Flying a Pitts Reno Air Racer
I have been very fortunate so far in my flying career. I have been able to progress in my professional flying more quickly than I had anticipated. I have also been fortunate enough to fly lots of different types of airplanes. According to trusty LogTen Pro X, I have 43 different aircraft types in the logbook. Now keep in mind that it separates the Pitts S-2C and S-2B which are essentially the same aircraft. As well, Citabrias are Citabrias for the most part, but LogTen lists the 5 or so different models as different types. Factoring that information in, I have flown over 20 different unique types of aircraft at the least.
A buddy whom I have known for years through aviation at the Reno Air Races (who shall remain nameless) has, for a while, loosely commented that I should fly his Pitts some time. I would humor the comments and continue to dream.
My Pitts experience only extends to the S-2 line having flown both B and C models. The S-1 refers to the single seat version while the S-2 is the tandem seat version. The differences between B and C models are small and mundane mostly. The biggest visible differences are the shapes of the wings and tail section. The B model has classic Pitts rounded surfaces for the wings and horizontal and vertical stabilizers. The C model has squared off surfaces giving her a more modern look. The S1 lineage stems from the beginning of the creation of the Pitts, which started in 1944. Curtis Pitts set out to create a competitive biplane that could be built at home. In 1962, Curtis released plans to build the S-1C. Since then, there have been several different variations of the S1 released; in fact more than 10 models of the S1 that include different power-plant, wing, aileron, tail and other options that the builder can customize.
I have heard things about the S-1 that differs from my comfort zone line of S-2 models. Simply put, the S-2 glides about as far as you can throw your keys from the cockpit. She does not glide very far by comparison to a stock S-1. If you can imagine, even comparing competition aerobatic aircraft, the S-2 is a truck, while the S-1 is a sports car. Visibility out of the S-1 from the driver’s seat is highly reduced. The wing covers the main gear, and roughly 90 degrees of visibility is obstructed when combined with the nose obstructing your forward view. In fact, the sight picture in the cockpit of an S-1 is very similar to the front seat view of the S-2 cockpit (in the S-2, the pilot flies from the rear seat). Engine choices vary as well. The S-2 line usually sports the mighty Lycoming IO-540 which boasts 260 horsepower, and a constant speed prop. The S-1 line, on the other hand, isn’t so simple. The majority of these aircrafts use some variant of a Lycoming 360. The particular S-1 I am writing about uses a fixed pitch, Ly-Con built IO-360 engine pushing about 230hp (stock is 200). I won’t get into every detail of this particular S-1 but it has several mods to make it a Reno Air Race winner.
A few months back, I received an email asking me to give information regarding insurance renewal on a Pitts S-1. The owner had added my name to the insurance renewal. I thought to myself, “hmmm…things are getting pretty serious; he must really mean he wants me to fly his airplane.” I have never flown anyone’s personal airplane by myself. It is a responsibility I didn’t take lightly. The owner had invited me out to the airport to take her up and I was ecstatic. One thing that has always troubled me about flying a single seat aircraft is: “how do you train to fly it?” There is nobody there to teach you, to help you, to guide you. You are all alone, solo on your first flight ever in a new airplane. It was the first time I have ever flown an aircraft under these conditions. I was confident in my abilities to fly this aircraft so that wasn’t my main concern. My main concern was returning this beautiful example of a Pitts Special to its owner unharmed. Needless to say, I was nervous.
This particular Pitts, as I previously mentioned, is a Reno Air Racer. If you are not familiar with the Reno Air Races, please come out from under the rock in which you have been hiding. This model has been lightened, the engine has increased horsepower, the wings are different, the firewall is different, the main landing gear struts are beefier, the tailwheel is different, the cockpit size is different, the firewall is different, and the canopy is different; Did I mention it had some differences from a Stock S-1? Even when you fire it up, you can feel it. It feels more powerful and it feels more visceral. If you put on a Pitts like you’d put on a pair of pants, it’d be as if you live inside a cocoon. An S-2 is a sedan; this is the coupe, or more appropriately, a go-kart. It is the smallest aircraft I have flown, and it feels like I can just stick it in the baggage compartment of the jet I fly for my day job and, trust me, I am not flying a 747.
Aside from the powerful feel of the beefed up IO-360, startup and taxi was normal. The aircraft was actually easier to hold on the ground during run up than the S-2 is. Takeoff is where the real fun began. The aircraft has an insane power to weight ratio. Moving the stick to neutral or slightly forward after applying the power brought the tail up instantly. I was actually surprised at how fast it happened. The aircraft accelerated quickly and I found myself lifting off before the first taxiway on a relatively short runway. Climbing out at 90mph, I was blasting into the sky much like a jet would. 3,000fpm was not unusual climbing out, and the deck angle was very unnatural, even by comparison to the S-2. Once in the air, I could really see where this airplane shined. She was so balanced, so beautiful to fly, so wonderful to handle. Just a simple look to the left or right and the airplane seemed to sense that you wanted to go that way. This is where the Pitts really shows what it can do and this is why its line of aircraft is so popular. They are so tight coupled, so excellent at maneuvering. Although this one primarily just races, I put her though some aerobatic maneuvers. First, I started to get to know her: Slow flight, stalls, steep turns; you know the basics. Slow rolls and dirty rolls followed. I did a couple of loops, a hammerhead and some vertical rolls as well. The performance well exceeded that of the S-2C that I was used to. The smile was welded to my face.
Ok so enough fun in the air, time to see if I can land this thing. This is where the Pitts gets its reputation. As I said earlier, the visibility plain old sucks by comparison to monoplanes. On the first approach, I really got the sense for how much lighter this S-1 is than the S-2; It floats and floats and floats. It is lighter and it doesn’t have a constant speed prop so you don’t get the drag from the prop which caught me by surprise. I have never wheel landed a Pitts, only 3 point. Trying to 3 point this S-1 eludes me to believe that it is a better wheel-landing airplane. The main gear is very stiff and a little bounce is a common occurrence when landing. It is short coupled on the ground too, which makes it a bit touchier. The sight picture outside took me a while to get used to, and I will continue to try and master it over the next several flights. You really have to wrestle any Pitts to the ground. It takes skill, finesse, patience, and maybe some luck sprinkled in for good luck. The S-1 is different in a lot of ways from an S-2, and adding into the mix that it has been highly modified even further changes the variables. This is where a pilot truly gains respect for a Pitts. Any Pitts will do whatever you tell it to do – good or bad – and it will do it right now. It is often said that the airplane flew perfectly, I just told it to do stupid things, because that is exactly how the relationship between a Pitts and his/her pilot exists.
If you have never flown a Pitts, I highly recommend you try and find one at a flight school and get a lesson. You will instantly gain a new respect for that iconic biplane you have seen so many times before. And when Sean Tucker nails a perfect wheel landing after an incredible aerobatic performance at the next airshow, you can secretly slip him the middle finger in jealousy because you know what it takes to make a Pitts landing look that good.
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