ADVENTURE MODE

THE BALTIMORE SUN

A man has to have style," says Gus McLeod, explaining his choice of clothes.

He's decked out in black loafers, dress slacks and dress shirt, a brown bomber jacket and one of those dashing, Indiana Jones-ish, snap-brim fedoras.

Yes, sir, Gus is stylin'. Gus is duded up for a round of golf, possibly a tough day of shopping at the mall.

Only catch is McLeod isn't going golfing ... or shopping. Rather, this is how he intends to dress when he embarks on a record-breaking flight around the world next week. He's not going commercial. He'll be flying solo, pole-to-pole.

Furthermore, for all 28,000 miles, he'll be wedged inside a 17-foot-long, Korean-built prototype dubbed Firefly that has the sobering word "EXPERIMENTAL" painted in bold, black letters over the cabin door.

On a wintry afternoon Gustavus "Gus" McLeod - 49-year-old Laytonsville businessman turned self-made adventurer - stands on the tarmac at Gaithersburg's Montgomery County Airpark in his Average Guy flight suit, admiring the snow-white aircraft he hopes will earn him a spot in aviation history: Nobody has ever flown a single-engine plane 'round the world alone.

Strapping yourself inside a fiberglass shell that comes with a factory-installed warning label qualifies as beyond risky. It's like going grizzly bear hunting in a camou outfit made of hamburger meat. McLeod, therefore, will make a slight modification to his GQ attire before takeoff. Don a parachute? Add a Ralph Lauren flame-proof parka?

"I'm gonna wear an airplane tie my wife gave me," he says.

With its rear-mounted propeller and single wing set mid-fuselage, Firefly bears a strong structural resemblance to what the Wright brothers flew at Kitty Hawk, McLeod notes proudly. But what was right for the Wrights could prove deadly wrong for a modern-day marathon pilot. Orville and Wilbur had to contend with sand, not Antarctica.

Mary McLeod won't speak about her husband's pole-to-pole quest: She's got bad feelings about it.

Jerome Hodge, president of BWI Airport-based AvDyne AeroServices, donated his mechanical expertise in the early stages of the project. But he's respectfully dropped out. Hodge, an Air Force veteran, feels Firefly is too much of an unproven commodity.

"I told Gus I don't think it's safe," he says. "Gus is pushing the envelope even more than normal. He's now almost obsessed with this."

Obsessed? Gus? Some would say he suffers from a novel form of Bi-Polar Disorder. He has devoted more than two years to full-time flight preparations, invested nearly $300,000 of his own money, and recently took out a supplemental bank loan.

"You've got a goal, and you can't quit," he says. "It's something of a personality quirk. Every time I try to stop ... this personal dehydration of the soul starts to happen. I can't live with myself if I don't try."

McLeod says he wants to expose youngsters to the "magic" of aviation. His daughter Hera, a 24-year-old Los Angeles school teacher, sees an even grander motive: "If I were to guess why he was doing this, it's because a lot of time, people don't want to believe blacks can do amazing things."

In a way, Gus McLeod is as much a throwback as his unconventional airplane. He grew up in Corinth, Miss., a preacher's son who became infatuated with the bygone days of barnstormers and speed-record challenges, of pioneer pilots like Wiley Post and Douglas "Wrong-Way" Corrigan.

A local cropduster literally took him under his wing and taught him how to fly. Eventually, McLeod's Methodist-minister father moved the family to Washington. Gus enrolled at Catholic University, where he studied chemistry and met his wife-to-be. He and Mary regularly walked the six miles from campus to the College Park airfield so Gus could continue his aviation education.

Five years ago, Mary McLeod took full control of the medical-supply business her husband started, and he concentrated on flying. As she once observed, "He's always been the dreamer in our relationship."

Gus bought and sold planes the way some guys collect sports cars. The flight time piled up. His skills grew sharper. In April 2000, McLeod officially joined the daredevil fraternity by becoming the first person to fly around the North Pole in an open cockpit. Yes, open, as in frozen instrument panel, as in frostbitten fingers. After 13 days and 3,500 miles, he had himself a flight record and raw material for a National Geographic TV special and subsequent book.

How do you top the top of the world? By flying around it. But his pole-to-pole plans have seemed jinxed from the beginning. Initially, McLeod intended to make the trip in a larger, twin-engine Beech. Last winter a snowplow ran into it outside Hodge's hangar at BWI. The plane was repaired, but the instrument panel gave out during a post-accident landing at BWI. The airport had to be closed. The runways had to be cleared. Just before touchdown, McLeod got to hear an air traffic controller utter those awful words that send chills down the staunchest spine: "God bless you and good luck."

God must have been his co-pilot. He landed safely. He dumped the Beech. He found a cut-rate deal on an experimental Korean airplane. On his first long-distance test flight, the electrical system on Firefly conked out. McLeod landed by flashlight.

"I figure you have only so many disasters per expedition," he says. "I figure I've already got mine out of the way."

Just after Christmas, McLeod flew Firefly to Florida for a tune-up. In a few days, he'll travel back there where he will start the long haul, hopscotching from major airport to major airport in an ultimate-jet-lag haze: Panama, Peru, Chile, Argentina ... Antarctica. For logistical reasons, he'll do an out-and-back swing around the South Pole rather than fly straight through to New Zealand. Once back in Argentina it's on to the Horn of Africa, Europe, over the North Pole, and a final, welcome-home landing at College Park.

The flight will take two months. It will entail a 30-hour, as lonesome-as-the-dark-side-of-the-moon, go-down-you-die flyover of the South Pole. There will be no TV movie, no book deal, no cash prize. Just a pile of bills and the satisfaction of being the first man to span the globe so fast.

Not that anyone believes it, but Gus McLeod also insists he's tired, that if he succeeds, he'll ground himself: "This is my swan song, man. I ain't doin' this no more."

Florida Atlantic University has set up a Gus McLeod Web site. You can track his progress at www.fau.edu/solopole topole.

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