| Now and then ... Curtis in 1990 and 1945. |
The day didn't look very promising. Low clouds, with a few rain showers, the leftovers of a tropical storm that had fizzled out in the Gulf of Mexico. It was still VFR, but it wasn't the kind of day you'd pick to go on a long VFR cross-country. At least the air was smooth, just right for a first flight.
The little biplane taxied quickly down the runway, made a quick 180 and, as it lined up with runway 13, full throttle was given to the 65 horse Lycoming. After what seemed like hardly any run at all, it was airborne. The little biplane's behavior was checked out. It was well mannered and quick on the controls, as are all of the later versions of the design. The aviator brought the plane in for a quick, smooth landing, splashing through the puddles left on the runway from the recent rains. The escort plane's pilot and that of the little biplane traded places. Another short ground run, and the biplane was off again with someone else to savor the excitement of an airplane's maiden voyages. After another short flight, the little biplane taxied in, with both the pilots and the people who had witnessed the flights all smiles. "Whatcha think, Carl?", "How's she handle, Budd?" were the questions of the day. Both pilots had the smiles that everybody expected. All expected that reaction, because all knew that the little biplane was the product of Curtis Pitts' fertile mind.
The little biplane is a Pitts S-1, a replica of the first Pitts Special made in 1945. Built in 1990 in honor of Curtis' 75th birthday and the 45th anniversary of the construction of the first S-1, the little biplane and the original No. 8 racer, "Lil Monster", would share the spotlight with Curtis at a celebration of his birthday.
Curtis Pitts designed the biplane to satisfy a personal itch - he wanted to fly aerobatics, but at that time, most of the planes that had any decent aerobatic capabilities were well beyond his budget. He came to want something like the little biplane in the same way that most of us have - he grew up loving airplanes!
After he lost his mother, and then his father before he was a teenager, Curtis went to live with his uncle in Americus, Georgia. There was an old World War I Army Air Corps training field, and along with a few hangars and warehouses that were falling down, there was a surplus dealer on the airport. Curtis used to walk out to the field and sweep the hangars or wash up tools for a mechanic, anything so he could sit in the plane that was in the hangar, pretending to fly. "I about wore the controls out on some of 'em!" Curtis recalled.
In 1932, while in high school, Curtis designed and built his first airplane, a high wing parasol powered by a Model-T engine that proved to be not very aerodynamically inclined. As Curtis tried to teach himself to fly in the Air Camper look-alike, a few hops ensued, and then one day he tangled with a crosswind. The crosswind won. Curtis sold the remains for the princely sum of six dollars!
Curtis left Americus for Ocala, Florida, and picked up work as a railroad carpenter. It was here, in 1933, that he "formalized" his flight instruction by soloing a Taylor E-2 Cub. He then moved on to Jacksonville, Florida. While living there, a friend invited Curtis out to his home west of Jacksonville, in the town of Baldwin. Curtis had been set up - but evidently he didn't mind too much for that was where he would meet the young lady who caught his fancy - Willie Mae Lord. Willie Mae has proved to be Curtis' stabilizer as they have enjoyed their life together, and Curtis has always been thankful for her love and support.
A couple of years after moving to Jacksonville, Curtis put together an airplane that was basically a Heath Parasol. It too caused a few body parts to ache. As Curtis tells the story "several years later, I came across a Heath fuselage and a B4 Heath engine, and I built an airplane around that. I don't really know what happened to it; I sold it to a kid up near Jacksonville, Florida. It was basically a Heath. I overhauled that Heath engine and I did too good a job on it, I guess; I got the clearances a little too close in it. I took off in that dude. It was slow getting off and I had to coax it off the ground - right alongside a highway. I finally got up about a hundred feet, I guess, and that thing begin to slow down, slow down, slow down. And I realized I was coming out of the air right away so I slid over the highway and landed on the highway. No problem. But they had this culvert running under the highway with these concrete abutments. The wing struts caught on one side of that. It slammed it around and bang! Bent it up pretty good; didn't hurt me at all. But I got out and I looked at the thing and I didn't know what the hell to do; I didn't know whether to cuss, fight or cry or what! So I just hauled off and kicked it in the side! A little piece of tubing that was bent, was broken. I caught that on my shin; I've still got a scar on my shin to this day! I used to be kinda rowdy. I'd get upset and fight in a damn minute when I was a kid. I took it out on the damn airplane, and it won!"
| Carl Pascarell peeks over the top wing of the Pitts S-1 replica, and Eliot Cross is tucked in close with the No. 8 racer, Lil' Monster. |
After he finished high school, Curtis took a correspondence course in mechanical engineering from ICS in 1937. It was the last "formal" education he would pursue, but not the last time that he would have access to the world of academics, as we will see later. During the Second World War, Curtis was offered a job at the Jacksonville Naval Air Station as an inspector. The job paid better than his current one, so he took it and was adding to his aircraft mechanical experience as he worked. There was at least one other benefit from his days spent as an inspector at NAS Jacksonville - Curtis would meet Phil Quigley, and the two would eventually become best friends. Nobody would have guessed it after their first meeting though "I was out doing inspection there one night for the welding shop, and Quigley comes over to my inspection station with an exhaust collector ring, all strung up on wire and ready to send it over to get it blasted. When he walked up, I spotted a crack in that damn thing almost as long as your finger. He had it all strung up. He hated inspectors; boy, he hated inspectors! He says, 'Put your !*!*$&* stamp on the end of it!' I said, I ain't putting no stamp on that!' 'Why?' he yelled. I said, 'Lookit all these cracks!' And I just turned around and left him! There was a big old Swede running the welding shop. Quigley went over and really bent his ear about that !&%*! inspector not stamping that exhaust. I saw him and Swede coming. Quigley a little bitty guy; Swede a great big guy following along behind - chop, chop, chop. You could hear that Swede bellowing for a half mile, he was so mad! 'Put your !&'$! stamp on this, we got to move these out of here!' I said to the Swede, 'Jack, have you looked at those things?' 'No!' he replied. 'Well, damn it, look at 'em before you start yelling!' He turned around; he snatched it up and the first thing he saw was that big crack. He got off of me and got on poor old Quigley. I mean, he gave him a new one! I got along with both of 'em pretty well after that. Quigley wouldn't talk to me for awhile but then he got over it. He came by the house one afternoon after we'd kissed and made up, found out I was building that airplane and got real interested. He'd stop by every day and help with whatever he could. He asked me, 'What is this? What we gotta do here?' I said, 'Well, I got to make all these fittings.' He said, 'Hell, I can do that! Give me your drawings.' So I had drawings made on 8-1/2 x 11 paper - just pencil drawings - and I sorted through them and gave him handful of those drawings, and about three days later, he showed up with a sackful of fittings, all sand blasted, cad plated, and bent perfect! Absolutely beautiful; you wouldn't believe it. And every one of 'em fit!"
Curtis and Quigley spent a little less than a year building the little biplane, but when it came to getting it licensed the process seemed a bit more complicated. The CAA inspectors looked at the airplane at least twice without saying a word to Curtis. They'd just close their briefcases and leave. By the third time, Curtis was boiling over! He waited about five minutes after they left. Then he fired up the 55 hp Lycoming and went flying. After he landed, a friend of his asked him, "You got your license today, huh?" "No," Curtis replied, "they went home without giving it to me!" Curtis' friend went on to tell him that the CAA inspectors had just gone down the road a bit and hid in some pine trees to see if anything would happen. Curtis didn't hear anything more about it. The next week, the CAA inspectors came out for their regular visit and, much to Curtis' relief, had the license already written out! He could now fly the airplane legally, although it was originally restricted to a 10 mile radius of his home airport.
Engineering the biplane was a challenge, but with the experience he gained as an inspector, and his natural mechanical intuition that had been developed by all his exposure to the different types of airplanes that came through the Naval Air Station, Curtis felt he could build what he wanted. "When you don't know any better, you can do a lot of things," he would recall later. As he worked on later refinements of the design, including the development of the symmetrical wing, he would pick the brains of Professor Thompson at the University of Florida to help verify the things he wanted to do with the design.
The little biplane stayed with Curtis and Phil Quigley a little less than a year. Curtis had gotten a 90 horse Franklin for the S-1 on credit from a friend, and the friend was hounding him for the money. When the opportunity came to sell the airplane, he really didn't want to sell it, but circumstances being what they were, he agreed. "Actually, I had it out on the ramp one day there at the little grass airport and this old crop duster came through with his fleet of airplanes on the way to Camden, South Carolina which was his home base, and he saw that little airplane there. He was deaf; oh, boy was he was deaf! But he had to have that airplane. We stood right there by the airplane and haggled until he bought it, standing right by it. He didn't have all the money. He gave me $2000, and he gave me a mortgage on two duster airplanes he had to secure the balance. Well, I figured I was in pretty safe condition then. We made the deal and I sent him on his way. About two weeks later, he called me up and told me he'd creamed it the day before! I said, 'Did you get hurt?' 'No.' He still owed me the money and I jumped in an old Fairchild and flew up there to see how I was going to come out on the deal!" Once there, Curtis got the entire story. "He was showing off to some of his crop duster pals. He buzzed down over this potato field and rolled it over on it's back. He expected it to run; it had run every time before but that darn fuel valve hung up and it didn't run so he pulled it through and came around. He got around the curve; he had it a little nose high but he hit the ground anyhow and cartwheeled it. So I flew up there and that little airplane - you could of piled every bit of it on a desk with no problem. I mean, he had scrambled it. He agreed that he'd finish paying it off with no problem."
Later in 1945, Curtis and Willie Mae moved to Gainesville, Florida where Curtis teamed up with Carl Stengel to start building 10 copies of the Pitts S-1. Unfortunately, what both Curtis and Carl didn't know was that Carl was broke, and when it came time for the 85 horse Continental to be delivered, there was no cash in the till to cover the cost! Carl was finally able to come up with the money. At the same time, Curtis became the owner of Stengel's Flying Service! The uncompleted Pitts Special came along with the deal. The airplane that the aviation world would come to know as "Little Stinker" was a bit different than the first S-1. The wings were about 9 inches longer, and the fuselage had been beefed up and deepened. Curtis and Carl didn't complete the rest of the first batch. About six months later, at the All American Air Maneuvers in Miami, a young lady who was about to stand the airshow community on it's collective ear saw the S-1 for the first time. Betty Skelton knew that she had to have that little airplane! She worked her way through the crowd and asked Phil Quigley and Curtis if she could sit in the plane. "No," was the simple reply. Betty turned around and walked away, but she knew sooner or later that she would have that plane. This second Pitts Special was first sold to Jess Bristow for use in his airshows. Jess hired Phil Quigley to fly the airplane for two seasons, where his prowess with the Pitts earned both him and the plane national recognition. Then, in 1947, Betty Skelton finally was able to get her hands on the airplane. She had the registration changed to N22E and christened the airplane "Little Stinker". She went on to international fame as the reigning Women's National Champion during the late 1940's, and created an international sensation when she and "Little Stinker" went to England and Ireland for the International Air Pageant and Royal Air Derby.
It would not be until 1949 before there would be another Pitts Special biplane. During all of this time, Curtis was very busy keeping his growing family supported, by doing just about every job you can think of in post-war civilian aviation - on the go from 4 in the morning to 10 at night, running a mechanics' school, a repair station, his small grass airport at Gainesville and during all of this he would be crop dusting all over the southeast U.S.! Curtis, believe it or not, still found time to build another airplane - this time though, he had caught the racing bug. His first racer, No. 21, was built in 1947, would be known as the "Pitts Pellet". Phil Quigley and Bud Heisel flew the racer in some of the midget races held that year. A second racer was started, but was halted for almost a year after the death of Bud in the No. 21 racer. On April 24, 1949, during the San Diego Gold Cup race, Bud and the "Pellet" were caught in the propwash of another racer, a high speed stall ensued and the subsequent crash would cost Bud his life. Veteran racer Art Chester was killed during the next heat of the same race, apparently of the same cause. Bud and Art's deaths would be the first two ever in the history of midget racing. Eventually, the No. 8 racer was completed, dubbed the "Lil Monster", and Phil once again was flying the race circuit. Curtis then asked racing pilot Bill Brennand to fly the No. 8. The red and cream racer seemed to handle well, but constant engine problems would not allow the racer to finish well. This would be the last racer Curtis would ever build. In the early 1950's the No. 8 racer was sold.
By 1949, the word was out... if you wanted an airplane for aerobatic competition, go see Curtis. That's just what Caro Bailey did. Caro worked for Jess Bristow as an airshow pilot, flying among other things, a Jet Assisted Take Off (JATO) North American SNJ, and a clipped-wing Cub. Caro became interested in competition aerobatics, and when she saw Betty Skelton's "Little Stinker", she knew that it was the plane to have. Curtis built the 3rd Pitts Special with a 125 hp Lycoming in 1949.
As airshow activity took a downturn during the '50s, Curtis did not build another Pitts Special for almost 10 years. During that time frame, the noisy brute of an airplane known around the airshow circuit as "Samson" was built for Jess Bristow. (Regulars at EAA OSHKOSH during the past few years will remember Steve Wolf's replica of Samson flown during the afternoon airshows.)
But the Pitts Special was far from forgotten. Jim Meeks, a duster pilot for Curtis, pestered him to make plans available. Billy Williams from Tulsa, Oklahoma also joined in the chorus at about the same time. Bill took his plans back home to Tulsa, where he eventually sold the project to Dean Case. Dean completed the Pitts and, with the name "Joy's Toy" on the cowl, it was flown at various airshows by Dean's daughter Joyce. Jim Meeks finished his project with the help of Phil Quigley and Perry Boswell. When completed, "Mr. Muscles" had an engine that had 3 times the power than that of the first S-1 - a whopping 170 horsepower! These two airplanes would be the only two Pitts Specials built during the 1950's. After Curtis moved his operation to Homestead, Florida in 1955, Bill Dodd began to work on Curtis for a set of drawings, as did Pat Ledford. Pat's Pitts, N8L, became the airplane that finally refined the plans into something that someone with the right motivation could work from.
In 1962, the drawings were made available to the early homebuilding community. The rest, as the cliche says, is history. From that point on, Curtis began to refine and tune his design, expanding it to the 2-place Pitts S-2, designing the symmetrical wing, and adding 2 more ailerons for an even faster rate of roll. The 4-aileron, symmetrical wing project would take almost 7 years of painstaking work to perfect. In 1966, Curtis sold his crop dusting business to devote all of his time to working on what was becoming the premier aerobatic mount - the Pitts Special. In 1969, the arrangements would be made to have the Pitts Specials certified and produced as complete airplanes, the first sport biplanes certified for production by the FAA (then the CAA) since the 1930's! As of November 1, 1990, a total of 125 Pitts S-1 Specials and 502 Pitts S-2's have been produced, and continue to be produced from the Afton, Wyoming factory at a rate of 2 airplanes per month. In addition, hundreds of Pitts Specials have been made in homebuilder's workshops around the world, built by people who shared Curtis' dream of a good performing aerobatic airplane that wouldn't break the bank at Monte Carlo when the final bill had to be paid.
The weather was gloomy to start with, but the people didn't care - they came anyway. They came to see an old friend, a friend even if they had not yet met him (ace to face. He had designed their favorite airplane, and they wanted to show their appreciation. They flew their Pitts Specials, not the most comfortable of cross country airplanes, from as far away as Wisconsin, Washington and Pennsylvania, and as many places in between as the crummy weather that plagued the southeast would allow. They came from as far away as Clark Air Force Base in the Philippines, as had Craig Teft. When the final totals were in, an estimated 55 Pitts Specials had come with their owners to pay homage to the man of the day, Curtis Pitts. According to the phone calls received at Aero Sport, even more pilots and their Pitts Specials had been blocked from coming by the poor weather. Enough people to fill a large ballroom, and then some, came by car, commercial airline or private aircraft to be there. It would soon be Curtis' 75th birthday (his actual birthday is December 9th) and it was also the 45th anniversary of the construction of the first S-1 Pitts Special. The centerpieces of the celebration were the replica of the S-1 (see accompanying story) and the original No. 8 racer "Lil Monster". Jim Clevenger and Budd Davisson had bought the racer from the estate of an old friend of Budd's. Jim and his son Mike put out an extraordinary effort to inspect and recover the racer in time to be included in the festivities.
| Budd Davisson and Curtis Pitts share a moment during the evening festivities. |
The day ended with a big banquet and a few comments from some of Curtis' friends, as well as the guest of honor himself. One of the fund raising efforts that took place during the day was a 'Guess the Empty Weight' contest. Lou Paparazo of Pottstown, Pennsylvania, guessed 507 pounds and won the pot of money, which he immediately returned to Budd Davisson as his contribution to the cause. Tributes came from friends such as Jim Holland, who gave the crowd a glimpse of his musical abilities when he sang a song he wrote about Curtis and his airplane. Jim's song had the crowd in stitches!
The reasons why everybody came were as varied as the number of color schemes seem on the ramp that day. Budd Davisson, was the primary organizer, his appreciation of the work that Curtis Pitts has done was limitless. Paraphrasing Budd's comments, he pointed out that he felt one of the main reasons he was still sane after life's ups and downs was his Pitts S-2, and the freedom it gave him. Carl Pascarell's appreciation was on both a technical and a personal level. Carl has coined the term 'dense' as it applies to the Pitts Specials. Carl says it feels 'dense' when it flies, as though the air were as thick as cold molasses. When you want it to move, you just move the stick and bam!, right now, something happens! Even a ham-fisted novice aerobatic pilot like myself can appreciate that definition of the airplane. Most feel very strongly about the airplanes they own, and will give long odds that they will own the airplanes for the rest of their lives.
Perhaps Betty Skelton, a long time friend of Curtis and Willie Mae, said it best when she reminded us later of the lyrics of a current popular song, The Wind Beneath My Wings - that Curtis' efforts have been the wind beneath the wings of people all over the world who wanted an great performing aerobatic airplane.
The S-1 Replica
Pilots, as a rule, don't need much of an excuse to throw a party, but this time, Budd Davisson, Carl Pascarell and Jim Moser had a whopper of a reason - Curtis Pitts would be 75 years young this year! The original idea for the party began with Budd. As he was working out in his Pitts S-2A one morning back in April, the idea hit him. He raced his Pitts back into the pattern and got on the phone as fast as he could with Carl Pascarell (known to members who attended EAA OSHKOSH '90 as the pilot of Jim Clevenger's Wedell-Williams racer replica) and Jim Moser of Aero Sport in St. Augustine. Both were equally enthusiastic about the idea. As Budd explained at the party, "There's too many times in our life when we wait until it's too late to say thank youl" This time, Budd was determined to make sure the thank you's were said well ahead of time. Later that week, on a Saturday, the 17th, Budd was working in his workshop when the thought hit him square between the eyes - "Let's build a replica!" Another phone call down to St. Augustine set the wheels in motion. With a shade over 5 months to go, they thought they'd have to beat some folks to death to get it done, but they were sure it could be accomplished. Phone calls went out all over the country - to Aircraft Spruce in California for materials, to Ken Brock for help in fabricating the fittings, and Univair in Colorado for a nose bowl along with the wheels and brakes. Bill Shatt supplied the team with a propeller, and the kind folks at Sensenich refinished it. Charlie Vogelsong at Dillberg Aeroplane supplied the steel tubing needed, and a call to Jay Wickham at Mattituck got the promise to overhaul the 65 horse Lycoming. Jay's response was like everyone else's that Budd contacted to help in the project - "Sure, when do you need it?" When the team was getting close to the end and it looked as though the covering would be delayed, Ken Cooper at Superflight bent over backwards to make sure that all the covering supplies needed were there when required.
Getting nuts and bolts for a project like this is one thing, but you need experienced, working hands to help put all this together into an airplane. The men who hung out at St. Augustine had been involved in local aviation and were capable, and the best part was they were retired and could spend the time needed to complete the project. AI Crichton and Jim Stevens, both of the local St. Augustine area, were the primary constructors of the replica - for the most part, Jim built the wings single handedly, and estimates he put in over 750 hours alone in the project over the 5 months it took to build. Jim, a native of Long Island, has built a couple of Pitts Specials prior to working on the S-1. AI claimed that his primary function was to supply the beer, but his friends recalled that he did all the sheet metal work, fitting the sheet metal components as they became available, including the modification of the 1940 Taylorcraft nosebowl. They were assisted by Carl Pascarell, David Beck and Gil Halles. Rich Bastian in Burns, Wyoming was contacted to weld up the fuselage. Well known within aerobatic circles for his work, Rich was touched that the request would come to him. His response was simple and to the point "Yea, I'll do it - I'll do it for Curtis." He volunteered to weld it up for nothing. Being out on the end of both the supply and communication lines created some problems. When a FAX (the primary means of communication during the program, followed close behind by the Federal Express man!) of a drawing or instruction had to be sent to Rich, the only machine in town was in the local library, which was closed for lunch for an hour at midday. A call also had to be made to the librarian, to let her know that the FAX was coming, so she could hook up the machine! All the obstacles were overcome, and Rich completed the fuselage, landing gear and tail feathers and had them ready to ship by.
| Long-time friends Betty Skelton-Frankman and Curtis Pitts share a few moments on the flight line. |
At first, it was expected that a set of Pitts S-1 C plans would be modified and used to build the replica. But before that finally became necessary. Curtis ran across the original plans for the second Pitts Special ever built, "Little Stinker". The find was quite a surprise for Curtis, who thought they had been lost in a hangar fire years ago. Armed with those plans and some other data, along with his sharp memory, Curtis drew up a new set of plans that could be used to construct the replica. Two weeks after the project idea had germinated, Curtis had the wing drawings done. "The man's a bulldog. Once he gets his teeth into something, he just goes after it!" was the sentiment expressed to me time and time again during the birthday/ anniversary celebration.
With Budd in charge of the logistics for getting the project organized, he had set himself up with quite a problem. One of the toughest nuts to crack was locating a pair of 700x4 tires. They were essential to maintaining the look of the replica, looking all the world like an overgrown pair of Trexler Balloon model airplane tires. A few notes were placed in the Hot Line section of SPORT AVIATION, and Budd was able to gather in one good tire from a friend of his mechanic, Pete Clinton. That left him one tire short. Having long understood the phrase "it pays to advertise", Budd walked around EAA OSHKOSH '90 wearing a T-shirt that read NEED 700x4 TIRE. The first day at EAA OSHKOSH, he spotted a Piper J-2 owned by a big guy named Steve Bolan from Arizona. Steve thought he might have a tire, and sure enough, after he returned home, he called Budd with the good news - "I've got the tire!". With that, one more sticky problem was solved.
Once the fuselage arrived in St. Augustine, the project began to come together. The wings were trial fitted to the fuselage during the last week of July, and fit perfectly! Parts were fabricated and the details began to be picked off, one by one as the team pushed to be done by the middle of September. By the 17th, 5 months to the day that the project idea had hatched, the little Pitts S-1 Special was completed and looked as though it was ready to fly. As usually happens with a project that has a deadline, a few problems kept that first flight just beyond their fingertips. A brake problem had everybody stymied. Once again, a volunteer stepped forward to lend a helping hand. Jay Vieaux and his wife Dee, from Park Forest, Illinois, were down early to attend the party for Curtis. Jay is an outstanding mechanic for Amoco Oil, and has built a couple of Cassutt racers. He spent the better part of two long days troubleshooting the brakes, and then an engine crossfiring problem. Jay's presence must have been ordained, for just when they needed the help, there he was to lend his expertise. He solved both problems in time to allow the first flight of the airplane bright and early Saturday morning, the 29th of September, the day the birthday celebration was held! Carl Pascarell had the honor of the first flight, with Budd Davisson and Jim Clevenger in the Citabria chase plane. Budd then flew the little biplane for its second flight. Both expected a bit more of a challenge from the airplane, but it turned out to be a pussycat. "It handles like a C-90 clipped-wing Cub," Budd would say later. One of the other nice surprises from the plane was its performance, both in climb and cruise.
Budd also expressed his appreciation for the support by the staff at Aero Sport of St. Augustine Airport, and in particular his friend Jim Moser. Aero Sport has been a leader in the sport aviation world since it was founded by Jim's father Ernie after WW II. All of the activity on the airport that relates to sport aviation can be traced back to the enthusiasm and drive of Ernie Moser. Jim lost his father about a year ago. Ernie was active right up to his last day at the office, when he passed away while reading SPORT AVIATION. St. Augustine is a hotbed of aerobatic activity, with world-class instructors such as Jim Holland's Aerobatic School. One of Jim's latest pupils is Ellen Dean, a current member of the U. S. Aerobatic Team that competed this past summer in the World Aerobatic Championships. Currently on the road to recovery from a stroke, Jim was a contemporary of Curtis Pitts and was one of the early flyers of the Pitts S-2, expanding the aerobatic envelope of the plane with his renowned aerobatic style.