Steve Whitman

Steve Wittman was born in Byron, Wisconsin in 1904. He learned to fly in 1924. His first air race was in 1926 in Milwaukee, in which he placed 2nd. During the 1930's Steve was a major contender in air races all over the country. During this era, raceplane designers were developing aircraft that in many cases outclassed the best military aircraft of the period. Steve designed and built several raceplanes, most notably his 'Chief Oshkosh' and 'Bonzo'.

Steve Wittman and Chief Oshkosh 1931

Steve's first raceplane was constructed in 1931 and made its debut at the National Air Races in Cleveland that year. It was initially powered by an American Cirris engine. Each winter Steve would rebuild the 'Chief', and over the years the refinements added significantly greater performance.

Steve bought Popjoy Special in 1933 and subsequently modified it, improving its speed. He raced it at various events in 1933-34.

In 1934, Steve built a raceplane capable of winning the Thompson Trophy race . Engine choice dictated the design configuration - instead of opting for a high-horsepower radial engine, Steve chose an inline Curtiss D-12 motor, the same type engine used in the Curtiss Schneider-Trophy winning raceplanes of the mid 1920's. Steve's design philosophy emphasised light weight over exotic streamlining, and 'Bonzo' took this approach to its extreme, being dubbed the 'flying barn door' by the press due to its angular appearance. Nonetheless, 'Bonzo's excellent performance made Steve one of the top contenders for the Thompson Trophy. Steve's first race in 'Bonzo' was the 1935 Thompson Trophy race, in which he placed second behind Harold Neumann in 'Mr. Mulligan'.

For 1936, Steve rebuilt 'Bonzo', installing a new landing gear. Since the National Air Races were in Los Angeles that year, he had a long cross-country flight to reach Los Angeles. After landing at Cheyanne, Wyoming, an engine backfire caused 'Bonzo' to catch on fire; luckily the fire was estinguished before 'Bonzo' was completely destroyed. But the damage was too great to be repaired for any further racing that year.

In 1936 Steve rebuilt 'Chief Oshkosh', installing a 4-cylinder Menasco engine. At the 1936 National Air Races in Los Angeles, the 'Chief' sheared a prop flange, forcing Steve to an emergency landing. The 'Chief' was damaged but was quickly rebuilt and participated in the Detroit air races later that year.

After the dismal results of the 1936 season, Steve rebuilt both 'Chief Oshkosh' and 'Bonzo'...and 1937 turned out to be Steve's most successful year. Piloting 'Chief Oshkosh', Steve placed 2nd. in the Greve Trophy Race and could possibly have won had the race gone the full number of laps. Steve in 'Bonzo' was the fastest qualifier for the Thompson Trophy race, and he led for the first 18 laps of the 20 lap race, at an average speed of over 275 Mph. With a huge lead and the race seemingly in the bag, suddenly the engine began to run rough, and Steve was forced to throttle back to remain in the race, finishing in 5th. place.

At the Oakland, California races in 1938, Steve blew the engine in 'Chief Oshkosh', and made a forced landing into a marsh, flipping over. This was the end of 'Chief Oshkosh' in its prewar configuration. He participated with 'Bonzo' in the weekend feature race but dropped out on the sixth lap. At the 1938 National Air Races, Steve placed 3rd. in the Thompson Trophy race in 'Bonzo', and in 1939 (the final pre-WW2 Thompson) Steve placed 5th. after cutting a pylon at the race start. In it's final configuration, 'Bonzo' was capable of a level speed of 325 Mph. on only 475 horsepower, faster than the top-of-the-line US military aircraft then in service. 'Bonzo' is now displayed in the EAA Air Adventure Museum in Oshkosh, Wisconsin.

In 1931, Steve became the operator of the Oshkosh, Wisconsin airport. During World War 2, Steve operated a flight school at the Oshkosh airport, training pilots for the military. Steve continued to operate the airport until his retirement in 1969. After his retirement, the airport was renamed Wittman Regional Airport.

Steve continued his air racing activities after World War 2 as a top competitor in the Goodyear/Formula One air racing class. He was the principal advocate for a new air racing class, Formula V, which was started in the 1970's. Steve also played a significant role in the formation of the Experimental Aircraft Association, and designed the Tailwind, one of the most popular homebuilt aircraft designs. He continued his involvement as an air racing competitor until 1989, when at age 85 he flew in his last pylon air race, a Formula V air race at Daytona Beach, Florida, placing third.


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Written & Edited by Darrell Graves