You can always tell a Burt Rutan airplane, just as you can always tell a Dr. Seuss drawing or a Beatles song. It’s not only the configurations — though canards, winglets, or twin booms sometimes give them away. It’s not just the materials, though composites have been key to Rutan’s achievements and helped make him the hero of the homebuilder. And it’s not just the futurism, though Rutan designs always look like they flew in from a decade off in the distance. There’s some other quality rolled up with those three that makes you know it’s a Rutan. We think of it as playfulness.
Consider SpaceShipOne, Rutan’s best-known creation, which made history in 2004 as the world’s first private spaceship. It looks the way it does for sound engineering reasons: Its famous tail feathers were deployed to slow and control its atmospheric reentry, its tubby fuselage has a diameter of five feet to accommodate an oxidizer tank of similar dimension and a comfortable cabin, and its pointy little nose is sprinkled with small round windows so that the pilot could see the horizon at all times during the flight up to 60 miles and back. But SpaceShipOne is also toy-like. Can anyone doubt kids would be delighted by a small model of it?
Last April, Rutan retired from Scaled Composites, the California company he founded in 1982 (10 years after designing his first full-scale airplane), leaving a legacy of 38 piloted craft, among them Voyager, the first to fly around the world without stopping or refueling. (He also designed a half-dozen unpiloted craft as well as re-entry vehicles, round-the-world balloon gondolas, the structure for a four-passenger automobile, and the blades for a wind turbine.) Five Rutan designs are in the National Air and Space Museum.
As playful as Rutan’s work is, it tackled serious goals: safety, efficiency, endurance, opening space travel to everyman. On the next pages, we describe his designs, from the first to the…well, according to the designer himself, we haven’t seen the last. He recently told a group of admirers that when he retired to Idaho last spring, he took along his drawing board.
— The Editors
During Rutan’s first job, as a U.S. Air Force flight test engineer, he designed an airplane for himself inspired by his favorite fighter at the time, the Swedish Saab Viggen, a Mach 2 delta-wing craft that used a canard to increase its lift on takeoff and landing. Rutan employed the canard to prevent the main wing from stalling and large ailerons to vary the wing’s camber (thus the name VariViggen).
Rutan reasoned that an airplane that wouldn’t stall would be far less likely to crash, and the continuing quest for stall resistance led him to the canard design of the VariEze, which was also the first airplane to fly with winglets (to counter drag created by wingtip vortices). He was also seeking an airplane that was easy to build; he made the VariEze of styrofoam covered in fiberglass, in under four months. In 1975, with a Volks-wagen engine and Rutan’s brother Dick serving as the pilot, the VariEze set a world distance record in its weight class by flying 1,638 miles. The flight lasted more than 13 hours.
3. VariViggen SP
The 1975 VariViggen earned the suffix SP (special performance) because it doubled the range of the original. Rutan did it by increasing the wing area and making it and the rudder of lighter-weight foam and fiberglass instead of aluminum—and by adding fuel tanks in the wing and attached to the belly.
4. VariEze Homebuilt
After the VariEze created a sensation at the Experimental Aircraft Association’s Oshkosh, Wisconsin fly-in, Rutan enlarged it (every dimension changed), redesigned it for a 100-horsepower Continental airplane engine, and, doing business as the Rutan Aircraft Factory, started selling plans, based on the step-by-step instructions of Simplicity dress patterns. Interested in the airplane’s spin resistance, NASA bought plans and built two: for flight test and wind tunnel research.
Empty, it weighed 240 pounds, and could carry a pilot who weighed almost as much. In the wake of the VariEze craze, Rutan began to be approached by others for design services. The Quickie was his first design-for-hire, smaller than the VariEze and as quick, cheap, and easy to build and fly. (It got 100 miles per gallon in cruise.) His two customers formed the Quickie Aircraft Corporation to sell plans. A few of its oddities: main gear housed in wingtips, reverse stagger in the wings, and a resemblance to the X-wing fighters of Star Wars, a movie released the year the Quickie first flew.