Burt Rutan's Favorite Ride
The Boomerang could be the safest twin ever built.
- By Steve Schapiro
- Air & Space magazine, September 2012
(Page 3 of 5)
For six years, beginning in 1996, Rutan flew everywhere in the Boomerang. In 2002, a series of heart surgeries limited his flying. When he announced his retirement from his company, Scaled Composites, in late 2010, he planned to donate the airplane to a museum, but the more he thought about the idea, the less he liked it. Instead, he began looking for “someone who could enjoy its features and would work to restore it and keep it flying indefinitely.”
At the time, Tres Clements, a 28-year-old engineer who had been at Scaled Composites for a year and a half, was one of several volunteers working at night and on weekends on the last aircraft Rutan designed before he retired: a twin-boom, roadable aircraft known as the Bipod. (It’s not uncommon to find lights on in the Mojave Airport hangars late into the night as dozens of aircraft designers and builders work on their personal projects.) When Clements asked Rutan what he planned to do with the Boomerang, Rutan answered, “I don’t know. Do you want it?” At first, Clements thought he was joking, but that’s how he became the caretaker of the historic aircraft. Clements spent the next four months restoring the Boomerang, with the help of a team that included former Scaled test pilot Mike Melvill and engineer Ryan Malherbe. In July 2011, Clements, Malherbe, and Bob Morgan, the project engineer for mothership WhiteKnightTwo, flew the restored Boomerang to Oshkosh for a tribute to Rutan and his extraordinary airplanes.
Flying the Boomerang
“The first time I pulled an engine back, I was like, Wow, I can’t believe it actually flies like this,” Clements says. “It’s not doing what you’d expect. It’s flying really nicely when it should be flying really bad.” Last October, when Clements flew the airplane from Mojave to Oregon Aero, a company north of Portland that had offered to install a new interior, I hitched a ride.
Getting into the Boomerang’s cockpit isn’t easy. There isn’t a traditional door. Instead, there is a large oval window, which is on a rail and slides back to provide a wide space to climb through. The window is unlatched by a lever on the fuselage that folds down to double as a foothold.
The foothold is about at the waist of my 5-foot-10 frame, and for someone like me, with long legs and not great flexibility, it was a bit of a challenge to get my foot on the step. In the fuselage, you step on a shelf, taking care not to bump any knobs on the instrument panel.
In the Boomerang, the pilot-in-command sits in the right seat. This atypical arrangement enables the pilot to be the last one into the cockpit—therefore the one to shut and latch the door. It also affords the pilot better visibility, since the boom is on the other side.
As the sun was rising above the desert, we took off on Runway 8 and turned northwest, climbing slowly up to 14,500 feet, then leveling off. Once Clements trimmed the aircraft for cruise power, he turned the controls over to me.
The side stick is on the left, just in front of the armrest. The controls are incredibly light, which took me a while to get used to. The smallest movement resulted in a change. I had no problem keeping the wings level, but I struggled with the pitch, chasing the digital altimeter more than I’d like to admit. In fact, Clements suggested holding the stick with just two fingers instead of gripping it with my entire hand.