Plane & Pilot
Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Zen & The Art Of Airplane Flying

Airplanes and motorcycles may be more alike than you think

Senior Editor Bill Cox and two of his best friends.
I’m one of those apparently strange folks who believe that flying is an easy skill to learn. No, that’s not because I do it so well. It’s because I’ve seen over and over how simple many people find it.

Perhaps perversely, some aviators believe it enhances their Superman image to perpetuate the myth of aviation as a task for only very skilled individuals with uncommon depth perception, amazing manual dexterity and the brain of Stephen Hawking.

Over the last 35 years, I’ve helped perhaps a dozen friends become pilots, and though only three have gone on to earn their stripes as airline captains, they’re all continuing to pursue the dream of flying. Certainly, flying is a special skill, but if you can walk and chew gum, pat your head and rub your tummy, Riverdance and juggle four ice picks at the same time, you should have no trouble learning to fly.

The only aspect of aviating that’s sometimes difficult to grasp is that movement translates into three dimensions rather than only two. I say “sometimes” because pilots who don’t fly aerobatics have little true sense of the vertical. An airplane does allow you to look down on earth from above, but you don’t really gain a full appreciation of vertical freedom until you launch into a loop, hammerhead, Immelmann or split-S.

One ground-bound activity I’m convinced contrib-utes to a person’s ability to fly is riding a two-wheeler. From my first flight at age 13 (when I was riding a 10-speed Schwinn on a paper route in Anchorage, Alaska) to my current six-speed, 130 hp BMW K1200RS, I’ve always believed that flying and balancing on two wheels are closely related.

My first flight in a Super Cub only confirmed what was intuitive from the Schwinn: Turning demands banking. The Civil Air Patrol squadron in Anchorage was extremely active, and I flew perhaps 40 CAP missions out of Merrill Field in the three years I lived there. Though I was often just a passenger in the rear seat of the Cub, I probably “logged” 15 hours of stick time, all with an actual stick rather than a yoke.

Somewhere in a cardboard box stacked in my hangar, I have a tiny logbook from those early days, recording flight time in five- to 15-minute snippets. None of it was legal, but all of it was memorable, most on oversized bush tires, some on skis, and even two flights on floats out of nearby Lake Spenard.

Much to the amusement of Floyd Threet, the Cub’s owner, I was fascinated by how quickly the little Cub could spin on its wingtip if you pushed the bank angle to 50 to 60 degrees. At an indicated 70 mph, the Cub’s big wing allowed it to reverse direction quicker than I could think about it. Admittedly, I rarely tilted the horizon so severely on my Schwinn, but the concept was the same. You look through the turn in both machines. Over the years, I learned that nailing a 720 on point and on altitude brought the same sense of satisfaction as carving the apex of a turn on the Pacific Coast Highway.

For better or worse, motorcycles are cheaper than airplanes, and I bought my first Triumph Bonneville at age 20 (after I returned to the lower 48). My first airplane, a Globe Swift, had to wait until I turned 25.

For me, the similarities between motorcycles and airplanes seemed all too obvious. Both allowed transport at insane velocities, and though the bike also allowed acceleration at an insane rate, most airplanes could beat the bike any day in sheer straight-line speed unless you were trying to outrun the highway patrol in the middle of the desert. (The CHP now uses Cessna T-206s to track speeders, and not much will outrun a 206.)

A succession of a dozen motorcycles and a half-dozen airplanes have graced my California garage and hangar since those carefree days, and my current BMW is capable of a whole lot more than I ever was or ever will be.

Apparently, I’m not the only one who draws parallels between motorcycles and airplanes. According to the DOD, U.S. Marine pilots’ number-one cause of off-the-job injuries is motorcycle accidents, and pilots are 12 times more likely to operate motorcycles than nonpilots.

That’s probably because a sense of balance enhances one’s ability to fly. Flying isn’t a difficult task, but I’d bet that bike riders at all levels take to it more naturally than those who’ve never set foot on the pegs or grabbed a handful.

In a similar sense, feel and pressure are more important than actual movement of the controls in both types of machine. The best pilots learn to finesse the controls, just as the smoothest motorcyclists seem to shift their weight and maneuver almost imperceptibly. At its best, flying and riding demand a certain Zen-like concentration, a oneness with the machine that marries mind and reflex, thought and reaction.

Air racing might be an even closer analogy to motorcycle racing because of the high-G demands in both pursuits. Since I no longer delude myself that I’m a boy racer and therefore haven’t suffered asphalt rash for 30 years (those two facts are interrelated), I don’t roll into tight turns at dumb speeds that demand leaning 45 degrees and dragging the pegs. Similarly, I no longer imagine myself flying the pylons at Reno at 300 to 400 mph with the wings near vertical, though I once aspired to do just that when I was much younger and (I thought) a lot smarter.

By their very nature, motorcycles, unlike cars, demand a level of mechanical involvement that’s shared in piloting an airplane. It’s certainly possible to ride a bike without understanding what’s going on beneath and around you, but most riders have a fairly intimate knowledge of their machines.

Similarly, pilots benefit from a thorough knowledge of how an airplane works. The greater your understanding of aerodynamics, engine mechanics, constant-speed propellers, retractable gear and the myriad of other systems in an airplane, the better chance you have of troubleshooting an in-flight problem. Pilots and motorcycle riders tend to develop a feel for their machines and can often sense when things aren’t working properly.

Operating both motorcycles and aircraft demand decent weather, though for different reasons. It’s true an aircraft can be operated in fairly adverse conditions, but accidents become more frequent when weather is inclement. Motorcycles become dicey in the slick or wet, harder to operate, more difficult to control and less easy to balance.

Perhaps the primary difference between the two is that motorcycles usually don’t fly well (okay, there are some motocross and stunt riders who can jump them 20 feet in the air), and airplanes generally make poor off-road vehicles.

The freedom of the road is analogous to the freedom of the sky, and in many respects, I’m convinced they represent the same discipline.

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