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Top Gun: Survive first, win later

Pete McLeod’s idea of a great career is hurtling his plane at speeds nearing 400 kilometres per hour, barely 25 feet above the ground, in races where the first objective is to survive — the second is to win.

Pete McLeod’s idea of a great career is hurtling his plane at speeds nearing 400 kilometres per hour, barely 25 feet above the ground, in races where the first objective is to survive — the second is to win.

Of course, he loves every second of it.

“It is a rush, but for me it’s more fun than it is scary or thrilling — I’m just happy in that spot,” he said.
The 24-year-old pilot is the first Canadian and the youngest pilot ever to race professionally in the Red Bull Air Race World Championship, a worldwide racing competition often described as the pilot’s answer to Formula One car racing.

Only 15 top pilots from around the world are chosen to compete every year. Races happen in world cities ranging from Abu Dhabi in the United Arab Emirates to Perth in Australia and pilots fly extremely agile (and unstable) racing planes close to the ground around in an effort to achieve the best time possible.

Races are blisteringly fast, lasting between 60 and 90 seconds — just enough time for two full laps of a “track” marked with enormous, inflated 65-foot-high pylons.

“The amount of energy you expend in that short amount of time is mind-blowing. The first expense of energy is survival, the second is to find the best line possible,” McLeod said.

At the age of 24 McLeod is by far the youngest pilot ever to be licensed to race in the competition where the average age of competitors is 46. The amount of skill required to race in the series is so high that usually only pilots with decades of experience have the chops (and the guts) to do it. The fact that McLeod is considered skilled and mature enough to race is a strong acclamation of his talent and he credits his parents with supporting him to nurture his abilities.

Born in the small town of Red Lake, Ont., located about six hours northwest of Thunder Bay, planes and flying were always a part of McLeod’s life. By the age of six, his dad, a hobbyist pilot, was taking him on flights. When McLeod turned 16, he jumped at the chance to get behind the stick.

“I grew up in an airplane so I always excelled in flying. It was always easy for me. I got my pilot’s licence before my driver’s licence,” McLeod said.

The new season starts in April and McLeod can’t wait to compete.

“This is the start of a big career for me and I’ve got a huge amount of potential due to my age. I love to compete and this is the ultimate stage for me to test myself against the best pilots in the world,” McLeod said.

 
 
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