Plane & Pilot
Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Monoplane Revolution

A game changer in the world of aerobatic competition

In 1984, I trained with air show pilot Duane Cole at Luck Field in Burleson, Texas, for the Intermediate category of the U.S. National Aerobatic Championships. He stood on the ground with a radio, "critiquing" me while I perfected my maneuvers in the air.

One morning, I followed Cole into the hangar where he kept his famous clipped-wing Taylorcraft. I spotted a sleek little race car of an airplane in the back corner. It looked lonely. I blew some dust off the numerous sponsor decals, and the name "Patti Johnson" appeared on the side of the fuselage. It was a Laser 200 flown by a U.S. Aerobatic Team pilot and gold medalist in international competition. I was in aerobatic heaven!

I wasn't sure where I was going with aerobatics, but if I were to move up to the Unlimited category, there was no question I would have to trade my Super Decathlon in for a Pitts Special, the widely available production biplane and then gold standard for competition mounts.

Designed by Curtis Pitts in the 1940s, the Pitts is strong, lightweight, fun and nimble to fly. This revered little airplane has won many medals for the U.S. in international competition, and when you walk into the Smithsonian's National Air & Space Museum Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center, the first airplane you see is Betty Skelton's Pitts, Little Stinker.

Monoplanes were rare in 1984. With no production models available to pilots outside the Eastern Bloc, you had to build one or convince someone to sell theirs.

The few Lasers flying were one-off homebuilt prototypes, and pilots were "test pilots" during the initial phases of flight. Since composite materials weren't yet available, strength was an issue. Patti Johnson's Laser had a cable tied around the engine to hold it to the fuselage in case an engine mount broke in flight. Another consideration was aileron flutter—an unwanted spontaneous unstable divergent oscillation that may occur in flight—causing catastrophic failure. More than one pilot was killed when control surfaces weren't properly mass balanced.

Why were pilots willing to put up with these limitations, and why was the monoplane seen as such an advantage in pure precision flying? Flying a biplane versus a monoplane is a different philosophy. Monoplanes are clean. They slide through the air, pick up speed faster because there's less drag and generally have better vertical performance than a biplane. A biplane has to weigh less and have more horsepower than a monoplane to have the same performance because it has to overcome the aerodynamic drag of the wings, wires and struts.


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