Buying a Pitts Special

By Ian Henehan 2006


So there I was, mashing on the rudder pedals wishing the screeching would stop. The Pitts was hopping from one side of the runway to the other. My instructor was yelling at the top of his lungs, “Don’t ground loop! Don’t ground loop!”


Maybe I should back up a little and explain how I got here.

I moved back to Texas a couple years ago. I had been living in Portland, Oregon, where I had managed to secure a Private Pilot license. First it was a sailplane rating and then a few months later, a single-engine land rating. A tail wheel endorsement was added to the list the following spring.


A couple days after arriving in Texas, I was wandering around a local airport. I walked into the flight school to look into starting an instrument rating. I wasn’t that excited about it, but it was a step towards instructing. I wasn’t planning on teaching for a living, but my nephew could almost reach the rudder pedals. He has high expectations for his uncle the pilot.


It was a nice school. There was a hangar full of new 172 SP’s, a Citabria and, wait a minute, isn’t that a Super Decathlon in the corner? My plans changed before I made it to the office.


I asked about renting the Decathlon and what kind of training was available. The owner, Mark, laid out the program for me. Since I didn’t have make and model time, I would need ten hours of dual before I could take it out by myself. This seemed reasonable, so I pulled out the credit card and signed up.


The Decathlon was an easy transition. After a couple lessons in the pattern, we started on basic spin training. I had done spin training in sailplanes and Cessnas, so this was familiar territory. After seeing a few with four or five turns I was ready for the fun stuff. The instructor demonstrated a plain aileron roll and then let me have at it. It only took four and I was starting to feel a little disconnected. I pressed on for a few more. Suddenly I knew I was in bad shape. I gave the plane back to the instructor and he made a beeline for the field.


I was never so disappointed with myself. We were just starting to have some fun and now I had a whopping case of motion sickness coming on. We taxied up to the school and I managed to climb out of the plane. I found a nice cool spot to lie in the grass and let the things settle down. What a rip! This was the last thing I expected. The iron gut had caved after a few simple rolls. The instructor explained how it takes a few flights to start building up a tolerance, but I was pretty sure he was just being charitable. Just to be sure, I scheduled another round for the next day.



The second day was a little better. My goal was to figure out when I’d had enough, but could still land the plane. The rolls didn’t seem as bad, but the loops were hurting me. After a few loops, I called it off. At least this time I could still fly the plane. I was still miserable, but at least I was in control. This pattern went on for a few lessons. Each time, we could do a little more. Each time, my gyros seemed to reset a little faster. When we finished up the required ten hours, I was actually having a lot of fun. Work hadn’t started up yet, so I pulled out the credit card and bought another ten hour block.


A few weeks later, I finished up the block time and had to call it quits. I told them I would be back, once I was working again. The job market didn’t start cooperating for a few months. By the time I had the funds again, the Decathlon had been sold. I was stuck with a new acro habit, but without a ride.

The Decision

It didn’t take long to realize that I would have to supply my own plane if I wanted to continue learning aerobatics. I had already built and flown one small experimental, so I figured I could do it again. It would help to keep it inexpensive, but that ruled out most of the common choices. I had it in my mind that something with a light wing loading and a small engine could work well. There are only a couple planes that fit the bill.

The only one that seemed to have much potential was a Cassutt with the sport wing. Not exactly the light wing loading I was looking for, but the engine seemed feasible. After all, the Stephens Acro was derived from Formula One technology. The Cassutt has some drawbacks, so I set out to rearrange some things. A little more wing area and tail volume seemed like a good idea. It didn’t take long to run the numbers and settle on a preliminary design. It retained the same basic structure. I ordered some steel and spent a month welding up a fuselage.


As I worked on the airframe, I kept running into problems with the engine choice. There are a couple engines around 100hp, but they all had drawbacks and I never really liked the compromises that would be required.


As the engine complications continued, I kept my eyes open for a plane that could be bought outright. I was surprised to discover the low prices on many single seat Pitts. It took some time and research to get the details figured out. Finally I realized that I could buy a flying Pitts for about the same money as finishing my project and start flying at least a year sooner. I wrote off my new fuselage to experience and starting looking for the right plane to buy.

Finding the Plane

I was new to the world of little biplanes. It took some time to sort out the differences between the different models. Bud Davidson’s Pitts articles were a big help. I narrowed the search down to S1-C’s and S1-S’s. The preferred configuration would be an S1-S with 180 hp. An S1-C with an O-320 would be an option if I ran across a good deal.


I started combing through Barnstormers and Trade-A-Plane. I talked to a couple sellers, but none of the planes seemed to be right. I also made my search known on the American Aerobatics list, just in case.


A few weeks after posting to the list, I got a response from a gentleman in Virginia. He had been thinking about selling his S1-S, but wanted to find the right home for it. It was the configuration that I wanted, so we started talking.


He had built the plane in the late seventies and had been the only pilot. It was in annual and still getting flown on a regular basis. As we talked, I got the impression that he wasn’t just selling an airplane. He was looking for the right person to take on a plane that had been a significant part of his flying life for almost thirty years. Out of the handful of planes he had owned over the years, this one was a little more special. We hit it off well and spent the next couple months sorting out the details. He made it clear that he would only sell me the plane if I got some quality training in a Pitts first. It took some time, but I finally tracked down a school that could help out.


The closest training I could find was in Houston at Harvey Rihn Aviation. They have a Pitts S-2B that’s available for transition, acro and advanced spin training. It was a little difficult to get my schedule lined up with their instructor’s availability. In mid March, I drove to Houston and finally was going to get a chance to see what a Pitts was all about.


“Don’t ground loop! Keep it straight! Easy on the brakes!” This was tougher than I expected. I thought I had a light touch, but this was nuts. Finally we were slow enough to take the next turnoff. At last, a break. “That was pretty good, except you were hot crossing the fence. See how much runway you used up?” At that point I was happy to stay on the pavement. If that was a decent landing, I would hate to see a bad one.


We had gone up the day before for a quick orientation flight. The first take-off was better described as a launch. It happened so fast, it was difficult to take it all in. Once we were away from the airport, the instructor gave me the controls. Wow! This thing handles like a dream. It’s so easy to fly, but so much power waiting in the controls. I found myself making adjustments by moving a toe or flexing a finger. We ran through slow flight and stalls and there weren’t any surprises. I found the plane to be very honest and predictable.


The landings were shaping up pretty fast, so we got started with the spin training. The lessons began on the ground with a discussion about what effects yaw and roll rates in a spin. This was a more detailed look into the dynamics of the spins we would be executing. This was a great help in the air, as I had a more thorough understanding of the control inputs we were using.


The first upright spin was fun. He had me hold it in for about ten turns, which is about six more than I’ve ever done in the Super D. It was a conventional left rudder spin with no power. The next item in the queue was an upright accelerated spin to the left. This was new territory. I thought I knew what to expect from the briefing, but I completely underestimated the real thing. We did two turns to get stabilized and then I started feeding in forward stick. As the nose dropped the roll rate went off the map. The ground turned into a grey swirl and I immediately lost track of the turn count. Just before I thought my head would tear off, the instructor called for the recovery. I was happy to oblige. The recovery was easy and immediate. The spinning in my head took a little longer.


We tried spins with throttle to watch the nose react to the gyroscopic forces of the prop. In and out-spin aileron were tried as well. The finale for the day was the full-blown upright flat spin. My next lessons would cover inverted spins.


I’ll admit that I was less than excited about inverted spins. Judging by my gut’s poor reaction to sustained upright spins, the inverted stuff could only be worse. Two weekends later, I was climbing back into the front hole of the Pitts and we were on our way. We started with inverted slow flight. I could hold speed pretty well, but my feet were all over the place. The illusion of rolling the wrong way was tough to beat. When I finally lasted a reasonable length of time, he let me off the hook and we started into the actual spins.


We followed a sequence similar to the upright spins. The first was a plain vanilla, right-rudder spin. The entry seemed a little rude, but it wasn’t too bad overall. I was encouraged. Maybe I was starting to acclimate a little. The inverted accelerated spin removed that notion from my head. As I was trying to collect my wits, while hanging from the straps, I remember one thing going through my head. “I’m paying good money to do this ON PURPOSE!” What kind of nutjob puts himself through this brain blender, just for fun? I guess the answer is obvious, but it needed asking at the time.

We eventually finished up the rest of the inverted spins. I really enjoyed the inverted flat spin. Nice view and easy to count the turns. We worked through reversals and crossovers without any problems. The instructor saved the best for last. He warned me that it would be a wild ride, but again, I didn’t fully grasp the extent.


We would enter an inverted spin with left rudder and count two turns to get stabilized. Then he wanted me to smoothly add right aileron. I don’t remember the sequence of events that clearly, but I’m pretty sure the Pitts stood up on knife-edge through a lot of it. I remember trying to pry my face off of the canopy, while keeping my foot on the left rudder pedal. After a few turns, the recovery was quick and welcomed.


We wrapped up the training with some botched maneuvers and a little basic acro. As a reward for making it that far, the instructor threw in a few emergency simulations back at the field. He was kind enough to set one up for each direction on both runways. The wind was about 15 knots, so the landing with the quartering tailwind was a real treat.


He signed my log, I signed the credit card receipt and we were done. I thanked him for the education and made sure to let the air out of his tires before I drove out of the parking lot.


Truthfully, I like the instructors that push you hard. Anyone can go through the motions, but at least you know these guys are serious about what they do. It made a world of difference when I flew the S-1S for the first time.

Bringing it Home

It was the middle of May. Almost five months after first talking to the owner of the plane. He let me know early, that he wasn’t in a hurry, so I shouldn’t worry about my schedule or the plane getting sold to someone else. That helped a bunch, but the waiting was killing me. I booked a flight to Newport News and headed out on a Wednesday afternoon.


The owner picked me up at the airport. He was easy to spot with the Pitts hat and shirt. My plane got in early enough that we had time to go to the hangar and take my first look. His hangar had one of the best pairs of airplanes you could ask for. On one side was an immaculate J-3 and in the corner was a little red and white Pitts. After talking and looking at the plane for awhile, I climbed in and tried out the fit.


The cockpit was sparse, with only the bare necessities. It had the familiar smell of old airplane. The stick was taller than the S-2B, but fit well. The rudder pedals were in just the right spot and the brakes were easy to use. Sitting straight up, I could see the front of the cowl over the gas cap. It was much better than the view from the front of the two-seater. It was getting late, so we packed it up for the night.


The next day we reviewed all the numbers again and went over the finer points of running the engine. I had planned to get in some slow flight and stalls before returning to the airport. Then, I was going to shoot a couple low approaches, to get my pattern tuned up. Once I was happy with the approach, I would go ahead and land the first time.

We finally ran out of things to review and it was time to go fly. The engine fired right up and I taxied out. It was a long taxi, so I used the time to get used to the feel of the tail wheel and brakes. No surprises, though everything was a lot lighter than the S-2B. The pattern was empty, so I lined up on the runway and opened the throttle.


By the time I got the tail up, I had moved a few feet left of the centerline. It wasn’t a big deal, but I didn’t bother to get centered again. The plane was off the ground quick. I pulled the nose up to keep 95mph on the dial and shot out of there like a missile.


It didn’t have the raw power of the S-2B, but the feel of the controls was incredible! It made the S-2B feel like a truck. This was going to be fun! As I climbed up to five thousand feet, I played around with the plane, to start making friends. At altitude, I started with some Dutch rolls and S-turns to give the engine a chance to cool down a bit.


I pulled the power back and felt around for the stall. Just like the S-2B, it was easy to feel the stall come on and there was plenty of rudder to keep it straight. Power on stalls were familiar as well. Everything seemed in order, so I pulled up for a simple aileron roll.


This is when I decided how great it was to have an open cockpit. The best view of the earth from a Pitts is usually inverted. It’s a real treat to see that view without any Plexiglas in the way. That was fun, so how about a loop? Up and over like it was on rails. Now I was really sold on open air acro.


I ottered around for about twenty minutes before heading back to the airport. As I entered the crosswind, I started missing the S-2B’s constant speed prop. The S1 took more work to slow down. I got it trimmed for 100mph about halfway through the downwind. My first approach was high and hot. The downwind would have to be moved farther from the runway. I liked the look of the second approach, so I held it about a foot off the runway in a landing attitude for a couple thousand feet.


I decided to land on the third lap. The approach came together nicely and I set it down in the neighborhood of the centerline. I was still a little hot and got a small bounce. The rudder pedals were light but it wasn’t hard to keep it tracking straight. It was a little busier than the bigger Pitts, but not any more difficult. The landing speeds were slower and the lighter wing loading helped out. Having returned to earth with decent style, I taxied back to the hangar instead of pressing my luck. Without a doubt, the dual Pitts time made the difference between a fun first flight and a terrifying first flight.


Franklin, Virginia is about 1200 miles from Dallas, Texas. The route crosses the Blue Ridge Mountains near Asheville, NC and the Mississippi River near Memphis. The weather on Saturday was still clear. The southern edge of a large low pressure area was tickling Asheville and Huntsville, AL. Detroit and Chicago were getting pounded, but it looked pretty good along my intended track.


I got off the ground early and climbed up to seven thousand feet. I was looking for economy, not outright speed and setup for 120mph indicated, with the power back and the engine leaned pretty well. Fuel burn ran between 7.5 and 8 gallons an hour over the course of the trip. My average groundspeed was 110 to 120mph on Saturday. After flying for about an hour, it looked like my planned legs between fuel stops, were a little long. I began adjusting my goals and picked a new airport for the first stop. I squeaked the tires at the Lexington airport with a healthy reserve left over. Each leg would end up closer to 200 miles than the 300 miles I had hoped for. This added an extra fuel stop to the trip. With ten hours of flying and five fuel stops planned, I would have to stay overnight along the way.


After Lexington, I reached the Blue Ridge Mountains. There were a few clouds popping up, but the going was easy. It was a little chilly at altitude, but the view was outstanding. The day went well as the landscape and GPS kept sliding by.


I landed in Mount Pleasant, TX about an hour before sundown. I couldn’t have picked a better place to stop. About 45 minutes later, the Pitts was tucked away in an empty hangar and I was headed to dinner in the courtesy Crown Vic. After some food and a shower, I slept like the dead.


Mount Pleasant is about 130 miles from my home field. It would be an easy hop with no more fuel stops. Flight Services called out west winds of 15 to 20 knots at every altitude I cared about. This would slow me down, but I was still in range with a full tank. The wind was 90 degrees to the runway and about 15kts. It made for an interesting departure. I turned west and started climbing.


At about 3000 feet, I noticed my ground speed picking up. 110 – 125 - 130mph and still rising. At 3500 feet it dropped to 90mph. It didn’t take long to do the math and back down to 3000 feet I went. The ground speed kept increasing as I approached Dallas as long as I stayed within 100 feet of 3000MSL. By the time I hit the city limits I was clocking 175mph with 130mph indicated. I was making great time, but started to get concerned about the landing. No telling what was waiting at NW Regional.


As I rounded the corner past Lake Lewisville, I made sure to do a couple circuits around my folk’s place just to let them know I had made it back. I could see dogs and grandkids running wild, so I figured they knew who it was. The wind let up as I descended to the airport. It was only about 20kts out of the east. Not bad for this time of year. With a little luck, I executed a respectable landing and taxied to the hangar.


Owning a Pitts

Granted, I don’t have much experience with Pitts ownership yet. I’ve had it for barely three weeks and I’m still settling in. I fly it every chance I get and it keeps getting more fun. The only folks that will talk to me anymore are other biplane and Pitts owners. Everyone else is sick of hearing me expound on the virtues of the Pitts. I thought the excitement would die down once I was home, but that hasn’t been the case.


Every time I take it up, I figure out something new about the airplane. It may be the rhythm of a good slow roll, or discovering new and exciting ways to fall out of a hammer head. Every time I land at an airport, folks come over to say hi and look at the plane.


I can spot the Pitts pilots now by the wild-eyed look they get when you talk about snap rolls or anything to do with vertical. Not always a distinguished crowd, but definitely enthusiastic. I seem to have been inducted into a club whether I like it or not. The question is never “How does it fly?” It’s always “How do you like it?”


The correct answer always seems to start with a silly grin and loss for words.