A Grand Night
By Jean Sorg
Inspriational. Moving. It was an historical night to remember.
The date was August 10, 1987. The occasion was the very first induction ceremonies into the newly-created Aerobatics Hall of Fame. The place was the beautiful EAA Aviation Center complex in Oshkosh, Wisconsin.
Nearly 100 people gathered there to pay homage that evening to the four men who had been selected as the premiere inductees. How appropriate were the choices. How diverse, yet far-reaching were their contributions to the sport of aerobatics – one, the consummate author of a mathematical scoring and cryptographic diagramming system of aerobatic maneuvers and sequences; one, the dean of aerobatics in sheer hours expended as an instructor, author and showman; one, the creative genius behind the design and development of the most popular, successful and enduring biplane to grace the sport; and one, the ultimate patriot who first carried our nation’s banner into the world arena of competition aerobatics.
That night, Jose Aresti, Duane Cole, Curtis Pitts and Frank Price shared the achievement of having reached the pinnacle of recognition in our sport. They had already shared the linkage of the fraternity of aerobatic pioneers.
How great it was that all four were, and are still alive to reap such acclaim for their endeavors. How great it was for the assemblage to greet, visit with and congratulate three of the four in person. But Aresti, who had been unable to come from Spain, did send his regards and thanks by cable.
Highlight of the special celebration had to be the personal contact with the honorees. Enhancing it all were the remarks by Dick Rihn, and IAC Director; Tom Poberezny, President ot the EAA Aviation Foundation; and Mike Heuer, President of the IAC and CIVA. All three were members of the Aerobatics Hall of Fame Selection Committee with Rihn serving as Chairman.
So that all IACeres might share somewhat in the momentous proceedings, the special address by Poberezny and the keynote speech by Heuer are reprinted here in their entirety. To read them is to journey through aerobatic history.
Aerobatics Hall of Fame Biographies
An Address by Tom Poberezny
President EAA Aviation Foundation
Curtis H. Pitts
Curtis H. Pitts. No other aircraft design in the world has been used as widely by aerobatic pilots, no other aircraft has been in the winners’ circle as often, and no other aircraft has won as much respect and admiration as the Pitts Special. It is the product of a genius.
It is a tool, but it’s also a shrine; it transcends its own limitations. It is to aerobatics what the telephone is to business and has reached a point where we can no longer imagine life in the aerobatic box without it.
Perhaps 75 percent of the competition aerobatic flying done in this country, in Canada, and western Europe is done with the Pitts Special. In the Advanced and Unlimited categories, at least 90 percent of the flying in this country is done with a Pitts. And the design dates back to 1942.
Curtis was born in 1915 and soloed in 1934, two years after he built his first airplane. That first project was guided by the pages of an old flying manual. It was a parasol model with a Model T engine in it. He never flew it since a wind gust caused it to cart-wheel during a taxi test. Curtis sold the remnants for $6.00.
He learned to fly in an E-2 Cub, then moved to Jacksonville, Florida, from Ocala, to start an eight year tenure with the railroad. During that time he started another aircraft, using some old Heath Parasol parts and a three – cylinder Szekely. In 1940, he shifted over to full – time aircraft work, taking on a position with a naval aircraft repair shop. He wanted to fly aerobatics but found the existing biplanes around too heavy, too big and too expensive. He began thinking about designing his own airplane for aerobatics.
Curtis had a high school diploma and took a correspondence course in engineering. He coupled his book knowledge with on-the-job training and an incredibly refined intuitive feeling for aerodynamics.
In 1942, Curtis began devoting some of his spare time to building the first Pitts Special. He put a 55 hp Lycoming in it and the total empty weight of the aircraft was below 500 pounds. The first Pitts Special took to the air in 1945. Though it performed well in comparison to aircraft of that period, the 55 was soon set aside for a 90 hp Franklin and a homemade inverted fuel system. A fuel problem later contributed to the loss of that prototype, but by 1947, he was working on the second aircraft with an 85 hp Continental.
Originally dubbed NX86401, it was changed to N22E and was to become famous in the hands of Betty Skelton. Nicknamed the “Little Stinker,” it drew a tremendous crowd wherever it was parked or flown. Betty became a winner in competitions and in airshows around the country.
Shortly after Little Stinker, Curtis built his first and only copy of “Samson,” a 450 Pratt and Whitney powered biplane which had essentially an enlarged Pitts Special airframe.
Between his responsibilities as an FBO and cropduster, he designed and built a couple racing aircraft. But he kept coming back to aerobatics.
In the 1950’s, the airshow business was pretty slow, so Curtis ceased his work with aircraft designing and building. His mind never stopped, however, and in the corners of his imagination, the lines began to fall in place for the S-2A.
In 1955, Curtis moved to Homestead, Florida, and began by this time to feel some pressure to produce plans for the Pitts Special. Bill Dodd mounted his own campaign to get Curtis to produce the drawings and bugged him constantly. In 1962, they became available and the aircraft was on its way to immortality.
About the same time, Curtis began experimenting with symmetrical airfoils. He recognized the potential for improved maneuverability, but it took a lot of time and work to come up with a successful design. We take the symmetrical airfoil for granted today, but pioneering the project placed some pretty complex demands on Curtis. In 1967, the first Pitts was flying with symmetrical wings and the four aileron system we know today. That same year the first S-2A made it to the flight line and was introduced to the public at the EAA Fly-In at Rockford, Illinois.
It wasn’t long after that before the S-2A was certificated. Production of the two-place began in Afton, Wyoming back in 1970. Pitts Aviation Enterprises began turning out S-2As and then versions of the S-1, which also went through certification. Today there are hundreds of Pitts Specials out in the field. Though there have been some significant developments in monoplanes, nothing has offered a serious challenge to the popularity and winning record chalked up by the Pitts Special.
Curtis has been very conservative in modifying and modernizing the Pitts, but he has kept pace with the needs of the sport.
Remarkably, in a world caught up in progressive technology, where change seems to be the only constant, the basic airframe, the outward appearance of the Pitts Special, is still what it was when it was first put together four and one-half decades ago. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, “Thank you, Mr. Pitts.”