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Pitts Special: The soul of the man lives on

by Budd Davisson

Okay, letís get one thing absolutely clear: the Pitts Special is NOT, repeat NOT, just an airplane. I know some people think that it is, but ask any long time Pitts driver and weíll all tell you the same thing: there are airplanes and there are Pitts Specials and the two shouldnít be confused.

Thereís a reason for the above statements. Actually a bunch of reasons but the one on the top of the list is that the Pitts does something only very few airplanes are capable of doing: they reach inside you and change your entire outlook on life and, in so doing, make you something you werenít before. In that regards, the Pitts is more of a life style than a machine. More of an attitude than an airplane. More a spiritual way of being than a piece of transportation.

Yeah, I knowóthis sounds pretty sophomoric. At least itíll read that way to the non-Pitts pilots reading this. All the Pitts freaks are nodding their heads and grinning. They know what Iím talking about.

It has often been asked whether Curtis Pitts, then a self-taught engineer and welding inspector in an airframe plant, really knew what he was doing when he designed and flew his first ìspecialî in 1945. The reality is that it doesnít matter. The airplane is what it is and Curtis, a self-proclaimed ìred neck engineerî of the old school, designed it around what he knew at the time and it came out nearly perfect.

Although he wasnít an engineer, he knew what he didnít didnít want in his little airplane because heíd flown enough other airplanesóWACOís, Great Lakes, Stermanóto know that when it came to aerobatics they werenít it. They were big and stodgy. Slow to react and, although loaded with horsepower, slow to climb and quick to descend.

He knew that to eliminate ìslowî from his airplaneís vocabulary, it needed to be compact. Long wings donít roll quickly. Also, he wanted strength without size and that meant the trusty biplane configuration. He also wanted light weight and the biplane configuration helped him there too. The final airplane, designated Special One, S-1, that flew in í45 is virtually identical to the hairy chested, single-hole Pitts that have been an airshow and aerobatic staple for forty years, although some of the significant details differ.

Modern Pitts pilots find it difficult to believe the original airplane had only 55 hp. It also only had ailerons in the lower wings, something that didnít change until the S-1D and then S-1S introduced four-ailerons in the late 1960ís. The gear was rigid and depended on odd little 700 x 4 tires to absorb landing shocks. The turtle deck was also different because it was built up with stringers and featured a head rest rather than being a continuous aluminum curve.

Now, flash ahead 55 years and 180 hp is the standard with 250 hp not being uncommon and the airplane comes with an automatic adrenaline pump attached to the throttle: move the throttle quickly and you can feel the adrenaline pooling in your boots.

A side effect of your first takeoff in a 180 hp single-place Pitts is that it takes three days for your face muscles to stop hurting from the long-term grin. After your first landing, itís two hours before you can whistle because your mouth is so dried out. Everything happens quickly in a Pitts, everything, and to the pilot schooled in ìnormalî airplanes it sometimes comes as a major shock. More than one Pitts has been rolled up in a compact ball on its first landing when the pilot suddenly discovers he is flying an airplane that does exactly what he tells it to do, the second he tells it to do it.

The problem is that ìnormalî pilots often donít think more than one move ahead so, when they make that move and the airplane reacts so quickly, they suddenly find themselves one move behind, when the goal is to always be two moves ahead of the airplane.

The airplane is like the sharpest scalpel in history and allows you to make paper thin changes in your flight profile. To do fine work, you need the sharpest tools. The downside to a sharp tool, however, is that a mistake is usually a big one. And so it is with the Pitts. It will let you thread a needle in any situation, but it is an airplane for pilots with specific goals in mind. An approximate pilot will find the airpane chasing his butt all over the airport.

Once youíve made friends with a Pitts you find youíve not only truly gotten control of yourself, but, in the process, are totally aware of what an achievement that can be. And you feel good about it. Thereís a reason people donít point out the Cherokee pilots on an airport. Thereís also a reason everyone know who flies a Pitts. Got the message?

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Updated: August 22, 2011 — 2:01 PM

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