I Learned About Flying From That: First Fright in a Pitts Special

One pilot's labor of love was almost destroyed before it even got off the ground.

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Barry Ross

Having invested the requisite years of considerable sweat, some blood and, yes, a few moist-eye moments building a single-seat Pitts Special, the project was trailered to an FBO's hangar at Buttonville Airport, northeast of Toronto, Ontario. Here, tucked away in a corner, final assembly took place: installing and rigging the wings and controls, tensioning the flying and landing wires and bolting on and tracking the propeller.

I had never run the engine, having bought it through a salvor from a Lake amphibian that had turned over in a windstorm while on land. It had come without accessories, which I had slowly been procuring from here and there. I also had converted the engine from carburetor to fuel injection. Now seemed like an appropriate time to run it, if only to ensure it would crank and start and to check for leaks from the myriad oil and fuel lines I had fabricated for the inverted systems. The time had come.

I temper my excitement at this milestone in the building process by maintaining a detached and methodical approach to the ground run, giving the engine and its controls and installation a thorough visual inspection once more.

Finding nothing amiss, I enlist the most junior apprentice to ride the brakes while I push the diminutive biplane out into the sunlight as fast as I can. At my command, he presses hard on the brakes, and the main wheels give a satisfying little chirp as the airplane comes to an abrupt halt.

Great, they work — another thing to check off.

I had put less than one quart of avgas in the fuel tank, not wanting to create a time-consuming job of defueling for the final weighing. Besides, I was going to run it at idle for only 20 or 30 seconds after the oil pressure stabilized.

The taxiway I had pushed the Pitts onto, facing east, runs in an east-west direction for about a city block, and at the far end, it requires a right turn to get to the runways. If one were to continue straight ahead instead, one would arrive at a large hangar, full of airplanes angle-parked on both sides against the walls.

On either side of this short taxiway, airplanes are tied down, leaving enough space for a twin to pass between. Immediately behind me is the west end of the taxiway, with a grassy hill beyond.

I slowly walk around the little airframe, out of habit and for peace of mind, before climbing in and settling on the seat. I turn on the master switch, complimenting myself on how calm I feel, obviously well in control of what should be a very exciting moment.

Shouting "clear" as I reach under the cockpit coaming to the top, left-hand corner of the instrument panel to turn the ignition switch, I pause there a moment to look around, noticing all the work force from the FBO lined up to watch — and I realize how foolish I will look if nothing happens.

I see one propeller blade arc past in the narrow space between the bottom of the upper wing and the top of the fuel tank, and then both my initial elation that it is at least cranking and my logical, methodical world instantly dissolve into a stunning amount of noise and a stupefying amount of wind.

This sudden saturation of my senses is not enough, however, to stop one realization from bursting through my brain: The airplane is moving! I press harder on the brake pedals: The airplane is not only moving — it's accelerating.

I press with all my strength on the brake pedals, hard enough to overcome the grip of the Velcro holding the back cushion, and cause both the cushion and me to slide up the plywood seatback like an ejection seat going up its rails, until my legs are straight and my head is above the level of the top wing. I had not fastened either my primary or secondary harnesses.

This puts me in a most-precarious posture: With nothing to brace my back against, I can't develop full-braking force. I'm bent over slightly to keep the throttle and stick full back, but my eyelashes and eyelids are fully exposed to the blast from the extra-fine pitch propeller. They flutter so badly that I really can't see; everything has become shadows viewed through a dark curtain. My lips are forced apart, my cheeks balloon out and I can't exhale.

The airplane starts a gentle arc to the right, leading directly toward a new de Havilland Turbo Beaver on amphibs. As task-saturated and stunned as I am, I still generate a thought: I don't have any insurance yet.

I manage a slight correction to the left and squeak by the Beaver as I sense more than see its black rubber nose bumpers on the floats sweep past, poking between the upper and lower wings without touching — thank God the Pitts has such short wings.

Steering this missile down the narrow path between the parked airplanes, I know that I have to shut down the engine. I let go of the throttle and reach up under the cockpit coaming for the ignition switch, but my posture won't allow me to reach far enough.

Over the cacophony of the engine at full power comes the faint, far-off sound of the tires chirping. We are now going fast enough to be skipping on and off the ground.

My grim situation evokes a brief moment of sadness; this tubby, little airplane I had spent so many years painstakingly creating has turned on me and is about to kill me. Then my survival instinct kicks in and I am not going to sit here and let this evil thing just do me in.

Between the chirps, the airplane is now requiring aileron input to keep the wings level. I keep the stick full back, stalling it back onto the ground each time it attempts to lift off. We are now beyond halfway to the open doors of the big hangar, and the opening begins to visibly enlarge, as if about to swallow us whole.

Well, there are just two ways this can end: Get off the brakes, slide back into the cockpit and try to fly my way out of this or continue into the hangar. The first option is fraught with unknowns: I stand a very real chance of not clearing the top of the hangar ahead. If I do, I would pop up vertically into the downwind leg of the busiest general aviation airport in the country on a sunny day, and this would certainly startle the tower, to say nothing of the students I would encounter going the other way. I don't know if the Escort 110 comm works, or what the frequencies are, but that is all academic because I don't have a headset. I've never flown a Pitts before. How will it handle without all its cowlings and cockpit side panels and fairings? How long will that minute amount of fuel last at full power? What are they like to dead-stick, and will my vision clear in time? Will the engine seize from overheating before running out of fuel? Will I survive a forced landing who-knows-where, without my harness fastened?

But what makes this least appealing is that I also happen to fly for a living and had finally achieved a window seat as a DC-9 first officer, and the sure-to-follow enforcement action against my license would negatively impact my future.

Funny how the mind can work despite being almost paralyzed by what it is presently experiencing; right now my future probably doesn't extend further than another two seconds.

On the other hand, I could just continue on as I am, alternately skipping and stalling straight into the big hangar ahead, between what I can now just barely discern as very expensive aircraft. Unfortunately, there's no back door to the hangar, just a solid concrete wall topped with steel I-beams supporting a steel sheet.

I try to reach the ignition switch once more — no chance. I glance down into the cockpit and through a veil of tears glimpse the mixture control, just below the throttle.

With one last desperate glimpse ahead to ensure that we are aimed between the two rows of airplanes parked in the hangar, I bend over as far as the airframe will allow, grasp the mixture's T-handle, twist it counterclockwise to unlock it, yank it full aft, and twist it back again to lock it in place.

In the split-second it takes to straighten back up in the cockpit, the engine dies along with an abrupt cessation of the incredible din.

This instantly increases the effectiveness of the brakes that I'm still applying pressure to as hard as I can, and I'm very slow to realize that the nose is going down and the airplane is now well on its way to nosing over onto its back. Without a seat belt, the airplane will flick me out like a giant Frisbee.

How ironic would that be: the Pitts lightly damaged, me dead.

The sight of the pavement and hangar door tracks rising above the upper wing shocks me into releasing the brakes completely just as the Pitts comes to a stop. The airplane balances precariously for an eternity, then the tail falls a long way, the tailwheel hitting the ground with a terrible bang — and slamming me back down into the cockpit seat.

I am in the hangar, between those expensive airplanes. I look back over my left shoulder to see my audience walking back into the hangar, shaking their heads. I can guess just what they're thinking: airline pilots and their little airplanes.

And I feel a complete idiot — lucky to be alive, sure, but still an idiot.

Any armchair quarterback has — long before this point — figured out what went wrong: It was the fuel servo that replaces the carburetor in a fuel-injected system. It has a butterfly valve to control the air entering the cylinders, linked to a fuel-metering valve, and both are connected to an external arm to which the throttle cable attaches. The one I had located, purchased and installed had all the same letters, numbers and dashes as called for in the plans, except for the very last digit, which was one different. Externally, the unit looked identical to the proper one: same bolt-hole size and pattern, same fuel port locations and thread sizes, same throttle and mixture arm location. The only difference was that the butterfly valve inside the unit was mounted 90 degrees off from the correct unit. This meant the valves were fully open when the throttle in the cockpit was fully closed. Had I been actually seeing and understanding what I was looking at, I would have realized that the unit does not have an adjustable full-throttle stop for the external arm that is the idle-speed adjustment.

What made this oversight infinitely worse is that I also substituted a different pair of brake master cylinders, ones with a larger piston, which couldn't physically generate enough pressure to stop the aircraft.

One might ask why I persisted in trying to turn off the ignition instead of just going for the mixture right away. I can only answer that it was the turning of the key that created all the noise and wind, so surely the key could make it all go away too. One's logic processes in a situation like this become very primitive and elemental. Why didn't I try opening the throttle to see what would happen? I must admit I think I was using my grip on the throttle as much to keep from being thrown over the sides as we careened along as to attempt to keep the engine from turning any faster. I couldn't see the tachometer from my precarious perch; for all I know it might not have been at full power, and opening the throttle would only make things worse.

Upon reflection, it's amazing how much one can glean from an intense experience barely five seconds long: Deviating from tried-and-true plans, no matter how small, can have consequences one cannot foresee.

To see more of Barry Ross' aviation art, go to barryrossart.com