Recently, I had a chance to fly a considerably less-ambitious Pitts delivery—pick up a 1999 S2C in Texas and ferry it back to Tom’s Aircraft in California. Not a big deal, only 1,100 nm across the Southwest with airports everywhere, and the weather was forecast to be good for the entire trip.
I received early acro training in an S2A some 25 years ago, then stepped up to an S2B and finally flew an S2C for the first time in 1998. The S2A was a marvelous aerobatic trainer, by far, the most responsive airplane I had flown in the late ’70s. The S2B and S2C simply made a good design better.
The trip sounded like fun, despite the S2C’s inherent limitations. The airplane carried only 28 gallons of fuel, limiting endurance to 1.3 hours plus reserve. Flying into the wind (always, it seems), I’d be looking for a place to land about every 150 to 170 nm.
The trip was planned out to seven stops between Dallas and Long Beach, Calif., and that was okay with me. I figured I’d need most of those stops just to relearn how to land the airplane.
The S2C turned out to be an arrogant, black-and-yellow, bare-bones machine—no frills, no ups, no extras. Flight instruments consisted of an airspeed indicator, altimeter and wet compass, no gyros, not even a turn-and-bank indicator. Flying IMC was not only illegal and ill-advised, but it also was impossible. This airplane was a one-trick pony, and its trick was aerobatics, pure and simple.
Along the way to its reputation as one of the best advanced aerobatic trainers in the business, the Pitts offered some of the most challenging landing characteristics of any conventional-gear machine. Stall speed is 56 knots, and fellow P&P columnist Budd Davisson, a Pitts guru who owns an S2A and has instructed hundreds of pilots in its proper operation, feels that 83 to 85 knots is about right on approach. The gear is narrowly spaced and short-coupled, so you need to be quick on the pedals and light on the brakes.
I picked up the Pitts in Lancaster, 20 miles south of Dallas, hopped over to Arlington for fuel and guided the little bumblebee on steroids across the Texas plains to San Angelo for the first night. This S2C was certified for day-VFR only, so there were no lights. I managed to land just after sunset, grateful that onlookers on the ramp couldn’t see me very well.
The following morning, I was off the ground early headed for Pecos, Texas, a mere 150 nm over the horizon. There were strong winds out of the west, so of course, my heading was about 260 degrees. Not much reason to fly high. I took the opportunity to try a max performance takeoff anyway, just for fun.
With 260 hp on the nose and only 1,700 pounds to lift, the S2C sports a power-to-weight ratio of only 6.5 pounds per hp. That’s one of the lowest power loadings of any certified, American civilian aircraft. Compare that to a normal category F33A Bonanza at 11.9 pounds per hp or a Mooney Ovation at 12.0 pounds per hp, and you have some idea of the S2C’s relative enthusiasm. Acceleration on takeoff will blow your hat in the creek, especially if you haven’t been flying F-15s lately. It’s definitely what the old Wings Channel would call a wild ride.
There was no VSI to verify upward mobility, so I couldn’t see a hard number during climb, but I’d guess that the rate was close to 3,000 fpm. I wasn’t climbing high because of headwinds, so the ascent was a short one. It was still fun to watch the Pitts inhale sky for a minute or so.
With wings, struts, wires and wheels hanging out all over the place, the S2C is no speed demon, but it will turn in an easy 150 knots TAS in a straight, horizontal line. Pecos came and went, as did Santa Teresa, N.M., and my landings gradually improved from controlled crashes to manageable, probably scoring four on a scale of 10. I was never out of control, but neither was I the master of the airplane. There was little question who was boss, and it wasn’t me.
Meanwhile, the weather was looking more dismal as I closed in on Arizona. A surprise December storm had snuck into the state overnight, and precursor clouds were gradually making VFR more dicey, bringing down temperatures, clouds, visibilities and sprinkling snow on the mountains above 6,000 feet.
Out of Santa Teresa, Ariz., I routed slightly south toward Tucson, still flying in good visibilities but lowering ceilings. I bounced to a happy landing at Cochise County, Ariz., despite the best efforts of a nasty crosswind. Gee, I wonder if I’m getting better, I speculated.
I originally had planned to pogo all the way from San Angelo to Long Beach, Calif., in one day. Unfortunately, lowering weather and the need to stop once every hour to refuel made it obvious that I wouldn’t get past Mesa, Ariz., the second day.
Things were marginally better the following morning. A new storm was threatening the West Coast, but Phoenix had improved to 4,000 and 10 overnight. I rocketed out of Mesa for Blythe, Ariz., intending to continue nonstop to Long Beach. Just northwest of Palm Springs, Calif., however, the clouds were coming down, and the ground was coming up in Banning Pass, so I reversed course, flew back to Thermal, Calif., refueled and waited two hours for the clouds to ascend or the ground to descend.
The second try was more successful, with weather in the pass up to 2,500 feet overcast in light rain and probably five miles visibility. Los Angeles and the vicinity was suffering under heavy rain, but again, ceiling and visibility were acceptable, 3,000 feet and five miles in Long Beach.
I caromed the Pitts S2C onto rain-soaked runway 7L at Long Beach, splashing through the puddles and wishing that I had Budd Davisson’s talent. I relied on the advice that I had been given in a T-6 some 30 years ago by an ancient pelican of an instructor, Bob Henry, a P-47 Thunderbolt pilot in WWII: “Keep the wings level, the stick back, the nose pointed straight ahead and your feet off the brakes, and you’ll probably survive the landing without breaking anything.” Just don’t expect it to be pretty.
Bill Cox is entering his third decade as a senior contributor to Plane & Pilot® and provides consulting for media, entertainment and aviation concerns worldwide.
E-mail him at [email protected].