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New to a Pitts

By Gordon Penner, MCFI-A
Pitts S-1
Steve Buchenroth’s Pitts S-1

Pitts S-1
Steve (second from left) after winning Wing Gun Meet…on time and on target to the second!

Steve Buchenroth
Steve Buchenroth

Pitts S-1
Gordon (lower right) tours the Pitts as Steve observes from behind the cockpit.

Steve Buchenroth is the proud owner of a Pitts S-1. This is the tale of his journey, one that isn’t even close to a straight line. Some of you who have been trying to achieve your dream of flying a Pitts while life intervenes can take heart from his story. The dream can still happen. This also adds heat to the point that the Pitts can eat your lunch if you don’t respect it and have the right attitude – and the right training. Just because the Pitts has been eclipsed by the monoplanes at the Unlimited level, it doesn’t mean the Pitts has any less power than it had when the plane was a world beater in the ’60s, ’70s, and ’80s.

Steve is the owner and operator of Midwest Corporate Air at the “new” Bellefontaine, Ohio, airport. He took over and purchased the business from Lynn Duff, the widow of husband and co-owner Mike Duff, who died in 1998. Steve was one of Mike’s original students in 1982. Steve has worked hard to establish Midwest Corporate Air as a leader in multiengine training with the Diamond Twin Star. He also runs some other businesses, so he doesn’t exactly have a mountain of available time. But in the middle of all this activity, he has always had a dream of owning and flying a Pitts Special.

Steve is no stranger to aerobatic flight. He was a weapons system officer (WSO) in the F-4 Phantom in the U.S. Air Force. The WSO was the back seater in the Phantom who ran the targeting radar, weapons, and electronic warfare (jamming) electronics.

This crew position was just like that of Goose in Top Gun, but in the Navy it’s called a RIO, which stands for radar intercept officer. RIOs and WSOs are trained as navigators first, and then they go through the fighter weapons school, finishing with air-to-air schooling like you saw in Top Gun, except for it being a lot more work and a lot less Hollywood. Steve laughingly calls his job in the F-4 as being a “high-speed cheerleader.” Imagine riding around in those hard g turns, trying to get your eyes and your weapons on the bad guy. Imagine also how hard and smart you need to be when maneuvering if a bad guy is on your tail. I wonder how heavy that helmet got when pulling 5 to 8 g’s!

Unlike the Navy aircraft, the Air Force F-4 had a stick in the rear cockpit. WSOs trained on how to do air refuelings, how to fly formation, and how to do back seat landings. If the front seater got shot up, the GIB (guy in back) would have to do these things.

Steve got his instrument, commercial, and multi-engine certificates in the late ’80s/early ’90s while still flying the F-4 in the U.S. Coast Guard. He also flew pipeline patrol during that time. His certified flight instructor (CFI) rating was acquired around 2000. All the while, like all of us, he was watching lightplane aerobatics at air shows, knowing it was different from what he had tasted in the F-4. He wanted some of that.

Steve bought his Pitts in the fall of 2007. He knew there were tons of hidden maintenance issues with Pitts S-1s that had been flown hard and put away wet, so he was very leery before buying one. But the seller was Ed McCormick from Kenton, Ohio. Steve already knew him as a great mechanic and trusted him. All Steve needed now was some Pitts training. Oh, if he could just find the time…

Right after buying the Pitts, Steve had to put it away. Business was increasing at Midwest Corporate Air, which required longer and longer hours. It was hard keeping CFIs because at that time they were getting snapped up by the Regionals, even with low flight time. His other businesses required his attention. Then Steve also got a job as a corporate pilot for Crown Aviation from 2007 to 2008, earning type ratings in the Sabreliner and Hawker. There was a divorce shoehorned in there somewhere, too. Then the economy went bad in October of 2008, which really required all work and no play. Man, sometimes it seems that, just as you’re getting up off the mat, you get knocked down to the mat again!

The poor, lonely airplane sat for two years. To make matters worse, at a Bellefontaine airport event, when the Pitts was out on static display in 2008, a kid broke the pitot tube off. As some of you may know, the pitot tube goes into the lower wing leading edge, so this isn’t an easy fix. That would have to be repaired before he could fly.

Once the economy leveled off and all the businesses had settled down a bit, Steve decided that life was too short and that he needed to make some headway on his dreams. One of those dreams was to fly the Pitts. He went to Budd Davisson in September of 2009 and took his course on flying and landing the Pitts. Now he had the training he needed, but an airspeed system issue wasn’t getting fixed easily.

He started making inroads into the airspeed problem, but it took longer than he thought. After the maintenance was handled, he got air show performer Brett Hunter to fly the Pitts and give his opinion. Once the Pitts was deemed flyable, we had to deal with Steve’s lack of Pitts currency (as in currentness). Budd’s course was good, and Steve just needed a brush-up. So we put Steve in the back seat of the Decathlon for a series of back seat (blind) emergency landings, simulating a Pitts approach profile.

These simulations put his currency back where it needed to be. Finally, after basically three years, Steve is flying his own Pitts Special. He made sure there was no wind and a ton of runway, both ahead and to the sides. He was feeling like a kid after that successful first flight. The second flight came the next day. What a tortuous road!

As a brand-new Pitts pilot, what are Steve’s impressions? He feels it’s a joy in the air, and the ease with which he can do any maneuver just puts a smile on his face. “You think it and it does it,” he says. The problem isn’t in the flying. It’s in the landing. Steve says, “Learning to fly a Pitts is learning to see. It is like going down the highway at 80 mph with your hood up. Learning that picture was the hardest.”

Once the landing picture is learned, the day eventually comes when you have to take that deep breath and take the single seater up. “With Budd or with Gordon with me, there was a security blanket. It is a naked feeling flying the single seater. As Budd Davisson would say, “It makes your eyeballs sweat.” “

“Flight time in another area does not really matter, except maybe as background,” says Steve. “I cut engines at critical times all day as a multiengine instructor, but this is different. It really is like starting over. I can’t stress that enough. The Pitts weighs less than my motorcycle, and things happen so fast. On that first takeoff, I was through 140 mph in no time. I like that in an airplane!”

Steve is definitely now a tailwheel training believer. We have converted him to our religion, that all pilots should be required to have tailwheel training. It would make them all better pilots. But the Pitts is a step above that, for sure, which gets us to the charge that the Pitts is a “squirrelly airplane.”

Curtis Pitts was quoted as saying, “There are no such things as squirrelly airplanes, just squirrelly pilots.” I believe that to be true, but in the days when almost all airplanes had a tailwheel, even low-time pilots had a higher level of landing proficiency. When the task was at a higher level, all who wanted to fly rose to meet it. Curtis was trained in that era.

Budd Davisson says, “The airplane is not squirrelly. The airplane will only do what you tell it to. It will react instantaneously to all your inputs.” This is because there’s absolutely no lag between control input and reaction, as I found to be true myself. If the airplane is jittering around, freeze your hand. The airplane will stop jittering instantly. During my Pitts checkout, Brett told me about watching for overcorrection. “It only takes moving the stick the width of your fist to counter a 15-knot crosswind.” Sensitive and powerful. Steve says, “If you are thinking you are already overcorrecting, so cut your thoughts in half!”

Old joke. The definition of a good landing is one you can walk away from. The definition of a great landing is that not only can you walk away from it, you get to use the airplane again! Is Steve relaxing now that he is making “great” landings? Heck no. He has himself on a strict regimen. Now that he has gotten himself to this point, he isn’t going to let it slip away.

Steve flies the Pitts every other day, initially keeping the wind to less than a 5-knot crosswind component and to no more than a 10- to 12-knot headwind component. Brett gave Steve an approach speed to use, but Steve felt initially that it was too slow. Steve comes in a little faster, which gives him quite a float. That’s okay – the runway is really long.

When he gets better, he’ll work back to Brett’s suggested approach speed; Brett did say that it’s okay to go fast initially for more time to work on the flare. Being slow, however, is a definite no-no. Steve is also doing a stall series up high to check for feel, attitude, and any airspeed errors. Airspeed errors are usually greatest at your slowest speed, and it takes awhile to get comfortable in that area between best glide speed and stall speed. But the best pilots are at home there, even if they’re flying what a 1930s pilot would call a “hot ship.”

We congratulate Steve on his accomplishment, and for those of you that are on the same “trail of tears,” take heart. It will happen if you don’t give up.

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