Morgan Gales doesn’t stand a chance. He should; he’s riding the perfect getaway bike. The KTM 790 Duke is lithe and fast and responsive. It’s brilliant on a twisty road, shedding all its civility for snap and crackle and wheelies out of corners. But it’s precise too. Little touches on the footpegs translate to graceful shifts at the bars, perfect for weaving through dense California traffic. Mostly, it feels eager. That’s KTM’s new 799cc twin, which is good for 95 hp and 58.2 pound-feet of torque on our dyno. As a package, the Duke makes a strong case for itself as the best middleweight sportbike on the market. But it’s not getting away from the helicopter.
Grow up on a steady diet of televised freeway pursuits and eventually the thought might cross your mind: Could I get away? Sheer repetition helps armchair evaders pick apart common mistakes. Getting out of town? That’s no good; you don’t know all the exits and side streets. Parking garages? You might be hard to see, but you’re easy to block in. Riding a little wild? That’s reason enough to get squeezed into the guard rail. From the comfort of home, you become an expert, formulate a plan, meditate on a route, maybe even pick a perfect machine for the job. You wonder. What would it be like to have the helicopter in your rearviews?
“That’s him,” Orange County Sheriff’s Deputy Erik Baum says over the intercom. It’s easy to miss over the din of seven busy radios. The aviation support unit is monitoring everything—highway patrol and local police dispatchers over tactical radios, air traffic control, and air-to-air over the VHF—but Reserve Deputy Josh Assayag hears Baum just fine and kicks the white and green Eurocopter AS350 B2 into a dizzying left turn over State Route 73. In seconds Baum has the helicopter’s camera turret aimed at the KTM.
Gales is in the fast lane, passing unsuspecting commuters. The reticle crosses over his back and lanky arms, and Baum zooms in until the bike fills the frame. Flashes of KTM’s vivid orange bodywork give away the brand. Gales’ long hair is apparent, whipping against his leathers. The bike slows for an instant, and the camera snaps into razor-sharp focus, making the Spidi branding visible. Gales had the KTM on the highway less than a minute, and I’ve seen enough of him, his bike, and his gear that I could pick him out of a lineup of a hundred other riders.
“Two things glow really hard on infrared,” Baum explains, “motorcycles and cop cars.”
And it makes sense. Push your Camry to 100, and you’ll scarcely feel heat in its sheet metal. Rip the KTM to 100, and you’ll burn your hand on sizzling-hot exposed engine cases. From 1,000 feet, the bike is a white-hot blob on Baum’s FLIR camera. Day or night, it’s impossibly conspicuous.
On the ground, Gales has some of the best electronics systems in the motorcycling world. A ride-by-wire throttle with four maps and wheelie control mates perfectly with KTM’s refined up/down quickshifter. Bosch lean-angle-sensing traction control and cornering ABS stay out of the way until you need them, and then intrude smoothly when you do, improving your riding rather than upsetting it. A multicolor TFT dash keeps the rider informed, and sensible controls allow easy navigation between riding modes. It’s a sophisticated machine, but today it’s not sophisticated enough.
Baum is the ASU’s chief pilot. You’d make him as a cop in a glance. Short hair. Oakleys. He looks at home in his green two-piece flight suit, a well-worn Glock 22 dangling lazily against his ribs in a shoulder holster. In the air, he has his hands full with the helicopter’s electronics suite. Baum operates the insect-eyed FLIR 380 pod dangling in the air under his feet with what looks for all the world like a mil-spec PlayStation controller.
Filling the left-side dash of the ASTAR is a massive monitor stuffed with information. A picture-in-picture GPS map tracks the helicopter’s location, but more impressive, it tracks the location of the FLIR system’s reticle on the ground. Point it at Gales speeding along a surface street and it’ll give you a precise street address. Another mode places an overlay of the street or highway name directly over the street itself.
But even without the expensive hardware, it’s hard to miss a bike scything through traffic. From 1,000 feet in the air, you can see everything that’s happening for miles down the road, just with the naked eye. Assayag doesn’t have trouble keeping up with the KTM. The ASTAR will cruise at 150 and tops out closer to 180 mph. Given infinite room and empty roads, a supersport machine could leave the ASU behind. But it’d be hard-pressed to outrun a camera. Or a radio.
Assayag is subtle on the controls, but his head is on a swivel. Orange County is a wildly busy airspace: an international airport, business jets, other helicopters. Assayag seems collected, unruffled by the frenetic environment, and it becomes apparent on the ground why: He’s seldom on the ground. The reserve deputy is a Boeing 737 pilot and a military drone operator when he’s not turning low orbits over Orange County. He wears the same green flight suit as Baum but doesn’t fly with his service pistol. “There’s zero chance of the pilot having to jump out and catch somebody,” he says.
Gales turns off the freeway, throwing in the towel. As sophisticated and capable as the Duke is, it’s no match for the eye in the sky. Even through tall apartment buildings and Orange County’s urban sprawl, the view from the air is commanding, and it’s clear that it doesn’t matter if you’re in a forest of concrete or on the open road—there’s no escape. Real work beckons for Assayag and Baum. The helicopter flies day or night, but they’re grinding toward the end of their shift, so we turn away from the highway and pass low over the coast, our fantasy of outrunning the law nothing but dust in the Eurocopter’s rotors.