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Airplanes we love: The Pitts Special at 75Airplanes we love: The Pitts Special at 75

A true original that still inspires

Curtis Pitts was a visionary, but even he couldn’t have predicted that the tiny biplane he cobbled together 75 years ago from surplus parts would lead to a multi-decade explosion of innovation.
Pilot Briefing July 2020
Photography by Chris Rose

Its progeny would go on to win world aerobatic championships, teach generations of pilots strenuous maneuvers, and inspire generations of airshow spectators with stirring solo and formation aerobatic performances around the world.

Impractical, loud, and demanding, these diminutive biplanes dominated international aerobatic competition in the 1960s and 1970s. In more recent times, they’ve been displaced in that arena by larger, more powerful monoplanes—but single-seat Pitts models (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 National Air and Space Museum’s Udvar-Hazy Center, and the Red Devils’ three airplanes are in the EAA Museum. Few other airplanes can claim similar honors.

Two-seat Pitts models (S–2Es, S–2As, S-2Bs, and S–2Cs) have provided initial and advanced dual instruction for aspiring aerobatic pilots. And they’re prized by individual owners for responsive handling and their ability to introduce others to aerobatic flight. Pitts S–2As, -Bs, and -Cs are FAA-certified models, the vast majority of which were made by Aviat Aircraft craftsmen in Afton, Wyoming. The experimental category Pitts Model 12 is powered by a 360- or 400-horsepower Russian radial engine, and a few Samson models made for airshows set world time-to-climb records. Airshow legend Sean D. Tucker flies a highly modified version of a Pitts S–2S.

Curtis Pitts himself was an affable, enigmatic, self-taught aircraft designer who served as an aircraft mechanic (and flew as a private pilot) during World War II. His original Pitts Special biplane had a 55-horsepower Continental engine. Betty Skelton flew her Pitts 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 four-aileron and symmetrical-wing versions, and increasingly powerful Lycoming engines. In 1973, an FAA-certified, factory-built Pitts S–1S was put into production, and it was followed by an even higher-performance S–1T with a constant-speed propeller beginning in 1981. Pitts died in 2005.

The fact that his airplanes are still prized, still beloved, and still an aerobatic standard is a tribute to the iconoclastic designer’s bold originality.

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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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