Flying down the road

If you think you see an airplane jetting down the interstate, you might be seeing Ron Gallops' motorcycle. It's the inveterate tinkerer's favorite toy.

Published February 18, 2005

Cruising up Interstate 75, Jeff Straway thought he was seeing things.

"You don't normally see a plane driving up the highway," said Straway, 42, of Port Richey.

No you don't, not unless Ron Gallops is taking his favorite toy for a test drive.

Straway has twice seen Freedom 1, which started out as a used Honda Gold Wing motorcycle and looked like a small fighter jet when Gallops got finished with it.

It still doesn't leave the ground. But it easily reaches "air speed" beyond 80 mph, fast enough for Gallops to raise the "landing gear" and tuck them beneath the wings. Freedom 1 glows in its afterburner and banks in turns.

It also causes a sensation.

Gallops has learned to expect incredulous smiles, car horns and thumbs ups whenever he drives Freedom 1. He tries to reciprocate.

But Gallops is concentrating on traffic, because many of the surrounding drivers aren't. They're gawking at Freedom 1.

"You have to be paying attention because the people are looking at it, and they're running all over the lane."

Melissa Kelley of Safety Harbor first glimpsed Freedom 1 when she was about 10 cars behind it on Interstate 75, headed for Mardi Gras in New Orleans.

"I hit my brakes," Kelley said. "I said "Oh, my God. Another plane has landed on the road.' "

Kelley, 43, was hosting longtime friend Maureen Moore, 50, of Scotland.

"Wait 'til I get home in the pubs," Moore told Kelley. "They'll think we were drinking in the car."

But Moore went home with proof: a photo she shot through the window.

"We just laughed and laughed," Kelley said.

Welcome to Gallopsville

Gallops, 62, has been transforming machines since he was 4. He graduated from bicycles to go-carts to motorcycles in boyhood, then to stock cars as a teen. He has built custom motor home coaches and limousines, and converted brand-new Lincoln Town Cars into pickup trucks.

Along the way, Gallops assembled such a folksy collection of cars and antiques that he established an antique village called Gallopsville off Nebraska and 128th avenues. A motor home, where Gallops sleeps, is on the property. So is a railroad depot with a miniature locomotive, a sheriff's office with a jail and a barbershop with a mannequin awaiting a trim. Gallops hosts school groups by appointment.

"I like junk," he said. "I just built this little town."

His face brightened. "You wanna see some neat toys?"

"I didn't eat right'

It was August 2001 when Gallops started building Freedom 1 in the heart of Gallopsville, the barn. He had been designing it for six months.

"I like cars, and I like airplanes, and I'm always looking for unique things."

Gallops had determined that it was legal to have a highway vehicle that looked like an airplane, so long as the engine didn't possess thrust. But the only types of wings that would fit in a 10-foot traffic lane would be swept-back fighter-jet styles, with the wingtips folded upward as if for storage on an aircraft carrier.

Gallops used the F-106 Delta Dart as a model. But he had to fashion a smaller tail fin than the Dart's, because fighter jets don't get passed by speeding semitrailer trucks.

"All that (wind) coming off the semis, they would push you all over the highway," Gallops said. "I cheated in areas that I had to cheat."

Gallops worked on the plane for more than a year and lost 15 pounds.

"I didn't eat right," he said. "I didn't do anything but eat, sleep and drink the project."

Test drives convinced him to reduce the airocycle's ability to bank by 4 inches in each direction. The problem wasn't how the banking affected the plane, but how it affected other drivers: They hit their brakes, apparently thinking Freedom 1 was about to tip over.

The terror attacks of 2001 prompted Gallops to hire an artist soon after the airocycle took shape, to give it a parade look. Motorists were too jittery for something more realistic, he decided.

Besides prominent stars and stripes, the plane features caricatures of Gallops and his significant other, Dee Gray, saluting.

Smiles and waves

Gallops banked Freedom 1 recently onto Interstates 275 and 75 and eased it up to an air speed of 65. Most passing drivers reacted. There were smiles or laughs or waves or horn honks or thumbs ups or combinations of those.

Women from Vermont smiled and waved. So did retirees from Michigan and Massachusetts. Semi drivers honked their truck horns. The driver of a Sunco semi gave a thumbs up, then pulled to the shoulder up the road, leaning out of his cab with a camera as Freedom 1 sailed past.

At a Texaco center at I-75 and State Road 52, Freedom 1 attracted a cluster of carnival workers headed for the Florida State Fairgrounds.

"Was this a motorcycle?" asked one, Anthony Gaudino of New York, who had been towing a concession stand. Yes, he was told.

"What is it now?" Gaudino asked. "It's nice."

Gallops considers Freedom 1, above all, to be an elaborate gesture of patriotism. He fastened a plaque on each side saluting Americans who contribute to public service. He hopes it will make each onlooker consider volunteering in some good cause.

He takes it to shows, parades and festivals around Tampa Bay, making this the airocycle's busiest time of year.

Gallops interprets the thousands of reactions that the airocycle elicits as 95 percent patriotic.

"It's an honor," Gallops said. "Especially when you get these military people and they're putting their ID up against the window."

Patriotism was the reaction of Victor Smith and his son, Shaun of Carrollwood, who were drawn to the airocycle as Gallops gassed it up near Interstate 275.

"I told my son, "That's what it's all about right there,' " said Victor Smith, a retired school custodian. "It kind of makes you proud to be an American. You know what I mean?"

"Man, I've never seen anything like that in my life," he said. "I loved it."

Audrey Lupien, a retired nurse from Tampa, also was taken by it.

"That's neat," she said with a smile. "Whatever it is."

Bill Coats can be reached at 813 269-5309 or coats@sptimes.com