When Caution Becomes Paralysis

How a motorcycle road racing experience helped this pilot take corrective measures without thought in the cockpit.

I have been a motorcycle road racer for many years. Picture closed circuits and leather suits with knee sliders. The kind of gear that protects you when you lean over and press your knee into the asphalt at triple-digit speeds. I love road racing, and crashing is part of the game. I have done so more than a few times. Because of this sport, I have been hospitalized for broken ribs, a chipped pelvis and once a bruised kidney that made me urinate blood for a week. Because of this sport, once I was unconscious for four minutes after a last lap entanglement.

Yet despite the inherent danger and physical cost of admission, I have loved learning to excel at motorcycle racing. I was always a terrible ­student, ­learning best through doing. Like flying, road-racing isn’t something that can be learned on an app or gleaned from a text book.

It requires physicality. Mistakes. To learn to fly you must create muscle memory by manipulating the controls of an aircraft under many different circumstances, from power settings to environmental conditions to varying loads and CG. You do so in real time, in the real world and under circumstances in which a mistake could take your life. I’m not trying to be dramatic. That is a fact.

This learning process will feel uncomfortable at first and you might even scare yourself a few times. But if you stay the course, you come away with a rare skill set and a title: You are a pilot. (As a tangential aside, I strongly dislike when pilots are called airplane drivers. This might be correct usage but I have no place for it in my vernacular. We worked too hard to be confused with someone who operates a Prius.)

My friend Kip, a writer, believes it is my racing experience that saved me from real harm in Telluride last May. The weather was clear and a million that morning. It was the last thing I saw coming. However, when my airplane suffered a wind-shear-induced aerodynamic stall on takeoff, I did not spin into the ground.

My response, sharpened by 16 years of road-racing, allowed me to take corrective measures without thought. I pushed forward on the yoke, allowing the wings to regain lift, before straightening them and only then pulling up to arrest our descent and walk away with a gear-up belly landing. I saved the lives of myself and my passenger, but the airplane was totaled.

While this type of situation would cause most hearts to race, during periods of dangerous, rapid decision-making my heartbeat slows. Throttle, braking and steering inputs are ingrained in me. A deer standing on an icy road at night does not make me tense up when suddenly revealed in headlights. I react, calmly and smoothly. I have been in races where I have touched elbows with a competitor at 160 mph, both of us waiting to see who would brake first for the upcoming second-gear corner. My heart does not race: It steadies.

I have worked tirelessly for that reaction to become reflexive, paid for with multiple injuries.

If it sounds like bragging, it isn’t. The takeaway is that it still didn’t prevent me from totaling a perfectly good airplane. Athletes talk about fast-twitch and slow-twitch muscles. I like to think of stick-and-rudder skills as fast-twitch muscles, and flight-planning and risk-assessment skills as slow-twitch muscles. I always prided myself on having the former. Lot of good it did me. What I needed was the latter. What we all need is both.

There is an idea gaining traction in my consciousness that the same racing experience that saved me is also to blame for the accident. The culture of racing and its inherent emphasis on pushing the limits and ignoring risk might have caused me to press too far that morning in Telluride.

I’ve swung quite far the other way since then. Caution, sometimes to the point of paralysis.

In road racing, there are two common types of accidents. One scares you smart; the other can seriously hurt you. One where you know exactly what happened, and one where you’re left wondering.

The former include “low sides,” wherein you brake too deep into a corner trying to slow the bike down, squeezing the lever as tight as you dare, taking the front tire right to the edge of adhesion. When you finally ask too much, the tire runs out of grip, giving way. You’re on your rear end in a split second, sliding off the course. More often than not you walk away from this type of crash.

What can hurt you are the high sides — crashes that occur during the exit of a corner as you are getting back on the gas. They come out of nowhere. You apply throttle in the same spot that you have the last 20 laps, only this time the rear tire lets go (usually from increased wear and/or throttle input) and you’re thrown 15 feet into the air. You do not walk away from this type of crash. What causes a high side is much harder to autopsy. It is that unknown aspect of the accident that keeps you awake at night as much as the pain of injury.

A low side doesn’t keep you from getting back on the bike. If anything, you are eager to get back on, empowered by the newly acquired knowledge you paid for with broken bike parts and bruises to your ego. With a high side, you reapproach with fear because you can’t say what exactly you’ll do differently to prevent it from happening again. Your newfound fear causes you to apply throttle weakly coming out of corners and you get devoured by your competitors.

I’ve had both kinds of accidents. I recognize the symptoms.

The crash I had in my V-Tail Bonanza falls squarely into the low side category. I know exactly what I did wrong. I know what not to do again. And yet my brain has been behaving as if it were a high side: a lurking, mysterious monster that might strike again at a moment’s notice, without probable cause. The result is clear: Even with my new airplane sitting in the hangar, ready and waiting, I have not been flying. It’s probably just time. In my time as a road racer I have had at least a dozen accidents. I learned to both expect and accept them. But a plane crash is just different. It’s neither expected nor accepted, and it shook me to my core.

Over Thanksgiving weekend, I forced myself to take to the air.

I was, in fact, flying to go racing. My girlfriend, Hollie, and I were planning to fly from New York to Birmingham, Alabama, for two days of racing at Barber Motorsports Park. My friend Will, a fellow racer, had trailered our bikes down a few days earlier.

Everything was set: hotel, rental car, tools, fresh tires. Then a low-pressure front expected to move past lingered over the mid-Atlantic. We got stuck in Cumberland, Maryland, for two days. I missed the first day of racing and only managed to ride on the afternoon of the second day. I got onto the track late — not to mention rusty — but still rode well, and after a few laps, fast. And yet the flying remains difficult.

Poor weather was not a factor in my Colorado crash, but when the front refused to budge I chose to stay grounded in Maryland even though it meant losing precious days at the track in Alabama. I would not have thought twice about flying in those conditions before Telluride. Six months after my crash, I can’t tell if I am erring on the side of caution or paralyzed by irrational fear. I’m grappling with that difference still.

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