One small step for a man, one giant leap for homebuilding, Part 3

Joan Trefethen and her Stits SA-3 Playboy. Anon., “Joan bouwde haar einen vliegtuigje.” Cockpit, April 1960, 128.

Greetings, my reading friend, I am pleased to see that you are interested in the topic at hand. The Stits SA-3 Playboy owed its origins to one of the great pioneers of homebuilding. The American Raymond M. “Ray” Stits was born on 20 June 1921. Fascinated by aviation since his teenage years, he learned to fly. In 1941, Stits became a mechanic in the U.S. Army Air Forces, today’s U.S. Air Force. He served with distinction, on American soil, during the Second World War. Between 1948 and 1965, Stits designed and built eight small aircraft, as well as seven variants of these machines. His first project, a tiny monoplane named Junior, came to be as a result of a conversation about the smallest aircraft in the world. In 1952, Stits completed the Sky Baby, the smallest biplane in the world. These 2 single-seaters raised the enthusiasm of the media and many homebuilders. Stits realised, however, that they were too complex to build and too difficult to fly. Even before the end of 1952, he designed a single-seat aircraft that was easy to build, modify and pilot, the SA-3 Playboy. A 2-seat side by side version first took to the sky in 1954.

That same year, Stits completed a three-seater, the SA-4 Executive, for Besler Corporation. The company used it to flight test 2 light / private aircraft engines it was developing, including a steam one – an unusual technology it had been interested in for over 20 years. In fact, as early as 1933, Besler installed one of its steam engines on a Travel Air Model 2000 biplane, a type of aircraft present in the collection of the Canada Aviation and Space Museum.

Stits began to sell plans of the Playboy around 1953. That same year, he received a letter from an aviation enthusiast. Paul Howard Poberezny asked Stits to join the ranks of a new association of homebuilders. The latter readily agreed but asked for the permission to constitute a chapter near his home. Poberezny thought the idea was excellent. The first chapter of the Experimental Aircraft Association (EAA) was established in 1954 in Flabob / Riverside, California. It still existed as of 2017. The association then had 1,000 or so chapters in more than 20 countries, including Canada.

The Playboy caught the eye of many homebuilders of the 1950 and 60s. If truth be told, it was one of the most important homebuilt aircraft of its time. While Stits sold thousands of sets of plans, the aircraft was also available as a kit or a ready to fly aircraft. Approximately 1,000 Playboys were apparently completed over the years. Fifteen or so were still flying in North America in 2017, including three in Canada. The very first Playboy now belongs to the EAA Aviation Museum in Oshkosh, Wisconsin, one of the great aviation museums of North America.

Between 1955 and 1965, Stits designed and completed 4 other 1 and 2 seat aircraft, the Flut-R-Bug, Skycoupe, Skeeto and Playmate. This design work and the sale by mail of thousands of sets of plans occupied much of his time but neither of them proved lucrative. During the first half of the 1960s, Stits developed a non-flammable paint and a synthetic coating for aircraft. This Poly-Fiber system, as it is known in 2017, was so successful that Stits had to give up aircraft design. He removed all his plans form the market around 1969. Very active in the homebuilding community for decades, Raymond M. Stits died on 8 June 2015, at the age of 94.

One of the most interesting Playboys was registered around October 1957. It owed its origins to the passion for flight of Joan Trefethen, then aged 30. This Californian mother of 3 was one of the first, if not the first female homebuilder in the world. A shipyard employee during the Second World War, Trefethen obtained her pilot’s license around 1945-46. She worked on her aircraft, which differed somewhat from a standard Playboy, for about 2 years, while giving piano and ballet lessons. The birth of her daughter, Tina Trefethen, while this work was proceeding, delayed the first flight of the Playboy by about 6 months. Alfred “Al” Trefethen, then aged 35, himself a homebuilder and designer of a few such aircraft, may have given some pointers to his wife. An instructor in the United States Army Air Forces during the Second World War, “Al” Trefethen was now a captain in the United States Air Force, a new name adopted in September 1947. Both he and his wife were members of the EAA.

It is worth noting that Joan Trefethen’s Playboy was seemingly airworthy as of 2017. If yours truly may be permitted such a comment, it should be preserved in an American museum.

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Rénald Fortier