THE MOTORCYLE-AVIATION CONNECTION
By Sam Longo, AME
The link between aircraft and motorcycles dates back to the very beginning of powered flight. Everyone knows that Glenn Curtiss was a famous pioneer of early aviation, but before he pursued that particular passion, he also built bicycles and motorcycles. By 1901, he was designing, building and racing his own motorcycles. In 1904, he invented the twist grip throttle control, now standard on every modern motorcycle. In 1907, he was crowned “the fastest man in the world” by coaxing a V8 powered motorcycle to an astonishing 136.36 MPH! That particular record remained unchallenged for many years thereafter. It wasn’t until 1911 that he actually earned his pilot’s licence (number one by the way!)
Rumour has it that, even the blue and white logo that adorns every BMW motorcycle and automobile is a stylized whirling propeller derived from the early days of building aircraft engines. Paralleling that same motorcycle-flight connection, Motoguzzi’s logo is the Condor, Harley Davidson the Eagle and of course Honda uses a wing, to name just a few.
The mechanical DNA between motorcycles and aircraft runs quite deep. Both have traditionally used air-cooled engines and require good horsepower to weight ratios for optimum performance. Both machines require the operator to tilt or bank the machine around its longitudinal axis to navigate a turn. Also in terms of a “sense of movement” an open cockpit aircraft and a motorcycle both share the same acute exhilaration derived from feeling the rush of air at speed. It is not surprising then that many similar minded people are drawn to both.
A more current connection between aircraft and motorcycles is a creation of MTT, based in Franklin, Louisiana. They are the creators of the “Y2K”, a motorcycle powered by a Rolls Royce/Allison 250 series, gas turbine engine. Its 320 shaft horsepower normally powers a Bell Jet Ranger helicopter. The Guinness Book of Records lists this “turbine terror’ as the fastest production motorcycle on the planet and at a cost of $150 thousand you can have it in any colour you choose. Jay Leno has one and to quote him: “Twisting the throttle is like a push from the hand of God!”
Biblical references aside, my own connection with aircraft and motorcycles began in the early 1970s. I got my motorcycle license and first bike in 1973 and enrolled in Centennial College’s aircraft maintenance program in 1974. I also paid my tuition by teaching motorcycle safety training courses for Toronto Cycle School on weekends. My passion for aviation, motorcycles and cars has never subsided. I currently own six vintage Hondas and a “recently turbocharged” Mazda Miata. One of my Honda motorcycles, a 1973 CB750, I have owned and ridden for the past 36 years. It is now a highly modified Café Racer with a number of aviation related modifications. The oil pressure warning light was originally a Boeing 727 galley oven light. The clamps securing the oil cooler arrived “AOG” from Montreal, while working at Air Canada and the custom tail light sits on an aluminium bracket, hand fabricated while on shift at DeHavilland. Every winter brings new ideas to further enhance and evolve the original design. The evolution of that particular bike will likely continue for as long as I can turn a wrench and lift a leg over the seat to ride. Speaking of rides, I would be remiss if I did not relate the tale of my most bizarre motorcycle ride that is, of course, aviation related.
The Canadian Arctic is not the sort of place that usually generates motorcycle memories, yet in March of 1976 I was bound for a tour in Frobisher Bay on Baffin Island. As a young apprentice aircraft mechanic, I really didn’t know what to expect… and motorcycles were the furthest thing from my mind.
As it turned out however, during a midnight shift in the Nordair hangar, a young Inuit lad approached me and asked if I could fix his motorcycle. He had attempted to do some work on it, and now it failed to run. A well-used Kawasaki trail bike sat half buried amid aircraft parts at the back of the hangar. We pulled it out and after a short time tinkering, and a few investigative questions, I discovered the problem. The carburetor float was installed upside down. Once this was sorted out, a few quick stabs of the kick start and it roared to life! The owner’s face lit up with delight and he insisted that I take it for a spin. Under the intense glow of the Northern Lights, I ripped around the frozen aircraft ramp, doing wheelies until I was frozen solid. Later, reflecting on that unique experience, I wrote the following poem: (with apologies to Mr. Robert Service)
The Northern Lights have seen strange sights,
But the strangest that they ever did see,
Was the end of the day, up in Frobisher Bay,
Me, on a Kawasaki
It was sixty below, tarmac blowing with snow,
Yet I gleefully clicked it in gear,
Soon my face was quite numb, after wheelies of fun,
With a freeze dried grin, ear to ear
Some call it a ploy, to ride such a toy,
In the land of the Midnight Sun,
Just to boast to my mates, with a record that states,
Baffin Island’s “my northernmost run”