Okay, let’s 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 we’ll
all tell you the same thing: there are airplanes and there are Pitts
Specials and the two shouldn’t be confused.
There’s 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 weren’t 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 know—this sounds pretty sophomoric. At least it’ll
read that way to the non-Pitts pilots reading this. All the Pitts freaks
are nodding their heads and grinning. They know what I’m talking
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 “special” in 1945.
The reality is that it doesn’t matter. The airplane is what it
is and Curtis, a self-proclaimed “red neck engineer” of
the old school, designed it around what he knew at the time and it came
out nearly perfect.
Although he wasn’t an engineer, he knew what he didn’t didn’t
want in his little airplane because he’d flown enough other airplanes—WACO’s,
Great Lakes, Sterman—to know that when it came to aerobatics they
weren’t 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 “slow” from his airplane’s
vocabulary, it needed to be compact. Long wings don’t 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 ’45 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 didn’t change until the S-1D and then S-1S introduced four-ailerons
in the late 1960’s. 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, it’s 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 “normal”
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 “normal” pilots often
don’t 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 you’ve made friends with a Pitts you find you’ve 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.
There’s a reason people don’t point out the Cherokee pilots
on an airport. There’s also a reason everyone know who flies a
Pitts. Got the message?