Possibly Relevant : The Plane Story


(1999) I rarely make good choices on the spur of the moment. Usually I will forgo a rain suit unless the clouds are black and full, preferring to get on the road as soon as possible and worry about wet socks later. Also, if given a spit-second choice of rebuilding a transmission or not, with open cases in front of me, I will decide to rebuild perfectly good transmission parts, spoiling needle bearings, shims and gears on the floor, making a hard job even worse.

Recently, though, I made a very good choice, a spur of the moment choice that in the end made perfect sense. I didn’t get on an airplane.

We were in Australia for the Yamaha YZFR6 press introduction, a quick in and out trip of that country in the other hemisphere. We flew from Los Angeles to Sydney, then down to Melbourne. After a day to “rest”, we got up bright and early, headed down to breakfast and heard from Yamaha that they were taking us to a tiny airport in Geelong, a few hours away, for the start of that day’s street ride.

“Great, what time does the bus leave,” I asked Yamaha’s media relations guy, Scott Heath. Heath shook his head and said, “No bus. We’re flying you there. We have two planes to take you and the Italians (the Italian press were there as well) to Geelong. They’re small planes but the pilots are very experienced and we’ll see a great view of the southern coast of Australia from the air.” Heath said this in a nonchalant manner.

I stopped eating my breakfast and put down my cereal spoon. “How small are the planes?” I asked Heath. Small, he said, there won’t be room for luggage. I stared across the breakfast table at Cycle News editor Paul Carruthers, who had also stopped eating at the mention of traveling by small plane.

“I hate small planes,” he said.

I do too. As anybody who has seen the spot where Buddy Holly’s plane collided with a very hard Iowa cornfield will tell you, you don’t stand much of a chance if you get in a pushing contest between a small airplane and a planet. As Mick Doohan says, now that he’s become a hobby pilot, he understands that crashing planes is not something you do repeatedly, unlike motorcycles which you can crash until you get it right in some cases.

Plus, it’s no secret that I have hung out with Rob Muzzy a fair bit. Muzzy is an avid if not unlicensed pilot and he has this way of sneaking these scary little anecdotal flight stories into his taco lunches that’ll frighten the stuffing right out of the turkey, if that turkey is me. Like the time Muzzy’s plane collided with another plane at 26,000 feet, or the time he endo’d a plane on landing, or other sordid ‘and then the plane did something really scary’ stories which do nothing to improve your confidence in non-commercial airliner flight, even if you’ve in a million dollar twin-engine plane like Muzz’ has.

I decided to throw a huge tantrum, my first since age five. I looked Heath square in the face and said to him, “I’m not getting on any plane smaller than a house, with three big jet engines or one without a smiling stewardess ready to hand me a Bailey’s on the rocks.”

I let that statement just hang there between Heath and I, a little line in the sand, metaphorically. Surprisingly, Carruthers backed me, saying he wasn’t getting on any flying chicken coop with wings either.

Heath, a veteran media guy who has to deal with factory motocross and roadrace riders every day, which when it gets bad is like trying to herd cats, didn’t even stop chewing at my little fit, or the back-up vocals by Carruthers. He said, “Fine, you can ride with the photographers in their car. Both of you.”

He never looked up from his Cheerios. The rest of the meal was spent with Paul and I being called “ladies” and “ground-lovers” by everyone but Yamaha’s Rich Oliver, who just shrugged and said, “I live in Fresno, small planes are an unfortunate reality for me to get anywhere.” Oliver’s like that though. I once spent an entire morning at Daytona telling him what a slug the 1997 YZF600 was going to be on the racetrack, and he just said, “Yeah, but if I want a Superbike ride, I gotta do something with it.” He’s a realist.

So, photographer David Dewhurst, Carruthers and I jumped in the car and started driving while everybody else jumped on a bus for the airport. Before leaving I sang a few lines of Holly’s Peggy Sue, to the plane-lovers, which shut them up right now.

On the drive down Dewhurst said that the drive to Geelong in a car is actually shorter than the flight, curious enough. But that the flight included a run up the coast to see some sights from 15,000 feet. Dewhurst then told us every near plane crash or plane mid-air collision story he knew from his days of working at plane magazines. That ground under the car’s tires felt so good.

About fifteen minutes before we reached Geelong and the little Phillip Island airport that we all agreed to meet at, strong winds started blowing the car all over. By the time the car stopped and we got out at the airport, which consisted of a one room hanger about the size of your garage and a terminal about the size of your bathroom, the wind was really blowing. Keeping a hat on your head was impossible, and at times just standing outside without being blown along like a loose sheet was hard.

The wind was blowing a consistent 25mph, with gusts of 40-75 mph at times. You could not stand outside without leaning into the wind. A nice feature of this attacking wind was that because Geelong is very near the southern tip of Australia, it was blowing two different directions at once.

I thought they’d scrub the landing and perhaps the whole day, but according to the gent who ran the airport, this kind of wind was not unusual and the pilots were well experienced at flying and landing in it. I waited for him to break out laughing and say, ‘No mate, of course we sent the planes back, nobody could land in this,’ but he didn’t, he just went about his business. At altitude that had to be the roller-coaster ride from hell.

The planes were about twenty-five minutes late. Paul and I stood next to the grass runway waiting for them. The first one, which we thought was full of Yanks, was first sighted at about 10,000 feet. Then it was at 6000 feet a few moments later. Then 1500 feet. Next it was at 12,000 feet, being blown around like a loose sailboat. Paul and I laughed like school children, high-fiving each other when the plane would inadvertently barrell-roll and the occupants had no choice but to look right down at us.

The pilot came in for final approach. He pointed the plane almost straight down at the ground, which was a nice touch. He dived directly at the ground, then pulled up at the last moment and put that mother on the ground in a perfect three-then-two-then-three-point landing.

When the plane stopped, the engines were turned off and we looked from afar through the windows to see who we could make vomit-gestures at, only to realize that this plane was filled with the dreaded Italians. They sniffed us over that morning at breakfast and decided that they didn’t want to ride with us on the racetrack, so all the sessions had to be broken up between nations.

When the door opened and the snooty Italians filed out of the plane, the first guy exiting the ship, I swear to God, got down on his knees and kissed the ground. Then they all stood around green-faced, talking in a very animated way about the plane ride. Now alone, I yelled to them, “Welcome, my friends, to Phillipa Island! Smiles everyone, smiles!” in my best Mr. Roark impersonation. The Italians looked like they either didn’t understand me, or wanted to kick some serious American ass. I decided it was time to stop taunting the Euro-weenies and went inside.

Soon enough the Yanks shuffled though the door of the terminal, their faces gaunt and pasty, hair slightly wet and all of them very quiet.

Rich Oliver’s hand shook as he tried to unzip his gearbag, like he’d been hanging onto something way too tight for way too long. Like the seat in front of him. How bad was it, man?

“It was awful,” he said “I thought everybody was going to get sick.”

Paul and I laughed like drunken hyenas, to very little response from our friends the plane-lovers.

Just before we suited up to ride down the coast on Yamaha’s fine little R6 hotrod, Yamaha’s Heath took Paul and I aside, and with breath that revealed he had almost lost his breakfast on the trip down, said to us, with his arms around our shoulders, “I think you two made a very good decision not to fly here. A very good decision indeed.”

For once!

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