Steve Wittman, aka 'The Grand Old Man of Air Racing,' was a
prolific airplane designer, builder, and pilot. His Wittman Tailwind
homebuilt airplane was very popular and proved to be fast and efficient
for its size and power. The 'Formula Vee' racer, motivated by a
highly modified Volkswagen engine, easily broke the 170 mph speed
benchmark. Making outside-the-box tradeoffs like suffering the drag
of wing bracing wires for a lighter and thinner airfoil are what
made Wittman a crafty - and winning - designer. A scale model of
the Wittman Vee might benefit from a slightly thicker airfoil and
larger tail surfaces unless you want to have to aggressively fly
the craft the entire time it is in the air.
200 MPH Volkswagen?
"Witt's V," like all his other racers, is faster than it looks.
The simple lines are very efficient.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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 off to 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, oil temperature.
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 lines.
Landing gear struts are of titanium. Wheel pants will come
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 very fast.
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
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
Even after 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 Lakefront 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 racer.
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
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"
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
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Posted December 15, 2014