Steve Wittman

Sylvester Joseph ‘Steve’ Wittman was born on 5 April 1904 in Byron, a small town in the USA’s state of Wisconsin. As an infant, he became ill and lost most of his sight in one eye. When Steve Wittman was still a young boy, his father died, so he had to work to earn an income whilst attending school. Upon graduating from high school in 1924, Wittman and a friend had saved up enough to purchase a Standard J-1 biplane. By then, Wittman had already designed and built an aircraft. Powered by a Harley Davidson engine, he named it the ‘Hardley Ableson’. Wittman learned to fly and later earned a pilot’s licence, which was signed by aviation pioneer Orville Wright. He started a flying service and barnstorming company in 1925, before competing in his first air race in 1926.

During the early 1930s, Wittman designed and built highly successful air racers. As a racing pilot, Wittman competed against the likes of James Doolittle, winning many races and building a successful racing career that lasted until 1981. Wittman also set several world records and continued designing and building racing aircraft. When the USA entered World War II in the early 1940s, Wittman was unable to serve in the military, due to being legally blind in one eye. Nevertheless, he was responsible for training many pilots who did serve in the air force.

Meanwhile, Wittman served as manager of Winnebago County Airport in Oshkosh, Wisconsin, from 1931 to 1969. Upon his retirement as airport manager, the airport was named after him. Today, the airport is known as Wittman Regional Airport and is famous for being the site of the Experimental Aircraft Association’s (EAA) annual AirVenture. The EAA headquarters and Aviation Museum are also located at Wittman Regional Airport. The EAA’s association with this airport began in 1953, when Wittman convinced EAA founder Paul Poberezny to hold the EAA Fly-In at his airport.

Shortly before retiring as an air race pilot in 1981, Wittman was still winning races at the age of 77. He had become the world’s most successful air racer, having competed in and won the most closed course races in history. Even so, in 1989, 85-year-old Wittman came out of retirement to participate in one last race at the Daytona Skyfest. He placed third.

On 27 April 1995, 91-year-old Wittman and his wife took off in Florida and headed toward Wisconsin in a home-built ‘Wittman O-O Special’. According to the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), the aircraft’s wing fabric was improperly installed, causing it to debond. This resulted in a crash which killed Wittman and his wife on impact.