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After 70 Years Still One of the Best

Despite being a 70-year-old design, the Pitts Special is still one of the most popular aerobatic airplanes in the world.

By Randy Dufault

July 25, 2015 - Curtis Pitts loved to fly and loved aerobatics. So in 1942 he set out to design and build a good-performing, low-powered aircraft exclusively for flying aerobatics. In August of 1945 a little biplane that was the fruition of that effort flew for the first time.

Pitts named the plane the Pitts Special.

Seventy years later the design is still in production and is a mainstay of air show acts and aerobatic competitions. Nearly 50 of the craft have gathered here at EAA AirVenture Oshkosh 2015 to celebrate the 70th anniversary of the first flight and to celebrate the impact of Pitts’ design on aerobatic flying around the world.

Mike Heuer, president of the International Aerobatic Club (IAC) said about the plane, “I guess the remarkable thing is that it is still being used.

“You will see Pitts at every competition we have around the country. It’s not only a 70th anniversary, but it is a celebration of the fact that this airplane still has relevancy and is still enjoyed by pilots today.”

Early on Pitts only built three examples of the type. Serial No. 2 gained national attention when pilot Betty Skelton used the plane she called Little Stinker to perform at major air displays around the world. Skelton’s original plane resides in the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum, but Peter Gauthier of Sonoma, California, has built a very accurate replica. The fuselage of Gauthier’s plane is on display inside the IAC building here at AirVenture 2015.

A serious accident in 1951 caused a virtual halt to air shows for much of that decade. With little demand for dedicated aerobatic airplanes, Pitts simply did not build more examples.

But in 1962 friends in the sport aviation movement convinced Pitts to publish plans for the design. Sold through an ad in Sport Aviation magazine, the plans were an immediate hit with builders.

“Bob Herendeen brought his airplane to Rockford in 1965,” Heuer said of a time before EAA’s signature event moved to Oshkosh. “Nobody knew who he was. Later he became super famous, but he put on a demonstration and everybody was awestruck.

“It was just a small little biplane, and even though Betty [Skelton] had flown one before, it wasn’t really taken seriously.”

Herendeen took his plane to the 1966 World Aerobatic Championships in Moscow for the design’s first showing on an international stage. Bob and his plane performed well, but some were not convinced.

“The Europeans were very skeptical of the airplane at first,” Heuer said. “They thought it was a little toy. Even some of us did, too, when we flew the airplane for the first time.

“When I flew it first in 1969, I looked out at those wingtips, and you could literally touch them. And you think, what is this thing like?

“I couldn’t believe how stable and solid it was…people got over their skepticism real quick.”

The culmination of the Pitts’ aerobatic success came in 1972 when the entire U.S. aerobatic team chose to use the design in the World Aerobatic Championships. That team swept every gold medal with the biplanes.

Pitts eventually developed and certified a two-seat version of the plane. Aviat Aircraft still manufactures it today at its facilities in Afton, Wyoming.

As it is with all designs, the Pitts has evolved over its 70-year history. According to Heuer the biggest changes have been larger and larger engines (the original initially flew on 55 hp). Different wings are another notable modification as are larger rudders.

A comprehensive history of the type is on display inside the IAC building, in addition to the replica of serial No. 2.

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