Wheels and Wings

Image credit United States Marine Corps

(This article reprinted from 2006)

I loved flying jets. I enjoyed some of the other aircraft I had the opportunity to fly, but flying passengers in a Citation business jet is nothing like pushing the throttle up and slicing towards an impending merge with a bandit… Or tipping into a 45 degree dive from 15,000 feet towards a target 3 miles away on the desert floor… Or “cloud surfing” on your way home at 500 knots. It’s just plain fun. And I miss it. Whenever I have a dream about flying, I’m not in a business jet – I’m back in the AV-8.

I started riding a few years back when a great friend of mine, Jim “Jimbo” Moore (see note at end of article), talked me into buying a sweet little Yamaha Seca II. After an inauspicious start culminating in an unexpected meeting with a Yuma snowbird who didn’t see so well, I decided to hang up my helmet for a while. About this time, I left the AV-8 and found myself flying the KingAir and later the Citation; both used by the Marine Corps for transporting passengers and equipment. Although a different sort of fun, it couldn’t take the place of flying tactical jets. Enter Jimbo once again. I had read Investment Biker by Jim Rogers while on deployment which re-sparked my interest in riding, and Jimbo just happened to be selling a K1100LT. This time was different – I actually took the time and training to really learn what I was doing – and motorcycling has been a passion ever since. Jimbo and I often talked about the connection with riding and flying, and we both know many former and current jet pilots who ride. Interestingly, Elden asked me about this same connection when we met. He always felt there was a natural connection between flying fighters and riding motorcycles, and that feeling had been reinforced by meeting several military pilots/riders. I knew in my own heart that motorcycling had allowed me to reconnect with the same feelings of exhilaration and freedom that I’d lost when I hung up my G-suit, and I do think that riders and pilots share a kinship that others wouldn’t understand

Let’s start with the obvious. Flicking your bike back and forth on your favorite road can’t help but conjure up images of a Mustang twisting and strafing at tree top level, or maybe an F-105 playing gutsball with North Vietnamese surface-to-air missiles. And you’d be right – there’s no feeling like it, and a winding road is about as close to flying as you can get – minus the ejection seat and weapons. We also connect well because it takes skill, knowledge, and constant practice to be a competent – not to mention safe – pilot or rider. We don’t have the luxury to daydream, we have to read and learn and practice, re-read and practice more, to be at the top of our game. Both are unforgiving, and I would submit that outside of real combat, motorcycling is even less forgiving than flying. The element of vertical turning room gives a pilot options that a road-bound motorcyclist doesn’t have. Another fascinating similarity is how our pursuit curves or lines affect our performance in a turn. The idea of pursuit curves in air combat – the choice of paths available to manage your energy and arrive in a firing position – is essentially the same as finding that perfect line on your motorcycle; both seek the most efficient path that allows you to make the turn with the least amount of energy expended. And although there are those lucky few who can see these perfect lines from day one, most of us have to practice and learn and practice some more to get it right. But nothing is more satisfying or exciting as when your pipper settles on target, or when you hit your entry point just right, everything clicks, and your bike tracks through the turn like it was riding a rail.

You may have heard a pilot in a movie saying he was going to “strap his jet on.” Although a bit dramatic, the idea that you have to become one with the machine is absolutely correct. You have to know where all the buttons on your stick and throttle are, what they do, and manipulate them without thinking in the target run. You need to understand the aircraft systems so you know how to respond to a problem. You must know the performance of your aircraft so you know when to fight and when to turn for home. This to me is one of the most direct ties between jets and bikes, and one of the most enjoyable aspects of motorcycling. You must know your controls, how they interact; how to use the clutch, brakes, and throttle together to avoid trouble. You need to know how your bike handles and what its advantages and weaknesses are. And you can only do those things truly well when you understand the workings of your machine, inside and out. Elden’s favorite ace is famed German pilot Erich Hartmann, who leads all flyers in history with 352 confirmed kills in WWII. But I think he respects Hartmann’s crew chief, Heinz “Bimmel” Mertens, even more. In 1405 sorties including 825 actual air combat dogfights, Hartmann’s Me-109 never had a malfunction, system failure, or gun jam. That is an incredible achievement, but almost impossibly so considering the horrendous conditions on the Eastern Front. Elden has taken “Bimmel’s” example to heart, and though you may find some dirt, his machine will be spot-on.

But most enjoyably, it’s the people. It takes a certain type of person to want to take up an activity that has to be practiced and studied like a craft. You don’t have to do that to drive your car, but if you want a long and healthy career riding motorcycles, you have to be proficient. The pilots in the squadrons I flew with were very competitive, and we compared our hits, debriefed our HUD tapes, and critiqued our performances daily. At the same time, any one of them would help a squadron-mate at the drop of a hat. Jimbo taught me more than anyone how to fight the AV-8, and he did the same when I started to ride. After my first trip on Wynola Road in the mountains near Julian, CA, he suddenly pulled over in a parking lot before we rejoined the main highway. I stopped too, wondering what the heck he wanted. He raised his visor, and in a tone immediately reminiscent of debriefs past, said “let’s talk about your propensity to cross the yellow line…” But that’s part of the fun too. It’s fun to sit back at the end of the ride with a favorite beverage and discuss the ride: what went well, which turn was perfect, which hand signals weren’t recognized, how could we do it better. And there’s no denying that there’s a feeling of brotherhood that comes with doing something that most people don’t – and that most people regard as dangerous. That’s why we wave to fellow riders; we share a secret that the folks on four wheels just don’t get.An old pilot’s adage goes something like this: “the most useless things to a pilot are altitude above you, runway behind you, and a tenth of a second ago.” Maybe the old rider’s adage could substitute “…lean angle below you, and braking room behind you”. I’d say “a tenth of a second ago” still fits. -TV

Note – Jimbo is a retired Marine living in Jacksonville, FL. He was one of the first Marine pilots to fly combat missions off an amphibious carrier during the first Gulf War. He later became an instructor at the Marine Aviation Weapons and Tactics Squadron where he trained future Weapons and Tactics Instructors and also served as an aggressor pilot flying the F-5. Probably approaching 300,000 miles now on various motorcycles, he’s as tough in the twisties as he was in the air. He’s also been known to horrify his beautiful wife with his open invitations to tech days at his house, and is an MSF Riding Instructor. He can frequently be spotted on his R1150GS humbling sport-bike riders throughout the southeast. UPDATE 2014 – Jimbo recently cracked the 400,000 mark on motorcycles, has additionally compiled 7000 miles of scooter “logistics” runs, and has retired the R1150GS. However, he can still be found humbling modern sportbike riders aboard his R1100S or ZX-9R.