The Magician of Mojave
Burt Rutan remembers the birth of the VariEze and names his favorite aircraft.
- By Linda Shiner
- Air & Space magazine, August 2009
Courtesy Scaled Composites
Long before inventing SpaceShipOne and Voyager—the first aircraft to circle the world nonstop and unrefueled—Burt Rutan revolutionized the practice of homebuilding airplanes with a 700-pound, composite oddity built with a set of step-by-step directions as simple as the recipe on a box of cake mix. Rutan introduced the plans for the VariEze [pronounced “very easy”] canard aircraft in 1976; by 1985, he had sold more than 12,000 plan sets for the VariEze and its big brother the Long-EZ.
He took a few moments recently to reminisce with Editor Linda Shiner about those days 33 years ago, when he was working on the VariEze prototype, just starting the Rutan Aircraft Company, and launching his other now-famous business, Scaled Composites. Rutan’s proof-of-concept VariEze, tail number N7EZ, is on display at the Experimental Aircraft Association museum in Oshkosh, Wisconsin. The prototype for homebuilders, N4EZ, is in the Smithsonian Institution’s National Air and Space Museum.
Air & Space: What’s the most important innovation in the EZ series of aircraft?
Rutan: They all have natural stall limiting. That was the thing I was experimenting with when I built N7EZ. It didn’t need electronics to keep the airplane from stalling. It would sit there at low speed; it wouldn’t stall. That specific airplane was not intended for plans or kits. It was N4EZ that was intended for plan sales. The plans for N4EZ were released just before Oshkosh time, in mid-summer of 1976, and it turned out to be an enormous hit. I sold 100 sets of plans the first day it was available. That was big business in those days. My wife and I had a little 10-foot by 10-foot booth every year at Oshkosh, and we would make about a quarter of our annual income out of that little booth during the Oshkosh show. That was our livelihood. Makes me shudder to think about it now.
A & S: How different is N4EZ, the prototype homebuilt aircraft, from its predecessor, the proof-of-concept N7EZ?
Rutan: The airplanes are really different. N4EZ is not just a modified N7EZ. N4EZ was a bigger airplane, and it was heavier. It had more room inside. It had a different kind of engine—it had an aircraft engine. [The N7EZ proof-of-concept had a Volkswagen engine.] So it was the one intended for the homebuilders, and that one got built in 1976. It’s confusing. I should have given it a different name.
A & S: How did the VariEze get its name?
Rutan: The name was suggested by my sister. I had designed an airplane I called the VariViggen. It had a variable camber wing, and it was inspired by the Saab Viggen fighter. So we came up with this corny name, the VariViggen.
And when I was describing the design for the N7EZ to my family, I said this one was very different from the VariViggen, that it took me four and a half years to build the VariViggen, and this one I built in four and a half months. And I said it was very easy to build. So my sister said Well, why don’t you call it, instead of the VariViggen, the VariEze?
And you know, the names are so corny that it makes me think, Gosh, we didn’t spend much time thinking about a good name. [laughs] Later on, we had better names: the Defiant and the Solitaire and the Grizzly.
A & S: Why did you decide to improve the design?
Rutan: In 1980, I came out with the improved version. There weren’t many of the Continental 100-horse aviation engines around, and we found out that so many people were building these that they couldn’t find these engines on the used market, and they weren’t manufacturing them any more at Teledyne. So we built a bigger airplane with much more range and some baggage capability—the Long-EZ. And that turned out to be the best homebuilt that I ever did. Most of the airplanes out there that are Rutan homebuilts are Long-EZs. And they’re very special airplanes in that they have coast-to-coast range. And they have very nice flying qualities. They use the Lycoming [108-horsepower] engines.
A & S: How would you describe the flying qualities?
Rutan: Just a little lower landing speed. It has better directional stability than a VariEze. It’s not as sensitive and twitchy. It doesn’t feel like a little tiny airplane. It feels like a more solid big airplane. And it is bigger; in fact, the Long-EZ is about as much bigger than the homebuilt VariEze as the VariEze was bigger than the proof-of-concept.
Long-EZ plans were only sold from 1980 to 1985. And after that, I didn’t sell plans for any of the homebuilts. The Defiant sold between ’84 and ’85. The plans were only sold for one year.
A & S: And why is that?
Rutan: Well, after 1982, I ended up founding a new company, Scaled Composites. And I thought, Well, I’m a young guy, and there’s nothing else to do in Mojave; I can run both businesses. And the buildings were 50 feet apart. And I’d go and work on the Voyager in the evenings and race back and go to work on the Starship in the daytime, and I had a family…
A & S: You were working on Voyager and the Starship at the same time?
Rutan: Yeah. Voyager made its first flight in ’84 and the round-the-world flight in ’86. We founded Scaled Composites in ’82 and we flew the Starship prototype for Beechcraft in ’83. And when the Voyager was making its nine-day flight around the world, I was on nightshift to monitor the flight at our mission control, and during the day, I was working my day job on Starship things, and other airplanes at Scaled. So anyway, the bottom line was that both businesses were profitable, they were both something that I could easily support my family on, but one of them had a very high product liability exposure that I still have to this day. I still have these airplanes flying, and regardless of what happens to them—if they run into a mountain with a drunk pilot—there’s still a risk that I could be sued for bad design. So I decided that I should cut off further exposure to product liability, and I stopped selling plans in June of ’85. So it’s been almost 25 years since I sold a set of plans.
A & S: Why did you choose to build the VariEze from foam and fiberglass?
Rutan: I knew that a metal airplane and a wooden airplane were very work-intensive and took a lot of time. I had built both. The VariViggen was a wooden airplane with the outer wings built out of metal. I did that so I could learn how to build metal airplanes.
The VariEze was unique at that time in that it was a fiberglass airplane done without female molds. Normally, you have this outside shape mold, and you lay the fiberglass into it, and you pop out an airplane. Well, these plans were sold for $94, and they were sold all over the world, and capitalizing a factory that would build molds and building parts just wasn’t in the picture then. My product wasn’t an airplane; it was just the plan to build the airplane. So I didn’t want to build a big factory and a big inventory and invest in a lot in tooling.
On the [Mojave] airport was an outfit called Fred Jiran Glider Repair. And they would take the European fiberglass sailplanes that had been damaged. Sailplanes from all over the U.S. and some from overseas would be shipped to this hangar, and they would repair them. And I watched them do that.
First of all, they didn’t have the factory tools. When they repaired the ones that were built in factory tooling, they’d position the foam core, and then they’d fiberglass both sides. And I got the inspiration from that and also from something else.
I was a model airplane guy. I had been since I was 10 years old. And model airplanes by then made their wings with hot wire-cut foam cores. I put both of those ideas together—of repairing fiberglass sailplanes and radio-controlled model wings—and came up with this manufacturing nugget. You could build an airplane without any molds or tooling.
We later made molds for the cowlings and the wheelpants, but those are the only molded parts for the VariEze. Everything else you could ship in a box with foam sheets.