The Pitts Special is one of the true legends of the sky. Compact, sleek and racy with 260 horses bucking under the hood, the plane possesses plenty of spunk. Derek Royal recently took a spin (literally) in a Pitts S-2C and came away mesmerised by the experience.
I’m at Camden Airport on the outer fringes of Sydney’s southwest and I’m about to take my first flight in a Pitts Special S-2C. With “Air Action” emblazoned across the sparkling blue fuselage, I’m expecting this “Charlie” model to live up to the Pitts’ sterling reputation as a manoeuvrable beast that has won more aerobatic competitions than any other aircraft in history.
According to aerobatics guru and Pitts aficienado Budd Davisson, the difference between the Charlie and Bravo models is significant. “To anyone who has spent a lifetime around Pitts Specials, the rectilinear wingtips and tail surfaces (on the S2-C) are something of a shock,” Budd says. “But now that the plane has been around for a while, they’re beginning to look normal.”
These changes are obvious but the other subtle changes in the basic lines aren’t. “The banana belly lower fuselage line has been brought up, which makes the aeroplane appear much leaner and sleeker,” Budd adds. “The control system torque tube has always driven the shape of the belly, but rather than changing the torque tube they housed it in a small streamlined fairing and brought the rest of the belly up around it. At the same time, nearly the entire belly became transparent, courtesy of a series of plexiglass panels, not unlike a pre-World War II fighter’s canopy, only on the bottom of the aeroplane.”
The landing gear has also been modified to look like a faired spring gear, but isn’t. The only thing that has changed is the rear of the gear leg which has been bent forward for a cleaner appearance.
One obvious change is the S2-C’s composite Hartzell propeller. Earlier models had metal props and at $70,000 per unit, the new composite number certainly doesn’t come cheap.
My mentor for today is Airborne Aviation instructor Doug Graham, a veteran of 39 years’ service in the RAAF. An Iroquois pilot during the Vietnam War, Doug also served throughout Australia, in Papua New Guinea, and Egypt where he was with the United Nations Emergency Force. He eventually left the rotary game for a stint flying Caribous and, now, aged 66, gets his thrills flying aerobatics in his beloved Pitts Special.
“The greatest fun I get in this job is flying aerobatics,” Doug explains. “The challenge of flying the Pitts accurately and flying it well is a lot of good fun. I can’t think of anything else I’d rather be doing.”
Doug has flown a variety of Pitts Specials, including the S2-A, S2-B, S2-S and S2-C and he concedes that there are subtle differences between all of them.
“The S2-A has a four cylinder engine and not as much power as the S2-C,” he explains. “It’s a bit lighter because it has a smaller engine and there are some aerodynamic differences, which means the two aircraft handle differently. Some people think the S2-A handles better because it’s a bit lighter. But I like power and grunt and as far as I’m concerned, you can never have too much power.”
The S2-B on the other hand, is the same airframe as the S2-A but with the 260 horsepower engine, so it’s heavier and it goes harder. The S2-S is different again, boasting a single-seat S-1 airframe with a 260 horsepower engine. “The S2-S has the same power as the S2-C but in a slightly smaller airframe so it really does get up and go,” Doug explains. “But because it only has one cockpit, the engine is situated a bit further back, which means that the propeller is close to the ground. So the nose was raised a bit to compensate. Vertical performance on the S2-S really gets you working hard and when you’re in landing attitude, you can’t see much at all.”
Personally, I’ve flown aerobatics trainers such as the Robin 2160 and Victa Airtourer. I’ve even had a play in the Pitts S2-B, but the opportunity to step up to the plate and to be strapped into the “Charlie” model is seriously exciting.
After arriving at Airborne Aviation, Doug takes me through a one hour brief about the upcoming sortie to the training area, where we will be conducting a series of aerobatic manoeuvres to see how this little beast performs. As the excitement builds, the adrenaline slowly trickles though my veins. But by the time we preflight the aircraft and fire up the Lycoming’s 260 horses, the adrenaline is pumping furiously.
Doug taxis the little blue Pitts (Juliet Juliet Zulu) to Runway 24 and once he’s cleared for takeoff, he eases the throttle forward. The acceleration is unbelievable and I get a serious case of goose bumps as the plane roars down the runway. We climb out at 100 knots and head towards The Oaks, right on the nose. The cloud base is low and around 3,000 feet, but there are a few patches of blue sky towards Lake Burrogorang near the lower Blue Mountains.
Doug hands control of the aircraft over to me and not only am I amazed by the sheer power under the hood, but also by the responsive feel of the flight controls. Doug tells me to continue climbing to 6,000 feet and as I pull the stick back, the response is immediate. Whoa! It’d be so easy for this little beast to skip ahead of the unsuspecting pilot because together, the power and the twitchiness of the controls makes one lethal concoction. I regather my wits and we’re climbing at such a ridiculously high angle that I can’t help but laugh. According to Doug we’re climbing at something around 2,500 feet per minute. Amazing.
I level off and complete a few medium level turns just to get a feel for the aircraft. Doug then takes control and demonstrates a couple of wing-overs and aileron rolls before handing the aircraft back to me. “Okay, let’s see you do a couple of aileron rolls,” he says from the rear cockpit. I “Roger” his request and prepare for my first aerobatic manoeuvre in the S2-C.
Starting from an airspeed of 140 knots, I pitch the aircraft into a 30 degree climb. I continue pitching and think I’m doing well, but Doug reminds me to check, to place the elevators into neutral to prevent over-rotation. His advice falls on deaf ears and I continue to pitch. Geez, at this rate I’ll be looping and we haven’t even got to that manoeuvre yet! So I throw the stick to the left, applying full aileron. The Pitts responds immediately and as the roll begins, the adverse yaw kicks in and I apply rudder to keep the aircraft balanced. I take in the view as we roll 360° and just prior to wings level, vigorously move the stick back to the neutral aileron position. Ha, my first aileron roll in “Charlie”. Not too flash, but not a disaster either.
As I complete a few more aileron rolls I become more confident and, all things considered, the last two are actually quite decent. I remember Doug telling me in the brief that the Pitts rolls quicker to the left than the right. It’s pretty marginal really but there is a difference because of the torque.
Doug then takes control again and demonstrates some loops. The loop is a whole lot of fun, and, on the surface, pretty easy to do. However it’s a challenge to make the loop a symmetrical circle as one would view it from the ground. I use a part of Lake Burrogorang as a landmark over which to perform the loop. Lining up on the lake, I dive to an entry speed of 140 knots and once at level flight, neutralise the controls (slight forward pressure to maintain level flight), then pull the stick back in a steady to-your-belly motion to achieve about 3.5 to 4-G’s. Once the horizon disappears under the aeroplane’s nose, I look left and watch the wing rotate about the horizon. The challenge here is to move and maintain the aft stick without inputting any aileron. Small corrections can be made to ensure the wing tip tracks about the horizon. I maintain the aft stick position until the 120° point in the loop. Once there, I look back to the windscreen and begin reducing the aft pressure. I then “float” over the top of the loop. Failure to reduce back pressure around the 120° mark would pinch the loop, giving it a hairpin appearance from the ground. As I progress through the second half of the loop my progress can be tracked using the lake over which I’ve selected, giving me an idea of the aircraft’s alignment. About 30° past the peak of the loop, the speed increases quickly and I increase back elevator pressure until we return to level flight. One loop completed successfully, a few more to go.
It’s clear that the pilot’s wish is the Pitts’ command. And remarkably, a 4-G pull-up to a loop requires less control movement than some aerobatic trainer aircraft, and minimal pressure needs to be released to round out the top of the loop. As someone who has flown the slower, less responsive aerobatic aircraft, I’ve found that the Pitts (both Charlie and Bravo models) simply require less work to perform manoeuvres accurately. This makes flying the machine so much simpler, less stressful and most importantly, a whole lot of fun.
Once I’ve completed my routine, Doug makes a few positive suggestions and I’m riding high. He then takes over the controls and without hesitation immediately proceeds to pull all manner of G-forces, both positive and negative. Barrel rolls, slow rolls, two-turn spins, reverse cuban eights. Even though I feel like I’m being tossed around like a rag doll and my insides are turning to mush, it’s reassuring to know that this guy knows what he’s doing and he’s doing it so effortlessly.
To top things off I suddenly find myself inverted! Whoa! Even though my hands and feet are dangling and I have this gut-wrenching feeling that I’m going to crash through the perspex and plummet to the earth far below, this is so much fun. So much better than ‘any’ rollercoaster ride! Logically, I should see blue-green-blue-green, as the greenery below changes places with the (Blue) Mountains to the west and the big sky in western Sydney. Instead, my head’s spinning and it’s one continuous stomach-churning blur.
Doug then decides we’ve had enough fun for the day and he points the Pitts’ nose towards Camden before handing control over to me. I make the most of the opportunity and thrive on being in control of “Charlie” but I know that the biggest challenge awaits me. The landing.
During our brief back in the classroom, Doug explained the intricacies of landing a Pitts. “You need to know when to leave the aeroplane alone as well as when to do something,” he said. “In every aspect of its personality, the aeroplane will do only what you ask it to do, and it will keep doing that until you ask it to do something else. So the key is knowing exactly what you want the aeroplane to do. Yes, landing a Pitts can be a challenge, but it is also one of those challenges that anyone can conquer, and in so doing experience a feeling of real accomplishment.”
Coming in on finals, I’m dancing on the rudders trying my best to make smooth and positive inputs. As I start to flare for landing I can’t see straight ahead due to the aircraft’s long nose and so my peripheral vision and ability to watch two sides at once becomes critical to the success of the landing. I’m scanning very quickly between them and making sure my height and attitude is correct. “Charlie” is doing 80 knots so we’re covering a fair bit of ground, and my alignment needs to be spot on so there’s an equal amount of runway either side. Doug’s words of wisdom are ringing in my ears: “You’ve really got to be active on the rudders. If you’re not it’s easy for it to get away. Dance on the rudders, be smooth and positive on the rudder.” Then we finally touch down. Bump … bump … Relief … we’ve made it and we’re stil in one piece. Not too bad for my maiden landing.
According to Budd Davisson, the Charlie model is something special. “The Pitts S-2C is not an Unlimited category aeroplane, but it is still more aeroplane than 90 per cent of the pilots in the world actually need,” he says. “More important, it is absolutely superb and greatly improved from the S-2B. To be honest, I’ve never loved Bravos because they lack that certain “something” Curtis Pitts always put in his aeroplanes. In the S-2C, however, it can honestly be said that the hand of the master is back, and we are all benefiting from it.”
Thanks to Doug Graham and my wonderful experience in Juliet Juliet Zulu, I can’t help but agree wholeheartedly. Flying the Pitts is one of those rare experiences that just makes you grin from ear to ear. No wonder Doug says he can’t think of anything else he’d rather be doing.