Pete McLeod is essentially the Top Gun soundtrack in bodily form. As an aerobatic pilot competing in the Red Bull Air Race championships, the Red Lake, Ont. native has made a life out of riding into the Danger Zone. His 9-to-5 consists of individual aerial races in which pilots soar through an unforgiving obstacle course, sometimes gliding as low as 30 feet above ground. There is no room for error, or even hesitation. If you think, you’re dead.
Luckily, McLeod’s pretty good at what he does. Last year the 34-year-old became the first Canadian to ever claim an overall podium in the Red Bull series – considered the top global circuit in the sport – taking third place in the World Championship. It was impressive enough a feat to make Hamilton Watch tap him as a brand ambassador, and their timing couldn’t be any better: this year he’s got a real shot at taking home his first world title.
We got McLeod to take a break from satiating his need for speed long enough to talk about watches, hockey, and his seemingly insane choice of vocation.
What made you want to sign up for a crazy job like aerobatic pilot?
Believe it or not, I actually first took aerobatic lessons to become a safer and better pilot! Basically, from the first flight I was hooked and started to pursue it as a sport. I’m very lucky today to be able to say that my sport is also my profession… it’s a dream come true! To be honest, I never really thought it would become a job. When I was younger, I thought I was going to have be a dentist or a stock broker to pay for my flying habit!
What headspace does one need to be in to fly planes at close to 400 km/h?
That kind of speed isn’t really a big factor in most planes… some, like jets, travel much faster. Where the game changes is at low altitude — close to the ground. We fly at those speeds at around 30-50 feet high, not 10,000. Things happen very fast when you combine that kind of speed and very low level. There is zero margin for error. Mentally, it’s important to be very in-the-moment and not distracted by anything. It’s a very pure feeling to be in the race track or doing low-level aerobatics — nothing else matters at that point.
What’s the scariest part of your job?
Fear shows me when I’m close to the limit, on it, or maybe even over it. The problem is that when things don’t go as planned, fear doesn’t help manage a bad situation. I’m not scared at all when I fly. I’m very comfortable being in what I know is a very extreme and dangerous environment. It’s not for everyone, that’s for sure.
Have you had any close calls?
Sure; I’ve a had few. Unfortunately, I’ve also lost close friends and peers. It’s the dark part of the game, but also part of the price of an adventurous life. This is not a video game.
You’re the only Canadian to compete in the Red Bull Air Race series. What’s that like?
I’m proud to represent Canada in this sport and in aviation globally. Canada is a great country with a strong aviation history and sport culture. We really are a small country spread out across a big and challenging landscape. That’s not easy, so I think it says a lot about the many successful Canadians on the global stage. I’m happy to be a small part of that group.
Do other competitors ever rib you about your nationality?
The Americans never miss a chance to get on me if they ever sneak out a win in international hockey… thankfully that’s not too often! The Europeans think I’m crazier for hanging out with bears and wolves in the Canadian north than for what I do in an airplane!
You grew up playing hockey. Which team are you rooting for in the NHL playoffs?
I’ve been a Penguins fan since the early ’90s when I was a little kid and Mario Lemieux was my favourite player. Lucky for me, the last few years it’s been a good ride for Pens fans. I got to fly myself to a couple playoff games last year to watch them, which was really awesome!
What about the Hamilton brand did you find appealing?
Hamilton has a real passion for aviation and it think that credibility shows in the watches – the build quality is amazing and they are great trade tools. I’ve owned Hamilton watches for a number of years and what I think they do better than anyone else is offer a very high quality, beautiful automatic movement in a stylish, yet durable and functional piece. I can wear any one of my Hamilton watches in the plane pulling 10G, to a business meeting, a weekend away, or as the perfect black-tie accessory. A Hamilton watch is very diverse and I love that.
Which watch are you currently rocking?
I love my Khaki X-Wind Auto right now. It’s all black with orange accents and striking white hand and number detail. It’s a watch that makes me want to go on a mission, an adventure. Every guy needs at least one watch in his collection that makes a statement like that!
What does a pilot like yourself look for in a watch?
Quality, precision, reliability… and of course STYLE!
How have you seen your sport grow since you started?
The change has been significant. Huge developments in technology, professionalism, and even safety. By far the biggest development has been in the level of competition. The field is so close now and all teams are constantly moving the benchmark forward. One used to win or lose by a couple seconds – now its tenths or even hundredths of a second separation. Anyone can win on any given day and that makes it exciting for fans, and of course very difficult for competitors!
What’s the biggest misconception people have about the sport?
In the race world, a casual viewer sometimes may think we are attempting tricks or flying an obstacle course, like some sort of air show. There are no points for style out there and the reality is we are racing against the clock. Fastest time around the track wins. It’s very much a race, like downhill skiing, and the pilots and teams are doing everything they can to win.