY BRISCOE
Pete McLeod landed back on the podium with a third place finish at the Red Bull Air Race 2015 season opener in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates last month. This week, The Northern Sun News catches up with the youngest pilot in the Red Bull Air Race series to talk about everything from behind the scenes training and preparation to his recent foray into the world of television.
How do you feel after your podium finish in Abu Dhabi?
I think overall it’s been a great start to the season. Any podium is a super strong finish for anyone in the championship at this point. That being said, there’s still a long road ahead.
We’d been having a few engine issues on the power side of things. It was running fine, but our data is showing us that we don’t quite have the power that we should. Due to the short off-season and being in Canada, it didn’t have as much flying done ahead of time as we would have liked and an engine needs a certain amount of time to break in before it starts producing peak power. We’re hoping that’s the case, but still, things are so tight that any small detail now can really handicap you. I didn’t get quite to the speed that I would have liked to in Abu Dhabi, but the result worked out pretty good so it’s a kind of a give and take.
It’s also great to have a new partner on board with Garmin. That was a big thing that kind of added to the off-season and prep for the start of the season. They’re an exciting partner with cool products, and I look forward to racing with them in the future.
What happens with your aircraft between races?
Depending on the schedule, there are three ways for an airplane to get to the next race. One is to fly it, and that’s what we’ll do if it’s intercontinental. So if we’re doing a couple races in Europe or North America, for example, we’ll actually ferry the airplane race to race. If it’s going overseas anywhere, we’ll freight the plane either air freight or sea freight. So, for example, it went air freight to Abu Dhabi to start the season because we were working on it right up until the last minute. We essentially take the plane apart, take the wings off and the tail and we have special boxes for everything. We put our entire airplane inside a 747…and we can be operational anywhere in the world in three days. That’s the fast way to do it, but also obviously very expensive. So when we have the time, we use sea freight which is much more economical but also slower. I can put my entire team set up in a 40-foot sea container. It goes to the next location and will be there waiting for us. Right now the aircraft is being sea freighted to Japan from Abu Dhabi.
How did you come to be part of Discovery Channel’s Airshow?
I’ve been doing aerobatics for a long time. In addition to the racing I still maintain an air show schedule throughout North America. Over the last couple of seasons there was a company out of Vancouver that partnered with Discovery Channel to start filming a docu-series on the air show world. It’s along the lines of a Deadliest Catch type show or Gold Rush—a career-based docu-series.
I was one of the characters that they decided to follow around. We don’t audition for it, so to speak. We’re not paid actors. They just follow us through our daily lives at these events, but focusing less so on behind the scenes stuff and more so on what it really takes to operate in that industry.
Do you have cameras on you all the time?
The advent of the small, modern, action camera is something that has really allowed the audience to come on board with us—not only in the cockpit, but also on the outside of the airplane. They get some of these amazing angles that capture what it is that we do. There’s also a crew of typically three to five people chasing you around. They’re not there every day with me; they’re not there in my house when I wake up in the morning or anything…we kind of stay away from that domestic side. We stay focused on what we’re really doing when we go to work.
People always ask how much of it actually happens, how much of it is real. What’s interesting is they did a great job of really capturing the series of events that happen across the season. Believe it or not, the vast majority is told very accurately. Of course they have to present it in a certain way and the storytelling goes with it, but they’re not manufacturing drama. They don’t have to in this business. There are enough characters around and enough action whether it’s a mechanical problem, or weather, or just drama between the characters. The drama is built in.
Airshow airs on Discovery Channel Mondays at 9 p.m. CST. It can also be streamed online: www.discovery.ca/Shows/Airshow.
What kind of training do you do when you’re not flying?
As far as the physical side of things, it’s just like anything else. General health and fitness are paramount, not only to your performance in the air, but just being able to make sure that you can deal with the demands of the long season. There’s a lot of travel and jet lag and you can’t afford to be sick. I don’t get sick days on race days. A head cold could be something that knocks you off your game enough that you’re no longer out there competing at the level that you should be.
We do a lot to stay strong and be able to handle the G’s…quick reaction times, how to minimize neck and back injuries…I guess when you’re doing it full time you take it for granted.
If you weren’t competing in air races and performing in air shows, what would you be doing?
It’s a question that I’ve certainly been asked before. Because it’s such a unique thing, and the path that I’ve followed is quite unique, it makes that question harder to answer. This is something that I didn’t choose so much as it chose me. It was just a natural occurrence.
Growing up in Red Lake, flying floatplanes, it’s just been something that’s very normal for me…I definitely think that aviation is something that’s in my blood and the sports side of it—because I love to compete—is what appeals to me.
Flying is something I’ll always be involved with. I don’t know if I’ll ever be an airline pilot—I don’t know if I want to be—but whatever I’m doing, I think I will probably try to do it a very high level.
The next Red Bull Air Race is set for May 16 in Chiba, Japan. For more information: www.petemcleodracing.com.