Snap Rolls to Burgers
by: Lawrence V. Drake
Walk into the Burger King at the Sun Airpark in Scottsdale, Arizona, and you might be surprised to see a small red, white, and blue biplane hanging from the ceiling. I was astonished to learn an airplane I had owned and restored in the early 90’s had been retired to a small niche in the ceiling of a burger joint. I wrote the following story in 1995 after completing the restoration of Pitts Special N20DS.
[June 1993] The handbill read, “WANTED… PITTS SPECIAL…. Middle-aged man needs Pitts Special to get through mid-life crisis… need aircraft for under $15,000.” A large, side view drawing of a Pitts S1C occupied the middle of the page so there was no mistaking what I was looking for. I chose hot pink paper to make sure it would catch attention. The field had been narrowed down to a Pitts after several years of pondering over the right airplane for me. I knew I wanted to fly aerobatics again and the Pitts was the airplane to do it in according to my new friends in the IAC.
Back in the 70’s, which seems like another life, I owned an aerobatic flight school complete with Citabrias, Decathlons and a Stearman. Located on a grass strip in California with biplanes, antiques, war birds, there was nary a nose gear in sight. The closest thing to heaven a “seat-of-the-pants” pilot could find. Problem was, it spoiled me for straight and level. Chugging along, wings level, checking out the neighbor’s backyard just didn’t hold a thrill anymore unless I could see them cutting their grass looking up through my Decathlon’s greenhouse window. That was close to twenty years ago. The ‘great recession’ of the 70’s and life’s responsibilities charted a new course for this would be air jockey after trying to hang on to an aviation career with my fingernails. Oh, I have been able to stay on the fringe of my first love over the years. I have even owned a few airplanes, the last being a collection of miscellaneous, pseudo-Piper parts loosely herded together to resemble a J-3. A purchase made strictly out of emotion, the price was right and I wanted a Cub. When I got the airplane home and looked under its’ skin. things where not what they appeared to be. Fortunately, it got shipped somewhere overseas where it can live out its life of deception with no one being the wiser.
Two years ago I got wind of a Judges School that the IAC (International Aerobatic Club) was holding at the local airport here in Buffalo, Minnesota. What luck! Even if I couldn’t afford an aerobatic airplane, at least I could be around them. I decided to attend even though I knew very little about IAC or what they did. Herb Hodge flew his toy Pitts through all the maneuvers over the chalkboard box as he walked a classroom full of aerobatic enthusiasts through the ins and outs of a contest. It was great and I got to talk flying with other people, good people, that liked to turn airplanes upside down, too. The next thing I knew I was a member of IAC Chapter 78.
I was hooked and a search ensued for a steed that would carry me into the competition arena. Well, maybe a pony to start. Problem was, I didn’t have thirty or forty or fifty thousand to spend. The Cub sale had left me with fifteen thousand to invest in a new toy [Remember, this is 1995]. I started looking at kit planes and plans. It didn’t look as though there was anything even close to my price range. I talked about planes like the Clipped Wing Cub, Citabria, Rans Sakota, RV-3 or 4, Baby Lakes, Smith Mini-Planes and so on, dreaming of the day I would scribe those perfect figures in the sky.
One of the first people I met in Chapter 78 was Phil Schacht. Phil flies a Pitts S1S, and he took an interest in me right away. He kept nudging me towards a Pitts, and I thought it would be great but who was going to donate the “dinero” to cover the cost. Then came my first contest at Albert Lea, Minnesota. After seeing those stubby little bi-planes lined up side by side with their chests puffed out, each one waiting for its’ turn to growl through a sequence, I knew I had to have one. There was plenty of advice to be had. Just mention I was looking for a Pitts and everyone had an opinion of model, engine, and accessories. I came away with two things from that first contest. One, it might be possible to find an old flat-wing, two-aileron S1C suitable for competition that would fit my pocketbook. Second, they were a great bunch of people. It didn’t matter that I didn’t have an airplane or any experience in competition, I was accepted by one and all. From the basic pilots to the unlimited, they all were willing to share their time and experience with me. That is a rare find in today’s world.
With the resolve of locating a Pitts, I scoured the usual sources like Trade-A-Plane and General Aviation News & Flyer. I made a few trips to look at low priced S1C models only to discover how deceiving photographs can be. Phil said he had looked at close to a dozen before he found his, and he had a whole lot more money to spend. I was beginning to get discouraged. Oshkosh was coming up and I figured it would be a shopping mall of aircraft. Surely I could find what I was looking for there. That is when the hot pink poster was created. The idea was to tack it up all over Oshkosh and watch as the Pitts leads poured in. I also mailed fifty of them to FBOs within a three-state area asking the recipients to post them on the bulletin boards. Oshkosh came and went and there wasn’t a Pitts S1C to be found except for a plans-built project about 60% complete. Looking back on it now, it was probably a good deal but I wasn’t sure I wanted to do that last 40% of the work that often takes 90% of the time. I didn’t even get one response from my mailing. I resigned myself to a few more years of building my savings. The problem was that airplane prices always seem to rise faster than my savings.
Several months later, after the poster was forgotten, I got a call out of the blue. “Saw your poster on our bulletin board.” the voice said. “I know of a guy who has one in his hanger that he hasn’t flown for twenty years. He says he is ready to part with it; could be just what you’re looking for.”
A few days later I was parked in front of a hangar at Anoka County Airport waiting for Otis to show up and give me a peek at his creation. He had built it with the help of some experienced Pitts builders and completed it in 1973. It had been test flown once by an experienced pilot. It seems Otis flew the second time and ground looped it. From what I hear, it is a familiar story among Pitts owners. At any rate, the experience was frightening enough that the plane went back in the hanger and only came out for engine run-ups over the next twenty-one years.
The Pitts that Otis built
A big white station wagon pulled up and a short stocky guy with a friendly face climbed out to greet me. His flight jacket and cap had all the appropriate emblems, patches, and pins from fly-ins and aviation organizations. He opened his big new hangar door to reveal boats, trailers, and parts from all kinds of things including several airplane and helicopter projects. Right in front was his pride and joy, N20DS, trying hard to look good after twenty years of dust, fading, and neglect. As I looked her over, Otis filled the air with events and people in the aerobatic world that he had known through the years. He hung with the local aerobatic crowd and had built the Pitts to compete. Unfortunately, that never came to pass but it didn’t seem to dampen his enthusiasm for the sport. He was saving the plane for his son but kids have a way of choosing their own passions. His boy never developed an interest so now it was time to sell.
In my earlier life, I attended A&P school and, with my natural attraction to tube and rag airplanes, got involved in a number of rebuild projects. Now I tried to summon up some of that ancient knowledge to evaluate this dust encrusted airplane. I hadn’t done a very good job of sizing up the Cub when I bought it and I didn’t want to make the same mistake again. The Pitts definitely needed some work. The engine had less than three hours since new but twenty-one years of sitting. There was surface corrosion on many of the visible parts and the bottom cowling was missing. As I poked my flashlight down the fuselage I was delighted to find it looked as good as a three-hour-old airplane should look. The welds appeared professional and straight. In general, the airplane looked pretty sound. It needed a paint job and the engine would have to be checked out, but it had possibilities.
Phil had offered his services to inspect any airplane I might find, but he was unavailable. The next weekend Dave Rhudrud, another Pitts owner, and Tom Tschida, Phil’s mechanic, flew over in Dave’s Bonanza to take a “look-see” and keep me thinking straight. “Well, it wasn’t built to be a showpiece” was Tom’s comment. I had to admit it was kinda rough. “That pressure carburetor needs to be tested, the diaphragms are probably rotted. An engine sitting that long is probably full of rust. Have you looked into the engine with a bore scope?”
Actually, I was using “hope” instead of “scope”; as in, I hope it’s okay. They weren’t making this easy. I wanted them to show up and say, “Great buy, take it home!” Instead, I got a bunch of caution flags.
I returned one more time without an airplane, torn between walking away or jumping in. Making a commitment to buy an airplane is hard enough. Throw in a questionable history, possible deterioration, and an unknown amount of work and it would be easier to drop all my hard earned cash at the horse races… with better odds. Sometimes I get this nagging little voice deep down inside which keeps saying, “Go for it! go for it!” It may not be the most logical way of making a decision but it often turns out to be right. I think our brains take in and process information back in some deep crevice of our cerebrum that is far more efficient than our conscious thinking ability. At any rate, I went for it, holding my breath all the way.
A good friend and Clip Wing Cub owner, Dick Weber, helped me remove the wings from N20DS and trailer it the sixty miles back to my little workshop. I don’t know how Otis felt about seeing a stranger drive off with his child, but I know I would have had to grab my sunglasses to cover my watery eyes. Once in my shop, I started inspecting every inch of my new toy. It was the end of October and I figured I would have her in the air by spring… that is providing the factory new engine didn’t need an overhaul, the carburetor didn’t need rebuilding, the fabric wasn’t weak, the frame wasn’t corroded, the instruments operated and I remembered at least a portion of what I had learned in A&P school.
I was eager to look inside the cylinders and any other orifice I could poke a gooseneck flashlight into. To my great relief all that poking could not find any engine corrosion. Otis said he had faithfully pulled the engine through regularly and even had it borescoped several years ago. His diligence paid off because the engine appeared clean. Originally I thought I could just replace the fuel and oil lines, test the carburetor, do some clean-up, build a lower cowl and go flying. Paint could come later. Nice plan, but a bit naive. Every time I took something off I found something else that either needed to be repaired, replaced, or rebuilt. I even discovered that, while the wings and tail feathers were covered with Ceconite, the fuselage was cotton. It is amazing how easily fabric comes off an airframe. I was looking at a Pitts skeleton in no time.
The winter flew by. Almost every night and weekend were spent in the shop. It’s not too hard to do when the wind is howling outside with forty below wind chills and the snow is piling up. I would work away on the Pitts, dreaming of my first competition. The hardest part was motivating my body to get up out of the recliner and traverse the forty yards to the shop. Almost every part was disassembled, inspected, painted and put back in place. At first, I was a bit timid about defrocking the old girl, but as I got to know her I became more confident and nothing was beyond scrutiny. Floorboards, bungees, fuel lines, oil lines, tail wheel, rudder pedals, firewall, wings, tail feathers; I got into everything and enjoyed it all. Before I knew it spring had arrived and I was a long way from flying. I worked away into summer, pushing hard to get it into the air by the end of July for the Albert Lea contest. No luck! Even though I was able to help Larry Runge as the assistant starter for the contest, it was hard to sit and watch everyone else fly. Looking at all those gleaming airframes inspired me, and when I got home the sanding dust flew from my determination to put a shine on my paint finish.
Restored, updated, and ready to compete
Near the first of October, Dick Weber and Larry Huston helped me haul the revitalized Pitts to the Buffalo airport where Terry and Susan Marsh were kind enough to let me use their heated maintenance hangar to put Humpty Dumpty back together again. On October 13, almost a year to the day from when N20DS and I were united, she lifted me off the runway, heart pounding, knees shaking, and heading for the sky where we were both meant to be.
I know that there are many pilots out there who think competition aerobatic airplanes are just too darned expensive, but I just proved them wrong. One thing I learned from sharing this experience with others is that there are a lot of neglected Pitts sitting around in the back of hangars waiting to be discovered. Many of them just need a little TLC. Some need a fairly major makeover like mine. The thing is, they can often be had for under $20,000. I have less than that in mine after all the work. That’s the price of an ultralight! It will be a while before I compete in unlimited. When I get there I will worry about a better airplane. In the meantime, Basic, Sportsman, Intermediate … look out!
*** The End ***
Photo by: L. Drake