Calvin Pitts is a Culver City hero. His 1981 single-airplane flight around the world proves heroic enough, but one should not forget to mention his public appearances across the country representing NASA and its aviation research, or his distinguished State Teaching Award signed by Gov. Ronald Reagan.
Pitts had a remarkable ability to connect with people. From his early days as a pilot and instructor out of Santa Monica Airport, this connection always soared new heights when a pair of wings were involved. It was during his time at Santa Monica Airport circa 1968, when the Personnel Director for the Culver City School District showed up for flying lessons. Enamored by his teaching ability, Pitts was recruited to teach a summer program for students during the day, and instruct Pilot Private Ground School by night.
Sponsored by the school district, Pitts started classes at UCLA to earn his Lifetime Teaching Credential, and in the mean time continue his aviation teaching. With the accumulation of funds from industry executives in the Culver community, the foundation for Aeronautical Science at Culver City High was well underway.
Pitts’ proficiency for teaching altered course early in his career when the news media covered the death of three of his students as result of a drug overdose. Looking back on the tragedy, Pitts imparts advice to young adults, “you are never too old to try out a dream, when others see you trying they will step up to help, dare to rise above mediocrity, and look fear straight in the face.”
The incident solidified his initiative to establish an aeronautical program. Clippings of a May 24, 1970 L.A. Times cover a statement made by the Pitts on his students. “You couldn’t buy a boycott or a demonstration out of my students. They’re so turned on by this program they don’t have time for anything else.”
His class projects gave students the ability to express themselves, and explore a subject specific to their interest. Just head over to the Pasadena Jet Propulsion Laboratory today, and one can find one of Pitts’ students, Mark Ryan. Inspired by his teacher to pursue a personal interest, Ryan decided to create a galactic star chamber on scale size to the universe. He was one of Pitts’ exemplary students, who followed his exploration to a Ph.D in Astronomy, and now is one of the managers to the Mars Landing Project.
Ryan and other students flocked to the extra-curricular activities offered by Pitts. One in particular was “Air Youth Day,” where Pitts organized an official airshow on the Culver campus. Publicity from this brought NASA officials down from Moffett Field Ames Research Center in San Jose. Thus spinning his career piloting for and representing the most prestigious aerospace program in the world.
Early in his NASA career was when Pitts was introduced to aviation legend Wiley Post, and the mindboggling contributions of Post to the aviation world. “(Charles) Lindbergh was a good event for history, by making specific contributions to aviation, but Wiley made literally contributions, he became father of the modern spacesuit,” Pitts said.
Post was notable for his close relationship with 1920’s humorist Will Rogers, and their aviation excursions up until their fatal crash in 1935.
It was during the 1981 re-creation of Post’s single flight around the world, when Pitts revealed the profound impact from his aviation hero.
“We were sitting in Germany, overcome with discouragement, facing mechanical problems, personnel problems, weather, political, financial,” Pitts said. “I’m sitting in the room with my co-pilot, and ask him what should I do? And his response changed my life. He asked a question…what would Wiley do?”
Calvin Pitts persisted and successfully completed the historical Wiley Post flight around the world. Pitts’ inspiration from Post reflects his devotion to aviation and the influential life it has given him. Pitts claims today he owes much of his success from his time spent within the Culver City community. In his accomplished years as a high school teacher and aviation instructor, Pitts’ work proved honorable to the community and distinguished among the aerospace industry. Pitts has the ability to fly, but his true heroic quality lies in the power to inspire others to take off.