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Aircraft modeling has undergone significant
changes over the decades - both in technology and preferences. Magazines like American Aircraft Modeler, and American
Modeler before that, were the best venues for capturing snapshots of the status quo of the day. Still, many things never
change, so much of the old content is relevant to today's modeler.
Whether you are here to wax nostalgic, or are
just interested in learning history, hopefully you will find what you are seeking. As time permits, I will be glad to
scan articles for you. All copyrights (if any) are hereby acknowledged.
200 MPH Volkswagen?
"Witt's V," like all his other racers, is faster than it looks. The
simple lines are very efficient.
by Don Berliner and Bob Pauley
Some people just don't know when to quit. Like, for instance,
In the Spring of 1974, he'll be 70 years old. That's
the time to sit back and reflect on more than 40 glorious years of designing
and building and flying some of the most exciting airplanes the world has
ever seen; and on a lifetime of showing the aviation world that there's
a simpler, cheaper way of doing what other people insist on doing in complicated,
expensive ways. The spring-steel landing gear on the past 25 years' worth
of fixed-gear Cessnas is one of Steve's clever inventions. And a 125 hp
two-place lightplane that cruises 50 percent faster than anything the industry
has been able to create? Well, his Tailwind does that with ease.
The Grand Old Man of Air Racing, Steve Wittman,
looks forward to his 70th birthday and to his first race in his
Formula Vee racer.
Steve has had more harrowing experiences than most people can imagine. Like
the time he was shot down while flying over the Great Smokey Mountains and
came out of it without a scratch. Or like the time, many years ago, when
his engine quit during a race and he landed on top of an Army bomber! Or
the time he threw a prop blade while flying out over the middle of Lake
Michigan in his Tailwind-and glided back to his home field to land with
an ice-cold engine.
Even that sampling would be enough for anyone
person, no matter how talented. But small, fast airplanes have been so much
a part of Steve Wittman's life, that neither age nor retirement could interrupt
their romance. In fact, the extra spare time afforded by retirement was
just what Steve needed to enable him to start on some of the projects he'd
been thinking about for years.
Priority Number One went to a Volkswagen-powered
sport racer for the new Formula Vee racing class. The idea of building an
airplane suited not only for racing, but also for low-cost sport flying
really appealed to Steve. And using a car engine in a homebuilt airplane
was another idea with all sorts of potential, especially in view of the
steadily rising cost of the few small aircraft engines still available.
Steve had been in on the beginnings of Formula Vee, back in March
of 1964. The men planning an "aerial Olympics" for Palm Springs, Caif.,
wanted a new class of homebuilt racers, and so Formula Vee was created (it
was then the 95 cu. in. class) from an idea then being worked on in England.
The Palm Springs extravaganza was pretty much of a flop. Formula Vee was
more so. There wasn't a single airplane off the drawing board, let alone
in the air.
The shortest route to speed is aerodynamic
cleanliness. Witt's Vee has no more than the absolute minimum frontal
area and a very thin wing.
As the 1960s dragged on, sport racing type people went in the direction
of the established Sport Biplane Class and Formula I. These classes were
growing well, but not so well that a lot of people and money could be siphoned
start a new class without risking serious damage to the old ones.
Formula Vee just sat there, whimpering.
Finally. in 1969, the first
pieces of metal were cut. And even though there was no immediate prospect
of a race, Steve s V out for public view during the first EAA Fly-In to
be held at Wittman Field, Oshkosh, Wisconsin. The 1970 Fly-In was held at
the field he had managed from 1930 until the late 60s; his home and hangar/shop
are just across the runway.
The Instrument panel of Witt's Vee: Simple and lightweight. (From
Left): Manifold pressure, oil pressure, G-meter, airspeed, altitude,
The critical area where the wing meets the fuselage. The square-sided
cowling is easier to build and just as clean as one with flowing
Landing gear struts are of titanium. Wheel pants will come later.
Classic Wittman lines: Boxy. with a strange combination of curves
and points. But it's the first one across the finish line that wins
... not the prettiest.
A long prop extension permits the sharpest nose of any VW-powered
The airplane so eagerly awaited by homebuilders and race fans alike must
have been something of a disappointment. It was an oversized Formula I:
angular, hump-backed and painted a garish green with yellow wings. It wasn't
particularly sleek. It certainly wasn't very pretty. And it didn't look
But it was by Wittman. His Tailwind fits the above description
more or less, and it's darned fast. Sporting aviation people have long since
learned not to scoff at anything from the wise old hands of Steve Wittman,
and so they looked very carefully.
What they saw was the shape of
things to come-just like his Buster had shown them in the first Formula
I race at Cleveland in 1947. For the first decade of Midget Racing, practically
everyone who had started off in some other direction, eventually came around
to Wittman's way of doing things. That was because Steve's homely little
racers won most of the races in those days.
He won races because
his airplanes were clean and light and simple. They got off fast and they
got around the turns with a minimum loss of speed, and they rarely failed
to finish a race due to mechanical problems. This philosophy has worked
for Wittman for many years, and he sees no reason to change it. The new
little VW machine was simply more of the same.
With an empty weight
of 435 lb., and the required minimum wing area of 75 sq. ft., he came up
with a wing loading, at racing weight, of about 8 lb. per sq. ft. This means
such tight pylon turns that not even the most nimble of Formula Is could
hope to keep up with him around the turns. Several tried it in an exhibition
race and watched him leave them flat at the corners.
One way he
kept the weight down was to use thin wires to brace the wing, so he could
get by with a much lighter wing spar (and faster airfoil) than airplanes
having cantilever wings. A bonus advantage of this -is the elimination of
the spar sticking through the cockpit - any extra room for the pilot can
be a blessing on cross-country flights.
One of the big problems
with VW-powered airplanes has been the high drag of the blunt nose, for
the famous German car engine is not meant to be tucked into a streamlined
airplane cowling. Steve turned the engine around (so it runs the right way
and he can use standard propellers), and built a special housing for a long
extension prop shaft. With the widest part of the engine far behind the
prop, a super-sleek cowl could then be built.
Construction is basically
conventional. The wings are of spruce with plywood covering. The fuselage
and tail are built up of chrome-molybdenum steel tubing and covered with
fabric. Only the landing gear is different, with all struts having been
machined from titanium stock-light but rather springy.
the airplane flew in late 1970, development moved slowly, for there were
no other Formula Vees in the air, hence no races coming up. Steve wasn't
satisfied with the center of gravity of his little bird, and made a major
change in the location of the wing. The engine, too, gave problems. for
he was exploring unknown territory in the use of a VW engine in a high performance
airplane. Prior to his racer, VW-powered lightplanes had been operating
in the 100-130 mph range. He passed by this without a pause. and then 150
mph, and then 170 mph.
As he slowly built up hours on his new No.
I, he became more and more pleased with its handling characteristics and
speed range, and this was what he wanted. Soon, spectators at fly-ins and
airshows were witnessing aerobatics displays by Wittman and his little Vee:
Rolls on top of loops, snap rolls, and even the rarely seen falling
leaf. From a minimum speed of around 45 mph right on up to the top speed
of at least 175 mph, it flew without a bad habit.
Its first time
on a race course came, appropriately enough, at Cleveland, during the 1971
Formula I races at Lake¬front Airport. To get there. Steve hopped into his
flying Volkswagen and covered the 500 miles from Oshkosh in just three hours
flying time. His few laps were strictly an exhibition. but he showed a lot
of people that his low-powered sport plane could not only fly cross-country
in fine style, but also wrap itself around a tight pylon course like a true
By now. a second Formula Vee design had flown and was attracting
a lot of attention. Young John Monnett's Sonerai had a cantilever folding
wing with a thicker airfoil, but otherwise resembled Steve's Vee in general
arrangement. Monnett was eager to get the class going, and so immediately
began selling plans with enthusiasm-and considerable success. Wittman preferred
to hold back
until he was 100 percent satisfied with the design,
though a few pushy friends were able to badger him into releasing some drawings
so they could begin building their own.
The months dragged on, however,
and still there wasn't a sign of a race, mainly because there were just
the two Formula Vee airplanes-and what kind of a race can you have with
two planes? Dozens were being built, but race organizers want some kind
of assurance that at least a half dozen will show up, before they'll agree
to put up prize money.
Lacking races for h is airplane, Wittman
continued to do what he could to stimulate interest in the new class by
flying airshows and by showing the folks what his machine will do-such as
fly it across the Rocky Mountains to Reno in 1972 to see the Air Races.
In classic Wittman style, he simply climbed in and took ott. While crossing
the highest mountains short of the Pacific Coast, he climbed as high as
16,000 ft. and reported the airplane handled "just fine" up there.
time a few more thousand people see Steve Wittman and his neat little VW
racer perform, a couple more think seriously about building their own. He
has now sold several dozen sets of plans, while Monnett must have topped
the 100 mark. By the summer of 1974, a half dozen or more should be flying,
and the first race in the history of Formula Vee could be upon us.
In fact, the Great Miami Air Races, scheduled for January 18-20, 1974,
has tentatively included a Formula Vee in its program. It may come off,
and then again it may not. But each step brings Formula Vee closer to reality.
And if the exact date of the first race is far from certain, one thing can
be counted on: Steve Wittman will be the odds-on favorite to win that first
race, wherever it is.
There's a very good reason for that "No.1"
on the side of Witt's V.
AMA Plans Service offers a full-size version of
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