Burt Rutan (born 1943) has been described as a visionary and as the single most influential designer of aircraft and airframes in the last half of the twentieth century. His ideas have affected military and general aviation aircraft and air transports designed for repeated use in shuttling passengers and cargo into space.
Rutan was the primary force behind the conceptualization, design, and development of the world-flight Voyager airplane, the only airplane to fly a non-stop, non-refueled flight around the world. The Voyager was piloted by Burt's brother, Richard (Dick) Rutan and Jeana Yeager. It flew around the world from December 14 to Deceber 23, 1986. The plane took off from Edwards Air Force Base in California and landed there nine days, three minutes and forty four seconds later.
Elbert L. Rutan was born on June 17, 1943, in Portland, Oregon, and grew up in the Central Valley town of Dinuba, California. He was the second of three children in the family of George and Irene Rutan. His father was a dentist. Besides his brother, Dick, he has a sister.
The Rutan brothers demonstrated an interest in planes at an early age. As children, they would have their mother drive them late at night on deserted roads in the then sparsely populated Central Valley to test model airplane designs. Mrs. Rutan would drive while Burt and Dick held their airplane models outside the car in attempts to determine how their models would react in flight. Burt Rutan kept up the practice, and tested numerous aircraft designs well into his college days by driving at high speeds in open cars late at night.
His fascination with airplanes prompted Rutan to attend the California State Polytechnic University, where he successfully pursued a degree in aeronautical engineering. He was third in his graduating class in 1965. Additional course work was taken at the Space Technology Institute at the California Institute of Technology and the Aerospace Research Pilot's School at Edwards Air Force Base. Rutan also took courses in marketing and personnel management at Golden Gate College.
Trained at Edwards Air Force Base
Rutan worked for the United States Air Force as a civilian flight test project engineer at Edwards Air Force Base from 1965 through 1972. While working at Edwards Air Force Base, Rutan was credited with solving a problem involving the vaunted F-4 fighter jet. The multi-million-dollar aircraft was known to go into flat spins and crash. The basic problem was ensuring the jet aircraft's in-flight stability. Rutan developed a spin-recovery system that fixed the problem, preventing the grounding of a fleet of F-4 jets.
In an interview conducted by Joe Godfrey and copyrighted by the The AVweb Group, Rutan talked about the training he had received in working for the U.S. Air Force. "I do consider myself an expert in flying qualities, and the development of flying qualities through flight tests and so on, and the reason is in the first seven years out of college that's all I did, flying qualities flight test. I never did any performance flight test. I was a specialist on flying qualities for about 13 different programs and so I came out of that a recognized expert. When I say 'recognized expert,' I wrote MIL 83-691, which was the Air Force's spec for testing stall and spin in all types of airplanes. I still think today, even though I don't do a lot of flying, I can get in an airplane and have a good feel for what it needs to improve it and how to do it. I'm not an expert in hardly anything but that, that one thing I would claim."
In March, 1972, Rutan took that training to the Bede Aircraft Company, in Newton, Kansas, where he was named director of the Bede Test Center. He held that position for just over two years.
Rutan Aircraft Factory
In June 1974, Rutan returned to California, founding the Rutan Aircraft Factory (know as RAF) to develop light aircraft and to market technical and educational documents on aviation.
While he had become well known within the ranks of the US Air Force, Rutan's first real fame came with the building of the VariEze aircraft. The VariEze was one of Burt's earliest creations, and the first to use a pusher type propeller mounted and canard wings. Burt's fame was immediate when his brother Dick flew the VariEze to the annual Experimental Aircraft Association Fly, in Oshkosh, Wisconsin, in 1975. The uniquely designed airplane was the hit of the three-day event.
The Rutan Aircraft Factory introduced a number of airplanes that were designed to be built at home, including the VariEze, the VariViggen, the Quickie, the Defiant and the Long-EZ. Distinctive design features marked these airplanes. Each of them represented a step forward in Rutan's creativity and eminence as a extraordinary designer of aircraft. Rutan's company and his designs changed the way homebuilt aircraft were conceived and built.
Flight of The Voyager
Rutan's greatest visible success was the record-setting Voyager. Round-the-world flight was never accomplished before because of the tremendous challenges it presents for flight capacity and performance of pilots and equipment. Rutan had to design an airplane that could fly 28,000 statute miles without refueling. As a result, the airplane's main cargo would be fuel, which aviators measure in terms of weight. It was to carry 8,934 pounds—nearly 41/2 tons—of 100-octane aviation fuel. That is equivalent to 1,489 gallons of fuel.
To fly that fuel, Burt Rutan designed a 939-pound flying fuel tank with a wingspan of 110.8 feet. The airplane had twin boom tanks that looked similar to outriggers on a canoe, canard wings, vertical stabilizers attached to the boom tanks, and tiny winglets at the end of the main wing for added stability. The twin boom tanks were designed to carry fuel, and helped to distribute the weight of the fuel over the airplane's structure. The airplane was powered by forward and rear-mounted propellers attached to a cigar-shaped pod in the middle of the enormous wing.
Rutan remained in nearly constant contact with the plane's two pilots from the command center at Edwards Air Force Base during the entire flight. He talked the two pilots through a hair-raising encounter with a typhoon over the Pacific Ocean and in skirting thunderstorms in central Africa and over the eastern Atlantic Ocean. He also talked the pilots through the failure of a fuel pump that shut down the engine and nearly caused the plane to crash eight hours before it landed at Edwards Air Force Base.
A Second Business
In the early 1980s, just as he was formulating plans with his brother for the Voyager aircraft, Rutan founded Scaled Composites Inc., a company that designs and develops research aircraft. Rutan launched Scaled Composites in April 1982. In its 18 years of existence, Scaled Composites claims to be the most productive aerospace prototype development company in the world.
Scaled Composites primarily makes proprietary model products for the world's general aviation and military aircraft manufacturers. The company has also been involved with the manufacturing of a special wing used on a yacht that competed in the 1988 America's Cup race, the building of the General Motors Corporation Ultralite show car in 1992, the building of gondolas for hot air balloons, the building of wind generators for electrical power generation, and the building of reusable aircraft that could be used to shuttle passengers and cargo to space.
One of Scaled Composites most renowned designs was the 85 percent scale of the Starship 1 aircraft built by Beech Aircraft Corporation. The Starship was designed as a turboprop corporate aircraft to compete with corporate jets, and its unusual design, which incorporated Rutan's trademark pusher propulsion and canard wings, won numerous awards when it was introduced commercially in 1990. Rutan holds a US patent for the design configuration of the Starship.
The Pond Racer
Another of Rutan's most celebrated project was the Pond Racer, a racing airplane built in 1991 for industrialist and aviation enthusiast, Robert J. Pond. The Pond Racer was built to compete in air races in Reno, Nevada, using vintage World War II aircraft.
In the interview conducted by Joe Godfrey for The AVWeb Group, Rutan recalled the problems that the Pond Racer had: "The Pond Racer was something that a person who had a mission wanted a solution to. His mission was to stop all these guys from destroying a Mustang every year and 12 engines every year at Reno and he wanted new technology in the racer so that it would take over and replace this environment that was destroying war birds. By that standard the project was a failure. You go up to Reno today and they're all war birds, so his mission and the Pond Racer solution to that failed. One of the reasons that it failed is the airplane never really flew with its propulsion system putting out the power. But the problem is it failed because it didn't win."
Rutan's design for the Beech Starship faced similar difficulties. The Starship was seen as a commercial failure, but critical elements of its design and its propulsion system were changed from Rutan's original plans, and pilots criticized the airplane as too slow and too noisy.
The decisions that led to the failure of the Pond Racer and to the lack of commercial success for the Beech Starship never reflected negatively on Rutan. His designs and development efforts always were viewed as both ground-breaking and sound.
Rutan sold Scaled Composites to Beech Aircraft Corporation in June 1985. Beech sold the company in January 1989 to Wyman-Gordon. Rutan was retained as president and chief executive officer through both sales. Scaled Composites employed about 100 workers in early 2000.
Through Rutan Aircraft Factory and Scaled Composites, Rutan has worked on unique design and development programs that include tilt-wing aircraft for Bell Helicopter that combine aspects of helicopters and airplanes, short-take-off-and-landing aircraft that require shorter runways than traditional jet airplanes, concepts for close-air support aircraft for the military, rockets, and crew rescue vehicles for the United States space shuttle program.
One of Rutan's latest projects, is a high-flying, adjustable-wing airplane called Proteus. The Proteus is an all-composite canard aircraft with a 79-foot wingspan that can be expanded to 92 feet, depending on the requirements of its mission or payload. It had its maiden flight July 26, 1999, and is designed to fly at altitudes of more than 50,000 feet for up to 18 hours.
Perhaps Rutan's most daring project is the Roton rocket, a manned satellite launch vehicle. Scaled Composites is working on this project with San Francisco-based Rotary Rocket Co.
Rutan's interest in homebuilt aircraft has not waned. He acknowledged that homebuilt sub-orbital spacecraft may not become popular, or even feasible, for 60 to 70 years. However, such space vehicles are a part of the future he foresees.
Rutan holds three U.S. patents, and has given numerous presentation and papers on aviation topics ranging from highly technical discussions on the flight characteristics of certain airplane wings to talks on how aviation research and development should be conducted. Rutan is a member of eight professional organizations, and holds four honorary doctorate degrees. Included among the many awards he has received is the Presidential Citizen's Medal presented in 1986 by U.S. President Ronald Reagan, in recognition of his achievement in the concept, design, and completion of the Voyager journey.
Further Reading on Burt Rutan
Yeager, Jeana, Dick Rutan, and Phil Patton, Voyager Alfred A.Knopf, 1987.
Rutan, Elbert L. Interview with Joe Godfrey, Copyrighted by the The AVweb Group, (November 18, 1999) http://www.avweb.com/