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.
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?
Rutan: Oh, yeah. They’re all there for a book one day. I think one of the more interesting things about the book will be things like that—sketches, stories on how they were done and why they were done.