My own encounters with Steve Wittman...(by Jim Vliet)

Steve Wittman and Jim Vliet 1979 Steve Wittman and Jim Vliet at Steve's home in Oshkosh, 1979 (photo by Dr. Aaron King)

I first met Steve Wittman at an air race at Martinsburg, West Virginia on Saturday, June 21, 1975. At the time I was 26 years of age, and this was the first air race that I had ever attended.

I certainly knew all about Steve Wittman's exploits. I had first become interested in air racing in the early 1960's as a teenager, and had seen Wittman's name in various magazine articles covering recent 190 cu. in. midget races. In 1963 I asked my parents to give me (as a birthday present) a new book about air racing that I had seen advertised in Air Progress magazine. The book was called "the Golden Age of Air Racing" and it was available from a little outfit that I hadn't ever heard of before from Hales Corners, Wisconsin, called the Experimental Aircraft Association. [They've since grown to be a huge organization of over 200,000 members!!] Anyway, in this book I discovered that Wittman had been a top competitor in the prewar National Air Races, and his angular "Bonzo" and "Chief Oshkosh" racers of that era held a strange fascination for me. I began to build scale models of the 1930's racing planes, especially Wittman's 'Chief' and the other Menasco-powered ships. As a part of the research into these raceplanes, I began to collect photos and swap them with other collectors.

The day I met Steve, I had with me a photo of a scale model I'd built of "Chief Oshkosh". I recall waiting until no one else was talking to Steve, and then rather shyly approaching him to show him the photo. Steve immediately showed great interest in the photo, and praised the accuracy of my model. WOW!! [I still have the model] A mild (??) case of hero worship ensued.

I next saw Steve at the 1977 Sturgis, Kentucky air races. This was the first official Formula V race, and Charlie Terry and Verne Willingham were there to do battle with Steve. I was made a pylon judge and stood all afternoon at #3 pylon in a hot, dusty corn field, having the time of my life!

My first trip to the EAA Convention at Oshkosh was also in 1977, and I was there to see Steve and the other Formula V pilots receive their race trophies for the Sturgis race. Sometime over that fall or winter, I decided to build a Wittman V-Witt racer and participate in Formula V races with it. So, I bought a set of V-Witt drawings from Steve. As an owner of a Wittman project, which at that time had progressed little beyond buying some materials, Steve invited me to his builders party at his home during the 1978 EAA Convention. There I met many other famous aviators, including Tony LeVier, Harold Neumann and Deke Slayton. Steve's hangar door was open, and all his homebuilt planes were displayed. All across the back wall of the hangar were propellers, many of them broken. I wandered through his home, viewing with awe all the racing trophies and memorabilia.

I had found out that Steve was especially interested in photos of his raceplanes from the 1930's, and so we enjoyed looking through my modest collection. I recall several occasions we handed the photos around as Steve would tell us of his adventures with the plane or person we were viewing. I also saw Steve at the 1978 and 1979 Cleveland Air Races, where he continued to dominate Formula V competition.

In 1979 I purchased a partially-completed V-Witt from a builder in Wisconsin, and Steve assisted my father and I in loading the plane onto our trailer. This was the first time that I was a house guest of Steve's.

I continued to see Steve at the major races and fly-ins, and in 1982 visited him in Florida at his home under construction at the Leeward Air Ranch in Ocala. During this visit, Steve took me up for a short flight in one of his Tailwinds. I found it amazing the way Steve had trimmed out his plane to fly hands off - it would make a smooth coordinated turn with a gentle tap on the rudder pedal only.

I was by this time heavily involved in administrating the Formula V class, and was the newsletter editor and Secretary. My own V-Witt #33 'chasin' rainbows' was flying in 1986, and competed in Formula V races in the 1987 and 1988 seasons. It was also flown in the Wittman flyby at the 1987 EAA Convention in Oshkosh, and was the only V-Witt to take part in this event.

In 1986 I had become the Formula V race announcer, and so it was that I was the announcer for Steve's last air race, at Daytona Beach, Florida in 1989. I was also pleased to be a guest at Steve's 90th. birthday party celebration at the Leeward Air Ranch in 1994.

I last saw Steve and Paula Wittman at the 1995 EAA Sun 'n Fun Flyin about two weeks before their deaths. Steve presented a forum on Tailwind and Formula V. Before it started, Paula, Steve and I chatted about the plans for the Wittman Trophy, and then during the forum I assisted Steve in answering questions. Steve gave me a few minutes to announce the 1995 Formula V race schedule. I then announced the Wittman Trophy; this brought forth a standing ovation from the entire audience.

Steve always took on the role of educator and seemed anxious to pass along his logic on aircraft design. I recall having a conversation with Steve several years ago, wherein he expounded at length on his belief in the impact theory of lift. Forget all that bournelli stuff; Steve's approach made sense - it explained forward-loaded vs. aft-loaded airfoils, effect of aspect ratio, tip losses, etc. His logic on wing tip plates vs. the triangular tip was another example.

Steve continued to experiment, and his last project - leading edge flaps for the Tailwind [tested by Steve on "Buttercup" in the late 1930's] - was under construction in his hangar in Florida when he left for his last flight to Oshkosh.

I'll always remember Steve's dry sense of humor and his willingness and patience with all those around him clamoring to talk with him. His passing reminds me that I'm no longer a kid was a privledge to know him, and it is my privledge to pass on to you my reminiscenses about Steve Wittman's life and accomplishments.

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