(Part 1 of 2)
Read the second part of this series
LATE IN MARCH, I had the opportunity to attend an EAA Chapter Council Meeting at Iowa State University in Ames, Iowa. At the evening banquet, I showed the film "We Came To Win", which is a documentary on the United States victory at the 7th World Aerobatic Championships in Salon de Provence, France.
As many of you know, the U. S. Team had the good fortune of winning the lion's share of gold medals in addition to the Team and Individual Championships. I can attest to the fact that the U.S. Team practiced hard and was well prepared to defend its World Title. But while watching the film, I couldn't help but think that the United States had two additional weapons on its side. One was a tiny biplane capable of performing aerobatic maneuvers better than any other airplane of its type in existence. The other was a slow-talking, easy going gentleman with the wit and common sense of a Will Rogers and the tenacity of a bulldog.
| The two-place Pitts and an appreciative audience. Seated in the front cockpit is Budd Davisson with Bob Schnuerle in the rear "cabin". Left to right at the side of the airplane are Bob Herendeen, Tom Poberezny, Curtis Pitts and Gene Dearing. |
Throughout the film, you could see the tiny Pitts Specials and Pitts S-2A climbing, diving and twisting through the air... demonstrating the maneuvers that earned them championship grades. Midway through the film a taped interview with their famous designer went something like this:
"It's an old fashioned airplane, using the engineering knowledge that we've had since back in the mid 20's. We've tried to keep it light, and in doing this we've tried to keep it small. We've tried to keep a good horsepower-to-weight ratio. We've tried to keep it clean enough to where it didn't completely poop-out on the up-lines. And that's just about the substance of making a good aerobatic airplane."
Aviation has been an integral part of the history of Americus, Georgia, for it was the home of a primary training base in both WW I and WW II. Also, famous aviator Charles Lindbergh bought his first Jenny in Americus. But possibly its greatest claim to aviation fame is that it is the home of one of the most famous aircraft designers in the world today... Curtis Pitts.
Curtis, whose international recognition has grown by leaps and bounds, built his first airplane back in 1932. Guided by an old flying manual, he designed and built a parasol that was powered by a Model-T Ford engine, but, unfortunately, he never got to fly his first creation. (One reason was that he didn't have a pilots license!) While taxiing it on a gusty day, the wind caught the wing and caused it to cartwheel. After this incident, he sold the airplane for $6.00... "Cheapest plane sale I ever made, I reckon..."
After his "big sale", Curtis left Americus for Ocala, Florida where he took a job as a railroad carpenter. It was here that he learned to fly, soloing an E-2 Cub in 1933.
From Ocala, Curtis shifted over to Jacksonville, Florida where he worked for the railroad for 8 years. Jacksonville holds special memories for Curtis for two reasons. One was that it was in Jacksonville that he built his second airplane. It was another parasol, built from some old Heath parts he had collected. Powered by a 3 cylinder Szekely, it was "built up enough to make it fly".
Secondly, and most important of all, it was in Jacksonville that Curtis met his wife, Willie Mae. "Ma" Pitts has been the true driving force behind Curtis in his quest to design one of the world's finest aerobatic aircraft. When times were rough, she provided that extra "something" needed to make it through to brighter days. The saying goes, "Behind every successful man there is a good woman" -- how true that is in Curtis' case.
In 1940, Curtis left the railroad to work for a Navy aircraft repair shop. At the same time he took over the operation of the St. Augustine airport. Curtis loved to fly and he loved aerobatics, but the airplanes available were too big, too heavy and most important of all, too costly. All these factors combined got Curtis thinking about designing his own aerobatic airplane. With the help of a correspondence course and on-the-job training, he felt that he could develop an airplane that would fit his needs and desires.
It was at the Jacksonville Naval Air Station that Curtis met a man who was to have a lasting impression on him... Phil Quigley. Curtis, who was Assistant Inspector in the Aircraft and Repair Shop, had found a set of exhaust stacks on which all the cracks were not welded to his satisfaction. He promptly sent them back to the Weld Shop to have them redone. This brought about prompt action by a large Swede who, with the stacks slung over his shoulder, came to see Curtis to find out what the problem was. After a brief explanation, the Swede returned to the Weld Shop and commenced to "chew out" a young, thin welder by the name of Phil Quigley. This was the start of one of Curtis' longest and most lasting friendships.
| Curtis Pitts immediately after the initial flight in the first Pitts Special. The little biplane was designed for low cost aerobatics and was powered by a 55-hp Lycoming. It weighed just under 500 pounds empty. Despite the big Cub balloon tires and snub nose this is obviously the progenitor of all subsequent Pitts Specials. |
| Curtis Pitts, left, and Phil Quigley lean on racer No. 8. This aircraft still exists; its last registered owner was Jim Dulin of Paoli, Oklahoma. |
Phil, who was in the Navy when Curtis met him, had a strong interest in flying. Learning of Curtis' flying activities brought them close together. Using various aircraft, such as the J-3 Cub, Taylorcraft and Interstate, Curtis taught Phil to fly. I asked Curtis what kind of a pilot Phil was:
"Phil was an excellent pilot. Of all the people I instructed, he was probably the fastest learned I had."
The original design of the Pitts Special was actually started in 1942 with the intent of building a good performing, low powered aircraft, for use in aerobatics exclusively. Powered by a 55-hp Lycoming engine -- "because the engine was handy and money wasn't" -- the original Pitts Special made its maiden flight in 1945 with Curtis at the controls. The airplane, weighing just under 500 pounds, flew good with the little Lycoming powerplant.
Although this combination performed well by the light aircraft standards of that time, the Lycoming was replaced with a 90-hp Franklin with a homebrewed inverted system.
"We had inverted fuel problems coming out of our ears. You just never knew when it was going to work or not. You had to roll over, hold your breath, and pray."
All things considered, the change to the Franklin produced excellent performance in the little midget biplane. (Can you imagine what he would have thought if he had had a 180 hp engine to hang on the nose!)
The airplane was eventually sold to a cropduster who was practically deaf.
"He was so deaf that he couldn't hear a car engine running while standing next to it."
His hearing problem, combined with the unpredictable inverted system, led to the demise of the original Pitts.
"One day, about 2 weeks after he bought it, he was showing off down low. After making a dive he pulled it up to about a 45 line and rolled on his back. All of a sudden the engine quit, but he didn't immediately realize it. He pulled back and as he came around it mushed. He hit the ground nose high but fortunately walked away from it."
In 1945 Curtis and Willie Mae moved to Gainesville, Florida with the understanding that he was to build 10 Pitts Specials for Carl Stengel. But as luck would have it, Stengels Flying Service ran into financial problems before the first airplane was completed. On May 1, 1947, Curtis bought Stengel's operation and became the new owner and operator of a Mechanic School and Repair Shop. Included in the deal was one uncompleted Pitts which would soon gain fame under the name of "Li'l Stinker".
Curtis completed "Li'l Stinker" (which was the 2nd Pitts Special built) and put a fuel injected 85-hp Continental engine in it. Phil Quigley, who had also moved to Gainesville, started flying it in various air shows. Phil's initial flight experience in a Pitts occurred when Curtis still had the prototype. As usual, Curtis was working on that "darn" inverted system. He put Phil in the cockpit for a run-up while he was making adjustments.
"I went into the shop for a minute and about that time Phil figured he wanted to fly that airplane, so off he went."
Under Curtis' coaching, Phil became a top-notch aerobatic pilot.
Curtis feels that Phil Quigley was a true "master" of the Pitts. He related one incident that truly demonstrates Phil's ability to handle the airplane. Phil was on a cross-country flight when the crankshaft broke and he had to make a forced landing. He dead-sticked the airplane down on top of a narrow levy in the Everglades that was about half as wide as a road. In fact, it was so narrow that the game warden who came to his rescue couldn't get by the airplane! Somehow they got the airplane turned around and towed it away.
| Betty Skelton -- even before N22E became "Little Stinker". |
| Caro Bayley in the Number Three Pitts. N8M continued the climb upward in power -- it had a 125-hp Lycoming. This Pitts was eventually destroyed by a fire that resulted from a broken injection line. |
| Curtis Pitts, left, and Bill Brennand with the No. 21 racer. Bill was an extremely successful "Goodyear" pilot for Steve Wittman before flying for Pitts. |
Eventually, Curtis sold the airplane to Jess Bristow who was the head of World Air Shows in Miami. Jess then hired Phil to fly the airplane in shows for him. Jess had it for about two seasons before a disagreement between Phil and himself led to its purchase by a young woman who was to gain international aerobatic fame for both herself and the Pitts.
Betty Skelton learned her aerobatics in a PT-19 under the direction of Clem Whittenbeck, a well-known aerobatic pilot in the 30's. From the PT, she graduated into a Great Lakes powered by a 165 Kinner. I asked Betty what her reaction was when she saw the Pitts for the first time:
"It was at the All American Air Maneuvers in Miami in 1947. I was entering the pattern in my Great Lakes when I noticed it on the ground. It was noticeable be cause of all the people around it. As soon as I landed, I rushed over to it. Right then and there, I knew it was for me."
Betty bought the airplane in 1947, changed the registration number from NX86401 to N22E and christened it "Li'l Stinker". From 1947 to 1951, she gained national and international recognition, performing at many of the major air displays in North America and Europe. She was the reigning National Women's Champion during this period of time.
In the late 40's, Betty participated in the International Air Pageant at Gatwick Airport in London, England. The London Daily Express (a very active backer of aviation, sponsoring this event as well as many others) invited Betty, along with representatives from various countries, to participate in the Pageant.
Participating in the Pageant was one thing... getting there was another. She flew "Li'l Stinker" to Newark, New Jersey, where she enlisted the help of a mechanic, and dismantled it.
"It was quite a job. There were no drawings, so we had to count each nut and bolt and the number of turns on each wire. When the job was completed, we boxed it up... it looked like a large coffin."
From Newark, the airplane was trucked to the coast where it was loaded on the Queen Mary for its long voyage to London.
"The reaction to 'Li'l Stinker' was astounding. I think it was about the smallest airplane flying at that time. In England, sport flying was expensive at this time... gas was especially costly. They just fell in love with it."
Betty had also been asked to participate in the Royal Air Derby in Belfast, Ireland following the International Air Pageant. The trip to Belfast included a re-fueling stop at Liverpool where she picked up an escort for her flight across the Irish Sea.
"My escort was flying an RAF Anson, which was a landplane. He was equipped with life jackets and a life raft, but he was the only person on board. If I would have set down in the sea, there is nothing he could have done to help me."
The day of the big show arrived and it rained and rained. Yet the people stayed -- standing in that miserable weather, waiting for some type of aerial performance.
"Their enthusiasm was amazing. I was the only one who flew that day. The ceiling was low, so all I was able to do were a few rolls and so forth. When I landed, the people started to mob the airplane. If it wasn't for the fact that we rushed the airplane inside the firehouse, it might have been torn up."
Betty then sold "Li'l Stinker" to Bob Davis who was one of a long line of owners. George Young bought it next and replaced the 85-hp Continental with a 135 Lycoming. Eventually, he hung a 170-hp Lycoming on the nose. Finally, the airplane was sold to Drexell Scott, who completely rebuilt it to "like-new condition".
Almost 20 years later, "Li'l Stinker" returned home when Betty Skelton Frankman bought it back. Betty and "Stinker" now call Winter Haven, Florida their home where the airplane is still actively flown.
| This line-up represents a good start toward a "Hall of Fame" of racing and aerobatic pilots. Left to right, Bill Brennand, Betty Skelton, Phil Quigley, Caro Bayley and Steve Wittman. |
| "Samson" = the BIG Pitts. This was a one-off, 450 horsepower special built to order for airshow pilot Jess Bristow. He sold it to Ben Huntley. "Samson" was destroyed in a collision/fire at Fayetteville, North Carolina. |
While "Li'l Stinker" was making a name for itself in the aerobatic world, Curtis unknowingly found himself about to enter into the cropdusting business. Jim Holland, nationally known aerobatic performer, was in the dusting business back in 1947. Curtis did some maintenance work for Jim, including the conversion of a couple of 220 Stearmans for dusting use. About 3 months after Curtis completed the airplanes, Jim left for England and Curtis bought the operation from him. This was the start of a career that he stayed in for almost 20 years.
Though the dusting business required a great deal of his time, Curtis still continued his aircraft building activities upon the request and with some prodding by a pretty girl. Caro Bayley worked for Jess Bristow, flying a Clipped-Wing Cub in air shows for him. But Caro's interests turned from air shows to competition, and after seeing Betty Skelton and "Li'l Stinker", she decided that a Pitts was what she wanted. Caro went directly to Curtis and before you knew it, he was building again.
Caro's airplane was the 3rd Pitts built and the first equipped with a 125-hp engine. Horsepower requirements kept rising. Today many Pitts Specials are equipped with 200-hp Lycomings... a far cry from the original 55-hp powerplant used in 1945. Curtis built a fuel injection system "which was the first one that ever worked without any problems. We used an old Excello system and reworked it to make it fit the Lycoming."
The wings and forward portion of the fuselage were re-engineered to compensate for the increased power and gross weight. After Caro flew it at various shows and competitions, she sold it to Frank Gibson. Frank lost the airplane when an injection line broke in mid-air causing a fire. He landed the airplane safely, but had to helplessly stand by as the airplane burned.
While at Gainesville, the evolution of "Samson" took place. Jess Bristow had owned the ex-Howard Hughes Boeing 100, but sold that and bought a Ford Tri-Motor. But he felt the Ford burned too much gas. One day he flew the Tri-Motor to Curtis' operation in Gainesville, got him on the side, and asked him to design a special airplane for him.
Jess wanted an airplane that was smaller than the Great Lakes, but one with a lot more power. Curtis went to the drawing board (it should be remembered that Curtis did not go to a formal engineering school but was a self-taught designer who used common sense and an innate feeling for aerodynamics) and designed a small biplane that was to be built around a 450-hp Pratt and Whitney.
Curtis showed his design to Jess, and everything was fine except that he wanted the airplane to meet the following specifications:
-- It was to be capable of carrying
-- It was to have room to carry a large steamer trunk since Jess spent a great deal of time on the road.
- 50 gallons of smoke oil
- 12 gallons of fuel in the auxillary tank which was to be used for aerobatic flights
- 120 gallons of fuel in the main fuselage tank
- 12 gallons of lube oil
| Phil Quigley in NX86401, the Number Two Pitts Special. Later, it would be sold to Betty Skelton and become immortalized in the world of sport aviation as N22E, "Little Stinker". N22E was originally powered with a fuel injected Continental C-85. Note the Aeromatic prop. |
| Caro Bayley poses with her Pitts... we'll bet in actual practice she had no problem getting her engine propped! She is now Caro Bayley Bosca of Springfield, Ohio. |
| Phil Quigley in the Number Two Pitts while owned by Jess Bristow's World Air Shows. According to Bill Sweet, Phil was fired because his inverted passes were too low for Jess's peace of mind! |
With some redesigning, "Samson" met all of the above standards. To meet the requirement of the steamer trunk, a removable stick was put in the airplane. Jess would stand the trunk on end, strap it to the fuel tank and put the stick back in place. "Samson" had an aerobatic gross weight of 2,200 pounds and an empty weight of 1,595 pounds.
Eventually, Jess sold "Samson" to air show pilot, Ben Huntley of Charlotte, North Carolina who campaigned the plane for a time and, in turn, sold it to the legendary "Johnny Skyrocket", a flamboyant air show star of the 1950s. The "big" Pitts came to a fiery end at a Bill Sweet air show in Fayetteville, North Carolina. Being flown by Buddy Rogers, "Samson" was put through its paces and on the approach to landing at the conclusion of the act, collided with an unlicensed Ercoupe. Both aircraft went in and caught fire on impact. Rogers was able to escape from the wreckage, but "Samson" was totally destroyed.
About this time, Curtis developed the racing bug. Jimmy DeSanto wanted Curtis to modify an unlimited airplane for racing. Curtis did not want to take on the project, but Jimmy's efforts got him interested in racing. Curtis built his first midget racer, No. 21, in 1947. The ever-present Phil Quigley and Bud Heisel were called upon to fly it in some of the races across the country.
Curtis started another racer, No. 8 (N97M), but the untimely death of Bud in No. 21 caused this project to be shelved for almost a year. Finally, Curtis built up enough enthusiasm to finish it and again Phil flew it in a few races. After Phil quit flying No. 8, famed racing pilot Bill Brennand from Oshkosh, Wisconsin took over the controls. Bill called Curtis one winter and inquired about the possibility of flying it. He previously had been flying for the nationally renowned Steve Wittman. Bill came down to Gainesville on a vacation and stopped to see Curtis. An agreement was made on the spot and Bill flew the airplane home. No. 8 never really enjoyed a glorious racing career for it was plagued by continuous engine troubles. In time Curtis sold No. 8.
This was the last racer Curtis built. It was last known to be owned by Jim Dulin of Paoli, Oklahoma. Curtis lost interest in racing and concentrated his efforts on his dusting business and aerobatics.
Up to this point in time, Curtis' design and building activities had been quite extensive. His two initial parasol designs were followed by the prototype Pitts Special which was built in Jacksonville. Upon moving to Gainesville, he built two Pitts Specials ("Li'1 Stinker" and Caro Bayley's), two racers (No. 21 and No. 8) and "Samson".
| Betty Skelton and "Little Stinker". N22E has been updated through the years and has an O-360 Lycoming in the nose today. After going through three other owners, Betty bought the little bird back. She is now Betty Skelton Frankman and lives in Winter Haven, Florida. |
| Phil Quigley in "Little Stinker". The original version of the now stylized Pitts sunburst paint scheme is being flaunted here. |
| Phil Quigley, Curtis Pitts' great friend and a principal figure in the history of the Pitts Special. Phil was lost on a ferry flight to Central America in an agricultural aircraft. No trace was ever found. |