If you’re looking for an airborne toy, something to both challenge and perfect your skills, you’ve come to the right place in a Pitts. Straight up, if you’re looking for a one- or two-seat cruiser, we suggest looking elsewhere.
The used Pitts market can be daunting. Many different variants have evolved over the years, including factory-built and experimental versions, but there remain two main types: a single-seater and a two-holer.
Today, you can buy a new, factory-built machine from certificate holder Aviat Aircraft, or get the plans and components for a single-seat version (S1-C or S1-SS) from Steen Aero Lab. We’ll concentrate mainly on the certificated Pitts Special for this market overview article, but we’ll also touch on experimentals.
Until the advent of the Pitts Special, aerobatics was a horizontal affair, even in the hairy-chested, fuel-sucking, 450-HP Boeings and Wacos. Practitioners pirouetted under the stern God of Energy Management—gravity and drag meant vertical maneuvers were brief events.
A small, clean biplane taking advantage of progressively more powerful—and lighter—opposed engines being developed took akro through the roof.
First flown in 1944 (or 1945—sources vary) as a single-seat homebuilt with only a 55-HP engine, the type has developed into today’s highly refined and FAA-certified, two-seat, 300-HP aerial hot rod used for advanced training and—at least in lower categories—competitive aerobatics and racing.
Dominant in aerobatic competition during the 1960s and 1970s, the Pitts Special eventually ceded that position to more modern monoplane designs from Extra and Sukhoi. Even Pitts himself saw the monoplane light: Before his death in 2005 at age 89, he designed but never built the Model 13, an enclosed coupe. But the basic biplane design of the Special remains popular as a recreational and aerobatic training aircraft, and still can be seen strutting its stuff at airshows, fly-ins, pancake breakfasts and in private hangars throughout the world.
It’s not for every pilot, of course. Its small stature, dictated by the need to keep things light and strong, means a short fuselage and stubby, relatively highly loaded wings when compared to most other personal airplanes. All of this results in an airplane responsive to the slightest control input, whether on or off a runway.
The S-1 (single-seat) and S-2 (tandem seating for two) Pitts Special is the brainchild of Curtis Pitts, a designer and cropduster, who envisioned the airplane as the first one specifically designed for aerobatics, according to the International Council of Air Shows Foundation. From the start, Pitts focused on keeping his creation small and light, something distinctly at odds with the much larger, radial-engined biplanes then popular.
By keeping things smaller than the norm, Pitts could incorporate a relatively underpowered flat engine and still obtain excellent performance.
Despite the Special’s enduring popularity, Pitts also designed several monoplane types. But the biplane design—affording double the aileron capability in most variants—offered the greatest strength and lift in a smaller package.
The first Pitts Special to achieve notoriety was L’il Stinker, flown by aerobatics legend Betty Skelton to three consecutive U.S. Female Aerobatic Championships in 1948, 1949 and 1950. At the time, all Pitts Specials were built by Pitts. It wasn’t until 1960 that plans were offered.
The first Pitts Special one could build in a garage or hangar was the S-1C, characteristics of which included a flat-bottom wing, bungee-cord landing gear, two ailerons and a single seat. It was powered by pretty much anything its builder wanted to hang on the front, from 85-HP Continentals to 200-HP Lycomings. According to Steen Aero Lab, which also markets S-1 plans and components, the S-1C is the “benchmark” version.
“Nearly all homebuilt S-1s used S-1C plans for the fuselage and tail, with supplemental wing plan options,” according to the company.
Soon, variants began coming out of Pitts’ shop, with differences mainly resulting from tinkering with horsepower, fixed or constant-speed props, and flat-bottom or symmetrical wings. Homebuilders also incorporated their own changes, resulting in a wide range of versions—and disagreements between aficionados as to which is which.
These include the S-1D (S-1C with a slightly stretched fuselage and four ailerons), S-1E (a homebuilt), the S-1S (commonly known as the “roundwing” Pitts, it was certified in 1973 and features symmetrical airfoils, four ailerons and a different upper-wing design enabling it to stall first) and the follow-on S-1SS.
One result of Pitts’ refusal to leave well enough alone was the S-1-11B, or Model 11, also known as the Super Stinker. Still a single-seater, it featured a 300-plus-HP Lycoming, four ailerons and a symmetrical airfoil (better for inverted flight than the flat-bottom version), and was available as either a factory-, plans- or kit-built airplane.
The S-1T, a certificated, production version of the S1-S, replaced the S-1S in 1981, according to Steen Aero Lab. It came with a 200-HP Lycoming, constant-speed prop and redesigned ailerons.
The S-1T, according to the Aviat website (www.aviataircraft.com), is available for manufacture on demand. Aviat reiterates that the S-1T is regularly used in all competition categories in both national and world aerobatic contests.
Need Two Seats?
Meanwhile, a two-seat Pitts model was developed. It sported four ailerons and a symmetrical airfoil. The prototype S-2 had a 180-HP engine; production airplanes, designated the S-2A, came with 200 HP. Soon, the S-2B came on the scene, with 260 HP and featuring improved ailerons and rudder. It was followed by the current production model, the S-2C, tweaked by Aviat VP of Engineering and longtime aerobatic pilot Ed Saurenmann to make inside and outside aerobatic handling more symmetrical, increase cruise speed and improve handling on landing.
Of all the models and variants developed over the years, many remain available. For example, Aviat Aircraft’s website shows that it currently offers plans for the S-1S for $250. The S-2C is in production and as we noted, it will build the S-1T on demand. Aviat also provides parts support for versions no longer in production.
Despite the S-1/S-2’s popularity, additional Pitts versions were developed. The Model 12, the last design built and flown by Curtis Pitts, was a slightly larger two-seat biplane specifically designed to use the Russian Vedeneyev M14P/PF radial engine of 360-400 HP. Plans are available from the current owner of the rights to the airplane, Jim Kimball Enterprises (www.jimkimballenterprises.com).
Finally, Steen Aero Lab (www.steenaero.com) has been developing the Pitts Model 14 for some years. It was one of Curtis Pitts’ last designs and is billed by Steen Aero Lab as “a leading-edge two-place aerobatic biplane.” Like the Model 12, it’s designed around the 400-HP Vendenyev M14PF nine-cylinder radial. The company has a Model 14 project log posted on its webpage and it’s an interesting read.
A Pitts is about as small as a biplane can be and still carry two people, fuel and a large engine. Some owners, however, point out that filling both seats creates weight-and-balance problems, especially if you intend to do aerobatics. And, cripes, who the heck wouldn’t?
Both basic models are exceedingly clean and, to put it frankly, go like hell. It’s hard to believe that a few years ago these were considered at or near the top in world competition, but are now being used for primary training for those moving up.
The controls are well harmonized. For one who came up in acro flying an Aerobat or Citabria, the overwhelming feeling is it’s only necessary to think about a maneuver to fly it. Most of those pilots badly overcontrol a Pitts the first time out. For one accustomed to running out of speed in the vertical almost instantaneously in a Citabria, the Pitts is a revelation.
But for all the delights it brings once airborne, visibility on landing is awful and the airplane is just plain hard to land compared to a Citabria or Extra. We’ve seen too many NTSB statements for Pitts landing accidents that bluntly say that the probable cause was “the failure of the pilot to maintain directional control during the landing rollout.” Go to the accident sidebar on page 28 and you’ll see what we mean.
Of course, this should surprise no one: Just take a look at the short fuselage, small tailwheel and relatively narrow main gear. Then decide how you’ll see the runway in front of the airplane when it’s in the three-point position. It’s essential to get a good checkout before you fly the airplane home, or you run a significant risk of tearing it up on your first couple of landings. It’s also essential to leave at home any tricycle-gear habits and remember to perform S-turns while taxiing.
Anyone moving up to a Pitts also should become proficient in performing forward slips because it is an effective method of keeping the runway clearly in sight on final approach. And, although the S-2C’s published “clean” VS1stall speed is a seemingly benign 56 knots, it’s a few knots higher than the VS0″dirty” stall speed of high-performance singles such as the Bonanza and Cessna Centurion.
Is the Pitts a handful? Those who have fallen in love with it emphatically say, “No!” Pitts guru Budd Davisson, for one, says he can teach anyone to land a Pitts. “The Pitts Special’s reputation for being a handful on the ground is grossly exaggerated,” he adds. Davisson offers a transition course for aspiring Pitts pilots, estimating around 8-10 hours stick time for someone with a tailwheel endorsement, but admits the time required can “vary all over the block and is impossible to predict.” We get it.
With fixed conventional landing gear and refreshingly few avionics or instruments, a typical Pitts Special is about as simple as airplanes get. The airframes are fabric-covered steel tubing, with a plywood torque box joining the wing spars.
In addition to the standard aerobatic airplane prepurchase checklist, look for slop in the control system. It often just requires an adjustment but bearings can be worn out. Any Pitts flown regularly for aerobatics should be inspected frequently. Make sure the inspection holes have been cut in the underside of the wings, indicating someone is looking at the structure.
Once the wings are bolted together, the upper and lower wings form a rigid unit, so an impact to the lower wing may result in damage to the upper. It’s essential to inspect each wing. Look to see if the spinner and nose bowl line up. If not, the bushings on the engine mounts are worn and are allowing the engine to sag. While this is initially cosmetic, it can result in the alternator being pushed into the nose bowl and the exhaust hitting the front of the firewall as well as crushing the air box.
According to Budd Davisson, “There’s an easy way to tell if a Pitts has been subjected to extremely hard aerobatics outside of its design envelope. The most highly stressed part of the airplane is the anti-drag wire inside the top wing in the first bay outboard of the center section. The back ends of those wires go through the rear spar and come out inside the fabric area either side of the handhold behind the rear spar. If the airplane has been flown too hard, chances are there will be damage where the wire’s nut sits on top of the block that’s glued to the rear face of the rear spar (just inboard of the root rib).”
The engine and prop might demand some extra inspection time, especially if your mechanic isn’t familiar with an aerobatic engine installation. Many Pitts may come with a smoke generator, another oddity for the average mechanic.
Of course, the covering on any fabric airplane should be considered suspect, especially if the example hasn’t been hangared. Any ownership budget should set aside some dollars to recover the airplane at the appropriate time.
Finally, and while we’re not aware of any systemic corrosion issues with the steel tubing in a Pitts, the prudent purchaser is always on the lookout for related issues.
The Aircraft Bluebook doesn’t track the Pitts Special, so we searched the old standby, Trade-A-Plane, as well as some aircraft sales websites. We were surprised at how few Pitts were on the market. Want an $11,000 S-1C project airplane with an IO-360 B1B engine that last flew in 2003? There’s one on Barnstormers.com. On the other end of the spectrum, there’s a pretty nice-looking 1993 S-2B in Germany listed for $115,000 U.S. dollars. It even has a ferry fuel tank and factory smoke system.
As a pure sport airplane, Pitts modifications are usually designed to improve some aspect of the type’s handling or maintenance. Items like clear, Lexan floor panels, smoke generators, Haigh locking tailwheels (admired by new Pitts pilots, less so by old sticks) and spring steel gear (to replace the older bungee-cord design) are popular mods. Other add-ons or replacements, depending on the aircraft’s age, include inverted fuel and oil, electrical systems, Ceconite fabric coverings, seat-bottom parachutes and new, five-point harnesses.
We’re not aware of a type club devoted to the Pitts Special, unless you count the various national and international organizations devoted to aerobatics. While not type clubs per se, they are populated with pilots who have flown—and may still fly—the Pitts and have a thing or two to share. There is a Pitts Special Facebook page with nearly 6000 members. We do recommend joining the International Aerobatic Club for information and support on Pitts—its members were extremely helpful in providing information for this article, as were some of our valued readers. The local Experimental Aircraft Association chapter may be another great resource, especially for a kit- or plans-built example.
The ultimate aficionado, however, is the aforementioned Budd Davisson, whose website (www.airbum.com) includes substantial resources for the pilot merely wanting to learn more about Mr. Pitts’ Specials or needing detailed information on which one to choose and how to fly it.
Pitts Wrecks: RLOC, Collisions, Fuel
We admit it up front: Going through the 100 most recent accidents of Pitts Specials was unlike reviewing accidents of any other type of airplane. With its reputation as a tough airplane to control on landing, we expected nearly half of the accidents to involve runway loss of control (RLOC)—there were 30. That’s exactly what we saw for the Citabria/Dectahlon series—the poster children for good-handling tailwheel airplanes. By comparison, the RLOC rate for the Cessna 185 in our last review was 52, for the Super Cub, 40.
What got our attention was the number of fuel-related accidents—12; the number of collisions—eight in the air and six on the ground; and structural failures inflight—four.
Most of the Pitts series have limited fuel capacity—they were designed as aerobatic masters, not traveling machines. Their pilots know this; however, every one of the twelve who had a fuel-related engine stoppage simply ran his airplane out of gas. Most didn’t bother to check the quantity prior to takeoff, a few got confused in their record-keeping regarding flight time since refueling and one landed at an airport without fuel (it was in the NOTAM) and tried unsuccessfully to make it to the next airport. We wonder about the dynamic between the pilot fueling his Pitts and his helper at the pump who was asked to call out when it read 14 gallons. The helper confused 1.4 and 14.
The FAA has expressed its concern about pilots running airplanes out of fuel—we think Pitts pilots should he hyper-alert to the subject.
Visibility from a Pitts is best described as lousy. That is reflected in the six on-ground and eight in-air collisions involving the marque. Nevertheless, we have no sympathy for the impatient Pitts pilot who saw the Cherokee ahead of him in the hangar alley and rather than make a radio call to ask him to provide more clearance, decided to barge through the space between the Cherokee’s wing and a hangar. The Pitts didn’t fit.
Most of the midair events were in the traffic pattern—often within moments of landing. The Pitts pilots apparently were aware of visibility issues as the NTSB reports indicate they were making position reports while the other airplanes were not. We felt the pain of the Pitts pilot who was looking so hard for another airplane giving position reports in the pattern that he hit a tree on short final.
Four pilots tore up their biplanes stalling at low altitude, mostly on landing. Seven decided to engage in low-altitude aerobatics and tied the record for low-altitude flying. Six pilots spun into the ground after starting with what appeared to be plenty of altitude. Investigations indicated that half were over gross weight and out of CG aft.
There were four structural failure events, only one of which was fatal—a pilot who had bragged of his disregard for airspeed and G-load limits. A pilot who was teaching himself aerobatics put his left lower wing into a neighbor’s tree. He repaired the torn fabric with duct tape. On the next flight he proved that duct tape can’t fix stupid when the left lower wing structure failed and most of it departed the airplane. To our astonishment, the pilot was able to land the airplane.
I bought my 1986 S-2B in 1998 while living in Michigan. The aircraft had about 350 hours on it at the time, and I am the third owner. I paid $77,000 for it. Since then, I have flown the airplane 650 hours and have done at least 15 owner-assisted annual inspections.
I wanted a high-performance two-place factory-built aerobatic airplane at a reasonable price, and at that time the S-2B was really the only choice. The S-2A is somewhat underpowered (keep in mind that even with 270 HP, the S-2B is a study in parasite drag) and a new S-2C would have been more than twice the price. I have done some aerobatic competition at the Sportsman level, but mostly I just go out and have fun one hour at a time. I also enjoy giving rides to friends and introducing my pilot buddies to spins and aerobatics.
I have flown between Nevada and the Midwest three times, but obviously this is not a cross-country aircraft. The cockpit is cramped and after 90 minutes of sitting on a parachute you want to either land or bail out. Planning is important—there better be fuel at your destination—and you’re going to want a hangar for overnight storage.
My insurance carrier wanted 15 hours of dual instruction before issuing coverage, which I got from the late Bill Thomas in Florida. Previous tailwheel experience was nearly useless in transitioning to the Pitts, but with good instruction the “rudder dance” starts to come naturally. There is, of course, no forward visibility on the ground with the tail down for taxi, initial takeoff roll and landing.
I’m blind in one eye, so if I can do it, anyone can with practice and instruction (of course, I avoid narrow runways and even moderate crosswinds). When asked, I tell people that I always try to remember that anytime I’m within 50 feet of the ground the airplane wants to kill me. This concentrates the mind, which is far more important than skill level. A moment of complacency and you will end up in the weeds.
Insurance runs about $2000-$2500 for $1 million in liability and $100,000 for the aircraft. In 19 years I’ve had two claims, one when a canopy latch failed (that’s when you find out why there is a $3500 deductible on the canopy), and one for wingtip damage after a bounced landing. I took the airplane to the factory for repair. If you’ve flown a Pitts for nearly 700 hours, chances are you’ve bent it at least once.
Maintenance has been straightforward, but having an A&P with knowledge and understanding of the aircraft for both prebuy and regular maintenance is essential. If you are considering a mid-1980s factory-built airplane that has original fabric, call the factory and ask if it is among those that had questionable cotton fabric. If so, you’ll probably be able to put your finger right through it. My airplane was completely rebuilt by the factory in 2003. At the time, I believe that was about $32,000. They did a great job, made several modifications and took care of the wing attach point AD.
Factory support has always been fantastic and, all things considered, parts prices seem quite reasonable. I strongly suggest you take the aircraft to the factory for an annual every few years—they will find and fix things even the best A&P will miss. The AEIO-540 is pretty bulletproof. After 1000 hours mine was showing signs of cylinder scoring (probably from well over 1000 starts, not to mention rapidly going from full power to idle and back again during aerobatics), so I preemptively had an overhaul done by Barret Precision Engines in Tulsa, Oklahoma. The overhaul was about $40,000 and Barret is one of very few shops I would trust with an aerobatic engine.
A big downside to a factory-built Pitts is that doing a proper annual inspection is a nightmare. Doing it right requires removing well over 500 screws to take the airplane apart from the rear cockpit forward. This is tedious and somewhat complicated, but after the first couple of times it starts to go smoothly and a little faster. To save a couple days labor at typical A&P rates, I take everything apart and then bring in my mechanic for the inspections, adjustments and any procedures. After cleaning everything I put it back together and get a final sign-off from my A&P. Depending on how much time I have, this can take weeks or even months, but this is an airplane that requires a very close look every year. I have seen many factory-built airplanes that obviously have not been properly inspected in years. I hate to think about what might be hiding under those unremoved panels.
Including parts and labor, annual inspections have been consistently under $1000. I change the oil and filter every 25 hours. I budget $200 per hour plus fuel, and over the course of nearly 20 years that seems to have worked out about right. Two things I did immediately upon purchasing the airplane were install a fuel totalizer (the sight gauge is completely useless) and a full electronic engine analyzer. The engine is over half the aircraft value, so running it with a single CHT reading is simply insane. It paid for itself almost immediately when the engine developed an exhaust gasket leak.
I can’t speak for the homebuilt Pitts community, but I have really enjoyed my long ownership of a factory-built S-2B. Let’s face it—this is an expensive toy with little or no practical use, and it probably would have been cheaper to rent one than to own one, even for nearly 700 hours of flying. It is, however, gangs of fun and probably considerably cheaper to buy and operate than a similar or higher-performance factory-built monoplane. Besides, a red biplane is just very cool, and one with two-place capability lets you share the fun. If this is your first aerobatic airplane, get proper instruction and don’t be an idiot with the airplane. The most impressive thing I do in my airplane is come back alive, and I won’t let myself or anyone else talk me out of that philosophy.
For proficiency, I do three landings at the end of every flight, and I try to fly four or more times every month. Based on the current market, I would suspect that a well-maintained S-2B with a low-time engine can be had for $80,000 to $100,000. A well- maintained and properly repaired Pitts is more important than it having no damage history. Of course, a hangar is essential.
I would strongly advise that the first annual inspection after purchase be done at the factory—you’ll be amazed at what they find.
Boulder City, Nevada
I own a Pitts S-1C, built in 1969 and then rebuilt in 1980. It has a Lycoming IO-360 with 11-1 pistons. The Pitts is a most remarkable aircraft, but demands absolute attention when flying it. To quote the well- known Pitts instructor, Budd Davisson, “It puts your habits, good and bad, under a magnifying glass.” The plane has a bad rap as being twitchy, but it only does what it is told to do by the pilot at the stick. Flown well, it is a dream. Fly it poorly and things might not end well. Anyone getting into a Pitts—regardless of tailwheel time—should seek a competent Pitts instructor. Even if it’s been a few years since you last flew one, get current first.
Consider that the insurance company might ask if you received Pitts training and from who, plus you’ll want to fly it frequently enough to stay proficient—and safe. I prefer to land in the three-point configuration almost exclusively and rarely have I had a situation that required a wheel landing. The plane seems to like three-points the best.
For operating costs, starting with insurance, with hull coverage at $40,000 and $1 million in liability I pay $600 per year, and that’s with another aircraft on the policy. I believe when I first purchased the aircraft the insurance was $1100 with $30,000 in hull insurance.
Fuel burn is about 10 GPH with a 200-HP IO-360 in cruise flight, going 160 knots. Conditional inspections run $600 to $1800 depending on how many squawks are discovered. Sometimes it can be done in one day with about 10 hours of labor. Until I had to recover my wings, the usual maintenance items included oil changes, brakes and tires. When the wings came off to replace the 28-year-old fabric, things got expensive. The wing ribs needed some attention from years of hard use. In the end it cost about $35,000 to recover and fix all the minor wood work needed in the wings.
These airplanes need to be inside, so budget for a hangar. In my area hangars rent for $250 to $500 per month for the smaller ones.
Overall, learning to fly a Pitts will make you a better pilot. “If you have the means, I highly recommend picking one up,” to quote movie character Ferris Bueller.