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ABSTRACT:     Conversations with prominent homebuilt aircraft designers Curtis Pitts, John Dyke, Ray Stits, and Lamar Steen at Oshkosh 1987. Interesting observations on the direction of sport aviation and aircraft design.
Pioneer Designers
Perspectives On The Homebuilt Movement
 
(From Sport Aviation, 03/1988, Page 43)
 
By David A. Gustafson
Photography by David A. Gustafson

 
Homebuilts are still the centerpiece at Oshkosh and other EAA fly-ins around the country. They share the stage with a lot of different types of aircraft, but they are, nevertheless, a focal point for the sport aviation movement. Wherever they might appear, they have always, for the past three to four decades, attracted a lot of attention and stimulated many discussions.

What we actually see in the homebuilt arena can be attributed to the cleverness and resources of a few dozen people: the homebuilt aircraft designers. Their unique talents with drafting tools and torches, planers and hot wires becomes manifest every summer as colorful examples of their creative work fly in and tie down at sport aviation gatherings held all over the country - in increasing numbers.

True, there have been a few homebuilt concepts that caused more shaking heads than smiles; a few others that triggered reactions of awe or disbelief. The hundreds of other designs, in between the weird and the ugly, have fulfilled the dreams, wants and needs of thousands of pilot-builders who couldn't find satisfaction in the lines and performance of Cessna, Piper, et. al.

It's amazing how many prototypes show up once at an event like Oshkosh and are never seen again. Sometimes a few copies might be produced before the whole idea disappears. Looking at the pictorial record for Oshkosh '87 and comparing it to 25 or 30 years ago (when the fly-in was in Rockford), provides a fascinating study in contrasts. How tastes change... and styles... and construction materials!

Yet, some designs have passed through the silver anniversary stage and endure as familiar sights at the Convention. Some of the designers of those popular aircraft left the homebuilt movement years ago, but a good number are still active in EAA and quite a few of them turned up last summer at Oshkosh. We were fortunate to encounter four of them on the flight line.

The four, some of whom were designing before EAA was created, have a unique historical perspective on the beginnings and present state of aircraft design. They were willing to share some of their memories and attitudes with us, providing some insightful comments on where we've been with homebuilts and where we seem to be headed.

A few points were common to all of them and would seem to represent the thinking of their comrades: none of them got rich for their work in design; when they created their first designs, none envisioned the size to which EAA would grow; none of them offer much encouragement to people who might be considering the development of new designs or kits as a career.

That doesn't mean they aren't enthusiastic about design. While they recognize that obstacles have materialized, they all feel that there are still some exciting possibilities for designing homebuilt aircraft.

Let's look closer at the reactions of four familiar veteran designers: Curtis Pitts, John Dyke, Ray Stits and Lamar Steen. Their attitudes are still as distinctive as their aircraft.

CURTIS PITTS

Curtis Pitts
Curtis Pitts

When the twentieth century is history and people look back to see who made significant contributions in sport aviation, Curtis Pitts has to be considered one of the true geniuses, one who's contribution touched the lives of thousands of people.

Right after the Convention this past summer, Curtis was inducted into the Aerobatics Hall of Fame. The honor was bestowed on him for his design of the Pitts Special, which dates all the way back to 1942! No other aircraft has ever been as successful in aerobatics. No other aerobatic aircraft has been flown in so many contests, by so many people. No other aerobatic design has been built so frequently, looped, rolled and spun so many times. Competition aerobatics in the U. S. and Europe has been built up around the Pitts Special. And after 43 years of refinements, it is still a major force in world contests.

Curtis described for me, in his slow southern drawl, eyes twinkling, how he got that first Pitts licensed by the FAA back in the '40s: "I had applied to the FAA for an experimental license for the first Special I built. They came out and looked at it two guys. They walked around it stiff legged, talked a lot, and went home without giving me a license on it and without giving me a reasonable excuse why they hadn't. They came out a second time, they looked at the airplane and they went home no license. The third time they did this, I was getting aggravated. I wanted to fly my airplane. So I gave them time to leave and when they were gone, I got in that dude and flew her around the patch a few times. By the time I landed, I taxied over and a friend of mine drove up. He said, 'Did you get the license?' I said, 'Naw, they went home without licensing it again.' He says, 'Boy, you're in trouble.' I asked, 'Whatta you mean I'm in trouble?' 'Well, they been sittin' down there around the corner watchin' you.' That scared the hell out of me. I just knew, there goes my license I'm in trouble deep trouble. Funny though, next time they came out to the airport they said, 'Let's have another look at that airplane.' So they went over, walked around stiff legged. Turns out they already had the airworthiness certificate made out. They gave it to me and went on their way."

That marked the official beginning of the Pitts Special.

I asked Curtis to set aside his famous airplane for a minute and share his thoughts about other designs on Wittman Field that day. He smiled, rubbed his hands together and said slowly, "Well, for cross country flying, some of these little plastic airplanes are really impressive. They've got those Glasairs going like a scalded dog, now. For a fun airplane for just flying around the patch, some of these little light planes might do. I'm impressed with this little Hyperbipe that should be a fun airplane for just flying around. It should be pretty nice for cross country. For aerobatic airplanes there are several out there the Lasers and Extras those two come to mind as being the top runners in that category."

Lasers and Extras are monoplanes. The single wingers are getting more popular in the World Aerobatic Championships and have been creeping steadily into aerobatic flying in this country. I asked Curtis for his opinion of monoplanes for aerobatics.

"I think there's merit in the concept. Actually, I think if a pilot were to go out and work equally hard in both airplanes, he could do as well in both. I just don't think you need all the performance that we're getting out of these airplanes today to do the maneuvers sufficiently to get a good grade on them. I have always felt that if we could design an airplane so that you could do any maneuver in the book, nicely, at a 150 mph entry speed, that we'd have an ideal airplane for this competition flying. It'd be easier to stay in the box; it wouldn't be as rough on the pilot; you'd have a little more time to anticipate things that are coming I just think you could do a prettier job of it all the way around.

"As far as the monoplane versus the biplane, I think it's mostly a fad. You know, nobody liked my little airplane when we started with it in competition... everybody was running it down. Then all of a sudden, a few people had some tremendous successes with it. The attitude changed overnight: 'If you want to be a success in this business, you got to have one of them little pot-bellied biplanes.' Now Leo (Loudenslager) has had so much success with the Laser that the fad has kind of shirted again if you're going to get anywhere in this business, you've got to have a monoplane.

"It is true that the judges are partial to a monoplane. I don't feel that the judges should be grading airplane performance in these contests, I feel they should be judging pilot skills. I disagree on grading a fellow on how long his vertical line is."

We shifted over to talking about new designers coming into the sport plane design field. "Any advice?" sez I. "I'd tell 'em, if their heart wasn't in it, stay away from it. The money's not there." Recognizing, however, that there are probably some potential designers out there who are as willing to overlook monetary reward as Curtis was, he suggested: "Set your standards for what you want to do and pursue it until you accomplish it if you just gotta do it."

We went back to the Pitts and I asked him if there was still room for improvements on the design. "That airplane could be cleaned up a bit. At this stage of the game, it's getting just a bit heavier and I think it could use a bit more wing to compensate for that. I don't know if they need any change in the controls or not. Everybody seems to be hung up on fast roll rate these days. Most of them who are hung up on it, have more roll rate than they need to do the job."

Curtis' visit to Oshkosh this past summer was his first in seven years. He was a little surprised and quite pleased to see how many people were genuinely excited to have the opportunity to meet him, shake his hand, say thanks and ask for his autograph. You could see the admiration on people's faces as they exchanged a few comments with the man who has shaped modern aerobatic competition in the United States. It was obvious that Curtis enjoyed it.

JOHN DYKE

It's hard to believe that a design as radical looking as the Dyke Delta can be 25 years old already, but it's true. John's flying wing, or flying triangle, is almost taken for granted today, but when you realize it flew the same year that the Fly Baby won a design competition, you can appreciate how downright futuristic it was back in July of 1962.

John and Jenny Dyke
John and Jenny Dyke

What few people realize is that back in 1960, when John began working on the Delta, he started out by creating a fiberglass on foam wing. The FAA was having enough trouble trying to comprehend the unusual configuration of the aircraft, so that the suggestion of working with a kind of early composite construction technique threw them off completely. "So I went back to normal steel tubing which we all knew a lot about and had a lot of engineering information available on it." John did hold fast, however, to his plan to use fiberglass skins. "That was a brand new departure, because nobody had ever done that before. And it worked out real well. It's just simple construction that's real effective." Time has born him out on that: he's still flying the prototype with the skins he riveted on over 25 years ago. Control surfaces and the rudder on the Delta are fabric covered, and those have been refurbished. John may have been one of the first designer/ builders to use Dacron, although it was very different 25 years ago from what is used for airplane coverings today.

When John flew his Delta into Rockford '63 (he wasn't ready for a public unveiling in '62), EAA President Paul Poberezny met him out at the runway and was, according to John, genuinely astonished by the shape of the aircraft. "We were later swamped by people wanting information, taking pictures, asking questions," recalls John.

He won the outstanding new design award that year and found out later that conservative elements in the judging circle had argued hotly against giving the award to such a strange design.

John is a quiet type person, soft spoken, even gentle. His slightly raspy voice tends to lull the listener. Even so, he reveals a tremendous intensity when he talks about aviation. Though I'd never met John before our interview, he was the kind of person you sit down with and quickly feel like you've known for years. His dedication to the homebuilt movement is summed up in the fact that he's been at the last 30 annual EAA Fly-Ins. In recent years, he's come in a camper and left his prototype at home.

Though most of our discussion centered on design, he started off with a few remarks about the Convention that was all around us: "I've seen this Convention develop from 12 to 14 homebuilts to what it is today. Back in the Rockford days, up through '69, we could go out and fly in the evening and have a ball. I remember flying with Ed Lesher and Molt Taylor. I even remember when Molt came in with his Aerocar and we folded it up and drove downtown. And then we'd sit around and talk a lot. Of course, the scale of the Convention was much smaller and everybody knew one another." John, along with the other designers, has a fondness for the past. for the closeness that existed in those pioneering days. A lot of that closeness is still there, of course, in spite of the enormous size that now typifies Oshkosh. There are private parties nearly every night of the Convention, where the builders and designers of some particular type, like the T-40, Steen Skybolt or Bowers' Fly Baby, go off for pizza and war stories.

John turned his attention from the good old days to the newer concepts and materials he sees now on the flight line at Oshkosh and at other sport aviation events. He cited several exciting designs that make good use of composites and achieve pleasing lines.

At the same time, however, he cautioned that some of the procedures for creating certain types of the composite aircraft left a lot to be desired in crashworthiness. "I don't agree with the way some of the designs are shaped out of molded fiberglass. When they do crash, they just open up like a can and spew parts all over the countryside. I talked with some aviation safety people about that kind of thing, what we call the eggshell theory, and feel that some composite structures are bad for that. There are some other established designers who agree with me on this point. On the other hand, I suppose we have to look back and accept that we're just old fashioned... maybe."

John feels that most of the composite aircraft kits are not for the kinds of homebuilders he's known in his life. "The costs associated with composites are just too high for most people."

He does respect the types of aircraft that use a steel tube fuselage structure inside fiberglass forms. "The steel frame gives a lot more protection in a crash than a simple foam. It's the angle I would have taken originally if I was going into offering molded skins or turtlebacks. I would still retain the original backbone of the airplane. I feel very strongly about that."

John noted that the technology of aircraft design and construction is changing rapidly right now. Anyone thinking of going into the field of aircraft design would have to do a lot of study and research to come up to speed on where the current thinking is and what the new possibilities are especially if they are interested in breaking new ground. "You kinda get a concept nailed down and pick up as much knowledge as possible about that particular design method and then move quickly. It's almost reached the point that if you come up with a new design and take three to five years to develop and refine it, you're liable to be left out in the cold because someone else will get in there first with the same idea."

Looking back at the past decade, John pointed to the rapid development of composites. Starting with the VariEze twelve years ago, the field has seen a whole slate of new concepts developed as follow-ups or variations on the theme.

"One piece of advice I'd give to a new designer is to learn as much as you can about the new kinds of materials and get a feel for what the trend is. Anymore, you've almost got to do a market study, find out what people are wanting. It seems that right now everyone is wanting some kind of futuristic, plastic airplane that you can just bolt together.

"In addition to being a designer today, you have to be a marketing specialist, a promoter just to design and build an airplane is a very small part of the business. You can't just surround yourself with technology and design; there have to be other people, an organization of support staff. It's awful hard for a designer to have all the kinds of knowledge he needs to succeed in developing and marketing a new product. There's always a lot more than just designing the airplane if you want to try to make a living out of it. Getting into production, figuring out a marketing plan and keeping up with demand create problems that can be far more critical than sketching three-views or building prototypes."

We changed the subject to the number of Dyke Deltas out there today. John has sold nearly 400 sets of plans in 25 years and he said there are just over 40 airworthy copies of the airplane scattered round the world. "A lot of people ask: if so many are finished and flying, why don't we see more at the fly-in? Well, the criteria has been set for a 'show' aircraft. A lot of people feel that if they don't have a show aircraft, they shouldn't be here. One guy told me that 'I just enjoy flying my airplane and I don't want to be sitting up there next to somebody who's got a beautiful airplane.'

John feels the design for the Dyke Delta attracts people who are "very individualistic."

Though he's thought often about designing a new airplane, John's job as an engineer and other activities have prevented him from another intimate affair with a sketchpad. "Really, the technology is moving so fast that I wonder if I'd be left out if I selected something else and used new materials."

With John's loyalty to EAA and sport aviation, with his interest in testing new ideas and exploring new materials, it's unfortunate that he started and stopped his design career with the Delta, 25 years ago.

RAY STITS

Between 1948 and 1965, Ray Stits designed and built 15 sport aircraft. These included:

  • Stits Junior, world's smallest monoplane, 8' 10" span, 1948.
  • Stits Sky Baby, world's smallest biplane, 7' 2" span, 1951.
  • Stits Playboy, SA-3A, 2-3 place, 1952.
  • Stits-Besler Executive, folding wing, 1954.
  • Stits Playboy, 2-place, 1955.
  • Stits Flut-R-Bug, SA-5A, 1955.
  • Stits Flut-R-Bug, SA-5B, 1955.
  • Stits Flut-R-Bug, SA-6A, 2-place tandem, 1955.
  • Stits Flut-R-Bug, SA-6B, 2-place tandem, 1956.
  • Stits Flut-A-Bug, SA-6C, 2-place side by side, 1956.
  • Stits Skycoupe, 2-place, 1956.
  • Stits Skeeto, 265 pound ultralight, 1957.
  • Stits Skycoupe, SA-7B, 2-place, 1957.
  • Stits Skycoupe, SA-9A, 2-place, type certified, 1957-61.
  • Stits Playmate, 2/3-place, folding wing, 1963-65.

The first two designs Ray flew drew world attention, especially the Sky Baby. He found himself spending every weekend flying for newsreel cameras, science programs, magazines all freebies, none of them wanted to pay a dime. It was great promotion but you can't put promotion on a deposit slip bank won't take it." Ray backed off the miniature newsmaker and turned to the kinds of aircraft he could market. He was banging them out quickly.

By the mid-60s, people at Rockford were looking forward to the next Stits design like they were waiting for the next model Ford.

Ray Stits
Ray Stits

Today all of the plans for Ray's designs are off the market. The designs look a little like the cars from the golden age of automobiles (1948-1958). Aside from the first two airplanes, there wasn't really anything that could be labeled radical or particularly futuristic. They were solid designs that offset their kind of plain-Jane styling with functional simplicity. They were on the market back in the days when it was still possible to put an airframe together for considerably less than a thousand dollars.

Looking back, Ray recalled the day he first brought the Playboy out to FIaBob Airport. "In 1952, anything you built like that made you a kook. You're a strange guy if you build airplanes. A lot of people told me, 'You're crazy doing that'." Shortly after that Ray heard about a guy named Poberezny, in Milwaukee, who'd organized this group of people interested in the same kind of things Ray was already into. "I couldn't pronounce the name back then, but I was intrigued with what they were doing. Then a letter came in '53 from this Poberezny. It laid around the airport for about six weeks until someone brought it to me at my T-hangar across the road. 'There's a letter here for you, Ray, from some guy named Poohbaressney. Heads up this group called the Experimental Aircraft Association wants you to join.' That rang a bell. I'd already heard about it. Thought it was a good idea. I wrote back and suggested, 'How about having a west coast chapter?' I wasn't thinking about a chapter network - just a west coast chapter. Sent in my $5 with the letter and a few weeks later I got a set of by-laws and requirements for incorporating a chapter. I went out and recruited another 9 members from the area. If they didn't have the five bucks I loaned it to them."

EAA Chapter 1 first met at FlaBob Airport in early 1954. The idea quickly caught on and soon there were other chapters around the country.

Around 1964, Ray finished up the final drawings for the Playmate and that was the end of his complete aircraft designing phase. For another four years, he sold plans, parts and gave out advice to builders. But he began to realize that there was a lot of time involved and not much profit in the homebuilding business. At the same time he evolved into the development of aircraft covering materials and it wasn't long before that eclipsed the plans and hardware sales. The fabric business represented "a lot less headaches." By 1969, he'd taken all the plans off the market.

Since 1958, Ray has only missed four Annual EAA Conventions. He's impressed with the changes in materials that are available to designers and builders today. Rising prices in aircraft kits have also caught his eye. "These days you don't think twice about spending $5,000 to $6,000 for a kit. Back when I started that amount would have bought a home. $600 bought a good car.

"Yes, I've seen a lot of change. Each person builds on the other guy's experience. Nothing starts from scratch. The Wright brothers started it all, people built on them, we add on, we don't start like the Wright brothers did. It's going to continue this way.

"The air works the same, the molecules flow the same way; Mother Nature hasn't changed that, but we do better understand how the flow takes place. We have better engines, more horsepower, better fuel consumption, better cooling. We don't discover so much as we improve. "Some guys just copy. A good example of that is in the ultralight area where greed blew the movement up too big and it collapsed. The result was, a lot of manufacturers went bankrupt and took a lot of people's money with them."

We moved onto the subject of what's new and exciting. "I admire (Ed) Swearingen's efforts. He finally got the bug and got into homebuilts. He's free to do what he wants to do, to express himself.

"There's a lot of other talent out there, but quite a few people have gotten into trouble trying to calculate costs and production schedules. Some over-extend themselves in making promises of performance. A lot of them fail, not for a lack of technical knowledge, but for a lack of business sense. People need to get their projects done first and then brag about it. Don't go public before the machine is complete and flying.

"This business of designing new airplanes by computer is a whole new world. We didn't have that. I used a slip stick, a slide rule. That was the sign of an engineer back then. No computers.

"I don't have the energy any more to pursue it. It's gone way beyond what I can do. I see these young guys with the new technology, new materials; they mix them all up and create excitement. Burt Rutan has been the most advanced person we've got. Canards aren't new, but his thinking - it's uninhibited - and his drive are outstanding. But now he's slowing down, finding out you can't make any money with a hobby."

Ray insists that the real reason he got out of the design and kit business centers on time, not on liability.

For new designers he counsels, "Get a lot of ideas, do a lot of testing, don't get involved with partners, don't promise something you might not be able to deliver, don't extend yourself beyond your own financial means, don't get involved with a lot of promoters who want to put you on the stock market - I got approached for that many times. Beware of the fast-talking hustlers do it on your own and don't expect to get rich you won't.

"We're still a long way from the ultimate airplane. There's no all-purpose airplane. They have to be special purpose: cross country, aerobatic, whatever. All-purpose is no-purpose. You can't have an airplane that's good for long distances and comfortable and also good for aerobatics. I didn't know that when I started out.

"Everybody has an idea how an airplane should be built. You don't start taking sides just because you don't agree with what someone else is doing. Don't step on people's toes going up the ladder 'cause you may meet them coming down."

LAMAR STEEN

Lamar Steen
Lamar Steen

Compared to the other people described above, Lamar Steen is just a kid. His famous Skybolt design is a mere 19 years old. Lamar sold the production rights and plans some time ago and has never come out with another design. Like others, he found that the first design became such an attention-getter, and therefore, such a time-consuming project with a life of its own, that he never sat down to sketch out another. Lamar is a big fella, with a broad smile, a great sense of humor and undiminished enthusiasm for flying and what's currently happening in the sport aviation movement.

"I can't think right now of any airplane that shouldn't be built," he said, but conditioned his remark by adding that he isn't familiar with the design and testing background of everything at Oshkosh. "If it doesn't look safe, maybe it isn't... that's the rule of thumb."

Lamar places a lot of emphasis on testing. His Skybolt was extensively analyzed for stress and strength. He asked the FAA to look over his plans carefully, sandbagged the wings to their limits and let a troop of engineers have a field day with the drawings. He did his own test flights with the Skybolt and pushed the aircraft to its published limits before the FAA. He has strong feelings about providing adequate wing loading capability and redundancy in the structure to assure integrity.

Some of the homebuilt designs may have performance that goes beyond the piloting abilities of some builders. Lamar wonders if designers don't sometimes put too great a challenge before the public in the form of a kitplane. He feels that conceptually, the BD-5 is a great airplane, but wonders how many pilots could have handled it. "Swearingen's airplane is another: how many people are capable of handling that kind of an airplane with that kind of performance? Then, on the other hand, who can fly a Skybolt? . . . you can't pinpoint it." The designer has a responsiblity to provide a safe platform - "from there it's up to the pilot."

In the current spectrum of designs, excluding the Skybolt, Lamar says, "Right now, as far as a real fast, efficient cross-country airplane, the Glasair looks real good. The RV-4 looks like a good airplane."

For potential designers, Lamar suggests building several airplanes from existing plans and kits and doing the test flying so that it is possible to get a feel for structural problems, how things go together, what works, what doesn't. Taking some kind of design engineering course is also high on his list, as is a study of as many plans as possible and conversations with the designers wherever possible to determine why they did what they did as well as what they might change today.

When a designer decides to start working up sketches, it would be worthwhile to find another design that might have some similarities and find out what its safety record is, what its weaknesses might be. "Also you have to decide what kind of person you're designing for, what the purpose will be, what the risk factor will be as far as safety. You have to protect against people doing something in the form of a modification that could induce problems like, say, flutter." It's not possible to control some people from making changes to the design, but warnings about possible consequences from modifications are important. "You might want to talk to an attorney because of product liability and some of the large lawsuits that have come out. That's another consideration that raises the question as to whether it's realistic or feasible to even start a new design."

The problems in product liability have driven quite a few people out of the business. For the most part, product liability insurance is not available at any price, nor is defense insurance. Quite a few designers are ignoring insurance, keeping corporate assets to a minimum and making it clear that there's nothing to be gained by going after the corporation or its officers.

If he were to sit down and design again, Lamar says he would probably bring himself up to speed on composites and create an aircraft that utilizes carbon or boron fibers, foam and other exotics that offer excellent stress capacity for their weight.

The only problem with talking to four designers is that you wish you had time to talk to eight. The senior corps of homebuilt airplane creators is a colorful, engaging group of walking history books with memories, knowledge and opinions that we can all respect, admire and benefit from.

It takes a special talent and unique skills to formulate an aircraft design, convert the idea to a reality and then work out the kinks in flight tests. The products of the imaginations of men like Pitts, Dyke, Stits and Steen have become part of a sport aviation wave that more and more members of the non-flying public, all around the world, are coming to recognize and appreciate. Homebuilt aircraft designers have broadened horizons for us and enriched our aviation heritage.

For people with a desire to design in the sport plane field, there can be little doubt that a lot of information and ideas can be picked up by perusing back issues of SPORT AVIATION, Kitplanes and the no longer published Homebuilt Aircraft magazine. EAA also sells manuals and video tapes on the subject of aircraft design and, to say the least, the Oshkosh Convention provides an invaluable opportunity to learn more about design factors, talk to builder/ owner/pilots, attend a wide range of forums dealing with design considerations. After all that, bon chance.

If you have any additions or corrections to this item, please let us know.

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