Text and Photos by Budd Davisson, Air Progress, January, 1992

An editorial comment: Where Have All the Pireps Gone?

I hope you don't mind a personal observation, but when I laid this issue on the scanner, as is usually the case, the magazine brought forth lots of memories attached to it. First, of course, was getting to fly my good friend Patty Wagstaff's airplane. The second thought, however, is that the above is the last cover I shot for Air Progress. After 25 years and over 200 covers, we parted ways, and a few months later, they closed their doors. No, my leaving had nothing to do with their eventual demise. It was the publishing business that cut its throat.

As I look at that cover I can't help but think how things have changed over the years. All the time I spent working with Air Progress, I knew if I ran across an interesting or exciting airplane, I could be guaranteed that they'd want the story. Today, I wouldn't know where to go with an article like this. There are no magazines running pilot reports on unusual airplanes. Oh sure, you can see all the Cessna/Piper/Beech reports you want, but none of the Walter Mitty type stuff that we did so much of in Air Progress.

Our theory was that lots of pilots and enthusiasts want to know how the different airplanes fly, so for nearly three decades we gave them what they wanted. I did 250-300 pilot reports from 1968 to 2004. The last magazine that was interested in antique/homebuilt/warbird pilot reports was EAA's Sport Aviation, but now even they don't want them. So, that's what Airbum.com is all about: flying airplanes (and a bunch of other neat sh*t). If you're reading this, I appreciate your coming onboard and proving that people still like to ride along and see what it's like to fly neat flying machines.

Incidentally, I'm trying something new on this pirep. I'll keep the photos fairly small so the file loads quickly, but I'll link the small photos, so you can click on it and get a bigger view. Incidentally, don't forget that these are scans out of magazines, so may not be as sharp as what you're used to seeing.


We fly Patty Wagstaff's mind-bending Extra 260

By Budd Davisson


The two transparent tubes down by my right knee showed exactly how much fuel was in the main tank and the auxiliary acrobatic tank. Frowning, I sighed with frustration, I thought, "Dammit, I'm going to have to take it back to her because there isn't enough fuel to get so far away she won't be able to track me down."

In the worst way, I did not want to give the Extra 260 back to Patty Wagstaff, who was patiently -- and probably anxiously --- waiting for me back at Blairstown Airport. Patty had turned me loose to frolic in her one-of-a-kind Sukhoi Killer, and I had fallen madly in love with this unbelievable acrobatic hot rod.

The famous Patty Wagstaff smile. Hard to believe she's such a tiger in the air.

Most of the airshow-going world by this time at least knows what an Extra 300 looks like, courtesy of Clint McHenry. He acrobats the hell out of that two-place bigger brother of Wagstaff s 260. Some of the more acrobatically enthusiastic might even know the Fxtra 230, the 200 horse single -place Extra often mistakingly thought of as a Laser clone --- which it definitely isn't. Patty's airplane is the best of the two. It's basically the smaller airplane with a modified wing and 300 hp engine. The aircraft is, however, the only one in the States and, therefore, something of a secret - or at least it was until the 1991 airshow and competition season.

By the time you are reading this, any aerobatic enthusiast will have already seen Wagstaffs throttle-to-the-wall, floor-to-ceiling hyperkinetic aerobatic show. When I strapped on Patty's airplane, the craft was still new to the circuit and I wasn't certain what to expect, and, had I seen even one of her shows, I would have known I was in for the ride of my life. As it was, I was treated to the delightful experience of self-discovery and was allowed to saddle up the best behaved, highest-spirited thoroughbred in the stable and told simply to go play. And I did!

Those who have not seen Patty's show are going to be first impressed by the show with its rudely artistic geometry and the razor-like precision. Secondly, they will be taken aback when Patty opens the canopy and steps out. The image of the flight and the image of the young lady seem at odds. Where the show is frenetic and nearly brutal, the pilot is a pretty and petite lady with none of the visible savagery she demonstrates in the air. Patty is also only seen by her public after she's been standing out on the ramp for several hours. This, of course, always ensures the appropriate airshow look - sunburned, windblown and tired. Patty appears to be an interesting contradiction: On the one hand, there is an initial almost-shyness which fades to a broad smile once the ice is broken. Once strapped in, however, the tigress comes out to play.

Although the 260 Extra uses the same engine as it's bigger brothers, the 300, it is a much smaller airplane .Click to enlarge.

When asked where she was born and raised, she flashes that million-dollar smile, which some smart advertising agency ought to pick up on, and says, "nowhere and everywhere." She is referring to her background as an Air Force brat moving from location to location around the world, but she admits if she feels homesick, it is for Japan where she spent her high school years while her father was flying in the Air Force.

Patty's initial in-cockpit aviation experience was on her father's lap at the controls of a B-25 (we're not going to ask how that came about, but a base commander somewhere is scratching his head). She then lived around the edges of aviation since everyone in her family is involved one way or another. She didn't actually start to learn to fly until she married Bob Wagstaff. The two of them were probably drawn together by their mutual interest in living life a bit differently than most.

Bob was originally a lawyer in Kansas City who decided it was time for a change, so he moved about as far out of the state as he could to set up practice - Anchorage, Alaska. Already a pilot, he encouraged Patty to learn to fly and she, with her lifetime's immersion in the industry, moved quickly through the ratings to become an instructor in the Anchorage area. She came into flying competitive aerobatics in 1984 when she flew her first airplane, a Decathlon, all the way down to Fond du Lac, Wisconsin. This was not only her first competition, but the first time she had even seen an aerobatic box. The Decathlon was quickly replaced by a Pitts S-1S and then an S-1T - the final single place variant in the butt-kicking, round-wing Pitts tribe.

As the Unlimited class become more and more dominated by monoplanes (specifically the Laser 200 variations), she looked around and latched onto the Extra 230 as the logical hardware to beat the Lasers. By this time, she was doing battle with the best pilots in the world and qualified for the World's Team in 1985.

By the time she qualified for the World Team, she had been flying contests only one year and had not yet won the nationals. She has received her share of awards, including both the Betty Skelton and Rolly Cole awards but, in 1991, she won the most important award when she was the overall winner of the national contest. It's important to understand she didn't win the women's division, which doesn't exist. She won all the marbles. She beat them all–men and women both– to become national champ.

Possibly the best indication of Patty's attitude toward life in general and competition in particular is the placard in the middle of her instrument panel which states "Kick Ass:" She doesn't like being second. And she doesn't like flying airplanes that are anything but the very best. She's willing to pay the price required to be the best and fly the best. The price is not only goodsized sums of cash, but a grotesque amount of time.

Although many who had flown her original Extra 230 considered it to be one of the best balanced acrobatic airplanes in the world, Patty had seen the Sukhois fly and knew she was going to need something with more performance and lots more power for increased vertical performance. By this time, Walter Extra was flying the six-cylinder Lycoming IO-540-powered 260 as his own personal acrobatic mount in contests in Germany, and Patty saw the plane had definite potential to do some serious butt-kicking.

Beginning in 1990 and working through Brian Becker at Pompano Air Center in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, negotiations were begun and the airplane changed its citizenry and received a few modifications along the way.

FYI- this was shot out of the back of a T-34 on top of a cloud deck just north of Phoenix. Patty makes shooting pictures easy. Click to enlarge

Acrobatic specials like the 260 are never actually finished. After receiving the airplane and having a flutter test performed by Carl Pascarell, she moved the airplane to her winter base at Tucson, Arizona, where she spends at least half of the year, most of it either practicing or tinkering with her airplanes. There, the airplane received a few more refinements before hitting the airshow, trail at the beginning of the 1991 season. And then we pick up the story at the point where I was trying to figure out the best way to steal her airplane.

To picture the scenario, you first have to adjust to a few basic numbers and then try to picture the cockpit. Here is an airplane with a 26-foot wing, over 300 horsepower, yet only weighs 1150 pounds. All that horsepower is fed out into the slipstream by a three-blade composite MT constant-speed prop. The airplane carries a total of 45 gallons of fuel, 10.5 of it in the header tank that has the flop tube and is the only tank used for serious aerobatics.

The instrument panel is, as would be expected, as well instrumented as an akro bird can be, which is to say there isn't much. Although the weight of avionics hurts the airplane in competition, it certainly makes life a lot easier on cross-countries, which is where it spends most of its time. Fortunately, Patty is sponsored by II Morrow, the world's leading manufacturer of lorans (Ed note: Wow! Remember those?), so the craft has the top-of-the-line loran.

When I saddled the airplane up on the ground, I was vaguely bothered by the unusual tubing structure that crosses the cockpit over the top of the control stick. The tubing is there to beef up the cockpit area, which is always a weak spot in any acrobatic airplane. Unfortunately, it seems to separate the pilot from the instrument panel and I was constantly reaching over or under to get at something. Given the choice of easy mag switch access or a strong fuselage, I'd pick the fuselage option every time.

At 6,000 feet on a crystal blue spring day, absolutely none of the foregoing made any difference. The only thing that counted was the way this airplane felt and flew. And boy, does it fly! Among other things, at that altitude and 23 square, I was indicating 190 miles per hour! Patty says she flight plans 190 knots cross-country and almost always gets it. With performance like that, airshows suddenly seem much closer.

On the short trip out to the aerobatic area, I was already in serious "like" with the airplane, if not out-and-out in love, simply because of the airplane's control harmony. The ailerons are very quick to respond, meaning the second the ailerons were deflected the airplane immediately gave me the roll rate that amount of stick deflection called for. All that response and roll acceleration was at the expense of reasonable breakout forces. With the stick in neutral, there was no tendency to overcontrol or to search from one side to the other because there is a clearly defined "notch" in stick pressures to indicate when passing through neutral.

Everything about the airplane, from its fishbowl visibility (if you don't count not being able to see down to the sides because of the enormous wing), its unbelievable climb rate (which easily tops 3500 feet per minute if you want to push), and its comfortable, only slightly supine seating position, makes you glad to be in the cockpit. Going somewhere isn't what the Extra 260 is all about - staying in one tight little space and jamming it full of maneuvers is the Extra's mission in life. 

Before Patty moved to St. Augustine, Florida, she was based at Avra Valley just north of Tucson.

As I pushed over into level flight in the akro area, the air was so clear I was conscious of being able to see about a trillion miles. I had to take my eyes off the not-so-far-away skyline of New York City and mind the business of flying someone else's mega-buck airplane. Initially, that meant making certain I had burned off enough fuel in the rear main tanks to get the CG into limits, before switching over to the aux tank. With the main tanks so far back, the airplane can be CG critical, so akro isn't attempted until the main tank is down to a given level.

On the way out to the area, I was so busy loving so many aspects of the airplane that I had no pre-disposed plan of action. I was absolutely positive it would be a waste of time to initially do something mundane like a loop or an aileron roll. I yanked the nose around in two screaming, clearing turns before pushing down to get speed for a vertical roll. I was certain a vertical in this airplane was going to be a serious experience. What I didn't know was that even my wildest imagination was going to fall short.

The vertical roll gave me the two biggest surprises of the entire flight. When I began the pull, I had no idea how much stick pressure was going to be needed to pull a relatively tight arch, so I gingerly started back on the stick. Immediately, I wasn't pulling tight enough, so I gradually increased the stick pressure. As fast as the thought can flicker across your mind, I had 7 Gs nailed on the airplane without trying. At exactly the same point that I was beginning to increase the back pressure, the stick force actually got lighter and it became easier to pull G. In other words, the stick force gradient is not linear - it falls off as the G-load goes up, making it ridiculously easy to inadvertently hammer a lot of Gs on the airplane, which I did. I was looking for 5-1/2 to 6 and would up with a shade over 7.

The airplane established the vertical with almost no help from me. Watching the attitude indicators out on the wings, I lined them up with the horizon and slammed in the left aileron to see if I could make that wingtip track the horizon, which on this particular day was a clearly defined line out about 50 miles. Surprise number two!

I actually heard myself say, "Holy S---!" out loud, I was so surprised. Up to that point, I had only used normal aileron displacements in doing 70- and 80-degree banked turns. When I put the aileron against my leg, or at least tried to, the airplane ripped around so quickly and with such instant response, that the inertia of my hand actually caused the stick to come off the leg and back toward neutral, slowing the roll rate noticeably. Roll acceleration was so high, a full deflection roll was almost violent.

Instinctively, I put aileron back in and could not believe how easily the airplane changed roll rate while still going straight up. Long before I was expecting it, my reference point showed and I had to get the stick back in the center or I was going to go ripping past the point. While still laying on my back and pointing straight up, I glanced down at the airspeed while waiting for the airplane to slow down. Then I waited, and waited - and then waited some more before pounding on the left rudder for a not particularly competition-quality hammerhead. As soon as the nose was down, I went for more speed - I wanted to do some more of those verticals and play with that wildly controllable roll rate.

This time while I was in the vertical I could see a little more of what was happening. It was positively amusing to start at a slow roll rate, then jack up to an unbelievable rate, stop it, roll in the other direction, do point rolls, and in general enjoy control on the vertical like I have never experienced before. I thought I was just being wonderfully adroit at the controls, but looking back after I was back on the ground, I realized the airplane was so well balanced it quickly allowed me to figure out what was going on and catch up with this amazing roll performance. I wasn't such a wonderful pilot; it was just that the Extra 260 was so user-friendly.

I can't even begin to retell what happened during the next 40 minutes, since it all tends to blur together in a G-induced haze. Individual memories, which produce akro-giggles still project into my mind. For instance, at one point I decided to snap roll the airplane. I slowed to what seemed to be a reasonable speed (about 120 knots) and used conventional snap techniques. The airplane obediently broke, whizzed around and then immediately stopped when it came back level again for what was one of the easier to control snaps I'd ever done. The unusual feature was that throughout the entire maneuver the nose didn't pitch up three or four degrees.

Immediately after coming out of the snap roll, I let the Extra accelerate for a second before doing a full deflection, nose-on-the-horizon slow roll and realized from my perspective it was very difficult to tell one from the other because the nose attitudes and roll rates are similar. Judges must have a terrible time telling a slow roll from a snap!

One interesting and consistent pilot induced glitch I couldn't cure was that on every outside loop I did, whether from the top or the bottom, I'd gain about 20 degrees of heading. I never did exactly figure out what I was doing wrong. There was either too much or not enough rudder, but I am going to have to play more to figure it out.

The airplane ignores gravity and doesn't seem to care where the nose is in rolling maneuvers, so one of my other problems was keeping from aerobaticing right up into controlled airspace. I'm so used to bringing the nose up slightly to do many maneuvers that I would start out at 4000 feet and then suddenly be at 8000 feet. 

After about 20 minutes, I found I wasn't paying any attention to whether I was going up or down, since any amount of speed combined with full power allowed me to do any maneuver. I got a huge kick out of being dead level, with the nose on the horizon and shoving the throttle to the stop. I'd wait a second until it was passing through 200 mph, flip the Extra on its back without even bothering to bring the nose up and then push it up into a vertical roll. Then I'd let the plane hang there for a while before pulling off the top to fly away inverted

When making our arrangements to get together, Patty and I had had some discussion on how big a runway she needed for the Extra and she said narrow runways are a problem because of visibility. Knowing I was going to have to fly the airplane, I offered to meet her over at Blairstown which was a 70-foot-wide runway. This is 20 feet wider than our home field and doesn't have landing lights sticking up like a picket fence along the sides. Even as I was strapping the airplane on, I know that had been a wise decision, and the more I flew the airplane the wiser the decision became. Sitting on the ground, the visibility around the nose is about as good as you get with most tailwheel airplanes. That's not the problem. The problem is the wing. The pilot sits so far back in the fuselage that the leading edge of the wing effectively blocks off all but a fairly small amount of the runway. And this is something that was in the back of my mind as I begrudgingly brought the power back and headed back toward the airport.

Patty was new enough to the airplane that she was still working out her landing techniques and gave me a couple of basic guidelines, including fly short final at 100 mph and carry just a little bit of power into the flare. Since neither one of us knew if that was absolutely correct or not, as I came on a downwind I opted to fly an approach not unlike I would in a Pitts, which includes a power-off, turning approach. As I bent around and came down to the centerline, it became obvious the 70-foot-wide runway was about as narrow as I would be comfortable with until getting more time in the airplane because the smallest bit of runway was visible ahead of either wing. And then I started trying to guess where the ground was.

I had plenty of time to worry about the general location of the ground because the airplane floated like a T-Craft and just didn't want to come down. When it finally did come down, it was with an unceremonious thump, as all three gear found the runway at the same time.

I let the Extra roll a little while and satisfied myself that it was at least as stable on roll-out as a Citabria before dropping the hammer to go around. I wasn't particularly happy with the landing and I was also farther down the runway than I wanted to be.

On the next two approaches I tried slower speeds with just a little bit of power in the flare and they bordered on the ridiculous since the airplane wanted to stay up like a glider with the spoilers in. On both of those, I touched the ground just briefly to let the airport know I had been there, then dropped the hammer to come around in a fourth approach that was more like the first, only slower. This one worked out much better and, although the touchdown wasn't superslick, it was still straight with no bounce.

Once on the pavement, the landing is anticlimactic since the Extra rolls absolutely straight ahead and decelerates beautifully.

I found in the air that the airplane stalled somewhere in the low 60s, which means I was approaching way, way too fast. I would like to go out and spend an afternoon playing with the airplane to see if I didn't feel better flying in a steeper, slipping approach at a slower speed. Patty says now that she's been flying the airplane for nearly a year she brings it in much slower than she did at the beginning.

At this point, I have to begrudgingly admit that I'm one of the few aerobatic pilots in America who hasn't flown the highly touted Sukhoi Su-26M, so I can't give a direct comparison. Practically everybody I know has flown the Russian craft and they have said the same thing: The Sukhoi really performs but requires a lot of technique to fly well. So even though it may outperform the Extra 260, it takes much longer to feel at home in the cockpit. Patty's airplane didn't act that way at all.

The Extra 260 is a pleasing combination of thoroughly conventional control and performance parameters, but the decimal point has been moved over on every single one of those parameters. The Extra climbs faster, rolls quicker, and pitches more rapidly, than practically every airplane in the world but it doesn't require the pilot get a brain implant to enable figuring out the sequence of events.

The pity in doing an evaluation of an airplane of this caliber is there probably aren't 25 pilots in the entire world capable of truly exploring every corner of its personality and telling the rest of us how it stacks up against the superbirds in finite terms. As a rag-leg Pitts instructor, I can comment on the basics, but it would take Leo or Clint or Nicolai to preach the final word. All I can say is I like the hell out of the airplane and, if I had thought about it before burning so much gas, Patty would have spent the rest of the week searching for me and her airplane.