The plot thickened yesterday about the origin of the mystery contaminant that damaged the plane of Maryland aviator Gus McLeod and caused him to indefinitely postpone his plans to circumnavigate the globe.
Chemical analysis of a pollutant in the gas of McLeod's single-engine aircraft found a "concoction of caustic solvents" consistent with a lacquer thinner, said McLeod, a former CIA chemist who had the substance tested at a local lab.
He believes solvents were poured deliberately into his tank in an effort to sabotage his record-setting attempt to travel solo and pole-to-pole around the world. "This is a hard thing to wrap my mind around," McLeod said yesterday. "I can't believe I would be so important that someone would want to hurt me."
After his fuel line clogged during a test flight earlier this month, McLeod drained an unknown yellow substance from his plane's internal gas tanks. He believes a lacquer thinner dissolved epoxy from the plane's fiberglass gas tanks, which caused the fuel line to clog.
When McLeod later cut open the fuel tanks to check and clean them, "the insides were all chewed up" by the solvents, he said.
Montgomery County police began investigating the incident last night. If it is determined that someone tampered with McLeod's airplane, the crime could range from vandalism to attempted murder, said police spokesman Derek Baliles.
"We're trying to see who the appropriate detectives are to handle this," Baliles said. "We don't get too many of these type of calls."
Five years ago, McLeod, a black aviator, became famous for being the first pilot to fly solo over the North Pole in an open cockpit. In April 2001, he donated that historic plane to the College Park Aviation Museum.
Days before McLeod was scheduled to give a speech there in October 2001, the museum received racially charged hate mail directed toward black aviators. This prompted the Maryland-National Capital Park Police to post extra patrols at the museum during McLeod's speech, said museum director Cathy Allen.
Park police Lt. Gordon Norwood said yesterday that nothing more was ever found at the museum and the case was closed without identifying a suspect.
Then, after much fanfare last month, McLeod took off from Montgomery County Airpark on his next adventure - flying solo pole-to-pole - but landed at the Frederick Municipal Airport when he felt a strange vibration in the aircraft's nose. As it touched down, the front wheel cover broke off, flinging debris onto the runway.
When he tried to resume the flight without the wheel cover, the nose gear collapsed, leaving the plane's nose flush against the runway. McLeod blamed a faulty bolt.
Yesterday, he said there was no evidence of a crime in that incident. "But we weren't looking for foul play," he said.
The contaminated fuel that grounded him is the same fuel that was in the plane when McLeod landed in Frederick. But he had begun that flight using external tanks. Only the plane's internal tanks were damaged by the thinner.
On the test flight earlier this month, McLeod switched to the internal tanks and immediately began to lose power to the engine.
If the solvent turns out to be sabotage, McLeod said he is partly to blame. One night in October while his plane was parked outside its hangar, he used lacquer thinner to remove gluey residue left on the plane by duct tape.
Afterward, he put the can of thinner beside the plane. When he returned the next day, he saw that it had been tossed to the side, as if someone had used it.
"I didn't think anything about it at the time," he said.
Last night, the plane was locked in a hangar and McLeod said it would be moved to an undisclosed location. He hopes to attempt his flight in the spring.