The Rainbow Bird With the Dacron Plumage
by Budd Davisson
With fabric feathers and 200 horsepower in its beak, the Eagle II was Californian Frank Christensenís idea of what a two-place, good time flying machine should look and fly like. A slicked-up city cousin of a Pitts Special, the Eagle has its own following that is every bit as rabid about their airplane as the Pitts Special crazies are about theirs.
The truth is that the Eagle owes more than a little to the S-2A Pitts because in the early 1970ís Christensen bought a bare Pitts S-2A airframe from the factory with the intent of modifying it to his own liking. Frank was a serious aerobatic pilot but more than that, he was the epitome of the entrepreneur. In fact, he became a millionaire right out of college because of some electronic gadgets he invented while still in school. So, as he began modifying the Pitts, his mind took off in another direction and decided the homebuilt world needed a new two-place biplane design.
The Eagle concept and Christen Industries were born and the modified Pitts was hung up on the wall of his opulent workshop and he never finished it. The resulting Eagle homebuilt kits (now part of Aviat Aircraftís offerings) are still the quality standard by which all other kits are measured.
Frankís design work was aimed at avoiding all of a Pittsís shortcomings. Frank is a pretty big guy and the first thing on his gotta-be-changed list was the cockpit: he widened it slightly and moved most of the instruments to the front panel, almost eliminating the rear panel altogether. He also eliminated the cockpit sheet metal above the longerons that traditionally curved in and made the pilot and passenger feel like prairie dogs peaking out of their burrow. He capped the entire thing off with a wide, high bubble canopy. The net result was greatly increased creature comfort and better in-flight visibility.
The Pitts has an un-deserved reputation for being pretty snaky on the ground and Christensenís approach to that was to replace the super-stiff bungee landing gear with a more modern, spring type gear. The new gear softened the swerves, which reduced the airplaneís ability to scare the devil out of the pilot by making it more mannerly on the ground. The sleeker gear legs also got rid of a lot of aerodynamic drag.
Christensen had a good eye for design as well as performance and laid out an entirely new cowling that works with the cleaner landing gear to make an Eagle a solid 15-20 mph faster than the S-2A with the same engine.
Of course, an Eagle without the distinctive multi-colored feather motif wouldnít be an Eagle. Frank always had an eye towards marketing and had a paint scheme designed that few would even attempt to duplicate on anything but an Eagle. In fact, he copyrighted the design and those who put the same scheme on another airplane could count on a nastygram from Christen Industryís legal department.
From a pilotís point of view the Eagle II is exactly what Frank wanted it to be: a slightly more civilized Pitts with no performance compromises. High-time Pitts pilots will point out that there is a subtle difference between the two in that the Pitts has a more ìdenseî feel it to it and grooves through maneuvers better, but at that level of performance youíre splitting hairs.
Even at this date, 25 years after it was introduced, the Christen Eagle has to be one of the more recognizable airplanes ever built. And one of the best flying.