Budd Davisson, Plane and Pilot Magazine
Some losses, even though expected, are so huge, that they are hard to accept
I had just parked in front of my insurance agent’s office and was cursing myself for forgetting to bring the premium check with me, when it hit me. It was as if someone way down at the end of a long, gloomy tunnel had whispered “Curtis just died.” I looked down and had goose bumps on my arms.
The pneumonia that had settled in after his heart valve surgery last month had sucked the strength and spirit from his eight-nine-year-old body. Two days ago, he’d made it clear how he felt about the situation—he pulled the feeding tube from his arm. We all knew what was coming. And this morning, there wasn’t another single thought on my mind but my friend, Curtis Pitts. Then the voice made its proclamation and I turned toward my hangar.
I hadn’t been sitting in the hangar gazing at my airplane more than ten minutes when the phone rang. I knew exactly what it was. Will Teft was on the other end and struggled to tell me that Curtis was gone. Then he broke down and me along with him. I was crying like a nine-year-old and couldn’t even say goodby. Will understood.
I just sat there with no energy or reason to change position and the phone rang again. This time it was Tom Poberezny. He wanted to make sure I had heard. He was in total control of himself. I wasn’t and had to hang up again. Tom, bless his heart, said the right things and he too understood. We had both lost a good friend.
Curtis Pitts had a huge, and I mean HUGE, extended family of friends and everyone of them is feeling what I’m feeling right now. He was hands-down the easiest person to like I’ve ever met and, at the same time, became your friend so quickly it made you feel warm all over.
I had always lusted after Pitts Specials, but it wasn’t until 1968, when I graduated from college, that I took it upon myself to do something about it. I arrived at his shop door unannounced, walked in and introduced myself as a wannabee Pitts pilot. Looking back at it, I now know hundreds, probably thousands, did exactly the same thing over the years. And I know they received the same open-armed welcome I did. I wanted to know about biplanes, and aerobatics, and life in general. And Curtis was instantly ready to share what he knew, which was considerable. He was the most accessible human being I’ve ever known. As busy as he was, he always found time for anyone who walked in the door and had a question or a comment.
Six months later I sent him an order for plans to build his little airplane. I received the plans but my payment check was also in the envelope. An attached note said, “Friends don’t sell other friends paper.” I had spent a total of maybe two hours with him and he had already bestowed the title friend on me. We became closer and my proudest lifetime achievement is having been called “friend” by Curtis Pitts.
To most folks outside of the Pitts community, those of us who fly his little biplanes appear to be just another group of enthusiasts who like a specific kind of flying machine. But, it’s more than that. Once you learn to make love to that sometimes-cantankerous little flying machine, you inevitably find it’s more than a machine. It’s a semi-animate being that becomes a living part of your life. The boundary between man and machine, between mechanical interest and life style, blurs and you find yourself part of a community of kindred souls, all of whom have the same father—Curtis Pitts. Because of that, you are part of a brotherhood. There’s a feeling of family and belonging that’s hard to explain and at the heart of it is the love of a smiling, slow talking gent from Homestead, Florida.
I remember very clearly the last time I sat in a hangar and cried that hard and it wasn’t when my father died. It was when my brother died at the age of 41. His passing didn’t seem possible and, although at his age, Curtis’s death was obviously possible, it wasn’t any more palatable than my brother’s.
After I got myself together, I did something I hadn’t done in at least four years: I removed the front windscreen and camloced the pit cover in place converting my airplane to single-place, rock and roll mode. I saddled up and asked the tower for an early turn out, which my little red machine interpreted as a clawing, upward lunge right off the deck heading north to the practice area. This was the first time in over a thousand hours that I stripped the airplane down to pure akro mode and flew it for myself. Except, I was really flying it for someone else. Two thousand miles away Curtis hadn’t cooled ten degrees and I was taking some of his warmth up where it belonged
As I was kicking into a hammerhead, I couldn’t help but wonder how much smaller my life would have been had it not been for Curtis Pitts, his airplanes and his friendship. The man had the ability to make those of us in his family all feel like giants, both as people and as pilots. His gentle genius taught untold generations what being a worthwhile human being really meant.
Every time I finish the first hour of dual and help un-strap a grinning student, I say, “Welcome to my world.” But it really isn’t my world is it? It’s a world Curtis Pitts invented. It’s a world in which I have been privileged to spend a lifetime and a world for which I will be eternally grateful. Now, as an instructor and human being, the goal is to live up to the standards he inadvertently set simply because of the way he lived his life. No small task.