The Rainbow Bird With the Dacron Plumage
With fabric feathers and 200 horsepower in its beak, the Eagle
II was Californian Frank Christensen’s 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
The truth is that the Eagle owes more than a little to the S-2A Pitts
because in the early 1970’s 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 Aircraft’s
offerings) are still the quality standard by which all other kits are
Frank’s design work was aimed at avoiding all of a Pitts’s
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 Christensen’s 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 airplane’s 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
Of course, an Eagle without the distinctive multi-colored feather motif
wouldn’t 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 Industry’s legal department.
From a pilot’s 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 “dense”
feel it to it and grooves through maneuvers better, but at that level
of performance you’re 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.
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