The Need for Continuous Training

By Dean Baker

Have you noticed that people who are into motorcycles are often fascinated by aircraft as well? Motorcycle magazines are particularly aware of this phenomenon. In articles, riders are often referred to as “pilots” while control and instrument layouts are called “cockpits”. Fast accelerations evoke comparisons with afterburners and excellent stopping distances bring comments about tail hooks. “Motorcyclist” magazine recently did a cover shot of a GSX-R and a F-18. Inside was a great article on the Navy’s Flight Demonstration Team, the Blue Angels. Not surprisingly, several of the pilots are also avid motorcyclists. There were also some terrific photos of Editor-in-Chief Mitch Boehm losing consciousness in the backseat of a Blue Angel Hornet. Way to take one for the team, Mitch!

At any rate, comparisons between motorcycles and aircraft abound, particularly between sportbikes and fighters. No doubt it has a lot to do with their obvious similarities such as breathtaking acceleration and razor-sharp maneuverability. There are less obvious similarities as well. Take a fast corner in a car and inertia tries to sling your body to the outside of the curve. Carve the same corner at speed on a motorcycle, or fly an aircraft in a coordinated turn, and you are pressed down into your seat. Both have to be leaned, or banked to turn, so you are pressed into your machine rather than feeling like you’re being slung out of it. Want to carry the comparisons further? Like the pilot of a single seat fighter, the sportbike rider is alone (two-up travelers bear with me here) and is solely responsible for the operation of his vehicle. You might travel in a group (formation), but your riding buddy (wingman) is totally powerless to help you in controlling your machine.

Ok, so I think we’ve established the similarities. Now let’s think about a few of the differences, (other than the obvious ones like weapons, speed and fuel consumption). First, let me try to establish some credibility here. I’ve been a pilot for over 30 years, during which I’ve accumulated around 14,000 hours of flight time. Throw in a couple hundred carrier landings while a Navy pilot and several thousand hours as an airline captain. I’ve been a student and an instructor, and as each have spent countless hours in training. It is in training that the similarities between flying and motorcycling begin to show some strain. Needless to say, folks with little or no flight experience don’t just walk out to a F-16, fire it up and blast off to punch holes in the sky. Pilots invariably start out in small trainers and work their way up through increasingly more capable aircraft. It requires a lot of instruction and experience before you get turned loose in a front-line fighter, and the majority of kids with Top Gun dreams never make it through the weeding-out process. Along the same lines, we know that obtaining a motorcycle license in many other countries requires starting out on small displacement bikes and working one’s way up the ‘cc’ ladder, gaining skills and experience along the way. In contrast, here in the USA anyone can walk into a motorcycle shop and buy one of the most capable motorcycles this side of pit row - sometimes with barely a clue as to which is the brake lever and which is the clutch.

Another important difference is that you can do a lot of stupid things with an airplane, as long as you don’t do them near the ground. Go ahead and press the envelope until the aircraft gives up and departs controlled flight. Just make sure you have enough altitude, (and experience) to recover. In the military, such maneuvers are an integral part of initial training or when becoming acquainted with a new aircraft. Pilots are trained to explore the limits of the aircraft’s performance envelope to understand how the aircraft behaves when pushed to the edge. Equally important is learning how to recover once those limits are exceeded. For example, we practice stalls so we can learn to recognize what the wing is telling us just before it quits flying. When it does stall we use our cushion of altitude to recover, and file away the knowledge gained for future use. Similarly, experienced motorcycle racers know exactly how their tires behave as they near the edge of the tire’s traction limit, and how best to recover when the tire breaks loose. The difference is, that knowledge is usually dearly bought. Have you ever intentionally practiced locking up the front tire at speed just to know how it feels? Didn’t think so.

Even at altitude, some things are too dangerous to practice in the aircraft, so pilots have simulators. Keith Code’s outrigger bike notwithstanding, in the real world most motorcyclists have to explore the edges of the envelope - theirs and the motorcycle’s - very carefully. Pushing the boundary too far can be expensive at best. As in flying, it is the sudden impact with the ground that costs you.

My point in all this is that training is crucial to a long and successful riding (or flying) career. Therefore, make every ride a “check ride”. Honestly critique your own performance and try to improve upon it next time. Strive to sharpen your riding techniques. We don’t have simulators, but parking lots provide a reasonably safe environment to practice maneuvers such as swerving, slow speed turns and max-performance stops. Sure it’s boring, but someday you will be glad you spent the time. Make sure you wear your protective gear, just in case. Every couple of years take the Motorcycle Safety Foundation’s Experienced Rider course. You might learn something, and most insurance companies will give you a discount for successful completion. If you really want to explore the envelope, contact Tony Lewis or one of the other pros in the area and sign up for a track day or two. Or several.

A Navy ace from the Vietnam War once told me, “You fight the way you train.”
It can be a battle out there. Train well.

As always, I invite your comments or questions on our club or our motorcycles. Email me at dean@ntnoa.org. Or, take advantage of the forum George has set up on our website.

Seize the day,
Dean Baker


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Revised: January 29, 2008 .