Steve Wittman, Aviation, Class of 1998
S.J. (Steve) Wittman was arguably the greatest closedcourse (pylon) air race pilot that ever lived. From 1926 until 1989 he competed in and won more air races than any other human being.
Witt, as his close friends call him, was born on April 5, 1904 in Byron, Wisconsin. Because his father died while Steve was a young boy, he had to work as well as attend school and graduated from Fond du Lac High School in 1924. He also launched his aviation career in 1924 by buying a Standard J-1 with a friend and learned to fly. He competed in his race at Milwaukee in 1926 and his first National Air Race in 1928.
In 1931 he moved to Oshkosh where he designed and built the ultrasuccessful "Chief Oshkosh" which won numerous races from 1931 until 1937. During this period Steve also set several world's speed records including a 100 kilometer record in Detroit in 1937.
Wittman operated and managed the Oshkosh airport from 1931 until his retirement in 1969. In 1934 he designed and built "Bonzo" for competition in the famed Thompson Trophy Races, and in 1935 finished a close second. Due to lack of funds during the depression "Bonzo" was powered with an obsolete Curtiss D12 engine. This combined with limited facilities and runway length hampered testing which cost Steve victory in the Thompson on several occasions. "Bonzo" was the fastest qualifier at 275 mph and led the 1937 Thompson easily for eighteen of the race's twenty laps until radiator problems forced a fifth place finish.
In 1937 Wittman also built a personal two-place plane called "Buttercup" which featured leadingedge flaps that Steve designed and patented that allowed Buttercup to fly very slowly yet maintain level flight and good flight characteristics. He also developed and patented a singlepiece flat steel landing gear and used it on his races and personal aircraft. This revolutionary yet simple gear was used by Cessna Aircraft on most all of its planes and is still being used by most airplane makers. Steve modified this gear into a round rod gear, and he considered these gears his greatest contribution to aviation.
Being legally blind in his right eye prevented Witt from military flying, but during World War II his flying service trained many aviators for the services. In September, 1941, he married Dorothy Rady, and for fifty years until her death she was active in his aviation activities.
Wittman rebuilt "Chief Oshkosh" into "Buster" for competition in the new Goodyear Class races. Flying "Buster" Bill Brennand won the 1947 Goodyear repeating in 1949, and in 1948 Steve built a new racer, "Bonzo II", and won many of the Formula One Races from 1948 until the midseventies.
In 1953 he designed, built, and made plans available for his highperformance "Tailwind" personal airplane, and this resulted in a special long-standing relationship with the EAA organization. Wittman was also a key individual in developing the Formula V Class racers and built and flew the first racer (Witt's Vee) in this class.
In 1969 Oshkosh Airport was renamed Wittman Field. "Bonzo" and "Bonzo II" are in the EAA Air Museum. "Buster" is in the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum, and "Witt's Vee" Racer, "Tailwind", "Buttercup " and others may be found in the Wittman Hangar museum at EAA's Pioneer Airport in Oshkosh.
Steve Wittman's seventy-one years of active aviation accomplishments ended on April 27, 1995 when he and his second wife, Paula, perished while flying from Ocala, Florida to Oshkosh, Wisconsin.
by Aaron L. King, Jr.