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Rider Education Article
Submitted by:
Anthony Van Schaick
International Rider Education Director

"A Fighter Pilot Approach to Motorcycle Riding"

Commentary by Col. Mark Mouw
12th Air Force Chief of Safety

3/6/2009 - KIRTLAND AIR FORCE BASE, N.M. (AFNS) -- "A man's got to know his limitations," said Clint Eastwood's "Dirty Harry" character in the 1973 movie, "Magnum Force."

Those words I'm sure were in the back of Maverick's mind in "Top Gun" as he paused on his Kawasaki GPZ 900 Ninja by the runway at Miramar to watch the Tomcats takeoff. He should have taken a moment to reflect, given how often he put his aircraft out of control throughout that movie.

While flying a fighter and riding a motorcycle may have little in common, except both being a "hoot," the deliberate approach required in aviation, to do what needs to be done without bending metal, is also a smart way to approach a motorcycle ride before letting out the clutch. This commentary is written by a fighter pilot and a motorcycle enthusiast to blend the best of both worlds. We want all motorcycle riders to have a "hoot" for years and years come!


A fighter pilot goes through extensive training to learn the basic skills of flying an airplane, but more importantly, undergoes continuation training to develop new skills while honing existing skills. Recurrent training builds habit patterns that can be relied on when things get hairy.

Motorcyclists can benefit from this same approach. Our traffic safety rules already require us to get some basic motorcycle training, but really, how effective is an initial course and perhaps a refresher course in developing a lifetime of skills? Those courses give you some basics, but you're on your own to practice periodically, to sharpen your reflexes and habit patterns.

Take time to hone your riding skills, especially after a layoff, to rebuild those good habit patterns. Find a parking lot where you have some room to practice handling your motorcycle. Fighter pilots never practice in the main airways; they go to special airspace where the dangers of the maneuvers can be managed. With that said, the street is no place to practice your skills. Many excellent programs are available to develop advanced riding skills.


A great sortie always starts with a great plan. Sitting down with your wingmen to decide what the job in front of you will require is a key step to understanding what it will take to get from point A to point B.

Not all motorcycle rides necessarily involve a great deal of planning, but you should take a few moments to consider where you're going and how you intend to get there. Doing so should make the ride more enjoyable. When selecting your route of travel, consider how bad weather or traffic congestion might affect driving conditions for you and other motorists.

Weather also affects the human machine. "Dress for egress" is a common saying among pilots, who may start out warm and comfy, then end up wet and cold in the middle of nowhere, with nothing except their wits for protection. If you've been getting fat and lazy all winter, your first ride of spring shouldn't be an all-day run through the twisties, hoping the highway patrol doesn't put a laser on you.

The Right Gear

Suiting up is a very personal affair. Getting harnessed just right, choosing the color of the skull cap under your helmet and other accessories are important considerations for the pilot. You gotta look and feel right. More importantly, the equipment has to work. Unlike a fighter pilot, most motorcyclists can't afford a highly skilled life-support technician, so you're on your own to wear the right gear, all the time. Road rash isn't funny, even when it's on someone else. A steer gave his life so you can look good in leather, so wear it! If your girlfriend is a diehard PETA member, even textile is better than being naked.

The most powerful muscle you have, or maybe the second-most one, is your brain, which is easy to squash like a melon. The rules say to wear a helmet. If you chose not to wear one, please keep a copy of your living will in your wallet so your family can unplug the life-support machine.


The walk-around with the crew chief is the traditional informal ceremony where the pilot is officially lent the aircraft. As a rider, you are your own crew chief; if the machine is unreliable, it's your own fault. Take time to make sure all is in order: tires are inflated properly, fluid levels are good and all lights are serviceable.

Even better than being able to accelerate is being able to stop. Inspect your brakes so that something else doesn't have to bring you to a sudden stop. Clean machines run better and look better, and at least you know there's still oil in the engine.

Area Work

Once in the area, the plan-aircraft-man interface is put to the test. Where will problems arise and which part will be the weak link? You're cruising along, king of all you see, and then a missile comes off your wingman about the same time a warning light goes off on your instrument panel. What will you do, act then think, think then act, or just react? Your actions may reflect badly on you, or have you looking like a hero. In "Top Gun," Maverick had to recover from hallucinogenic episodes before he started to react.

As a motorcyclist, you won't have that luxury. You face similar scenarios on your bike every day. Is the car in the next driveway going to back out? Does the "snowbird" driving next to you know you're there? Why does that pickup I'm following have so much junk in the bed? Any of those situations can quickly put you in reaction mode. The most common outcome when facing an unanticipated situation is overreacting to it and putting the shiny side of the motorcycle on the pavement.

How do you prepare for such incidents? Pilots call knowing what's going on around them "situational awareness." Maintaining SA while you ride, so you can apply the techniques you were taught in your rider training, is paramount to controlling and preparing for the risks you'll face. Anticipate the unanticipated and expect the unexpected! Operating your motorcycle within your capabilities, just like flying a fighter, may make the difference between stopping short of a catastrophe or launching over the hood of a vehicle. You don't want to hear those infamous words, "I'm so sorry. I didn't see you."

Visual Lookout

What about visual lookout tactics for riding? Fighter pilots always say "lose sight, lose fight," and they train themselves to pick up the first tally on an enemy airplane. Can the motorcycle rider benefit from a deliberate "problem ID" plan? An enemy airplane at 600 knots and 10 miles away could be a friendly, so improving SA rests a great deal on using your vision effectively. Planning should have revealed how environmental conditions might affect your plan.

Anything you put in front of your eyes will decrease your long-range vision, so think about how many layers you put between yourself and the road. A scratched visor is a killer when hit by headlights or the sun, and dark visors on a dark or cloudy day significantly delay the range at which you can pick up hazards, such as potholes.

How you use your eyes is as important as knowing what can be seen. Focus techniques and scan patterns are important tools of the fighter pilot. They are taught to scan from near to far, to ensure the "kill zone" is clear, and then to look at threats outside the kill zone. When scanning from 3,000 feet to 2 miles, using things along the ground helps with focus. Why? Because depth perception and measuring distance is important to protect and react to things inside the "kill zone."

For the motorcycle jock, that "kill zone" is based on the ability to maneuver out of harm's way. A motorcycle traveling at 60 miles per hour approaching an oncoming car also traveling at 60 mph achieves a closing rate of 176 feet per second. The rider's kill zone is now 528 feet - more than a football field and a half! He has three seconds to react. If you're doing 120 mph on a sport bike and that oncoming car is going 60 mph ... well, you get the picture, and it ain't pretty.

Keep your eyes moving, but look for something in the distance to focus on, then refocus at a range that will give you time to react, and don't get lazy and let your eyes glaze over at about 10 feet.

What if I'm having a bad day and my reaction time doubles? Understand contributing factors and be more cautious. Peripheral vision comes into play as it supports our SA by triggering us to move our head and assess the threat. Most people have greater peripheral vision in their dominant eye, meaning, for example, better peripheral vision on the right side leaves a weakness on the other side. No good fighter pilot is going to leave that left side unscanned and let a threat into the "kill zone."

Can you improve focus, scanning and the distance that you first pick up targets? Absolutely. The Air Force Fighter Weapons School -- "Top Gun" for Air Force fighter pilots -- taught focus techniques moving from near to far on almost all flights to improve vision and scan techniques. For peripheral vision, they tested your ability by having you hold a ball in each hand and then moving your hands to see how far your vision extended, then trying to improve it through scans. Remember this -- heads down time can kill you in flying and on a motorcycle. Keep those eyes where you're going!

An understanding of the enemy is also important for both fighter pilots and motorcycle riders. What's the field of the view of that "snowbird" waiting at that upcoming intersection? Probably not near what yours is, and I'll bet nobody ever taught him or her to scan. Do you think the driver can see the distance you can?

There's a lot to how fighter pilots use their vision to protect and defend the "kill zone." Motorcyclists can do the same thing.

What If

Fighter pilots consider breakdowns in the plan as part of the plan, calling them "what ifs." What if a coordinated strike becomes uncoordinated, someone doesn't show up, or the timing is off? What if our missile employment isn't as lethal as we hoped? What if we fail to destroy the target on the first pass? Those "what ifs" force a risk-management action plan in the calm of the briefing room, and help avoid real-time actions becoming too ad-hoc, reactionary or ineffective.

The motorcycle rider should have plans, as well. What if the group I'm riding with exceeds my comfort level, either through speed or questionable actions? What if the weatherman was wrong, and the predicted sunny day is instead drizzly, and a damp layer of grease and oil coats the road? What if my favorite roads haven't been maintained lately, and gravel or sand covers the apex of my turn?

Fortunately for the motorcyclist, there is one simple solution to help you survive the unexpected: slow down. Slower speeds allow for greater reaction time should an unexpected event occur. If a collision appears unavoidable, understand proper braking techniques, leave yourself an out, and as a last line of defense, always wear a full ensemble of personal protective gear.

Lesson Learned

After the flight is over, honest and pointed feedback draws out what went right and what went wrong, so we don't make the same mistakes again. If you're lucky and have a wingman to ride with, you'll get some feedback on things you might need to work on. If you care about your buddies, and they need some constructive feedback, you'll provide it. Simple things, such as cornering techniques, worn or unserviceable motorcycle parts, or wearing riding gear that just isn't cool anymore are just a few examples. If you ride with friends who think doing wheelies and stoppies on public roads is OK; then you have your "being a good wingman" work cut out for you. You might try discussing problems you see with another rider who has credibility and might team up with you in correcting a problem.

One Last Thing

After the debrief is over, invariably someone has one last tidbit of insight they feel compelled to share. So, here's one last item for riders. The public and military opinion of riders is about the same as the cute club bartender's opinion of fighter pilot stories - not great!

Cleaning up the sport and keeping an eye on each other will go a long way toward changing attitudes. There are many great motorcycle clubs out there whose members have tons of riding experience, training ideas, fun ride tips and great friendship available.

(Dan Maham, deputy division chief for Air Force ground safety, and Bud Redmond, Air Force deputy chief of safety and Air Force Safety Center executive director, contributed to this commentary)

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