STAFF SGT. CHRISTIAN J. CURTIS
B Company, 1-223rd Aviation Regiment
Fort Rucker, Alabama
When I was a master driver, I always conducted route reconnaissance to determine a suitable check ride course for my student drivers. I had to ensure the route allowed the students to perform the required skills on their assigned tactical vehicles as well as identify hazards that may lead to a higher risk level. In Texas, it was fording a ravine during the rainy season. In Germany, it was navigating the narrow roads between the little villages and maneuvering a High-Mobility Multi-Wheeled Vehicle or Light Medium Tactical Vehicle on busy city streets surrounded by small European cars.
Every environment has its hazards, and a route recon is an effective tool to identify them. When I took the Motorcycle Safety Foundation’s Basic RiderCourse, my instructors told me to apply this same practice before riding an unknown route. Two events opened my eyes to the importance of that advice.
After my unit returned from Kandahar, Afghanistan, I had a Soldier who was itching to spend his deployment money on something loud and shiny — a Harley-Davidson Fat Boy. The Soldier’s riding buddies told him about a great route on the island called Snakes Pass, so one Saturday he headed out to see if it was worthy of the hype. His personal protection equipment (PPE) consisted of a half-helmet, sunglasses, long-sleeved shirt, gloves, jeans and tactical boots.
The Soldier took a less-winding road to get to the summit of Mount Tantalus and made his way down Snakes Pass. Being a new rider, he soon found himself experiencing the route’s hazards. Traveling downhill made it easy to pick up speed, and the loose gravel along the winding turns was a recipe for disaster. The Soldier successfully maneuvered through the first series of turns and came upon a straightaway. As he approached the next set of turns, however, the motorcycle’s rear wheel kicked out from underneath him, sending the Soldier and his bike skidding down the road. The loose gravel and asphalt tore through his long-sleeved shirt, leaving considerable road rash along his side and back. He called a friend with a pickup truck to help him out. They kept the motorcycle off post and attempted to render self-aid for his injuries.
By Monday, the Soldier’s road rash began to show signs of infection. He tried to keep the mishap quiet, but the puss from his wounds could not be ignored. He finally came clean and requested to go to sick call at the troop medical clinic. There, medical personnel removed any remaining dirt or gravel from his road rash, which required scraping with a wire brush. Because the rash had already scabbed, the process was even more painful.
Witnessing my Soldier go through this pain reinforced the importance of route recons. Unfortunately, over time, I became too relaxed and was doomed to repeat the Soldier’s mistakes.
One day, my neighbor told me about a shortcut he often took to our subdivision on his motorcycle. He said it was nothing exciting, just backroads. Later that week, I decided to check out the route myself. As advertised, there was nothing special about the route; it just bypassed a very busy intersection on my commute home. As I turned a corner and approached a stop sign leading to the main road, it happened.
Confused as to why I was now laying in the road on my left side, I slowly sat up to change my perspective in hopes of gaining some clarity into this strange situation. I was in the middle of the road. Breathing was a bit difficult due to the hot weather and helmet I was wearing, so I flipped up the visor to get some air. I stared at the stop sign 30 yards away as the sound of traffic on the main road ahead faded in and out. I looked behind me to find my motorcycle in a similar state, laying on its left side and a bit worse for wear.
I tried to stand, but my core muscles had other plans. They seemed to scream, “Stay down! You just flew over the handlebars of that bike and we aren’t ready to get off the ground just yet.” Several deep breaths helped me relax and ease the intense cramping in my abdomen. Once able to stand, I walked over to my bike defeated, where I saw the cause of the accident.
The road I was riding on had been resurfaced recently, but there was still a substantial dip in it. When my front tire dropped into the dip, my back tire sent me flying. I was fortunate that my PPE covered me from head to toe. My helmet took a major blow to the right rear as I tucked and rolled on the ground. My riding jacket was shredded, but better it than my right shoulder and back. In the end, I walked away with just bruises on my right shoulder and to my ego.
When I compare these two mishaps, I see more similarities than differences. The simple fact is we both set out for a ride without first identifying the hazards we would encounter. A simple route recon would have mitigated the risk by placing controls over those hazards. My Soldier would have realized that when traveling down Snakes Pass, a rider must reduce their speed when approaching the series of turns. I would have identified the drastic dip before the stop sign and slowed down or steered clear from it altogether.
Whether you’re operating a tactical vehicle, car, pickup, SUV or motorcycle, conducting a route recon should always be your first step. Knowing what's ahead may determine if you will ever ride again.