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Budget Buy: Pitts Special

Cheap thrills

September Briefing Budget Buy

In the cheap thrills department, the Pitts Special is in a league of its own. Tiny, impractical, loud, and demanding, these diminutive biplanes dominated international aerobatic competition in the 1960s and 1970s. In modern times, they’ve been displaced in that arena by larger, more powerful monoplanes—but single-seat Pitts S–1Cs, S–1Ds, S–1Es, and S–1Ss aren’t forgotten. They’ve been adopted by sport fliers who appreciate their Spartan features, exceptional handling qualities, frisky nature, and unique place in aviation history. Airshow performer Betty Skelton’s Pitts S–1 (L’il Stinker) hangs in the Smithsonian, and the Red Devils’ three airplanes are in the EAA Museum. Few other airplanes, regardless of price, can claim similar honors.

Experimental, amateur-built, single-seat Pitts biplanes are widely available at prices beginning around $25,000, and buyers should plan to spend upwards of $35,000 for the more desirable 180-horsepower, four-aileron models.

The Pitts S–1 has a long and winding history. Self-taught aircraft designer Curtis Pitts built the first (with a 55-horsepower Continental engine) in 1944. Betty Skelton flew hers to three consecutive victories as U.S. female aerobatic champion in 1948, 1949, and 1950. Pitts sold plans for the two-aileron Pitts S–1Cs (the C denoted a Continental engine) beginning in 1962. Subsequent models included the four-aileron S–1D, kit-built S–1E (Experimental), and S–1S (symmetrical or “round wing”) favored by competition aerobats—virtually all of whom chose to install more powerful Lycoming engines. In 1973, an FAA-certified, factory Pitts S–1S was offered by the now-Aviat Aircraft company in Afton, Wyoming. It later certified and built an even higher performance S–1T with a constant-speed prop beginning in 1981. (Pitts also designed two-seat models that well exceed the $50,000 Budget Buy price cap.)

Pitts S–1 owners typically have a love/hate relationship with their airplanes. They praise their pitch-perfect control harmony, exquisite responsiveness, exhilarating slingshot acceleration on takeoff, and even their well-deserved reputation for being difficult to land. They curse the straight-back seats, extreme cold in winter and heat in summer, and tight spaces that make even simple maintenance tasks (like oil changes) extreme dexterity tests.

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Dave Hirschman

Dave Hirschman

AOPA Pilot Editor at Large
AOPA Pilot Editor at Large Dave Hirschman joined AOPA in 2008. He has an airline transport pilot certificate and instrument and multiengine flight instructor certificates. Dave flies vintage, historical, and Experimental airplanes and specializes in tailwheel and aerobatic instruction.

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