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?