I count myself lucky to have flown a large number of airplanes. Most have been standard Piper/Cessna/Beech/Mooney/Commander/Diamond/ Cirrus general aviation machines, all worthy candidates, but occasionally, I strike gold.
That was exactly the case a few years back, when a friend called and asked if I had any time in a Pitts.
As it happened, I did. As a kid, growing up in Alaska, I was always a big fan of aerobatic airplanes. It came as a shock to learn that most standard-category machines weren’t approved for much beyond takeoffs and landings, and gentle banks in between.
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After I moved to the Lower 48, I earned my private license (seven dollars an hour for the airplane and three bucks an hour for the instructor) and then spent some time getting checked out in a Great Lakes, a Super Decathlon and, eventually, a Pitts S2A, the last two operated by the Pitts Stop in Santa Paula, California.
Perhaps more importantly, I became modestly competent at getting the airplanes off and back on the ground without breaking anything. That’s nothing to brag about in the Super D and Great Lakes, but it was a challenge in the Pitts.
Between those events, I apprenticed in aerobatics for baby birds. I never really ascended to the exotic stuff, but I did become modestly adept at the garden-variety list of aerobatic maneuvers, mostly loops, rolls, hammerheads and various combinations in between. I learned to land the little two-place Pitts on Santa Paula’s short runway, even when the winds off the nearby mountains were making things difficult.
The S2A was a great aerobatic trainer. Its inverted fuel and oil system allowed it to fly a variety of outside maneuvers. In short, it could do the full repertoire of acro tricks, right up through the dreaded lomcevak, a tail-over-spinner somersault that put the airplane near its negative -3 G limit. In reality, lomcevaks weren’t that difficult a task.
The late Art Scholl, one of the world’s best airshow pilots of his time, used to say all you needed to learn the lomcevak was to memorize the control inputs for the entry, “then neutralize the stick and rudders, ride through the tumbles and wait for the airplane to do something you recognized. That’s usually an inverted spin. Then recover.” Yeah, Art, right. Really simple.
Tragically and perhaps ironically, Art was killed in his S2A flying B-roll footage in an inverted flat spin for the movie “Top Gun.”
In my case, however, the caller wasn’t interested in my limited ability to fly acro. He simply needed someone insurable to ferry an S2B repo from Arlington, Texas, to Long Beach, California, as soon as possible. The Pitts S2B, by the way, was basically a 260-hp version of the Pitts S2A.
Piece of pie, I thought. Easy as cake.
As it turned out, it was not so easy. For better or worse, there was nothing about the Pitts S2B targeted at cross-country flight. For one thing, fuel is limited to only 29 gallons, plenty for learning aerobatics, but for launching cross country, it’s not much fuel. It gives you only about 90 minutes of endurance plus reserve.
Realistically, endurance is probably a little less, since your access to alternate airports is limited, and few Pitts airplanes are fitted with gyros. That means no DG and no ADI.
The great circle distance from Dallas-Arlington to Long Beach is a little over 1,100 nm, but then again, you probably don’t have the fuel to fly great circle. The alternative is to follow the highways—airports are often built near major roads—and that will add probably 150 nm to the trip.
In other words, you’re looking at probably 1250-1300 nm, or at least nine stops on the road to California. That’s in no-wind conditions, of course, and since you’re westbound, you’ll usually be guaranteed a headwind. Call it 10 stops total.
This wasn’t the first time someone had asked me to ferry a Pitts. Several years before this trip, I’d received a call from a man whose employer was transferring him from Oakland, California, to Coventry, England. Since someone else would be picking up the nickel on the expenses, he was curious if it was even possible to fly his airplane across the Atlantic by the usual Goose Bay-Narsarsuaq, Greenland-Reykjavik, Iceland-Wick, UK route.
That was probably the most unusual ferry job I’d been offered, but it quickly became obvious that the trip would have been ill advised and probably illegal, even if it were possible. Assuming the airplane was equipped with a DG and an artificial horizon for an inadvertent IFR encounter (most Pitts models don’t come equipped with such extraneous devices), you could probably strap a 30-gallon bladder tank in the front pit and double your fuel supply.
Perhaps surprisingly, it’s possible to fly the Atlantic (or even around the world, through Siberia) with no overwater leg longer than 400 nm. If you took the far northern route up through Labrador, Nunavut and on across the Labrador Sea to Sondre Stromfjord, Greenland, then routed over the icecap to the Arctic Circle and Kulusuk on Greenland’s east coast, it would be only 390 nm across the Denmark Straits to Reykjavik, Iceland.
From there, it’s only about 650 nm through Vagar, Faroe Islands, and into Wick, UK, on Scotland’s far northeast coast. With good weather, good luck and a pocket full of rabbit’s feet, you might actually get away with it and not get killed even once.
Except where would you store the life raft and vests, the survival suit, the emergency kit and the HF radio that’s now required to fly the Atlantic? You’d also need charts, food, water and lots of etcetera. And etcetera always weighs more than you think it will.
In short, it would be an impossible mission. Search and rescue in that part of the world can be extremely dangerous for the searchers and rescuers, so Canadian aviation authorities wouldn’t even consider approving your flight plan to fly the Atlantic in a Pitts. It’s strictly an IFR environment. Clear and 10 can turn to 200 and a quarter in a few hours. The last time I made a crossing without breaking a cloud was never.
I turned down that trip, and I heard that two other ferry pilots I knew who did as well.
Thank God, this trip wasn’t nearly as ambitious as the proposed Atlantic transit. The entire flight would be over fairly flat land in the Southwest, and I’d be flying in mid-autumn, so the weather would probably be modestly decent if not airshow grand.
When I got to Arlington, I was pleased to see that the S2B was pretty much as advertised, low time with everything working and all the proper paperwork. The previous owner was actually crying as I strapped my overnight bag and survival kit into the front pit, checked the parachute packing date, topped the tank and departed Arlington westbound.
Takeoffs in the S2B are a true kick in the butt, literally. Standard procedure on takeoff is to taxi out to the centerline, let the tailwheel trail a few feet to assure you’re pointed straight down the runway, then bring the power up slowly. Once you’re comfortable with the airplane’s reaction to power application, you can hurry the throttle full forward and anticipate the hard left turn generated by torque.
The good news is that even if your reactions are a little behind the airplane, you’ll only be on the ground for about five seconds after power-up. Takeoff runs in the S2B can be incredibly short, and at least some of the advice given to riders of high-powered motorcycles applies to the Pitts. Power can get you out of as many problems as it can get you into.
With a max gross weight of 1,700 pounds and 260-hp under your palm, power loading is only 6.5 lbs/hp. That’s not as good as a 139 hp BMW motorcycle launching 600 pounds of Teutonic fury, but it’s still a thrill.
Yes, there are some airplanes with more power and less weight, but not many. If you’re looking for a quick trip off the ground and into the sky, the Pitts S2B will do just fine. (The Zivko Edge 540 is something of an ultimate in acceleration and light loading. It sports 340 hp to propel 1540 pounds, a power loading of only 5.0 pounds per hp.)
Texas has always been one of my favorite places to fly. There’s plenty of open space—okay, so it’s only about 40 percent the size of Alaska—most of the eastern two-thirds of the state is relatively flat and no one gets in your face if you suddenly develop an urge to twist and shout. The airplane doesn’t seem to mind, either.
In addition, Texans truly are some of the nicest folks on the planet—and not just because our editor happens to live there. The state seems to have an inordinately high population of aviation fanatics. It’s an original home to the Commemorative Air Force, and it’s a popular location for air shows and displays.
Before you turn the page and say, “What’s so special about a 1,200 nm trip across the southwest in a nearly new Pitts?” you’re partially right. Much of the time, the atmospherics are severe clear across the lower left U.S. In this case, most of the clouds were well north of El Paso, so I elected to follow the interstate out of Dallas and enjoy the journey at a relatively low level.
Most of the trip turned out to be an anticlimax. I leveled at an initial 6,500 feet above Interstate 80, headed for Abilene, then down to Big Springs and on to El Paso. The colorful little Pitts attracted a crowd everywhere I flew, and it seemed everyone wanted to know about aerobatics.
If I’d been Patty Wagstaff, I might have felt more qualified to answer in depth, but with so much miscellaneous stuff tied down in the front cockpit, I explained that I couldn’t do much other than gentlemanly positive G acro, and I did play with the airplane out over the wide-open spaces of west Texas. Conventional inside maneuvers, rolls and loops, and variations of those tricks were simple and unchallenging.
I avoided anything with negative Gs to keep from having a bottle of Snapple bouncing around the inside of the canopy. Think about a maneuver, and you were there. Roll and pitch response were so quick, the airplane seemed almost psychic.
The winds were predictably erratic, pretty much on the nose at 10-15 knots, and that proved a slight challenge for my rusty tailwheel skills. While it’s true the Pitts isn’t the uncontrollable monster it’s often made out to be on transition from ground to sky and back again, it can be a definite handful in strong crosswinds, and I had to dance on the rudders going into Las Cruces, New Mexico, and Casa Grande, Arizona.
Bad habits developed in too many years of flying my Mooney showed how out-of-practice I was in the S2B. Tucson and Blythe yielded to my amateurish talents before I met the first major obstacle of the trip near the end of the second day.
The Los Angeles Basin was being assaulted by rain and thunderstorms, and there was little choice but to overnight at Thermal, south of Palm Springs, and see what the following day had to offer.
The offer wasn’t good. I waited until noon, then launched with a plan to stay low and fly through the Banning Pass and on to Long Beach, again following the interstates. The Banning wind farm of perhaps 50 wind generators was working overtime, but there was still adequate room to sneak by overhead without getting anyone mad at me or dodging fan blades.
The last touchdown at Long Beach was memorable, landing to the east with 3,000 overcast, strong variable winds and heavy rain. Somehow I managed to avoid wrecking the airplane, but the ground controller noticed my performance and commented, “Boy, that must have been fun. Where’d you come in from?”
“Well, I started off in Dallas two days ago, but today I’m out of Thermal, strictly VFR in this bird,” I told him. Fortunately, they didn’t give me a phone number to call, so I must have done it relatively right.
As we used to say in Alaska, “Some days, you get the bear. Other days, the bear gets you.”
Check out more Cross-Country Log flying stories from ferry pilot and Senior Editor Bill Cox.