Steve Whittman

Early Races...

Steve's first air race was in Milwaukee, Wisconsin in 1926. Steve placed second, piloting a Standard J-1. In 1928, Steve piloted a Pheasant H-10 biplane in a cross-country air race from New York to Los Angeles, placing 12th. out of 38 starters. Steve then placed 4th. in a cross-country race from Los Angeles to Cincinnati. Steve flew in numerous other cross country and pylon races in the Pheasant.

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

'Chief Oshkosh' Nicholas Beazley 'Pobjoy Special'

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


 In 1934, Steve decided to go for the 'big time' and build a race plane capable of winning the Thompson Trophy race [the Indianapolis 500 of air racing]. 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 race planes 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 Cheyenne, Wyoming, an engine backfire caused 'Bonzo' to catch on fire; luckily the fire was extinguished before 'Bonzo' was completely destroyed. But the damage was too great to be repaired for any further racing that year.


Steve also 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 pre-war 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.

After World War Two, air racing resumed again, but using modified fighter planes rather than custom-built race planes. Steve obtained a surplus Bell P-63 fighter and converted it to air racing, clipping the wing tips. Steve placed 8th. in the 1946 Thompson Trophy race with this aircraft.


 The escalating costs of all-out custom designed race planes in the late 1930's encouraged the development of a 'specification' or limited air racing class. But it wasn't until after World War Two that this class got going...and Steve Wittman played a major role. He took the fuselage of 'Chief Oshkosh', built new wings and installed a Continental C-85 engine, and renamed the craft 'Buster'. The rules for this racing class did not at that time require a minimum pilot weight, so Wittman selected Bill Brennand to fly 'Buster' in the inaugural Goodyear class race at the 1947 National Air Races. Bill Brennand and 'Buster' won. 'Buster' went on to many more Goodyear/Continental Trophy races, and was retired after the 1954 Danville, NY air races. It is now on display at the National Air & Space Museum in Washington, DC.

"Little" Bonzo

 Upon returning home from the 1947 National Air Races, Steve immediately began construction of a new race plane for the Goodyear class, which he named 'Bonzo'. (Steve's reuse of the name has been a source of continued confusion to aviation historians ever since!) The new 'Bonzo' made its debut at the 1948 National Air Races, finishing 3rd. with Steve at the controls. Thereafter, Steve raced 'Bonzo' at many, many Goodyear/Continental/190 cu. in. class/Formula One air races through the 1950's and 1960's, including the first few Reno National Championship air races, before retiring from Formula One competition in 1973.

In 1980, Steve modified 'Bonzo' with smaller wheels and wheel pants to participate in the Lowers-Baker-Falck cross-country air races, winning the first race and placing in several subsequent events. During the 1984 L-B-F race, Steve had a forced landing in a farm field, flipping over. Damage to 'Bonzo' necessitated a rebuild. Steve last flew 'Bonzo' at the 1994 EAA Convention at Oshkosh, and then donated 'Bonzo' to the EAA. It is now displayed next to Steve's pre-war 'Bonzo' in the EAA Air Adventure Museum.

Witt's V

In the mid-1960's, a new 'specification' air racing class was proposed, which was later named Formula V. Steve was an early proponent of this class; he designed and built his last race plane "Witt's V' for this class. Due to the scarcity of race planes, Steve flew demonstrations with his Witt's V during the early 1970's while other race planes were being built. In 1977, the first 'official' Formula V race was held, at Sturgis Kentucky. Steve won this race, and was the first National Champion of Formula V. Steve was unbeatable in early Formula V races, winning every one through the 1981 Cincinnati races.

In 1989, at age 85 Steve came out of retirement to race one more time at the Daytona Skyfest Formula V races. Steve won the initial race heat and placed third in the Championship race, his final closed-course pylon race. 'Witt's V' is now displayed at the Wittman Hangar on Pioneer Airfield at the EAA Air Adventure Museum. He died with his wife in an accident when fabric on his Whittman 'Tailwind' detached in flight.