Sylvester J. “Steve” Wittman
Air Race PilotEnshrined 2014 1904-1995
Sylvester Joseph “Steve” Wittman was born April 5, 1904, in Byron, Wisconsin. He was the fifth and youngest child of Martin A. and Mary Ann Bauer Wittman.
An illness in infancy had claimed most of the vision in one eye. With a youthful fascination with mechanical things, especially airplanes, he thought his dream of flying unattainable.
In 1924, at age 20, he designed and built a single-place aircraft with a 14-horespower Harley-Davidson engine. Hardly airworthy, he named it the “Hardley Ableson”. But after buying a Standard J-1 biplane with a friend, after eight hours of instruction, he soloed.
From 1925 until 1931, Wittman operated a small flight service in Fond du Lac. He also barnstormed the area and was a test pilot for a couple of small manufacturers. In 1926, Wittman began his air racing career flying his Standard at a Milwaukee event.
In 1928 he competed in his first transcontinental air race from New York-to-Los Angeles. Later that year, with a medical waiver on his eyesight, Wittman received his pilot’s license – signed by Orville Wright.
Wittman moved to Oshkosh in 1931 to run his own flying service and manage the Winnebago County Airport. He designed and built his first closed-course racer, Chief Oshkosh, which he raced in the Cleveland National Races that August.
By 1934 Wittman built his second racer, named Bonzo, after a comic-strip character. He flew Bonzo to a second place finish in the 1935 Thompson Trophy Race. The modest, soft-spoken Wittman was already proving that one man with good ideas, despite limited funding, could race with the big boys.
Though he lacked formal aerodynamic and engineering education, Wittman’s aircraft were famous for their light weight and innovative features, several which he patented. A personal two-place design he built in 1937 named Buttercup incorporated leading edge flaps that allowed the plane to fly very slow yet maintain level flight. Buttercup also featured a single-leaf, spring-steel landing gear. Soon the major companies like Cessna adopted his landing gear system – still used by many manufacturers today.
In the Fall of 1941, Wittman married Dorothy Rady. He taught her to fly and for 50 years she was his biggest supporter and business partner.
From 1940 to 1943, Wittman Air Service ran a flight school for the Civil Pilot Training Program, where some 700 pilots were provided nearly 24,000 hours of flight instruction with no serious accidents or injuries. In 1945, Wittman designed and built his fourth aircraft, a four-place, single engine, high-wing design he named Big X.
With war’s end, Wittman returned to racing, starting with the 1946 National Air Races in Cleveland. Flying a modified Chief Oshkosh, renamed Buster, Wittman’s teenage employee and protégé, Bill Brennand, won the inaugural Goodyear Trophy Race.
In 1948 Wittman built a sister plane to Buster, naming it Bonzo in honor of his 1930s racer. Wittman’s custom racers would be a dominant force through the 1950s.
In 1953, Wittman designed and built the W-8 Tailwind, later selling it in kit form to thousands. That same year he joined a new organization, the Experimental Aircraft Association, as Member Number 38. He convinced EAA founder Paul Poberezny to hold the 1956 EAA Fly-In at his Oshkosh Airport, setting a course for future EAA conventions.
In 1969, Oshkosh Airport was renamed Wittman Field in his honor.
Wittman built his final race plane, Witt’s V, in 1970 to compete in the new Formula Vee Class. He became its first National Champion, and continued to win or place in every Formula V race through 1981, when he finally retired from racing.
In 1989, at age 85, Wittman came out of retirement for one last race at the Daytona Skyfest, placing third. He had raced in and won more closed course races than anyone in the history of air racing.
At the age of 91, Wittman was still flying. However tragedy struck in April of 1995. While flying his O&O Special from Ocala, Florida, to Oshkosh, he and his second wife, Paula, perished in a crash in the mountains of Alabama.