October 1, 2000
Steven W. Ells
Ray Stits is an aviation renaissance man. What else could you call a man who designed 15 airplanes, built up an aircraft homebuilder's supply business that predated the huge parts operations of today, and created a nonflammable aircraft covering system—all without a day of advanced formal education?
Stits, born in Phoenix, Arizona, grew up during the Great Depression and taught himself aerodynamics, chemistry, and business practices by reading books he was able to obtain from local libraries. "Everything I wanted to know was in a book. I would have liked to have gone to college, but I didn't have the money. So I got the books from the library and studied like hell. I missed all the parties, but I learned what I needed to know," said Stits.
Airplanes and aviation were his passion from a young age. "When I was 12 years old I knew what I wanted to do. I used to walk 55 blocks to the Sky Harbor airport. I had the run of the place—the only thing they wouldn't let me do was take my bike into the terminal. Those were the happiest days of my life."
In 1941 Stits paid $150 for a three-month aviation maintenance familiarization program conducted by Southwest Airways in Glendale, Arizona. Upon completion Stits was given a job. Southwest Airways was training foreign students for the Lend Lease programs, and Stits worked on BT–13, AT–6, and PT–17 training aircraft.
Following a three-year stint in the Army Air Corps maintaining B–24s during World War II, Stits married his present wife, Edith.
After his release from the Army, Stits bought a wrecked 60-horsepower Cub and rebuilt it. After some rudimentary instruction, Stits taught himself to fly and was signed off as a private pilot in 1946.
At about this time Steve Wittman designed and built an airplane with a 12-foot wingspan. In 1948 Stits, using his experience and books from the library, designed and built "The World's Smallest Airplane"—his first design that he dubbed the Stits SA–1 Junior. As Stits tells it, "Someone said it couldn't be done—so I went ahead and did it."
The first showing of his Junior was at the All American Air Maneuvers gathering in Opa Locka, Florida, in 1950. When the Junior took to the air, everyone wanted to see it and write magazine articles about the world's smallest airplane. The money that came from appearance fees helped Stits create his first homebuilt airplane design—the Stits Playboy.
In 1951 Stits packed up his family and moved to Phoenix, where he signed on with Grand Central Aircraft rebuilding B–29s. Working on the night shift allowed Stits to use the daylight hours to continue his aircraft designing. Before long the shortage of light aircraft building materials in Phoenix—4130 and mild steel tubing, spruce for spars, and hardware—had slowed his projects. Stits studied the situation and made a move to Fla-Bob Airport in Riverside, California. He's been there ever since.
After a carb-icing problem resulted in a crash of the world's smallest plane, Stits built in 1951 an even smaller biplane design that he called the Stits SkyBaby —wingspan 7 feet, 2 inches. This airplane was flown by Lester Cole, of the Cole Brothers fame, in the Los Angeles County Air Fair in Pomona in 1952. Soon after, the airshow business cooled, and Pacific AirMotive in Chino, California, Stits' night-shift employer, shut down the night shift. Stits moved to Lockheed to continue his dual existence as a wage earner and homebuilt-airplane designer.
In late 1953 he received a letter from Paul Poberezny asking him to join a homebuilder's club. Upon Stits' urging, Poberezny altered the bylaws to allow chapters, so Stits gathered together 10 locals and formed Riverside Chap-ter 1. This group grew to become the Experimental Aircraft Association.
As Stits put it, "The Playboy went off pretty good," and soon a two-place Playboy followed. In 1955 the Flutter-bug, a simple single-place Volkswagen engine-powered design followed; then a two-place Flutterbug; then the original ultralight, the Skito, came off the drawing boards.
Up to this time Stits had been following his destiny but wasn't making a lot of money. Burning some old covering material—cotton fabric covered with nitrate dope—changed all that when Stits got flash burns from the vigorous combustion that followed. Stits, wanting to create a safer covering material, dug out some chemistry books and developed the Poly-Fiber fabric covering process. In 1965 he received a type certificate for the process, and it was such a success that he sold off the rest of his thriving building material warehouse.
Stits sold the Poly-Fiber process in 1992. Today he devotes his time to flying EAA Young Eagles. At last count he has flown 853—his goal is to introduce 1,000 young people to flying by providing rides in his 1976 Cessna 182. True to form, Stits has developed and acquired an STC to allow him to carry three junior birdmen in the backseat of his airplane. This year he's passing on his love of aviation by sponsoring four young people to the EAA academy in Oshkosh.
Stits' boyhood love affair with aviation continues.
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SocialFlight users can now publish events via Facebook and Twitter.
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AOPA thanks our members for their continued support in protecting the freedom to fly.