Donald Stits is not an eccentric recluse or a billionaire, but he has one thing in common with Howard Hughes--he claims an aviation record for building an airplane of extraordinary size.
He arguably has produced the world's smallest airplane.
Stits will occupy a position in the British "Guinness Book of World Records" right next to Hughes, who in 1947 built the Spruce Goose, the largest airplane in the world.
Today, the Spruce Goose sits in a large aluminum dome in Long Beach, attracting thousands of tourists who marvel at what is widely regarded as the greatest boondoggle of World War II.
Meanwhile, Stits' Baby Bird sits in his Newbury Park garage, where he built it on weekends and evenings during the past five years with the help of his wife, Lori, and their two children, Jennie, 12, and Ray, 15. It cost $5,000.
To a casual observer, the pudgy little craft seems like a parody of an airplane, something that would never get off the ground, but it represents a serious effort in aeronautical design.
"If the garage door is open, people driving by slow down and try to figure out what it is," Stits said. "They can't figure out if it's a model airplane or not."
Despite such attention, Stits, 36, has his detractors. One is Robert H. Starr of Tempe, Ariz., who alleges that the Baby Bird is not the world's smallest airplane. Starr claims that his Bumble Bee remains the smallest airplane in the world.
"His airplane is longer and higher than mine," Starr said about Stits. "Mine would fit into a smaller cube than his."
Why anybody would put an airplane into a cube is open to question. Stits said Starr is carrying on a grudge against the Stits family dating back to 1952, when Stits' father, Ray, built what was then the world's smallest plane.
The elder Stits began work on the Sky Baby in 1948 on a dare from a racing pilot. The airplane was piloted by Starr, who claims that he co-designed the airplane. Rays Stits insists today that Starr played no role in the plane's design.
Donald Stits said the important thing about a small airplane is its wing span and weight, and that's where he has Starr beat. Stits' airplane has a wingspan of 6 feet 3 inches and weighs 252 pounds without fuel. What's more, Starr's aircraft is a biplane, which means it has more than double the effective wing area of Stits'.
But Starr said his airplane is about eight inches lower to the ground than Stits', which is 60 inches high. He also says its fuselage is 18 inches shorter than Stits' fuselage of 11 feet.
No 'Full-Sized Pilot'
"His airplane can't accommodate a full-sized pilot," Starr said.
Howard Nemer might dispute that. Nemer, a professor at Riverside City College, has piloted the Baby Bird on 35 test flights at Camarillo Airport. Nemer stands 5 feet 7 inches and weighs 140 pounds.
It is true that Stits cannot fit into his own cockpit. He is 6 feet tall and weighs 185 pounds.
One might wonder why Starr or Stits would want to build the smallest airplane in the world.
"The purpose is to prove it could be done," said Stits, who is chief of aviation requirements at Naval Air Station at Point Mugu.
"An engineer would tell you my airplane wouldn't fly," said Stits, who describes himself as a self-taught engineer. "According to engineering theory, it would be very unstable and would require a very high takeoff speed."
But it does fly. The airplane has a top speed of 110 m.p.h. and a minimum flight speed (stall speed) of 70 m.p.h., Stits said. The fuselage and tail of the airplane are built with metal tubing and covered with fabric. The plane is powered by a two-stroke Hirth snowmobile engine.
Stits figures that the British record book's acceptance of his airplane as the world's smallest settles any dispute about it. However, the American "Guinness Book of World Records," a separate edition of the book, will state that the record is in dispute, according to David Boehm, American Guinness Book editor.
"There are tremendous differences between the American and British books," Boehm said. "The British book recognizes all kinds of records that we don't here. They don't investigate things as well as we do here. They like to have a lot of new records."