Originally published June 1996
Ever think what it would be like to work on a truly legendary airplane? Ever want to spend your days in a factory that ran more like a big version of your ideal homebuilder shop than an assembly line? Our guest speaker of the evening, John Angle, had that opportunity when he was the chief engineer for a small, very homey operation building Pitts Specials.
John had the usual resume of a Southern California engineer of the late sixties and seventies. He worked for several of the big aerospace companies on many of the big programs of the times. And like many, inevitably there came the layoffs. This time it was the cancelled Lockheed Cheyenne gunship. Not doing work he wanted to stay with, a chance meeting, a few conversations, and he was on his way to a little town in Northeast Utah, not far from the Idaho border and definitely off the beaten track. There he went to work for Aerotech, a company started in 1937 as a tax writeoff that ended up making money instead. During his time with the company, 1977 to 1980, John was responsible for dealing with the FAA, developing mockups, stress analysis, technical manuals, supporting manufacturing process, and just about anything else that was remotely connected with engineering.
Aerotech, unlike many other companies, didn't design and develop aircraft. It bought the design or built them under license after type certification. Their first product was a airplane named the Cauleair. They also built Interstates arid eventually the Pitts S1 and S2A from the designs of Curtiss Pitts dating from the 1940's. Over 2000 aircraft have gone through the line.
The Pitts is an airplane that is elegantly simple with an old style quality, according to John. It reflects one man's design philosophy of doing things in very practical ways with common materials. For instance, the canopy rails were adapted from file cabinet drawers and there are no heat treated parts on board. Also, everything on the airplane is easily accessible for inspection. Nothing exotic about this airplane.
Manufacturing was set up to be as straight forward as possible. Little or no on-site storage of parts or materials, and power tools no more complex than you find in the typical homebuilder's shop. Everything that could be purchased was and Greyhound Buslines became the vehicle for an early version of just-in-time material delivery. The grocery store scale next door was used when needed. Special attention was paid to detail and as a rule there was no hand location in the build process. What did that produce? Consistent quality such that any plane could be a master. The precision was so good that paint schemes, varied as they could be, were not marked to prefit assemblies.
John cited an inspection by the FAA of their records to illustrate the quality of the process. For five sampled aircraft the FAA could find no record of non-conformance or engineering material review activity. Skeptical of the claims that no record meant there were no non-conformances, the next five airplanes in line were inspected. Their only finding was the position of the N number, which at the time had to be a certain size that just didn't fit the small rear fuselage of the airplane as required by regulation. Not much to complain about.
Flight test consisted of two flights. The first to verify rigging and the second to demonstrate performance to the design flight envelope. Occasionally, a flight control surface would be adjusted to establish proper trim, but otherwise test was uneventful. And often customers came to the factory to watch the test and to pick up their aircraft. Cash was the desirable payment method, or you could pay by check. You just didn't get your airplane till the check cleared however. Remember, these were $30,000 plus airplanes.
John describes the people he worked with as well suited to the airplane they produced. Dependable, conscientious, and consistent. Lifetime employment was not uncommon. Typically, employees followed major parts for which they were responsible from initial lay-up to final installation. Gaps and shims were rare and each piece reflected a true pride of ownership. Perhaps this is a result of their upbringing. Company employees were mostly local people with a least one other job. Most were farmers and company policy allowed for shifts and time off that accommodated the nature of agricultural work and a desire to shoot things in the fall during hunting season. There were no attendance or disciplinary problems, ever. Not the sort of people you meet in a big airplane factory, but just the sort to work on a plane like the Pitts.
In spite of the work environment and people, John eventually left. Unlike the others, his wages were not a supplement to other work and they were just too low to keep going. Too bad. It sounds like it was a great place to work and the plane certainly has stood the test of time.
John Angle's previous visit to Chapter 1000
Contents of The Leading Edge and these web pages are the viewpoints of the authors. No claim is made and no liability is assumed, expressed or implied as to the technical accuracy or safety of the material presented. The viewpoints expressed are not necessarily those of Chapter 1000 or the Experimental Aircraft Association.
Revised -- 22 February 1997