The best aircraft designer nobody ever heard of...

Nut farm the late Curtis Pitts.
This past week was the Experimental Aircraft Association’s annual shindig in Oshkosh, Wisconsin, scheduled to bring in some three quarters of a million people from around the world for a week of exhibits, airshow performances, antique aircraft, warbirds, homebuilts, seminars, and general good times. Some dullards have whined that Oshkosh is an example of America’s excess—a bunch of rich people with pricey toys. I have a different take: Oshkosh is the embodiment of the human spirit. More than a few aviation pioneers died for their troubles, yet this only seemed to spur the survivors to redouble their efforts. In 1896, following a fatal crash from 50 ft., glider experimenter Otto Lilenthal's last words were "Sacrifices must be made." News of Lilenthal's death inspired Wilbur Wright to pick up the torch and begin experiments with flying machines. When I look upon the lovingly restored planes of the ‘20s and earlier, I recall the stories my mother told me of the smell of butyrate dope that wafted out of the garage a few doors down the street when she was a little girl. That was where a young Charles Lindbergh was renting space to re-cover surplus WWI airplane wings, on a personal journey that would eventually lead to his triumphant solo flight from New York to Paris in 1927. But more than anything, Oshkosh is about freedom. Whenever you find a country where individuals build and fly their own airplanes, you find a lot more freedom than in countries where only government factories and engineers can produce aircraft. If you go to Oshkosh during the last week of July and wander around amongst the parked airplanes, you might meet a man from Florida who looks a bit like a gnome and, if you are under 45, that you might mistake for your favorite grandfather. This is the one man in all of aviation who, at the height of the Cold War, single-handedly humiliated the entire Soviet and Eastern Bloc aircraft industry, and arguably their whole governments. His name is Curtis Pitts. I first heard about Curtis when I was nine years old, looking through a book called The Aircraft of the World. It was my dad’s, and he had put a red check mark next to the picture of every plane in the book that he had piloted, from 65 horsepower trainers to four engine transports to jet fighters. When I saw this I asked him which one was the best plane he had ever flown. "That depends on what you want to use it for. The best fighter? The best for hauling people? Or the best for training?" I thought for a moment. "The best flying. The one that you want to just get in to go fly." "The Pitts Special" he answered without hesitation. "Nothing flies better." He told me about it. The Pitts Special, he said, was an airplane conceived in 1941 by a young man who had been told that the big 1930s Waco biplane was the best mount for aerobatics, had then flown one, and thought he could do better. A lot better. The construction of Curtis Pitts' original Special was interrupted by WWII and it wasn't finished until shortly after the war ended in 1945. It had 45 horsepower and had been built for the designer’s enjoyment (he had a crop dusting business for a day job) but he built a few subsequent planes in the ensuing years for interested customers. Dad showed me a picture of one. It was a tiny single-place biplane, with a seventeen foot wingspan. He said you could fit three of them in a hangar that would hold one Cessna 150. The second Pitts Special that Curtis constructed had 85 horsepower and was eventually sold to Betty Skelton who used it to win the Women’s International Championship (called the "Feminine International Aerobatic Championship") in 1949 and 1950. He also designed and built a big version of the Special called Samson in 1948 for an airshow pilot customer. This Pitts used a surplus 450 HP Pratt & Whitney radial engine and would outclimb every fighter aircraft produced during the Second World War. It was destroyed in a fire in 1952. By the 1960s, international aerobatic competition was heating up and the Eastern Bloc countries were letting American men enter their contests, knowing that the only planes we had to compete in were underpowered WWII biplane trainers like the Waco or Stearman, and modified underpowered civilian trainers, like the clip-wing Cub or Taylorcraft. These planes were at a huge disadvantage to the powerful, purpose-built aerobatic competition aircraft like the Yak and the Zlin that were engineered by massive State-sponsored design bureaus. American amateur aerobatic pilots who remembered Betty Skelton's remarkable aerobatic flying in the tiny Pitts Special more than a decade earlier convinced Curtis Pitts to produce a set of detailed construction drawings of the Special so they could build their own competition machines. He did, at $125 per set. The plane could handle any engine from 85 to 180 horsepower, and enthusiastic Americans got busy hacksawing aircraft tubing and cutting spruce. By the late 1960s the Pitts Special was a common sight at U.S. airshows and fly-ins. It was also embarrassing the competitors on the other side of the world. When fitted with a 180 horsepower engine, the 690-pound Pitts had an amazing power to weight ratio, and the airframe itself was tremendously strong. The little buzz bomb could fly straight up farther than the competition, perform tighter maneuvers, and do them more quickly. The Pitts began winning, and by 1972 both the Men’s and Women’s Individual World Champions were Americans flying Pitts Specials. Think about that for a moment. Imagine it's the late 1960s, and purpose-built competition aerobatic aircraft are being produced by Boeing, McDonnell-Douglas, Grumman, General Dynamics, and Northrop. These planes dominate aerobatic competition in this country. Then a bunch of Russians show up, flying homemade planes built in sheds and living rooms by the pilots themselves, and the Russians start winning. These planes are plans-built copies of an aircraft designed a quarter century earlier for his own personal amusement by some crop duster named Vladimir, working out of his barn in the Ukraine, with hand tools and in his spare time between dusting runs. Americans might find such a story amusing and uplifting, but it drove the Russians absolutely crazy. They hated the Pitts Special, but the only way for Russian pilots in Russian planes to compete with it was to greatly exceed the design limitations of their aircraft. All of the design limitations. If the airspeed limit was 190 MPH, they started doing 280. If the G limit was 6 Gs positive and 3 Gs negative, they would pull +9 and push -6. This kind of abuse had predictable results, and the former Men's World Champion, Victor Letsko of the Soviet Union, was killed when he tore the wings off his Yak 50 in midair just ten days before the opening of the 1978 World Aerobatic Championships. The Soviet government sent out word to their design bureaus that creating an aircraft that would beat the Pitts was top priority, the checkbook was open, and failure would not be tolerated. Out came powerful designs that made liberal use of titanium, magnesium, and other exotic materials. Vertical penetration had become the key to winning competitions, and so they concentrated on sleek, powerful monoplanes that didn't have the drag-inducing struts and bracing wires of the tiny home-built Pitts. In order to wring the last bit of competition performance from their planes, the Russian designers had to make compromises that resulted in flying qualities that would be unacceptable to most pilots. Gone are the flight characteristics that make a Pitts such a joy to fly. The ultimate result of all this feverish development was the Sukhoi SU-26, designed and then in 1984 built by the same factory that produced the SU-27, the Russian equivalent of the McDonnell-Douglas F-15 supersonic fighter. Now that the Soviet Union has collapsed, you can buy an SU-26 if you want. A 1940s era biplane just can’t compete in unlimited-level competition with a purpose-built craft like the Sukhoi. (For that, you need to go to Guthrie, Oklahoma, and talk to Bill Zivko, designer of the Zivko Edge 540. This is the plane Curtis Pitts says is better than a Sukhoi, designed by the American voted Most Likely to Send Another Generation of Russian Aircraft Designers to the Gulag.) What’s Curtis been doing since designing the Pitts Special? In the late 1960s came a two-place version, the S-2, which Curtis certified and set up a factory to build. The first production one appeared in 1971. Then he certified the single place S-1. He eventually sold the factory, and the planes are currently produced by Aviat. The S-2 became (and still is) the premier aerobatic training aircraft in the world. Along the way Curtis designed a monoplane racer in 1949, and other craft, mostly aerobatic biplanes, around different engines, such as the S-1-11 using the 300 HP Lycoming. In 1996, at age 80, Curtis got his hands on an aerobatic Russian radial engine from a Sukhoi (probably the best engine in the world for an aerobatic aircraft) and designed and built an appropriate-size Pitts biplane around it. This is the Pitts Model 12, his twelfth design, which I think of as a modern Samson. It uses everything Curtis has learned in the last fifty years about building aerobatic biplanes. As before, folks are buying plans to build it themselves, and over 200 are under construction with about fifteen flying so far. Go here to the Kimball website if you’re interested, or want to have them build a Model 12 for you. I had the Kimballs build one for me in 2001. It is the best airplane I have ever flown. It goes vertical like a rocket. Dad would have loved it. Curtis Pitts is long retired from crop dusting but he's still doing design work out of his skunk works in Homestead, Florida. The short man who has cast such a long shadow over the world of aviation will be 88 on December 9, as he was born twenty days before my late father. I can't wait to see the next design that comes out of the master's shop. John Ross 8/4/03
Note: Curtis Pitts died in 2005, age 90.
Appleton, WI
A bit off topic, but I wonder what will happen when the FAA shuts down the tower at Wittman Airport? I've been seeing it on the local news here lately. Does it mean that the airport will no longer service planes? Maybe it will be more like a self-service landing? My wife and I have been kicking around the idea of swapping our house with someone coming in for EAA as a vacation of sorts. With the lack of hotels in the area, it seems many people do this as a way to go somewhere on vaca without having to shell out for a hotel.