PIREP: Replica of First Pitts Special (more pix to come in a couple weeks)

Budd Davisson, Air Progress, January, 1991


The Legend Started Here:

Replica of Number One

I was flying loose on the replica's five o'clock position in a Citabria, as Pascarell made the first landing. When he coasted to a halt, I slid sideways onto the centerline and went over him before landing and turning around to taxi back. I could see him getting out of the cockpit amid a bunch of people and vehicles at the throat of the taxiway. I was excited, I wanted to hear what he had to say about the airplane.

I had been next to him during the entire first flight, and I wanted to see if the last six months of hard work by so many people had paid off. Apparently it had, since, even as I taxied up I could see nothing but smiles and handshakes. No frowns. I wanted to hear what he had to say. However, the first words out of his mouth, were not what I thought I wanted to hear.

"Okay, now it's Davisson's turn."

Immediately my defenses went into high gear. I felt the pressure of so many people standing around. I didn't like the situation but, at the same time, I couldn't think of any reason other than my own insecurities, not to fly the airplane. Undoubtably, I so willingly, if somewhat self-consciously, climbed into the airplane only because I knew Pascarell wouldn't have been pushing so hard if the airplane represented anything other than the normal risk.

His check-out was brief and concise. Basically, he said the airspeed was reading ten knots low, the trim was off so I'd have to hold down elevator in level flight and it had a lot of drag and shed speed quickly. His last words were, "If you closed your eyes you'd think you were flying an 85-hp Clipped Cub." If he was close to right, this would be an enjoyable, no sweat flight.

It would also be the closest I've come to making a first flight on an airplane, this being its second.

Stepping upon to the wing, I was mindful there was only a six inch square pad of plywood under the fabric for my foot, rather than the complete walkway on modern Pitts. On this tiny little 507 pound bipe, if it wasn't absolutely necessary the airplane didn't have it, and that's how the plane wound up weighing several hundred pounds less than any other Pitts. The mahogany seat felt smooth as I slid in. The only upholstery was a couple coats of varnish. Keep it light and it doesn't need horsepower. With only 65 questionable horses in that stubby nose, I hoped the theory was right.

There wasn't a whole lot for me to do, once strapped in. The cockpit is basic at best. Flight doesn't require much, once a means has been provided to conquer gravity. Above that, only a way of dictating some sort of predicable flight path is needed. And that's all the little Pitts provided. I didn't even have a mixture control. Stick and rudder, carb heat and throttle, mag switch and that was it. Carl pulled it through a couple times, hollered, "Make it hot, brakes" and in a few seconds I was heading out toward the center-line behind a six foot prop on a 16 foot airplane.

I had taxied the airplane before and I knew the tailwheel had a weird feeling. The unit would track straight ahead with no problem at all, but the second a rudder was touched the tailwheel would dart in that direction. To keep it on center by using actual pressure was a real trick, since it kept falling off that "high spot" and sliding one way or the other. If left alone, the wheel never moved. Later on, we found a couple healthy squirts from a grease gun solved the entire problem.

Oddly, as I turned onto the runway I felt none of the feelings I had anticipated. I expected to worry about being entrusted with six months worth of everyone's work. I should have been con-cerned about making a fool out of myself in front of so many peo-ple. There are lots of external thoughts that should have been in my mind. But none were there. The brain cells were too busy try-ing to absorb and compute what was being seen and felt. Some-where in my brain some sort of control center had taken over and was concentrating on the business at hand. Among other things, it wanted to impress on the brain what the three-point attitude looked like so it could be dupli-cated during round-out when coming back to land. The image seen around the nose was being memorized by that internal control center so that any unwanteds turn would be more quickly noticed.

The sight picture over and around the nose was like nothing I'd seen recently but it didn't seem strange. Nothing about the airplane felt strange. Granted, I couldn't see straight ahead, but visibility to either side of the nose was excellent, and there was enough airplane in front that any movement was difficult to miss. The trick was correcting that movement of the nose without overcontrolling. With the "high spot" in the tailwheel, I was going to tread carefully.

I put my head back and stared straight ahead, seeing only what was in peripheral vision and ignoring what was directly ahead. By doing that, I was seeing both sides of the runway at which gave a lot more input on the actions of the nose. That done, I started the little throttle lever forward.

I hadn't expected much in the way of acceleration from the 65-hp Lycoming, but the mahogany kept pushing persistently on my back as the airplane began gathering speed. I pushed forward on the stick, asking the tail to come up level which it did and I held a tail low position until the airflow over those tiny wings generated just a little more than 507 pounds of lift and the tires left the ground.

In most airplanes, that would have been a good time to begin monitoring airspeed to hold best rate of climb speed, but since no such speed had been established, the name of the game was do what the airplane was telling me. Keeping a purposely flat attitude, I increased the angle of attack a tiny increment at a time. After each increment, I'd wait a second and see what the airplane said. Eventually, it said that I'd gone one increment too far and didn't want to climb anymore, so I dropped the nose attitude, while bending the airplane around to keep within easy gliding distance of several runways. As the nose worked around the turn, I mentally kept track of where this amount of energy would let me go should the Lycoming decide it had enough. I'd estimate it was climbing at a minimum of 800 fpm, since it easily out climbed the Citabria.

At this point, Carl's Clipped Cub comment came to mind. He was right. Leveling off, I rocked the wings and played with the rudder. The plane had much more roll rate than the Clipped Cub but otherwise reacted exactly the same. Using no rudder, the number One Pitts had very little adverse yaw, when the ailerons were fed in. This shouldn't have been surprising, considering the tiny wing span.

Tiny wing span: That's another thing which should have felt strange but didn't. Actually, with the cool, damp morning air whipping past the cockpit and the cockpit seemingly bigger than it was, the airplane was very familiar and this wasn't because I had a reasonable amount of Pitts time. In fact, it was the Pitts time that let me know this airplane was totally different.

There is an intangible feeling to an airplane flying on its wings and not the engine. A Pitts, as we've come to know it, cleaves the air aside in a wire-braced shockwave like a bullet. It rips through the air in an authoritative way that lets every molecule of air know a Pitts has passed. The pilot knows he's in a Pitts because he has complete control. His atmospheric environment means nothing, since gravity and the other mundane forces of nature no longer exist. He simply over powers the laws of physics with brute force.

Number One doesn't feel that way. Yes, it rolled into a 60 degree bank the second I thought about it, but it actually "flies" around the corner rather than pushing hard against the air - like an Indy car straining at the very edge of traction. When the plane lifted off, my right hand was sensing something not expected. It felt lift. The wings had filled with it and, when full enough, had lifted off the runway and had no hint of settling back. In a modern Pitts, in that same situation, back pressure would have been increased, first to establish a positive climb and, second, to keep the speed down - converting all that amazing energy into an amazing climb.

I got the carb heat, brought the power back and let the speed fall off. In fact, as I brought the nose up, the speed disappeared almost immediately, a fact I mentally logged as worth remembering on landing. At some point, the stick was in my lap and the airplane was mushing, the wings trying to roll ever so gently right. I sensed the air was going past more vertically than horizontally as the rate of descent rapidly built. The plane is a biplane and acts like one. Drag was high, actually out of proportion with size. During a glide, I brought the power up to where the prop just barely quit "whispering" as the rpm caught up with the forward speed, so the relative air wasn't trying to motor the prop. This decreased the rate of descent drastically.

Opposite the numbers, I cut the power back and dropped the nose. I had no intention of slowing the airplane to an approach speed, since slow speed experiments had shown it would come down like a dandelion thistle, power-off and the glide slope would have been too steep. I trusted on the traditional biplane drag and motored through the approach at something just under cruise speed. In true Pitts fashion, I kept doing a 180 degree constant turn to the threshold. Wanting to hedge my bets, I added just a little power before beginning the flair.

Again, forcing my head back to concentrate on the peripheral vision, I began trying to anticipate the attitude mentally pictured on takeoff. I tried to match that attitude, as the runway came up and, when things looked right, the power was ever so slowly brought back to idle, depositing the airplane on the runway in a three-point. Then I decided to screw up.

Landing straight and in a three-point had been so much on my mind I forgot my own advice about leaving the rudders alone. I touched one. Mistake! The rudder came left and the airplane jumped left. I punched right. Then had to immediatly punch left. I got off the rudders and the airplane instantly, as in absolutely instantly, straightened out and coasted to a leisurely halt. The repli-ca didn't need my help for anything and at no time did I feel the rigid gear. Even though it was welded solid, the gear acted total-ly normal. If I had dropped the plane hard, that may have been another matter.

As I unstrapped and people gathered around, they wanted to know what I thought and I said the same line I've said, when getting out of an awful lot of airplanes, "It ain't no Pitts." In this case, that was a real compliment.

We've grown so used to high horsepower and brute performance, we've forgotten what happens when a moderate amount of horsepower is put in a really light airplane. We forget that Betty Skelton single-handedly wrote several chapters of aerobatic his-tory in Little Stinker with only 85-hp. We also forget how gentlemanly an airplane can be when kept light with landing speeds reduced. Old Number One is a Pitts Special any competent Champ pilot could easily fly and feel comfortable with. This is saying a lot, since a normal Pitts will take a normal Champ pilot and chew him up and spit him out. This is a Pitts Special in the air, where it counts, but it touches down somewhere around 45-50 mph rather than 65-70mph. During approach, compared to a newer Pitts, everything is happening in slow motion.

When Curtis Pitts originally designed the airplane and put out plans in 1960, the craft was designated as the S-1C. The "C" stood for Continental, since the 100-hp O-200 was to be the preferred engine. Only the tiniest handful were built with that engine be-fore the horsepower race took off. The 65-hp Lycoming I flew behind in Number One, weighs only 165 pounds. The 180-hp Lycoming, most new Pitts fly with weights 100 pounds more plus another 50 pounds or so in instruments, structure, propeller etc. putting the weight of a new S-1S at 800 pounds depending on the skill of the builder. The weight and the power make the personalities of the two airplanes totally different.

I've flown Number One a few times since that first flight and each time, I've come to like it better. It is an airplane with a lot of joy in its soul and I'm pleased to have been associated with it. When it is placed in the EAA Museum alongside the prototype S-2 two-hole Pitts Big Stinker, however, it is sad how many people are going to walk past it and misjudge its performance and character. This is a fun airplane that anyone can fly. And that's saying a bunch.

Are plans available? No, but that's not to say a set of early S-1C plans couldn't be found and a light airplane built. There's no way the airplane would touch the 507 pound empty weight of Number One, and it shouldn't be expected to since the structure is so light. We know of at least one Continental powered Pitts that weighed in at around 580 pounds. Plans for the S-1C are no longer commercially available but with over 2500 sets sold, they shouldn't be impossible to find. We know, for instance, the EAA has a set of 1967 plans in their library, because we gave it to them. Maybe they can make a copy. (Editor's note from the year 2000: Steel Aerolab now offers S-1C plans for sale. 828/652-7382)

For someone who wants a great flying, aerobatic airplane but doesn't need either the cost or landing spookiness of the big engine airplanes, a light Pitts is well worth the time. It's even possi-ble to build and finish the basic airframe for around $5000. The total cost then becomes a function of the engine.

Who knows, with the price of gas, engines and everything in general going bonkers, maybe it's time for a kinder, gentler type of Pitts. BD