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
(Page 2 of 3)
A & S: Was this your invention?
Rutan: I wouldn’t say we invented the method of hot-wire cutting cores. That was done with model airplanes. But we applied it to full-scale manned airplanes. And we also made prototypes: fiberglass fuselages, fuel tanks, canard wings, wings, we made all of these things without tooling. And a lot of those manufacturing methods were unique, new inventions.
A & S: Is it satisfying to work with foam and a fiberglass skin, as opposed to wood and metal?
Rutan: Oh, yeah, it’s wonderful. In those days we used to use urethane foam, and you could sand it and carve it and shape it so beautifully and easily. You’d go out in your workshop, and when you’d go into dinner, you’ve got something that looks different; whereas, building a metal airplane, you could spend months or years, just hammering out these little pieces that get riveted together. So you don’t get this sense of accomplishment or sense of art like you do building a composite airplane. It turned out to be not the most durable foam core, so we switched over to different types of foams later.
The basic manufacturing method on the three EZs was the same. They all had foam-core cut wings; they all had slabs of foam that you shaped; and then fiberglass both sides for fuselages and fuel tanks and other things. The methods stayed the same.
A & S: Who wrote the directions that accompanied the plans?
Rutan: I did. The idea came from the Simplicity dress patterns. If you buy a pattern to build a dress, what you see there is a sketch, and then a sentence or two or three, and then another sketch, and some more words, another sketch, and they just walk you through building this dress. Up until that time, there were homebuilt airplanes built from plans, but they were all blueprints. They were something that we would roll out on a table—a big drawing. And then there’d be notes in another book sometimes, or sometimes there’d be nothing but blueprints.
This idea of defining each step in building a homebuilt airplane and then showing a very simple sketch to get that step done—and you check it off and go on to the next step—the idea was to make it bulletproof. People couldn’t leave things out or make mistakes. And it proved very successful. It was successful only because we also did a quarterly newsletter, and we found all the problems. In those days, of course, we didn’t have the Internet. And you worked on the telephone or by snail mail. And when people would have problems with various parts of the plans, or building it, or have problems flying it, every three months, we’d put out this newsletter, and I did that for, gosh, 30 years—maybe more. We only stopped about three years ago.
We’d define that the plans aren’t complete unless you also have all the newsletters. Now if we were doing that today, we’d have a basic database of the plans, and we’d answer the question by revising it and putting out a new version on the Web site. But back then to build these homebuilts people would also have to have a dozen or more newsletters, and would have to go through and red pencil the owners’ manual or the plans, and make corrections and add hints and improvements, and so on.
A & S: Did that technique have an impact on the homebuilt market?
Rutan: A lot of people copied that. The Cozys and the Velocitys—almost all the homebuilts after that, they pretty much copied that same format.
A & S: Why do you think the VariEze was so popular so fast?
Rutan: I had been putting out newsletters to help people build the VariViggen. And in 1975, the half a million people who were at Oshkosh saw this [new] airplane. I had my airplane out on the flight line, in front of where they sold ice cream and hot dogs. In those days, you bought a ticket to go into Oshkosh, but you couldn’t go on the flight line, unless you had a pilot’s license and bought another ticket. The people who saw it at Oshkosh in ’75 realized that plans would be available soon. And I had people sending me money saying, Hey I want to get the first set of plans. But I’d just send the money back. I had a policy not to sell anything I don’t have.
You know I worked for [aircraft designer Jim] Bede, and I saw him go bankrupt doing that. And so I had a very firm policy: Something I sell has to be flight tested thoroughly. I don’t sell them something that I’m going to do next year.
A & S: And what do you think made it the phenomenon that it became?
Rutan: It had natural stall limiting. And it was a very simple airplane. Engine with a wooden propeller. VariEzes didn’t have a starter or alternator. They were just hand propped. It didn’t have retractable landing gear, just a retractable nose gear.
And it was very unusual in those days to build an airplane in a year of spare time. In fact, it’s still unusual. I met a lot of people who took only six months to build one. We were working full time on ours and we built them in three and a half months. Now there were some who took 15 years to build it, but it was certainly possible to build the airplane in a year.
A & S: What design philosophy unites all Rutan aircraft?
Rutan: Well, when I’m not constrained by customers… You could probably look at my aircraft and pick the ones that didn’t have a customer constraint. Some customers show up with a sketch and say, “I want my airplane to look just like this.” The classic example was the Adam [Adam500] push-pull airplane. I tried my best to try to talk them out of that. Push-pull is very noisy; it’s very low-performance, low-range. By then I was building the Boomerang, which had coast-to-coast range with the same engines and half the fuel flow—an airplane twice as efficient. And I could not talk Rick Adam into doing that. He had most of his flying time in a Cessna Skymaster, which is just an awful airplane. But he wanted something like that. You tend to like the airplane that you have the most time in, even though it’s a terrible airplane.
A & S: Do you have a favorite among all the airplanes you’ve designed?
Rutan: That’s like asking which is your favorite child. I used to say, “the next one.” But if I think about answering that question honestly, I have to say SpaceShipOne. It’s an airplane that had a breakthrough aerodynamic idea—the feathered re-entry. And that really solved one of the big dangers of re-entering the atmosphere. It’s something that I think allowed us to move ahead with a system that’s safe enough to fly the public to space. And we’re using that idea on SpaceShipTwo. There’s a lot of innovative things in SpaceShipOne: that cantilevered hybrid rocket motor, the avionics, the removable nose. Just everything about it. And that was the last airplane that I did almost all of the CAD drawings for. Even the flight controls, landing gear, the systems, and so on. I was so engrossed in that that I would be in there Sundays and evenings, making drawings for things to be built the next day. I shy away from that in my plan to establish a whole new generation of people who do that—other than me. So SpaceShipOne was the last airplane that I designed, really.
I did concept design on the ones after that. But White Knight and SpaceShipOne were my last designs. Now I look over the shoulder of an engineer making drawings, and I suggest to him doing things differently here and there. I don’t make the drawings myself, and I don’t say that this is a Burt Rutan design. SpaceShipTwo is not a Burt Rutan design. Whenever I get a chance to, I bring those people forward—at a rollout or an unveiling—and say, Here’s the guy who designed this airplane. It’s not Burt Rutan.
A & S: Do you ever long for what I imagine must have been the simpler days of the RAF, Rutan Aircraft Factory, before Scaled Composites?
Rutan: You know, it was a lot of fun. But keep in mind, I had a family of four then. And every Saturday, we would have 100 or more people show up for a demonstration of the airplane and a little lesson on how to build it. And gosh, we found ourselves doing that on Christmas, holidays, and whatever. We’d never even go to the beach. It was like having three jobs. So frankly we had a lot of fun working with the people, but once we got free of that, it was like getting out of prison.
But then again, we took a lot of trips. We went to the Bahamas, we went to Alaska, we went all over the place. There was an outfit called the VariEze Hospitality Club, and they would do fly-ins.
A & S: What is the process of invention like? What’s your procedure?
Rutan: I don’t think it can be taught. I think you can create an environment in which people can be innovative. And it’s an environment where you don’t let people feel guilty of failure. In other words, you let them try things that may not work. And you expect that they’ll try a lot of things that don’t work. And once in awhile, they’ll come into something that’s a new, genuine idea. That environment doesn’t exist at the normal airplane factory, but I try to make it exist.
A & S: How do you get your best ideas? Some people say they get their best ideas in the shower.
Rutan: The shower’s a very good place. Yeah, early morning. Also I get better ideas when I’m traveling than when I’m in Mojave. You know, sitting on an airliner going somewhere. Or sitting on a beach somewhere. I used to do several off-sites with Brandt Goldsworthy every year. Brandt invented the pultrusion process for composites manufacturing and is the most intriguing person I have ever met regarding methods to produce composite components. He died in 2003.
[He and I would] go out to sit on the beach and take sketchpads and just chat. Hawaii, Mexico, Tahiti… We went all over the place and you know, no new ideas the first couple of days, you kinda have to wait to the end of a five- or six-day break to come up with some new ideas. And it was all done with colored pencils and a sketchpad.
A & S: Do you still have the sketches?