The Wings Tour 2014: Leg Three + Video

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“…let’s light this candle.”
–Alan Shepard to mission control moments before the launch of Freedom 7, which made him the first American in space.

Seven. Six. Five. Four. The space shuttle launch simulator begins to rattle and shake. Strapped into my seat and lying flat on my back, I brace for the artificial blast-off. We’ve reached the ultimate stop on our Wings Tour, Kennedy Space Center, where the cutting edge of flight takes place. A shudder and we’re off, make-believe hurling into outer space at 17,000 miles per hour.

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This is the final installment of a three-part aviation-themed motorcycle tour aboard a 2014 Honda Gold Wing. If you missed the first two installments, they can be read here: Wings Tour: Leg One
Wings Tour: Leg Two

Day 5

It’s just a little under 800 miles from the Wright Brothers Memorial in North Carolina’s Outer Banks to the Kennedy Space Center in central Florida. That’s no Iron Butt record by any stretch of the imagination, but mileage alone doesn’t define an epic ride. Fifty miles on a mountain fire road trumps 500 miles on the interstate. One hour of riding in sub-freezing temperatures is more grueling than traveling 12 hours on a summer day.

Photo by Kendra Cowger. Heading south on the final leg of the Wings Tour 2014.

Photo by Kendra Cowger. Heading south on the final leg of the Wings Tour 2014.

Mother Nature gave us something to make Leg 3 one to remember. Once we hit I-95 it started to rain. And rain. And rain. Often when riding the interstates, rain only lasts a short time as you run into a shower that you quickly run out of. On this day, a storm front covered the entire East Coast and the rain clouds shadowed us all of the way to Florida.

We took a break from the wet ride to visit the National Museum of the Mighty Eighth Air Force, just off the interstate near Savannah. Dedicated to the exploits of the famous World War II bomber group, the museum seeks to impart the experience of making a bombing run over Europe.

Photo by Kendra Cowger. Who's idea was it to ride to Florida in monsoon season?

Photo by Kendra Cowger. Who’s idea was it to ride to Florida in monsoon season?

I’ve never flown in combat over Germany, but I have been lucky enough to fly in a B-17 Flying Fortress. Exposed to the elements with the cold air pouring through the open gun ports, the smell and roar of 4,800 horsepower worth of Wright Cyclones almost drown out your inner thoughts. About as close as you can come to this is traveling a long distance by motorcycle. Hours spent fighting cold, boredom, fatigue, trying to stay sharp and keep your eyes scanning for danger, your ears tuned to the engine for any signs of trouble, nervously glancing at your fuel gauge, in the middle of nowhere and a long way from home.

A B-17 crew would spend 10 hours or more in the airplane on a bombing run. If they could make it back alive 25 times, they were able to go home, an accomplishment akin to running 25 stoplights in Manhattan during rush hour and coming out unscathed. As soon as the crews were over enemy territory, they were being shot at with high explosives and attacked by enemy fighters, nothing between them and the ground 20,000 feet below but a thin skin of sheet metal. Sounds a little bit like riding in heavy interstate traffic in the rain.

This Cold War-era Boeing B-47 Stratojet on display on the grounds of the National Museum of the Mighty Eighth Air Force Museum is visible from Interstate 95 near Savannah, Ga.

This Cold War-era Boeing B-47 Stratojet on display on the grounds of the National Museum of the Mighty Eighth Air Force Museum is visible from Interstate 95 near Savannah, Ga.

Spending hour after hour on the open road, we began to fully understand the Gold Wing‘s creature comforts. Long-distance riding is all about keeping the pilot in a state in which he can continue to ride. A good seat is the number-one priority. A nice, plush one with a back rest, like the Wing’s, goes a long way in keeping you in the saddle.

Minimizing exposure to the elements with the right gear and a well-designed fairing helps too. The bike’s fairing and windshield do a good job of keeping rider and passenger dry, slicing through the rain and creating a wind-tunnel bubble of dryness behind it. This works really well at 75 miles per hour. We didn’t stop to put on our rain gear and stayed perfectly dry in our mesh summer jackets. Then, as we reached Jacksonville, traffic ground to a halt. And it started to pour. Not a thunderstorm, but one of those floods of biblical proportions where you see the heavens opening up in front of you and a waterfall of rain tumbling towards the earth.

The grounds of the Mighty Eighth Air Force Museum feature memorials to many flyers, including Captain Ben Love, who survived 25 combat missions and went on to help found the museum.

The grounds of the Mighty Eighth Air Force Museum feature memorials to many flyers, including Captain Ben Love, who survived 25 combat missions and went on to help found the museum.

Don’t think you have any use for heated seats and grips in the summer? After our Jacksonville drenching, I cranked them up and opened the Gold Wing’s foot-warmer vents (little hatches that open up in front of the rider’s footpegs to direct warm air from the engine) to help dry out my gear. By the time we reached our stop for the night, soaking wet and several hours behind schedule, we were well past the point where the edge necessary to safely ride a motorcycle has been dulled.

Day 6

Central Florida is an aviation and aerospace mecca. From aerospace colleges, like Embry-Riddle, to Sun N’ Fun, the Daytona Bike Week of fly-ins, numerous warbird museums and the high-tech industries of Florida’s Space Coast, there’s always something in the air.

A diorama depicting the 1943 raid on the Ploesti oil refinery, which cost 53 B-24 bombers and the lives of 440 airmen.

A diorama depicting the 1943 raid on the Ploesti oil refinery, which cost 53 B-24 bombers and the lives of 440 airmen.

A1A. Cue Jimmy Buffett song of choice. This iconic Florida road files past beach bars and strip clubs, crab shacks and hot dog stands through almost every beach town on Florida’s east coast. You can’t ride in Florida without taking a trip down A1A. We jumped off the interstate to continue our tour, stopping in St. Augustine to visit the old Spanish fort.

We chose to make the final stop of our Wings Tour a visit to the Kennedy Space Center, the pinnacle of the aerospace industry. Our tour had taken us from the place where the Wright brothers launched their 152-foot first flight to the spot where three men were blasted 238,000 miles into space to land on the moon. Many of the roads leading into the Space Center have been designated Florida Scenic Highways. The Center itself is in the middle of the 140,000-acre Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge, and as you ride along there are alligators in the canals, with deer and wild hogs standing on the banks.

The Mission Experience at the Mighty Eighth Air Force Museum uses original footage to simulate a bombing run over Europe.

The Mission Experience at the Mighty Eighth Air Force Museum uses original footage to simulate a bombing run over Europe.

Like the Mighty Eighth museum, Kennedy Space Center’s Visitor Complex works hard to impart the experience of flight, from simulators that mimic what it’s like to land a space shuttle to one that gives the sensation of sitting on half-a-million gallons of fuel and two rockets when they are ignited. More than a museum, the Kennedy Space Center is a celebration of the accomplishments of those who ignored the critics, attacked the impossible and succeeded.

And then, standing amongst the space suits and rocket ships, it struck me. The connection between motorcycles and flying machines isn’t about motors and fuel. It’s not about high speeds or complex technology. We are fascinated by motorcycles and airplanes not for what they are but for what they represent. They are dream machines, the vehicles on which we launch our hopes and aspirations. When we commute to work on a motorcycle, we always know that we’re one turn away from adventure. When we sit at the airport waiting for our flight, staring out the window at the hundreds of planes sitting on the tarmac, each one represents a journey, a destination. We are drawn to machines like motorcycles and airplanes because they hold the romance of the unknown, the endless possibilities enshrined in a fleeting horizon.

The Pratt and Whitney R-2800 Double Wasp, a double-row, 18-cylinder radial engine. One of the premier piston-driven aircraft engines, it produced up to 2,800 hp and powered airplanes like the B-26 bomber and the P-47 and F4U fighters.

The Pratt and Whitney R-2800 Double Wasp, a double-row, 18-cylinder radial engine. One of the premier piston-driven aircraft engines, it produced up to 2,800 hp and powered airplanes like the B-26 bomber and the P-47 and F4U fighters.

Flight Log: Leg Three
Total Hours Riding, Leg Three: 13 hours
Total Miles, Leg Three: 878 miles
Average Fuel Consumption: (mix of urban, interstate and coastal roads): 41 mpg
Wings Tour Flight Log
Total Hours Riding: 32 hours
Total Trip Miles: 1,638 miles
States Traveled In: Maryland, Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, Florida
Best Fuel Mileage of the Trip: 45 mpg (I-95 Interstate)
Worst Fuel Mileage of the Trip: 30 mpg (D.C. metro traffic)
Total Wings Eaten: 6

When Jack Nicholson flaps his arms like a bird on the back seat of Peter Fonda’s Harley in Easy Rider, it’s because he just realized that he doesn’t know what he’ll eat for dinner, where he’ll sleep that night or what tomorrow will hold. That exuberance is the feeling that motorcycles and airplanes give us.

As I stood in the place that celebrates some of our greatest accomplishments of the 20th century and marks our hopes for a future in which less and less of the universe is beyond our grasp I thought of the ending lines of Thom Gunn’s poem On the Move:

At worse, one is in motion; and at best
Reaching no absolute, in which to rest
One is always nearer by not keeping still.

Stained glass windows honor the 88,119 airmen that were killed in World War II in the Chapel of the Fallen Eagles at the Mighty Eighth Air Force Museum.

Stained glass windows honor the 88,119 airmen that were killed in World War II in the Chapel of the Fallen Eagles at the Mighty Eighth Air Force Museum.

The Fly Girls exhibit honors early women aviators, including the 40,000 who served in the Army Air Corp during World War II. More than 1,000 served as Women Air Service Pilots (WASPs).

The Fly Girls exhibit honors early women aviators, including the 40,000 who served in the Army Air Corp during World War II. More than 1,000 served as Women Air Service Pilots (WASPs).

The last picture of the Gold Wing with an airplane. We promise. A Vietnam-era F-4C outside the Mighty Eighth Air Force Museum.

The last picture of the Gold Wing with an airplane. We promise. A Vietnam-era F-4C outside the Mighty Eighth Air Force Museum.

The Kennedy Space Center is located inside the 140,000 acre Merritt Island Wildlife Refuge. The roads leading into the Center are lined with canals filled with wildlife.

The Kennedy Space Center is located inside the 140,000 acre Merritt Island Wildlife Refuge. The roads leading into the Center are lined with canals filled with wildlife.

A stop along A1A in northern Florida is the Castillo de San Marcos, the stone fortress built by the Spanish in the 18th century to protect the town of St. Augustine.

A stop along A1A in northern Florida is the Castillo de San Marcos, the stone fortress built by the Spanish in the 18th century to protect the town of St. Augustine.

Built of native coquina limestone the Castillo de San Marcos is the oldest masonry fort in the United States. It was in active use until 1900.

Built of native coquina limestone the Castillo de San Marcos is the oldest masonry fort in the United States. It was in active use until 1900.

The St. Johns River is the longest in Florida, measuring at over 300 miles.

The St. Johns River is the longest in Florida, measuring at over 300 miles.

A1A. The iconic beach road that runs 339 miles from northern Florida to Key West.

A1A. The iconic beach road that runs 339 miles from northern Florida to Key West.

One of the many colorful businesses that line A1A.

One of the many colorful businesses that line A1A.

Photo by Kendra Cowger. Full gear. Only comfortable at interstate speeds in central Florida in July.

Photo by Kendra Cowger. Full gear. Only comfortable at interstate speeds in central Florida in July.

A central Florida sunset.

A central Florida sunset.

Outside of the sprawling cities, much of central Florida is farmland and many of its roads have been designated scenic highways.

Outside of the sprawling cities, much of central Florida is farmland and many of its roads have been designated scenic highways.

Wildlife, like these Sandhill cranes, is abundant in central Florida.

Wildlife, like these Sandhill cranes, is abundant in central Florida.

The Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex houses NASA's collection of artifacts from the U.S. space program.

The Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex houses NASA’s collection of artifacts from the U.S. space program.

Along with its exhibits the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex holds two IMAX theaters and several flight simulators.

Along with its exhibits the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex holds two IMAX theaters and several flight simulators.

The Rocket Garden at the Kennedy Space Center displays the early rockets that launched America's space program.

The Rocket Garden at the Kennedy Space Center displays the early rockets that launched America’s space program.

The F-1, the most powerful rocket engine ever built, producing 1.5 million pounds of thrust. Five were used on each Saturn rocket that launched the Apollo missions.

The F-1, the most powerful rocket engine ever built, producing 1.5 million pounds of thrust. Five were used on each Saturn rocket that launched the Apollo missions.

America's first astronauts, the "right stuff" guys.

America’s first astronauts, the “right stuff” guys.

Robert H. Goddard, a college professor who built the first liquid fueled rocket. His research made later space flights possible.

Robert H. Goddard, a college professor who built the first liquid fueled rocket. His research made later space flights possible.

Examples of the early space suits on display at the Kennedy Space Center.

Examples of the early space suits on display at the Kennedy Space Center.

The Kennedy Space Center offers a bus tour of its grounds, including their many launch pads.

The Kennedy Space Center offers a bus tour of its grounds, including their many launch pads.

One of NASA's crawler-transporters that move a space shuttle from the assembly building to its launch pad. Powered by two 2,750 hp diesel engines it weighs 6 million pounds. Notice the full-size pickup truck in the lower left corner for comparison.

One of NASA’s crawler-transporters that move a space shuttle from the assembly building to its launch pad. Powered by two 2,750 hp diesel engines it weighs 6 million pounds. Notice the full-size pickup truck in the lower left corner for comparison.

The five F-1 rocket engines that powered the Saturn V rocket that carried the Apollo 11 astronauts to the moon.

The five F-1 rocket engines that powered the Saturn V rocket that carried the Apollo 11 astronauts to the moon.

The Saturn V that launched the Apollo programs holds the distinction as the tallest, heaviest, most powerful rocket ever built. It is the only rocket to launch humans beyond a low-earth orbit.

The Saturn V that launched the Apollo programs holds the distinction as the tallest, heaviest, most powerful rocket ever built. It is the only rocket to launch humans beyond a low-earth orbit.

Some of the artifacts on display at the Kennedy Space Center include these plaster casts of the original astronaut's hands, used to custom size their space suits.

Some of the artifacts on display at the Kennedy Space Center include these plaster casts of the original astronaut’s hands, used to custom size their space suits.

Not something out of a science fiction movie, this is one of the original prototype space suits developed by NASA.

Not something out of a science fiction movie, this is one of the original prototype space suits developed by NASA.

The famous NASA "meatball" logo in front of Kennedy's words "For the eyes of the world now look into space, to the moon and to the planets beyond..."

The famous NASA “meatball” logo in front of Kennedy’s words “For the eyes of the world now look into space, to the moon and to the planets beyond…”

The rocket boosters and fuel tank that powered the re-useable space shuttle.

The rocket boosters and fuel tank that powered the re-useable space shuttle.

The tires used to land the space shuttle. Built by Michelin they are inflated to 340 psi to handle a 250 mph landing of a 220,00 lb. shuttle. The tires are only used once.

The tires used to land the space shuttle. Built by Michelin they are inflated to 340 psi to handle a 250 mph landing of a 220,00 lb. shuttle. The tires are only used once.

A slide that simulates the glide slope used by a space shuttle when it lands, one of the many simulators at the Kennedy Space Center.

A slide that simulates the glide slope used by a space shuttle when it lands, one of the many simulators at the Kennedy Space Center.

The space shuttle Atlantis on display at the Kennedy Space Center's Shuttle Launch Experience. Its final flight in 2011 marked the end of the space shuttle program in which 135 shuttle missions were launched.

The space shuttle Atlantis on display at the Kennedy Space Center’s Shuttle Launch Experience. Its final flight in 2011 marked the end of the space shuttle program in which 135 shuttle missions were launched.

The six space shuttles that made up NASA's Space Transportation System.

The six space shuttles that made up NASA’s Space Transportation System.

The Merritt Island Causeway that links the Kennedy Space Center to mainland Florida.

The Merritt Island Causeway that links the Kennedy Space Center to mainland Florida.

A collection of flight helmets from the early astronauts on display at the United States Astronaut Hall of Fame, just down the road from the Kennedy Space Center. All were military fighter pilots before joining NASA.

A collection of flight helmets from the early astronauts on display at the United States Astronaut Hall of Fame, just down the road from the Kennedy Space Center. All were military fighter pilots before joining NASA.

Memorabilia from the Apollo missions at the Astronaut Hall of Fame.

Memorabilia from the Apollo missions at the Astronaut Hall of Fame.

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