If the Pitts Special was the standard by which aerobatic biplanes were judged for more than half a century, Curtis Pitts was the inspiration behind much of today’s sport aviation.
Tom Poberezny, president of the Experimental Aircraft Association, has given Pitts a lot of the credit for inspiring him, his father, Paul, and the very foundation of the EAA.
Curtis Pitts died June 10 from complications following heart valve surgery. He was 89.
Pitts designed the basic Pitts Special as a homebuilders’ project. Versions of it are being manufactured today, by Aviat, and several thousand sets of plans have been sold over the years.
The Pitts Special has racked up more aerobatic victories than any other type of aircraft. The 1972 U.S. Aerobatic Team, which shot down all competition in the world aerobatic championship, flew nothing but the Pitts biplanes. While there are a number of fine aerobatic ships around the sky, many of the top performers still fly the Pitts.
The Pitts Special was conceived in 1941 by a young man who had been told that the big 1930s Waco biplane was the best mount for aerobatics, flew one, and thought he could do a lot better. World War II interrupted the design and construction of the first Pitts Special, but it flew shortly after the war ended in 1945. Its engine produced 45 hp and it was intended just for fun.
The second Pitts Special had an 85 hp engine and was sold to Betty Skelton, who won the Women’s International Championship in 1949 and 1950. In 1948, Pitts built a 450 hp version that could out-climb any World War II fighter.
By the 1960s, American aerobatic pilots were competing unsuccessfully against Yaks and Zlins in old Stearmans and Wacos. Recalling Skelton’s feats, they asked Pitts to design a competition airplane for them. The result was the Pitts Special as we know it today. With a 180 hp engine, the 690-pound Pitts embarrassed all competition in Europe, flying quick, tight maneuvers that the Soviets couldn’t match. By 1972, the Men’s and Women’s Individual World Champions were Americans flying Pitts Specials.
Let us honor and celebrate the life of Curtis Pitts, and happily imagine him teaching aerobatics to the angels.