I left Saskatoon at 6:00am with a goal in mind. I was driving 9 hours to Steinbach, Manitoba, and I had an aerobatic flight booked for 3:00 pm. Even though it was pouring rain, I didn’t want to miss the chance to start flying upside down that day if the weather happened to clear.
Steinbach Mb. is home to Harv’s Air, Canada’s only aerobatic flight school, and I was thrilled for the chance to fly their Pitts Special S2B Biplane. The Pitts is a legendary airplane that dominated aerobatic competitions in the 70s and 80s and still remains the highest performance certified biplane in the world. It is highly revered among competition and airshow pilots but at the same time, highly criticized as being extremely difficult to land. The tricky landings are caused by a combination of poor forward visibility caused by the low, rearward sitting position, fast landing speeds, and a stiff, narrow landing gear that make the plane unforgiving in the touchdown.
It had been my dream to fly a Pitts and even though some may consider me young and inexperienced at 24 year old with 190 hours flight time, I felt more than ready for the challenge of getting type checked on this plane.
After 9 hours of driving, I finally arrived at Harv’s Air. Upon arrival I met all of the instructors including Luke Penner, who would be my tutor for the next 6 days. Luke looked young, but was an experienced instructor who had logged 5000 hours of flight instruction and over 1000 hours flying the Pitts. After a quick rest and preflight briefing, it was time to go flying, but the first flight was in the backseat of a Citabria ECA instead of the Pitts. I previously had a handful of hours in the front seat of a Citabria so I felt comfortable flying the plane, but the reduced visibility from the back seat was causing my landings to be far from satisfactory. Luke’s voice came over the intercom and informed me that the Pitts had about half the visibility of the Citabria. What had I gotten myself into!
The next morning we took the Citabria for an aerobatic flight over southern Manitoba and spent the hour doing loops and rolling though the sky. We started with an aileron role and then progressed to loops and hammerheads. I had taken some previous aerobatic instruction, but the review of these basic maneuvers was very valuable. Luke critiqued my rudder coordination as well as my airspeed and energy management. The Citabria ECA was not equipped with an inverted fuel and oil system, so we weren’t able to do prolonged inverted flight. I wasn’t disappointed, though, because our next flight was to be in the Pitts!
After lunch, we pushed the Pitts out of the dark hanger and into the sunlight. The plane looked somewhat pretty and innocent with its bright blue and white paint and short 20-foot wingspan. However, under the stubby cowling hid a Lycoming AEIO 540ci 6-cylinder engine. As I strapped on my emergency parachute, Luke explained the procedure for jettisoning the canopy and jumping out in case of an in-flight emergency. We then securely strapped ourselves into the plane using the 5-point ratcheting harnesses. Luke yelled “clear” and the engine came to life, shaking the whole plane. I could barely contain my excitement because I knew I was in for something spectacular! There was absolutely no forward visibility while taxiing and it was necessary to do frequent “S” turns to see where I was going. After a few last checks, we lined up on R18 and Luke hit the throttle. I was immediately glued to the back of my seat and mere seconds later our wheels left the ground at 70 mph. What a machine!
The controls of the Pitts felt crisp, light and perfectly balanced. The climb rate was 2700 FPM so it didn’t take long to reach our desired altitude of 5000 ft. I started by rolling inverted, making Luke and myself hang upside down by our harnesses. I was in the front seat, already trying to hide the huge grin on my face. I rolled upright using only about half of the Pitts’ 240 degrees per second roll rate and I heard Luke over the intercom, recommending more rudder in the roll. I continued onto a loop, did a shark’s tooth, and then did a 6G pull and pointed the plane straight up for a hammerhead. Luke told me when to kick the rudder, which made the plane pivot 180 degrees and point straight down. I stopped the pivot with a bit of a wiggle and corrected my heading as I pulled out of the dive. Luke took control to demonstrate proper rudder control, and did a razor sharp point roll, a double hammerhead, and a torque roll ending with a 5 second tail slide. I was impressed, but then came the hardest part: the landing.
We flew a standard circuit, but instead of lining up with the runway for final approach, we flew the whole approach leg at a 40-degree angle to allow us to see the runway beside the engine cowling. Luke guided me through the alignment turn, which was made at 10 feet high directly over the threshold. I rolled level while pressing my head against the side of the canopy and struggled to see the runway. I could only see the runway markers and a small patch of the runway edge along the side of the cowling. Luke helped me with the flare and moved the plane to the middle of the 25-foot wide runway. After touchdown, I struggled to keep the plane straight while watching the runway markers whiz by at 60mph. I could feel Luke helping me with the rudder, but only enough to keep us safe.
The next several hours of flight training were mostly spent in the circuit. I had always considered circuits to be somewhat boring, but there is no time to relax with the Pitts. The acceleration and torque on takeoff was still catching me off guard and Luke would jokingly come over the intercom and say something like “more right rudder” or “where’s your right rudder captain”. On the ground roll I was still too slow with the rudder corrections and directional control, but was gradually getting better after every flight. Luke informed me that I was still one step behind the airplane and that I “needed to quicken my feet”. It was a great feeling the first time Luke came over the intercom and said, “that one was all you. I never touched the controls.” I was gradually getting better with every flight, but I still wasn’t nailing even half the landings. Many times I would fly a good approach but lose sight of the runway after the alignment turn and have to power up and go around. Even though I was starting to get a bit more comfortable with the plane, I was still getting a rush from all of the power and control. The acceleration was unbelievable and after take off I remarked over the intercom, “Wow; that just doesn’t get old!”
One aspect of the training that I found very helpful was the headset-mounted video camera that Luke provided me with. It captured video of everything I saw during the flight and I spent my off time between flights reviewing the footage. I was able to fly from both the front and back seat of the Pitts, and also do circuits at the two different airports in Steinbach. Even though the training was intense and focused, both Luke and I were able to have fun and joke around during the flights. The staff at Harv’s Air was polite, helpful and even provided me with an inexpensive place to stay for the week.
After my 9th hour in the Pitts, Luke and I were taking off the emergency parachutes and I made the remark, “what do you think?” He replied by saying, “I think you can fly the plane”.Stefan Trischuk