Don is the chief pilot for OptAir and, most importantly for me, is one of the aerobatic instructor pilots for the Acro Camp movie that I’m currently casting. Don wanted to show me the Pitts S-2B that he’s lining up for the third and fourth days of the Acro Camp movie shoot.
This was a unique opportunity because the Pitts is in the middle of getting its annual inspection. A lot of the sheet metal is off the airplane and it’s easy to see the airplane’s stucture and systems.
The Pitts is an aerobatic monster. It occupies a unique position between basic aerobatic airplanes like the Citabria or Super Decathlon and the unlimited aerobatic airplanes like the Extra 300 series and the Edge 540.
The Pitts will handle six Gs positive and 3 negative, which isn’t all that different from the Super-D. But you can back it up with maneuvers like the tail slide (you go vertical until the airplane stops climbing, and then you let it fall tail-first until, at about 50 mph backwards, it swaps ends – dramatically). Doing that in a Super-D has a good chance of bending or breaking the rudder. But not in the Pitts. The Pitts is all about cross-bracing, redundancy, and strength.
And it’s a biplane. Enough said?
Having the chance to see the Pitts in the process of having its annual inspection gives me a lot of confidence about flying it and other general aviation aircraft. In order to operate a GA aircraft, you have to have it inspected at least annually. And, if you’re using a GA airplane to carry passengers for hire or for flight instruction, you have to perform 100-hour inspections. And there are other progressive inspections for certain aircraft.
The annual is probably the most dramatic of the inspections. And the annual for the Pitts is a little more dramatic than most other GA airplanes. For most other GA airplanes, you’ll see the cowling removed to expose the engine and many of the access ports on the airframe will be removed so the mechanic can get in there with mirrors and cameras and other implements to look at the interior spaces for signs of stress, warping, pulley and cable alignment, etc. The Pitts is different because much of the sheet metal on the airplane comes off fairly easily, so you can see the internal structure of the airplane.
When I first started flight training, I remember my wife being bothered by the fact that I was flying mid-1970s airplanes. I might have been bothered, too, until I learned about the inspection process and what goes into it.
Could you imagine tearing down your car every year? Or having a mechanic go over it every 100 hours? Or conducting a 30-minute “pre-drive” inspection of your car before you drove it each time? Now consider that aircraft are, mechanically speaking, much simpler machines than cars. And aircraft usually have redundant systems that your car doesn’t (e.g. dual magnetos).
The inspection process is one of the things that keeps general aviation as safe as it can be. In addition to those 1970s aircraft, I’ve flown everything from a 1929 Ford Trimotor to a 1939 DC-3 to a Cessna Citation Mustang personal jet that rolled off the assembly line about six months before I flew it. The ongoing inspection process gives us the confidence to go fly these aircraft through all parts of their design envelopes. And have an amazing amount of fun in the process.