I had just parked in front of my insurance agent’s office and was cursing myself for forgetting to bring the premium check when it hit me. It was as if someone way down at the end of a long, gloomy tunnel had whispered, “Curtis just died.” I looked down and saw goose bumps on my arms.
The pneumonia that had settled in after his heart-valve surgery last month had sucked the strength and spirit from his 89-year-old body. Two days ago, he had made it clear how he felt about the situation—he pulled the feeding tube from his arm. We all knew what was coming. And this morning, there wasn’t another single thought on my mind but my friend Curtis Pitts. Then the voice made its proclamation, and I turned toward my hangar.
I hadn’t been sitting in the hangar gazing at my airplane for more than 10 minutes when the phone rang suddenly. I knew exactly what it was. Will Teft was on the other end and struggled to tell me that Curtis was gone. Then he broke down, and me along with him. I was crying like a nine-year-old and couldn’t even say goodbye. Teft understood.
I just sat there with no energy or reason to change position when the phone rang again. This time, it was Tom Poberezny. He wanted to make sure that I had heard. He was in total control of himself. I wasn’t and had to hang up again. Poberezny, bless his heart, said the right things, and he, too, understood. We had both lost a good friend.
Curtis had a huge, and I mean huge extended family of friends, and every one of them is feeling what I’m feeling right now. He was, hands-down, the easiest person to like that I’ve ever met and, at the same time, became your friend so quickly that it made you feel warm all over.
I had always lusted after Pitts Specials, but it wasn’t until 1968, when I graduated from college, that I took it upon myself to do something about it. I arrived at his shop door unannounced, walked in and introduced myself as a wannabe Pitts pilot. Looking back at it, I now know hundreds, probably thousands, did exactly the same thing over the years. And I know that they received the same open-armed welcome I did. I wanted to know about biplanes, aerobatics and life in general. And Curtis was instantly ready to share what he knew, which was considerable. He was the most accessible human being that I’ve ever known. As busy as he was, he always found time for anyone who walked in the door and had a question or a comment.
Six months later, I sent him an order for plans to build his little airplane. I received the plans, but my payment check was also in the envelope. An attached note read, “Friends don’t sell other friends paper.” I had spent a total of maybe two hours with him, and he had already bestowed the title “friend” on me. We became closer, and my proudest lifetime achievement is having been called “friend” by Curtis.
To most folks outside of the Pitts community, those of us who fly his little biplanes appear to be just another group of enthusiasts who like a specific kind of flying machine. But it’s more than that. Once you learn to make love to that sometimes-cantankerous, little flying machine, you inevitably find that it’s more than a machine. It’s a semi-animate being that becomes a living part of your life. The boundary between man and machine, between mechanical interest and lifestyle, blurs, and you find yourself part of a community of kindred souls, all of whom have the same father—Curtis Pitts. You’re part of a brotherhood because of that. There’s a feeling of family and belonging that’s hard to explain, and at the heart of it all is the love of a smiling, slow-talking gent from Homestead, Fla.
I remember clearly the last time I sat in a hangar and cried that hard. It was when my brother died at the age of 41. Curtis’ passing didn’t seem possible, and although at his age, his death was obviously inevitable, it wasn’t any more palatable than my brother’s death.
After I got myself together, I did something I hadn’t done in at least four years: I removed the front windscreen and camloced the pit cover in place, converting my airplane to single-place, rock-and-roll mode. I saddled up and asked the tower for an early turn-out, which my little red machine interpreted as a clawing, upward lunge right off the deck heading north to the practice area. This was the first time in over 1,000 hours that I stripped down the airplane to pure acro mode and flew it for myself. Except, I was really flying it for someone else. A 2,000-mile-away Curtis hadn’t cooled 10 degrees, and I was taking some of his warmth up where it belonged.
As I was kicking into a hammerhead, I couldn’t help but wonder how much smaller my life would have been had it not been for Curtis, his airplanes and his friendship. The man had the ability to make those of us in his family feel like giants, both as people and as pilots. His gentle genius taught untold generations what being a worthwhile human being really meant.
Every time I finish the first hour of dual and help unstrap a grinning student, I say, “Welcome to my world.” But it really isn’t my world, is it? It’s a world that Curtis invented. It’s a world in which I have been privileged to spend a lifetime, and for which I’ll be eternally grateful. Now, the goal is to live up to the standards that he inadvertently set simply because of the way he lived his life. No small task.
Budd Davisson is an accomplished aviation writer and photographer, CFII & A, aircraft owner and builder. He has authored two books and lectured at the Smithsonian and NASA’s Langley Research Center. Check out his Website at www.airbum.com.