There's a neat clunk when you lock the large Perspex canopy of the Pitts. Ratcheting down the harness forces your thighs into the seat completes the circuit: you are now an aircraft. Looking from stumpy, rounded wingtip to wingtip I mentally capture the point where the horizon cuts the engine cowling. I have to do this every time I fly. One day I hope to burn this simple image into my brain but right now I know that it's best to place a recent copy in the very front of my thoughts.
It is such a simple machine; it's skeleton is at my fingertips if I want to touch it. A bare soul. Raw. Straight. This mellow autumn light makes the yellow paintwork shine. It should really be highly polished metal because what you get out of a Pitts is what you put in: perfect return of energy. No secrets exist between you because this little biplane is a quiet confidant, a therapist. It has seen it all. It's a mirror held up close to your abilities. Sometimes kind, sometimes flattering. Always brutally honest.
If you prime the engine just right you might just catch some combustion on the first few blades: a hard blatt from the stubby exhausts, the airframe twists and shudders with the building torque, I let the wheels roll an inch or two before squeezing on the brakes. As I move out to the runway I fishtail for some visibility. Just a little rhombus of clear space edged by fuselage, wing and strut is all you get:
Lesson one from the Pitts – sometimes you only get a glimpse of what you need. Slowly, deliberately you have to map out your pathway to the runway. It's an exercise in careful attention and just a little dose of faith.
As I push the power on the controls stiffen as they brace against the quickening air. Every fibre and strand of the aircraft begins to come alive. Tail up taking on the sky: Like flexing muscle the aerodynamics begin to force the little bird straight. Busy movements. Tiny taps with my feet set wide apart against the fuselage walls, a slight tug over the top of that bump and I sense the wheels break away from the ground. Holding it down low speed is rapidly building through 100 mph and beyond as the elevator pushes at my palm.
A glance up and right into the cool blue sky, back down to the airspeed, I register the position of the needle but not the value. A nudge on the controls. No special movements but the beautiful result is an arcing, climb to the right, preposterous in both steepness and grace. Wings level I suck the last few seconds of excitement back into my mind, the altitude giving me space to think again.
My usual rolling warm up isn't going well. One way, then the other. I keep leaving myself off centre. Sometimes the roll dishes a little. Then there's too much push. Lesson two: you have to be honest with yourself. As the nose pivots on the horizon I can feel the aileron pushing into the airflow, the pressure returned along the control rods, through the stick and into my wrist and forearm. Stop. Missed the wings-level point again. Roll right. Worse. Another to the right. I stop in the inverted for fun, reference is just about right. A glance at the altimeter. Big needle stationary. A tiny flick on the oil pressure and steady again. I pause to take in the view, chin stretched up slightly enjoying the perverse pull of gravity. Hampshire villages pepper the landscape. Long shadows stretch west, it's a weekday and cars are moving slowly in the back lanes.
Right way up, I bank and track the nose left and right across the horizon. A little steeper, I feel the the forces build as the wing tucks into the turn. The bottom wing draws a small circle around a cluster of farm outbuildings. It looks like I'm alone here. Wings level, keeping a straightish road on my right. A tough pull to level, pause, pull again hard and feel the energy fall away as the nose comes through the vertical line. My brain takes a snap at that point, my hands and feet move to balance torque and aerodynamics.
I rock my head back to find my line. There's a window of gentle lightness at the top of the loop before the crescendoing din of air over the blood pounding in my ears. This one feels good. But I'm not consistent today, flashes of good with some ragged edges. There's that second lesson again. To get better you need to be honest. I know that I need to reflect: part of my learning style so it's time to head home.
Lesson three: brilliance in some areas is often associated with compromise in others. Landing the Pitts is a combination of compromises. A bit of give and take. Stablised along a skewed line towards the threshold I move the nose just enough to see my touchdown point. Just enough throttle to balance the drag watching the runway end swell. The final movement doesn't give much leeway. I remove the slip which releases the drag, straighten up plus just a touch of left foot, slip the power down to idle and work the nose into the landing attitude. I hunt for the picture I recorded earlier. Hold. Patiently wait until the wheels brush the ground.
The same busy taps that kept us straight on takeoff come in useful again as I mentally sketch in the runway edges blotted out by struts and aluminium. Lesson four: If people tell you something is difficult it may just be because they weren't doing it right in the first place. Whilst landing the Pitts was never straightforward it was one of the most consistent, and rewarding aircraft to land I've ever flown. Before I'd flown it people told me it was impossible to land well – a 100 mph shopping trolley. They were wrong.
The Pitts is parked on the concrete slab between the hangars. A little later I walk back to the aircraft, flight suit zipped up, ready to fly. Canopy locked. I pass the straps over my shoulders. The high metallic tick of the harness ratchet is the only sound. I pause. Stretch my toes out on the rudder pedals and wiggle to settle in properly to the seat. I stare at the fuel gauge on the top of the cowling. This is not feeling right. I use the silence to check around my head. Nope. Not quite right today. The last and final lesson for the morning. There was nothing to gain from another trip. If your head and your heart aren't together, you probably can't do your best work.
I wheel the aircraft back into her slot in the hangar. I take extra time putting the cover back on, folding the tapes up and placing them neatly under the straps. Arranging the streamer on the pitot tube. A few small streaks of oil from the cowl need wiping off. I point my finger at the 'horizon spot' at the edge of the cowling and quietly tell myself “about there”. I'll never remember it. I will remember these five lessons though: glimpse where you want to go and work out how to get there, be honest with yourself if you want to keep improving, to see brilliance you'll probably have to accept compromise, don't believe it's impossible and, there's no shame in coming back another day. Keep your head and your heart together.
Thank you Curtis Pitts. That's quite a machine you made. Everything I learned in that little biplane is useful on a daily basis: the lessons are valid in so many fields.