(Part 2 of 2)
Read the first part of this series
"AT 3000 FEET that aerobatic zone sure looks small. Let's see, the wind is a quartering crosswind front my left. O.K., let's fly slowly into the area just left of the X-axis and put that inverted spin upwind of the Y-axis. Slow it up... oh, it's breaking. Establish a good downline. Push inverted. You're moving downwind fast... better push up for the family 9. Center the half-roll. Push over the top. Come on, Tom... set a good down-line. Push out inverted. Watch the wind. FLY!"
Vertical rolls... snap rolls... spins... hammerheads. The list of competition maneuvers goes on and on and so does the Pitts Special. This midget biplane, designed in 1942 by Curtis Pitts, has undergone a number of refinements that has made it the top aerobatic airplane in the world today.
Some may argue with that statement, but a close look at the facts speaks for itself:
- 1970 - 4 of the 6 U.S. Aerobatic Team members flew Pitts Specials. The U. S. Team won the World Aerobatic Championship.
- 1972 - All 7 U. S. Aerobatic Team members flew aircraft designed by Pitts. The U.S. Team won the World Aerobatic Title for the 2nd consecutive year. In addition, Mary Gaffaney and Charlie Hillard garnered the Women's and Men's Individual Titles respectively.
- 1969-70-71-72 - The last four U. S. National Championships (Men's and Women's Division) have been won by pilots flying Pitts Specials.
But, I am getting too far ahead of myself in talking about the recent accomplishments of the airplane and its designer. In last month's issue of SPORT AVIATION, we followed Curtis' early design and building activities, which included such notables as "Li'l Stinker", "Samson", and his two midget racers, No. 21 and No. 8.
In the 1950's, air show activity was at a low point which, in part, was responsible for Curtis doing little designing and no building during that period.
"As air shows were becoming fewer and fewer, I felt that I better put my efforts into something that would make grits and gravy for the children."
| Pat Ledford's famous N8L over Miami Beach. It was this airplane, with Phil Quigley at the controls, that gave most EAAers their first real taste of high powered Pitts air show work. In the mid-60s, Phil's knife-edge flights completely across the Rockford Airport left members thunderstruck! |
With that in mind he concentrated heavily on his crop-dusting business. Crop-dusting is a tough business, one that calls for long hours and physical exhaustion at the day's end. For over 15 years, Curtis saw the sun rise early in the morning and set late at night, but thoughts of building and designing were always in the back of his mind.
It was during this period of time that Curtis started developing ideas for a two-place design. Spending his summers in Mississippi working the cotton crop, Curtis could be found evenings in his trailer sketching and drawing. This work was to pay dividends later when the popular Pitts S-2A became a reality.
Though Curtis "didn't build a thing in the '50s", a couple of Pitts Specials were being built. One day, a gentleman by the name of Billy Williams from Tulsa, Oklahoma paid Curtis a visit. He asked if he could obtain a set of the shop plans for the Pitts. Drawings in hand, Williams headed back home and started the airplane. Subsequently, he left Tulsa and somebody else took over the project. Eventualiy, it ended up in the hands of Dean Case of Wichita, Kansas, who completed it. Under the name of "Joy's Toy", the airplane was flown at numerous air shows by Dean's lovely daughter, Joyce.
About this time, another Pitts project was started by Jim Meeks, who was a duster pilot working for Curtis. One of the instigators behind this project was Phil Quigley, along with Perry Boswell of Delray Beach, Florida. Meeks scrounged around Curtis' shop and found some of his very early drawings. From these drawings and information extracted from Curtis, "Mr. Muscles" was built.
Using a 170-hp Lycoming, "Mr. Muscles" was the highest powered Pitts to date. The airplane was actually a muscular brother to Betty Skelton's famous Pitts, "Li'l Stinker". Weighing only 689 lbs., this high powered aerobatic mount was an indication of things to come. Today a 180-hp Pitts is the rule rather than the exception. Last heard of, "Mr. Muscles" was somewhere in Ohio and going strong! (Ed. note: U.S. Civil Aircraft Registry, 1968 shows Mr. Kenneth Bixler of Alliance, Ohio as the last owner of "Mr. Muscles", N37J).
After staying in Gainesville for 10 years, Curtis moved to Homestead, Florida in 1955. Though he moved to Homestead with the intention of concentrating on his cropdusting business, "lots of people began to pester me for plans". Bill Dodd of Lake Zurich, Illinois worked continually on Curtis to make drawings available.
| Some prominent figures in the history of the Pitts Special -- left to right, Phil Quigley, Jim Holland, and Curtis Pitts. |
| (Photo Courtesy of Curtis Pitts) The "Big Stinker", prototype of the Pitts S-2A. Significant in many respects, N22Q was the first open cockpit biplane certified by the government since the 1930s and was the trial horse for the 4 aileron, symmetrical wing system for which Curtis Pitts has subsequently obtained patent rights. |
"He would come see me two or three times every winter and push like the devil to get me to put those drawings out."
Enter Pat Ledford into the picture! Pat also agreed that drawings should be made available. He told Curtis that if someone could do the drawings, he would like to build the airplane. Pat's airplane, N8L, was more or less the guinea pig for the rebirth of the Pitts Special.
"We had most of my old shop drawings which were not detailed at all, just a mess. They were not something you could build an airplane from. With Phil helping Pat, the airplane was built. We really didn't change anything in it. I did hire a draftsman who came along and filled in the loose parts and redrew a lot. We really didn't improve the drawings a heck of a lot, but we got them out anyway."
Having proved the drawings through the construction of N8L, they were made available in 1962. Today, over 300 Pitts Specials have been completed with an untold number under construction. Little did anyone realize at the time the impact these drawings were to have on the sport aviation and aerobatic movements in the United States and throughout the world.
Today, competition aerobatics has become an exacting science with even the smallest bobble or mistake proving costly. The quality of flying improves year after year even though the sequences become progressively more difficult. More and more negative (outside) maneuvers are being flown, necessitating excellent inverted characteristics on the part of the airplane. This means that a symmetrical airfoil is a must!
Back in 1948, Curtis was already thinking about using a symmetrical airfoil in his design.
"Phil Quigley and I used to argue about this in the late 40's. We had all kinds of ideas for inverted performance. We got a lot of discouragement from the aeronautical section of the University of Florida, so we never did build any."
During the period when Curtis and Phil were developing these ideas, aerobatic competition was not as we now know it. The complexities of aerobatic competition did not exist. The concept of the symmetrical wing on a Pitts was strictly for air show work.
"We felt we would have a little edge on everybody if we designed the symmetrical wing, and it would also make life a little easier for the pilot!"
The symmetrical wing concept was dropped until around 1960 or 1961 when Curtis realized the need for this type of wing if the airplane's flying characteristics were to improve appreciably. The first set of symmetrical wings appeared on Pat Ledford's N8L. As you can see, Pat's airplane was used in a great deal of Curtis' initial test work.
"We didn't like the first wings worth a hoot. We tore them down and modified them, put them back on again, but were still unhappy. We improved them a second time and they were pretty good."
Curtis was asking various aerobatic pilots, such as Don Pittman, to fly the airplane with the symmetrical wings. Their comments were invaluable in making the necessary modifications.
This first set of symmetrical wings had only a single set of ailerons on the lower wings. It wasn't until 1967 that the 4-aileron, symmetrical wing as we know it today was built. It look long hours of research and testing, rebuilding and modifying, plus a great deal of effort and expense for Curtis to develop these wings. It is a real shame that only a minority (not a majority) of those who enjoy the fruits of Curtis' efforts will ever realize the magnitude of the work involved in the development of these wings!
Curtis put the first set of 4-aileron, symmetrical wings on a Pitts that he had built. The first pilot to use a set of these wings in actual competition was Bob Herendeen of Torrance, California. He actually had the number 2 set of wings. Bob was looking for ways to modify and improve his Pitts, so he began corresponding with Curtis. Before long, he showed up one weekend at Curtis' shop in Homestead. One thing led to another and soon he was flying with the new wing!
In talking with Curtis about his friendship with Bob, I asked him if there was one particular person who really did the most for the Pitts' national and international recognition.
| Betty Skelton and Curtis Pitts try the "Big Stinker" on for size. |
He answered, "I've got to say Bob Herendeen, naturally. But Betty Skelton was the first one really. Betty got real famous before air shows began going downhill."
Bob was a big factor in the rapid growth in popularity of the Pitts as we know it today. He proved beyond a doubt that the Pitts had all the characteristics of a top-notch competition machine. For the past few years, "Herendeen" and "Pitts Special" have been names to be respected and watched closely at national and world aerobatic meets.
Curtis also credits Don Pittman for help in developing interest in the Pitts. Don flew "Joy's Toy" at a number of air shows throughout the country. His freelance style in the air has thrilled many a spectator.
While all this activity was taking place, Curtis was still operating his dusting business under the name of Pitts Aero Service. In 1964, he decided that his design and plan sale activities were going to start taking on major proportions... thus the evolution of Pitts Aviation Enterprises.
In 1966, he sold his dusting business to devote all of his time to the development of his designs. And develop they have!! As Curtis so aptly put it:
"I've been working on this little airplane everyday and night ever since I left the dusting business!"
In July of 1967, Pitts Aviation moved to its present location, which is about 3 miles south of the Homestead, Florida airport. Working out of a cluster of small quonset-type hangars, the first 2-place Pitts, "Big Stinker", (Pitts S-2A) was completed just in time to make its debut at the 1967 EAA International Fly-In at Rockford, Illinois.
It took Curtis about a year to build "Big Stinker", which was the culmination of some of his early design efforts back in Mississippi. The performance of "Big Stinker" with its 4-aileron, symmetrical wings thoroughly convinced Curtis to use this wing on the Pitts Special.
There have not been too many changes from the original "Big Stinker", except those needed to comply with certification, to the Pitts S-2A as we know it today.
"The big change was installing the 200-hp engine. We added additional rudder area along the way and we changed the weight and balance considerably."
Curtis had started the 2-place certification project back in 1967, with the idea of producing the airplane in Homestead. But a gentleman by the name of Herb Anderson wanted to change these plans. Herb worked for the Callair production facility in Afton, Wyoming. In 1966, Callair sold out to Rockwell Standard and Herb moved to Albany, Georgia to set up a production facility there. Herb has been a production man all his life, having also worked for Mooney and Piper. There is no doubt... Herb knows his business!
After the aircraft contract for the Albany plant had expired, Herb went back to Afton. Herb knew of Curtis' production plans and tried to get him to come out and view the facility in Afton, hoping he would set up production there. But Curtis wasn't interested initially.
Herb was persistent. One day in 1969, he called and offered to pay expenses, if only Curtis would come to Afton. He explained that he had an empty production facility with trained people ready to work. Finally Curtis flew out there and what he saw amazed him. He viewed an excellent facility with a wealth of trained people who had been building steel tube aircraft since 1945. He was convinced... Afton, Wyoming was to be the future home for the production facility of Pitts Aviation Enterprises.
| (Bob Haack Photo) Bob Herendeen and his new 266Y. Curtis credits Bob with being the person most responsible for gaining national and international recognition for his design... the second time around. Betty Skelton, of course, was the first to bring the little machine to the world's attention. |
Arrangements were made and preparations were begun. The actual certification and testing of the Pitts S-2A was done at the Homestead facility, but upon completion of this work, the Afton plant was ready to produce. The first S-2A (N14CB) was delivered to Marion Cole in the summer of 1971. Since that time, they have been turned out at the rate of two a month. As of May 1, 1973, 48 Pitts S-2A's have been produced and delivered, with future delivery dates up to June 13, 1974 already sold!
The pilot and customer response to the S-2A has been excellent. In fact, I am sure it has exceeded the expectations of many who have watched it since the certification process was started back in the 60s. Let's take a close look at some of the factors contributing to its success:
- An FAA certificated, unlimited competition machine with aerobatic capabilities exceeding those of any other certified airplane on today's market.
- A 2-place aerobatic trainer for all classes of aerobatics from Sportsman to Unlimited. Many top aerobatic training schools across the country are using this airplane.
- A good dependable airplane for air show use.
- A uniqueness and early-day, fun flying mystique that seems to accompany all biplanes.
These factors, combined with many others, have brought a large number of customers to the doors of Pitts Aviation Enterprises. Among these customers has been the Rothman Tobacco Company in England. Curtis sold 5 S-2A's to the Rothmans for use by their company sponsored aerobatic team, which appears at numerous air shows throughout Great Britain and Europe. Previously the Rothmans were using Stampe Biplanes, but after seeing the performance of the Pitts at the 6th World Aerobatic Championships in Hullavington, England, a change was in order.
Manx Kelly, leader of the Rothman's Team, visited Homestead to test fly the airplane. Manx's enthusiasm for the airplane must have been tremendous as indicated by the Rothman's purchase! (See the June, 1973 issue of Air Progress for some excellent in-flight photos of the Rothmans in their new Pitts S-2A's.)
Curtis has also sold a number of Pitts S-2A's in Australia and Canada with interest being expressed by many other people throughout the world. The reputation of this airplane and its designer is truly international.
As if certifying one airplane wasn't enough for Curtis, he turned his efforts to the Pitts Special, completing type certification on this airplane on February 6 of this year. The basic airplane will have no electrical system or any other additions that would detract from its performance. An electrical system, radio and so forth is available for those who request it.
The first production model will come off the line on August 8 with 15 airplanes already ordered. I asked Curtis if he felt that the "Special" will generate the same type of interest as the S-2A. He thought it would, but that it would not sell like the two-place airplane.
Granted, the single place is more of a true "sport" airplane, since it does not offer the training capabilities that the S-2A does, but its tremendous flight characteristics speak for themselves. As it racks up victory after victory in national and international competition, the demand for this airplane seems to spiral upward.
Curtis has geared production at his Afton facility so that he will be producing four airplanes a month... 2 S-2A's and 2 Pitts Specials. Curtis has planned his production schedules wisely. It would be easy to meet the tremendous demands and increase production. But he does not feel this is best over the long run and I agree.
| (Photo by Hank Cohen) "Mr. Muscles", one of only two Pitts Specials constructed during the 1950s. Built by Jim Meeks, N37J was the first of the high powered Pitts (170-hp Lycoming) and as such, provided the first inkling of the fantastic potential inherent in the design. |
By keeping production limited, the market does not become saturated with Pitts airplanes. Therefore, the airplane will continue to hold its value well, plus the fact there will be very few for resale to compete with those coming off the production line. These are custom airplanes that appeal to a limited market. The best way to over extend yourself is to saturate this market. Do this and it will soon disappear!
I have spent most of my time talking about Curtis' certificated offsprings. You may ask: "Can I still buy plans? Will I still be able to build a Pitts Special?"
The answer to these questions are -- yes and yes. Actually, Curtis is offering a number of options to the man or woman who still wants to build his or her own airplane.
One option that eventually will be available is the type-certificated airplane in a kit form.
"Apparently, in my negotiations with FAA, what I'm going to have to do is to complete all the individual parts of the airplane. Essentially, it will then be a final assembly project. The kit will include everything except the store bought items that you just bolt on, such as the engine, propeller and instruments. We will furnish these things separately, but they won't be part of the kit."
Two kits per month will be offered, their production being part of the operation at the Afton plant. Various individual parts for the Pitts Special will also be made available.
In addition, drawings for the Pitts Special (not the S-2A) will still be marketed.
"I'm going to offer an M-6 airfoil, 4-aileron version. We have an excellent set of drawings which consists of 47 sheets. There will be a 'How to Build' manual, inspection flight test forms and a flight manual accompanying the drawings."
The airplane completed by the homebuilder will not be exactly the same as the certificated model.
The Pitts Special has worked its way to the top winning every major aerobatic title. Being on top makes it the primary target for the many new designs that are being developed to take its place. I asked Curtis point blank how the Pitts will stack up a few years from now against some of the designs now appearing such as the Stephens Akro and the Acro Star. He paused momentarily and answered:
"I'm not too concerned about it. I've heard this kind of stuff all my life. I feel that if that kind of airplane will have any advantages over the Pitts, there will have to be some changes in the rules. As long as the rules and the box are not changed, we've got an advantage over all of them. High performance is not going to win the contest. It's going to be the man driving the airplane that's going to be the World Champion."
Some may not agree with Curtis, but you can't argue with success. He has developed an airplane that was vitally instrumental in the U. S. victories in the 1970 and 1972 World meets. He has developed an airplane that has completely dominated aerobatics in the United States for the past five years. He has developed an airplane that has brought the United States from last to the recognized world-leader in competition aerobatics. He has developed an airplane that is just plain "fun" to fly.
For this, we must all say...
THANK YOU, MR. PITTS!
Author's Note: Throughout his career, Curtis has experienced many thrills and highlights. I am sure it would be difficult for him to choose one that would stand out among all the rest, but this is what he said:
"There were lots of times when I felt pretty good, but I would say that the first time I flew the first little airplane was the biggest thrill for me. It was like a ride in a sky-rocket after flying those other airplanes."
If he thought that was a sky-rocket, today's Pitts is nothing short of a moon-ship!
| (Photo by Ted Koston) Joyce Case and "Joy's Toy Too". Her father, Dean Case, was one of the earliest and best known Pitts builders. |