Sylvester Joseph "Steve" Wittman was born April 5, 1904, at Byron, Wisconsin, and attended Fond du Lac High School.
Wittman gained his pilot's certificate in 1924 (signed by Orville Wright) in a Standard J-1 and built his first aircraft, the Harley powered "Hardly Abelson" later that same year.
From 1925 to 1927, he had his own flying service, giving joyrides and during this time also became a demonstration and test pilot for the The Pheasant Aircraft Company and Dayton Aircraft Company, flying the Pheasant H-10 in multiple events. He also began his air-racing career, designing, building, and piloting his own aircraft, including Chief Oshkosh in 1931 and Bonzo in 1934. Wittman's first race in his first aircraft design was in "Bonzo" in the 1935 Thompson Trophy race, where he placed second.
In 1937, piloting his second homebuilt, "Chief Oshkosh", Wittman placed second in the Greve Trophy Race. Wittman flew "Bonzo" in 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 (442.57 km/h). Suddenly his engine began to run rough, and Wittman was forced to throttle back to remain in the race, finishing in 5th place. In 1938, he was awarded the Louis Blériot medal by the Fédération Aéronautique Internationale (FAI).
Possibly the Tailwind W-8 had its real beginnings in 1937 as the "Buttercup," a ship that featured many innovations pioneered by Wittman on his racing aircraft, such as spring steel gear and welded steel frame. A high wing design built to outperform the Cubs, Chiefs, T-Crafts, and Luscombes of the day.The Tailwind bore a striking resemblance to the '37 Buttercup except for Buttercup's obvious outward differing features, like the two lift struts and wire braced tail feathers. But the W-5 and W-8 are sister ships, or at the very least, cousins. (At last report, the W-5 is still airworthy.) Another cousin is the Wittman Big-X, the four-place, Franklin-powered machine based on the Buttercup design. The Big-X flew for the first time in 1945 and was another Wittman winner. The Big-X and the Tailwind have all the same things going for them: speed, efficiency and ease of handling. It has recently been restored and is going strong.
Steve's spring steel landing gear used on the pre-World War II "Bonzo" racer was the last word in simplicity and low drag, ail the while remaining strong and flexible. The Wittman landing gear appeared on all postwar Cessnas another plus for Yankee engineering.
Wittman's "Buster" racer of the late '40s was typical of the small postwar racers that were hitting 240 mph with little 85-hp engines. Steve reasoned that you could scale up a racer by widening the cockpit, move the wing topside and only lose about 75 mph in the process. The result was a simple, flat-sided cabin ship whose fuselage resembled an airfoil; it had small, wellbalanced control surfaces, and the only thing sticking out in the wind was the paint job. Steve liked his two-placer that could hit 150 mph cruise so much that he brought out the Tailwind in the early '50s - not as a projected prototype for-selling plans, but as a peron'al airplane to carry two people comfortably with a Continental C-85 up front. It worked.
During World War II, his Wittman Flying Service was part of the Civilian Pilot Training Program, training pilots for the Army Air Corps.
After the war, Wittman finished eighth in the 1946 Thompson Trophy race with a clipped wing Bell P-63 Kingcobra fighter. In 1947, Bill Brennand won the inaugural Goodyear class race at the National Air Races piloting Wittman's 'Buster'. 'Buster' was a rebuild of the pre-war "Chief Oshkosh", went on to win many more Goodyear/Continental Trophy races, and was retired after the 1954 Danville, New York air races. It is now on display at the National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C.
Wittman built an entirely new 'Bonzo' for the 1948 National Air Races, and flying it himself, finished third. Wittman raced 'Bonzo' through the 1950s and 1960s, including the first few Reno National Championship air races, before retiring from Formula One competition in 1973. 'Bonzo' is now displayed next to Wittman's prewar 'Bonzo' in the EAA AirVenture Museum along with several other Wittman airplanes.
Wittman was manager of the Oshkosh, Wisconsin airport from 1931 to 1969 - which is now named after him (Wittman Regional Airport). Wittman became involved in the newly formed Experimental Aircraft Association in 1953 and was instrumental in bringing the EAA's annual fly-in to the Oshkosh Airport in 1970.
He designed and built the Wittman V-Witt to compete in the new Formula V Air Racing class. He competed in races with that aircraft until 1979. Winners of the Formula V National Championship are presented with the Steve Wittman Trophy.
Wittman remained active in aviation his entire life. For Wittman's 90th birthday a celebration, Wittman demonstrated aerobatic maneuvers in his V-Witt and Oldsmobile powered Tailwind. He also used "Buttercup" to give Young Eagles flights. Letters of appreciation were given by President Bill Clinton and Wisconsin Governor Tommy Thompson.
Steve married Dorthy Rady in 1941. He taught her to fly and she accompanied him to most of his races. Dorthy died in 1991 and Wittman married Paula Muir in 1992. On April 27, 1995, Wittman and Muir took off for a routine cross-country flight from their winter home in Ocala, Florida to their summer home in Oshkosh, Wisconsin. The Wittman "O&O" N41SW (41 for 1941, year of his first marriage, plus SW, his initials) crashed five miles south of Stevenson Alabama, killing both Steve and Paula. The cause was improper installation of the wing fabric, causing it to debond, resulting in aileron/wing flutter.
In 2014, Wittman was inducted into the National Aviation Hall of Fame.
Wittman Designed Aircraft:
Wittman Hardley Ableson
Wittman Chief Oshkosh
Wittman D-12 Bonzo
Wittman DFA Little Bonzo
Wittman Big X
Wittman O & O Special